Review: Growth of Global Humanism

In our inaugural meeting at New Cross Learning in September, we were very pleased to be joined by Giovanni Gaetani to talk about the growth of the global humanist movement.

Giovanni Gaetani is the Growth and Development Officer at the International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU). IHEU is the global representative body of the humanist movement, bringing together diverse non-religious organisations and individuals.

A rather dark photo at the beginning of Giovanni’s talk!

Giovanni began by describing the history of international humanism as evolving in four broad generations or traditions: atheists and freethinkers, ethical culture groups, American humanists, and Dutch and Indian humanists. When IHEU was founded in 1952 it only had a handful of members, and the Indian Radical Humanist Movement the only one outside Europe and North America.

Even so, agreeing on the name of this new international organisation was a challenge as there was so much diversity between members: “The Americans preferred to call it ‘Ethical’, the Europeans ‘Humanist’. To the Americans, especially the AEU, “humanism” smacked of pragmatism, positivism and rationalism, which ill-fitted their own idealistic background. Conversely, to the Europeans the word “ethical” had become a neutral synonym of the word “moral” and had nothing specifically humanist about it. It may sound incredible, but it took 14 hours of deliberation before a brilliantly simple solution was reached: the organisation was to be called ‘International Humanist and Ethical Union’.”

The 1952 Amsterdam Declaration defined humanism as ethical; rational; supporting democracy and human rights; insisting that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility; an alternative to dogmatic religion; valuing artistic creativity and imagination; a way of life aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment.

Today, 65 years after it began, IHEU has grown to 140 member organisations in over 50 countries. Latin America has 12 organisations in eight countries, Africa has 17 in 10 countries, and Asia has 32 organisations in nine countries.

Giovanni described threats to key humanist ideas – reason, freedom, universalism and democracy – as coming from populism, nationalism, communitarianism and authoritarianism, scepticism of politics and of science, religious fundamentalism, blasphemy laws, racism and sexism and the rise of illiberal forces.

IHEU is tackling these trends, defending human rights and bringing people together through energetic and sustained campaigns and activities including

  • Researching and publishing the annual Freedom of Thought Report
  • Campaigning to end blasphemy laws
  • Supporting individuals who face persecution because of their humanism or human rights work
  • Speaking and lobbying at the UN
  • Showing how humanism tackles everyday issues via innovative campaigns
  • Developing regional hubs
  • IHEU’s youth section IHEYO
  • Holding the World Humanist Congress every three years.

Some of the group after the talk