When is a Humanist not a Humanist?

Paul Hedges, author of Towards Better Disagreement, considers asylum, philosophy and human rights in light of the recent situation with Hamza bin Walayat.

If somebody asked you to prove what you believed – whether that is belief in a religion like Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, or a non-religious stance such as atheism or Humanism – how would you do it? Maybe you would mention how many times you go to church or meetings, mention your membership of particular organisations or communities, or show you have a lot of knowledge about your tradition, movement, or belief system.

Facing Death Threats and Asylum

This was the situation that faced Hamza bin Walayat, except for him it was not an idle exercise about his Humanism. Rather, it was an asylum hearing where he had to prove to the authorities that he was a Humanist or face deportation back to Pakistan from where he had received death threats.

In February 2018, Walayat met with British immigration officials, who questioned him on his knowledge of Humanism. According to the report on his hearing, because he was not able to identify Plato and Aristotle as Humanist philosophers his asylum claim was denied. The case has gathered both national and international support, and the British Humanist Association in particular has garnered support for him to seek to overturn the decision. A petition of over twelve thousand signatures was delivered to the Prime Minister at Downing Street, while an open letter was written to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd signed by over fifty philosophers and academics across the country.

Denial and Issues

The open letter raised some serious issues about the way that Walayat’s case was handled. As the signatories argued, neither Plato nor Aristotle can really be said to be foundational Humanist thinkers. Both had views that we may describe as distinctly religious: Plato’s notion of “Pure Forms” including the “Good” seem to act as a spiritual metaphysical realm in his thought, while Aristotle argued for a “Prime Mover”, or a deity, who set the world in motion. While Humanism, as a movement beginning in the Renaissance (c. C15-16th) looked back to ancient Greece and classical thought, such aspects and thinkers are not a core part of the modern Humanist movement.

Lots of questions are raised by Walayat’s case, which include, amongst others these three which we explore in various ways below:

  • The need for religious and non-religious literacy: how do we decide or show who may be a Humanist, Christian, or have another identity?
  • The persecution that Humanists, atheists, and others of no religion face: last year a university student was killed in Pakistan for declaring himself a Humanist, while atheists and Humanists face persecution or death in many countries.
  • The need for dialogue and understanding: both those who identify as religious and non-religious groups or people in society need to be able to talk and express their points of view to better understand the other.

What is Humanism?

It may be useful at this stage, to briefly say what Humanism is. As with many terms or movements there is not a single definition that all Humanists hold. But in groups like the British Humanist Association a broad definition is given that welcomes both atheists and agnostics, but also – as Humanism implies – anybody concerned with human flourishing and well-being may find their ideas resonating. The original Renaissance movement was religious, and the first Humanists were Christian Humanists, but today the term is normally used of atheists or agnostics. Indeed, sometimes it can explicitly be non-religious, as in the following from the American Humanist Association:

Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.

This statement clearly sees Humanism as a rejection of religion, but as noted it is not the only way to think about it.

Human Rights, Persecution and Threats to Humanists

As Walayat and other Humanists and atheists have discovered – and in many places the two are often seen as synonymous – declaring oneself to be one can have fatal consequences. The death threats Walayat has received are from his own family back in Pakistan, who presumably see him as betraying their culture, religion, and society, even impugning the honour of the family. This, we must understand, goes beyond what we may narrowly term as religion. The way of life of these people is bound up with their cultural practices and customs, not all of which are necessarily based in Islam, though they may associate them together.

We have seen a rise in the killing, legal punishment, and death threats towards Humanists and atheists in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia over recent years to name just some. Last year in Pakistan, a university student was murdered for declaring himself to be a Humanist. As such, the threat to Walayat’s life is very real if he returns.

Certainly, in Western and traditionally Christian countries, declaring oneself an atheist has only been possible in the last few hundred years, and before that it was likely to result in death. We should be clear here that Islam is not inherently more hostile to atheism than Christianity, rather the social and cultural norms within which each religion has practiced have changed. As such today, while we are mainly seeing Muslim majority countries being the places where the highest levels of persecution are seen, this is a result of changing circumstances. Indeed, in many parts of the United States today, declaring oneself an atheist can see one ostracized and disowned by family, friends, and the surrounding society. The difference between the major cosmopolitan cities and other places can be quite stark in this regard.

Indeed, while some may see this as about religion being opposed to human rights, the situation is far more complex. As we noted, the right to believe or not believe and to manifest one’s belief is enshrined in human rights conventions. But these rights have been infringed in the name of secularism in many places. In France, some municipalities in 2016 enacted a so-called “burkini ban”, the burkini being a form of swimwear seen as complying with Islamic dress codes, but which was overturned by higher courts for infringing on rights. Likewise, some strident atheists such as Richard Dawkins have advocated bans on people manifesting their religious beliefs and practices in certain situations, as I have described elsewhere. It is not simply that “religious people” oppose human rights, and “non-religious” people support them.

Further, around the world, while there are certainly worrying trends concerning the persecution of Humanist and atheists, this does not negate persecution of many religious people in various countries. We can find people from many different backgrounds manifesting hatred and oppression against those they perceive as different or whose beliefs they do not recognise.

Seeking Reconciliation: Dialogue and Literacy, Humanist and Religious

While there are certainly extreme atheists and religious extremists (some would use the language of fundamentalism) who are unlikely to be readily brought together, there are many people who seek a more irenic path. Indeed, given that for the foreseeable future we will see significant growth in both religious and non-religious worldviews, we need to find places where all can meet and find ways of living alongside each other.

One important aspect of this, which is raised above, is the need for religious and non-religious literacy. The asylum test discussed above was simply not fit for purpose, because the officials writing it did not understand what Humanism was or how to identify one. (Indeed, some may argue the tests are not so much designed for this, but to purposefully fail applicants, however, for the moment we will assume good intentions on those designing such tests for asylum applicants.) We therefore need to gain richer and deeper understandings of the various traditions and beliefs of the world we live in. Whether one is religious or not, non-religious or not, or even interested in the debates between religious and non-religious worldviews, we can encounter situations where knowledge of each other is useful if not essential.

While not everyone may be interested in seeking dialogue – which certainly does not mean coming to all agree about everything – we need to find ways which we can speak of as disagreeing better with each other. Such understanding across boundaries, worldviews, and social borders in a globalized world is where we need to move on from here.

Dr Paul Hedges is an Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published eleven books and over sixty academic papers in peer-reviewed journals and scholarly books. His research focuses on method and theory in the study of religion, interreligious relations, the dialogue and encounter of religions and worldviews, as well as modern and contemporary religion in global perspective.

His book Towards Better Disagreement: Religion and Atheism in Dialogue is available from Jessica Kingsley Publishing (2016) and all good bookstores, both physical and online.

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