RATIONALIST AGENDA FOR THE NEW CENTURY

Speech delivered during the Second International Rationalist Conference held at Trivandrum, India: 17-21 January 2000

Sanal Edamaruku

Founder President, Rationalist International;

Secretary General, Indian Rationalist Association

Moving forward the wheel of human progress has been the task of the rationalist movement from its early beginnings at the dawn of history. Meeting the challenges of nature and improving the conditions of human life, nurturing knowledge and spreading education, lightening the spirit of freedom and self-determination, of growth and development of the individual, encouraging creativity, cultivating responsibility, compassion, fraternity among humankind, guarding the ideals of justice and equality and human rights.

Understanding the conditions of their time and the needs and limitations of the society which they were destined to serve, rationalists had to meet different challenges through the ages. From the Lokayatas, the first known rationalists in ancient Asia, to our present time at the beginning of the third millennium of our chronology, the rationalist movement has come a long way. To raise to the demands of today's planetary society, this multifaceted, interrelated and interdependent community, a new global agenda for the rationalist movement, if it is to correspond with the complexity of the real world, has to be developed on a broad information base and in a wide frame with careful considerations and balances. Much has been analyzed and proposed and discussed and worked out by rationalist leaders over the last years to develop a solid theoretical concept for the work to be done. And I am very happy that Prof. Paul Kurtz is with us during this conference, who has the merit of bringing the fruits of this long common discussion process into a form which reflects systematically all its general aspects and remains all the same very readable. The document, which he has set up, has met with appreciation and broad consents and has been endorsed by a wide specter of leaders of the movement, among them many who are with us in this conference - including myself. The document has the name "Humanist Manifesto 2000". But it is, in fact, in the true sense and without any reservation, a rationalist manifesto. There is no contradiction in this. Rationalists, as we want to use the name, include of course all those rationalists who for technical or traditional reasons call themselves humanists, atheists, secularists or freethinkers.

While not all humanists etc. are necessarily also rationalists (for example religious humanists are not), rationalists do certainly subscribe to the ideals of humanism and they are freethinkers and secularists and strong atheists. While appreciating that we have reached a broad consensus about our common agenda within the international movement, a look back to the passed century shows that it will depend on various different factors, if we shall be able to use our historic chances and to realize our aims. Not to deviate from our course, we need to understand the undercurrents and carefully watch the winds. We need to take the bearings and to implement course control whenever it proves necessary. We have to be alert and vigilant.

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Fear of conflict is a crippling weakness. In the known history of humankind every single step forward has been determined by men and women who had the courage and the strength to move against the prevailing tide. The wheel of progress has through the ages been rolled by those who would not submit to overcome power structures, traditions and taboos, who were ready to face obstacles and fight resistance to move forward and further freedom and advance civilization. Resistance came - vehemently, often with unimaginable brutality - from those, who enjoyed the fruits of the existing order, privileged minorities, equipped with authoritarian philosophies and military powers - and everytime in good company of religion. It has, indeed, never been easy to move the wheel and thousands of courageous rationalists have paid the attempt in the torture chambers of the Inquisition. But heresies of yesterday often turned into accepted worldviews when they met the necessities and incensed the imagination of their times - and humankind made another leap forward.

The modern rationalist movement made its first steps in the beginning of the last century. On the foundations established by Thomas Paine, Robert Green Ingersoll and Charles Bradlaugh, inspired by Renaissance and Enlightenment, rationalism - not withstanding its nomenclatures - emerged powerfully and broke open new avenues of thought. The authority of religion was challenged, social systems and hierarchies were questioned, unheard-of alternatives were discussed. The clarion of liberty called in dramatic changes in the hitherto known world order. The French Revolution and the ideals it had brought forward, the growing anti-colonial movements around the world and above all the everywhere arising resistance against the old social orders, against the dominance of religion over political structures, against oppression based on racial discrimination or caste systems - all these provided fertile ground for the growth of a new human species, a species that transcended frontiers of nations and borders of colonies and awakened thinking minds everywhere.

Science emerged as a great force of liberation. Technology shortened distances and experiences. Information, freed from the treasure boxes of the former elite, became accessible for everybody. Communication broke monopolies and created new alliances. The horizon broadened. The world of gods and ghosts and the terrain of churches and empires shrinked. The great leap forward shook the power structures of the past and threatened to break them. And the cracking forces of reaction answered with all-out efforts to save their old position. And we have to admit that those efforts have been partially successful. They diluted the spirit of the great leap.

The begone century has seen the raise of despotism, world wars, agonies and pain. Fascism emerged powerfully, with vigor supported by the Pope in distress. The holy symbiosis paid off for both sides: Mussolini presented the Pope generously with the Lateran Treaty, which granted him a special status for the Vatican. The Hitler Concorde offered him unprecedented privileges in the German Reich. Pious XII, in return, recognized the fascist states and used his authority to give them political and moral backing. He did not only look the other way when millions of humans were slaughtered, he blessed and awarded the slaughterers for their great services for Christianity - after all, the Jewish and Orthodox victims had the wrong religion.

The rule of fascism did not last its thousand years. But it lasted long enough to have a disastrous impact on Europe. The forces of progress suffered a hard blow. The movement was practically dissolved. To combat the fascist onslaught it had partly merged with resistance or communist movements and exhausted itself. There were countless victims, who paid their conviction with their lives.

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Time went by. The rationalist movement consolidated. But it was a weak Phoenix, which had rose from the ashes. Despite great moral authority on its side and despite widespread optimism - sometimes even enthusiasm - for a new start into a better world, the historic chance to powerfully take up the spirit of the great leap and unite the world against the forces of reaction remained unused. The fascists lost the war - the Pope did not. There was no trial, the Vatican was never held responsible for its crimes. It continued to enjoy the fruits of collaboration and emerged a respected global political negotiator. Fury evaporated, memory faded, wounds healed. Thirst for a new world had to be quenched with softdrinks. Public memory, if not supported, is weak.

The rationalist movement that had once been able to shake and brake the adversaries, grew and flourished again, but it had lost much of its determination and strength. The broad horizon, which once had been opened, moved out of reach and out of sight, the vision of a new world order got lost.

Fear of conflict took its toll, force of habit and lure of comfort and the little advantages which use to reward the obedient: corruption. Here and there symptoms of degeneration became visible and spread like an ailment. Armchair humanism developed in some parts of the movement, satisfying itself on Sunday afternoon with sweeping statements or just enjoying the tickling of playing cards on Sabbath. Feel-good humanism established hermitages in the wonderful world of the happy humans club (for members only).

The process of degeneration was, needless to say, promoted and used by the forces of reaction. The movement perverted there, where apologists took the lead and celebrated the "essentially integrative aspects" and the "ethical qualities" of religion. The idea to build up a new religion - a humanist religion - caught the imagination of many. The "ethical baby" should not be thrown away along with the religious bathwater, they warned, conveniently forgetting that the "ethical baby" has been growing in the crate of civilization, from where organized religion tried to steal it only. The champions of the new religion pleaded for equal status with the established religions and a chair at their table, some of them very proud, if accepted by real bishops.

In some countries, national organizations got trapped in a fix. They had successfully managed to secure a share of the tax money, which their respective states would reserve for funding of religious communities. Such payments would, of course, be dependent on co-operative behavior and could stop any moment, if they attacked their paymasters or the church, which happened in some cases to have the status of a state church - a quite delicate situation.

Phoenix tried to fly with clipped wings. Since the Christian homefront seemed in some countries taboo or hopeless, other fields of useful work for the course of progress had to be identified. The sprouting neo-religious movements, the so-called sects, came under attack. The situation in the developing countries and the victims of non-Christian religion moved into the focus of attention and sometimes even action. These evading strategies had some positive outcome: sailing in less controversial waters, these organizations use to appeal to a wide specter of the population and can score high membership numbers. Since the majority of their members are "also"-humanists without necessarily cutting their ties with religion, this success does, however, not prevent the church to step forward. So it has, for example, happened that quasi over night a new law emerged forcing state-religious education on all school children, and despite enormous membership and great efforts there was nothing which could be done about it.

Despite the still powerful position of the Vatican and occasional attempts of the Christian churches to push forward and reconquer lost ground, the situation in the Western hemisphere is by far not so hopeless as many in the movement seem to feel - and are only too ready to accept. Organized religion had to loosen its grip considerably. Today more and more people take religion lightly and consider it no longer the guiding force of their day to day life. The influence of bishops and other religious leaders is diminishing. The rationalist movement - despite some clipped wings - has been growing and broadening its base. Rationalist ideas and arguments are taken up by wider forums. The very good example that the Rationalist Press Association went practically out of business because the main stream publishing took over the task shows the broad acceptance of the views which once had been banned in the poison-chest of history.

The weakening of the traditional religions has, on the other side, orphaned a major section of religiously oriented people. No longer able to find relief in their old religion, they look for new ways to fulfill their urges. Some of them end up in rigid dogmatic offsprings of the old religion with aggressive and intolerant leadership. Such fundamentalist groups - which can be seen in Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism - show extreme views and high psychological tension and find a new dimension with political aspirations to bring back the lost glory, if necessary by force. A major section of others, in polarization, does not want to change reality at all. They just want to close their eyes and ears and find solace in one of the mushrooming new mystic religions, faith healing, charismatic prayers or submission to a guru.

Growing fundamentalism and boomtime for gurus and faith healers may create the impression that religion makes a powerful comeback. But one has to see that the monolithic powerblocks of established religions are crumbling and giving way to a colorful exotic multitude of neo-religions - a quasi-Indian scenario. In this frame, competition keeps the newcomers in control and weakens the traditional religions. More than the rationalists, the established religions have to worry about this development. Threatened by a multitude of "illicit" competitors, they have a vital interest to stop them. In their struggle for survival, some of their leaders don't hesitate to adopt a somewhat progressive attitude in order to garner rationalist support. The basic question whether we should collaborate with them to fight out the newcomers seems to divide the movement. The bishops' new friends, who lobby for the "essentially integrative aspect" of religion (which means everytime: established religion) stand on one side. We stand on the other. We would not let the old enemy of civilization escape so easily. Our fight against the new exotic religious phenomena is only one inseparable aspect of our fight against the greatest evil that blocked the progress of humankind. The apologists have tried to brand this position as "abolitionist" and predicted it was, damned to be unsuccessful, heading for the scrap yard of history. Working with the probably largest and most vibrant and visible rationalist movement in the world, I can assure: they are wrong. More: the agenda of the rationalist movement, as long as it deserves its name, has to be based on the determination to shackle not only the superstructure but the very foundations of organized religion and help more and more people to come out to freedom. We shall not build a new prison house for those who come out. Let the liberated have free air, let them enjoy the fruits of their new freedom and learn to value life without religion. If we try to make a new religion, a new prison house for the m in competition with gurus and faith healers, the rationalists of the coming generations should take up the cudgels of their armory against the new rationalist and humanist bishops. We have no right to survive if we emerge as a new religion. All religions the world has ever seen asked for submission demanded surrender and wanted to orient our views. The place of the rationalist movement is at the forefront of the avowed march of civilizations. Let civilization take us forward with a beacon light.

* * *

Loosing their grip in Europe, the Christian churches have turned East. On his recent visit to India, Pope John Paul II signed the document "Ecclesia in Asia", which will serve as a blueprint for the activities in the new millennium. The language does not leave any scope for interpretation: "Just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted in the soil of Europe, and in the second in that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the third Christian millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent". The evangelization of Asia had to be an "absolute priority", the Pope said, and the Asian Synod was "an ardent affirmation of faith" and a "call to conversion". The Pope spoke under a historic map, marking the route of Vasco da Gama to India.

Besides the Roman Catholic church there are others in the race: Protestants, Evangelical church, Baptists, Pentecostals - they all are trying hard to get the best piece of the Indian cake. "Joshua 2000", an united "Prayer Mobilization Network" of different Protestant churches announced the implementation of "Hindi-Heartland Penetration Strategies" and unleashes thousands of newly trained missionaries on the country. The great hope into India, which all these christianizers share, is founded on the experience that poverty is an ideal base for religion. "The poor have the natural capacity to put their trust in almost everything... That has always been the entry point in the structure of any society", speaks a representative of the Evangelical church. Overpopulation, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and superstition are the religious monster's most reliable brothers in arms. Therefore they enjoy its special care and protection.

The invasion of the Third World countries is operated from safe forts in the West, where the Christian churches have established themselves comfortably. There seems to be nobody there, who would disturb them. Having survived times of public criticism by wearing sheep's clothes and chalk softening their voices, they have managed to silently creep deep into the systems and to get integrated into the states as respected "social partners" and advisors. They had to loosen their grip all right, but under cover they have also consolidated their positions. They are sitting at all round tables. The Vatican sits in the policy setting conferences of the UN and the WHO and tries to block all programs to check overpopulation without being challenged by anybody (except, recently, by a progressive group of Catholics!).

How can one fly with clipped wings?

"If there is an iota of sincerity about changing the situation in the Third World,..the base of the religious monster has to be attacked with moral authority. That has to be done where it has sternly placed its foot. The comfortable forts have to be stormed." - This appeal to our Western colleagues I have made last year in my speech at the Hundredth Anniversary of Rationalist Press Association at Birmingham. It provoked some very sincere responses, which give some hope that things may change in future.

To develop a rationalist world movement, strong and decisive enough to lead the fight against the multinational religious and social monsters has to be our agenda for the time to come. It has to overcome fear of conflict, force of habit and the tendency to corruption. It has to beware the apologists, who insult the victims of religion by praising its "ethical qualities". It has to beware of budding bishops who dream of a new prison house. It has to free its wings.

It has to overcome pseudo-international structures and grow into an integrated world movement. Parasitism is banned: no clip-winger should decorate himself with feathers from far-off countries, bought for baksheesh. No small-time Vasco da Gama is tolerated. No begging bowl should be raised anymore, no pseudo-project business for money's sake should flourish, and no mailbox clubs should be "created" to fill up address lists.

We need a world movement of equal partners in East and West, committed and sincere, each of them facing up to the situation and the needs of their own society and inspiring by their example of successful work in their own country, and all of them united in the spirit of co-operation and solidarity.

This world rationalist movement has to identify fearless and uncompromising leaders, considerate and responsible and with wisdom and vision. Under their guidance and watchful eyes, it has to cut-off its degeneration and cure its illnesses and overcome its weakness and put-off its childish ways and grow to become the avant-garde of human progress, the guardian of the wheel.

Let us finally set course again for an Age of Reason.