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Themes from the 1992 World Congress in Amsterdam.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union held its fortieth-anniversary World Congress July 26-30, 1992. The following report is adapted from the October 1992 issue of the New Humanist (United Kingdom).


In many countries, humanist organizations perform humanist ceremonies - in particular funerals and weddings. In Norway, the coming-of-age ceremony has been a cornerstone of the development of the Human-Ethical Association. The Norwegian Human-Etisk Forbund is one of the largest humanist organizations in the world in ratio to the size of the population - and it attributes its success largely to humanist ceremonies.

About one-quarter of the Norwegian population of 4.3 million attend a humanist ceremony of some kind every 10 years. Steinar Nilsen, president of the Human-Etisk Forbund, pointed out that civil ceremonies get across to people outside the movement that humanism exists and that humanists are mostly nice people who do nice and important things.

Civil confirmation, which was once more or less the monopoly of the Lutheran state church, can now be found in most large commumties. Nilsen explained that "the essence of civil confirmation is not the celebration but the preceding course for the confirmands." The course usually contains discussions of life stance and world religions, humanism and ethics, human sexuality, human rights and civil duties, parts of Norwegian law related to youngsters, growing up and making choices, parties for the participants, and often weekend trips to a cottage outside of town.

Nilsen once found himself challenged by a Lutheran minister who said it was "a shame that humanists steal the ceremony of confirmation, tag the word civil to it, and sponge on the ground, work laid by the church." He replied, agreeing that some things had been taken from the church, and offered to give it back to the church "if they would hand over the winter solstice celebration to us ordinary people and stop calling it Christmas!

"All in all, this is not thieving, of course. It is cultural adaptation, the changing of old customs, and it is a natural process. With our humanist ideals we have positive messages to promote through our ceremonies. Directly and indirectly, they help establish humanism; they make a free life-stance choice easier and lessen the hold of religions."


Humanist counseling in the Netherlands is offered in hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces. Training in counseling now takes place at the Institute of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (the world's first humanist university). Elly Hoogeveen, a hospital counselor, talked about counseling in the Netherlands and described some individual cases in detail. "Humanism can be called a philosophy of life or a conviction of life," she said, and "counselors who base their profession on humanistic principles aim as high as possible at a form of equality in the relationship. Symmetrical communication. A beautiful term for a praiseworthy ambition but ... this is very difficult when it takes place in what is almost by definition an unequal relationship: that between counselor and client."

She explained how she aimed for the "emancipation of the client": "Emancipation in this context is an open concept. It's not my place to fill it in for the client. The client should develop or redevelop the freedom to make his own choices.

A humanistic counselor carries the fundamental conviction that every human being must give his own life meaning and make his own choices. He wants to sustain this process on the basis of an absolutely equal and inter-human relation. He is a human being too with his own experience of life and his own way of giving meaning to it. Nothing more and nothing less. He represents no belief in the traditional sense. Therefore I prefer to speak of |attitude of life' A humanist worker steps into counseling without judgment, without a message, and without a preconceived aim. The most important thing is the well-being of the client: helping him to decide how to find his own way in life."

Hoogeveen concluded by saying: "These days, hardly anybody searches for a discussion partner who is able to give definite answers to existential questions. Nowadays, people are searching to find their own way, paved with their own values"

Social Action

"Working with Women in India" was the subject of Mrs. Sakala's contribution [Sakala is from the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada, India]. She stated that "the impact of modernization necessitates corresponding changes in social and economic institutions. In a transitory period, ordinary people, particularly women and children, are the worst victims. In traditional society, the status and role of women was looked down on. Women were always considered subordinate to men, and their role was considered secondary. As fast changes are taking place due to modernization and industrialization, women are the worst victims of circumstances. Women are doubly enslaved....

"Hitherto for centuries, the strong family systems and the agrarian situation in the villages provided some kind of security to the women. No doubt they had problems. But they were not thrown out of their houses. But now the situation is radically different. With the change in values, the joint family system is fast disappearing and the traditional security, the safety-nets, and the defense mechanisms are also disappearing.... All of a sudden women find themselves shelterless, without any protection.... These women become victims of circumstance. Their educational level is very low. The skills they possess do not give them food to eat and social status crumbles. They do not know what to do in such a situation"

There are many specific problems which women face. In some cases, girls are married at the tender age of 13 or 14, despite the legal ban on marriage below 18 years. Children frequently result from these early marriages. But often desertion leaves these women in a hopeless state. Rejected by their original family and deserted by the husband, they have no one to turn to.

To meet such problems, the Atheist Centre gives medical assistance, if needed, and also socio-psychological counseling to prepare women to face the realities of life. The Atheist Centre deals in this way with many other problems - for instance, "the humiliation of widowhood," in which the widow is ill-treated with symbolic marks removed, bangles broken, and flowers from neck and head removed. The tradition of temple girls still exists, although the Atheist Centre has done much to rehabilitate jogins in Andhra Pradesh. The problems associated with the requirement for a large dowry (now illegal but still current) is "a stumbling block for equality of the sexes." The Atheist Centre has for years championed intercaste and interreligious marriages, to break down some of the barriers in Indian society.

To further improve women's position, the Atheist Gentre provides family-planning information, adult education, and vocational education (giving women a chance at economic independence).

Sakala concluded: "We have come a long way from charity to social work and social progress activities. The religious solutions do not seem to be realistic. Hence, from experience people are moving away from organized religion. However, disorganized society cannot exist for long. Hence, a secular alternative highlighting the human values is of urgent necessity."


Denise Berre, an experienced teacher of ethics in schools, gave an account of ethical education in secondary schools in Belgium. From the age of six until they are 18, children must follow a "philosophical" class, which is chosen by their parents and may be a religious course or a course of nonreligious ethics. Teachers of humanist courses are employed by the state, not by the humanist organizations.

Although it is not technically described as humanist moral education (for strategic reasons, in a country with a considerable Catholic population), the course leads to humanist thought - though it must respect the free will of the pupils. "The teachers' attitude will be founded on the careful respect for finality which is peculiar to nonreligious moral education, which implies, among other things, that they will not only adopt the basic principles of humanism from a theoretical point of view but also that they would not hesitate, if needed, to adopt a different position, to make their standpoint clear, to give their opinion."

In elementary education, moral education should be conducted "in a spirit of fraternity, of toleration, and a constant concern for objectivity. Moral education in the elementary school will teach children whose parents appeal to a certain form of humanistic thinking, to solve their moral problems without referring to a transcendent authority nor to an absolute foundation, and this through a thinking method which will be based on the principle of free inquiry."

Denise Berre referred to a work by a professor of philosophy and former teacher of moral education, Marcel Voisin, Vivre la Laicite (Experiencing Humanism). Voisin argues that it is not enough "merely to suppress the reference to a divinity or the supernatural." Moral teaching must build up alternative ideas such as relativity of values; systematic doubt; concern about the search for evidence; a constant endeavor to conquer rationality; an optimistic vision of humankind inspired by the thought, "If pleasure is easy, happiness has to be taught"; promotion of a responsible citizenship and active civic duties; a special care about justice; self-awareness and curiosity about the world around us; dialogue with others; generosity and humor.
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Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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