Humanist Conference

August 5, 2018

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Religion, Humanism

This weekend was the Humanist Conference in Auckland, with some great international and local speakers.

The day started off with Henare and Eru (the Heretical Hori) talking about how it is to be Māori and atheist. It was fascinating to hear their stories, and about just how embedded Christianity can be in Māori culture. Both talked about how they moved from believing in Christianity to believing in Māori gods, before eventually coming to the conclusion that, like other religious myths, the Māori gods must also be a myth.

Next up was Gulalai Ismail talking about her experiences running the Aware Girls campaign in Pakistan, tackling extremism and violence and trying to rescue young people from radicalisation.

A related talk was given later in the day by Imtiaz Shams, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and then England. It was great to hear his story of leaving Islam, and how gingerly he left the faith - setting up a secret meeting with another apostate at King's Cross station as his first foray into admitting that he was no longer a believer. Imtiaz now works hard to make it easier for people to leave their faith, and this is not restricted to Islam. Imtiaz has worked with Orthodox Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses as well, and is likely to spend some time focusing on helping Mormons who would like to leave the faith next.

Andrew Copson from Humanists UK gave a really interesting talk about non-religious arguments against secularism. Basically secularism is the idea that government should not favour religion in its laws. There are non-religious arguments that secularism shouldn't be adopted by countries, such as arguing that having a state religion makes immigrants feel welcome.

Auntie Jackie from the Aunties talked about her work helping vulnerable women. It was a very down to earth, moving talk, and it's obvious she has a great passion for helping people and has no time for nonsense.

Catherine Low ran an interactive session about Effective Altruism - using skepticism to give to charities that make a large difference, rather than those that are less effective. We were given four charities to choose from after being given a brief description of each, and then given an opportunity to hear more about the charities, we had to re-decide. Of course, one of the charities that sounded good at first ended up being abysmal, and doing more harm than good.

An example that Catherine gave of a bad charity was Scared Straight. This organisation in the US took kids at risk of ending up in prison to jail for a day, and attempted to scare them into cleaning up their act. A randomised controlled trial comparing kids sent on the program to kids left to their own devices for the day found that the kids who were sent to prison for the day were more likely than the control group to offend. One estimate was that for every dollar spent on the Scared Straight program, two hundred dollars of social harm was caused.

Leo Igwe gave a rousing call to arms for people to tackle witchcraft, religious extremism and other dangerous nonsense. He told the room that we should not worry too much about accusations of being from a different culture and therefore unable to criticise dangerous ideas - that some things are so wrong that we just need to tackle them head on.

The last talk was from Joseph Bulbulia, who told us that that the deconversion rate of people in New Zealand outnumbers the conversion rate for most ages, with a crossover at about 64 years old - where more people convert into a religion than out of one. However, globally non-religious people are reproducing a lot less than religious people are, so the percentage of non-believers globally is expected to reduce, even as the absolute number increases.

There were some short talks as well, including one from Uttam from Nepal about how cow urine is so precious in India and Nepal, used for blessing houses and drunk to treat diseases. His more serious point relating to humanism is that worship of cows in India is reaching fever pitch, where people are killed by angry mobs simply based on a rumour that they may have eaten beef.

Today was the General Assembly, where the International Humanist and Ethical Union had their AGM and talk about the year to come. One resolution that has been passed this afternoon is called the Auckland Declaration (opens new window), and covers the rise of demagogues around the world and the increasing use of divisive rhetoric.