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Two fights

We learned earlier in the course how much of the work done by humanist organisations today relates to the freedom of religion and belief, equality for the non-religious, and ethical issues where humanist beliefs are at odds with those of many organised religious groups. That is where they can best make a specific contribution towards human rights.

However, we have seen this week how these are not the only areas that concern individual humanists. Humanists are often active campaigners for human welfare, peace, and the protection of the environment, and against poverty, violence, and injustice in its many forms. Through education, politics, and the media, they make the case for what they believe would be a better world.

Jaap van Praag, the former chair of the Dutch Humanist Association, described a distinction between ‘the little fight’ and ‘the great fight’.

The little fight described the legitimate but limited interests of humanists themselves: the campaigns against religious privilege in society and hostility towards the non-religious. The great fight represented the more universal challenges that must be overcome for the good of humanity and the world. This was the work that needed to be done to build a society in which every citizen has the capacity to make free and informed choices about what makes their lives meaningful, and has the opportunity to live out their lives accordingly. It is a world in which democracy flourishes and authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have no chance of coming to power. It is a world in which we have minimised the restrictions placed on human beings through poverty, war, and disease.

Which fight is the priority depends on where humanists find themselves. In many parts of the world, the little fight is still a necessity. However, in much of the West, humanists need to consider where their energies are now best focused.

‘Where humanists give priority to the little fight, humanism will more often be defined in negative terms… Where humanists give priority to the great fight for human rights (for everybody, but especially for the most vulnerable people), for peace and for a sustainable economy and a clean and beautiful natural environment, it becomes anachronistic to define humanism as necessarily non- or even anti-religious.’

Peter Derkx, Handbook of Humanism

This great fight, as we have seen, is the one being fought, often more quietly and on a less noticeable level, by many humanists in their own individual ways. It is a fight that is often carried out independently of the work of humanist organisations. Here, dialogue and cooperation between liberals and humanitarians of all persuasions are of the utmost importance in response to those tasks that are crucial to the future of humanity.

Question: On what causes do you think humanists’ attention is best focussed where you live?

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

Humanists UK