Why am I a Humanist?

I look up at the sky, at the complexity and wonder of our natural Universe – so much more than we currently understand – and I marvel that I am a part of it.

Photograph: Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento.

What does Humanism mean to you? A #hashtag campaign being run by Humanists UK encourages people to publicise what Humanism means to them: “share and celebrate the values and convictions that underpin [your] approach to life.”

For me, I see Humanism reflected in people and events from my past, present and future – even those who may not self-identify as Humanist, because their attitudes and actions reflect the basic philosophy of respect for common humanity and other Humanist precepts.

For a start, Humanism allows us to balance our scientific curiosity with our sense of wonder and transcendence:

I recall one woman whose children were students of mine. She was a friendly, happy woman who instilled in her kids a happy countenance and a keen desire for learning and knowledge. Sadly, she passed away from cancer, and I attended her funeral as a mark of respect. Her teenage son greeted me with a pleased smile, a warm handshake and a friendly chat. Even in his grief, he was facing reality with a cheerful disposition. We talked about his studies and his hobbies in Science. He told me that the night his mother had died, he had gone outside to study the stars and to marvel at the Universe. I wished that I was half the educator his mother had been.

Our perspective as humans should not blind us to the present-day accusation of speciesism. Humanism should demonstrate our humane respect for the interconnected web of life across this planet:

An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal” (Natasha Lennard and Cary Wolfe, The New York Times, 2017.)

Humanism can be found in a future for which we must strive:

Whether it is #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, the Global Climate Strike or Marriage Equality; whether it is peaceful protests and call for political change in Hong Kong or Nigeria or Thailand or USA; we see progressives – especially younger people – demanding change. They want to live in a better future, and they are prepared to make it happen. I see the same in the ongoing saga of local Humanists as they seek to expand beyond their traditions, and in the imminent birth of Humanists Australia, a (hopefully) twenty-first century form of activism that focuses on common humanity. I find inspiration in popular literature that optimistically conflates science with the human condition. Our future visions are perhaps best encapsulated by Star Trek creator, humanist Gene Roddenberry, who proclaimed: “We are a young species. I think if we allow ourselves a little development, understanding what we’ve done already, we’ll be surprised what a cherishable, lovely group that humans can evolve into.” For Roddenberry, and for millions of us who look to the future, the human adventure is just beginning.

For me, Humanism is greater than a faith-based philosophy. It reflects the evidenced reality that humanity is evolving into a better species due to the rise of Humanist thought and values. I am proud to add my own small, humble contribution to that quest.

And perhaps most exciting of all – we are all on that journey together.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

The Reason for the Season…

There are many reasons to commemorate this time of year, including many events which usually occur between November – February as a demonstration of the fact that humans love to invent excuses for celebration and solemnity. During this season of impending holiday greetings, I invite people to commemorate whichever of the following holidays or other events are most special for them. Or please add one of your own. Enjoy!

Evolution Day
Samhain (Celtic New Year’s Day)
World Vegan Day
All Saints Day/All Souls Day/All Hallows’ Day (Christian)
Culture Day (Japan)
Armistice/Remembrance Day
National Independence Day (Poland)
Universal Children’s Day
International Migrant’s Day
World Television Day
Diwali (UK – Hindu Festival of Lights)
World Soil Day
Al-Hijira (Islamic New Year)
Thanksgiving Day (USA)
Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights)
World Diabetes Day
Bodhi Day (Buddhist)
White Ribbon Day (Australia)
Armed Forces Day (Bangladesh)
Day of the Dead (Latin America – syncrectic Christian)
National Day (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Mauritania, Central African Republic, Romania, Laos, United Arab Emirates, Burkina Faso, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Bhutan, Niger, Sudan)
Independence Day (Suriname, Barbados, Finland, Haiti, Burma)
Proclamation of Independence Day (Timor-Leste)
St Andrew’s Day (Scotland)
The King’s Birthday Anniversary (Thailand)
Jamhuri Day (Kenya)
Guy Fawkes Night (UK)
National Youth Day (Albania, India)
World AIDS Day
The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery
Kwansolhaneidmas (Facebook)
Marie Curie’s birthday
International Day of People with Disability
Karen New Year Celebration (Burma)
World Fisheries Day
Human Rights Day
Las Posadas (Mexico – Christian)
Black Awareness Day/Black Consciousness Day (Brazil)
Makar Sankranti (Hindu)
World Pneumonia Day
Feast Day – Our Lady of Guadalupe (Catholic Christian)
Day of Reconciliation (South Africa)
Pongal (Tamil)
Calan Gaeaf (Welsh)
Koliada (Slavik)
Lupercalia (Ancient Roman)
Christmas and Boxing Day (Eastern/Western Christian)
Christmas and Boxing Day (secular holidays)
Christmas and Boxing Day (Coptic Orthodox Christian)
Indigenous Christmas (Australia)
Kwanzaa (African American)
Yule (Wicca-northern hemisphere, Pagan)
Litha (Wicca-southern hemisphere)
Humanlight (Humanist, secular, atheist)
Chalica (Unitarian Universalist)
Montol Festival (Cornwall)
Yalda (Persian Winter Solstice)
Rosa Parks Day (USA)
Darwin Day
National Day of the Horse (USA)
Anti-Bullying Week (UK)
Luci d’Artista (Italy)
Id el Maulud (Muslim)
World Kindness Day
National Blood Donor Month (USA)
Zamenhof Day (Esperantist)
Festivus (Seinfeld secular)
Newtonmas/Isaac Newton’s birthday (secular/scientific)
Quaid-e-Azam’s Day (Pakistan)
Lohri (Hindu)
Martin Luther King Jr Day (USA)
International Human Solidarity Day
National Sorry Day (Australia)
Intersex Day of Remembrance
Hogmanay (Scotland)
Laba Festival (China)
Solstice, or Midwinter (various cultures)
St Stephen’s Day /the Feast of Stephen (Catholic Christian)
International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation
Wren Day (Ireland)
Puyuma New Year Ritual (Thailand)
Movember (Australia)
Transgender Day of Remembrance
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (secular holidays)
Berchtoldsta (Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the Alsace )
Gantan Sai or Shogatu (Japan – Shinto)
Mahayana (Buddhist)
World Cancer Day
New Year (Russian Orthodox)
International Polar Bear Day
Bikarami Sankrant (South India – Hindu)
Liberation Day (Cuba)
Feast of St Basil (Orthodox Christian)
Heart Research Day (Australia)
Imbolc/Brigid’s Day (Gaelic)
Lantern Festival (China – variable date)
Armenian Christmas (Armenia)
Nativity of Christ (Orthodox Christian)
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)
World Radio Day
Seasonal school holidays (varied nations)
World Religion Day (Baha’i)
Blessings of the Animals Day (Hispanic Christian)
Australia Day/Invasion Day
Birth of Guru Gobind Singh (Sikh)
Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year)
Tu Bishvat (Jewish New Year of the Trees)
World Wildlife Conservation Day
International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Ramadan (Islamic) – variable date
Losar (Tibetan New Year) – variable date
Hmong New Year Festival – variable date
Saturnalia (pagan)
International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women
Sesame Street Day
Republic Day (India)
Midsumma (LGBTI festival, Melbourne, Australia)
International Day for Tolerance
World Choral Day
Antarctica Day
National Science Fiction Day/Isaac Asimov’s birthday (USA)
Valentine’s Day (Christian/religious/commercial)
Groundhog Day (North American)
Hogswatchday (Discworld)
Life Day (Kashyyyk – Wookiee)

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

You Must Needs Be Strangers…

Block 13, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Photo used by permission of photographer.

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
Why, you must needs be strangers…”
The Book of Sir Thomas More.

Just over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare wrote an entreaty against racism and xenophobia, and in sympathy for the plight of refugees. His sentiment resonates in the early years of the new millennium: over the last four centuries, what have we learnt about benevolence towards those who share our humanity if not our birthplace? How do we – as a society and as individuals – treat compassionately the strangers in our midst, a sentient trait that may be older and broader than humanity itself?

Sadly our modern world seems to overlook this natural instinct, particularly when it comes to minority groups such as LGBT people. Some flee dangerous countries as refugees and find sanctuary, while many others find difficulties in their destination countries. The World Economic Forum acknowledges this problem:

In 72 countries, same-sex relationships are currently criminalized. In eight, they are punishable by death. But in many others, social norms, traditions and customs make life for LGBT people equally impossible, even if the law is not officially against them.

This collective human failing to care about strangers – and the world’s indifference to the problem – can be found today, pointedly rooted in a remnant from colonial times. The history of LGBT rights in Africa is tainted by homophobic colonial history. Africa is full of this shameful bigotry akin to the racism endured by their slave forebears, justifying human rights abuse, fueled by ignorant hatred that is spouted by politicians and preachers alike, poisoning families and communities where homosexuality remains illegal and where harassment and persecution are common. Sadly, this discrimination is fueled in part by conservative religious views and actively encouraged by conservative US religious extremists.

Many African LGBT refugees have horrifying stories about difficulties and struggles. One young gay man and a lesbian share some of their background before fleeing as refugees:

I was living …with my mother and uncle. I was studying in … high school. There I was having a friend called James… We used to be together… In the night, homophobic civilians broke into his home and killed him. Some people were thinking crazy about me, for they were not sure if I am also a gay or not. They reported it to my mum and she beat me.

After two days of James’ death, in the morning I was on my way to school. A group of six people held mob justice on me. They attacked me and beat me… that day, I stopped going to school…

(Anonymous gay man – used with author’s consent).

Image by Capri23auto from Pixabay

In 2012, when I was 15, I was [told] by my Father to get married. I refused, and when he asked me why I refused, I told him I don’t like men, I don’t feel like it, and am feeling something different. When I told him that, he chased me out of the house. Then I went to my mother’s place because they had divorced sometimes back. I reached my mom’s place and started living with her.

In August 2019 I was called that my mother was in bad condition… When I entered the room to see my mother at the hospital, my father didn’t even allow me to reach the sick bed. He chased me and said a lot of abusive words… my mother was hearing and she continued getting sick with pressures. Immediately she started fighting for her life, and in few minutes she was dead… At the burial, all my family members accused me of killing my mother, that I was the cause. After the burial, I looked around and I had nowhere to go, I decided to go to my father’s place. When I reached it, he … chased me with a machete, and told me that he can’t live with a lesbian.

(Anonymous lesbian – used with author’s consent).

The problems faced by LGBT refugees in Kenya are staggering. Instead of sanctuary, LGBT refugees face neglect, discrimination and persecution, as explained by this gay man:

I escaped from my family/Uganda because of my sexuality and the government passed a bill to hurt and kill all gays in Uganda. Same here in Kenya, life isn’t good. The country is too homophobic towards we gay people and refugees. It’s like going from a frying pan into the inferno. The Kenyan locals are more homophobic even than Ugandans. They know refugees from Uganda must be gay because there is no war or famine there, and they consider gays to be bure (useless and worthless). They say our country vomited us like poison, so they will also vomit us the same way our country vomited us.

Here in Kenya it’s more worse. People split saliva on us and beat us on the street, and we have no one to run to. If we go to the police, they blame us for promoting homosexuality in their country. They say they are protecting their youth, which isn’t true. We don’t want their youth. We just want peace.

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

Many refugees are sent to Kakuma Refugee Camp, where they endure further discrimination and violence.

Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp is a locus for LGBTQI refugees, presumably to allow them to gather safely and collectively. In reality, it provides a target for violent attacks and ongoing death threats, perpetrated by homophobic neighbours.

Living conditions (right) and collecting bathing water (below) at Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Photo used by permission of photographer.

Here are people with incredible courage and resilience; having fled their homes for sanctuary in another land, being denied all but the most cursory subsistence levels of support from UNHCR and other agencies, at the behest of a largely uncaring world. Within our human family, they add fabulosity to a locale filled with scorpions and snakes, homophobes and hunger, malaria and machetes. They are rainbow people who live in a world that still largely fears difference.

One trans woman testifies:

I am a transgender living in Block 13, Kakuma. I have been in Kakuma since October 2019. During [those} twelve months… I have realized that the transgenders are hit the hardest during attacks. We receive discrimination at the hand of our neighbors, the police, and some of the employees of UNHCR and its partners.

I remember the day when a police officer promised to shoot me dead because of the way I dress. It shows that as a transgender you do not expect PROTECTION even from the police officers. On 10th June 2020, I was attacked near Block 13, along with another transgender. We were rushed to a clinic because we were losing a lot of blood. The medical personnel on the duty refused to attend on us because we were not wearing face masks, imagine! When our colleagues complained out fear of our lives, the hospital had them arrested. There is no any place in Kakuma where we feel safe, not even in hospitals.”

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

In a world that is distracted by COVID-19, LGBT individuals and groups across Australia and the western world largely face the challenge of acknowledging and responding to great suffering among members of their rainbow family, in places such as Kakuma. Marriage Equality and cable TV specials during lockdown are not the only civil rights issues that should be on our LGBTQIA+ agenda.

For other, more generic human rights and LGBT supporters, the general lack of mainstream advocacy and support diminishes us all. Our humanity is found wanting. The year 2020 puts this in stark context: if COVID-19 reveals deep deficiencies within the economic systems of affluent western countries, how much worse is it for those in less affluent nations?

Elie Wiesel‘s words should both challenge and accuse us out of our complacency: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.”

Has humanity evolved since the days of Shakespeare, when he pleaded for humane treatment of the refugee, of people from other races and cultures, and of the ‘other’? When will we stop ignoring the suffering of those who share our humanity? I long for the day when we finally live up to his hope of four centuries past:

“Commend me to them,
And tell them that, to ease them of their griefs,
Their fears of hostile strokes, their aches, losses,
Their pangs of love, with other incident throes
That nature’s fragile vessel doth sustain
In life’s uncertain voyage, I will some kindness do them…”
– William Shakespeare
Timon Of Athens‘ act 5, sc. 1, 225-230.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Public disclaimer: I am part of a group that has been started in response to this human crisis, and I invite readers to contribute to the building of a better world: Humanity In Need: Rainbow Refugees.

From Holocaust to Humanist

Halina and Geoff (left), holding aloft the Humanist banner at a Marriage Equality Rally, Melbourne, 24 Nov 2012. Photo (c) 2012 by Michael Barnett.

Halina Wagowska is a Holocaust survivor and a Humanist. She is also the author of an autobiography, The Testimony, published in 2012. Halina has been a human rights activist for decades and I feel privileged to call her a friend. She agreed to be interviewed for this blog, utilising postal correspondence during the days of COVID-19 lock-down.

1. How did you survive the Holocaust?

In the labour camp, my parents insisted that I eat part of their meagre food ration because I was growing fast. That enhanced my chances of survival and diminished theirs.

Prolonged incarceration combined with danger and the unpredictability of each next moment, required adjustments and survival mechanisms. Mine was to regress to a primitive state where all my tiny wits were focused entirely on the precise moment, interpreting sounds, silences and movements, all in terms of approaching danger. Rather like a small creature in the undergrowth of a jungle full of predators. I was too young to see the ‘big picture’ or to reflect, which would have kept me off guard. I believe that gave me an advantage over those whose high intellect did not allow for such regression.

2. What are your most powerful memories of the Holocaust?

The death of my mother in my arms in Stutthof. Loading bodies brought from the gas chambers into crematoria ovens in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being beaten, kicked, and spat upon.

3. How do you think the Holocaust shaped you, and our world?

Prolonged deprivation (5 years 9 months) of any aesthetic experiences makes me appreciate and cherish art, music, books, theatre, and the beauty of nature, as great enrichments of life.

It shaped my values and attitudes, and it narrowed my focus onto issues, problems and behaviours that inflict pain and harm, eg. child abuse, racism, homophobia, bullying, social injustice, inequality of opportunity.

The world said, ‘Never again’ and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was a major civilising step.

4. What, if anything, do you think we have learnt from the Holocaust?

Possibly that prejudices can have gruesome consequences.

5. In your book, you state that, “Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” (p. 195). Is this why you wrote your book?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I identify with persecuted minorities: people of colour, indigenous people, LGBT people, the Untouchables (Dalits). Speaking out against oppression and injustice is the least I can do.

I wrote the book to meet an obligation. In the camps, we kept saying that if we survive, we shall have to testify until we die. Friends insisted that as all my previous testifying is in the archives of research bodies, there should be a public record. Hence this book.

Halina reads from her autobiography in ‘The Testimony Book Trailer'(Hardie Grant Books/YouTube).

6. Although your book is a testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust, it is also a testimony to the positivity and determination in your subsequent life. Is this a reflection of your slogan: “Don’t remain a victim”? (p. 197)

I recall my mother (p. 59) towards the end of the war, worrying about whether I will be normal if I survive. After the war, the notion of being normal transformed itself into not remaining a victim. In the book, I try to show that with determination, it is possible to lead a normal life after a catastrophe.

7. You once told me that Marie Curie was an early hero for you. How did she influence your life?

Poland was short of famous people and was very proud of Maria Skłodowska Curie. As a child, I fantasised that if I studied hard, I too might devise or discover something of great value to humankind.

8. Why/when did you become a Humanist?

I was born in Poland to parents who were agnostic and of Jewish origin. The all-powerful Polish Catholic church pervaded all aspects of personal life, institutions and social structures. It preached a very harsh, divisive and punitive religion. Hence my passion for secularism. Years later, my training in science reinforced my preference for evidence-based facts.

My values and attitudes had many aspects of Humanism without me qualifying them as such. I joined the Humanist Society of Victoria when I became aware of its existence.

9. What do you think Humanism has got to offer the world, particularly in light of humanity’s capacity for great good and evil?

Humanism offers a vision of a better, fairer world. I am not sure how we can abolish evil.

Humanism meets my needs and passions for secularism, rational, ethical approach to problems, for the protection of human rights and dignity, for democracy, for social justice and equity and for social action through group lobbying.

What I find attractive in Humanism is its fostering of altruism, of goodness for its own sake, and the taking of total responsibility for one’s actions.

10. You have been a human rights activist for many years. Why? What do you feel are your greatest achievements?

I need to be useful. Lobbying and working to improve the lives of others seems worthwhile. With other members of HSV, I looked after homeless students; provided books for bushfire victims; helped to ‘adopt’ a village of Untouchables in India to help them up from their imposed quagmire. I am in a group to raise funds for bursaries for Aboriginal students.

11. What are the greatest human rights challenges of our time? How do we solve these problems?

The climate emergency, if left unattended, will make life hazardous for the next generation, and cause the extinction of many species. We need to heed scientific advice on climate, and we need to foster democratic governance, social justice and equality. Beware also the growing economic divide between rich and poor.

12. What message would you like to give to future generations?

Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.

13. Is there anything else you would like to add?

In this one life we have, let us work to make this a better world.

= = =

(The answers for Questions 8 & 9 include excerpted material which Halina previously presented to the ‘Australian Humanist’ magazine, No. 90, 2008.)

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn