By Leo Igwe
The lure of humanism is its universal appeal, and its global sense and commitment to human beneficence is its strength and compelling force. An international meeting of humanists, such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Conference to be held in New Zealand in August presents yet another opportunity to assess the force and state of humanism in the world. This conference is an occasion to take stock and review the progress (if any) that the international humanist movement has made in the past years. The meeting is a platform to understand how the movement has tried to fulfill its goals and objectives especially the project of promoting the humanist outlook around the globe. In fact, at this meeting, humanists will be examining how the movement has tried to deliver a 21st-century humanism, that is, a form of humanism that is in accordance with the realities of the time. This meeting is an occasion for reflection, introspection and critical self-assessment especially by those who come from parts of the world where organized humanism has yet to make a very significant impact.
The fact is that humanism presents a perennial challenge. Every generation of humanists faces and tries to address this challenge. History is filled with attempts and initiatives by past generations of humanists to fulfill this obligation and exercise the duty of fostering human rights and other human values. So the question now is this: how can this generation of humanists confront the challenge of creating a more humanistic world? Put more pointedly, how can humanism help address the inequities around the globe? This is because structural inequalities -both political and economic – within nations and between nations are at the root of the crisis that bedevils the world. They underlie the palpable anger, frustration, and desperation that rage in many regions.
Whether it is the wars in the Middle East, the conflicts across Africa, or the terrorist attacks in Europe, Africa and Oceania, the displacement of persons in all these happenings indicates an imbalance in the configuration of the world. Due to these inequities, people have been forced to migrate and flee their home countries. People have been compelled to abandon their family members. In fact, many migrants have made hazardous journey across deserts, and on the seas by boats in search of a more secured life elsewhere. The global structure that has orchestrated this uprooting of peoples beckons for change because it cannot stand.
But think about it. These inequities are human-made. Aliens did not thrust on humans the socio-economic and political order that is behind the current crisis. It is our – the human – handiwork. The global political and economic structures are created and sustained by human beings, interest groups and blocs. The crisis is our own making. And the crisis will persist until these structures are dismantled and replaced with more egalitarian forms of socioeconomic organization and relationship.
For the humanist movement to remain relevant at least in parts of the world that are disadvantaged by the current global order, it must take a critical look at the current global structure. It must offer real answers and effective solutions to global inequalities. The humanist movement must advance ideas that can help narrow the yearning gap between the rich and the poor, the ‘haves’ and the ‘havenots’, the masters and the slaves, the mainstream human beings and their marginal/peripheral counterparts, the oppressors and the oppressed, the exploiters and the exploited, the lords and the subalterns.
These dichotomies exist and operate in many societies across the globe. They have left a hollow on the ideal of common humanity. These binaries have placed a question mark on the sense and substance of global humanism. Urgent changes are needed. Radical measures ought to be advanced to recreate and restructure the globe and enthrone a more realistic humanism. But as often the case, achieving the desired change that would lead to a more egalitarian global society will not be an easy task because there are strong political and economic forces at work. And these forces have vested interest in the structure of world as it is. These forces would not easily yield to the pressures for change. In fact they would go to any length to scuttle, frustrate, resist and undermine any attempt to change the world or alter the global power relations. This does not mean that the situation is hopeless, does it? This does not imply that a real change cannot be achieved. History tells us that change happens but it comes at a price. Forces that hold humanity down have to be defied; they have to be defeated and resisted. That is the humanist way. And that will be the humanist response to the current crisis.
So it is now left for the humanist movement to live up to its philosophy or betray it. The humanist constituency has to choose whether to align with the powers that be, turn its back on the wretched of the earth or muster the Promethean courage and challenge the global power equation. The onus is on the movement to propose measures and, in fact, act in defiance of the global structural police and remain relevant. The movement can also choose to resign to the structures of injustice and oppression and lose its appeal at least before those human beings who have been sidelined, disadvantaged, those who find themselves on the margins of life and of humanity and yearn for real change. The humanist movement can decide to be the bridge across the divide, providing that link to human beings in the forgotten corners of the world, to those who feel disconnected and left out; those who have lost out in the global power struggle and now have to live at the mercy of their conquerors and exploiters. The humanist movement can choose to be the instrument for the realization of a global paradigm shift.
The outlook that espouses the equal value of human beings cannot remain silent and indifferent in the face of these splits and fragmentations. It cannot turn a blind eye to the existential cracks, the discontents from the broken world politics. This is because these structural inequalities constitute the subsoil for religious exploitation. They provide the raw materials that the religious minds use to waive supernatural narratives, holding the poor, oppressed and exploited hostage. Religions and superstitions try to compensate for the shortcomings, and the limitations in the world as it is. They espouse prophetic visions built around cultural personalities – the god incarnates, saviors/redeemers and guardians of the world; they propose a paradise set apart and located far from here, in a hereafter without all the trappings of temporal difficulties and mundane troubles. What a place!
Structural inequities are the main drivers of religions and any movement that seeks to provide an alternative to religions must provide an effective response to inequalities in the world. Religions forge sacred myths and superstitions to give people hope, hope that will be consummated in a post-mortemic realm after people are dead. What a hope! The faithful go through life anticipating and expecting to relish a more perfect world after their demise and release from this mortal sphere. Incidentally, different and competing versions of this perfect world of religion that compensate for the limitations in this world abound. They are pitched in a stiff competition for potential recruits and occupants. So in places around the world where there is so much inequality, misery, and deprivation, in areas where these structural gaps are so pronounced, a high level of religiosity applies.
It is thus left for this generation of humanists to device local and global ways to respond to the inequities in the world, to provide real fillers to the structural gaps that make religion more appealing to the deprived, the dispossessed and the marginalized. Contemporary humanists need to campaign for a restructuring of the world. They need to devise mechanisms to counter otherworldly ideologies and other narratives that sanctify false hopes. A robust humanist response is needed to address whatever makes mythical ideas more appealing to suffering people than evidence-based knowledge.
In a world that is more interconnected and interdependent than at any other time in history, reducing global inequalities has become so urgent. In fact, addressing this humanist challenge is critical to fulfilling the unique responsibility of achieving a global humanism that befits the 21st century.
Leo Igwe is a Public Affairs Analyst.