Humanism Abhors a Vacuum
by Bill Cooke
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 19, Number 3.
The least appreciated facet of the Center for Inquiry’s
programs is its international work. It is extraordinary how successful the
various Centers for Inquiry around the world are, given their modest resources,
especially in comparison with the support churches give their missionary
efforts. There are more missionaries now than at any other time in the history
of the world; most of them are distinguished more by their zeal rather than any
serious knowledge of their own religion, let alone the religion of those they
presume to convert. The growing phenomenon of Christian missionaries stirring up
religious resentment in the Muslim world has prompted even the notoriously timid
Time magazine to warn against what it called a “troubling contingent” who
combined “religious arrogance with political ignorance” (June 30, 2003, p.
In sharp contrast to this unhelpful exclusivism, Centers
for Inquiry around the world have been working in a spirit of open inquiry and
honest application to the issues at hand and without demonizing opponents, often
in the face of being demonized themselves. What is more, a Center is established
only when and where there is a sufficiently strong base of talent and support to
sustain one. In several countries the Center for Inquiry initiative represents
the only serious humanist presence.
In Russia for instance, Professor Valerii Kuvakin, who is
in charge of the Center for Inquiry in Moscow, has achieved tremendous progress.
He has been instrumental in establishing the Russian Humanist Society. This is
more difficult than it may sound, because to have any organization using the
word Russian requires official approval—not easy at all. The process took a
long time, but was worthwhile, because any organization that can legally use
Russian in its name has an extra level of prestige attached to it.
The Russian Humanist Society has ten branches, from St.
Petersburg to the depths of Siberia and from the Komi republic area on the
Arctic Circle to Dagestan on the borders of Chechnya. I was present at the
founding of the St. Petersburg branch of the society in June 1999. Dagestan,
like its neighbor Chechnya, is predominantly Muslim, but interest in humanism is
growing as many people tire of the religious fanaticism that underlies the
vicious fighting in the region. The Russian Humanists also fund a periodical for
Turkmen exiles now living in Russia. Turkmenistan, one of the former Soviet
republics in Central Asia, is sitting on prodigious quantities of natural gas
and is getting as rich as it is corrupt and undemocratic.
When speaking to CFI staff in Amherst when he visited in
August, Professor Kuvakin noted that the collapse of communism in Russia has
resulted in a moral and intellectual vacuum into which have stepped all manner
of cults, pseudoscientific and paranormal fads, and missionary religions. To
stem the tide, on the urging of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russia passed
legislation a few years back that limited foreign missionary activity. (The
Church didn't want to relinquish any advantage it might have in rebuilding
membership when government restrictions on its activities were removed.)
It is this vacuum that the Center for Inquiry–Moscow and
the Russian Humanist Society are determined to address. With this in mind,
Professor Kuvakin has written two textbooks on humanism, one for high school and
another for university students. He has also written an English language study
of humanism, published by Prometheus Books, called In Search of Our Humanity.
Subtitled Neither Paradise nor Hell, this book is suitable for nonspecialists
and is a standing rebuke to those who see humanism as a Western notion. The
Society also maintains a few Russian
language Web sites.
The Russian Humanists also publish a journal called Common
Sense, which has achieved national recognition—so much so that the Russian
Academy of Sciences has agreed to contribute quite significantly to the costs of
producing the journal and to its distribution. Prior to this all major
assistance came from CFI. The recognition from the Russian Academy is a
breakthrough for Common Sense. The Academy has, in effect, acknowledged that the
Russian Humanists, and the Center for Inquiry that backs them, have very
important things to say about the shaping of values in post-communist Russia.
Center for Inquiry–Moscow is also arranging a summer
seminar for its students in Russia. Only one student from Russia was able to get
a visa this year to attend CFI–International Institute’s Summer Session in
Amherst, New York, due to tightening restrictions on students coming to the
country for study. So, if the students can’t come to Amherst, then Amherst
will go to the students: next year a two-week program on the outlines of
humanism and skepticism will be offered in Moscow. (Are there volunteers among
qualified academics who would be willing to undertake this assignment?)
In support of this initiative, Prometheus Books has made a
contribution to the Center for Inquiry–Moscow of up to 200 contemporary works
on philosophy. And, in addition to CFI–International’s long-standing
financial support for the office in Moscow, attention is now being given to
purchasing a property that can act as a permanent headquarters in Moscow. And
this is not to overlook the smaller Center for Inquiry facility in Kolomna, a
city about a hundred miles south of Moscow. Can you imagine what could be
achieved if we had access to even one-tenth of the money religions have for
peddling their prescientific nonsense?
Dr. Bill Cooke is international director of the Center for
Tatyana Pesotskaya, from Russia, and Bill Cooke,
CFI–International director, at her talk at CFI last summer on
humaism and skepticism in Russia.
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