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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. 39).

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 Inquiry–International.

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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This page was last updated 12/12/2003

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