Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 21 issue 4


Humanists and Skeptics Gather in Latin America

Norm R. Allen, Jr.

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 21, Number 4 (Winter 2005/2006).

Humanists and skeptics met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last fall for the first major Latin-American conference on critical thinking. People came from Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, the United States, and other countries.

From September 17–18, 2005, critical thinkers met at the Regente Palace Hotel. The main meeting room was packed for each session, as presenters discussed numerous fascinating topics. Center for Inquiry/Transnational Chair Paul Kurtz could not attend. However, Alejandro J. Borgo, the Argentine journalist who did an impressive job of organizing and publicizing the conference, played a videotaped message from Dr. Kurtz at the beginning of the conference. Kurtz talked about the need for the development of critical-thinking skills and the growth of skepticism and freethought throughout Latin America.

Center for Inquiry/Transnational representatives present included paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Benjamin Radford, and yours truly, Norm R. Allen Jr. The chairman of Free Inquiry’s editorial board, Tim Madigan, and Tim Delaney, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Oswego, also presented papers.

Delaney talked about threats to critical thinking in the U.S. educational system. He discussed religious extremism and the work of right-wing activist David Horowitz. Ironically, Horowitz, in the name of freedom, is working to place limits on college and university academicians who promote liberal ideas.

Tim Madigan discussed “The Ethics of Belief,” an essay famously presented by English mathematician and philosopher W.K. (William Kingdom) Clifford at a meeting of the distinguished Metaphysical Society on April 11, 1876. Clifford forcefully argued that it is completely unethical to adopt and hold any belief without sufficient evidence. Many Christian theists, aware that such a view calls into question the ethics of Christianity, were outraged. The essay prompted American philosopher William James to write his famed essay “The Will to Believe” in reaction.

Joe Nickell talked about some of his most fascinating investigations into claims of the paranormal. He is the author of Looking for a Miracle and several other books. Nickell has investigated supposed weeping icons, bleeding Christ statues, and other religious phenomena. However, he has yet to find evidence of any genuine miracles.

Ben Radford discussed the importance of critical thinking skills in the examination of paranormal claims. He talked about some of his personal experiences as a skeptical investigator and the need to respect those who claim to have paranormal experiences. (Radford, coauthor of Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias, and Nickell have done groundbreaking research into cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is the study of supposed “hidden animals,” such as Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and so on.)

Nickell and Radford were the subjects of a news story in the Spanish-language publication Noticias. Nickell was featured in another Spanish-language publication called Neo, and Radford was featured in an insert called Clarin. Alejandro Borgo received a lot of publicity on the radio and was largely responsible for attracting large numbers of people to the event.

I read a paper titled “The Growth of Religion and Its Social Impact on People of African and Latino Descent.” I pointed out that Latinos in the United States and Africans in Britain are keeping the churches alive in the two countries.

I noted that, in Brazil, though about 73 percent of the people are Catholic, they disagree with the Church on many issues. For example, they regularly ignore the pope’s opposition to the use of condoms. Indeed, the Brazilian government has distributed millions of free condoms throughout the nation. This campaign has been remarkably successful. In 1990, the World Bank predicted that Brazil would have 1.2 million HIV/AIDS cases by the year 2000. Today, however, the country has less than half that number.

Uganda has had similar success in combating HIV/AIDS. Officials there use the “ABC” program (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms). However, President George W. Bush is attempting to replace this effort with an abstinence-only program. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s wife, Janet, is a pious Christian and is reportedly largely responsible for this supposed new focus. However, a Ugandan presidential spokesman has denied that there would be change, noting that Uganda imports about 120 million condoms a year, two-thirds of which are ordered by the government.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian government has also refused to embrace Bush’s program, despite the withdrawal of U.S. funds that had been designated for Brazil.

Later, I read Paul Kurtz’s paper, titled “Toward a New Enlightenment.” Kurtz wrote that Enlightenment values have endured and demonstrated that human beings can gain knowledge to understand nature and solve human problems. However, he notes that forces of obscurantism threaten to take humanity back in time. Religious extremists and postmodernists are promoting ideas that run contrary to genuine scientific progress and increased understanding of the natural world.

Wisdom Porto Reis of Brazil gave an excellent talk on the penetration of pseudoscience into Brazilian universities. Journalist Diego Zuñiga of Chile gave an equally informative paper on pseudoscience and the paranormal in his nation’s media.

Other topics included UFOlogy, pseudoscience and medicine, and logical positivism. The question-and-answer sessions were always intense. Many of those in attendance were happy to see Latin American skeptics and humanists coming together to promote their shared worldview.

This was just the first of many such conferences to be held in Latin America, where there are numerous humanist and skeptic groups, including ones in Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia. The next major conference is planned for Peru in the first week of August 2006. Later, we will hold one in Brazil. The future of organized humanism and skepticism in Latin America has never looked brighter.

Norm R. Allen, Jr. is Executive Director of African Americans for Humanism.

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