Humanism and Peace

  • post Type / Humanists International News
  • Date / 19 October 2010

Humanists in Lower Saxony, Germany, are today holding a public discussion on peace building. The event in Osnabrueck is being held ahead of a symposium, from October 20 – 23, on the topic of Religions and World Peace: Religious Communities and Their Potential for Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution. The organizers of the symposium rejected requests to include Humanist representatives in the discussion of peace building.

IHEU president Sonja Eggerickx sent the following statement (available in German here):

Humanism and Peace

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) represents more than one hundred Humanist organizations from more than 40 countries. As Humanists we believe that human beings can give meaning to their own lives without appeal to gods or the supernatural, and we work for the development of a more humane society based on reason and compassion.

Humanists recognize that war and violence are human problems. Wars are started by humans and they can only be ended by humans.

That is why throughout history and across the world Humanists have worked to build peace. For example, the ancient Hindu epic of the Mahabharata mentions a Humanist teacher (of the materialist school of Carvaka) who is put to death for criticizing the king’s warmongering. In the West, the  Epicureans of ancient Greece and Rome argued that genuine peace must come, in the words of Lucretius, “By words, not arms”. These ancient Humanists recognized that genuine peace is more than just the absence of war between nations; genuine peace requires tolerance between communities, respect between individuals, and, ultimately, peace and harmony within the human heart.

This ancient wisdom has been given new force in the modern world, finding its grandest expression in the United Nations. Many of the founders of the United Nations were Humanists, including: Eleanor Roosevelt and John Peters Humphrey who lead the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Dr. George Brock Chisholm, the founding Director-General of the World Health Organization; Lord Boyd Orr, the founding Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and Sir Julian Huxley, the founding Director-General of UNESCO. It is not coincidence that the world’s humanist, atheist and ethical culture organizations came together to form the International Humanist and Ethical Union so soon after the creation of the United Nations. Indeed, Sir Julian Huxley presided over IHEU’s founding congress in 1952.

While the United Nations may be the ultimate mechanism for fostering peace between nations, Humanists have never lost sight of the abiding wisdom that peace starts with the individual and must grow within communities.

In seeking to end war, we must recognize that genuine peace requires more than just the absence of war and violence. Lasting peace must be dynamic not static. We must embrace the noisy peace of the thriving city, not seek to escape to the silent peace of the graveyard.  Peace is an active process, a way of solving problems justly and without violence.

Thus peace initiatives cannot be left solely in the hands of governments. As individuals we must work for peace in our lives and our own communities. We must also work as communities to foster peace among ourselves and between all communities.

Unfortunately, self-identified communities are often better at promoting peace among their own members than between themselves and other groups. Healthy pride in our own traditions can too easily turn to unhealthy competition or even contempt for other traditions. We must constantly strive to overcome these divisions and to work together in support of our shared human rights and human values.

As Humanists we can take pride in the example of someone like the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who, though persecuted for his outspoken atheism, never faltered in his belief that justice could come through peaceful resistance. Indeed, Mohandas Gandhi often quoted Shelley as an inspiration for his own ideas on non-violent resistance. Yet, Gandhi, a devout Hindu, and Martin Luther King, a Christian Minister who admired Gandhi’s methods of civil disobedience, were far more successful than Shelley in accomplishing political justice through non-violent action. So let’s set aside our communal differences and remember that Gandhi and King and all other effective peace builders achieved peaceful change as members of coalitions that included adherents of many different communities of belief, Humanist as well as religious.

We therefore welcome this week’s conference on “Religions and World Peace: Religious Communities and Their Potential for Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution”. But we urge that any such future conferences should set an example of inclusion by inviting representatives of the Humanist tradition to contribute to and learn from discussions of how to build lasting peace.

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