Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was the winner of this year’s award for Secularist of the Year. He was presented with the £5,000 Irwin Prize by the author and freedom of expression campaigner Nick Cohen at an event hosted by the National Secular Society last Saturday, March 17. The audience included prominent scientists, journalists, campaigners and writers including Richard Dawkins, Lord Taverne, Joan Smith, Oliver Kamm, Professor Peter Atkins and Maryam Namazie.
“We are very pleased to be able to reward Peter’s lifelong commitment to human rights and to honour his support for a just and inclusive secular society,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, a UK-based member organization of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. “He has been active in many progressive campaigns over the past forty or more years, not least in gay rights, and has had to endure much public and press abuse because of it. But he has persevered and now he has made the unprecedented transition from public enemy number one to national treasure.”
Sanderson said in his introduction to the presentation:
“I’m very pleased to see that at last he has been recognised as a true secularist and someone who has given much to the cause.
“Of course, you’d have had to live on the moon not to have been aware of Peter’s many campaigns to drive forward human rights. He is an international player and perhaps his most famous confrontation was that with Robert Mugabe, the tyrant of Zimbabwe. This resulted in him being badly beaten by Mugabe’s thug-like minders.
“Peter is a fighter for civil liberties, criminal injustice, democracy, free speech, LGBT rights, sex education and social justice.
“He has also faced physical attacks in Russia and regularly finds himself the subject of attack in the streets and on public transport. His home is a fortress, but his determination remains resolute.
Peter Tatchell said:
“I feel very privileged and honoured to receive the Irwin Prize. However, compared to the heroism of secularists and humanists living under religious fundamentalist regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, my own efforts are quite insignificant. I salute their courageous, inspiring work in defence of rationalism, scientific knowledge, freedom of expression and human rights.
“I pay tribute to my humanist and secularist colleagues in many countries, including Leo Igwe in Nigeria, Kato Mukasa in Uganda and George Thindwa in Malawi.
“Worldwide, organised religion is the single greatest threat to human rights; especially to the rights of women, LGBT people, atheists and minority faiths. Religious-inspired dogmas persecute Christians in Pakistan, Sunni Muslims in Iran, Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Jewish people in much of the Middle East. In many countries, atheists and apostates face discrimination, harassment, threats and violence from religious zealots. Some Islamist countries have the death penalty for Muslims who turn away from their faith. Even in the West, the religious right menaces freedom of expression and equality, with its demands for the censorship of the satire that targets religion and with its campaigns in defence of gender and sexual orientation discrimination.
“Secularists support the separation of religion and the state. With no established state religion, there is equality for people of all faiths and none. Secularism is the best guarantor of religious freedom. It is in the interest of people of all faiths, as well as the interests of non-believers. People are entitled to their faith but they are not entitled to insist that their religious values are the law of the land.”
Clive Bone, the councillor who brought the successful case against council prayers was awarded the £1,000 Simon Biber Memorial prize for special achievement, which was sponsored by Stephanie Biber.
You can read Nick Cohen’s account of the event and listen to the presentations and speeches recorded by the award-winning Pod Delusion.
For a more detailed version of this report, including a listing of previous winners of Secularist of the Year, go to: http://www.secularism.org.uk/news/2012/03/peter-tatchell-named-secularist-of-the-year