Report on international humanist meetings in New Zealand

  • post Type / Conferences
  • Date / 6 August 2018

Members of the humanist and rationalist community in New Zealand and delegates from humanist organizations around the world met together in Auckland, New Zealand in the past few days for a public conference, and the annual General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.


In the public conference on Saturday organized by Humanist Society of New Zealand and the Rationalist and Humanist Association, the room heard from speakers including Te Henare on how “there’s no Māori word for ‘atheist'” and Eru Hiko-Tahuri, who blogs as Heretical Hori and wrote the book Māori Boy Atheist who explained how is constantly met with the assumption that Māori will believe in gods and lead prayers.

(Read the whole thread on Twitter.)

Gulalai Ismal spoke on “How Humanism can help us counter violent extremism” and the threats faced by humanists and human rights activists in Pakistan. Andrew Copson spoke on the non-religious arguments against secularism and how they can be answered. Speakers from the Secular Education Network spoke on how “loopholes” in the school system allow publicly-funded schools, which are meant to be secular, to nominally “close” for periods during the school day to allow for religious instruction.

Further talks included Jackie Clark on her organization The Aunties, working with vulnerable women in New Zealand, Max Wallace and Kim Stainton on religion and secularization in the Pacific islands, Catherine Low with an introduction of “effective altruism”, and Imtiaz Shams from Faith to Faithless on how humanist groups can help individual “apostates”.

Uttam Niraula from the Society for Humanism Nepal discussed rising Hindu conservativism and extremism in India and Nepal. Leo Igwe from Nigeria talked about how humanists in particular from wealthier countries need to use their position to address issues such as witchcraft accusations and other human rights violations, and not to cite their own fear of being called ‘racist’ or ‘culturally imperialist’ as reasons not to speak out.

Finally, Joseph Bulbulia from the School of Humanities, University of Auckland, looked at the available evidence on the link between politics and religion showing that across the Pacific islands the rise of political power was usually associated with the rise of more demanding or controlling religious beliefs.

IHEU General Assembly 2018

On Sunday 5 August, representatives from IHEU Member Organizations met for the IHEU General Assembly.

As part of his welcoming remarks, IHEU president Andrew Copson said:

“I want to take a moment to zoom out to the governance level and remind you of two of the really big things that the Board has done over the past couple of years. First is the expansion of the staff team. We’ve stepped up from two staff, to two staff plus a part-time role, then three, and now four full-time members of staff. What I want to spell out is that this increase in staff is part of a medium- and long-term strategy: it represents a proactive decision on the part of the Board, freeing up funds to double our staff capacity since 2015 to grow the organization. We are investing in the future.

“Secondly, we also have a vision of a more diverse and global organization. And we’ve been working toward that in two ways. In 2016 you approved a Board proposal to create new positions on the Board reserved for representatives from the historically underrepresented regions of Latin America, Asia and Africa. This is a reform making IHEU more truly global in its governance and after two years of operating I can assure that the additional support which allows these Board members to stand, from organizations from new parts of the world where individual membership and fundraising are substantially more difficult to achieve, has had a really beneficial effect on our deliberations as a Board. It has given us a much broader, richer insight into the global movement and I believe we are already reaping the benefits of that.

“The second way we’ve been improving our representation as an organization is through our Growth & Development programme, which has enabled us to expand our membership in underrepresented regions. Gary will talk about in more detail under the Annual Report. Suffice it to say that there were 10 new Member Organizations approved in Europe and North America last year, which is already a healthy number compared to historical growth rates. While in Africa, Asia and Latin America we saw fifteen new Member Organizations through the year. So that’s 50% more growth in the underrepresented regions: which I think marks a real step toward rebalancing and diversifying our worldwide membership.”

Gary McLelland, IHEU chief executive, introduced the Annual Report for the calendar year 2017 [download coming soon], which contains an overview of activities and summary financial information, as well as this year previewing the upcoming new logo and branding for the organization. The other staff – Communications and Campaigns Director Bob Churchill, Director of Advocacy Elizabeth O’Casey, and Growth & Development Officer Giovanni Gaetani — then gave updates relating to their work, with Giovanni and Elizabeth appearing in a prerecorded video.

There were some changes to the Board, with Roar Johnsen (Norway) and Rein Zunerdorp (Netherlands) stepping down. Both were given the thanks of the Board and the General Assembly for their service. Roar Johnsen steps down after 12 years on the Board and was thanked for his long commitment, the effort and reforms he brought to the role of Treasurer, and his crucial attention to detail on governance matters.

David Pineda (Guatemala) was re-elected to the Board position reserved for a representative from Latin America, while the other two Board spaces were filled by Kristin Mile (Norway) and Boris van der Ham (Netherlands) as our new Treasurer.

The General Assembly marked with sorrow and thanks the death earlier this year of Josh Kutchinsky, with special tributes from Kato Mukasa and Leo Igwe, focusing on Josh’s longstanding commitment, personal support and passionate work in particular for humanism in Africa.

The General Assembly approved The Auckland Declaration against The Politics of Division, which addresses the resurgence of so-called “strongman” politics, anti-human rights rhetoric, and especially the demonization of minorities for political gain.

An emergency motion brought by the Board in response to the US “Potomac Declaration” was also approved, which broadly welcomed the growing international interest in ‘freedom of religion or belief, while also giving the Board a mandate to engage on some of the more problematic language of the Potomac Declaration.

Our Director of Communications and Campaigns Bob Churchill presented on the process which has taken place within the organization over the past two years, consulting on a planned name-change and re-branding of the IHEU. Bob explained the thinking behind the new visual identity to accompany the name previously approved at last year’s General Assembly, and the president welcomed the new branding, which will be implemented across the organization later this year.

Chief Executive Gary McLelland (far left) with members of the Board as of the 2018 General Assembly: (left to right) Kato Mukasa (Uganda), Kristin Mile (Norway), Boris van der Ham (Netherlands), Gulalai Ismail (Pakistan), Becky Hale (United States), Andrew Copson (UK), Uttam Niraula (Nepal), Anne-France Ketelaer (Belgium), David Pineda (Guatemala) – with a small preview of our upcoming new brand on their pin badges!

The General Assembly ratified the membership of 20 new IHEU Member Organizations, from 20 countries: Association for Humanism (Spain), South Asian Humanist Association, Freethinkers Association of Arequipa (Peru), Faroese Humanist Association, Brights Russia, Atheist Society of Nigeria, Libero Pensiero (Italy), Iranian Humanist, Friends of Richard Dawkins Association (South Africa), Scottish Secular Society, Kasese Freethinkers Club (Uganda), Sandya Institute (Indonesia), Rwanda Humanist Association, East London Humanists (UK), Secular Action (Chile), Rationalist Assn of New South Wales in Sydney (Australia), Arab Humanists, Bavarian Humanist Association (Germany), Mexican Humanists, Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists.

In her closing remarks, vice-president Anne-France Ketelaer reiterated the importance of the Auckland Declaration and thanked the staff for their year-round work. There was also a special thanks to Sara Passmore at Humanist Society of New Zealand for organizing the conference and to member Gaylene Middleton for her perseverance in assisting delegates from non-visa-waiving countries who – despite often having direct support from IHEU – faced serious challenges in having visa application approved. Gaylene was thanked for working tirelessly to reverse some of these visa rejection decisions with astonishing and vital success.

The next General Assembly of the IHEU will be held in Reykjavík, Iceland, hosted by the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association on Sunday 2 June 2019, with events running 31 May – 2 June.

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