Humanists, atheists drive for wider global impact
By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - When Switzerland goes to the polls to elect a new parliament later this month, voters in Zurich will for the first time in the country's history have the chance to cast their ballot for a slate of Freethinkers.
"We decided we had to stand up and tell our politicians that it's time they recognised that there are a lot of non-religious people in their electorate," says 42-year-old Andreas Kyriacou, who heads the list.
"We, and probably a lot of Swiss people who have never thought about humanism or atheism, are tired of the influence the churches and religion still exert in this country," he said in an interview with Reuters.
Kyriacou, a management consultant, was speaking at a "Denkfest", or "Think Festival," that the Swiss Freethinkers Association held in Zurich last month, attracting scientists, philosophers and even comedians from around the world.
The Swiss Freethinkers -- a term that covers atheists, agnostics, secularists, rationalists, sceptics and just plain critics of religion -- argue that the country's political parties and leaders run scared of religious voters.
"There is a group for Bible study in our parliament, but no cross-party humanist group, though we know many of the deputies are non-believers," he says. "On right and left, they prefer to keep their heads down."
And Kyriacou points to the failure of politicians to take a stand on social issues like assisted suicide and abortion, where the Catholic church in particular has strong views, and on the powerful place of religion in education in parts of the country.
His stance -- as measured by comments at other conferences around Europe over the summer -- reflects growing determination among humanists and atheists on all five continents to make themselves more visible and their influence felt.
At the World Humanist Congress in Oslo in August, delegates from India, Uganda, Nigeria, Argentina and Brazil -- all countries where belief in a supreme deity or deities has a strong hold -- reported mounting interest in their philosophy.
Like their counterparts in Europe and North America, they argue that morality is based in human nature and does not need a father-figure god to back it up with punishment in an afterlife, in which they do not believe.
"There are more godless groups in the world than ever before," Sonja Eggerickx, a Belgian schools inspector who is president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, told the Congress.
U.S. delegates, including a serving army major who has just established an organisation for atheists in the military, spoke of a surge of rejection of religion in all its forms among young Americans -- a point some recent opinion surveys back up.
In Manchester in May, British Humanists -- one of the world's oldest groupings -- were told of a sharp rise in humanist birth, marriage and death ceremonies, and strong growth in their association's four-year-old student wing.
In Ireland, a country where the influence of the Catholic Church was for decades dominant in all areas of life including politics and government decision-making, an optimistic national humanist association met in Carlingford in late August.
With the latest census showing that atheists, agnostics and humanists are the largest group in the country after Catholics, association president Brian Whiteside said numbers were growing fast in the wake of the "pedophile priests" scandal.
In Nigeria, where the openly non-religious face Christian preacher-inspired public opprobrium as "immoral reprobates" or "Satanists" and in the Islamic north are treated as apostates, the humanist movement held its Congress in Abuja in September.
REASON AND ENLIGHTENMENT
Its founder and chairman Leo Igwe, once a seminarist who set up the group 15 years ago and has helped form groups in Uganda and Malawi , called on delegates to work for "a new age of Reason and Enlightenment" across Africa.
He has been campaigning hard against the persecution and often killing of so-called "child witches" -- children perceived, often with the encouragement of Christian preachers, to be possessed by the devil.
African humanists are also vocal -- often, like Igwe, to their personal cost -- in defence of gays and lesbians who are denounced as criminals by governments and religious leaders and demonised in the popular media.
In India, where humanists and rationalists fight the influence of popularly revered "miracle-working" gurus as well as Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism, an Atheist University was founded last month in the south-east city of Vijayawada.
And in Israel this month, secularists who say they suffer from religious coercion despite a conviction that they represent a majority of the population, won a court ruling that they cannot be forced to list Judaism as their religion.
In Muslim countries where renunciation of belief can be punished by death but always ends in social ostracism and persecution, the existence of an organisation of atheists is almost unthinkable, says Roy Brown of the IHEU.
But in Europe, an association of ex-Muslims is growing, with national chapters in several countries. Some British Asians who have abandoned the faith were in Oslo, and found themselves arguing with Islamists who came to picket the gathering.
Back in Zurich two weeks before the elections, Kyriacou says there has been a good response to the campaign he and his youthful colleagues have fought. "It is young people who are mainly interested, and that is good for the future," he adds.
"We don't think for a minute we will overcome the party machines. But there is an outside chance, if the mathematics are right, that one of us will get elected. That would be a victory indeed for humanists everywhere."
(Reported by Robert Evans)