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Some believe in power of the almighty human

Humanists, including one who will speak locally today, believe that people are responsible for creating their own meaning and value in life.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2000


TREASURE ISLAND -- Their philosophy endeavors to bring out the best in adherents, espousing compassion and respect for all human beings. Their wisdom, however, is not based on religious dogma.

They recite no creed, obey no divine commandments and follow no holy writings.

They call themselves humanists, people who understand the world in naturalistic rather than supernatural terms. In essence, they believe there is no God.

Uniting many such thinkers is the International Humanist and Ethical Union, an organization with headquarters in London. For the international body and its members, who hail from 37 countries, supporting human rights around the world is of paramount importance. And a key component of those rights is freedom of belief, said Babu R.R. Gogineni, the group's India-born executive director.

"We would like to promote the separation of religion and state throughout the world, because most of the human rights atrocities are actually because the state is invariably linked to a religion of one kind or another," he said.

Gogineni, who will speak at 1 p.m. today at the Treasure Island Tennis and Yacht Club, 400 Treasure Island Causeway, is forthright in his assessment of religion and its effect on the masses.

"Our general criticism of religion in India is that it alienates you from your human essence. It blinds you from looking at truths," Gogineni said.

"If you look at Hinduism, the whole discriminating hierarchy of Hindu society is based on a so-called divine sanction, which is sustained by Hindu mythology and Hindu philosophy as well. (Hindus) believe in a broad set of principles which are essentially fatalistic, which have a very, very immoral set of gods, all powerful, non-caring gods, angry ones, deceiving ones."

Gogineni expressed concern about extreme religious conservatism.

"I don't need to tell America about the looney religious right," he said. "The backwardness of America in terms of religion is not in any way different from India's backwardness. ... The saving grace, at least for us, is that we do not have televangelism.

"You have the same kind of superstitions. You have the same kind of yearning and longing to have supernatural things happen to you, so you end up with UFO sightings, alien abductions. ... It is rather distressing, and none of these are more ridiculous or less ridiculous than the virgin birth or the reappearance of Jesus Christ after the third day."

During an interview this week, Gogineni, 31, who attended Catholic school in India, described himself as a second-generation humanist. So is Jan Loeb Eisler, a Madeira Beach grandmother who heads the St. Petersburg Largo Area Secular Humanists, which uses the acronym SPLASH. It is Ms. Eisler's group that will host Gogineni's talk this afternoon.

A retired trauma nurse, Ms. Eisler said she was a humanist long before she knew the term. Growing up, her father gave her instructions to attend any Sunday school of her choice, provided she did so for at least six weeks.

"After the Sunday school class, we would sit and talk about it and he would put the teachings of the Sunday school into humanist terms," she said. "He was never derisive."

And though she did not recount any difficulties growing up as a non-religious person, others usually are not as fortunate, she said.

In the United States, humanists face the same challenges as any minority, she said.

"We don't want to impose and we don't want to be imposed upon," she said. "We would like to have our point of view respected as much as contrary points of view."

A quarterly newsletter published by the Council for Secular Humanism, which describes itself as North America's leading organization for non-religious people, seeks to offer the type of support that humanist families need.

"They do need a support system," Ms. Eisler said. "The humanist movement, as it was originally presented, was generally spoken to in rather academic terms. ... Up until recently, no one has given them a coping mechanism. The kids are pressured."

Ms. Eisler, whose two adult daughters and six grandchildren are Christian, appears to have developed her own method of coping in a religious environment.

"In one house they have silent prayers when they have them, which is rarely," she said, speaking about one daughter's home.

"In the other house, they hold hands. For many years, I held hands with my grandchildren. How could one not? But I don't mouth the prayers; that would be hypocrisy," said Ms. Eisler, who sends her family gifts at Christmas.

"It's their Christmas; it's not mine. I may call them solstice gifts," she said, adding that presents given at Easter may be designated to mark the arrival of spring.

"I don't feel honor-bound to use their language, but these seasonal celebrations predate" Scripture, she added.

To mark occasions such as births, deaths and weddings, humanists have developed their own non-religious ceremonies.

"In fact, today the Norwegian Humanist Association performs more coming-of-age ceremonies than does the church," Gogineni said this week.

"I myself got married 10 months ago in a humanist wedding, which was performed by a staunchly fundamentalist Christian friend of mine. Performed on a Sunday; that was the only way I could keep my friend out of church on a Sunday morning."

Gogineni's organization has no precise count of humanists worldwide. India may have the largest number of such thinkers, Gogineni said. In terms of a membership list, however, Norway has the largest number, with 65,000 members, he said.

"The problem with numbers is that many governments do not list atheists or rationalists or humanists in their census surveys, which leads to atheists' not being counted at all," Gogineni said.

"In Holland and in Belgium, humanists are a strong force. Over 50 percent of their populations claim not to have any religion at all. In these countries, humanists have established very important social service institutions. ... In the U.S., humanists are at the forefront of defending women's rights, promoting the scientific and skeptical attitudes, and defending first amendment principles," he said.

"Humanist organizations are a strong and thriving force for political and social reform, and their effectiveness is not owing to their numbers, but to the liberating power of their ideas."

Humanists support international organizations such as the United Nations and work with groups such as the World Federation of Right to Die Societies.

What sustains humanists during times of adversity, such as the death of a loved one?

Memories, Gogineni said.

"Basically, religion helps to sustain those who are alive and "left behind' when someone dies," he said. "But the humanist is also able to handle it."

And, said Ms. Eisler, "If you imagine there is no heaven and there's no hell or divine revelation or holy commandments, what are the implications of living in a world without a supernatural purpose?

"It means that this is the only life we will ever have and we have to make the most out of it. It means that our understanding and morals are purely human and natural, and it would mean we are responsible for creating our own meaning and value in life. And it would follow that we would have to use human compassion and understanding to make the best of life for ourselves and each other."

If you go

Babu R.R. Gogineni, executive director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, will speak from 1 to 3 p.m. today at the Treasure Island Tennis and Yacht Club, 400 Treasure Island Causeway, Treasure Island. His talk will be "Humanism and Ketchup." Free. For information about the program or the St. Petersburg Largo Area Secular Humanists, contact Hasp@gte.net or (727) 391-7571. For information about the International Humanist and Ethical Union, go to http://www.iheu.org.

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