Last fall I had the pleasure of attending two conferences dealing with the need for humanism in Eastern Europe. The first, entitled “Humanist Visions of European Integration,” was held September 26 to 29, 1996, in Warsaw, Poland, and was hosted by the Federation of Polish Humanist Associations. Barbara Stanosz, editor of the journal Bez Dogmatu (Without Dogma), opened the conference by pointing out that the Federation was founded in February 1995 “to defend the secular character of the state, and to support the right of a freely chosen life stance of the citizens and equality before the law regardless of their beliefs. These values need to be defended in Poland in view of the political ambitions of the Catholic hierarchy, clerical-ism in public life, and efforts to impose a religious worldview, as the only correct life stance, upon society.” Several members of the Polish parliament were in attendance, and Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz sent a personal letter of greeting to the delegates, stating that “… the subjects of particular sessions and the participation of eminent intellectuals from numerous countries makes one convinced that the idea of humanism attracts the attention of all those who do not agree to the stubbornly repeated efforts to enslave society on doctrinal or denominational grounds.” Such words of encouragement were welcome, and the meeting participants sent their own resolution of support to the parliament for its overturning of the restrictive anti-abortion laws that had been adopted three years previously.
The second conference I attended was held in Moscow, Russia, November 14 to 15. Sponsored by the Russian Academy of State Service, the theme of this meeting was “Humanism at the End of the Twentieth Century: Idea, Destiny, and Prospects.” I had the chance to discuss the Center for Inquiry’s newly organized affiliate at Moscow State University, which is headed by Professor Valery Kuvakin, an expert on the history of Russian philosophy. It has just started a new journal, entitled “Common Sense,” an element that is much needed in the current outgrowth of superstition and religious enthusiasm throughout Russia.
Both conferences received a good deal of media attention, and provided an opportunity for nascent freethought organizations from the former Iron Curtain countries to meet and discuss issues of mutual concern. The humanist message of democratic ideals coupled with a naturalistic framework was quite amenable to those who had suffered under communist repression, while remaining fearful of the attempts by religious forces to reinstitute a theocratic form of government. The Catholic church in Poland and the Orthodox church in Russia have each made concerted attempts to fill the power vacuum that has occurred since the collapse of the Soviet empire. Religious fervor is on the upswing. In addition, assorted cults and fringe religions are jockeying for position throughout Eastern Europe. Humanism is needed more than ever, as a counterweight to this return to obscurantism.
In 1988 I accompanied Paul Kurtz to New York City, where he presented Andrei Sakharov with the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s highest award, given for the personal example he had set in defending freedom of conscience and the right to personal liberty. Sakharov thanked the members of the IHEU for their unstinting support during his own imprisonment and exile, and expressed the hope that humanism would have a greater impact on the world scene. Sakharov’s example lives on in the work being performed by the Eastern European humanist organizations. If you would like more information on how to assist these groups in their efforts to promote common sense and critical thinking, please contact me for details.