A Call for New Planetary Institutions

Paul Kurtz

The planetary community today faces a grave economic crisis. Companies are faltering; unemployment, poverty, and deprivation are rising. Foreclosures are escalating, and the ranks of the jobless keep growing. People who have lost their homes or jobs are sleeping in their cars and spending their days at libraries. Librarians have reported an increase in the use of their facilities and mounting despair among their users. Tent encampments for the homeless have sprouted up in various areas of the country. Similar tales of woe are happening in other countries.

Unfortunately, we have no guarantee that the United States, or any one country by itself, can jumpstart the global economy. It is clear that we need international cooperation; in particular, restrictive trade practices will not overcome the current crisis and will do more harm than good. As we go to press, the economic future is still very much in doubt. Let us hope that the massive efforts of the Obama administration will be effective. One thing is evident: we will need coordinated action by the other major economies of the world if we are to succeed.

It will soon be ten years since Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism was first issued in Free Inquiry (Fall 1999). Recent events have demonstrated the urgent need for the world to adopt transnational policies to deal with the severe financial decline. Indeed, at a London summit meeting of the G-20 (the most important industrial and emerging economies of the world), British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared, “This was the day the world came together to fight back against global recession…. I think the new world order is emerging, and with it the foundations of a new and progressive era of international cooperation.” President Barack Obama agreed, adding that “It is also my responsibility to lead America into recognizing that its interests, its fate, is tied up with the larger world.” At the summit, $1.1 trillion in loans were pledged by the world’s leading financial powers to assist the weaker economies in overcoming the economic crisis, the worst since World War II.

These sentiments mirror the principal contentions of Humanist Manifesto 2000. This Manifesto was endorsed by distinguished humanists and scientists worldwide, including E.O. Wilson, Richard Leakey, Richard Dawkins, Senator Alan Cranston, Jill Tarter, Steve Allen, Taslima Nasrin, Daniel Dennett, and eleven Nobel Laureates. It was covered at that time by significant portions of the world’s press, from Le Monde in France and El Pais in Spain to The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers in the United States. The Manifesto has since been translated into dozens of foreign languages.

Humanist Manifesto 2000 is unique because it advocates—as a precondition of cooperative action—a new global ethics that transcends the ancient religious, ethnic, national, and racial differences of the past. It emphasizes that we are “responsible for our destiny” and that we can best solve our problems by “using science and reason.” It calls for a “Planetary Bill of Rights and Responsibilities,” and it declares that “We the people of the planet Earth have a responsibility to humanity as a whole to ensure peace and prosperity for every person in the planetary community.”

The Manifesto also recommended concrete practical reforms to achieve these aims. These included appropriate regulations of international global conglomerates (including banks); free access to the media without censorship; universal education for all children on the planet (including scientific education); restraints on population growth; a transnational environmental agency to monitor pollution; a collective security system to maintain the peace; the development of a World Court; and a new World Parliament elected by people worldwide to supplement the United Nations, an assembly of nations. A basic provision eventually should be a world income tax. These are goals for the future; for today, an urgent need is that each nation should make a voluntary contribution of .007 percent of its gross national product (GNP) to help eliminate poverty and disease. Some nations already contribute this amount per year for aid to emerging countries; more, including the United States, need to do so.

The Manifesto urges us to rise above parochial national and multicultural perspectives and to pledge ourselves to the survival of the human species on Earth. It appeals to all people of goodwill, representing the diversity of cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions, to come together in forging a new planetary ethics of cooperation. No doubt some of its normative recommendations may be considered utopian, but surely humanism must provide ethical ideals, which, although difficult to realize today, are nevertheless worthy of achievement tomorrow. Indeed, as the current global crisis vividly demonstrates, no one nation or region can solve its problems alone. Our global interdependence—in trade and science, medicine and health, immigration and emigration, culture and the arts—is so apparent that the development of a new set of planetary ethical principles and values is clearly imperative.

“The overriding need of the world community today,” says Humanist Manifesto 2000, “is to develop a new Planetary Humanism—one that seeks to preserve human rights and enhance human freedom and dignity but also emphasizes our commitment to humanity as a whole.” In our view, the Center for Inquiry has no greater mission than to work toward building a genuine planetary community based on these ideals.

The Rights of the Child

The United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1989 the “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” This was sent out for signature and ratification to member nations. Thus far, 191 nations have ratified it. Among the notable exceptions is the rogue nation Somalia and, incredibly, the United States of America. This was due to religious conservatives in the Senate who blocked its ratification. In our view it is long past time that America ratifies the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This Convention enunciated a set of rights that apply to children, defined as every person younger than eighteen years. It recognizes that by reason of physical and mental immaturity, children require special safeguards and care. Although responsibility for this lies primarily with children’s parents or legal guardians, children also need legal protection where appropriate. Thus, children under the age of eighteen cannot be deprived of food, shelter, or safety; they cannot be abused sexually, mentally, or physically or compelled to do child labor. They are entitled to an education.

Of special interest is Article 14, which declares: “State(s) … shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” The article recognizes that we need to respect the rights and duties of parents or legal guardians to provide direction to children. However, it clearly enunciates the right of children to freedom of thought and conscience. This is consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms in Article 18 that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”

In a remarkable new book, Forced Into Faith: How Religion Abuses Children’s Rights (Prometheus Books, 2009), Innaiah Narisetti maintains that it is important to embark upon a worldwide campaign to defend the rights of the child, especially the right not to be indoctrinated into a religion before the age of consent at eighteen. Narisetti describes how children are brainwashed and forced to accept the faiths of their parents without being exposed to alternative religions or nonreligious options. He critically points to madra
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schools where children are forced to memorize the Qur’an and to similar efforts among Hindus to strictly bring their children up within their faith. The same thing is true in Christian, Judaic, Sikh, and other religious traditions throughout the world: children are baptized, circumcised, or inducted into a religion without their consent. Clearly, parents should have the right to care for and nourish their children and to be concerned with their intellectual, moral, emotional, and physical well-being. But Narisetti argues that each child is a person in his or her own right and should have the right to choose his or her own beliefs and convictions (or none) without them being imposed.

These views are widely shared by secularists and humanists who believe that their children should have the advantage of a balanced education and be allowed to encounter the widest range of scientific and cultural traditions without having their vision narrowed from their earliest days. Ideally, children ought to learn above all how to think for themselves. The very first issue of Free Inquiry (Winter 1980/81) published the Secular Humanist Declaration, which stated: “We do not think it is moral to baptize infants, to confirm adolescents, or to impose a religious creed on young people before they are able to consent. Although children should learn about the history of religious moral practices, the young minds should not be indoctrinated in a faith before they are mature enough to evaluate the merits for themselves….”

We reiterate the importance of providing children with a balanced education, so that they may develop into mature adults, without narrowing their horizons. Some may consider this recommendation radical. We believe that it is eminently worthy of consideration.

Torture and American Democracy

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states (Article 5): “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” December 10, 2008, marked the sixtieth anniversary of that declaration, to which the United States is a signatory.

Alas, it is now abundantly clear that the Bush administration did engage in torture in violation of this prohibition. The International Committee of the Red Cross secretly investigated U.S. interrogation practices for prisoners and concluded some time ago that torture was used against suspected terrorists. The Justice Department has confirmed the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency.

These practices took place in secret prisons maintained by the United States in Pakistan, Dubai, Thailand, and elsewhere. They included waterboarding and other illegal methods—practices in connection with which the United States prosecuted Japanese military interrogators for war crimes after World War II. Waterboarding involves pouring water on a cloth held over the prisoner’s face so that he cannot breathe, simulating drowning. Other practices involve forcing prisoners to stand in painful positions for days with their hands chained to a bar above them, keeping suspects awake for as long as eleven days; locking them in dark, cramped boxes, and/or injecting insects into the box to frighten them; forced nudity; slamming them against the wall; and dousing prisoners with very cold water (41° F).

These methods of torture were used by totalitarian dictatorships before and during World War II and were widely condemned by the civilized world. We now find that they were used by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team with impunity, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. These acts are illegal, and those who used or condoned them should be held accountable.

We often hear the argument: What if terrorists planned to detonate a nuclear bomb over Los Angeles or Washington? Should we not use torture on suspects to extract information? Well, perhaps, in a clear-and-present-danger crisis situation—though even then, torture’s seeming power to extract information must be balanced against the possibility that it will only elicit false information. Still, the so-called ticking-bomb argument surely cannot be used as a pretext to engage in any and all forms of reprehensible conduct. American democracy is based on laws, and it is committed to the defense of human rights. The use of a doomsday scenario to justify bestial conduct is surely inadmissible. The main casualty of this whole sordid affair is American democracy itself, which is based on the ideals of liberty and respect for the principles of due process and justice. Our democracy has suffered great damage because of our tragic excursion into torture. The world will be watching to see how, or if, we make amends.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


The planetary community today faces a grave economic crisis. Companies are faltering; unemployment, poverty, and deprivation are rising. Foreclosures are escalating, and the ranks of the jobless keep growing. People who have lost their homes or jobs are sleeping in their cars and spending their days at libraries. Librarians have reported an increase in the …

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