You need allies, you need supporters

Zoe Williams reports on the World Humanist Congress in the Guardian.

She had never thought secular society would need defending.

Yet, without having become any more religious, en masse, we find that state education has been handed over to any have-a-go Harry that feels up to it, which in a quarter of cases means religious people, and in a handful of cases, people like the advocates of Rudolf Steiner.

We have a new minister of state for faith and communities who talks about “militant atheism“. That doesn’t exist – if militant means anything at all distinct from “argumentative”, it means advocating violence, and when did you last hear an atheist advocating violence in the name of his or her belief?

I was unpersuaded, anyway, of the case for such a minister, particularly the way it conflates faith and community as though those concepts were indivisible. But now filled by Eric Pickles, the role really becomes a slap in the face to secularism.

Well so was Sayeeda Warsi. She went off to the Vatican, don’t forget, to have a chat with the pope about how to stomp out the menace of secularism.

I met Gulalai Ismail, who founded Aware Girls when she was 16 years old to forge somewhere that “young women can come together and they can speak for their rights. If we can’t speak for ourselves, nothing will change”.

She’s only 26 now, and the organisation has achieved monumental things – Malala Yousafzai is one of their activists. Ismail herself has had threats against her, and her family, from the start.

I’m Facebook friends with Gulalai. She’s marvelous. Aware Girls is an organization you could add to your list of good organizations to help.

I met Leo Igwe, a Nigerian campaigner fighting on two fronts – the Christian witch hunters on one side, the Boko Haram kidnappers on another – who has been physically attacked many times for his work. “Many people said, ‘Are you getting into witchcraft issues? You don’t want to live long.’

“It is taken to be a dangerous occupation. It is a minefield.” But if the vicious, perilous conditions under which many humanists are living make the irritation of Eric Pickles seem like small potatoes, then remember that it’s not a game of whist in which the person in the worst situation wins.

“When you are living in this situation,” Igwe says, “you need allies, you need supporters. You need people to say to you, ‘I love what you’re doing’.”

Indeed. It’s heartening to see Leo getting more of those.

There is a lot of optimism, not all of which I share. Ian Dunbar, 61, a physicist, said: “Actually, I think humanism is on the verge of a breakthrough. It only feels as though it’s under threat because faiths are hurting, and lashing out.”

Ultimately, though, I saw it much more as a call to arms than a reason to be cheerful. There has never been a more important time, if you are secular, to say so. Call to arms I mean metaphorically, by the way. Nobody take up any arms, OK?

But if we’re going to be called “militant” anyway…

Kidding, kidding.


  1. arthur says

    Very welcome to see Leo Igwe getting recognition.

    Leo represents the best of the atheist movement, in my view; and his cause is among the most pressing. Following Leo is what brought me to (the old) Butterflies and Wheels years ago. With help from this site and its exposure of Leo’s work across Africa, I’ve been able to point valuable people to the problems facing secularists on the continent, who themselves have informed others.

  2. Al Dente says

    But if we’re going to be called “militant” anyway…

    Many people, including Eric Pickles, consider the mere existence of atheists to be “militant.”

  3. latsot says

    Aware Girls is an organization you could add to your list of good organizations to help.

    Last night Liz brought up the topic of whether we should make changes to the various charities we support in the light of what’s happening in the world. It’s good to have recommendations from people we trust so we can check those charities out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *