AFT Blog # 48: IAFT Congress, London

IAFT Congress in London

David Rand, 2014-09-05

Having held its inaugural meeting in Norway in 2011 and congresses in Argentina in 2012 and Chile in 2013, the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT) held its IVth congress in London, England on August 11th 2014. David Rand, AFT president and IAFT spokesperson, participated and gives us a brief report.

IAFT Congress, London, afternoon

The IVth congress of the IAFT was only a one-day affair, but a fully loaded day with many high quality talks given by speakers gathered from a wide variety of countries: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, United States, France, Belgium, United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Poland, Romania, Nigeria, Congo and India, not to mention several other countries represented by delegates who did not make a presentation (such as myself) as well as participants in the conference hall.

The first talk of the day, given by Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society (UK), addressed a major theme of the day: crimes committed by Catholic clergy and hierarchy, i.e. child rape and sexual, physical and psychological violence against children. He explained that his organization is particularly interested in cases of abuse from within the Catholic Church simply because, for decades, the number and importance of such cases discovered there far exceed those in all other religions combined.

In Wood’s estimation, the little that the new pope Francis Ist has done to date to deal with this scandalous record is no more than a public relations exercise of no real significance. He made two recommendations to be implemented in each country: (1) encourage groups of abuse survivors to submit formal complaints to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child; and (2) adopt legislation that criminalizes inaction if one has a reasonable suspicion that child abuse has occurred; in other words, make it mandatory to report such cases to civil authorities.

Nina Sankari of the Atheist Coalition (Poland) recounted how the so-called “democratic” transition in her country was accompanied by the systematic appropriation of power by the Catholic Church, to the point where the domination of society by the Church and by its allies currently constitutes a mortal danger to democracy. However, even in this country considered to be hyper-Catholic, recent years have seen a secular awakening and resistance against sexual, financial and other abuses perpetrated by the Church. She ended her speech with an invitation to participate in the 2nd Atheist Days organized by the Coalition in March 2015. Later in the day, Costi Ozon told us in his presentation of a similar usurpation of power, this time by the Orthodox Church in Romania.

Francisco Delgado, president of the Spanish organisation Europa Laica – which manages the major web site Observatorio de la Laicidad – delivered his fraternal greeting to delegates along with an assessment of the state of secularism in Spain. The Catholic Church still has enormous political, symbolic, legal and fiscal privileges in that county, as well as privileges in education and social services. This is in part a legacy of the Isabelline concordat (1851), the Franco concordat (1953 ) and, more recently, an agreement with the Vatican in 1979.

Fernando Lozada, principal organizer of the IInd IAFT Congress held in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2012, and Chairman of the Congreso Nacional de Ateismo en Argentina, took stock of the situation in his country, which too is still subjected to strong Catholic interference in public affairs. Indeed, the “papomania” which followed the recent appointment of the Argentine Bergoglio to the papacy has been a veritable “curse” because it marked the beginning of a new onslaught of clericalism not only in Argentina but in Latin America in general.

The delegate of the Belgian Circle of Freethought (CLP-VDK), an association that has only recently joined the IAFT, explained the very particular situation in his country. Several religions are “recognized” by the government and thus receive public funding. Since 1993, secular organizations also receive public funding as if they constituted yet another religion. By accepting this arrangement, secularists have unfortunately reinforced and given greater credibility to the very principle of state funding for religious groups. The CLP-VDK was founded precisely in order to dissent from this pseudo-secular compromise and advocate for a true separation between religion and state, so that public funds would be made available only to non-religious public schools.

Two African speakers described very disturbing situations, but their participation in the congress was a promising sign. Leo Igwe of Nigeria, known for his opposition to accusations of witchcraft brought against children, stressed the importance of promoting separation between mosque and state, not only between church and state. He noted that separation between religion and state is enshrined in the constitutions of several African countries, but that secularism is nevertheless considered a utopian ideal and is not respected. Gauthier Ngumbu of the Democratic Republic of Congo made similar disquieting observations, noting that religions are the greatest forces of intolerance causing conflict among humans and insisting on the necessity of secularism as the foundation of democracy.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, discussed the contradictory situation in the United States where the constitution imposes a form of secularism but where 51% of the population think that’s a bad thing. His association’s strategy for coalition-building is to deliberately act as “pushy,” more radical atheists in order to make it easier for other associations of atheists, humanists, secularists, etc. with very similar goals to present themselves as more moderate and “nicer” and thus achieve those goals. To fight against the obsession of fundamentalist Christians for installing monuments displaying the Ten Commandments wherever they can in public spaces, his association insists on legal equality between believers and unbelievers in order to have similar monuments displaying atheist messages erected alongside the Christian ones. This undercuts the motivation of the fundamentalists because they hate sharing space with competing opinions and thus lose interest in erecting such installations.

In his talk, Silverman mentioned that Islam is not yet a threat in his country because it is always Christianity which tries to impose itself as the only legitimate viewpoint. The significance of his statement is concentrated in those two little words “not yet.” Indeed, the Congress might have paid more attention to the thorny issue of Islamofascism and how to respond to it. Although Islamism, that fundamentalist and highly politicized religious ideology, may not affect several of the countries represented at the congress, it nevertheless wreaks havoc in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, and has achieved disturbing levels of influence in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and more recently in Canada.

However the threat still posed by Christianity – through its various flavours such as Catholic, Orthodox, evangelist or other – was amply demonstrated in the speeches presented at the congress. The formerly Stalinist countries of eastern Europe and African countries are particularly vulnerable.

Meanwhile in India, an orgy of superstition rages on and Hinduism is only the tip of the iceberg, as speaker Babu Gogineni explained. Secularism is under severe threat even though the preamble to the 1948 constitution declares it a founding principle of the nation. Gogineni did not hesitate to speak of a “marriage” between the state on the one hand and, on the other hand, church, temple, mosque and superstition. Astrology is accepted as an “ancient science” while another old pseudoscience akin to Chinese feng-shui has a similar privileged status.

The talks at the congress were given in French, Spanish and English, with roughly equal importance given to each of these three official languages of the IAFT. Simultaneous translation was provided.

This summary of the event is very brief, touching only a sample of interventions. The transcript of all talks given at the congress will be available shortly on the IAFT website, in all three association languages to the extent that resources permit.

The IAFT’s International Council met at midday during the congress. It was decided among other things that the next congress, the fifth, will be held on September 20th 2015 in Montevideo, Uruguay. The date chosen is the International Day of Free Thought which is the anniversary of the fall of the Papal States in Italy.


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