In 2004, I was the coordinator of the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation (IHEYO) first international youth conference in Africa, in Kampala, Uganda. While searching for a suitable theme for the conference, myself and Godfrey Ssentaza, an Ugandan humanist youth leader, decided to suggest a theme we both concluded would be beneficial to Africa and Africans. «Global Humanism for Peace and Social Justice» was suggested; but then, we needed to give some reasons for the theme. So, we decided to state simply that: «Africa needs humanism because that is the only way Africans could appreciate social justice which will bring forth the much needed peace in Africa. So, the theme will enable participants explore how to make humanism take root in Africa.»
Well, that was eight years ago. I doubt if I can ever give such weak argument again. To me, the argument for the theme does not tell us how humanism has to contribute to engender peace. If am asked to give reason for the theme now, definitely I will rather focus on what humanism can contribute in pragmatic terms: Humanism is about tolerance, intolerance gives birth to conflicts and killings (in whatever disguise), therefore if Africans can embrace the humanistic tolerance, intolerant activities will reduce, then there will be peace. Isn’t this a valid argument? But alas, it is not as easy as that.
Faithfulness to the dicates of «tolerance»
Humanism as a lifestance is endearing to most Africans for diverse reasons, hence some believed in and some do not subscribe to the idea of an organized humanism. Yet, both groups are agreed on the ideals they considered very fundamental to Humanism. Certain variations, however, pervade the space of the lifestance that distinguishes the positions; and these differences justify the prevalence of various qualifiers like: «secular humanists», «brights», «atheist», among others, each trying to define clearly its own level of ‘tolerance’ of the pervasive, sometimes annoying, religious balderdashes. Because of these clusters of variations, therefore, humanists faithfulness to the dictates of «tolerance», started from among themselves. This self-consciousness, to me, is a vital test to constantly re-evaluate their stand and of the tasks ahead.
If we could not tolerate one another, despite sharing a very high percentage of ideals, how do we want to accommodate other people who in the first instance see many of us as «agents of darkness» or infidels?
Unfortunately, the several documented intra-organisational rancours that have led to disintegrations of many African humanist groups do not show that there is any strong commitment or proper grasp of the meaning of «tolerance». If we could not tolerate one another, despite sharing a very high percentage of ideals, how do we want to accommodate other people who in the first instance see many of us as «agents of darkness» or infidels? If we could not sustain a peaceful humanist order by utilizing the tolerance virtue, which is inherent in our ideals, what are we telling the non-humanists?
Our contribution is tolerance
With all sense of modesty, I am using «tolerance» as a compass because I am convinced that, as humanists, the only meaningful contribution that we could contribute to the discourse on African peace is tolerance. No other organized group can lay claim to this, than we. And, to me, this is our strong point that must be clearly and beneficially discussed. Most of us have been advocating for justice, equity, and all other forms of human rights tenets for years now. Our unrepentant promotion of these concepts, to me, have brought succour to many, not because we are concerned about who they are, but for what they are (human beings, who have inalienable rights). So, even when a Bishop or an Imam (Islamic leader) who preaches annoying sermons is unjustifiably treated, we neglect their belief(s) and act to secure justice for him or her. At that moment, the values of «tolerance» are at play. But the question is: do we, as African humanists, and humanists in general, understand this indisputable fact?
Unending attacks on religion does not make sense
Tolerance is vital to peace because the many wars and conflicts suffocating the African space today are products of intolerance. Tolerance is a virtue that accommodates patiently without necessarily compromising. As humanists we must know that we are irredeemably committed to this virtue immediately we accepted to be addressed or identified as «humanist». As humanists, we reject all forms of discriminations, even when we are object of discriminations ourselves; we defend the rights of those who unjustifiably persecute and condemn the core of our ideals (the rejection of the supernatural) and seek for justice for those who we are sure are potential threats to our convictions. So, can you tell me any other group that promotes this novel ideal today? What we need to tackle, collectively however, is the danger of fanatic and militant humanism. We need not see others who hold supernatural beliefs as fools and we must not expect all humanists to reject the idea of «God». And, to me, this idea of unending attacks on religion and the religious does not make any meaningful sense, rather it negates the tolerance ideal that humanism stands for.
We have identified what to contribute, tolerance; how to contribute it is no problem because there are now African humanists and humanists groups in at least 26 of African 54 countries; but the space we are contributing is multifariously diverse hence we need to be able to play our role effectively (as the tolerant arbiter and the megaphone for justice and against any discrimination). Peace is the focus, tolerance is our weapon and as you will all agree, justice is our undeniable guide!
Onward to peace!
Yemi Ademowo Johnson, socio-political philosopher, anthropologist and university teacher, is the projects’ director of the Young Humanists Network, Ibadan, Nigeria.
The World Humanist Congress is taking place in Oslo now, from 12th to 14th of August.