Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Some practical activities of secular humanists

(a report at the International Conference "Humanism and Science - Planetary Values of the Third Millenium",
June 14-16, 2000, Saint-Petersburg)

According to the Rules of the Russian Humanist Society its principal aims are the defence, development and propagation of the ideas and norms of secular humanism as a world-view and a way of life. But how is this aim to be attained in a separate Russian region? The question is rather important because new regional branches of the Society are being created, and our successors will need the experience of their predecessors. But I don't remember any publications on the theme in our main organ, the magazine Zdravy Smysl.

Although in St. Petersburg (which pretends to a title of cultural capital of Russia) there are many people following the principles and ideas of humanism and non-religion, nevertheless the situation was such that until the end of 1998 there was no organization like the RHS, and only few people were aware of this Moscow-based initiative. Humanists in St. Petersburg undertook such activities as episodic appearances in the mass media, and spreading information about RHS and its magazine among their friends and acquaintances. It was in just such a manner that the author has obtained his information about the RHS. In addition, Xerox copies of some materials from the magazine (including the Rules of the RHS) have been selectively distributed. As a result of this work a circle of people has been found who wished to join the RHS and to create a St. Petersburg branch. The constituent assembly of the new branch took place on March 17th 1999. Some people registered their membership immediately, while others have agreed to pay membership fees and to get the magazine in return. Not everyone, however, has a clear idea about what concrete activities a secular humanist ought to be involved in (other than reading the magazine). The following list of possible activities has been proposed:

  1. self-education by means of reading humanist literature (the magazine Zdravy Smysl as a minimum),
  2. familiarizing one's friends, acquaintances and colleagues with the material,
  3. agitation for subscription of the magazine ZS at post office or for receipt of it directly from the editorial staff,
  4. printing, copying and distribution of leaflets and booklets of the RHS,
  5. responding to letters from those interested in RHS's activity,
  6. building and running the RHS branch library,
  7. speaking at meetings about the RHS's activity,
  8. appearances with lectures of an educational character,
  9. appearances in the mass media,
  10. initiation of humanist transmissions by radio and TV,
  11. mounting stands carrying RHS materials in public places (at work, in movie foyers, in palaces of culture, in educational institutions, etc.),
  12. establishing contacts and collaborating with other public associations of a humanist character,
  13. involving well-to-do people who share RHS's ideas, in helping the branch financially,
  14. organizing seminars, schools, conferences, etc.

Supporters should display initiative and feel free to supplement this list with new ideas.

Undertaking these activities will need a lot of spare time and we recognise that not everyone has got it, so we don't reproach those who confine themselves to the first three items (or even only the first one). We reckon that sooner or later even that minimum will bear fruit. But there are among us true activists able to undertake most of these activities.

For the convenience of those living in St. Petersburg we have added a new way of obtaining the magazine ZS: we receive some copies from a courier coming to our city by train and distribute them among the members instead of fee-payment. We already have 20 people obtaining the magazine in this way. This number could grow if everyone who takes interest in it were to promote it. The excuse that people haven't enough money is hardly convincing because if you are interested then you can spare 10 rubles per quarter. Furthermore, selling copies of the magazine is one of the few ways of generating funds for the branch. These funds are at present insufficient for the wide development of our activities: copying printing materials, paying for radio- and TV broadcasting, renting space, hire of staff, purchase of stationery and equipment, and so on.

Nevertheless, we have had some success. Our branch had been looking for support from several authoritative representatives of the city intelligentsia, and this has resulted in a series of programs on St. Petersburg radio promoting genuine science and explaining the falsity and dangers of pseudo-science, and of mystic, and paranormal beliefs. Due to the kindness of the administration we don't pay for transmission, but to tell the truth, it's all rather modest: only 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and not even weekly. We invite writers, scientists, teachers, physicians, philosophers and public figures to participate in our series - anybody who shares our goal of defending the human intellect against the irrational. In the 18 broadcasts so far aired we have covered astrology and other magical prophesies (including the so called predictions of Nostradamus), superstitions, ufology, telepathy, death and immortality, the hypocrisy of the church, the religiousness of some scientists, the activities of secular humanists, predestination, numerical magic, the evolution of nature and of man, the human soul and spirituality, false madicine, "frame-seeking", why we believe in miracles, and whether there is any real connection between the year 2000 and legendary Christian events. We keep all the texts of the lectures in electronic form, we partially distribute via FIDOnet, we also intend to distribute via Internet and we want to publish a collection.

Some members of the RHS are talented publicists. They've written many articles dedicated to the defense of genuine science, commonsense, and the debunking of false belief. We are glad that there are newspapers and magazines in our city that are prepared to publish them. The Petersburg magazines Neva and Zhizn i Bezopasnost (Life and Security) especially deserve to be mentioned.

We are pleased that the Petersburg Museum of the History of Religion intend to revive the exhibit on the history of atheism. We are taking steps to collaborate in this effort; our branch is collecting a scientific and educational library. In the foyer of a cinema (unfortunately, only one) there is a stand where RHS materials are on show. We are hoping to set up similar stands in educational institutions of our city. This last is especially important, as, unfortunately, there is an age problem in our branch: we have practically no young people in our ranks, so we see working with and recruiting young people as our paramount task. A positive contribution to this effort is being made by our companions-in-arms, talented school teachers, who are working up programs on the humanization of school education based on their practical experience. Work with young college students is equally important, and particularly with future teachers who will participate in forming the world-view and public opinion of the Russian people in the years of the 21st century. This will need the support of professors and teachers and their faculties, but we have not yet been successful in this sphere. It's a pity that there are no philosophers among us, because it is in the first place they who ought to interpret, develop, and propagate the fruitful teaching of secular humanism and defend its positions in discussion with our opponents.

Strangely enough, among our opponents there are some public organizations with the word "humanism" in their names, such as the Russian Humanist Party and the International Coalition 'For Humanism!'. Their initiator and ideologist spreads brochures and delivers public "sermons" (as he calls them) in which he develops thoughts alien to the secular world-view, and this effectively prevents our collaboration.

We pin great hopes for the scientific education of the people of Petersburg on a public organization, the Saint Petersburg Union of Scientists. It's the scientists who in the first place ought to be concerned to raise the status and authority of science in society, using every available means - including the mass media. Unfortunately, only one man has so far responded to the invitation to this respected scientific community to participate in our radio series.

From the early 1990s, with the democratization of our life and legislation, not only did the traditional religious confessions step up their activity, but many new sects started to arrive in our country, and these new groups are sometimes quite energetic and aggressive. This intensely annoys the Russian Orthodox Church, who look upon the newcomers as competitors in struggle for flock. In response, the ROC is trying to enlist the Russian people, including the atheists, as their allies in (as they express it) a revival of Russian spirituality. Similar ideas have also been expressed by some citizens of Petersburg. We reply that deciding which religion or sect is better presents no dilemma for us; we think that any digression from materialism and rationalism is "worse". But as law-abiding citizens we look equally indulgently at every confession that is permitted by law; our reaction to all of them must be limited by scientific inquiry and educational activity. In a sense we even look at some of the imported sects with envy. They are generously financed by foreign sponsors and are therefore able to build offices, employ staff, use office equipment, print quality literature, and spread their literature around our country and neighboring countries using their own transport. Naturally enough, they are more successful in their business than we are.

We dream of renting just a single room where we could develop a stand with our materials and a humanist library for interested people - that is, create a humble version of a Humanist Information Center. And it would be good if we could employ one or two staff with a telephone, a computer, and a Xerox. Although experience sadly shows that it is better to keep office equipment at home. Last winter one of the scientific institutes whose computers we have occasionally used, was robbed and deprived of them. And our office equipment (when we have it) could be vulnerable for not only mercenary reasons. Using the growing human thirst for the irrational and arousing this thirst by means of the mass media, a whole industry is being created in Russia out of making fools of those who can't overcome the transcendental temptation. A lot of money is made from people's ignorance and the perpetrators are unlikely to serenely contemplate anyone who seriously attempts to bring their "clientele" to reason. As yet we are still weak, but if our educational activity were to bear perceptible fruit then our opponents might try to deprive us of the means of enlightenment - our office equipment. But at the moment, I repeat, we haven't got the equipment.

Unfortunately, our state, including some at the highest level in business and government, prefer to support religious rather than secular organizations, and primarily the Russian Orthodox Church. The state authorities apparently behave this way because they rely upon (among others) a religious electorate. Russian businessmen are of two kinds. Some are not sufficiently cultured to adopt humanist ideas. Others - better educated and quite reasonable people - are alienated from us secular humanists by the erroneous notion that we are communists. These latter, as is well known, during the long period of their rule were not only antagonistic to private property and the market economy, but also militant atheists. And although they have transformed to such an extent that now they stand in line to kiss the hands of priests and prelates, they have managed to do much harm to scientific atheism by making it a bugbear for many people, including Russian businessmen.

Meanwhile, it seems, there are international organizations that are specially created for the financial support of humanist projects. However shameful it may be, at this stage in our history the rate of spreading of secular humanism in Russia depends wholly upon foreign help. I'd be glad if someone contradicts me and can indicate some real sources of material support within our country.

I have talked about the practical activities of our branch of the RHS, about our successes, failures, and difficulties, in order that those in those Russian cities where similar structures will be created may use our experience however scant it is. In turn, the experience of other cities is very important for us, and we will be grateful to receive information on activities elsewhere, for example through the pages of Zdravy Smysl (Commonsense) or via other channels.

Gennady G. Shevelyov
Translated from Russian by Peter A. Trevogin
Edited by Roy Brown