Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Why are There so Many Organized Humanists in the Netherlands?

A meeting was held in St. Petersburg on 12 March 2005 and a conversation took place between members of the local branch of the RGO and Rob Buitenweg, a guest from the Netherlands. Excerpts from a record of the conversation are presented below.

Buitenweg. Allow me to introduce myself. I am a senior lecturer of human rights of the University of Humanist Studies in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands and President of the Dutch Humanist Committee of Human Rights. In addition, I am one of the members of the International Humanist and Ethical Union Executive Committee. This body tries to maintain contact with humanists throughout the entire world, including Russia, but until now meetings with Russians have been far less frequent and we would like to make up for this deficit. I have been entrusted with getting acquainted with the state of affairs in your humanist organization.

Shevelev. The Russian Humanist Society has 15 regional branches and we in St. Petersburg are only one of them. There are somewhat more than 20 official members in the branch, but it is hard for me to say how many members there are in the RGO.

Konashev. Surely there are 500?

Sh. Hardly. The Moscow branch is the largest. According to information which was given me back in 1999 there are about 200 members there, but how many there are now, I donít know. There are people who sometimes drop in at RGO meetings (both in Moscow and St. Petersburg) but who are not registered and do not express a desire to join the organization.

B. Why are there so few organized humanists in Russia?

Sh. We are asking ourselves this difficult question just now. The RGO has existed for 10 years already but has not become a mass organization.

B. But in the Netherlands we have about 60,000 organized humanists and about a million consider themselves humanists without being formal members of the organization.

Sh. Simply humanists or secular, non-religious humanists?

B. But we do not make distinctions and consider that since you are a humanist it means non-religious. What do you think, if such a question were posed to Russians, how many people would call themselves humanists?

Russkikh. Considering that for 70 years our population was brought up in an atheistic manner, an enormous number of people consider themselves humanists. For we in whom the concepts of atheism were instilled in the Soviet Union have not all died off.

B. But young people?

R. Those young people who have received a proper upbringing in families maintain the same views. But right now, of course, the role of religion is growing since an growth of religious education is occurring. As regards of the question of why there are so few members in the RGO, I can judge by our St. Petersburg branch. This is a unique intellectual crowd with certain practical tendencies. There are few practical activities which could attract the public.

B. But in the Netherlands one of the two main humanist organizations which calls itself Humanitas has a clear practical bent - they engage in social aid and people go mainly into it. But are there contacts between the RGO and other social and political movements?

Sh. About 10 years ago Valeriy Kuvakin, President of the RGO, wrote an appeal to political parties and social movements with an offer to establish contact and start to act together in the name of humanism. But no one responded. We in St. Petersburg have made offers of collaboration to the local branches of the Union of Rightist Forces, Yabloko, and the Party of Life. They usually replied to us that it was possible if we would begin to help the party to achieve its goals, for example, that we would campaign for it during elections.

R. There are a multitude of public organizations in Russian who engage in practical matters of a social nature, although they do not call themselves humanist. There are about 100 in St. Petersburg. Parties and the government support them, seeing that these organizations actually help people.

B. Are Russian humanists involved in the struggle for human rights?

Sh. The activity of the RGO is conducted out in two areas. One tries to develop the philosophical aspects of humanism and the second prefers scientific education of the citizenry because the gradual reduction in the intellectual level of our people has become notable in recent years. One of our colleagues even called this ďintellectual genocideĒ. The mass media, which is breaking people of the practice of having a scientific world view, and on the contrary indoctrinating them toward an antiscientific and pseudoscientific [world view], has been facilitating this greatly. Our St. Petersburg branch sticks more to the second area. It is very difficult to do this because our access to the mass media is quite limited. Money - which we donít have - is needed to expand this access. Therefore we have to be satisfied with the rare instances when we manage to print an article in a newspaper or speak on radio or TV. Besides, the RGO has own magazine Zdravy Smysl [Common Sense] and the St. Petersburg branch has own Internet site where quite a lot of material has been placed, including material in English.

B. But how many visitors does it have? Does it have a visitor counter?

Sh. Not on our site, but on the analogous Moscow site it shows about 300 visitors a day, and on some days up to 1000.

Fregatov. I am engaged in the struggle for the rights of the residents of our home. But, being a member of the RGO, I do not turn to the St. Petersburg branch for help since I know that it will fall to those few people who take on almost all the practical work themselves. At the same time the last two or three months have shown that successes in the defense of human rights are achieved by other organizations which turn out people for street demonstrations for this purpose. I think that Russian humanists could operate on the basis of such organizations.

B. Do you think that they should participate more in such a struggle?

F. I am unsure of how to reply since this is a big problem which is possibly beyond our small organizationís ability.

Sh. Without question, Russian humanists ought to participate in human rights work. But there are few of us and few can be so publicly active because of their workload. Personally it helps me to be active that a retiree I have a lot of free time which I devote to the RGO. But the majority of our St. Petersburg group is limited to just coming our meetings once a month and getting the RGO magazine Zdravy Smysl once a quarter.

R. The problem is not just in our workload. I know that the majority of the members of St. Petersburg public organizations, including retirees, work but this does not keep them from being socially active. First, personal motivation is needed for this and, second, the presence of the pertinent abilities to realize the goals of the organization.

Sh. Rob, you said that there are 60,000 organized humanists in the Netherlands. Yet they are not the same people who just come to meetings but in practice do not occupy themselves with humanism?

B. There are, of course, such people who only think about humanism. But I have already said that the Humanitas organization is mainly engaged in practical social work. Inasmuch as few people are interested in theory and philosophy, the growth in the number of organized humanists takes place mainly due to this organization. This is somewhat to the detriment of your ďsocial securityĒ: aid to retires, care of sick people, etc. Only your government employees do this, but we have the members of Humanitas. Another of our organizations specializes in aid to poor and developing countries, for example, India and African countries and also the countries of Eastern Europe (except Russia).

Sh. But how does it help them? Does it simply give money?

B. No, it suggests and carries out various specific projects. For example, building a school in some African village. Money, experts, and specialists are identified for this who think all this out and bring it to actual fulfillment.

Sh. But where does the money come from?

B. Mainly our government allocates it, but there are also voluntary contributions.

Sh. One of the reasons for the insufficient success of the RGO is that we have a philosophical direction in which, as with Netherlands, few people are interested in. In addition, we differ from you in that we do not have governmental support.

B. Yes, our humanists get the same share of the government pie for their activity as the various religions.

Sh. Rob, please tell us about the university in Utrecht.

B. Just like other humanist organizations it receives money from the government which at the same time does not have the right to interfere in its activity. We are absolutely independent. The main idea of the university is that science is inseparable from humanistic values. In studying and teaching students such theoretical subjects as philosophy, sociology, etc., like other universities we look at them from the point of view of what a particular theory gives the person. The students are mainly taught to be consultants or experts about how to handle problems which arise with either an individual or a group. A sort of non-religious cleric is the result. Come to him and he advises you how it will be if you have a bad daughter, for example. Or how to create more humane relations in your organization.
Along with others, we have an organization which deals with humanist education. Its members teach humanist values in schools just like, for example, instruction in geography or history. There are special religious schools in the Netherlands, but not special humanist schools. There are public schools where children from ages 6 to 12 are asked what education they would like to receive: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or secular. There are corresponding consultants in the Army and prisons where they ask soldiers and prisoners whom they would prefer to deal with - a cleric or a representative of a humanist organization. Itís the same in hospitals. The majority of consultants are graduates of our university.

Sh. What is it involved that the Dutch government helps secular humanists? Is it not so that the parties in power have a suitable political orientation and this is put in their programs?

B. No, thatís not the case. There have been various religions in the Netherlands for many centuries which have had about the same influence, and a tradition of government support for all religions has developed. But secular humanists were included after the Second World War inasmuch as they have also been able to become an influential social force.

Sh. Itís a shame that Russia has no such tradition. We, perhaps, have another tradition - just like a czar, general secretary, or president. Our current president constantly demonstrates his religiosity and, although he respects all faiths in words, he himself is Orthodox and gives preference to the Russian Orthodox Church. As you see, the situation is quite different than in the Netherlands.

B. But in France there is no support either to religion or humanists, which resembles Russia.

K. No, here the government supports the Church all the same. It is sort of unofficial, but everyone sees that Putin and other government officials favor the Russian Orthodox Church and give it substantial material aid.

Sh. And this, by the way, is one of the reasons why we have so few organized secular humanists. The people donít emulate humanism, but the president. He is constantly shown on TV: how he and his wife visit cathedrals and monasteries, pray, and kiss icons.

Translated by Gary Goldberg