Humanists International 2023: An Exciting Congress

September 10, 2023

By Pierre St-Amant, AHQ delegate to the conference.

Humanists International (HI) is a non-governmental organization representing humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers from all over the world. It promotes humanist principles and defends humanists who are victims of persecution and violence around the world. It also promotes policies based on reason and science. It holds annual general meetings and normally holds a world congress every three years (the general assembly is then held at the same time as the congress), but the pandemic prevented the congress from taking place for a few years.

The Association humaniste du Québec (AHQ) is a member of HI and it was as a representative of the AHQ that I participated in the Copenhagen congress, from August 4 to 6, 2023. More than 400 humanists from 43 countries participated in the congress. They represented all demographic groups and offered a great diversity of perspectives. I found exciting to be able to interact with these people and though that the presence of many young participants was particularly encouraging.

I have participated in several conferences during my career as an economist. I even organized a few. The HI congress was one of the most interesting and best organized I have ever experienced. The quality of the presentations was very good, and the logistics was excellent. Very interesting cultural activities, for example the presence of a beautiful humanist choir, which offered us John Lennon’s Imagine at the beginning of the congress, and that of a painter in charge of producing works during the congress completed the program well.


The main theme of this year’s congress was: Building better democracies through humanist values. Already, at its 2018 general assembly, HI denounced the rise of demagogic politicians committed to reducing democratic rights and freedoms. This theme came back in force in 2023. Political scientist Sofia Näsström (Uppsala University) highlighted the actions of extremist groups relying on fear and traditional religious values to restrict freedom of expression and take control of the judiciary. Nicole Carr, president of the American Humanist Association, gave the example of Christian nationalist groups, often evangelicals, attacking the secular foundations of the United States. Carr explained that Christian nationalists were invading state legislatures, city councils and school boards. From there they suppress rights such as abortion rights, they ban books, and they seek to rewrite history. These U.S. groups are also active in other countries; for example, in Uganda where they work to eliminate the rights of homosexuals. Participants reported that similar processes were underway in several other countries, e.g., Hungary, India, Poland, Philippines, and Italy. These forces are even at work in countries considered democratic models such as Sweden and Norway. In addition, humanists are gravely in danger in several countries (Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc.). To counter these trends, the philosopher Lars Svendsen (University of Bergen) appealed for hope (he addresses this subject in an upcoming book). For him humans are the only animal capable of hope and hope gives the strength to act and change things. The alternative would be fear, which demagogues use to manipulate us. Hope, however, must be constrained by rationality. It should not be wishful thinking but rather aim at feasible progress. Several participants said that humanists need to better communicate their positive values and not just assert what they don’t believe in. The General Assembly approved a resolution calling on humanists to defend and improve democracy.

Other topics were discussed. For example, one session looked at the points of tension between religious freedom and emancipation. Nazila Ghanea (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief) explained that freedom of conscience should in theory alleviate these tensions, each recognizing the right of the other to act according to his conscience. Other participants, however, recalled that, in practice, religious groups often seek to impose their values.


The situation in Ukraine was also the subject of much discussion. The Russian aggression was portrayed as an attack on democracy, with Putin fearing that a Ukraine marching towards democracy could encourage other countries to follow suit. Oleksandra Romantsova, executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties (Nobel Peace Prize in 2022), claimed that her organization could document 47417 war crimes committed since the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine. The General Assembly unanimously reaffirmed HI’s position calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. However, following a rather tense debate, a narrow majority voted against a resolution calling for all international aid, including military aid, needed to push back Russia from Ukraine. Opponents were reluctant to support sending military aid, which they saw as contrary to humanist values. Instead, those who supported the resolution argued that military aid was necessary to prevent the Ukrainians from being massacred.


One of the sessions of the congress focused on ways to better coordinate the actions of humanist associations in the various regions of the world. North American delegates (United States and Canada) were then able to discuss strategy. The challenges facing the two countries, however, seemed quite different, making the coordination of actions quite difficult. In a subsequent meeting, Canadian humanists took the discussion a step further. They agreed on the need to improve communication between the various Canadian groups. Some topics of common interest and potential for coordinated action were also put forward (I proposed that it might be possible to coordinate our actions to change symbols, for example the national anthem, referring to God or religion).


The city of Washington will host the next HI congress in 2026. I recommend that the AHQ, and other Canadian humanist associations, be well represented at that congress. We should also consider participating in the General Assembly in Singapore in 2024. In my opinion, our participation in HI activities can help generate good ideas and better coordinate actions that can advance the humanist cause.

* Humanist International is headquartered in London, UK. The AHQ has been a voting member since 2006.

Lloyd Robertson