A hugely successful World Humanist Congress in Oxford has drawn to a close in appropriately passionate fashion, with the author Taslima Nasreen delivering a bold keynote address to delegates at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. In a dignified yet rousing speech, Nasrin, who has been expelled from both her native Bangladesh and India and faced blacklisting and death threats for her controversial humanist books and articles, told delegates that ‘Without the right to offend, freedom of expression cannot exist. Without freedom of expression, there can be no democracy.’ She continued, ‘I think less about my own survival than the birth and survival of a healthy, progressive society with equality, justice, freedom.’ She declared, ‘I am truly homeless but I have a home. The hearts of people who oppose the forces of darkness. My shelter and my refuge. Atheists, feminists, humanists, you are my country, you are my home.’
Nasreen was the star attraction on the final day of the Congress along with Richard Dawkins. Interviewed by the broadcaster Samira Ahmed, Dawkins told delegates that while atheism is an intellectual position, ‘Humanism adds moral and political dimensions based on rational ethics.’
Away from the Sheldonian Theatre, delegates participated in another day of wholehearted discussion about freedom of expression, the theme of the Congress. Cartoonist Martin Rowson talked about giving the ‘gift’ of offence, whilst Professor Ted Cantle debated the criminalisation of hate speech with the philosopher Russell Blackford and ‘free speech fundamentalist’ Jacob Mchangama. The day’s programme also focussed on prospects for Humanism as a movement. Kerry McCarthy MP and London Assembly member Tom Copley talked about the role of Humanism in politics, whilst former Christian clergy Catherine Dunphy joined BHA Head of Ceremonies Isabel Russo and James Croft to talk about building a humanist community. The day started, meanwhile, with a unique humanist assembly, with comedian Sanderson Jones leading a congregation of delegates in a raucously joyful, and markedly secular, celebration of human life.
Bidding farewell to the 1,000 delegates from more than 60 countries who assembled in Oxford this weekend, the British Humanist Association’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson and Head of Ceremonies Isabel Russo unveiled the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression, described by Copson as an ‘urgent manifesto’ for reform and subject to overwhelming popular endorsement on the Congress floor. The Declaration read that ‘The right to freedom of thought and belief is one and the same right for all; no one anywhere should ever be forced into or out of a belief; the right to freedom of expression is global in its scope; there is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions; states must not restrict thought and expression merely to protect the government from criticism; and freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not.’
Earlier in the day, it was revealed that the next World Humanist Congress will be held in São Paolo, Brazil in 2017.
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The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.