Humanists UK hosts international conference on threats to liberal democracy and humanism

7 August, 2017

This weekend, Humanists UK hosted the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and over 400 humanists from more than 50 countries for a special conference on ‘Populism, extremism, and threats to humanism,’ held at the Royal Society in London. The event was part of a broader weekend of activities surrounding IHEU’s 2017 general assembly, which moves from country to country each year.

International conference on populism and extremism

Nearly 80 years on from its 1938 international conference on how humanists should respond to the growing threats of fascism and communism, Humanists UK brought together some of the world’s leading experts in authoritarian populism, religious extremism, and far-right and far-left movements, to discuss the current situation. These included leading social scientists from Harvard, the LSE, King’s College London, and Helsinki; two UN special rapporteurs; and leading campaigners from INGOs, think tanks, and advocacy organisations. It structured a day of penetrating talks on the current crisis in liberal democracies in terms of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’, and featured participation from humanist activists working in every part of the world, who helped to shed light on a global phenomenon and outline possible resolutions.

The day began with an introduction from academics Angelos Chrysseogelos and Emilia Palonen, who each examined the term ‘populism’ and the phenomenon that it describes, as well as providing an insight into the rise of nationalist movements in countries like Finland, Hungary, the US, France, and Turkey. They were followed by a panel featuring journalist Joan Smith, IHEU Director of Advocacy Elizabeth O’Casey, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune, and secular activist Gita Sahgal, which broadened the discussion using detailed case studies, including on the rise of Hindu nationalists in India, Christian fundamentalists in the West, and Islamic terrorism.

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed

A further panel featured IHEU Communications Director Bob Churchill, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed, and Hungarian criminal law and constitutional expert Petra Bárd, exploring how a robust human right-based approach can help to defend liberal democracy. A final session, featuring academics Brian Klaas, Yascha Mounk, and Sophie Gaston, brought together the day’s debates into a practical discussion of the sorts of attitudinal and structural changes that could be effected to strengthen democratic institutions.

The day was full of insights into the rise of nationalist and authoritarian movements around the world, as well as thorough interrogations of terms like ‘populism’ which are much-abused, misused, and misunderstood. Speakers tended to agree that populism can be seen an essential feature of liberal democracies, given that all political discourse ultimately relies upon constructions of ‘us and them’. However, they elaborated, at various points in history and in various part of the world, anti-democratic populist movements have emerged around left-wing, right-wing, and centrist demagogues, characterised by the gross simplification of political debate and a flight to extremes ideological extremes and tribal identities. It was suggested that technological innovations such as social media, as well as false equivalences between well-supported and poorly supported ideas on television news, may have contributed to ‘an absence of shared facts in society’ and thus to the widespread re-emergence of such movements in modern times.

IHEU President and Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson, who chaired the final session of the conference

Populist movements, it was said, broadly relied on an overly simplistic division of society into two camps: the people, whose ‘will’ populists embody, and elites, a vaguely defined category used to sweep away and de-legitimise wide swathes of society and opinion. Once in power, populist leaders traditionally operate by challenging the institutions and norms of a democracy; running roughshod over minorities; fetishising ‘traditional’ and religious values; promoting majoritarianism and devaluing pluralism; and de-legitimising expertise, opposition, and the free press.

Sharing best practice and ideas

The weekend also featured well-attended forums and conferences for the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation (IHEYO) and activists involved in humanist charitable services around the world, such as humanist ceremonies, educational resources, and pastoral support. Speakers for IHEYO’s conference, organised by Humanists UK section Young Humanists, included longtime human rights activist Peter Tatchell, skeptic activist Michael Marshall, and representatives from YouGov, Bite the Ballot, and Mencap.

Veteran human rights activist Peter Tatchell spoke to IHEYO activists from five continents about getting involved in direct action

Humanist professionals from around the world learned about humanist chaplaincy in the Dutch military; humanism in practice, from philosopher Richard Norman; techniques for communicating humanism to younger audiences; providing support for so-called ‘apostates’; and the importance of critical thinking, questioning, and self-criticism to good practice across disciplines.

The weekend concluded with the formal business of the IHEU annual general assembly, where IHEU delegates from around the world gathered to debate policy resolutions and other business vital to the growth of the international movement.


The conference on populism and extremism was recorded and will be made available to all through the Humanists UK YouTube channel. Tweets from the weekend were shared on #humanism2017.

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and campaigning work, we’re committed to creating a fair and equal society for all.