The post below was held at a school seminar for over 740 students at VG3 in Kristiansand on 21 September 2017. This was under the auspices of the Forum for Faith and Philosophy, which is an organization where most faith and philosophy organizations are involved and which works for dialogue. My speech was given after a researcher from UIA had addressed extremism on a general level, a Muslim spoke about Muslim extremism and a Christian spoke about Christian extremism.
The subsequent post was otherwise written with the very good help of Didrik Søderlind.
There is a joke cartoon that goes around the web in several variations. A Muslim extremist with a Kalashnikov and a bomb belt. A Christian extremist who has just shot at an abortion clinic. And an atheist extremist – sitting with a science book.
Such is the self-image of many atheists and humanists. Because atheism is just not believing in God, and humanists are just people who don’t believe in God who nevertheless believe in human rights, democracy and science and the like.
This can’t be extreme?
But yes. It can. Believe me. When I was young I thought that people who are not religious are wiser and kinder than others, and that the world would be more peaceful if we didn’t have religions. Now I’ve been what I call a professional atheist for a few years, and believe in it less than ever.
Humanism is a way of life, and is somewhat similar to religions. It says something about whether there is a God or not, which is one of the biggest and most divisive questions we humans have struggled with throughout history.
Having a religion or a way of life means you have answers to some of the biggest questions we humans have. What is good morals? What is the meaning of life? How can society improve?
If you think these answers are right for you, that’s fine. You can also feel free to think that these answers are the right ones for other people too. It is permissible to think that you are right and that others are wrong.
But if you believe that your answers are the only right ones for everyone, you have taken a good step on the road to becoming intolerant. And if you want to fight other people’s right to have different answers than yours, you are becoming extreme.
Then we begin to approach what we can call a secular extremism.
It is important to remember that such secular extremism is not just a thought experiment. That is if we close our eyes and think about what Norway would be like if we banned one or more religions.
We have tried this in practice.
In communist states, the state has tended to be atheistic. Religious people have been denied jobs, refused to practice their faith, imprisoned, sent to prison camps – in the extreme, consistently murdered. Because the state has not accepted that they have a faith.
I hope it will never be like that here in Norway. In any case, I will work towards it, but in the meantime there is something else that is important to work towards.
There are the crazy delusions one occasionally encounters; which implies that religious people are stupid, evil or crazy. This is bad enough when it targets the white, Christian majority. But it becomes downright dangerous when it targets weak minorities.
Most vulnerable are the few thousand Jews in today’s Norway. Where, for example, their synagogue in Oslo is under continuous guard. Occasionally with roadblocks and police with machine guns. Because hatred is deliberately spread through falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
Muslims are also exposed. Like the Jews, they also experience a hatred that manifests itself through demonization and dehumanization.
They are no longer proper people. Maybe hardly any people at all.
This is of course unacceptable. And must be prevented. Through knowledge this seminar is an example of. But don’t let it stop there. Dare to meet people with a different outlook on life than you. Because it is often in the unfounded prejudices and the unknown that extremism grows. To hate a person with a different point of view, with whom one has had a cup of tea and got to know, is more difficult.
The best values in humanism are also helpful; human dignity, tolerance for difference and defense of human rights.
This does not mean that we should not have criticism of religion. It is a matter of course in a democratic country if we think it is justified. But it must not lose sight of the fact that religious people are, first and foremost, human. The same applies to criticism of humanism. Of course.
Norwegian Humanism Association is for a secular state and an open-minded society. The people in our society must be allowed to choose what they want to believe. And we work actively against extremism.
I also hope that you will join the fight against extremism. No matter what form it comes in. And that each one of you stands up to it.
Thank you for the attention.