The Human Being On the Verge of the New Millennium The Current Social and Personal Crisis: Islam’s Proposals and New Humanism’s Proposals



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Milan, November 15, 1997 -- Conference Center of the Province of Milan
The Human Being On the Verge of the New Millennium

The Current Social and Personal Crisis: Islam’s Proposals and New Humanism’s Proposals
Speech by Salvatore Puledda
I wish to thank the Center of Cultures of Milan, Alien and its president for having organized this meeting, and Dr. Alí Abu Shawaina for his enlightening explanation of Islam’s stand in the present crisis of civilization. I thank our friends from Africa, and all of you for being here today.
I will attempt, during the time at my disposal, to illustrate the position of New Humanism that I represent, with respect to some fundamental issues. First, the scope and meaning of the personal and social crisis we are all going through and New Humanism‘s proposals to face it. Secondly, the concept of human being that we expound, and finally, a critical subject - especially within the context of this meeting - and that is our stand concerning religiousness and transcendence.
Before I start dealing with these subjects, I feel it is important to say why this meeting with the official representatives of one of the great religions of the world, Islam, -persons with a vast experience and deep doctrinal knowledge - is so significant to us.
Ours is quite a young movement, born in a specific cultural area, that of the Latin culture, and more in particular, Latin-America. However, from its very beginning the Humanist Movement has shown a clear internationalist vocation, a strong, conscious drive to overcome its cultural specificity and reach all cultures. As it continued to expand from its place of origin, first in Europe and then in the United States, the Movement came in contact with and included persons and associations belonging to the different cultures and religions.
And there’s a key point I would like to make clear right now. The Humanist Movement has never asked any of its members to sever his or her own cultural roots or abandon their religious faith in order to conform to the cultural model of the founders of the Movement. On the contrary; it has always encouraged everyone to put into practice, as coherently and conscientiously as possible, the religious and moral principles in which they believe in good faith and which they consider valid. The Humanist Movement does not distinguish among its members on the basis of their religious beliefs. Quite the opposite: it accepts all religions and also atheism on only one condition: that they will not preach nor practice violence or discrimination to impose their views.
And because it includes persons of different cultures and faiths -- on a peer basis and following the sole criterion of our common humanness -- the Humanist Movement has always fostered activities that promote a better mutual understanding, the exchange of ideas, and personal and collective enrichment with the representatives of different religions. The list of these meetings is long. I will only mention the most significant ones in which I was a participant myself.
In 1981, in Sri Lanka, there was a large meeting between the representatives of the higher level of the Shanga, i.e. the Buddhist order, and Silo, the founder of the Humanist Movement. Again in 1981, there was another meeting with several Hindu religious persons when Silo delivered a speech before over 10.000 people on the Chawpatty beach in Bombay. I also remember that a representative of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church participated in the First Humanist World Forum held in Moscow in 1993. Meetings with Hebrew communities, especially in Argentina, have been frequent, and the same holds for the Ba’hai faith and for religious representatives of the Indian peoples of America.
Therefore, this exchange of ideas with our Islamic friends today falls within a broader context: that of meeting the representatives of all the creeds to which our adherents belong. And it happens to take place in a moment when several people who have been formed in Islam and for whom Islam constitutes their cultural roots and their spiritual guide have started to participate in the Humanist Movement .
To finish this introduction I must say that in the meetings I have just mentioned and in all the many others that have taken place, our message has always been acknowledged with attention and respect; we have always met people who, notwithstanding their specific creed -- at times an antique and venerable religion -- have always shown a genuine concern not only for their religious community and their church, so much as for the fate of humanity in general, for the extremely serious crisis, this difficult historical transition, we are all going through.
Now that the meaning this meeting has for us is clear, I would like to move on to the more specific contents of the discussion. Let’s begin with the personal and social crisis.
Since it started 30 years ago, the Humanist Movement has insistently spoken about a crisis that would have extended and deepened until it ended up undermining the very foundations of the current human civilization, a crisis that would have spared no country or institution no matter how solid or powerful they looked at the time.

Thirty years ago these statements sounded a bit strange, discordant, discouraging, even catastrophical. Today, after so much disappointment, so many defeats, after the loss of certainties and models, even the man in the street admits the existence of a crisis that involves both the personal and the social spheres.


The Humanist Movement has always claimed that it would have not been a partial phenomenon, circumscribed to some specific sector of society, like for instance, politics, economy, art, or religious life, but a global, structural crisis. Neither would it be confined to Western countries, where the symptoms were more evident, but it would extend to all cultures, to the entire human civilization. At the same time, however, the Humanist Movement has always warned against interpreting such a crisis tragically, in a millenarian sense, for it would be showing the end of a process, the end of certain conditions, and herald a radical transformation -- though difficult and tortuous -- of human civilization as we know it. In spite of the dangers and the threats it entailed, the crisis coincided with a phase of growth and advancement for the human being. The crisis is here because humankind has made amazing steps forward, but what we have been given does not fulfill our deepest expectations.
And it is precisely on the basis of this delicate transition from a given stage of human civilization to a more developed one that the Humanist Movement legitimates its own existence. There would be no need for the Movement if the institutions, the social organization and the distribution of wealth were fine somewhere on this planet, if human beings felt increasingly happy and peaceful somewhere in this world.
Here we get to the most specific aspect of the current crisis, a unique feature, something that has never ever happened before in human history, and that is its globality, its planetary magnitude. The history of man has repeatedly witnessed the fall of huge empires, of entire civilizations, the disappearance of whole peoples along with their cities, their institutions, their gods. But never before has there loomed -- over all mankind -- the threat of a global catastrophe such as the one we are now facing as a result of the dangers posed by a nuclear war or ecological disaster. But again, never before has there been the actual possibility of the creation of a global civilization, common to all peoples on Earth. This crisis is the result of this extremely hard and hazardous passage.
Our generation was the first to see the image of our planet from outside. From space we saw our planet as one world - there were no boundary lines - the Earth was our common home. And we saw it was threatened, it was fragile. I think nothing better than this image can account for the crisis today and, at the same time, for the exciting challenge in store for humanity.
Because on this planet -- common to us all, unified by mass communication media -- we see in real time the most painful imbalances: hunger and opulence, the most advanced technology and the most strenuous physical work, huge crowded cities on the verge of collapse and abandoned, deserted areas. But most of all we see the confusion, the loss of meaning in life and violence under all its forms: economic, religious, racial, sexual, psychological... Violence enhanced by the newest technological potential.
I think it is well known to us all that today there’s the practical possibility to raise the living conditions of all human beings to an acceptable level as far as food, health and housing are concerned. If this does not happen, it is simply because the economic system in power today is a monstrosity that concentrates 80% of the wealth in the hands of 20% of the inhabitants of the world. And this is so not only on a global scale - between rich and poor countries -- but also within opulent societies, where there is increasing unemployment and entire layers of the population are neglected.
But perhaps the most scary aspect of the current crisis resides in the confrontation between cultures. Until recent times, the great civilizations developed separately, mostly on the basis of endogenous factors, and only occasionally did they interact through commercial exchange, cultural and religious influence, migrations, and war.

In today’s global village everyone interacts with everyone. Mass communication media introduce in our homes different life styles, views of the world, aspirations and values. What’s good and what’s evil? Everything becomes relative. In the large metropolis, in restricted physical spaces, there coexist human beings with different, if not downright contrasting, cultural landscapes, points of reference, life styles. What’s good and what’s evil if that which is good for me is opposed to that which is good for my neighbor?


The Humanist Movement recognizes in this the magnitude and the meaning of the present crisis. We could enlarge on the subject and provide more detailed explanations -- sociological, political, economic, etc. -- but I feel that even without them it shouldn’t be difficult to agree that from this situation of globalization -- from which there’s no way back -- two alternatives open up in front of us: either a destructive struggle for hegemony among the various cultures, with only one prevailing over all the others, with the rise of a coercive, uniform empireNORMAL.DOT on a planetary scale, or the creation of a universal human nation, where the different cultures may live together, each of them contributing with its own experience, each of them with its own identity, with its own colors, its music, its way to approach the divine.
Here we get to another issue we would like to discuss. In what way can the Humanist Movement contribute towards the construction of a universal human nation? But before this, it will be necessary to make a few comments. Why the Humanist Movement, why New Humanism?
If we open a history book we learn that humanism was a cultural phenomenon that appeared in a certain historical moment and in a precise geographical place: first in Italy and then in the rest of Western Europe between the second half of the 14th century and the second half of the 17th century.

But what has this cultural movement to do with today’s world? We all understand the importance it had for the history of the Western world because it reclaimed dignity and a central position for the human being against the devaluation operated during Christian Medieval times. But what can it say to Asian and African cultures, to the heirs of pre-Columbian cultures, or to the cultures of Oceania? Today’s Humanist Movement reformulates and reinterprets the concept of humanism in new ways and includes it in a historical, global perspective, i.e. in tune with our times which, as we said before, are witness to the dawn of a planetary society for the first time in human history.


For us, the Humanism that made its presence known in Renaissance Europe and that placed the human being and its dignity at the center of everything is not only a European occurence. It was already in other cultures, for example, in Islam, India, and China. Sure, it was called differently, since there were different cultural reference parameters, but it was nonetheless implicit in the form of “attitude” and “outlook on life”. Therefore, in our conception, Humanism is a phenomenon that arose and that developed in various parts of the world and in various eras. Precisely for this reason it can provide a convergent direction to different cultures that are currently in forced and strife-torn contact.

But what historical indications allow us to speak in these terms and to develop this interpretation? When can we speak of “Humanism” for cultures that have had a complex and extremely varied culture? In our opinion, it is possible to find moments that we call “Humanist” in all of Earth’s great cultures that are recognizable through the following signals:

At these times, the human being occupies a central position both as a value as well as as a preoccupation; the equality of all human beings is affirmed; personal and cultural diversity are recognized and valued; knowledge tends to be developed beyond what had been accepted as the absolute truth up until that time; the freedom to profess any idea and belief is affirmed; violence is rejected.

On this point, I would like to cite precisely the example of Islam. Now, in the West, Islam tends to be identified with fundamentalist religious tendencies (which, by the way, are now present in all historical religions, none excluded), forgetting that Islam in the centuries that corresponded to our Medieval period was characterized by one of the most luminous examples of religious tolerance. This at a time when in Europe the most rigid and demanding religious hard-line ruled. But, to more accurately describe what we have defined as an “Humanist historic moment” in Islam, I refer to an expert in the field, the Russian historian Artur Segadeev. I would like to read you the following selection, taken from his conference entitled: “Humanism in Classic Muslim Thought”:


“(...) the basis of Humanism in the Muslim world was determined by the development of cities and their culture... The concentration, in the cities, of great resources from commerce and taxes, determined, in the Middle Ages, the birth of a rather numerous group of intellectuals. It made spiritual life dynamic, and it created a situation of prosperity for science, literature, and the arts. At the center of attention, in every field, was the human being, understood both as the human race and individual personality. It should be underlined that the Medieval Muslim world did not experience the division in axiomatic orientations, that is in terms of values, between the urban culture and the culture opposed to it, that was represented in Europe by the inhabitants of the monasteries and by those of the feudal castles. The parties responsible for theological education and the social groups that performed a function in the Muslim world analogous to the feudal ones in Europe lived in cities where they were subjected to the powerful influence of the culture that had formed among wealthy Muslim citizens. We can get an idea of what these inhabitants’ axiomatic orientation was by examining the reference group they tended to imitate since they personified those distinctive traits considered indispensable in an illustrious and well-educated person. This reference group was made up of Adib, people with vast human interests, educated and endowed with a deep moral feeling. The Adab, that is to say the whole of the Adib’s qualities, involved an ideal of conduct in city and court life based on refinement and humor, and, due to its intellectual and moral role, was a synonym of what the Greeks had called “paideia” and the Latins “humanitas”. The Adib personified the ideals of Humanism, and, at the same time, they spread the ideas, that at times took on the form of lapidary sentences such as: “man is man’s problem”; “he who crosses our sea shall find no other shore than himself.” The insistence on the human being’s earthly destiny, so typical of the Adib, sometimes brought religious skepticism and the appearance among its ranks of visible figures who proclaimed their atheism. Adab, initially, indicated the behavioral rules, the label, of the Bedouins, but the term took on a truly Humanist meaning when the Caliph, for the first time since Alexander the Great, became the center of inter-relation between different cultural traditions and between different confessional groups, the center that joined the Mediterranean to the Indo-Iranian world. During the Medieval Muslim culture’s time of prosperity, the Adab answered the need of learning ancient Greek philosophy and assimilated the educational plans developed by the Greek philosophers. The Muslims had tremendous possibilities to fulfill these plans: suffice it to say that according to the expert calculations, in Cordoba alone there were more books than in all of Europe, aside from Andalucia. The Caliph, having become the center of reciprocal influence between different cultures, mixing different ethnic groups, contributed to forming another element of Humanism: universalism, that is the idea of the unity of the human race. In real life, the formation of this idea corresponded to the fact that the lands inhabited by the Muslims extended from the banks of the Volga in the north to Madagascar in the south, and from the Atlantic coast of Africa in the west up to the Pacific coast of Asia in the east. Even if the Muslim empire disintegrated with the passage of time, and the small countries built on its ruins were comparable to the holdings of Alexander the Great’s successors, the followers of Islam continued to live united by a single religion, a single common literary language, a single law, a single culture, and in daily life they continued to communicate with various confessional groups very different from themselves and to exchange cultural values with them.

The spirit of universalism dominated in scientific circles (the “Madjalis”) that united Muslims, Christians, Jews, and atheists from the most remote corners of the Muslim world who shared intellectual interests. They were united by that “ideology of friendship” that had previously united antiquity’s philosophical schools -- such as, for example, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Neo-Platonians, etc. -- and that would keep, in the Italian Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino’s circle united. On a theoretical level, the principles of universalism had already been elaborated in the framework of Kalam, or speculative theology. Afterwards they became the foundation for the conception of the world for both rationalist philosophers as well as for the mystic Sufis. In the discussions organized by the Mutakallim theologians (the Masters of Islam), in which representatives of different confessions participated, the rule was to ground the authenticity of the thesis not in references to the holy scriptures, since these would not have offered representatives of other religions any support for the discussion, but rather by basing them only on human reasoning.”


The third point that I wanted to develop is the one related to the conception of the human being proposed by the Humanist Movement.
The Humanist Movement places the human being in the dimension of freedom. The human conscious, in this conception, is not a passive or deformed reflex of the material world, but it is essentially intentional activity, never-ending activity of interpretation and reconstruction of the material and social world. The human being, even if it participates in the natural world since it has a body, may not be traced back to a mere zoological phenomenon. It does not have a nature, a defined essence. One is a “plan” of transformation of the material world and oneself. The collective human plan, for the Humanist Movement, is the humanization of the Earth, that is, the elimination of physical pain and mental suffering, and therefore the elimination of all the forms of violence and discrimination that deprive human beings of their intentionality and freedom and that trace them back to things, to natural objects, to tools of another intention. The Humanist Movement summarizes all of this in the slogan: “Nothing above the human being and no human being above another.”
But, one may object, isn’t God above the man? Isn’t perhaps a divine spark what makes the human being free and radically different from all animated beings? Why then aren’t God, God’s word, God’s commandments placed above man? Isn’t God the center of everything as the great religions teach? Here we reach the last point of this discussion.
For us, it is very important to distinguish between religions -- with their holy books, their theologies, their rites and cults -- and the religious spirit. This has been manifested in history in ways that did not necessarily fall within the canons established and accepted by religions. We respect religions and understand them as ways to approach what cannot be said, but we understand that the luminous, the divine, may not be restricted in words and human images. We also know that faith, that moves mountains, cannot be imposed, that it can appear and disappear at various times of life. For this reason we accept atheists and followers of the various religions among us.
I would like to conclude with the words of Silo, the founder of the Humanist Movement. It is a selection from a speech of his entitled “The Meaning of Life”:
“... I proclaim before you my faith and my certainty, based on experience, that death does not stop the future, that death, on the contrary, modifies the temporary state of our existence to project it towards immortal transcendence. I do not impose my certainty nor my faith, and I live next to those who place themselves in a different state with respect to the meaning of life. Nonetheless I feel obliged to offer, for solidarity, the message that I realize makes the human being free and happy. For no reason do I shirk my responsibility to express my truths, however questionable they may seem to those who feel the temporary nature of life and the absurdity of death.

On the other hand, I never ask others what their particular beliefs are, and, in any case, even defining my position on this point with absolute clarity, I proclaim for each human being the freedom to believe in God and the freedom to believe or not believe in immortality.

Among thousands and thousands of women and men who, side by side, work with us with solidarity, there are atheists and believers, people with doubts and certainties, but no one is asked what their faith is. And all of this is given, it is given as an orientation, so that each person may decide for themselves what is the path that best clarifies what the meaning of their life is.

Avoiding to proclaim one’s certainties is not courageous, but attempting to impose them is unworthy of true solidarity.”


Thanks for your attention.

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