Opening address at the Asian Humanism Conference

paul ahc address

By Paul Tobin

President of the Humanist Society (Singapore)

Here in Singapore the year 2010, we officially registered the Humanist Society (Singapore). So, we have been around for five years, but the roots of humanism, the roots of humanist values go deeper than the term as we use it today. Before we look at this route, perhaps we should talk about what humanist values are.

In 2002, the IHEU, which is the International Humanist and Ethical Union, published a humanist declaration in Amsterdam. There were 7 points of what constituted humanism. I can’t remember all of them. What I can tell you is all those 7 values can be distilled into 3 fundamental ones, and those 3 are:

  1. The human-centred as opposed to a God- or supernatural-centred morality, and so we, ourselves, decide and think about is moral and what is good and what is right.
  2. That the meaning of life is not extrinsic to human beings, but intrinsic; we come up with meanings in our own lives. There is no external meaning that, we have to search ancient books that tells us certain gods or whatever tell us this is how you should live your life.
  3. The rational approach to problems, where it’s science, for social, political issues.

So with these 3 principles, we look back at what were the roots of our humanist values. Obviously, most of us would know Greek and Roman philosophers, you know names like Thucydides, Epicurus, Seneca, Epictetus. I mean those are common names that when we open any book, they do expound values that we today would recognise as humanism.

Humanism in Asia

But it is not just European roots. Our roots in humanism are actually quite diverse. Now I‘m going to read from here, just a few excerpts. The book is about 2000 years old, it’s not European:

  1. “One who believes a fallacy is a confused person, and will not be able to live a good life”.
  2. “People who clear their doubts by seeking out facts, will find the sky less mysterious than the earth”.
  3. “It is a person’s ability to think, to reason, and understand, that enables him to extract the facts of an issue without being distracted by opinions”.

So that’s about reason and rationalism. And when we come to morality and the human-based meaning of life:

“Sharing a meal earned justly with those who have none, is a praiseworthy principle of people who live good lives”.

No, nothing about reward and punishment for them.

“An act of kindness that is done spontaneously and without grandstanding, is priceless”.

So this book, it actually comes from India. It’s called the Tirukkural.


(Above) Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar, who wrote the Thirukkural, a work on ethics.

It’s written about 2000 years ago, it’s in Tamil, and it’s rhyming couplets. It doesn’t rhyme in English obviously. By the way, this book is translated into English by one of our members. He’s not here today, but this is a translation from a Humanist Society (Singapore) member. So again, you see, a humanist philosophy which is not just Greek and Roman.

I’ll read you another one:

“All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. When men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, we will all experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not that they may gain therefore the favour of the child’s parents, nor that they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike of the reputation of the unmoved by such a thing. Looking at the matter of this case, we may see that without this feeling of distress, he’s not human. And that it is not human to be without feeling of shame or dislike, or to be without the feeling of approval and disapproval”.

Again, no reference to the supernatural. And this is a quote from Mencius, out of third century B.C. in China.


So our roots of humanist values are actually pretty deep, it doesn’t just extend to Greek or Roman philosophy.

What unites humanists?

But that’s the past, what about humanism today? What unites us as humanists? Well, one thing that unites us is that many humanists all over the world do not just talk about non-belief and all that. We are actually active in the society at large. We promote rationalism. We stand up against people who try to be anti-science, who try to preach myths masquerading as science in schools or in some other extra-curricular studies.

We speak out against creationism. We speak out against the climate change deniers, and we are open about our compassion and take part in charitable works, either as the Humanist Society or as members of other societies. We stand up when people are discriminated against, whether in terms of race, sexual orientation, or even country of origin. And we stand up against people who want to evade the issue of women’s health, and we are for education, and we are against income disparity.

So, that is something that we share in common. Most humanists have these values that we stand for. We are also united by a lot of causes of unreason around us, all over the world. The continued existence of blasphemy laws, and quasi-blasphemy laws in many countries. The rise of religious militant fundamentalism, and the science-deniers that I mentioned: The climate change deniers, the creationists and intelligent designers. And more and more so, we see many of the religious demanding their rights to discriminate against others, based on their religious beliefs. That’s something we should all be concerned about.

On the positive side, there are many things we should be happy about. One is that humanist societies like ours are sprouting up all over the world. Just looking around you, you can see people from all over the region coming. More people are open to the idea of non-belief. We have scientists who freely portray themselves as freethinkers. When I was a young boy in the ‘70s, very few scientists – although they were secular – would come up and say ‘I am an atheist’. Now you do see there are biologists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, openly saying they are non-believers. You have physicists like Steven Weinberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawkings who recently said people misunderstand him, there is no god.

And more importantly we have celebrities who are coming out, and not just thanking the Almighty when they win Oscars and Grammys, coming out aloud saying they’re non-believers. I can give you a few names, like Julianne Moore, Paul Giamatti, Seth McFarlane, Ricky Gervais, and my favourite comedian, Bill Maher.

The future of humanism

So when you think about all that, the future bodes pretty well for humanism. To use a modern, social media term: There are certain things that are “trending” around the world today that make me feel confident that humanism will grow. One is that there is increasing acceptance of people being different. There is no longer a requirement for someone to be like the mold, that society would expect only one kind of person, only one kind of colour, one kind of belief, or sexual orientation. There is increasing acceptance even among the religious that it is fine to be different. That’s one good trend.

Secondly, there is more and more so an increasing, almost implicit demand that our leaders, political leaders, are rational. Last year the ex-Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono actually mentioned that he believed in witchcraft. The fact that that is newsworthy is a good thing. In the old days all leaders would believe in witchcraft and all that. For it to make the Huffington Post, means that it’s rather unusual for leaders to admit a belief in the supernatural. That’s a good trend.

There’s also, because of the Internet and social media, an increasing acceptance and understanding of humanism. We’ve all been to Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes argue with people who are not humanists themselves, and the fact that they are exposed to the way we think is a good thing. I’ve seen more and more religious people who begin to understand that you can be a humanist, you can have no supernatural burden, and you can still lead a moral and meaningful life. So while we cannot convince everybody, we can show them that to be humanist is to be a good human being, and a happy human being. That’s another good trend.

Lastly, I see here – under no definition am I a ‘youth’ – but I see here a lot of youthful faces – this is, after all, the Asian IHEYO conference. There’s something from the world of science that can be applied: Sometimes things can seem daunting, you can see the powers that be, people much older than you, who seem to be entrenched with all the power and pushing back against what you stand for. All I can say is: Take heart, because not only do we see a trend in socio-political issues, you see a trend in science as well.

I’ll do one last reading here. This is from Thomas Kuhn:


What he mentions towards the end of his book is that whenever a new scientific theory comes in, the people who are against it, normally, are the older scientists whose reputations were built upon previous theories, who do not want to lose that. And in the end of his book, he quoted Charles Darwin. And this is what Darwin wrote about his own theory in his book, The Origin of Species.

“Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists, whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed during a long course of years from a point of view directly opposite to mine. But I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.”

He went on to quote Max Planck saying that the way new scientific theories win is by waiting for the old opponents to die out. So in that sense, time is on your side, and the important thing is to carry forward what you believe in. And as a last point I want to quote from Tirukkural again before I close, because this is a very important maxim from the book and you’ll appreciate it.

This is from couplet 193 of the Tirukkural: “One who makes long winded speeches about worthless matters is a useless person.”

So I’m ending my speech with that. Thank you very much!

The Society would like to thank Wilson Chew and Lim Kai for transcribing the speech.