Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR by Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, by Cliff Walker]
Hail Humanist Atheism
Jim Herrick, Editor, New Humanist London
The Atheist Centre is unique. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the world. Humanists and freethinkers are agreed, atheism without any positive ethical content does not mean very much, it can lead to nihilism, indifference or, as in Russia, to persecution on behalf of atheism. Gora was adamant -- he was not just promoting atheism he was promoting Positive Atheism. Whatever word or phrase is used it is this blend of unbelief and social action which makes up Positive Atheism, or Humanism (the word now most commonly used in Europe and America). But nowhere in the world is it put into action so clearly and so effectively as in the Atheist Centre. You can find excellent propaganda against superstition and religious belief. You can find many worthwhile projects for social action and social reform. But you cannot find this unique blend of atheism and positive action anywhere else in the world.
I have known Lavanam, who follows in his father's footsteps in spending his life working for the Atheist Center, for more then ten years. When I first met him at a meeting of the World Union of Freethinkers in Lausanne, I was immediately struck by his personal enthusiasm and by the immensely good work that was being done by the Gora clan in Vijayawada. I have met him on many occasions when he has been traveling in Europe as an international ambassador for the Atheist Centre and it seems that his energy for promoting positive atheism and the Atheist Centre never flags. Of course, when I eventually came to visit the Atheist Centre for ten days two years ago, I came to realise that the work for the Centre was conducted by an entire community, a team of family and in-laws, all dedicated to the success of the Centre. Although I had read about the social action of the centre, I was fascinated to see with my own eyes, the work done to develop rural areas, to teach skills which bring independence, to bring medical care where it is needed, to give refuge to women mistreated by their husbands, to attempt the rehabilitation of criminals. Without a large and determined community so much could not be done. I have been deeply impressed by what I have seen, and I'm sure that the original inspiration of Gora is still at work in Vijayawada.
There have been longstanding links between British and Indian humanists. Charles Bradlaugh, the President of the National Secular Society in the nineteenth century, was also a Member of Parliament, and he was known as the Member for India, since he took such an interest in the affairs of the country and indeed Visited India just over 100 years ago in 1889. He addressed the Indian National Congress on December 29, 1889 and said: "I have no right to offer advice to you, but if I had, and if I dared, I would say to you men from lands almost as separate, although within your own continent, as England is from you -- I would say to you men with race, traditions, caste views, and religious differences -- that in an empire like ours what we should seek and have is equality before the law for all -- (Cheers) -- equality of opportunity for all, equality of expression for all -- penalty on none, favouritism for none. And I believe that in this great Congress I see the germs of that which may be as fruitful for good as the most fruitful tree that grows under your sun. (Cheers) I am glad to see that you have women amongst you -- (Cheers) -- although they are few."
If Bradlaugh were alive today, I am sure he would have wanted to make the journey to Vijayawada to celebrate the Jubilee of the Atheist Centre. And I think he would have said again that he had no right to offer advice -- for I think we all come from far afield to learn from the success of the Atheist Centre what may be done by an enthusiastic and devoted group of people. I think he would have admired Gora's belief in the need to work for greater economic equality, and to give people skills and self-reliance. I think that he would have been pleased that women play such a prominent role, for indeed Saraswathi, with her husband Gora, also played a crucial role in the development of positive atheism. And I think he would have seen again "the germs of that which may be as fruitful for good as the most fruitful tree that grows under your sun." Gora was a Botanist, and would surely have been pleased that the seeds sown in Vijayawada are being carried all over the world.
Gora wrote, in We Become Atheists; "Political work without constructive work is blind; at the same time, the results of constructive work without political action are short lived. So we added political action to social and continued social work along with political action." This duality of social work and political action is a key to the importance of the Atheist Centre. In Britain the humanist organisations do not on the whole carry out social work in the same way that is done by the Atheist Centre. The reason for this is that it has been thought right to work for greater welfare programmes to be organised by the state. The welfare state has provided enormous benefit in removing poverty and in reducing inequality. But there are reasons why it is insufficient.
First, unfortunately the government which we have at present does not want to promote welfare that must be paid for by the better off sections of the community, so there are increasingly arising gaps in the system, there are many people who fall through the net. It is a sad fact that the amount of begging and living in a cardboard city has increased in London during the last ten years of Mrs. Thatcher's rule. So voluntary organisations must come in and fill the gaps. Humanist movements in Britain are not doing enough in this respect, and they ought, for example, to plan a hostel for the homeless or training of skills for the unemployed. This would not only be beneficial in removing people from the poverty-stricken underclass, it would also give humanists a sense of purpose and achievement.
Second, there can arise a tendency in social welfare organised by a bureaucratic state to develop dependence and to discourage independence and autonomy in the individual. We too easily think that "the problem is too vast" and "there's nothing I can do." We should then remember how Gora marched a thousand miles from Sevagram to Delhi to protest against the pomp of the political leaders, of how he removed flowers from a public park to demonstrate how ground should be used for vegetables when there were people going hungry. Direct action can bring about change. And humanists do believe in the power of the individual or group of people to bring about change. We are not perfect, we all have deficiencies and we must help each other. We do not expect to build a Utopia, but slowly and steadily to remove injustice, poverty and divisiveness.
Humanists must develop self-reliance, self-discipline and self-fulfilment. We must not forget self-fulfilment for we are strongly in favour of enjoying life to the full. Even though Gora removed flowers, I think we must not forget the beauty of nature and art; the aesthetic sense nourishes us as much as the moral sense. That is why a festival to celebrate the Jubilee of the Atheist Centre must not neglect dance and music and poetry.
Although we have individuals from political parties who support the Atheist Centre and humanist organisations in Europe, we are a partyless organisation. Party politics does not deliver what people want; in Britain we have had what has been called an "elective dictatorship" for ten years -- but Mrs. Thatcher has never been supported by a complete majority of the nation. Such a situation can lead to feelings of frustration anal despair, but it can also lead to emphasis on individual action at the grassroots level. Gora, like M.N. Roy, whose centenary was celebrated a couple of years ago, was above all a grass roots activist. The tradition of direct action, stemming from Gandhism, is perhaps stronger in India than Europe and we might learn from it.
Politicians tend to end up seeking to perpetuate their own power rather than working to represent others. The power of the idea and the practice of the Atheist Centre is very different. It is the power of an enlightening idea and visibly progressive action. It has the power of a beacon for humanists and non-humanists throughout the world.