European Humanist Youth Days 2016

by Josh McGinlay, originally published in the 2016 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.


“Moved by values”: This year’s slogan for the ‘European Humanist Youth Days’ (EHYD), an annual event organised by young Humanists for young Humanists to come together for a weekend of lectures, discussion and socialising.

The crucial question in my mind was “which values are we moved by?”. Standard values of Humanism are autonomy, acquiring knowledge through human reason, and intellect and justice. During this weekend I felt that the onus was to delve deeper into such general values to discover the differences that can be found in their interpretation; as a value is more than the name that you ascribe to it.

As explained to us in the opening speech, by co-organiser Lennart Kolenberg, Utrecht has a history of particular interest to Humanists, and would thus serve as a fitting place for our gathering. The renowned philosophers John Locke and René Descartes lived and died respectively in Utrecht, and the city is home to the University of Humanistic Studies (UHS).

The first keynote lecture was provided by Gerty Lensvelt-Mulder, Vice-Chancellor of UHS. She informed us that the UHS and its curriculum is inspired by Humanism as a world-view and political movement. The university educates students to be counsellors and Humanist chaplains, with graduates also entering human resources, journalism, and the public sector. Two main concepts that are central to their teaching are moral injury and a Dutch concept called ‘geestelijke weerbaarheid’. The first dealing with norms and values, how they impact on our lives and how to live a good life. The second is usually translated as ‘resilience’, or a strong psychological notion of spiritual resistance utilised to deal with moral injury.

The second keynote was delivered by philosopher Floris van der Berg on the inseparability of ecohumanism and veganism. He described there being two axioms of ecohumanism: rationality (providing sound reasons for arguments) and ethics (unnecessary suffering is incompatible with Humanism). He posited that animals suffer when used to create animal products, and if you personally reject the axiom of unnecessary suffering you must therefore accept that the conscious consumption of animal products is morally unacceptable.

Stephen Law, philosopher lecturer at the University of London discussed the themes woven through his new book ‘The War for Children’s Minds’ which advocates a strong defence for a liberal approach to education particularly in regards to moral and religious education. He spoke of the historical deference to authority found in education and the authoritarian, religious influence over children. He refuted the arguments that more liberal education, the resulting freedom of thought and the collapse of religious authority, has led to moral degradation and moral relativism.

Of course EHYD is not just about the formalities of lectures and workshops but it is also an excellent opportunity for young Humanists to socialise and just have some fun whether it was over a beer or engaging in one of the cultural activities planned, for example the Humanist-led tour of Utrecht, or ascending the Dom Tower.

As can be seen from these lectures whether it is education, ethical behaviour or philosophy the differences of approach to values are evident. From my time in Utrecht I have once again been reminded of the strength, positivity and vision of young people and that the future of Humanism is in capable hands.


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