No final de outubro uma publicação alemã dedicada ao Humanismo, a Humanistische International, procurou a LiHS pedindo uma entrevista curta, acerca das dificuldades gerais de uma organização humanista no país e quais as perspectivas diante da eleição do novo presidente, Jair Bolsonaro. A entrevista foi requerida e concedida em inglês, com um breve trecho tendo sido traduzido para o português e divulgado na fanpage da LiHS no Facebook. Segue abaixo a entrevista na íntegra, concedida pelo Diretor Executivo Leandro Cardoso Bellato.
Interviewee: Leandro Cardoso Bellato, Executive Director of the Secular Humanist League of Brazil (LiHS)
Q.How many Humanists (people with a non-religious world-view and humanist attitudes) do you estimate are living in Brazil?
A. That is a tricky question, because we lack good data from opinion polls concerning this issue and the Brazilian religious landscape is somewhat different from European and American ones. The vast majority of our people are Christian, most of them Catholic, though most of those who consider themselves Catholic are not attending church weekly nor are they guiding their lives according to papal bulls. There is a rising number of people converting to Evangelical churches; these people are far more passionate about their faith and even politically interested in pushing their views on the rest of society. Virtually any Brazilian will tell you that their experience with proselytizing comes chiefly from Evangelical Christians, who are also marked economically as an underclass or within a newly formed middle class. Although most Brazilians are indeed religious, a big populational fraction guide their lives according to Secular values in public matters and conservative values in private affairs. Which is not to say that it is always a bad form of conservatism – homophobia, for example, is increasingly dying.
A humanist, non-religious world-view, in a strict, well-informed, evidence-based sense, is rare and almost unfindable outside a narrow niche of scholars and scientists. Nevertheless, a less religious mindset seems to be a trend among younger generations, especially those who are richer and more educated: most people interested in our Secular Humanist League (LiHS) are under 30. Thus, the large community of students and fresh professionals coming to and from the biggest universities would comprise most of potential Brazilian humanists.
A census in 2016 showed that we had almost 8 million people studying in universities, and a educated guess would be that around a fifth of them are somewhat closer to a humanist mindset, at most — what amounts to about 1% of our current population.
Q. How many people are engaged for the LiHS?
A. Not so many nowadays, unfortunately. In the past we had more than 3000 people officially affiliated with LiHS, but without any firmer commitment like membership fees. They had shown interest by filling a detailed membership form on our website, which shows some public interest concerning humanist views. Our fanpage on Facebook once reached nearly tenfold that number. But in reality less than 200 people show a sustained interest in that kind of content. Among the staff a maturity has grown that we are competing for minds in the Brazilian public. Sometimes we win: e.g., when we completed a fundraising to send our lawyer to the Federal Supreme Court in less than 24 hours last year – he spoke against allowing faith-based teaching in state-run schools (the Court decided against us). And sometimes we lose: it is clear for us that radical ideologies take minds from our ranks, especially radical progressivism and radical libertarianism. The first one asks letting go of a very important bit of humanism to practice reparative justice and identity politics. The latter demands focus on a sole value dear to humanism – freedom – but is too obsessed about tearing down state power. It is not uncommon to find former members of ours berating us for not following them towards these radical stances that simply are not strictly humanist. Ours is a simpler message, so we pay the price of unpopularity sometimes to avoid defacing our hard-earned place as a voice for simple humanism in a time of ideological unrest.
Q. According to some surveys Brazilians largely describe themselves as religious. Does LiHS therefore represent just a small part of Brazilian society?
A. Yes. As I said before, at most 1% of the Brazilians are potentially humanists. Our Constitution grant us a Secular State, at least in paper, but not always the judicial system and lawmakers are concerned about the Separation of Church and State. It seems plausible that larger portions of Brazilian society, though being personally religious, could appreciate our worldview to promote peace and freedom for all believers and non-believers. LiHS has collaborated with religious people in the past – we invited a few of them as speakers for our first and to date only Brazilian Humanist Congress (2012). Putting things in a global perspective, Brazil holds peacefully a large set of religious groups that are killing themselves around the World, like Jews and Muslims, Hindus and even Shintoists. Although not everything is perfect here regarding a peaceful coexistence among religious groups, we can be called a benchmark-case in the promotion of coexistence between various sects of believers and non-believers.
Q. Which are the main goals of your work?
A. Although our 1988 Constitution granted us a Secular State (specificaly a Laicist one, from the French tradition), that aspiration is still no more than mere beautiful words on a well-intentioned text. Therefore we aim to protect the actual rule of law for everyone, and promote a humanist and secular world-view as a participant in the broader diversity of views in the Brazilian landscape, a world-view that is an objective, scientific, evidence-based, rational and ethical.
Q. What are projects or work fields the LiHS has been engaged recently? And which are the main problems you currently have to deal with?
A. We are active in monitoring trials at the Federal Supreme Court, where we have spoken officially twice to defend the Separation of Church and State. We have some internal projects, chiefly the translation of fundamental texts and the production of educational material. Humanism is still a stranger in Brazil. We promote conversations among potential allies, especially regarding the government’s promotion of unscientific, unethical or uninformed policies and laws. As an example, our country is struggling economically and a large poor population depends on our Public Health System, but unfortunately the government decided to spend a large sum of tax money in „alternative medicine“ like homoeopathy last year. To deal with this problem we have started conversation with the general public, presenting to them the importance of an evidence-based approach to healthcare and why it is unwise to spend public funds on pseudoscientific „treatments“. Sadly, many still see criticism of the government’s decision as an overreach from the scientific community.
Being rich in ideas for projects, we unfortunately lack the ability to fund most of them. Brazil has suffered a great recession and we have felt its force on our funds, which is one of the reasons why we couldn’t host the World Humanist Congress like we had planned in 2017. We depend on donations rather than on membership fees, and donations are very sensitive to the country’s financial health as a whole. Is is tricky to reach the public, even having a large „potentially humanist reservoir“, because Brazil, like many countries in the west, is facing an onslaught of political tribalism and hyperbole fed chiefly by social media but also part of the professional press. More rational views are slower and harder to produce than partisan slogans, easy solutions and polarization, so that puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Some post-modern intellectuals (who are no friends of universalist humanism) have prophesied that every aspect of our lives would be political. That turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hardly any topic can be discussed nowadays in Brazil without the predictable degeneration into political crossfire.
Q. How do the Humanists in Brazil feel after the election of far-right Jair Bolsonaro as the new President of Brazil?
A. It’s interesting that you ask how we feel. Respectfully, I think this is the wrong thing to ask. We are all talking too much nowadays about how we feel about things without enough consideration as to how exactly our feelings are rationally justified or what the facts really are. The international press is playing the same game of hyperbole that put Bolsonaro in power. The pattern is very predictable: some horrible thing that he said is unearthed; supporters of that horrible thing are sometimes found among his followers; but no further fact checking comes as to whether he really believes those words, whether he’s recanted any of them (like he has recanted a lot of what he said about gay people), or whether they could be given a more benign interpretation. To make things worse, people like us, who complain about hyperbole and call for moderation, are then accused of being “fascist sympathizers” for not falling prey to desperation. The truth seems to be that Bolsonaro is indeed a politician whose words have close to nothing to be admired but whose actions are somewhat unpredictable due to a recent ideological conversion. He’s indeed right-wing (if he goes “far” in that position, it remains to be seen in his actions), but not fascist because he defends economic liberalism like no Mussolini has ever done; and at the same time, because he’s seen by 57.8 million Brazilian voters as an alternative to decades of crony capitalism and a very inefficient tax system, to many he represents hope.
Bolsonaro’s election would be a shock if it were unpredictable. But many of us saw it coming years ago, as far as late 2015 or early 2016. It must be understood that countries like Germany, the USA and the UK, where many humanists live, reap the benefits of a full liberalism sown long ago by the Enlightenment and political leaders. It’s a very new thing in Brazil, a country accustomed for most of its five centuries of age to strongmen in power acting as if all that is good in society must come from the government. Is economic liberalism (granting Bolsonaro is sincere) at odds with humanism? That’s a question humanists must grapple with. Is an agreement with the left-wing on economics a prerequisite of humanism? Is economic liberty a great force for good in the world, behind the documented world phenomenon of the reduction in poverty?
Whatever the answers to these questions may be, we certainly need a cool head to try and answer them internationally and in Brazil. Despite our many problems and wasted resources, our institutions are working well enough to avoid the worst. There are no active paramilitary groups working in our country and the President-Elect, whoever he was or will be, has limited powers checked by a bi-cameral multi-partisan Legislative system and an independent Supreme Court: regardless of disgusting things Bolsonaro has said, there’s simply no way he can do whatever he wants to. Therefore, our calls to calm and slower rational thinking are justified.
Yes, Bolsonaro seems to be abhorrent to humanism and secularism. So were many of our previous governments. Public money was invested in non-democratic countries, some of them, like Venezuela and Honduras, suffer from famine, arbitrary imprisonments, and summary execution of political opponents. People flee en masse from Venezuela, more than from Syria, despite a socialist government vowing to provide for everything they need. Our former presidents were personal friends with dictators like Fidel Castro, whose illiberal regime once imprisoned homosexuals. A former Brazilian president had even granted political asylum to an Italian terrorist convicted in his own country, Cesare Battisti. As I said previously, our Federal Supreme Court has allowed confessional religious teaching in state-run schools.
The recent past was not an easy time to those — like us — who defend women’s choice during the first weeks of pregnancy, humane euthanasia for fully capable terminal patients, scientific education, evidence-based public policies and so on. We may have words of calmness about Bolsonaro, but we also have a sober and somber evaluation that what was already hard for humanists in Brazil will probably remain just as hard for the next four years and maybe harder. We call for support, but not a support against an imaginary fascism or a hyperbolical return to dictatorship. We call for support to continue our work and for Brazilian humanists to work harder and not los grit and patience.
Our struggles started much before Bolsonaro’s election and we must keep our heads up to endure the same problems for much longer than his service as President. And to do this work properly we must not exaggerate how bad things are or be paralyzed by fear of how bad they could become.
Q.Do you fear severe consequences for being humanist or non-religious as elected President Bolsonaro stated that there was „no such thing as this secular state“ and that „minorities had to adapt to the position of the (Christian) majority“?
A. No. As I said before, humanists and secularists had no great friends in government in the recent past, clinging only to the laws and the Constitution. Bolsonaro says disgusting and revolting things in a daily basis, a personal bad habit of him, and it is possible that he really wants to try some of his nonsensical ideas, but there are laws and institutions limiting his powers. His first act on national TV after his victory in the ballot was a public display of Evangelical faith. That’s not new either. President Dilma Rousseff, impeached in 2016 for fiscal irresponsibility, said years ago that she “balanced herself on the question” of whether God exists. She quickly stopped expressing doubt about God, especially when running for her second term, and she went to an Evangelical church as a public display of (fake?) faith. In a way, what Bolsonaro says is true: there’s no such thing as a secular state in Brazil in practice, but he’s not the only one making sure that this statement is true, the Federal Supreme Court is helping him, along with thousands of city councils that open their public sessions with prayers. Brazilians as a majority don’t seem to know or care that their Constitution mandates a secular state. Atheists and humanists living here all their lives are simply accustomed to daily reminders of that. But still, also in practice, people with radically different beliefs about religion live together peacefully in Brazil, often in the same family. Our mission is to have more Brazilians giving reason a chance and seeing that a happy life is not only possible, but likely, outside religion. We are a small book of liberal, Enlightenment values in a continental shelf of alternatives. We remain optimistic and we’re ready to oppose Bolsonaro if his actions require us to. About his words – we would rather not be bothered by them too much, as we have heard them before and we know how cheap they often are.