Daniela Wakonigg, Assistant Managing Editor of Humanistic Press, talks to Conatus News about the meaning of and threats to humanism.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Tell us a little about your family and personal background. Where did you grow up? What was the environment like with respect to values and/or religious beliefs?
Daniela Wakonigg: I am Austrian and I grew up in Germany, where I still live today. I was an extremely curious child and still am an extremely curious adult. I’m interested in natural and human sciences, arts, and politics. It’s actually hard to find a topic I’m not interested in!
I was raised as a Roman Catholic but started to doubt and to think about the big questions of life–Is there a god? What will happen after death?–when I was still in primary school. As I couldn’t find answers I decided to study Philosophy and Catholic Theology (and also German Language and Literature, as it appealed to the artistic side in me). I left university with a Master of Arts and as an atheist, after a very lengthy and intense, but unsuccessful, search for convincing reasons to believe in the existence of divine powers.
My personal philosophy involves causing as little harm as possible–to the environment, to my fellow humans, and to non-human animals. I’m also trying to make this world a little better. Fighting for a better world, however, isn’t always possible without hurting someone’s (religious, political etc.) feelings. But sometimes it’s necessary, unfortunately, to hurt someone’s feelings in order to prevent things that are far worse.
Jacobsen: When did humanism ‘click’ for you? When did you decide it was the right path for you?
Wakonigg: After leaving faith, I just didn’t want to think about it anymore. I was simply fed up with it. But over the years, I realised that atheists were again and again attacked or simply not regarded in media, in politics, and so on.
One year, media reported about the Easter Sermon of a famous conservative cardinal in Germany in which he attacked nonbelievers. In his view, all the evil in the world was caused by nonbelievers. I was so angry about it that I decided to find out if there were others like me, nonbelievers, who were no longer willing to accept defamations like that.
So I got in touch with different secular societies in Germany and soon became part of the secular movement in Germany myself. And I found out that I am not just an atheist but also a humanist, which means I do not just define myself by my denial in the existence of a god/gods, but also by my belief that humans should be kind and helpful to one another, uniting through our similarities rather than allowing ourselves to become divided by petty differences.
Jacobsen: Now, you are one of the managing editors for Humanistic Press. Why this name? How did it come about and how has Humanistic Press grown over the years? What are the main activities and impacts of Humanistic Press?
Wakonigg: Humanistic Press was founded in 2006. It’s based on a registered association made up of different societies and private people who promote secular humanism and freethinking in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The registered association “hpd e.V.” is the legal structure that makes our editorial work possible. But our editorial team works independently of the association or its members.
The original idea behind Humanistic Press was to create a press agency that would provide media with secular/humanistic news–just like the Catholic press agency in Germany provides them with news from the Catholic world, and the Protestant press agency in Germany provides them with news from the Protestant world. That’s where the name comes from: Humanistischer Pressedienst (Humanistic Press Service). But the media simply weren’t interested. To them nonbelievers, atheists, and secular humanists, were too small a group to be recognised, although they comprised about 30% of the population even by that time.
So Humanistic Press decided to become a medium itself and started doing what we still do today. We report on the activities and events of different organisations that fight for secular humanism in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We also report on political, legal, and social issues in those countries from a secular point of view. We offer exclusive stories no other media are interested in–stories about blasphemers, about satirical art that criticises religions, about people who were mistreated or abused in religious establishments, about state money given to churches and the links between church and state in general.
We focus mainly on German speaking countries, but we also consistently report on topics that concern humanism and atheism around the world.
Jacobsen: What have been some of the more moving, difficult, or rewarding experiences in your time there?
Wakonigg: The most moving experience was and still is meeting secular activists from other countries and listening to their stories. These are people whose wellbeing and even lives are in danger in their home countries just because they are raising their voices for humanism and atheism.
When you are constantly working for the rights of atheists in your own country, you start seeing just the negative parts, the things that are not yet in order. Meeting atheists from other countries makes you become aware again about the benefits nonbelievers already have in Europe compared to other parts of the world.
And it personally gave me an insight: atheism/secular humanism is really a uniting force. I remember meeting secular bloggers from Bangladesh who were seeking asylum in Germany. When I talked to them I immediately felt familiar with them. We had the same way of looking at the world– a science-based way, a way that focuses on the wellbeing of people, on the need for education, women’s rights, and human rights more broadly.
Though I had never met someone from Bangladesh before and though we had grown up in completely different countries and cultures, I felt more familiar with them than with a deeply religious Christian in Germany.
Jacobsen: What are the biggest needs of the humanist community?
Wakonigg: Their biggest need is to be heard and to be seen as a growing and already very large group in society, because they are still being ignored by politics and media. But it’s up to them to be heard and seen, by publicly saying that they are atheists, by becoming aware that they are a group and by organising.
Jacobsen: What is the best argument for humanism that you have ever come across?
Wakonigg: Your question actually includes two questions. The first one is: What’s the best argument for atheism that you have ever come across? The second is: What’s the best argument for humanism that you have ever come across? Because atheism and humanism are not the same. But the second often results from the first. And for both, there are many sound arguments.
To initiate an inquiry into atheism, I recommend exploring questions like: Why do people in different parts of the world believe in different gods? How could some gods have vanished (Greco-Roman gods, for instance) and why do you think yours won’t vanish? If you have a problem with the idea that the universe/the Big Bang came out of nothing, why don’t you have a problem with the idea that your god came out of nothing?
To me, the most convincing argument for atheism is the amount of suffering in the world. It’s an old problem theologists and philosophers call ‘theodicy’: How can a benevolent tolerate suffering?
For me, all the answers that make room for the existence of God are either cynical or not convincing. This is of course a question for people who grew up with the idea of a loving, merciful god. After finding out that a god like that is logically impossible, it’s just a small step to finding out that the idea of any god is rather ridiculous.
Once you absorb the logical improbabilities of a loving Creator, you realise that there is exists only one possible way to make this world a better place. And that is by making it yourself. No god will help you, no god brings meaning into this world. The only one who can do it is yourself and your fellow humans. To me that’s a pretty good argument for humanism.
Jacobsen: What turns a believer into a non-believer? Arguments from logic and philosophy, evidence from mainstream science, or experience within traditional religious structures?
Wakonigg: There are different reasons why people become atheists. Some people simply never believed because they weren’t indoctrinated with a faith as a child, like most people from the former German Democratic Republic. Then you have people who were heavily indoctrinated with religion as children and who become atheists because they got kind of an overdose.
There are people who had had very emotional, personal experiences with members of a religion, like child abuse. Others simply find out that there are double standards in religions whereby authority figures say holy things and do quite unholy things, which causes them to doubt. Others are naturally more inquisitive and are exposed to different ideas through their reading.
Most of the older atheists I know became atheists either after encountering negative experiences with religious structures or after exploring philosophy and logic. The younger atheists I know are atheists, generally speaking, because they find the explanations of science more convincing than those religion offers.
Jacobsen: What do you consider the main threat to humanism?
Wakonigg: The fear of people to think for themselves.
For some reason people seem to be afraid of fully taking responsibility for themselves and for the world. They want a strong leader who will tell them what’s good or bad and what their purpose in life is.
This is what a god essentially provides–structure and security. Within this system, my tribal god is of course always stronger than yours! And if he isn’t, he is at least providing me with a place in heaven.
Maybe it’s a heritage from our ancestors who used to live in groups with a strong leader.
But if you dare to think and–very importantly–dare to accept the results of your thinking, humanism is just a footstep away.
Jacobsen: What are some of the demographics of the readership at Humanistic Press? (Age, sex, political affiliation, and so on)
Wakonigg: I’m very glad to say that we are being read by people of all ages. 16% of our readers are 18-24, 22% are 25-34, 21% are 35-44, 17% are 45-54, 12% are 55-64 and another 12% are 65 or older.
Roughly 70% of our readers are male and about 30% female. That’s not too surprising because around the world more men than women identify as atheists or nonbelievers and you have more men than women working as activists in secular humanism–something that will hopefully change in the future.
The political affiliation of our readers is also pretty much average for ‘None’s around the world. The majority of ‘None’s and also of our readers has rather a left wing affiliation and a liberal thinking as far as civil rights are concerned.
About 95% percent of our readers are, unsurprisingly, from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland–German speaking countries. But we do, to our surprise, also have a small amount of readers from countries all over the world, despite the fact that our content is completely in German.
Wakonigg: Of course donations are always welcome! Apart from that, everyone is free to become a member of the registered association that makes our journalistic work possible. But the easiest way to become involved is by voluntary writing for hpd or by giving us tips for stories that might be interesting for our readers. You can also write stories or give us tips in English and we will translate them.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Daniela. It was a pleasure.