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Free of Charge 7 – “Amsterdam Declaration” (2002), Indigeneity and Humanism, and Beyond Western-Dominant Humanism


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/03/01


Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020), and Short Reflections on Age and Youth (2020). He discusses: Amsterdam Declaration 2002 and possibly “Amsterdam Declaration 2022”; points preliminarily brought forward for the new declaration; things to add to the potential new declaration; human intelligence and non-human intelligence rights; the environment; non-Western traditions of Humanism for formal inclusion; Indigeneity and Humanism; Amsterdam Declaration 2002; and the ultimate fate of religious ethics.

Keywords: Amsterdam Declaration, Herb Silverman, Free of Charge, freethought, Humanism, Indigeneity, Western.

Free of Charge 7 – “Amsterdam Declaration” (2002), Indigeneity and Humanism, and Beyond Western-Dominant Humanism

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The philosophy of Humanism[1] does not dictate to its adherents, as in a top-down dogma requiring thou shalts and thou shalt nots on some firm, transcendentalist basis. The supernatural only gets invoked as a negation of it. Even with the organizations and the statements, these amount to individuated communities and documents with individual choice as the ultimate arbiter. It took about 50 years for an advancement of the Amsterdam Declaration 1952 into the Amsterdam Declaration 2002.[2] There has been a call by the team at Humanists International for an advancement into a third edition of the Amsterdam declarations in particular. This may move forward, or has moved forward, for requests on proper ways in which to add updated concerns to the proposed third edition of the Amsterdam Declaration.  The most recent version from 2002 (Humanists International) has been translated into 35 languages.[3] If an updated version proceeds in 2022, then this will be the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the organization, Humanists International, formerly the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and the third version of the Amsterdam declarations. Some of the conversations ranged around sport or physical activity, non-human intelligence, the environment, and non-Western sources within the humanist tradition. Fundamentally, what is the difference in a philosophical stance representing evolutionary changes even to ethical founding documents compared to others declaring foundational texts as complete and comprehensive for all time with nothing ever capable of edit, as in Quranic theological orientations – can’t edit it – akin to the necessity of acceptance of the resurrection of Christ in Christianity? In short, what makes foundational evolution of an empirically informed ethic better than an unchanging asserted morality in centuries-old texts?

Dr. Herb Silverman[4],[5]*: Evolution made it possible for us to becomeHomo sapiens (humans), though my DNA shows that I am 3% Neanderthal. Charles Darwin felt that a difference between Homo sapiens and other animals is our moral sense. He said that our enhanced ability to cooperate may be the most significant distinction between us and our closest evolutionary relatives. Such cooperation, along with concern for others and a sense of fairness, may be the basis of morality in humans. Since evolution works so slowly, I don’t think we can relate evolution to how moral behavior differs in humans today, often based more on philosophical or theological differences.

You ask why our empirically informed ethic today is better than an unchanging, asserted morality in centuries-old texts. Science is empirical and thriveson disagreement and on a willingness to question assumptions critically, while we search for evidence until a consensus is reached. Centuries-old texts, often called “holy” books, were written by scientifically ignorant men. Their ideas of ethics included discriminating against gays, not allowing women to have responsible positions, punishing blasphemers and heretics, and advocating for holy wars. Tying our principles to unchanging, dogmatic religious text makes no sense. Morality, to us, involves using available evidence to help decide what actions might be for the greater good of humanity. We base our ethics on what we learn from human experience, which includes the efforts of thoughtful people throughout history who have worked toward achieving their ideals. We also know that some of our values might change as our knowledge and understanding advances.

Jacobsen: For those points brought forward, “sport or physical activity, non-human intelligence, the environment, and non-Western sources within the humanist tradition,” what seems like the relevance of each to the potential next edition of the declaration?

Silverman: I’ll address your question of “sport or physical activity” here. The other parts (non-human intelligence, the environment, non-Western sources) are asked about in your other questions, so I will answer those later.

Regarding sport or physical activity, I think we should encourage people to remain active for as long as they can. Playing sports, preferably non-contact, can be fun and help us keep a sound mind and body. At 78, I no longer play sports, but I exercise a lot. I walk a few miles every day with my wife, Sharon. We also lift weights or swim several times a week. What I don’t like to see are so many people who only watch others play sports. When a professional player on their favorite team hits a home run or scores a goal, they congratulate each other, as if they themselves deserve credit for it. Being active in sports (and in life) is beneficial; being passive is not.

Jacobsen: Would you add anything else for consideration to such a new Amsterdam declaration?

Silverman: I wouldadd more suggestions on how humanists and others can improve their quality of life. In addition to physical activity, we could mention the importance of having a good diet (perhaps vegetarian), getting enough sleep, reducing stress (perhaps through yoga, meditation, or other relaxation techniques), and having a sense of humor with lots of laughter.

Jacobsen: What is the core of human intelligence? What seem like the prospects for non-human intelligence and the possibility for rights (and responsibilities) applied to non-human operators? Prominent humanists, e.g., Isaac Asimov, posited science fiction ideas of positronic brains, and the like, exploring ideas like these well before the current crop of humanists.[6] These likely have been stewing since that time, potentially even more so in the Computer Age.

Silverman: Human intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Intelligence has evolved in animals, perhaps many times. We must not forget that non-human animals can also be intelligent. Thinking about other intelligent animals causes some humans emotional distress because they may eat these animals or use them for neurobiology research.

When it comes to robots, perhaps one day they may be designed to have consciousness, and we will deal then with those implications. Isaac Asimov wrote science fiction stories about robots with a positron brain that functions as a central processing unit and, in some unspecified way, provides these robots with a form of consciousness recognizable to humans. I loved Asimov, who was president of the American Humanist Association from 1985 until his death in 1992. But keep in mind that his wonderful scientific fiction robot stories were still fiction. I hope one day we will have conscious robots, but I don’t expect to see that come to pass in my lifetime.

Jacobsen: What makes the environment a core necessity as this time, especially with the ongoing climate crisis temporarily overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic?

Silverman: I think even now that the ongoing climate crisis should not be overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic will pass, but the climate crisis might never pass, only get worse. The scientific consensus at the moment seems to be that we need scientific breakthroughs and global cooperation to avoid a catastrophic rise in temperatures and climate disaster.

Jacobsen: Something which I consider important is the inclusion of non-Western, even Indigenous, proposals into the humanist canon formally. For example, the definition provided about indigeneity by the United Nations in “Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations” states:

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life. Find below a short history of the indigenous struggle in the international stage.[7]

This is a good start for humanists, possibly. I have been given permission by the Aboriginal Committee, as a member (non-Aboriginal) of the committee for Humanist Canada, to submit a point of reflection via a letter to the representatives of Humanists International.[8] As far as I know, this was a first, which was sent in March of 2020. Different regions and cultures have different flavours of Humanism and distinct difficulties against religious fundamentalism and state totalitarianism. How can proposals, such as these, provide neither a negative view on Western-based Humanism nor a rejection of the current mostly Western-based Humanism, but an expansive global Humanism inclusive of the tastes, sights, sounds, flavours, and unique manifestations of Humanism seen around the world? Those more rounded perspectives can provide a better vision of Humanism and, in turn, a more complete and comprehensive envisioning of Humanism vis-à-vis a more comprehensive and complete imagining of human nature and potentialities.

Silverman: We tend to focus on Western culture and assume that other cultures should behave more like us. Perhaps sometimes they should, and sometimes they shouldn’t. We need to learn more about these cultures and watch how they interact with others, including with us.

One of my most memorable experiences was being a Visiting Mathematics Professor for a semester in 1987 at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. My colleagues there treated me very well. Over eight hundred languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, reflecting the isolation of its many tribes. Not only were most students at UPNG the first in their families to go to college, they were the first to leave their village tribes. Part of our mission was to persuade students not to continue their ongoing tribal disputes at the university, avoiding the “payback” system in PNG. A tribal member at the university explained to me how the payback system worked. If a member from Tribe A killed a member from Tribe B, a designated member from Tribe B could legally kill any member from Tribe A. If he killed more than one member, “payback” would again kick in. Fortunately, the university was a payback-free zone.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Australian explorers discovered the highlands of PNG, home to roughly one million people who had never before encountered Europeans. In a video I saw of this “first contact,” one PNG woman said they thought white people were gods, but changed their minds after having sex with them. Women in PNG were treated unbelievably poorly. Village men typically resided in a house, while women and pigs (yes, pigs!) lived together in a shack behind the house. Both women and pigs were sold or used for barter, the woman/pig ratio depending on the quality of both the women and the pigs. (This, of course, does not apply to men and women at the university.)

The country was teeming with missionaries of all kinds. Most tried to improve the lives of the inhabitants, usually accompanied by attempts at religious conversion. I hope missionaries now have become more humanistic than when I was there. At the time, I asked one priest why he deplored the practice of bare-breasted women, but said nothing about wife beating, which was legal there. He told me they couldn’t change everything that was wrong in the country, and bare breasts were a good place to start. Shortly thereafter, the university held a beauty pageant with five participants, four of whom were bare breasted. When I saw that the primary judge was this same missionary, I confidently predicted the winner to my colleagues. After the breast-covered woman won, my colleagues showed an undeserved respect for my powers of judging beauty.

Jacobsen: The second Amsterdam declaration (2002) or the Amsterdam Declaration 2002 posited a number of core values.[9] Its foci are ethics, rationality, ethical, “democracy and human rights,” “that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility,” a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion,” “values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art,” and “a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment.”[10] Non-dogmatic principles for being in the world. These are so in line with cosmopolitan global values and positive scientific uses more than almost any other philosophical system known to me. As our ethics advance more and more, how do the more faith-based ethics appear in comparison year-by-year?

Silverman: Assuming faith-based ethics is not an oxymoron, I think more and more people are adopting our improving humanist ethics. This is especially true of younger people, most of whom no longer believe that homosexuality is a sin, willingly accept transgender people, think men and women should be treated equally, and agree that no law should prohibit abortion under all circumstances.

Jacobsen: What is the ultimate fate of religious ethics?

Silverman: Probably there will always be people who follow what they consider to be religious ethics. I hope most of those people will have a religion that allows them the flexibility to follow their own conscience, without being restricted to following everything in a book that was written thousands of years before. I have no problem with nontheistic religions, all of which seem to be humanistic.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

Silverman: Thank you.


American Humanist Association. (2021). Definition of Humanism. Retrieved from

Grudin, R. (2020, October 22). Humanism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Humanist Canada. (2021). What is Humanism?. Retrieved from

Humanists International. (1952). Amsterdam Declaration 1952. Retrieved from

Humanists International. (2002). Amsterdam Declaration 2002. Retrieved from

Humanists International. (2021). What is humanism?. Retrieved from

Humanists UK. (2021). Humanism. Retrieved from

Memory Alpha. (2021). Positronic Brain. Retrieved from

United Nations. (n.d.). Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Grudin (2020), Humanist Canada (2021), Humanists UK (2021), American Humanist Association (2021), and Humanists International (2021).

[2] Humanists International (2002) and Humanists International (1952).

[3] Humanists International (2002).

[4]Founder, Secular Coalition for America;Founder, Secular Humanists of the Low Country; Founder, Atheist/Humanist Alliance, College of Charleston.

[5] Individual Publication Date: March 1, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:

[6] Memory Alpha (2021).

[7] United Nations (n.d.).

[8] The letter in full as follows:

I send as an independent proposal and through filtration of the Aboriginal Committee of Humanist Canada. In other words, I send this based on prior correspondence alongside feedback caveats from the Aboriginal Committee of Humanist Canada, of which I am a part, in addition to personal justifications and qualifications before too. This amounts to the formalized presentation, numerically ordered (not by importance), of the caveats from Humanist Canada’s Aboriginal Committee and myself. The document below entitled “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Formal Recognition in the Global Humanist Movement” implies global democratic Humanism before comprehensive consultation with the international Humanist indigenous and tribal peoples diaspora should:

  1. not speak for indigenous or tribal peoples in general;
  2. not speak for indigenous or tribal peoples who are humanist;
  3. not take this draft statement as a declaration, resolution, or policy;
  4. take this as a statement of reflection and consideration for the global democratic body of Humanism to seriously consider endorsing established international documents like the UNDRIP; and
  5. further serious reflection on the inclusion and furtherance of consultation and dialogue with humanist groups around the world in bringing in feedback from and having consultation with the humanist indigenous and tribal people diaspora in the “over 70 countries” and beyond?

I drafted the below alone – taking full responsibility for negative and positive implications of its presentation to Humanists International – with feedback (with minor alterations) from the Aboriginal Committee of Humanist Canada:

Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Formal Recognition in the Global Humanist Movement

Indigenous and tribal peoples continue to muster and garner deserved recognition in international institutional and rights documents, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) from September of 2007 and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169(Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention) from 1989, and, by the nature of Humanism, deserve formal recognition in the global democratic Humanist movement too.

Global democratic Humanism marches forward in its greater moves towards a true representation of the vibrant fabric of the human species with more nations, peoples, and flavours of Humanist communities accepted into the international community in a formal manner in spite of the short period ebbs and flows of theocracy and secularity, authoritarianism and democracy, xenophobia and inclusivity, superstition and science, and, indeed, supernaturalism and naturalism. An oft-neglected sector of the international community comes from minorities within minorities. One such sector of the global humanist movement emerges in the context of indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the world. More than 370 million indigenous and tribal people exist in over 70 countries in the world based on estimations of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Those indigenous and tribal peoples recognized in international rights documents including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2007, and the ILO Convention 169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989). Together considered the highest standards and singularly comprehensive international instruments available to the indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the world in the defence of their most basic human rights, in particular, with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the oldest and most general. When Humanism enters into the practical applications of daily living and ordinary recognition in a global democratic movement and capacity, Humanists International performs a fundamental role in this regard, especially as its evolution incorporates previously unheard voices and unseen faces. For the full flourishing of the global Humanist movement, indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the world who adhere to the principles of Humanism deserve recognition and support at the international level. This instantiates the first formal effort as such, in the tradition of global democratic Humanism.

We recognise: 

  • the Preamble stipulations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) on “the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women,” “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” and with special emphasis on Article 1 stating “all human beings are born free and equal,” Article 2 stating “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status… [or] on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs,” Article 7, Article 15, Article 18, Article 20, Article 22, and Article 28;
  • the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169or Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989) subjective and objective criteria for the inclusion as indigenous peoples or tribal peoples within an international context in Article 1, and with special emphasis on Article 2, Article 3, Article 5(a) and 5(b), Article 6(1)(a), Article 7(1), Article 27(1) and 27(2), Article 28, Article 29, Article 31, Article 34, Article 35, and Article 36;
  • the Amsterdam Declaration (2002) affirms the “worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual,” “human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government,” “Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents,” and “Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment… [and] can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.” 
  • the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples(2007) in full.

We support:

  • the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948);
  • the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 or Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989);
  • the Amsterdam Declaration (2002); and
  • the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).  

Suggested academic reference

‘Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Formal Recognition in the Global Humanist Movement‘, Humanists International, General Assembly, Miami, United States, 2020

The Reconciliation with indigenous peoples (2000-11) for Australia represented a generic and national, not international, statement.

[9] “Amsterdam Declaration 2002” states:

  • Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.
  • Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.
  • Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.
  • Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.
  • Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process. of observation, evaluation and revision.
  • Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.
  • Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

Humanists International (2002).

[10] Ibid.


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