The Science Now Foundation is pleased to present an interview with Andrzej Dominiczak, chairman of Polish Humanist Association. The interview was commissioned by the Swedish Humanist Association, as a result of interest in the current situation of humanists in Poland.
Maciej Podgórski: Mr. Andrzej, let’s start with the self-presentation of your person. A few words about your history, present and future??
Andrzej Dominiczak: To cut a very long story short let me tell you that I am a psychologist and psychotherapists but for the last 30 years I’ve been mostly busy as a humanist and rationalist, writing for various media, talking and organizing conferences, recording ambitious videos and so on. Recently, I have been and still am an editor-in-chief of a new humanist quarterly „Racje”. I hope our periodical will grow with time, although we do not want to produce yet another anti-clerical tabloid, so we do not necessarily want to have the largest possible readership.
How did you become a humanist? Was there an event in your life or rather a slow progress?
– I think it’s been a long process, but reinforced and speeded up by important events, mainly perhaps by 6 or 7 months in 1978 that I spent in northern Sweden (in Ostersund and the village of Backe) with the family of my former girlfriend Birgitta, and her parents, well known writers Karl Erik and Kerstin Johansson. It was a great cultural and intellectual adventure and sometimes a cultural clash or challenge. We spent most of the time on endless discussions on everything!!! We talked on Lapp culture (even tried to sing sami yoiks together) and infinity of the Universe, on literature, science and religion, on feminism and other changes in Swedish and Polish cultures, on tolerance and open-mindedness, on Olof Palme and his leadership style (strongly criticized by young social-democrats of the time) and so on. I learned quite a lot about the situation in the world as censorship in communist Poland blocked some information, like – amazingly – the news about terror in Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin.
Sweden of that time respected tradition as tradition, not as a commandment that must be followed. On the contrary, it seemed to be the paradise for progressive lovers of free thought and “thinking together with others”, which – according to Kant – is one of the most important sources of wisdom. I hope that post-modern correctness of the last decades has not undermined this fantastic characteristic of the Swedish culture of the nineteen seventys.
Back in the 1991 when Polish Humanist Association was created what was the situation for polish humanists compared to 2020? What changes in humanist movement have occurred in these 30 years?
– In 1991, we faced a catholic revolution, both social and political. At that time, it seemed that 99 per cent of Poles were either devout Catholics or cowards who never dared to do or say anything that might be found anti-Church or ant-God. At the same time, we naively believed that all unbelievers are freedom lovers and intellectually sophisticated democrats, either leftists or progressive liberals.
In recent years, the situation has changed dramatically. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that secularization and even atheisation in Poland is progressing faster than anywhere in the world. Today, only 16 per cent of young people declare that religion is important to them.
Andrzej Dominiczak, Jerzy Ciechanowicz and Halina Postek in 1991 during the time of creating Polish Humanist Association
What caused this change among the youth?
– The causes of secularization are more important than most people realise. Phil Zuckerman, American sociologist who conducted lots of studies and have written several books on secularization, found some years ago that it is the way people loose religion that decides what are the consequences of such changes. From a humanist – not simply atheist – point of view the way and reasons of this process in Poland are not very promising. I think, it is mostly uncritical “Westernization” and equally uncritical adoption of a consumer life-style. On the other hand, it is also a healthy reaction to all sorts of abuses by the Catholic Church and – to some degree – the result of the work of many atheist and anti-clerical groups, active mostly in the internet, but this is no problem, as the web has become a natural, social environment to many young people. My purpose at this stage, is mostly “humanization of atheism and anti-clericalism”. I am deeply concerned by the fact that many young atheists do support authoritarian regimes in Poland and all over the world. Some even join clearly fascist parties like Polish Konfederacja.
Are we able to determine how many Poles currently identify with humanistic values?
– It depends of course on the meaning of humanism that we have in mind. In a narrow sense, in which humanism is understood as a form of sophisticated atheism, about half of Polish people are either atheist or – as I call it – apatheists. They avoid explicit declaration or even self-identification as atheists, but actually the idea of god does not play any role in their minds and hearts. The interviews I conducted a few years ago among 20 inhabitants of a small town near Warsaw showed that although all of them go to church every Sunday, they hardly believe in most important tenets of Catholic doctrine. Only one of them said that he “thinks exactly the same as others do”. But the others admitted that what they really think and feel is hope – not faith. They only hope that God exists and that they would go to heaven. It is worth adding that the way they smiled while saying that seems to suggest that their hope is frail.
On the other hand, in the broader and deeper meaning of humanism as a personal rationalist and ethical philosophy, the percentage of humanists in Poland seems to be very low – perhaps 5 per cent or a little more. According to historians of philosophy, Polish culture and mentality have never been ploughed through or molded by Enlightenment’s ideas and ideals, so the value of individual autonomy, personal freedom and dignity have hardly been discovered. Even today, just 5 percent of Polish people consider personal freedom, including freedom of thought, as important in their lives. The Kantian idea and slogan of Sapere Aude – according to many, the main slogan of Enlightenment – is still exotic here, even among atheists.
What activities does the Polish Humanist Association conduct in the political, educational and social arena?
– Well, well, over nearly 30 years of our work, we tried everything: we published and still publish serious periodicals and books, we produce videos, give lectures and run seminars, (not only in Poland), conduct studies, organize and take part in conferences. Sometimes, we also speak and write for the mainstream media. From time to time we also undertake political initiatives. We took part in the work of the constitutional Committee, wrote several draft laws, including amendments to the criminal code aimed at liberalizing its provision on blasphemy. I also proposed some initiatives at the EU level, in the parliament and in the Commission, at the meeting with Frans Timmermans.
Andrzej Dominiczak and Frans Timmermans during the EU summit
What do you see as the greatest success of the Polish Humanist Association?
– It is very difficult to say but I think that we have played an important role in freeing numerous Polish people from the fear of God and Church. In nineteen nineties, many Poles were shocked by some of our opinions, jokes or projects, as in the case of humorous campaign to clone the Polish pope, that we launched at the turn of the century. In today’s Poland, criticism of Church and religion is common in the mainstream media and atheist books are on sale in ordinary bookshops. When we published books, mostly some 20 years ago, not even one bookshop accepted them for sale.
Liberation from fear is certainly important. As Umberto Eco wrote in his famous novel, “The Name of the Rose”, there is no faith without fear.
Some of our political initiates have been almost successful, as the so-called Concordat with unbelievers and the above mentioned proposal to abolish blasphemy. In the political field, however, probably the most successful were our specific proposals to the EU Commission to defend the rule of law in Poland.
What is your role and activities in the area of Center for Inquiry Poland?
– When, in 2003, I first met the CFI founder, prof. Paul Kurtz in Warsaw, we held a long talk about secular humanism and the methods to promote it, including the principle that it is the means that justify ends not the other way around.
We realized that our way of thinking is very similar, so Paul invited me to carry out the CFI’s mission in Poland, i.e. to “foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values”.
Most of the time I’ve done it with the Polish Humanist Association but sometimes individually, for example when I gave lectures and ran seminars at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw or University of Moscow. Generally, however, we work hand in hand, with particular concern for intellectual and ethical quality of secularism and humanist world-view.
What are the greatest concerns of humanists in today’s Poland, what brings hope?
– Our main concern is the process of “tabloidisation” of European civilization, or – in other words – the fall of liberal, ethical and rational philosophy of life and the rise of primitive, authoritarian and populist “anti-civilization” – in Poland mostly clerical but not only. I am deeply worried by the fact that humanism at European level has lost most of it’s intellectual character, although in the language of art. 17 TFEU we are called philosophical organizations.
I am also concerned by the fact that quite a few atheists and so-called rationalists more or less support current Polish regime, the one we consider fascist or near-fascist in the sense of Umberto Eco’s “eternal fascism” that historically may take various forms expressing, however, its core “ant-values” as predatory vitalism, Führerprinzip, authoritarianism, tribalism and anti-intellectualism, to mention just a few.
Our main hope is that young people mostly reject and ridicule clerical and authoritarian political culture and that so many people, so relatively fast, have abandoned religious faith, what probably means that some of them, perhaps many, may abandon clerical near-fascist ideology they support at present.
How do you evaluate the rule of Law and Justice party in relation to humanistic values?
– Well, I think I have already answered this question in my previous response. We totally reject and despise the policies of the current government. It is brutally ant-humanist in every aspect of what they have done and said, from the Fascist’s hate speech against refugees in 2015, to the recently announced intention to renounce the Istanbul Convention and combat the “rainbow plague”.
The previous president was re-elected. Half of the voters rate his and Law and Justice rule as a force to change the country the way it suits them. It seems Poland is divided between liberal progress and traditionalism. Does this point to an important moment in our history when people stand against progress? Could it be that the recent changes in morality, worldview, technology, and politics have been too fast for many to comprehend, hence the fear of evolution?
– I do not think the supporters of Duda and the ruling Law and Justice party consider PiS as “a force to change the country the way it suits them”. Their voters are simply authoritarian or even fascist, not in the sense of professing fascist ideology but in the sense of having fascist personality or character. They are not aware of it, of course, but they really yearn for a strong, national leader ruling with an iron fist. He doesn’t need to change anything except for cleaning up the house of the people of color, of “fagots” and all others who are not “true Poles”. They are not afraid of changes, they hate them, and the ruling coalition expresses their feelings and desires.
In another interview you said that people are afraid and even terrified of freedom. Can you elaborate on this idea?
– It was inspired by Erich From and his famous “Escape from Freedom”. Today, I would rather say that many people (In Poland perhaps up to fifty per cent of the population) simply hate individual freedom and are afraid or even terrified by the possibility of being excluded from their community. Those two are closely related but certainly not the same, both however, are the symptoms of tribal and authoritarian mentality typical for those who have not fully matured in the Kantian sense.
People who are not autonomous do not feel as individuals but first of all as the members of their community who are obligated to fully respect the norms, traditions and life style of their community, or otherwise be excluded. To them it would be a near-death experience, as their identity is based on the sense of belonging, so they are terrified even by the slightest glimpse of this threat.
Authoritarian people are also highly conventional and care mainly about power: either for them or over them. They hate those who behave unconventionally (do not respect tradition) and do not care about or even reject power. Often, it is enough to get up about noon to be hated and despised, even if one has worked all night. In Poland, especially in rural areas, it is still commonly felt that that decent people wake up “with the chickens”.
The most serious problem resulting from this type of mentality, however, is their subordination, respect and even cult of power, including political, dictatorial and totalitarian power. Actually, they prefer or even admire a brutal, corrupt government and ruling with an iron first as it gives them the sense of internal order. They love to obey orders and hate those who live as they please.
All this is of course a product of Polish painful history and dominant role of Catholic Church. Some historians also blame the so-called Swedish Deluge of XVII century, as it helped the Catholic Church to abolish Polish Calvinist movement that might have been the inspiration to building more individualistic culture, as it happened in the Netherlands and other countries of Western Europe.
Observing the present reality in Poland, it is hard to get the impression that humanism is becoming more and more popular. What actions should humanist, rationalist and scientific organizations undertake to create an alternative to the conservative movement which is based on Christian values?
– To answer this question we would need another and very long interview or rather a series of stimulating conversations. For the time being, we have certainly managed to popularize the term “humanism” in contemporary sense among atheists, secularists and “rationalists”. In the future, all those who care about humanism (not simply anti-clericalism) should join forces to reach and inspire more open-minded individuals who are not afraid to think in the spirit of “sapere aude”: freely, creatively and deeply: seriously or jestingly, to broaden the community of criticism and laughter at all false ideas that are still held “sacred.” We also need to foster scientific worldview and the way of thinking, not only in science, which is obvious, but in every day private, social and political lives of most of us. I hope we will look together for more answers to this question for many years in the future.
The Foundation I represent emphasizes the special role of science and education in human life. How do you evaluate the contribution of science to shaping the humanistic worldview and the worldview in general?
– The contribution of science to shaping the humanistic world view is enormous. It is highly valued not only as the source of knowledge and the model of rational thinking, but first of all, historically, the source of empowerment that has given humanity the courage to think for themselves and to shape their own lives. One may even claim that it is science that created the modern man and women as autonomous beings endowed with personal freedom and the sense of dignity. Please note, that the hands folded in prayer are simply the gesture of supplication or begging – the expression of helplessness. Without the empowerment given by science and technology, helpless and frightened by the forces of nature, we would still just beg god for help. (Angel of God, Guardian of mine, Let our steps be intertwined. Morning, evening, day and night, I need you by my side).
It was the birth and first accomplishments of empirical science of XVII Century that gave birth to the Enlightenment with its discovery of power of human reason which, with time, resulted in strengthening of our autonomy and led to the new ethics aimed to protect the quality of human lives not to please our imaginary creator and his promoters.
Sciences were also the main inspiration to the XIX century free-thinkers and – hand in hand with ethical culture societies – to the founders of contemporary humanism.
At the same time, science has been regarded as the enemy of other world-views, particularly religious, romantic and fascist. Admittedly, the fascists appreciated technical progress as the instrument of building their power, but at the same time condemned the scientific worldview and falsified the achievements of science. For example, they used and abused the Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest” to justify imperialism, racism, and eugenics, while today’s scientists consider Darwin as the father of the idea that compassion and benevolence are rooted in human nature, in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.
Science cannot answer all the questions. However, it is an excellent tool for suggesting solutions, in the situation where the problem is very complex – such as the issue of abortion, climate change or gender. In politics, however, the voice of scientists is very rarely taken into account. Here, emotional or subjective arguments win with rationality. Where does this reluctance of educated people to act rationally come from, and to what extent is humanism related to rationality?
– Roughly speaking, rationality is one of the two principal foundations of contemporary humanism – the other one being the system of humanist values – ethics without god.
Of course, science cannot solve all the problems, particularly in the field of ethics and more generally in social and political arena. In this respect, I do not agree with Sam Harris, among others, who asserts in his Moral Landscape that moral problems can be solved by science. However, it does not mean that science cannot be helpful. For example, the finding that the process of conception and creating a new genome takes at least 24 to 48 hours may soften the position of Catholic Church to some, the so-called “the day after” contraceptives. Similarly, development of modern medications helped to popularize the so called voluntary, palliative sedation, which is far more acceptable to religious people and some clergy than traditional euthanasia.
The question on the reasons or causes of the fact that so many people think and behave irrationally and even distrust science or highly educated expert is very broad and of course not fully understood. Certainly, we can “blame” to some degree our evolutionary past and the fact that our brains have not developed to think rationally but to help us survive and produce offspring, so often, particularly when we feel insecure, our brains tend to “see” all kinds of threats, even if they do not exist at all. If you take into account, that there more than 7 billion people on Earth, this seemingly irrational strategy proves to be effective, perhaps even rational in evolutionary sens.
Sometimes scientists themselves can be partly responsible for the fact that people do not trust them and reject their theories or concepts. To some degree, it is the case of gender as a social and cultural construct. Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman proved that sensational findings on the role of culture in constructing gender roles first published by Margaret Mead after her travel to Samoa had been false – partly because she was tricked by her Samoan sources and partly because she was not rigorous enough, as she really wanted to please her teacher and master Franz Boas. Scientists are also humans, after all. (It does not mean, however, that the concept of gender is false; the phenomenon is just more complex than it was first understood.)
– PiS supporters are not interested in talking. They do not listen to arguments – they listen only to those who are in power. Quite a few of them are atheist but often so extremely irrational that few religious fanatics have similarly closed minds.
Religious people are more varied and in our times in Poland few of them are very passionate about their beliefs – especially in large towns, of course.
In 2019, I gave a series of lectures about atheism to adult students at Collegium Civitas. I was told by many of them and by some professor at this college that the approach I presented encouraged quite a few of the students to think again about the existence of god and ethical or social problems resulting from religion. I think it was possible, because:
- I was a bit ironic (certainly not ardent or zealous) about both: religion and atheism. I said, for example, that the word atheism comes from Greek phrase a theos, which means literally “without God”, while it seems that many atheists cannot live without this idea. Of course, they keep saying that God does not exist (which is obvious) but they are more preoccupied with this idea than most of the average Catholics who rarely think about God and do not care very much. So, as a result, I am not sure who really lives without god.
- I said some things that were relatively new and interesting to them. For example, I told them that in 1991 we decided to accept members who believed in God, on condition however that they do not believe and do not accept the idea of hell as the place of eternal suffering. Believe in God is a mistake – I said – but we are all mistaken in this or that, while idea of eternal and cruel punishment is ethically unacceptable to humanists. I said much more about various problems, but it seems that the main reason they listened with open minds was that they did not feel attacked but felt interested and even inspired. I have an impression that they were seriously concerned by my claims that faith kills intellectual curiosity, as believers are not free to think freely.
- Another important factor is humor. This is possible because believers are not as passionate as they used to be until recently. For example, our campaign to “clone the Polish pope so that every catholic might have his or her own pope at home” raised fury in 1999. I even got several death threats. Last year, my story about the campaign led just to the burst of laughter – liberating laughter, I believe.