Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” triggered the Supreme Leader of Iran to issue a fatwa against him that sentenced Rushdie to death and forced him into hiding for many years, braved the Harvard community Friday night to speak at Memorial Church for what he described as a “little black Sabbath.”
Rushdie’s appearance at Memorial Church was the first event of the three-day long conference called “The New Humanism” hosted by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. Humanism is a “non-supernatural alternative to traditional religion,” said Gregory M. Epstein, the University’s Humanist Chaplain. Humanism primarily consists of atheists, agnostics and non-religious people.
“The main purpose of the conference is to show the Harvard community and the local community that humanism is the philosophy that best represents the billion people around the world [who identify with no religion],” Epstein said. “The conference aims to show that humanism is a diverse, inclusive, inspiring way to live life. It is a way of uniting those [non-religious] people into a positive community that can make a major contribution to a more peaceful, more stable world.”
Humanists currently hold a wide base in the cultural and scientific world. Author Kurt Vonnegut served as honorary president of the American Humanist Association, and science-fiction author Issac Asimov served as its president until his death in 1992.
However, humanism is much less represented in the political sphere, said Epstein.
“There is only one openly humanist politician currently serving in Congress, Senate, or governor offices,” Epstein said. “We know that there are many more humanists in the political world, but they are afraid to speak about humanism because most people only know that we don’t believe in a supernatural god. Atheists are the group that Americans would be least likely to vote for president.”
Friday night’s event was open to the public and organized with the cooperation of The Harvard Bookstore. Rushdie was awarded the first annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism.
Rushdie focused on the importance of the sense of community for non-religious people.
“Where was the holiday for people who didn’t believe in god? Where is the one for the unbelievers?” Rushdie asked. “Where is the Kwanzaa of the atheist? Surely we can make one up.”
Rushdie followed his speech with a reading from his latest novel “Shalimar the Clown.”
Other conference speakers included Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor and Nobel Laureate of Economics; E.O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus; and Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology.
“In my case, I study the human mind. The brain is shaped by natural selection. I still feel there is a place for meaning and some purpose.” Pinker said. “I can’t be the only person with this set of beliefs. A few years ago, it occurred to me—I’m a humanist.”