Humanism Now

20. Monica Belițoiu, ASUR on Championing Secularism & Science Across Europe

March 17, 2024 Humanise Live
20. Monica Belițoiu, ASUR on Championing Secularism & Science Across Europe
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Humanism Now
20. Monica Belițoiu, ASUR on Championing Secularism & Science Across Europe
Mar 17, 2024
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Welcome back to Humanism Now! This week AJ & Mark from the Central London Humanists join the panel to discuss the latest news, plus our interview with  Monica Belițoiu, Chair of The Romanian Secular Humanist Association (ASUR) .

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Monica Belițoiu

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Welcome back to Humanism Now! This week AJ & Mark from the Central London Humanists join the panel to discuss the latest news, plus our interview with  Monica Belițoiu, Chair of The Romanian Secular Humanist Association (ASUR) .

Episode References

Monica Belițoiu

Download ScienceCalendar App on Play Store

Follow ASUR

Support the Show.

Support us on Patreon

Click here to submit questions, nominate guest & topics or sponsor the show.

Follow Humanism Now @HumanismNowPod
X (Twitter)
YouTube
Instagram
TikTok

Follow Central London Humanists @LondonHumanists
Centrallondonhumanists.org.uk
Meetup
Facebook
X (Twitter)
YouTube

CLH are an official partner group of Humanists UK and an associate member of Humanists International

Speaker 1:

Hello and welcome to Humanism Now, the podcast from the Central London Humanists. I'm your host, james. This week we discuss the UK's Assisted Dying petition, greece becoming the first Christian Orthodox country to legalise same-sex marriage, and we have our guest interview with the Chief Executive of the Romanian Secular Humanist Association, monica Bellitelle. But before then, I'm delighted to welcome back two of our regular panellists here at Humanism Now Mark and AJ, both colleagues at the Central London Humanists. Our icebreaker question this week is if you could know the answer to any question, what would it be? So, mark, welcome back, and what would your most wanted question be?

Speaker 2:

So this is a follow-up to our recent talk, or not. Our recent talk HUK, recent talk about the origins of humanity and particularly focusing on Neanderthals. We had a fascinating talk from Rebecca Ragsikes about that, and one question that I actually managed to ask her at the end was what happened to the first wave of homo sapiens that came out of Africa, who were then sort of replaced, apparently, by the succeeding wave, who came out 60,000 years later, and she said we don't know which. So that would be interesting to know a little bit more about that.

Speaker 1:

Oh, fascinating, yeah, and a live topic and very relevant to that recent talk. We love to have a follow-up, actually episode, focusing on that presentation and on Darwin Day specifically. So, yes, thank you for that. And from Humanist International, young humanist and, of course, colleague at Central London Humanists, aj, welcome back.

Speaker 3:

Hi James.

Speaker 1:

Glad to be with you and Mark, so tell me, what would your most wanted answer be to any question?

Speaker 3:

I guess I'll have to reach for something to do with my neuroscience, neuropsychology background and go the hard problem of consciousness, difficult to phrase as a question. Maybe I'll say if I could look into the future and know for a certainty whether we'll achieve singularity or artificial general intelligence, I think that will be quite useful. I mean, there's a lot of other questions and things that we do in charity work and improving the world and social justice which aren't academic questions. They actually do improve people's real world lives. So that's always a. You know I'm feel guilty about choosing an academic question there, but that's that's something that certainly occupies a lot of my kind of philosophical musing time is that and incidentally I'm more on the skeptical, cynical side I don't think that there's a small possibility or there's a very real possibility that it's impossible achieving singularity. I don't think you know silicone intelligence in the same way that we have carbon intelligence. Let's see. It'll be good to know that for sure.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, absolutely, and another topic that we need to do a deep dive into. I think lots of questions coming out from your answer there Fantastic, I think. For me, similarly, one I'd like to live to see long enough the answer to would be to know whether we can well to find evidence for other intelligent life, or at least life of some form, in the universe. I believe I may live long enough for the discovery within our solar system of microbial life. I think that's quite likely and quite something that may well be discovered in the next 30 or so years. But, yeah, intelligent life within the universe. I hold out less hope, but that's something I'd love to know. The answer to.

Speaker 1:

Central London Humanists hosted our monthly discussion group, which is an online interactive event that we host, where any members or guests can bring their opinions and contribute to the debate. Mark is the coordinator for that group and also acted as host for the discussion, which was this month themed around the rise in populism and whether humanism is equipped to defend democracies from that rise in particularly right wing populism, although we did have an interesting discussion about all of the different flavors that populism can take. So, mark, would love to hear what your immediate takeaways were what you particularly learned from this month's discussion group.

Speaker 2:

The topic initially arose out of a suggestion from somebody in our discussion group forum on WhatsApp. It was specifically around Roe vs Wade, I think, and then some of the issues that have happened with Trump, the Trumpian wing of the Republican party or the Trump movement really as an independent movement, in terms of attacking some of the human rights gains, civil rights gains over the last 30, 40 years in the US, and so I sort of yeah, I took a cue from that and I sort of thought, well, that's interesting because this is a wider phenomenon and when you start digging into it, you can see that a lot of the sorts of things that humanists have fought for, identify with, strongly associate with, do seem to be under attack, and I think we're going to come on to some of those things a little bit later, actually that in the interview. So I broadened it out really to look and then themed it in terms of in terms of the presentation that you know, there were things like obviously Roe vs Wade, don't say gay in Florida, which is, and sort of various attacks on on rights there, and then in Europe again, sort of undemocratic move tendencies or tax on democratic principles which are very central to humanist values. So, for example, the loss of independent courts in various countries, tax on judicial independence, such as in Poland, I think in Hungary. There's even some threats of that in this country under Boris Johnson when he wanted to remove the right to judicial review. So there was.

Speaker 2:

That was a sort of general proposition that there is a sort of broad attack on civil rights, human rights, democratic values and also scientific values and secular and secularism. So this sort of this is a Christian country type line and also things like COVID vaccine, sort of denialism which is not exclusively aligned with right wing populism but is pretty universal or not very, is very prevalent, and also climate change denialism, which is very prevalent on the hard and far right. So that was the sort of proposition. In terms of the way the the actual discussion went, I would say there was quite a lot of consensus that that was broadly a fair position.

Speaker 2:

There's some quite interesting discussion about what populism actually means, and I think it's so. For example, the original definition was much more around about around the idea that it's you represent the people. So it's the slightly different definition of popular, in that sense against the establishment, but then broadening that out really to look about sort of simple, simplistic solutions to complicated problems being a feature of it, and also then very much sort of prejudice coming into play, xenophobia and attacks on on easily sort of stigmatized minorities. So there was a broad consensus on that. There was some pushback. Some people felt that was a couple of people felt that was a sort of left wing biased position and we had a bit of a discussion around that and people aired their views and I think everybody felt they had a good chance to put their opinion at least and they were heard, which was, I thought, very positive. That's what we always aim to to do with the discussion.

Speaker 1:

So even those who felt as though the premise was biased, felt as though they got a fair hearing and I think broadly there was, there was agreement that you know we can remove the right, left you know terms in this and look at actually the principles that are being presented which are, as you say, broadly a very us versus them rhetoric and simple solutions to complex challenges which involved often involve scapegoating, and I think you know, if you sort of simplify it down to that, then I think everyone was broadly in agreement and it doesn't take much to see that that is completely anti to a humanistic worldview, particularly the anti science and the anti compassion elements of that or viewing, you know, universal human rights. So, as mentioned, I think it was always going to be one where broadly most humanists were in agreement. But I felt as the more interesting discussion was around the definition and whether it's useful to use these terms. Aj, I know unfortunately you were not able to join us for that one, but I know this is a topic that's you're very close to as well.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, I think it's a topic that we need to revisit several times over. I don't think, unfortunately, it's going away anytime soon. I mean, we've seen since 2016,. Politics has been conducted around Boris Johnson here in the UK and also with Trump in the US. It's exposed something.

Speaker 3:

I think maybe it's a hangover from the Great Recession, from the 0708 financial crash, something about the way that we organize our society and we are not giving due attention to a large, silent majority that's not being heard, and then this is the way that it expresses itself. So, as humanists, I think going back to our values of compassion, empathy and sympathy with people who are maybe struggling to find some way of expressing their frustration or fury we can't prove this mathematically, but if we fundamentally believe that people are good and they don't necessarily wake up in the morning and decide to be evil, decide to make life tougher, migrants, or decide to scapegoat a certain population, but, given the circumstances, if their worldview and what narrative they're being fed leads them towards that, then I think it's the job of humanists to be conscientious, to be active in that space and to ensure that there's the common. Humanity isn't forgotten in trying to defeat. Often we find that or populists gain power by dehumanizing the immigrants or other scapegoat in trying to be the answer to that. We can't then dehumanize the populist.

Speaker 3:

I think that the Michelle Obama rhetoric about when they go low, we go high I don't think is it's in the right ballpark, but I think maybe it's a bit too idealistic. We just we don't necessarily have to sort of ignore them going low, like she's suggesting. But there's something that populists are pointing to and exposing, and I'm of the belief that the obstacle is the path. You know where there's the most pain, where there's the most sore spot. That's pointing towards a direction that we need to focus our attention. We shouldn't be sort of ignoring that or trying to paper over it. That's showing us where the problem is in our society.

Speaker 1:

This point about not ignoring people's concerns that have led people to support populist leaders. Mark, do you think that's something again that we can, perhaps that we can be doing more on, or is that something that's come out from from previous discussions on this topic?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think it's something which I mean, I think AJ is completely right.

Speaker 2:

It is something where there has been a shift isn't there in politics where, well to be, to be blunt, it's often perceived that progressives are sort of have lost interest in the traditional, you know, working class base and have become more interested in more specific identity politics, as it's called sometimes.

Speaker 2:

I mean, I don't completely share that view, but that's something which is widely perceived and I do think it's important for us to focus on, as progressive people, as many as most humanists are on, you know, addressing the real life concerns of people around cost of living crisis and employment security and energy security, all those, all those sorts of issues that people you know, many people do do feel very strongly about, which maybe they feel maybe isn't properly represented.

Speaker 2:

I also think that, as humanists, I think we've got and again, I think it's sort of building on something that AJ was saying is that we have something to say about identity, about a way of being, about, you know, values, which is which is not just applicable to, you know, highly educated people. It complied to everybody, and I think we we and in our group we're trying to do this. Aren't we trying to sort of broaden out that appeal of humanism to say, you know, here's something you can identify with. You don't have to sort of go down the road of becoming a sort of extremely nationalistic or ethnocentric or, you know, identifying with very sort of conservative social values.

Speaker 1:

Yes, and I concur as well at the point that you mentioned about that.

Speaker 1:

I think you can draw a straight line from the financial crisis of 2008, through all the political turmoil of the last 10 years, to the growing frustrations in the working class and throughout society.

Speaker 1:

I think that would that are arisen today, and I think, again, offering simple solutions can be quite appealing, and I think it's important to engage on these topics and have those difficult conversations and really understand what makes people potentially afraid or potentially frustrated, I think was the word that was used earlier, and that's absolutely right. One political topic which does not get enough as much coverage and where there is a broad consensus amongst the population, particularly in the UK, is the legalization of assisted dying, and yet this is something which, no matter which party is in charge, governments don't seem to want to touch. Now the Humanist UK has supported a petition which has recently passed over 100,000 signatures checking just this morning when over 125,000 signatures for assisted dying to be debated in parliament and I know this is a campaign that's been central to Humanist UK and humanist groups around the world. Aj, I know you work a lot with H UK on campaigning, so could you just talk us through why this is such an important issue for humanists and what we can hope to gain from this petition.

Speaker 3:

Thanks, james. Yes, the assisted dying campaign is one of the key campaigns that we promote at Humanist UK, and we're not the only charity that does it, but it really forms a core part of the humanist worldview and why people come to humanism. One of the main differentiating factors is this idea of having self-control over our life, our consciousnesses, the idea of an afterlife. This is the only one life we have. So all of these things put together mean that humanists, secularist agnostics, free thinkers and other people of other allied beliefs care very, very much about this one life, from the beginning to the end. So it really matters with palliative care, unfortunately being in such a terrible state in this country, even before the pandemic, even before the financial crisis and austerity, if people don't have that dignity in how they end their life, that can have repercussions on so many aspects of our society. So, yeah, the latest news is that there's been pressure put on the Prime Minister, rushi Sunak, by many things, but most notably, a personal story sharing campaign on social media, where thousands of people who are personally affected by the lack of or the current way the assisted dying law is written such that it makes people have to run to Switzerland or Belgium or Netherlands to have to take control over the way they end their life and the stress that causes families as well. And again, it creates a two-tier system because the people that can afford to do it will do it, similar to abortions and sort of back-high abortions and illegal abortions. You're not going to prohibit this. The example of alcohol and prohibition is certainly a very vivid one here, and that also applies to assisted dying. So to avoid creating this two-tier system, humanist UK been campaigning for many, many years.

Speaker 3:

The last time, if I remember correctly, we had the vote in parliament was 2015, and it was heavily defeated then the amendment to the law to allow for assisted dying and euthanasia to take place. But since then there have been no bills announced and we're not going to get them in this parliamentary term either. But with a change of government according to the polling seeming likely, we are working closely with the Labour Party to make sure that that's on their list of priorities and at the beginning of the year, sakeh Stammer, leader of the Labour Party, said that he would be open to making parliamentary time for assisted dying, which is a window, but we want to keep up the pressure. We want to keep up these very real, personal stories that are coming through and they can't be denied. And I think actually we've soon responded to one of the people who are personally affected by the assisted dying situation.

Speaker 3:

I think his family has suffered from cancer and that completely wrecked their life. That's hard to say no to, and I mean, amongst all the culture, wars and all of the social media back and forth that goes on, the power of a single real story can't be denied because it's that person's truth. And as many figures and stats can be thrown around in terms of how much money is being put into palliative care and the NHS and so on, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and these people are being served a very, very raw deal. So I'd like to see that changed and that's something that, even as young humanists, we're campaigning on, even though you think young people would be on the wrong end of life to be caring about this, but amongst our members and amongst humanist UK members generally, it's a really, really key issue.

Speaker 1:

Thank you, aj, for that overview. Yeah, it really does seem like an issue based around compassion and those personal stories are always so powerful. And this seems to be a topic where the difference in the general population and the political establishment if we can use that term is quite stark, and I think it does speak to. Going back to the themes of the discussion group and conversations we've had previously, there is, on average, more religiosity amongst members of parliament than the general population. Of course, there are still lots of religious arguments against the idea of assisted dying within different denominations Mark. What do you think is behind this disparity between public opinion and what the politicians are willing to debate in parliament?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, it is a very interesting point, isn't it? Because, as you say, in spite of the fact there isn't really any political party or even, I think, sort of media organization leading on this, the public seem to have just naturally moved towards a much more compassionate and enlightened position on their own, almost self-generated. And maybe, you know, humanist UK and others will no doubt probably have played a little bit of influence on that, and it is strange. I mean, as you say, I think the sort of the disproportionate influence of religion within our political system is one factor I think that's slightly waning now. I think so. For example, the last three leaders of the opposition will be an atheist, including the current one. So that's maybe a little bit of a sign of the times, and we obviously have had, up until then we've had pretty much exclusively Christian prime ministers, certainly, and often leaders of the opposition. So there's, yeah, I think and this may be indicating why the issue is coming up again that maybe that religious influence within parliament is waning.

Speaker 2:

I think also, although print media is obviously circulation has dropped a lot, they still, as media platforms, they still have a lot of influence, particularly in terms of setting the agenda within broadcast media, which is where quite a lot of people still get their news, and still has a big influence on what is the news narrative. And there is a strong sort of you know, we all know about the influence of the Daily Mail and papers like that that they ask, and those papers will still take a very sort of strong line against anything like that. They still identify with sort of traditional Christian values and so, yeah, we could even go back to things like bishops from the lords and the fact that that is maybe having an influence within the political system as well. But I feel optimistic. The things are moving the right direction.

Speaker 1:

Yes, it certainly seems as though the public opinion is shifting sufficiently. I know you have some lived experience which you'd like to share, which can help add some color to this conversation.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, so I'm a person with chronic pain and I'm part of a network of people with chronic pain as well, so I meet quite a few people who are living with a high level of sort of constant suffering and sometimes intolerable, I think, which is the term used in the petition. And so, yes, I do have a strong sense and a strong feeling that it should be our choice about how much suffering we can put up with. I'm OK, I'm within reasonable limits, but I know other people who aren't and or might come to a point where they really really can't take any more. And I think the fact that you become incapacitated should not be the deciding factor on whether or not you still have autonomy over your quality of life. I think that's a very important basic human right.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely, and thank you for sharing this point around. Intolerable suffering really is the key term, which I think is up for debate, and I think there are different groups that are campaigning on this, and I think there are different opinions as to what the law should be, and I'd love to get someone from Humanist UK to join the podcast and really outline the Humanist UK position. But I think the key point is this should be a topic that, as much as possible, should be up to the individual and medical professionals and should be open for discussion and debate on individual cases, as you mentioned. Now, one successful example where public opinion has led the way and government legislation has followed is in the increased legalization of same-sex marriage around the world, and this week we had the good news that Greece became the first Orthodox country to legalize same-sex marriage, which was celebrated by many secular humanist groups around the world. So, mark, I know you've had a chance to catch up on this story. What did you think when the news came?

Speaker 2:

through. Yes, I think you're coming to me first because of my surname, Agathangelo, so I've got a dog in the fight to speak, yeah, although I'm afraid I don't speak Greek. But yeah, I thought this is a really interesting story and I suppose what I picked up on it was some commonalities with the discussion group in terms of the way in which the issue has become very polarizing within Greece and that the church has aligned itself with more populist parties who are trying to make political capital out of this. But, at the same time, what I find really interesting another trend is that very often it seems to be more moderate or mainstream conservatives who are actually involved in these pushes towards liberalizing the law around same-sex marriage. So obviously we had David Cameron in this country sort of finished off the project of equalizing the law on for gay people by bringing in uh same-sex marriage bill in what of 2015, whatever it was during that time. And then we also had um, I think Leah Veradka um, who, who was again uh, leads the sort of center-right party in Ireland, for Ina Gale uh was in was was certainly supported and I think was actually introduced um the same referendum I think that was in 2015,.

Speaker 2:

That one uh on same-sex marriage, um and um. I mean, he is himself, he is himself gay, so uh and uh so um. Yeah, he, he promoted that and it's. It's interesting how, I think in certainly in the case of the in the, the British example, you have a center-right politician pushing it forward but actually relying on the votes from uh centrist and left-wing parties to actually get it through in the teeth of the opposition from their own MPs, and I think it's a similar situation in Greece. Uh, so yeah, it's just, it's just an interesting trend and I suppose it seems to be showing something we've put on before the way in which what we think is maybe humanist values are sort of migrated um across the political spectrum a bit and have become more established, or starting to become more established in um mainstream conservative politics as well.

Speaker 1:

Definitely, and I think it probably speaks to this idea that the public has already almost uniformly switched, if it so that by the time it infiltrates the, the right-wing parties, as you say, there's already the support on the left. Potentially, if the if that bill had been put forward by a left-wing party, then it's instinctively going to be opposed, but obviously, if a center-right party puts it forward, they can already bank on, uh, on that support. So it probably does speak to that, the shifting trend that's already happening. Um, with that being said, of course, um, this is by no means uniform, uh, globally or even throughout Europe. And, AJ, I wanted to get your views, particularly with your um international campaigns that you're involved in.

Speaker 3:

You've said that certainly, uh, not all of Europe is on the same page on this. I think, of the European Union's 27 members, maybe 15 or something or of that order of magnitude are the countries who've passed this law or similar law to legalize same-sex marriage. And also, let's remember, it's also legalizing, um, in the Greece example, uh, adoption for same-sex couples, which is also very, very, very key to fostering the loving family and allowing same-sex couples to enjoy all of the fruits and the wonders of family life that other couples enjoy. So, even in the EU, which is in some sense held up as a standard of progressivism worldwide, we're not completely on the same page, which is a which is certainly a problem. And, yes, from the humanist international points of view, we often refer to our sort of big map, global map of where are the hotspots of humanism and where are the hotspots of challenges and and repression for atheists, et cetera. Uh, and if we look at that, um, it's, in some sense, it's, it's, it's certainly a wind at the first, this is the first Christian Orthodox country to have legalized this, and certainly the first, and it also in that part of Europe, that southeastern Europe part, which has a different tradition in terms of religion and culture than, say, northern Europe, scandinavian Europe or the UK and France, et cetera. So this is a day of joy, which I think I heard many, many Greek activists saying. It's a time of joy to support and to extend solidarity to our brothers, sisters and friends and fellow humanists and also many free thinkers and atheists and agnostics that have been waiting and campaigning for this day.

Speaker 3:

But it has divided the country Uh as uh, as you and Mark mentioned. In some sense it was going again against the trend because Prime Minister Mitsutakis was allying with some of the populist fascist parties in openly fascist parties in the Greek government on many things to do with EU politics. But in some sense on the social conservative side, on the social side, they've been less conservative, I should say, with this, with this particular action. But it's not, it's not easy and actually, from the humanist points of view, I remember we had a humanist, a Greek humanist, come along to one of our socials, pre-pandemic maybe five years ago who said that he was looking to start a humanist group in Greece and currently there isn't one. So HI, humanist International.

Speaker 3:

We're very concerned about that and as much as we want to see more humanist groups spring up in Central Asia, in those sort of black spots currently, where we really need more funding and more activism and more awareness raising to allow the breathing space for secularists, hate humanists and other free thinkers. We also need it on our own doorstep and on our own shores here in Europe. So that's, and as far as I know, that person who wanted to start that Greek humanist group hasn't succeeded because day to day, sort of on the street and in daily personal life, religion still holds such a sway in Greece. So we shouldn't be disillusioned into thinking that the fights over many ways. It's just begun.

Speaker 1:

And staying in that part of the world. I had the pleasure last week of meeting with Monika, who is the current chair of the Romanian Secular Humanist Association, so here is my interview with Monika. Monika Belitsoyu is the chief executive of the Romanian Secular Humanist Association, or ASUR for short. A dedicated humanist, monika has a background in communication, specializing in public relations for NGOs and CSR for companies based in Romania. She's played a pivotal role in promoting the humanism and secular movements and values within Romania. So, Monika, thank you very much for joining us on Humanism Now.

Speaker 4:

Thank you for having me. Thank you for the invitation.

Speaker 1:

My pleasure. So, look, I'd love to find out more about your current campaigns and, in particular, I know there's a very exciting tech project which you've been working on and rolling out in Romania. But before we dive into that, I think it'd be great for our audience to understand a little bit more about your personal journey. So could you share a bit more about your background and how you came to take on this role with the ASUR and why you chose to embrace humanist values?

Speaker 4:

I think it had a lot to do with the timing, because I'm in my forties now and I started working with the NGO In Romania.

Speaker 4:

We call it ASUR, which is the same, but I first heard about it because I was following a lot of ATS online the four horsemen and so on at the time when ASUR was being launched.

Speaker 4:

So I heard through some friends and on social media about their conferences where they were about to launch the NGO and I just went there to see what it was all about and I really liked the people and I started volunteering. Then, since I was working as a PR consultant, I started to do some public relations consultancy and at some point somebody started telling us that the association seems like it is bigger than it was actually it was in reality. So the president at that time said probably you should do something more. So he appointed me an executive director at that time and I started working first part-time and then full-time in this position, but it was a gradual move. So I got a feeling that I've been doing this since forever, even if my master's was in business communication. But I had to adapt my knowledge to NGO communication and to start to understand how I can use all that I learned in school and all my experience in my private life to make the best of it and to help the organization and the humanism movement in Romania.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I think there's a wonderful lesson in there. I think we often have members join who feel that perhaps their educational or professional experience isn't relevant, but actually whatever skills you pick up can be adapted and there's always a need to bring those. So now, thank you very much for sharing, and how would you describe the religious culture in Romania and what have been the main challenges when advocating for humistic values?

Speaker 4:

Oh, I think it's a common known fact that Romania is probably the most religious country in Europe and one of the most religious in Northern atmosphere. But I think one of the problems that we have faced was the fact that humanism in Romania, or humanism as it's called here is not a widely learned term, so people don't really know what to make of us. At least in the beginning they didn't know what to make of us, and also, if you were saying, oh, we were 80 years or something, that was also a no-no, because we lived so many years under a communist dictatorship and people often associated 80 years with communists, so it was badly sounding. The work was first to get people to understand better what humanism means and then to see that, even if we are, we used to be the only voice that was saying something against the collaboration between state and church it wasn't because we were wrong. So when you are the only one criticizing something, people usually tend to say this is something wrong. You are doing this because you want to gain attention or something, but you are in the wrong.

Speaker 4:

So it took a lot of time for things to start to change, and I remember when I went to the launch conference for our NGO. There was in the audience the only journalist in Romania at that time. She was the only one that was writing articles about what the Orthodox Church is doing with the money that it receives from the Romanian state. No one else had the courage to write about it, and now they are young journalists, investigative journalists, that are tackling the subject, and there are many more voices that are criticizing the fact that the factor Romania is not actually a secular state. Even if we do not have a state religion, the influence of the Orthodox Church in politics and in society is so big that it feels like we do have a state religion.

Speaker 1:

And I can understand the benefits of having a communication specialist at the forefront of the movement if this really is about changing the perceptions, and speaking of which I know you recently contributed to the Freedom of Thought report and published an article on that which we can link to in the show notes. So I wonder what did you discover in undertaking that research and why is it important to you to contribute to the Freedom of Thought report with Humanist International?

Speaker 4:

Actually, I started contributing to the report a few years back, when Bob Churchill was in charge of it I hope I'm not mispronouncing the name or something but in the beginning I was intrigued because I started to comparing Romania with other countries and to see where on the scale are us in regards to the freedoms, and to some point it feels like, oh, this is not that bad. We do not have a blasphemy law, we have many more rights than others. But if you go beneath the surface and you scratch it a little bit, you see that we still have a religion in school that it's thought to actually is more like a dogmatic religion and it's really hard to get out of it and it's for 12 years. You learn one class each week, so it's a lot of religion, especially Orthodox, because most of the schools only have teachers for that, and also it's really hard to discuss on some of the issues that humanists are trying to put forward. And from time to time they're starting to resurrect some movement, like now it's the anti-abortion movement that has started to gain track again, even if Romania has a very dark history with this, because abortion was prohibited for many years and there have been so many documentaries about the women that have died and the orphanages that were found after the fall of communism Orphanage filled with children that were a result of abortion ban. So in the mind of many people this is still a recent memory. So the movement is not that popular, but still is there, and there are people trying to ban it again. And also the rights of LGBT people have been put under question in the last year, and this is something that we wrote in the report.

Speaker 4:

But I think the main problem here in Romania is the involvement of churches in the state politics. So this year we're gonna have all kinds of elections. We're gonna have European election, local election, parliamentarian and presidential. We didn't have this kind of year, for I don't think it happened since I started voting. I don't think it happened anytime. It never happened.

Speaker 4:

So this will be interesting because you can see a lot of voices from the representatives of churches and those different cults that are starting to discuss with politicians that are gonna be candidates in one way or another. So I recently went to Brussels and I was invited to a high level meeting about a consultation with a philosophical and non-religious organization and I talked about the hate speech that is being promoted by some of the religious leaders that are in contact with politicians, and the fact that religious leaders are supporting extremist parties. It's really worrying, and I think it's not something that's happening just in Romania. I can see this happening in a lot of countries also, and I think it's something you should pay attention to, because we are not the only country that is gonna have elections this year.

Speaker 1:

So yeah, no, but it was very important to flag that. Yes, and it's. You're right, it does seem to be a common theme globally at the moment aligning politics with religion. So, yeah, that sounds like you've got a lot on your plate at the moment, and I know that you're also promoting scientific understanding and scientific literacy and critical thinking throughout Romania, and in doing so, you will be launching the Science Calendar app, so we'd love to hear more about that. How did the idea to create a science specific app come about?

Speaker 4:

Actually, it started with the Science Calendar, which it was one of our first projects, and it's currently our most popular project. We did this calendar as a response to the Orthodox calendar that was in our grandmother's kitchens on the wall. So, as a joke, my husband started saying, why don't we put my husband? He's also a member in the organization. So at that time we were just spinning ideas around and to see what sticks. And he said why don't we find something to replace this Orthodox calendar in the kitchen, something that would be interesting for more people?

Speaker 4:

And we started joking and kidding around and we decided to come with the idea of the calendar, which has 365 real information about the scientists that have changed our world and the discoveries that have changed our way of life. So we raised the information about this, we gather all the information. We had some scientists that help us to verify the accuracy of what we are putting down and we printed a few thousand calendars and give them for free to schools. And this was back in 2010. And we have been doing this every year since then.

Speaker 1:

And what is the reception being from the school, the?

Speaker 4:

reception has been extraordinary because at the first edition we only managed to do 3,000 copies. But at the second edition someone from National Geographic Romania, from the magazine, said this is a wonderful project and they decided to join in and they gave the calendar with their winter edition as a present for the people that were buying the magazine. And from there it just flew up, because now we are financing every year the calendar to crowdfunding and some of the people that are contributing to the crowdfunding campaign that helps us to get the money to print the calendar and to send it to schools around the country. Some of the people said okay, I understand that in some schools they need it on the wall and they can consult it and so on, but maybe you can find something more helpful for us that we are staying at the offices all day, so maybe a nap.

Speaker 4:

And we have joked around it and discussed the idea for some years now until one of my colleagues. She just finished the university this year and she said that her paper at the end was to make a nap. This was something interesting for us and she said that I feel confident enough that I can do an app for the calendar. So that was the point. We have been thinking about it for a few years now. We have been talking out with some humanists from other countries where they have replicated the calendar. For example, they have done different versions in Scotland, in Poland and in Spain. Actually, the one in Spain we are a bit envious because they received they even received a prize from a national science agency from Spain for a project that promotes scientific knowledge. So this is huge.

Speaker 1:

It's a wonderful initiative no congratulations and it's great to see it spreading around the world as well. So what can we talk through? Some of the key features and also how you envisage the app promoting scientific literacy both in Romania and globally.

Speaker 4:

So at the moment the app is available in Romanian and in English.

Speaker 4:

It basically offers your notification every day with information from science.

Speaker 4:

So, for example, three days ago was Darwin Day, so you get a notification that Darwin was born on this day and this year Plan is for you to know something about it and maybe, if the information is interesting enough for you, to maybe research it some more and to see some connection.

Speaker 4:

But you can also use it as a start of a conversation. If you go to a discussion or something and the teachers are using this to somehow in their science classes to engage children and students to collaborate and to communicate more about science A way that they use the calendar that we had printed, but also now they are using the app in the same manner. Our goal will be to, in the first stage, to develop the content and to write more every day, because now the information is the same as in the printed version, where you don't have enough space. But we will work on developing the content and also we hope, if there's interest from other organization to translate the content, we can provide the English version and they can translate it in another language and we can upload it in the app and make an update on it.

Speaker 1:

I wonder have you received any backlash or any objections to rolling out both of the calendars and now with the digital version?

Speaker 4:

With the printed calendar. Yes, because people saw it as offensive in the beginning, but a lot of other people liked the ideas. But now with the latest edition, the 2024 edition, the similarities with the orthodox calendars are not there anymore because this edition was, as the design was, as a comic book strip, very, very different from anything else. But with the app, we didn't receive any backlash. We only receive feedback on improving the content and on improving the settings or anything. But people were even during the testing period, they were really excited and when we made the call online for people who wanted to test the app before publishing it, everybody was really interesting and we even had testers from Malta, from Norway, that were really from South Africa, because I posted this on a humanist group and a lot of humanists who are interested in finding out what it is.

Speaker 1:

Fantastic. So I wonder, with the success of the calendar app, what role do you see digital tools and social media playing in the future of humanist advocacy and education?

Speaker 4:

I'm not sure here because on the one side, for us, social media has been a blessing for lack of a better word because of when you are an NGO with a very small budget, you try to make the best of it and to try to find the best ways to promote your projects and your actions.

Speaker 4:

But since last year, I think, the impact of social media is slower and has diminished a lot, and we are trying to find different ways of promoting this, because I still think that it helps a lot with building communities and with amplifying voices that are discussing humanism and secularism, and for us it has to do a lot with increasing accessibility for a lot of the projects. But we are trying different ways. We are trying to see if, through our newsletter, we can gather more people to the website we have two years ago. We have started to grow our Instagram account because until then, most of our communication was done via Facebook. Twitter is not that big in Romania, or X as it's called now, and we hope to convince our younger members to help us set up a TikTok account, because we do not have one at the moment.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, we keep getting the same request as well. That's where you're going to catch people get on to TikTok. So we will be posting some of these interview clips on TikTok, are we pleased to know? So, I guess, on that topic, if anybody listening would like to get in touch with you, either to support Azure or find out more about the science calendar, what is the best way to contact yourself and the group?

Speaker 4:

I think they can contact us on Facebook. We answer pretty quickly on our website, which is Azure, like the acronym AzureRO, If they wrote to us on social media, and they can even find me on Facebook. I'm reachable by people who are not my friends and I have the same name. I do not have a pseudonym or something. We answer pretty quickly and most of us are active all the time because we have very good internet in Romania. This is something that works in our favor and a lot of people have access to internet. And actually getting back to the calendar a little bit, in the beginning we decided to do the printed version because not many schools were connected to internet and many people had a phone or a tablet or something to access the information. But now there are more and more, even young students, that are using some device to access information, so I think it was for us a good time to launch the app for the calendar.

Speaker 1:

Yes, definitely. I think it's very positive. There's no point fighting the fact that younger and more people are going to have access to mobile devices. It's just about creating ethical tech and tech that is beneficial to society. That's going to be the driving force. So thank you for everything that you've done and everything you are doing with us. So I think it's a. With the app and the calendars, there's some fantastic initiatives that I think can be replicated globally. Before we go, what is something which you have changed your mind on recently?

Speaker 4:

I wanted to make a joke and to say pineapple on pizza, because this is really true I like pineapple, I like pizza, but I didn't like to mix it. But now I'm starting to change my mind a little bit, but in a serious version. I actually changed my mind about the importance of mental health, and we are working on a project now called Mental Health for Numb believers in Romania, and since I'm in my forties, growing up, this was not actually an issue and you could not openly talk about it. But interacting more and more with people a decade or more younger than me, I see their openness and the fact that they don't see a stigma around it or something like that, and I think there's a need for something like this for humanists, especially when dealing with depression or grieving, since we don't believe in an afterlife. It's really harder in these moments. But yeah, this is something that I changed my mind recently and with the help of other humanists that I met along the way.

Speaker 1:

Wonderful, very important topic, and I have every faith that, with the initiative of you and your team, you'll be working up with some fantastic support groups and initiatives going forward. So, monica Bellatiu, thank you so much for joining us on Humanism Now. Thank you, welcome back to Humanism Now, and thank you again to Monica Bellatiu for that fascinating interview and all of the brilliant work that she and her team are doing in Romania. So, aj, you were kind enough to introduce Monica to us and invited to the podcast, so was there anything new that you picked up from the interview there?

Speaker 3:

Well, actually, because I met Monica in Copenhagen last year and that was the first time we were there for the World Humanist Congress and the Humanist International General Assembly. I got to know the Romanians there fairly well, including also Remus Cenea, who Scott Jacobson went to visit in Ukraine. He's also a Romanian humanist and atheist and longstanding activist. So it's a very strong tradition in that part of the world and I think Monica laid out that picture very, very well, so important there, that we can't just let humanism be defined by what it is in the big hedge and when it countries the UK, the US, canada, etc. And especially coming out of the Soviet era and that hangover that they have they face them quite unique challenges. So we can't have a general purpose formula for humanism to work in all parts of the world. Again, with my humanist international hat on, I think, empowering and that's really one important role, and the important role that HI does, I think, is to look at what humanism means in individual parts of the world and allow our members who are the humanist organizations in those countries to have a way of expressing and amplifying their needs and their challenges and connecting that with what other humanist groups are doing in other parts of the world and trying to help them and see where, as you said, build local communities.

Speaker 3:

How is humanism? Is it a watchword on campus? On university campuses there's a lot of. I mean in many countries, including Poland, for example, is one very concerning religious trends amongst youth. We usually think that older people are more religious and the youngsters aren't so much, but because of the populist wave sweeping across Europe and the Brexit fallout and so many things inflation and COVID young people are feeling hard done by.

Speaker 3:

So humanists need to be in that conversation and I think Monica, her husband and their organization are doing really, really valuable work, which we need more of. And another guest who I'm sure will have on soon this year, if not soon after, should be Yiri, who's our friend from the Czech Republic, who's started a humanist group, and just by himself, because he realized there wasn't one there and he ended up trying to find someone to start a group, and yet he ended up starting one himself. I think Javan, the young humanist international membership development officer and coordinator that we interviewed last year, mentioned this as well. So those kind of success stories are everywhere to be found and we want to see them, I think, in Europe and also beyond, inspired by what Monica's doing.

Speaker 1:

It's a lovely story and there's definitely some fantastic examples of these groups sprouting up and offering, as you say, young people or people of any generation who feel that there isn't a group that shares their beliefs or can speak for them, offering them that sense of belonging, which I think is really important.

Speaker 2:

Building on what AJ was saying about particular circumstances, I think it is something which we hear it as well is this idea that humanism equals a quite stark form of atheism which is associated with authoritarian, totalitarian communism and therefore it can be discredited and dismissed. And I think when we hear it in the West we don't need to pay too much attention to it because it's sort of patently wrong. I mean, humanism is liberal, is progressive, is democratic, is about human rights, so it's inimical to authoritarianism. But I think in that part of the world there is that sort of quite strong association isn't there in people's minds that it's a while now, since 1989, but still there is still this legacy which can taint humanism. So I suppose developing strong arguments against that and providing those and supporting that more sort of reasonable narrative I think is an important thing. I also just commented on this sort of populist way that we've talked about a few times.

Speaker 2:

Now that again AJ picks up on it. It's difficult in a way for humanists to combat that in places like Romania etc and elsewhere, because we don't have simplistic solutions, do we? We do try to offer a nuanced, evidence-based approach which is not as easy to put across in a sort of snappy, populist sort of way. So that is a challenge for us, but I think, again, we have to apply that and I think some of the things that came out towards the end about ways in which humanists can engage.

Speaker 2:

So I really liked what I wanted to say about the sort of the calendar idea, which is so it's almost like here's something useful that people can engage with, and also developing this science literacy app. We can have a broad palette of approaches, some of which are more sort of explicitly about ideas and values, and others which are about so much more practical things, and it's hard to say. I don't want to sort of see scientific literacy improve and obviously, particularly as that affects economies as well. So, yeah, it was a really interesting interview and, yeah, thank you to both of you for facilitating and hosting it. I learned a lot from it and there were some really good ideas came out of it.

Speaker 1:

And it all ties back, I think, to the start of our recording today, speaking of populism and offering simple solutions, and very often populist movements are very anti science, particularly when the science doesn't agree with what their particular narrative is, and so I totally agree. I think that the idea of the science app not just helping young people fall in love with science, appreciate it, get the wonder and the awe, but then I think what comes later is exactly as you mentioned, encouraging a science literate population to understand that this isn't necessary, that the facts can change, that science is just our best understanding at any particular one time. This isn't, it's not a fixed opinion. It is more a way of approaching problems and questioning, but continued questioning. I think I heard recently one of things that lots of science deniers or conspiracy theorists do will claim that they're questioning everything, but they question up to a certain point where the point being denying that, the scientific consensus, questioning that, but not questioning further their own assumptions or the alternative information that they're receiving. So I think I think it's really important to develop that love of science in young people and develop scientific literacy. And then again, perhaps something we don't focus on enough, as you say, where there's more established groups, but I think it's a beautiful thing that they've been doing there and congratulations, monica, and keep up the fantastic work that you've been doing.

Speaker 1:

Now, to close out the podcast, this week we are going to try introducing a new feature.

Speaker 1:

You may notice that at the end of most of our interviews we ask our guests for something that they've changed their mind on recently, and I was recently suggested to me that maybe it'd be nice to hear what some of our panel have changed their mind on.

Speaker 1:

So, given this the first time we will run this feature, I decided to step forward myself. This week it comes with a book recommendation as well why we Sleep, by Matthew Walker. Many listeners may already be familiar with this, and I first encountered Matthew Walk on several podcasts and was so intrigued, and so it's completely changed my opinion and attitude towards my own sleep patterns. I used to believe I was someone who could function quite well on less than eight hours of sleep a night, and since taking my sleep much more seriously and aiming to get at least eight hours of solid sleep, I've realized that that was never the case and have managed to find so many areas of my life dramatically improved by following some of the tips there. So changing my opinion on how much sleep is required has been my big change of mind.

Speaker 2:

So far Can I just come in there to say that. I think AJ was present as well. I won't name the person, but one of our regular group members revealed shockingly that they survive on three hours sleep a night and have done for many years. That came out after the last talk in the pub and I can't understand how that person could survive, frankly on, but they seem. They seem pretty well.

Speaker 1:

I was there for that too, and that was part of the reason why that reminded me to maybe bring it up during today's today's recording, and I honestly felt as though I've started to like see the world differently since actually being able to engage and have so much more appreciation and faster reaction times throughout the day. So, yes, potentially we will get that member on the podcast and see they're willing to reveal themselves. But, aj, I know you're someone who can survive on very little sleep as well. Is this something you've looked into?

Speaker 3:

Often into using analogy. Doctors have the worst sort of health habits smoking, eating junk food and so on, and I think it's the same with you. Know people have a neuroscience background and who know about neuropsychology and as I have done in my studies, and should know better and should get more sleep. But unfortunately I've not been able to buy them. I'm on a good path where there was a time a couple of years ago where I was getting maybe five and a half, if on a good day I was asleep, which again I was a bit younger than it wasn't affecting me as such. I was. I was certainly. I knew consciously, just like a doctor who is chainspoken, knows that it's bad for them, but they, just they. You find some excuses are well, you know I'm doing charity work and helping others and so on, but really it's of course it's everyone's choice how they want to use, use or abuse their bodies, I suppose, and I made that choice consciously. But now, with different priorities and I play a different role in in my charity work and volunteering work and also in my paid office work during the day, my day job, so that's allowed me to be able to take a better care of myself.

Speaker 3:

Yes, I would say so. At the moment I actually also sleep tracking has really helped me. That's been a game changer. I mean Matthew Walker, his, his book and his book. Many friends who have recommended me. I've not read his book but I've seen several podcasts and interviews and, from what I understand about sleep which there's still a lot more to discover about sleep when you're a science perspective, as you might imagine but from my understanding his, his approach is entirely sensible. So that was a game changer as such, although I may have some experience to you after I've read the book.

Speaker 3:

But for me, sleep tracking, especially with an Apple Watch I mean I wear this all the time that really has that that was my game changer when I could actually have the app tracking the sleep for me and telling me okay, every morning I've got a sleep debt of 5%, 10%. So I then I have a target and then you have kind of a bio feedback thing. It makes it, it kind of gamifies it for you so you can try and hit targets and things. So, even though I don't do that in other parts of my life, I'm not like a you know steps or a gym rat or that kind of. I tend to just sort of go off feelings for those, and I manage very well. But for sleep, I needed something like this to do that. So, yes, I don't want to be too proud or careless about saying that I have very little sleep, but now I'm on average, I'm getting 10.5, seven, which for me is I think it's a big improvement to where it was before. Maybe not enough for you know, for Matthew Walker, but in any case I think it's.

Speaker 3:

I'm sensing myself as I'm saying. Am I getting tired during the day? Am I losing energy? Am I losing focus and those kind of feedback questions that I ask myself. I'm perfectly happy with what my body is giving me at the moment. Of course it can change and we have to adapt as our bodies get older, so that's also a key part to play in it. I was also up to say fasting has helped me a lot and we can talk about that maybe on another podcast and going vegan all roughly around the same time in the past five years. How about these changes? So I can't say which one maybe has made the most unique difference, but altogether they've made a cumulative difference. We're now I'm 32, but I feel and work and just sort of live, better than I was when I was 21.

Speaker 1:

I think you touched on it, AJ. We're all just having to deal with getting older. That's the main thing. Great, and with that we come to the end of this week's episode. So thank you very much to our panelists. Mark, Thank you, James, Very much enjoyed that. And AJ Thanks James. It was a pleasure. And just a reminder to our listeners, you can follow us on all social media. We have now launched our TikTok channel to add to all of the regular social media, and most of these episodes will be going live soon on YouTube. So please do like and share and if you would be so kind to leave us a review on any on your favorite podcast platform, it really helps us for other people to find the show. And finally, if you would like to submit a question, comment guest there is a form linked at the bottom of the show notes, and we would love any support which anyone can provide via our Patreon channel. So with that, I hope you have a great week and thank you for joining us on Humanism Now.