07/26/2011 06:16 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2011

Humanism Can Help Norway and the World

The recent atrocity in Norway is causing the world to examine what factors help drive a person to commit mass violence. On analyzing Anders Breivik's manifesto it's clear that one of the most prominent afflictions present within the chaotic ramblings was his emphatic ingroup-outgroup bias, which lead him to see Islam as the "enemy" and view Muslim European immigrants as an inherently evil group, attempting to take Europe away from the "natives."

In psychological parlance, this inter-group aggression due to an 'in-group-out-group bias' describes a situation in which a person feels that their group in society is being threatened by another group which they see as fundamentally different. Such people are more likely to act out their aggression because, as one study by Naomi Struch and Shalom Schwartz noted, "The more one dehumanizes the out-group, the less they deserve the humane treatment enjoined by universal norms, and hence the greater the aggression." An intense apprehension of outgroups was a central part of Anders Breivik's vision of "native Europeans ... fighting against the Islamisation of their lands."

While religious movements generally depend on convincing their adherents that they are part of a divinely chosen in-group and all others are not, humanism is founded on the consensus that we are all human and that the notion of an out-group in and of itself is an obstacle to our advancement. Though religious people may strive to better the lives of all, their efforts are often limited by the existence of an unavoidable hurdle: all who don't follow their faith are part of the out-group. So no matter how much one faith may wish lower the wall that separates them from another, there will always be a tripping stone between them -- it is exactly this block that a humanistic approach helps us step over.

Overcoming barriers put in place by religion, ideology, geography, and the like, is frequently attainable. In fact, it is the sort of feat often repeated in history. In hunter-gatherer times, humans extended the circle of empathy to their family unit alone. Over generations, this circle has grown, from family, to tribe, to nation-state, and even further. The events in Norway are a reminder of the desperate need for humanity to continue evolving our ability to empathize until we view our world as inhabited by one people.

With one primary in-group, we automatically have a world where harmful aggressive impulses are de-emphasized and overall conflict is reduced. The opposite is also true as Struch and Schwartz noted, "The more sharply separated one feels from others, the less one is likely or able to empathize with them ... and hence to humanize them."

Of course, there are differences that distinguish us from one another in important ways. From language to culture, to gender, there are many things that render individuals unique, and yes, different. The important thing is that we overcome obstacles that hinder our ability to bring about good for and within others -- that we do our best to step over barriers when we see them, to take them down if they no longer serve a purpose, and most crucially, not to build new ones.

On August 12 - 14, the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Norwegian Humanist Association are holding the World Humanist Congress in Oslo, Norway. The main theme of the congress is Humanism and Peace. Their timely statement reads, "Peace is one of the fundamental criteria for the long term survival of the human species and should be a concern of all Humanists."

Humanists from around the world will gather in Norway to celebrate diversity, thought, and reason, breaking down barriers that divide us. On the heels of this tragedy, our movement mourns the causalities, and continues to work toward a future in which in-group-out-group is no longer a cause for devastation, but a history from which our society has evolved.