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gbs Annual Review 2022

A year of ups and downs

2022 marks the end of an eventful year in which the Giordano Bruno Foundation (gbs) achieved remarkable successes, but also suffered painful losses. For example, the gbs celebrated the abolition of § 219a StGB with physician Kristina Hänel, but also had to bid farewell to its founder Herbert Steffen, who died at the age of 88.


1st quarter: January to March

January: gbs board spokesman Michael Schmidt-Salomon ushered in the "secular decade" with his 2022 New Year's address. He called attention to the prospect that in 2022 – for the first time in German history – Catholics and Protestants will comprise less than 50 percent of the German population, and that in ten years at the latest, non-denominational Christians will represent the absolute majority in Germany. Based on this, he called for lasting political changes, including the decriminalization of abortion, the replacement of historic state payments, a fundamental reform of the church labor law, and a consistent separation of state and church. (In August 2022, the magazine SPIEGEL explicitly mentioned the subject of the "secular decade". The SPIEGEL article "Land der Gottlosen" ("Land of the godless") featured fowid director Carsten Frerk, who in response to the question of whether the de-churching of society was a temporary phenomenon or a lasting one offered a nice bon mot: "It's like losing your hair: What's gone is gone and won't come back!").

From January 19 to 21 and on January 27, the gbs demonstrated in Munich against the concealment of the church abuse scandal. These demonstrations were prompted by the publication of the second abuse study by the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising and the press conference held by Cardinal Marx one week later. Once again, medial attention was attracted by the "Hängemattenbischof", which the "11. Gebot" ("11th Commandment") activist group used to support the victims' initiatives on behalf of the gbs, as well as the new large posters "Aufklärung auf Katholisch" ("Enlightenment in Catholic") and "Wir sind schuldig!" ("We are guilty!", in reference to an old headline in the Bild tabloid). Conservative circles, however, were more upset about the fact that the gbs protests were supported by the "Maria 2.0" church reform movement, among others.

February: On February 15, the criminal trial against the radical Christian abortion opponent and creator of the "Babycaust" website Klaus Günter Annen took place. The trial was initiated by the Institut für Weltanschauungsrecht (ifw) in cooperation with physician Kristina Hänel, who was personally attacked by Annen. The court sentenced the anti-abortionist to a fine for insult, but did not recognize the offense of "incitement of the people," which had been raised by the gbs and the ifw, provoking vehement opposition in the media as well as in judicial circles.

On February 21, the gbs, together with the organizations "Deutsche Gesellschaft für Humanes Sterben" (DGHS), "DIGNITAS-Deutschland" and "Verein Sterbehilfe," presented the "Berliner Appell" ("Berlin Appeal") at the Haus der Bundespressekonferenz. It presents the ten central demands for humane assisted suicide in Germany. The press conference, which was moderated by former SPD top politician and gbs advisory board member Ingrid Matthäus-Maier, was covered for instance by the Tagesschau.

"A highly dangerous mix of nationalism and religion": The gbs was less surprised by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine than most Western commentators, since it had closely followed the ideological mobilization under Putin as well as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril I for many years. This was expressed in the statements the foundation published shortly after the Russian invasion on February 24.

March: On March 9, the gbs, in cooperation with the international organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), called for the immediate release of Saudi blogger and human rights activist Raif Badawi, who had completed serving his ten-year prison sentence on February 28. Raif was indeed released from prison two days later. However, he has to stay in Saudi Arabia for another 10 years due to an exit ban, which still prevents him from living with his wife Ensaf Haidar and his three children. In order to help Raif, with whom the foundation has been in close contact since March 2022, in his plight, the gbs launched an international fundraising campaign shortly afterwards and set up a trust account for Raif and Ensaf. At the same time, the gbs sought at the national and international level to have the inhumane 10-year exit ban lifted – but so far without success (which is certainly also due to the fact that the West is currently particularly dependent on energy supplies from Saudi Arabia, which the regime knows to exploit).

2nd quarter: April to June

April: On April 5, 2022, the gbs published the brochure "Schwangerschaftsabbruch im liberalen Rechtsstaat" ("Abortion in the Liberal Constitutional State"). The text is based on the statement on Kristina Hänel's constitutional complaint against § 219a StGB, which the Giordano Bruno Foundation and the Hans Albert Institute (HAI) had submitted in late March. In it, gbs spokesman Michael Schmidt-Salomon explains that not only § 219a StGB is to be classified as unconstitutional, but the entire German legislation on abortion, since it contradicts, inter alia, the "imperative of ideological neutrality of the state" as well as the "right to free development of the personality" guaranteed by the constitution. The conclusion of the comprehensive analysis is clear: "Abortion was never in violation of the German Basic Law; rather, it was the 'compulsion to give birth' to which women had to submit that was unlawful. Such a blatant violation of women's dignity should never have been permitted."

In mid-April, just in time for Easter, news that Catholics and Protestants now constitute less than half the country's population caused a stir. The gbs had already published the corresponding data from the "Forschungsgruppe Weltanschauungen in Deutschland" ("Research Group Worldviews in Germany", fowid) in January to justify the beginning of the "secular decade" (see above), but the media did not pick up on this until the Christian holiday. Also during Easter, the Austrian channel ServusTV addressed the highly relevant topic of "Kirche und Krieg: Gewalt im Namen Gottes?" ("Church and War: Violence in the Name of God?") Michael Schmidt-Salomon, who represented the religion-critical perspective in this talk show, had the opportunity to shed light on the religious-nationalist background of the war in Ukraine and, at the end, even to address the TV audience with a "humanistic Easter message.

May: May 7, 2022, marked the tenth anniversary of the seminal "Cologne Ruling," which granted boys too the right to genital self-determination by classifying a medically unindicated foreskin removal ("circumcision") as a punishable bodily injury. Since then, May 7 has become a worldwide symbol of children's rights to self-determination. As in previous years, the gbs participated in the Wordwide Day of Genital Autonomy (WWDOGA) in 2022 and reaffirmed the position it had already taken in 2012, i.e. that religiously based circumcisions should only be performed at an age when those affected can decide for themselves and assess the consequences of the procedure. After all, foreskin amputation is by no means a trivial matter, but a "high-risk, painful, sometimes traumatizing procedure that involves the irreversible amputation of a highly sensitive, functionally useful body part."

On May 19, the "Zentralrat der Konfessionsfreien" ("Central Council of the Non-Denominational") made its first public appearance. The gbs had already suggested the establishment of such a central council in its founding year 2004. It was also instrumental in enabling the new "lobby organization of the non-denominational" to present its political program, "The Secular Traffic Light," in the House of the Federal Press Conference 18 years later. As the chairman of the Central Council, best-selling author and gbs advisory board member Philipp Möller, emphasized at the press conference, "the traffic light coalition has the historic opportunity to make Germany a truly secular and worldview-neutral state." In the future, the Central Council of the Non-Denominational intends to contribute emphatically to ensuring that this opportunity is seized.

In late May, the gbs criticized the extensive public subsidization of the Katholikentag in Stuttgart. David Farago, who was on site with the "11. Gebot" ("11th Commandment: Thou shalt pay for thy own Church Convention") with three large sculptures (Moses, Geldhamster and Hängemattenbischof), explained: "With 241 Euros per visitor, the Katholikentag this year receives the highest subsidy ever paid since the beginning of our statistics in 2000. These absurdly high subsidy sums are not compatible with a worldview-neutral state!"

Also towards the end of May, the first meeting of scholarship holders of the Bertha von Suttner-Studienwerk took place at the gbs headquarters in Oberwesel. With good food and good wine, the discussions lasted well into the night. The resulting lack of sleep did not dampen the good mood. "I have never met so many interesting and nice people in one place," said one of the Suttner fellows at the closing event. "The atmosphere here was just fantastic. It greatly exceeded my expectations!"

June: In mid-June, the gbs and the Great Ape Project published a representative study showing that the majority of Germans oppose keeping apes in zoos. The data evaluated by the "Forschungsgruppe Weltanschauungen in Germany" (fowid) shows that non-denominational people are significantly more opposed to keeping apes than people of faith and that women are more receptive than men to the suffering of apes that have to spend their lives in a zoo instead of in the wild. The age distribution proved to be even more important: while more than 75 percent of 18-34 year-olds oppose keeping apes in zoos, only 61 percent of those over 55 do. gbs advisory board member Colin Goldner, head of the "Great Ape Project" in Germany, saw this as "a clear sign that animal ethics arguments are more solidly established in the younger generation than among older people."

On June 24, the German Bundestag deleted the controversial paragraph 219a from the Penal Code – a great success for physician Kristina Hänel, whose proceedings the gbs had been extensively supporting since 2018. Since June 24, doctors in Germany can no longer be prosecuted for publicly providing information on abortions. This is a first important step towards the long overdue decriminalization of abortion, which the gbs has been working towards for many years together with the pro-choice movement and the "Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung" (Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination). Accordingly, spirits were high at the "219a farewell party" that Kristina Hänel hosted a short time later on her farm near Giessen. (The mood was dampened, however, by the fact that on the same day that § 219a was abolished in Germany, the somewhat liberal abortion law in the USA was overturned by Trumpist judges).

3rd quarter: July to September

July: The Jehovah's Witnesses ought to be revoked their status as a corporation under public law: This was the assessment of a legal commentary published by the Institut für Weltanschauungsrecht (ifw) in early July in its online publication "Weltanschauungsrecht aktuell". The commentary was based on a ruling by the Hamburg Regional Court, which in November 2020 had found that "aggressive alienation from society and the state" was a characteristic feature of Jehovah's Witnesses.

August: The grand international congress "Celebrating Dissent" took place in Cologne on August 20 and 21, attended by ex-Muslims from all over the world as well as Western critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, and Michael Schmidt-Salomon. The congress was marked by the attack on Salman Rushdie, who had been seriously injured by a knife attack in New York a few days earlier. The congress participants thus marched together in a spontaneous demonstration through the center of Cologne, expressing their solidarity with Rushdie and calling for the strengthening of the right to freedom of expression, blasphemy, and apostasy. Maryam Namazie (president of the British Central Council of Ex-Muslims) perfectly summed up the combative mood of the congress when she quoted Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in her opening speech: "They can cut all the flowers, but they cannot stop spring from coming."

Not religious criticism and human rights, but the vision of a future-oriented humanistic ecology was at the heart of the large-scale concerts of the two most successful German punk rock bands ("Die Ärzte" and "Die Toten Hosen") in August 2022 on the Tempelhof grounds in Berlin. The bands worked closely with the "Cradle to Cradle" NGO, which has been supported by the Giordano Bruno Foundation (gbs) since its beginnings. gbs spokesman Michael Schmidt-Salomon, member of the C2C NGO's advisory board along with Ärzte drummer and singer Bela B, was invited to one of the four concerts along with gbs managing director Elke Held and gbs advisory board members Monika Griefahn (former environment minister in Lower Saxony and co-founder of Greenpeace Germany) and Michael Braungart (key innovator of the C2C approach) and has reported on this memorable event for the gbs website.

September: After the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been imprisoned by the religious morality police for not wearing a "properly" fitted headscarf, a large protest movement arose in Iran that could mark "the beginning of the end of the Islamic regime". Shortly after the outbreak of the unrest in Iran, acts of solidarity erupted around the world, with significant support in Germany from the Giordano Bruno Foundation. (Since 2007, when the gbs presented the "Central Council of Ex-Muslims" together with Iranian human rights activist Mina Ahadi, there have been close ties to the Iranian opposition - especially after the gbs created an iconographic image in early 2008 with the photo of a young woman lifting her veil, which met with great resonance in the Iranian women's movement; for more on this, see for example the video "10 Years of Ex-Muslims" from 2017.)

In September, liberal-minded people took to the streets not only in support of the Iranian opposition, but also to strengthen sexual self-determination rights in Germany. Under the slogan "I decide for myself!" the "Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung" (Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination) organized a counter-demonstration on September 17 in response to the "Marsch für das Leben" (March for Life) by radical pro-lifers, as well as the nationwide "Safe Abortion Day", which advocated for the long overdue removal of taboos surrounding abortion. Both campaign days were supported by the Giordano Bruno Foundation.

Lastly, the final round of interviews for the Suttner Fellowship 2022 took place at the end of September. From more than 160 applicants, 15 highly qualified candidates were eventually granted the scholarship. With this, the Bertha von Suttner-Studienwerk, which was founded in 2021 by the gbs, the Humanistische Verband Deutschlands (Humanist Association of Germany), the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Humanistischer Studierender (Federal Association of Humanist Students) and the Humanistische Akademie Deutschland (Humanist Academy of Germany), as of October supports 25 free-thinking students and doctoral candidates from various academic disciplines.

4th quarter: October to December

October: On October 5, the current issue of the "bruno." annual magazine was published, focusing on "The Secular Decade: How Germany will change". The magazine highlights examples of how the conditions for secular politics have never been as favorable as they are today. At the same time, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend an open society against its enemies on a global scale. The gbs had already published the "bruno." article "The Authoritarian Threat" in response to the election success of a post-fascist candidate in Italy at the end of September, which (not only, but also) used the example of the Russian war of aggression to show how identitarian thought patterns endanger the foundations of the modern constitutional state.

From October 7 to 9, the interdisciplinary symposium "Gehirne zwischen Genie und Wahnsinn" (Brains between Genius and Madness) was held at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. The prominently staffed congress, which dealt, for instance, with the question of where the boundaries lie between genius and mania, perspicacity and madness, was organized by the Institute for Popular Scientific Discourse (Kortizes), supported by the Giordano Bruno Foundation. The symposium was certainly not the only cooperation between the gbs and Kortizes in 2022. Previously, the gbs had sponsored, for example, the Kortizes event series "Vom Reiz der Sinne – Wahrnehmung und Gehirn".

After the gbs facilitated, among other things, the naked protest of exiled Iranian women against the muezzin call to prayer in Cologne in mid-October, it hosted the public ceremony on October 22 to mark Gerhard Czermak's the 80th birthday, who for many years had defended the separation of state and church as well as the imperative of the state's worldview neutrality as a kind of "one-man legal task force against the great army of pious state church lawyers" (see the event report on the Humanistic Press Service). Without Gerhard Czermak's important work, the Institut für Weltanschauungsrecht (ifw) would probably never have been founded – and the gbs would not have been able to achieve some important successes in court and in politics (consider for example the repeal of § 217 StGB (German Penal Code) and the deletion of § 219a.).

November: In November, the gbs was involved in the Stuttgarter Zukunftssymposium and the second scholarship holders' meeting of the Suttner-Studienwerk, but this was overshadowed by an event that shook the foundation to its core: On November 18, gbs founder Herbert Steffen died at the age of 88. His death marks the "End of an Era", as his friend and fellow board member Michael Schmidt-Salomon put it in his very personal obituary. Fortunately, in the preceding months "Herbie" had energetically pursued the publication of his autobiography "My long journey from Paul to Saul", and the "bruno." editorial team had decided to feature the article about his life at the beginning of the current issue of the annual magazine. Thus, at the end of his life, "Herbie" was able to receive the appreciation he deserved from many sides one last time.

Herbert Steffen's death was not the only heavy loss that the Foundation had to endure in 2022. In July 2022, a man had died who had made a decisive mark on the gbs in recent years through his generosity and thought-provoking ideas. Because he insisted that his name should never be made public, he was given the affectionate nickname "Herr Geheimrat" (Mr. Privy Councillor) in the internal foundation circles. Herbie and "Herr Geheimrat" were very different in terms of their personalities, but that did not prevent them from ensuring (together with others) that the gbs would continue to be able to work towards the goals of humanism and enlightenment in the future (more on this in the conclusion below).

December: On December 12, to mark the 10th anniversary of the "circumcision paragraph" 1631d of the German Civil Code (BGB), the Institut für Weltanschauungsrecht published an Open Letter calling on the German government and members of the German Bundestag to pay more attention to children's rights and to abolish § 1631d BGB, citing solid legal, medical and ethical reasons. The Foundation had previously announced three online readings, two of which had already aired by the time this annual review was published: On Advent 2, Niko Alm explained why state and religion must be separated; on Advent 3, Helmut Ortner pleaded for an enlightened debate culture. On Advent 4, Michael Schmidt-Salomon will outline a "philosophy of serenity" that radically questions traditional moral and life concepts. All lectures will be permanently available on the gbs YouTube channel. Anyone who missed the premieres on the Advent Sundays can watch the lectures at a later date.

Conclusion: A year full of ups and downs

As in previous annual reviews, we were only able to touch on a few Foundation activities in 2022. Even large activities such as the organization of the "DA! Art Award", to which more than 1,000 pieces of art from all over Germany were submitted, as well as the citizens' petition #NichtMeinKirchentag by the Düsseldorfer Aufklärungsdienst (DA) against the public funding of the 2027 Kirchentag had to be left out here for reasons of space.

Overall, 2022 proved to be a year full of ups and downs - both on a political and personal front. The death of its founder hit the foundation particularly hard, of course. Without "Herbie", the foundation's headquarters "Haus Weitblick" currently feels very empty, there is a constant feeling that something essential is missing. Nevertheless, the foundation's work will of course continue! From an organizational point of view, this is not a problem, since the gbs has been independent of financial contributions from its founder for a decade now. Although "Herbie" maintained personal contact with numerous donors until the very end, the large endowments to the gbs' consumable assets were "raised" by others (especially Michael Schmidt-Salomon and gbs managing director Elke Held). "Herbie" also increasingly withdrew from day-to-day political business for the foundation. A few weeks before his death, he even appointed a third board member, so that the foundation can proceed without interruption with a full board (Michael Schmidt-Salomon as chairman and the philosopher Ulla Wessels as deputy).

Insgesamt erwies sich 2022 als ein Jahr voller Höhen und Tiefen – sowohl auf politischer als auch auf persönlicher Ebene. Besonders getroffen hat die Stiftung natürlich der Tod ihres Gründers. Ohne "Herbie" fühlt sich der Stiftungssitz "Haus Weitblick" momentan sehr leer an, man hat ständig das Gefühl, dass etwas Wesentliches fehlt. Dennoch wird die Stiftungsarbeit selbstverständlich weitergehen! In organisatorischer Hinsicht stellt dies kein Problem dar, da die gbs schon seit einem Jahrzehnt von finanziellen Zuwendungen ihres Gründers unabhängig ist. "Herbie" hat zwar bis zum Schluss den persönlichen Kontakt zu zahlreichen Spenderinnen und Spendern gepflegt, die großen Zustiftungen ins Verbrauchsvermögen der gbs wurden allerdings von anderen "eingeworben" (insbesondere von Michael Schmidt-Salomon und gbs-Geschäftsführerin Elke Held). Auch aus dem politischen Alltagsgeschäft der Stiftung hat sich "Herbie" mehr und mehr zurückgezogen. Wenige Wochen vor seinem Tod hat er sogar ein drittes Vorstandsmitglied benannt, so dass die Stiftung nun ohne Unterbrechung mit einem vollständigen Vorstand (Michael Schmidt-Salomon als Vorsitzendem und der Philosophin Ulla Wessels als Stellvertreterin) weiterarbeiten kann.

The course for a successful future of the Giordano Bruno Foundation is therefore set - even if things will never be the same again after "Herbie's" death...