Kia ora:

We have two interesting events during August. It would be good to see you at the debate or the conference or both!

August monthly meeting: Monday 4 August is REPLACED by a debate ” THAT GOD IS DEAD ”
Monday 4 August: 6.00 pm until 7.30 pm with refreshments afterwards.
Rutherford House, Victoria University of Wellington – part of the Downtown Victoria University campus next to the Wellington Central Railway Station.

The second in a series of public debates organised by the Victoria University Debating Society. Paul Morris, Head of the School of Religious Studies, will chair the debate.

For the affirmative, Udayan Mukherjee, an Economics, Linguistics, and Philosophy student, Kent Stevens, Humanist president and Tom Mathews, a Philosophy, Maths, and Politics student.

For the negative, Gordon Copeland MP, Tim McKenzie of the Anglican Chaplaincy, and Jo Connell a recent graduate and debater now working in the Ministry of Economic Development.

Supporters are urged to attend as the debate is seen as exploring issues and not verbally crushing opponents.

· September monthly meeting: Monday 2 September.

Humanist society member Vincent Gray will talk to us about Charles Bradlaugh 1833-1891 a political activist and famous English atheist of the 19th. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866 and was editor of The National Reformer.

· 2008 Conference: New Zealand and Australia’s Secular Heritage and its Future

9.00 am until 5.30 pm – Saturday 30 August,
Lecture Theatre 2, Rutherford House,
Pipitea Campus, Victoria University of Wellington, (Near the Railway Station).
This is a collaborative effort between the Humanist Society of New Zealand, the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, and the National Secular Association of Australia.

Speakers include:
· Lloyd Geering;
· Max Wallace of the National Secular Association of Australia,
· Bill Cooke of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists,
· Iain Middleton of the Humanist Society of New Zealand,
· and Lewis Holden president of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa NZ (Inc.).

A moderated panel session will follow the papers.

Dinner: The conference will be followed by an informal dinner at 7.30 pm, preceded by pre-dinner drinks at the Fisherman’s Table Oriental Parade, Wellington.

Registration: $20.00 waged or $10.00 unwaged. Registration includes attendance and morning and afternoon tea. Lunch may be purchased at nearby Wellington cafes.

Please let us know of your intent to attend by writing to Humanist Society of New Zealand, P.O. Box 3372 Wellington, including the number attending and names and addresses and a cheque made out to: Humanist Society of New Zealand (Inc.)

· AGM 2008:

The 2008 AGM of HSNZ will be held in October. Details in the September newsletter.

The Conference will replace our usual annual seminar.

· Radio Access:
11 am 783 kHz Wellington area, Sunday 24 August, and 21 September and every fourth Sunday after that.
In the July Access programme, Kent and Jeff interviewed Gareth Hughes who is a list MP candidate for the Green Party. Gareth is also Climate Change Outreach Coordinator and Youth Outreach Coordinator.
If you are outside the Wellington radio broadcast area, go to www.accessradio.org.nz to listen or to download a pod cast after the event.

· Email discussion group:
Operating on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.comlgroup/nzhumanism .
Join the group to contribute to the discussion?

· A Thought for the Future: In the future factories will only employ a man and a dog. The man to feed the dog, and the dog to stop the man touching the machinery.

Gaylene Middleton

Note: The Humanist Society of New Zealand promotes: ethics, science and rational thought, democracy and universal human rights, personal liberty combined with social responsibility, and public benefit, while not having allegiance to any political party and does not support any political party’s policy as such or subsidise any political party.


POLITICS

PAUL KELLY

ON NEUTRAL GROUND

We have already invented a way for the devout and the godless to get along in public, says Paul Kelly.

We just have to believe in it.

DESPITE THE ARDENT desire of many, religion just won’t go away. The progressive secularisation of modern societies was supposed to push religion to the margins where it would wither away of its own accord. But if anything the religious voice seems to be growing louder, and increasingly permeating our politics. Prominent multiculturalists such as Bhikhu Parekh, author of Rethinking Multiculturalism, and Tariq Modood, author of Multicultural Politics, claim that religious affiliation is an important dimension of identity and should be protected as an aspect of an individual’s civil and political rights. The state, and everyone else, they argue, should be compelled to respect religious belief. In response, the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and AC Grayling have lambasted the irrationality of religious belief and its threat to Enlightenment values. And they take issue with the multiculturalist claim that religion deserves respect. But at the same time their own political prescriptions for dealing with this challenge are either naïve or inadequate. Atheists may be right in their insistence that god doesn’t exist, and that it is illogical to believe in a supernatural creator, but this does not take care of the political issue of how a society composed of both the faithful and the faithless organises itself. If there is an argument for secularising the public realm, it has to be different from the claim that religious claims are probably all false. Even if religion is harmful in the way that Dawkins or Harris claim, it is not the sort of harm that can be politically eradicated without imposing an intrusive and repugnant tyranny.

We therefore need to seek an alternative account of political secularism that distinguishes it from politically naïve atheism. Contemporary Liberal political theory is the best place to start.

Individuals are free to hold and practice whatever beliefs they wish as long as they are consistent with the equal rights of others.

Liberal secularism in its contemporary form is traceable to the ideas of the Harvard political philosopher John Rawls and the American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. For both thinkers a secular liberal order distributes and protects the rights of equal citizens. These rights ensure the equal status of citizens irrespective of their religious, political, and cultural identities. Individuals are free to hold and practice whatever beliefs they wish as long as they are consistent with the equal rights of others. This has the important effect of privatising religion. Religious groups cannot claim special public protection or support, as this would involve some people having to subsidise the life choices of others. But religious communities can thrive as private associations under the law.

Religious groups cannot claim special public protection or support, as this would involve some people having to subsidise the life choices of others. But religious communities can thrive as private associations under the law.

For liberals the state must be neutral between individuals life choices. Consequently, it neither promotes, nor does it seek to suppress religion. Individuals remain free to say what they wish about others’ beliefs and values. More controversially, Rawls argues that when deliberating about fundamental rights and liberties, legislators and judges must adopt the language of public reason. This means that no individual can have their rights denied or altered for reasons that they could reasonably reject and that legislation must forgo appeals to contentious religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs.

One obvious consequence of this Liberal approach is that it builds an idea of individualism into its fundamental presuppositions. This individualism however will not be compatible with religious or ethical views that put the good of the group above any consideration of the interests of the individual. The other important point about the Liberal resource-based conception of equality is that though it equalises external goods, it does not require that everybody respect the value of everyone else’s life choices, beliefs or values. In this way, it rejects the multiculturalist egalitarianism of Modood and Parekh, who insist that religious beliefs be accorded respect. Instead, it demands equality of respect for the person not the belief. Critics of this view claim that Liberalism respects an abstract person, not a real person with gender, race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs which they should not be expected to shuck off when they enter the public sphere. Yet this commitment to abstraction is no mere accident it is central to the Liberal vision and it is there – and should remain there – for two crucial reasons.

FIRST, THE IDEA that an individual is identical with their ends, goals, or beliefs is simply false. Personal coherence can withstand considerable changes of belief, culture, and values. Such change might be costly to the person but it is not the case that anyone who loses her faith (religious or political) ceases to be the same person in anything but a metaphorical sense. Abstraction only requires that we see no set of commitments as being definitive of a person overtime. Identity is not destiny, and it is the attempt to make it so that raises the political problem of religious and cultural authority in pluralistic societies.

The second reason for rejecting the idea that the person is defined by beliefs and values is that this would deny that people can adopt the perspective of a citizen. Citizen equality requires that people see themselves not only as belonging to a variety of identity-conferring groups but as doing so in a shared public space where not everyone will hold the same beliefs as they do. Equality (and civility) requires us to be able to step back sufficiently from our beliefs and values to live a common and minimally coercive life with others. This, not the existence or otherwise of a supernatural being, is the fundamental reason for the Liberal preference for secularism in the public realm. In a confessional state people who do not share the religious view of the majority will either be marginalised and denied the equal protection of the law or they will be required to falsely comply with beliefs and practices that they do not believe in. Such sullen submission is precisely the kind of false religiosity that the Enlightenment challenged and is something that most religions consider valueless.

To seek peaceful reconciliation of all beliefs would be to afford a spurious recognition

Of course there will be religious zealots who argue they should never compromise with infidels and apostates. Let me stress that this is by no means a peculiarity of Muslims, as British history amply demonstrates. Yet militant defenders of religion who are not prepared to accept the burdens of civility cannot expect the protections of Liberal laws. Reciprocity is central to civility and Liberals have no obligation to protect those who act in an anti-Liberal fashion. They do have an obligation to protect those who hold anti-Liberal views but who pursue them peacefully. This view is overlooked by those New Atheists who wish to purge religion completely from the public domain. Liberals are not committed to the forcible maintenance of a belief in Liberal values and are prepared to rely on the force of argument alone to defend these values. But it can and should defend those values in ways that appeal both to atheists and to theists.

Liberal secularism is not a religious belief and has no non-political value. It is a view that applies to politics which is fundamentally characterised by ineradicable disagreement. It is of course possible that some religions might accept Liberal values only until demographic change gives them the monopoly of power. This is one of the dangers inherent in the system. But if a religious or political view does persist in claiming that it alone is not bound by the long-term obligations of Liberal civility, then it can hardly complain if it is criticised or vilified as a dangerous and backward doctrine. Such was the position of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe for much of the last four centuries, and it is a perception that it has struggled hard to overcome in the last 50 years. Moderate Islam Is engaged in a similar struggle today.

Alongside those militant atheists who argue that Liberal secularism already concedes too much to religion, multiculturalists such as Parekh and Modood argue that the Liberal secularism I have defended assumes a caricature of religion as an uncompromising and static view of the world that has no place in plural societies. In place of this caricature they argue that the proper way to seek fair and equal terms of social cooperation is to negotiate ways around our differences in mutual respect.

THE PROBLEM WITH this is that it demands too much of religions and fails to offer them true respect. We do not expect and would not desire uniformity and agreement in the realm of politics or personal morality. Disagreement, disapproval, and denial form part of many religions, as well as non-religious ethical positions. If we are to respect religion then we need to respect it on its own terms, and that involves allowing it to speak for itself in its own way and to make its own exclusive truth claims. Such a strategy will indeed be controversial, challenging and sometimes offensive to others, but it is also part of the exchange of ideas that Liberals value above all else. To seek peaceful reconciliation of all beliefs, whereby no one is allowed to offend or disagree with anyone else, would be to afford a spurious recognition and respect that effectively silence religion altogether.

Of course, if religion is afforded this liberty to be itself and offend the sensibilities of others, then it must accept that others will be offended by it and criticise, mock and challenge its beliefs accordingly. This offence will no doubt be irksome but it remains offence and not harm as long as it is not translated into political and social marginalisation.

As long as individuals do not violate the civil and political rights of others, they enjoy the protection of the Liberal state, whatever their beliefs.

Liberal secularism is an ideal only poorly realised in our current politics but it is a necessary ideal It may well also be a godless doctrine in the sense that it does not appeal to theological premises, but it need not be a doctrine that attempts to eradicate religious belief; indeed, by not privileging anyone one religion in the public domain in a paradoxical way it protects religion by freeing it to speak in its own voice. Liberalism ensures we all have a right to do that. r

PAUL KELLY is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and author of Liberalism (Polity, 2004).

Republished from New Humanist July August 2008