Kia ora: I heard an amazing interview between Kim Hill and Susan Blackmore on Saturday July 22. Susan Blackmore would be my dream speaker for a Humanist seminar along with a tour of NZ to speak with Humanists in other areas. Susan an Oxford graduate BA(Hons) (1973) in psychology and physiology, and an MSc in environmental psychology (1974) and PhD in Parapsychology (1980) from Surrey talked about Meme theory. Memes or “ideas” have a role in cultural evolution in a similar manner to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Of course this is vastly simplified, but now I must read her book The Meme Machine where she develops the idea of the meme first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Her latest book was published in 2004 is Consciousness: An Introduction where she covers topics such as artificial intelligence, intelligent design, God’s existence, the mind-body problem, the hard problem of consciousness, and philosophy of mind.

July monthly meeting: Monday 31 July, 7.30 pm until 9 pm, Turnbull House, Wellington. All welcome. Topic:. Nigel Kearney, a Humanist Society member, will talk on a couple of issues, plus any others that arise. Outlining his talk Nigel says: “The Easter trading Bill is interesting and is also an example of the wider issue of what the government’s obligations are in a diverse society such as ours. Humanists tend to view any government act that favours or even recognises religion as unjustified discrimination, while anything that favours secularism is perfectly right and proper. That’s quite a difficult position to defend and shop trading is just the tip of the iceberg. Freedom of speech is also an important political issue. Despite the South Park controversy and other minor matters, the major threats to freedom of speech in New Zealand are all secular ones. In the only court case I know of where a film or book has been banned solely because of the opinions it expressed, it was Christians who were the losers.” At the meeting we do enjoy reading the e-mails with your thoughts, it is good to be in touch, where distance or other commitments make it difficult to attend. e-mail Kent at KentStevens77(at)yahoo.com.

Submissions submitted: Over recent months 4 submissions have been written.
They are: 1. Organ Donation submission (we support the establishment of a donation register)
2. & 3. Easter trading submission: there are 2 tandem bills (we support the lifting of trading restrictions)
4. Repeal of section 59. Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline, submitted by Humanists for non-violence. This issue of changing society’s stance on the use of excessive force to discipline children has been a project with the Humanist society for many years. Maureen Hoy , who was HSNZ Secretary for many years, began this initiative and there have been articles published in the NZ Humanist magazine.

AGM/Seminar: We are beginning to plan for the 2006 AGM and seminar. Further Details will be advised. If you wish to have information before the newsletter arrives please phone Gaylene at 04 232 4497.

Winter solstice celebration: Our Pot Luck dinner at Mark Fletcher’s was most enjoyable. There were lovely views over the Hutt valley, a warm fire and convivial atmosphere. We watched Mark’s cherished video of the Amazing Randi speaking at a NZ Skeptics conference some years ago. Amazing Randi whose full name is Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born 7/8/1928. He is a debunker of pseudo science and more may be learnt at his website www.randi.org .

Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz July 30. The programme will discuss the recent submission on the repeal of section 59 by “Humanists for non-violence”. For those living outside the Wellington reception area it is possible to listen to the broadcast on the internet site: www.accessradio.org.nz. Click on Wellington Access Radio. At the home page click on the talk/link icon. On the Menu on the left hand side of the screen click on Radio, and with your sound up the radio is very audible. You do not require broadband to listen.
The July 2 broadcast featured an interview with Vincent Gray who spoke about global warming. Vincent considers that temperature graphs showing global warming are flawed as the weather stations are situated in or near cities where local warming is a result of population activities.

Email discussion group: Is operating on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nzhumanism .

Email News: Those people who have provided an email address receive additional email Humanist News bulletins and items of interest. If you would like to be on the mailing list, please email iain-middleton(at)clear.net.nz . Remember to let us know if you change your email or postal address.

Interested in meeting Humanists travelling in New Zealand? If you would like to meet overseas Humanists travelling in NZ, please e-mail Iain at iain-middleton(at)clear.net.nz or write to PO Box 3372 Wellington. We occasionally receive enquires from overseas Humanists travelling in New Zealand who would like to meet with fellow Humanists.

Two interesting articles below:
First the President’s Column from the new IHEU president Sonja Eggerickx, and
Second an article by Michael Marsden who attended an Alpha course in England. These courses are very popular in NZ and you may have seen their advertising at churches in your area.

Gaylene Middleton

Sonja Eggerickx IHEU President

I used to be a teacher, and I know that the ideal situation is when pupils attend school to learn. This may seem obvious, but in practice it is different. This is true at least in the Western world, and I guess that kids are kids, youngsters are youngsters, anywhere in the world!

Of course, a lot of them do work and learn, and succeed. Some of them are encouraged by their parents to succeed so that they can earn their own living. Others may have had no choice in the matter of the education they received. But in the pursuit of livelihood, it seems that in general the most important reason for obtaining an education is taking a back seat!

Education gives us knowledge to understand the world, to understand how to live together, to know what is going on… we can lose all our belongings in a fire, a war … But what we learnt belongs to us, so we have to take care of it. I once heard an Auschwitz-survivor who said: ‘they took everything but my mind; my thinking and my knowledge remained with me’ and in this sentence you can find the ultimate reasons to learn, to educate oneself!

The Purpose of Education Of course, the systems of education are very different throughout the world. And so is the content of what is learnt and what is taught in the context of the family or in the school environment. In some parts of the world children do not even learn to write or read properly; in other parts children have all the facilities. But even there a lot of them do not succeed, and we can still find people who are not capable of distinguishing facts from fiction, who are unable to use critical intelligence in their daily lives.

As Humanists, we should keep in mind that every child has the right to go to school, to learn about society, about the origins of the world, about life, about differences between people, and about tolerance. We do have the obligation to create and sustain school systems where pupils are prepared to take up responsibilities for their own lives, and in everything they do.

Pupils can do this only if they learn well. Children are curious about the world, about life, about society: we have to teach them sciences so that they know that thunder and lightning is not a divine punishment; that the myths and stories about the origins of life are jewels in the history of human culture, trying to explain what was not known at the time, but no more than that. But we have to teach them practical skills: so they can read and understand contracts, laws, … as otherwise we wouldn’t know how to live with others, we wouldn’t know how to react if we disagree.

A Humanist education will teach us how to respect others, how we have to listen to others, how we have to tolerate different opinions. It will help us understand how humans are part of a bigger world and therefore help us understand why we should respect nature and not destroy it for commercial reasons. Education means that we learn how to discuss, how to disagree, how to come to a compromise. It does not mean that we have to learn by heart the so-called holy texts, whatever their origins are! To make children recite by heart the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is stupid, and certainly so when they are punished if they make mistakes. Sciences are a valuable tool in the struggle against witchcraft and superstition. It would be good to focus on this and to look for good didactic methods to teach them. The theories are important of course, but more important is the practice. And one should always remember to explain that science is a never-ending story, a continuing evolution …

There is no necessity for all of us to become physicians, biologists, chemists, engineers … It would already be a real progress if education provided children all over the world with the intellectual tools to understand the difference between illusion and reality! I do respect people who find comfort in a religion as long as they do not tell the others that their religion is the only truth, or that theirs is the only way of living a dignified life. It is not wrong to be amazed by the complexity of the world, nor to admire it. All we have to do is to encourage the curiosity to explore what is behind…

To learn about and understand the importance of learning is of the highest importance for Humanists. This is so because education is not enough – think of the religious schools where creationism is taught, or the Quranic schools where boys recite verses by heart in a language unknown by them. Our education should be to create open minds. We should never forget the wise saying: ‘Minds are like parachutes, they only function when open’. It is important to start with the young minds of the children. We must encourage them to explore. We must give them the tools, and we must teach them the importance of looking for and handling complex answers! Thank You!

I would like to thank everyone who congratulated me on the occasion of being elected President of IHEU. Don’t forget that IHEU is YOU.

Sonja Eggerickx From International Humanist News June 2006.

RELIGION ALPHA MALE

MICHAEL MARSDEN goes in search of the Holy Spirit

I never quite managed to witness a miracle at Holy Trinity Brompton (‘HTB’), the large Anglican church in Knightsbridge where I attended the evangelical Christian induction course that goes by the name of Alpha, but I did see some very impressive sights.

Like, for example, the penultimate session, when novices like myself were joined by a contingent of HTB regulars already well versed in the ways of the Holy Spirit. Nicky Gumbel, the vicar of HTB and the leading guru of Alpha, was directing proceedings from a raised stage in front of the altar. He started by requesting a couple of minutes of silent prayer, then asked if anyone had sensed while they were praying that others in the building were “suffering” in some way. About a dozen of the regulars raised their hands. Gumbel invited them to join him on the stage, where they proceeded to describe the ailments they had detected – “a man with a problem with his eye”, “a woman who is sad because of a problem with her sister”, and other similarly precise divinations. Gumbel then asked if anyone in the 300-plus congregation had been able to identify the afflictions as their own – and would you believe it, some could. As Gumbel helped us see, there was only one possible explanation: multiple-case extra-sensory perception, precipitated by the power of prayer.

To be fair, this surreal stunt was not typical of the Alpha evenings I attended, but it nonetheless reveals something about the participants: it would not have been staged had most of them not been – how shall I say this? – receptive towards that kind of thing.

So why had I – an atheist – taken the decision to join them? The story begins 18 months previously when I arrived in London after a long period working abroad. One of the few people I knew in the city was a friend from university who had since become an evangelical Christian, and we ended up having some cordial but intense conversations about our respective beliefs. He also introduced me to a few people from his evangelical social circle – all intelligent, educated people in their 20s and 30s who nevertheless spoke of their “relationship with Jesus” with a disconcertingly straight face, and praised the influence of the Holy Spirit without it being a euphemism for an illegal stimulant.

This constituted my closest ever encounter with full-on religious faith, and I found it provoked in me an intense mixture of antipathy and fascination. From the veracity of the Resurrection to the existence of a troubleshooting personal deity, the evangelicals’ truth-claims struck me as an enthralling psychological phenomenon. How had they immured these certainties from the mental faculties they presumably employed elsewhere in their day-to-day lives? With what anaesthetic did they numb any sense of intellectual dishonesty? How did they let themselves get away with it?

‘Could I be absolutely sure I was right without seeing for myself? I had to admit that I couldn’t’

I found myself incorporating such questions into occasional anti-religion diatribes, one of which erupted in the otherwise relaxed surroundings of a ski chalet in the French Alps.I had got onto the subject of religion with two friends – one an agnostic, the other a very liberal Catholic – who remarked that my condemnations seemed a little overconfident for someone who had never actually seen the evangelicals’ world “from the inside”, and half jokingly suggested that if I fancied myself as an open-minded freethinker I should drop in on an Alpha course and see how it affected my level of vitriol. Could I be absolutely sure I was right without seeing for myself?

I had to admit that I couldn’t, and therefore I wasn’t quite able to laugh off the challenge. Three months later I signed up for an Alpha course.

Alpha has its roots in the evangelical wing of the Anglican church, and tends to promulgate a charismatic brand of Christianity that puts an onus on the transforming powers of the Holy Spirit, but it also aims to be ecumenical and has been adopted by other denominations.

Courses consist of 10 weekly meetings, each including a meal, a talk by a Christian speaker (perhaps ‘Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?’ or ‘Does God heal today?’), and group discussions. It has proved to be a spectacularly successful formula.

The overall decline in church attendance in the UK masks the fact that year by year a growing number of British people have embraced the Alpha experience. Since the early 1990s, when the course was created in its present format, an astonishing two million people in the UK have participated, and it is now run by more than 7,000 churches and other Christian organisations nationwide. It has also become a truly global operation, existing in more than 150 countries.

They even have celebrity endorsements, as its alumni include Sam Fox (former Page-3 girl), Geri Halliwell (former Spice Girl) and Jonathan Aitken (perjurer and former lost sheep; now a fervent Christian).

Courses are free, yet Alpha appears to have a lot of money to plough into promotional materials, and runs an advertising campaign featuring banners outside churches, advertisements on billboards, buses and taxis, and even a slick cinema ad, all featuring attractive young people and offering – with perhaps just a hint of presumptuousness – the opportunity to ‘Explore the Meaning of Life’.

I consciously choose to do the course at Holy Trinity Brompton in Knightsbridge because in doing so I was going to the belly of the beast. Not only was HTB the place where the course was first developed, and which now houses the staff who run Alpha’s international operation, but donations from its well-heeled congregations provide a significant portion of Alpha’s income.

As it transpired, I rather surprised myself by going to a total of eight Alpha evenings at HTB – arguably an over-zealous response to the challenge issued in the ski chalet. On each occasion there were at least 250 people present, and the overwhelming majority were white, middle-class professionals aged between 20 and 35. At the very start we were divided into small groups of 10 or 12: each week we would eat together, listen to the talk, then reconvene to discuss what we had heard. The evenings also included about 10 minutes of soft-rock hymns led by the in-house band: suffice to say my nightmares still echo with the elongated first syllable of ‘Jeee-sus’, held lingeringly for maximum emotive effect.

Four of the eight talks I attended were given by Nicky Gumbel himself The former banister is the main figure behind the reformatting and expansion of Alpha, and a prodigious author of evangelical books. He has an informal manner and a limitless supply of amusingly self-deprecating anecdotes, many of which bear similarities to biblical events. One evening, for example, he confided that a few years previously he had failed to realise that his squash partner was a famous England rugby international, and drew a parallel with the way Jesus’ disciples did not always recognise that their leader was the Son of God.

But one thing Gumbel did not incorporate into his talks was an attempt to defend his faith on intellectual grounds. I suppose I was anticipating hearing something that might pass for an argument, but I soon gathered that this would not be forthcoming. I later inferred from Gumbel’s writings that my mis-placed expectations had derived from excessive adherence to the Enlightenment project, in which, fatally, as Gumbel puts it, “revelation was made subject to reason”. Alpha was not to repeat the error. Indeed, although Alpha does not always pursue a literalist interpretation of the Bible, the level of discursive sophistication was set early on when Gumbel breezily established Jesus’ divine parentage on the basis of a few favourite passages from the New Testament.

Once the truth of a biblical proposition was established – by reference to the Bible – it was thereafter assumed to be fact, and would pop up in later sessions as evidence that other propositions were true.

And in any case, most of the talks had little time for historical or metaphysical foundations: instead they concentrated on conveying subjective experiences of faith, focusing particularly on vivid descriptions of fruitful personal encounters with the Holy Spirit. The emotional intensity of these experiences was deemed to demonstrate the truth of the belief system.

Clearly, therefore, despite the marketing, Alpha is less appropriate for people who want to ‘explore’ than for those with a prior inclination towards belief who are seeking to erect bulwarks against doubt. Arguably I could have picked up clues to this in the titles of some of the talks, such as ‘How can I be sure of my faith?’, ‘How can I resist evil?’, and ‘How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?.

So why did I hang on for a full eight sessions? My aforementioned fascination played a part, but it had more to do with the lively debates on offer in my discussion group, which was atypical in including two agnostics and, if you can imagine this, a very combative Buddhist.

There was no great pressure to toe the line during the discussions, no implicit threat of ostracism to anyone who dissented, but then again there didn’t need to be: the majority seemed to have been teetering on the edge of belief at the very start, and needed only the gentlest of nudges in order to travel in the expected direction.

With one of them I had a memorable conversation that struck me as offering an insight into the psychology of religious conversion: he told me he had studied philosophy at university and had been frustrated by the lack of ‘answers’ it provided, but then found Christianity offered what he described as a ‘shortcut’. He is now training to be an Anglican vicar.

On more than one occasion I asked my companions why they believed they were being given privileged access to what Gumbel describes as the “transcendent personal creator of the whole universe”. What was it about Knightsbridge that allowed access to absolute truths whereas, say, Muslims in Whitechapel were picking up the wrong signals? Did God only broadcast to certain areas, a bit like Channel Five?

As the weeks passed, I gathered that my best chance of actually witnessing the Holy Spirit in action – or indeed experiencing it for myself -would come not at HTB but on one of the climactic “Alpha weekends” in the somewhat unlikely surroundings of a Pontins holiday camp on the Sussex coast. It sounded unmissable.

When we arrived at Pontins, it transpired that the Holy Spirit had been booked for the Saturday early-evening slot in a large, dimly-lit hall adjoining the dining room. The soft-rock band initiated proceedings with some numinous instrumental numbers, then Gumbel, standing at the front of the hail, embarked on a softly-spoken monologue: he encouraged everyone to pray for the Holy Spirit’s arrival, and hinted that those going through difficult periods in their lives were especially likely to receive a visit.

Minutes passed, arms were held aloft, and a few people began to cry -which Gumbel immediately identified as proof of connection with the Spirit. There was no shouting or falling over, but one or two individuals at the front did begin a low, rapid mumbling, vaguely reminiscent of a horse-racing commentary: such was my slightly anticlimactic introduction to the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues.

An obvious question arises: who is susceptible to this kind of thing? I had the impression that almost all the people who did the course with me fell into one or more of three categories. First, a sizeable minority had turned to Christianity during periods of unhappiness. This was obvious not only from the talks and discussions, but also from the Alpha newspaper: every edition contains guilt-ridden adulterers, depressed alcoholics and self-destructive hard-drug users whose lives had been transformed by Christ. Second, there were those who had grown up in Christian families – many had never been actively involved in a church, but the beliefs had always been there in the background of their lives. Third, if HTB is anything to go by, it seemed a lot of people were attracted by Alpha’s extensive social network. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I couldn’t help being dubious about the individuals to whom, by their own admission, the primordial truths of Christianity had been imperceptible until shortly after Alpha shifted their social lives into a higher gear.

Though I would contend that Alpha encourages and celebrates wilful, self-indulgent credulity, does that really matter? Does it actually do any harm? As far as its moral message is concerned, some of it struck me as being entirely commendable. The speakers at HTB regularly referred to ‘social justice’, while Nicky Gumbel often name-checks Bono and depicts his anti-poverty activism as the work of a hip Christian – a little tenuous, but not exactly the choice of icon you would associate with the religious right. ‘Emotional intensity was deemed to demonstrate the truth of the belief system’ This is not all hot air: of the people I met who had already done Alpha, quite a few were involved in social and charity work. Some of it involved proselytising (for example Alpha’s burgeoning operation inside British prisons), some certainly did not. I actually spent most of the time feeling less offended than I had anticipated.

Where was the dirt? I had heard, for example, that Alpha taught a retrograde sexual morality, but it never surfaced in any of the talks I attended. Then, however, I ventured into the large HTB shop, which is stocked with a wide range of slickly-produced evangelical books and CDs. There I discovered that the subject of homosexuality gets ample coverage in the writings of evangelists connected with Alpha. In one of his books for the ‘Searching Issues’ series, recommended reading for people doing the course, Gumbel discriminates between homosexual “orientation” and “practice”, declaring that on the basis of the Bible the former is admissible but not the latter. He explains that although “our calling is to follow Christ’s example, which is to love and accept people unconditionally”, we must nevertheless “recognise sin as sin, rather than condone it”.

The books on heterosexual relations often focus on the thorny problem of sex outside marriage, which Gumbel et al also regard as having been prohibited in the Bible. When it comes to dating, the evangelist J John encourages young Christians to stick with their coreligionists [“the problems of going out with an unbeliever are many”), and decorously discourages unmarried Christian couples from straying too close to each other’s most erogenous zones (“don’t touch what you -haven’t got”). Conscious of the risk that such restraint might tempt the faithful to take matters into their own hands, he prescribes prayer as the cure for “compulsive masturbation”. Though I had a mental image of these messages one day being passed on by Alpha graduates to their teenage offspring, what I found most disquieting about Alpha was not the teachings on sexual relations or indeed any other specific issue, but instead the same underlying phenomenon that struck me when I had encountered evangelical Christianity for the first time: certainty.

I had witnessed the seductive psychological appeal of a single, forthright, facile answer to complex questions, and sensed its latent authoritarianism – for example in the references to secular Britain as ‘fallen’ and in Nicky Gumbel’s explicit hope that one day we will be a nation where the laws of God will again be the foundation of society”. I think it is mainly for this reason that Alpha has left me fantasising about writing an extra line on all those ‘Explore the Meaning of Life’ posters. Keen to employ my newfound knowledge of Holy Scripture, I can think of no words more apposite than those of Paul from Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.”

Michael Marsden is a freelance writer based in London. From NEW HUMANIST JULY/AUGUST 2006