Kia ora: The Australian Humanist and the IHEU News have published further recollections of the Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Ian Robinson, President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, writing in the IHEU News commented on the timing of the weather. In the preceding weekend 21/22 March, Melbourne experienced a violent hail storm which brought havoc to the city. If this storm had come a week later than people would have seen it as god’s vengeance on the atheists. The Convention weekend weather “was stunning. Had the deity got his dates wrong?”

Ian also noted that “the Convention was run on the smell of an oily rag. Unlike International Youth Day in Sydney and the World Parliament of Religions in Melbourne last year, both of which received many millions in government funding, the convention organisers worked for nothing and the speakers and presenters gave their services gratis.

Dan Kerr, writing in the Australian Humanist, quoted Sue-Ann Post, a lesbian comedian, who was in the Friday night line-up, which was a fun evening before the main two day programme. A highlight of Sue-Ann’s comedic spot was her observation that there have been many changes and retractions in religion. Religions have been forced to make changes on issues such as women having souls, accepting homosexuality as not evil, officially abolishing purgatory, limbo and hell. She observed, “I never pictured God as being on a learning curve.” June monthly meeting: Monday 7 June

Is Humanism only about Humans? Or, do we care about other species, particularly endangered ones?

Venue for meeting: Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington.
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm

Speaker: Dr Pamela Mace, (Marine scientist)

In this talk Pamela will share her experiences of several years of involvement with CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. This Convention was set up in 1975, primarily in response to the plight of African Elephants and big cats. Currently, more than 5,000 species of animals and about 29,000 species of plants are under the protection of CITES, with variable degrees of success. Illegal international trade in endangered or protected species is estimated to be worth about $USD 5-8 billion dollars per year – about 30% of the total value of the global wildlife trade and is second only to the illegal narcotics traffic. Pamela will mostly focus on the outcomes of the most recent CITES Conference of the Parties meeting in Doha, Qatar, in March this year, where there was a well-coordinated opposition to affording several endangered species protection under CITES. In particular, there was a high resistance to listing commercially-exploited marine species under CITES. Come along and find out the reasons given as to why unsustainable exploitation levels should not be reigned in, and hear some insights into how politics play out in international forums such as these!

· Radio Access:

Humanist Outlook, Future broadcasts at 10.30am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday, 26 June, 24 July and 21 August, 18 September, & 16 October.
If you are outside the Wellington radiobroadcast area, go to www.accessradio.org.nz to listen or to download a pod cast after the event.
Please note: the time slot was changed at Radio Access’s suggestion. Humanist Outlook is now broadcast 10:30 am on Saturday mornings from Wellington on 783 kHz every fourth Saturday.

· Atheist Bus campaign:
As yet we have received no notice of a decision from Te Tari Whakatau Take Tika Tangata – The Office of Human Rights Proceedings, regarding our request, for free legal representation to aid us in the dispute with New Zealand Bus re their refusal to run the advertising slogan “There’s probably on God so stop worrying and enjoy your life.
Alternatives are under consideration. For updates see: www.nogod.nz . Follow the links to Face Book and Twitter.

Richard Dawkins added his support to the New Zealand bus campaign while visiting Wellington in March. Asked by a Wellington Dominion Post reporter to comment on the opposition to the advertisements, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins replied: “I would have to say grow up, don’t be so pathetic, stop whining.” For the full article see: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/3463505/Dawkins-backs-No-God-bus-ads

Assistant Bishop of Auckland, Richard Randerson, has also added his support for the Bus Campaign. http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/opinion/3387536/Let-the-atheist-bus-ads-proceed

You can express your opinion. So far 92.5% of people have said that the NZ Bus decision to ban the adverting is unfair and discriminatory. See: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/national/3366649/Atheists-claim-bias-over-rejection-of-No-God-ads . Go to this link and add your vote.

You can also vote on the existence of god! http://www.stuff.co.nz/oddstuff/3149823/Theres-probably-no-God-coming-to-a-bus-near-you . To date 58% have said that there is no God.

· Book Launch: – Realising Secularism – Australia and New Zealand

The Book Launch, hosted by Green MP Keith Locke in conjunction with the Humanist Society of New Zealand (HSNZ) and the Australia New Zealand Secular Association, was held in Parliament on Thursday 6 May 2010 attended by a number of MPs, contributors to the book, Humanist Society members, and other interested people. With speeches by Keith Locke, Iain Middleton, and Max Wallace we were able to take the Humanist message into parliament. More then 40 people enjoyed parliamentary hospitality in the “Beehive” with those present including Max Wallace, contributor and Editor of the book; Meg Wallace; Bill Hastings, Chief Censor and contributor, who gave the introductory speech at the Wellington seminar in 2008; Prof Lloyd Geering ONZ, contributor; Iain Middleton, president of the Humanist Society and contributor, and Gaylene Middleton, secretary of the HSNZ; Carrick Lewis, a former president of HSNZ and Norrie Lewis; and Kent Stevens the immediate past president of HSNZ. Apologies were received from Nicky Hager and more than 30 MPs who were unable to attend, many wishing us success with the book launch and the book.

After the formal launch we gathered at the nearby Kingsgate Hotel to relax and enjoy the evening in their dining room.

Max Wallace was very happy with the response he received at the Wellington launch and at launches held with the NZARH in Auckland, Morrinsville and Hamilton.

The new book, Realising Secularism, is a look at the secular history and future of Australia and New Zealand. Contents of the book include:

Opening Addresses: Bill Hastings – Chief Censor of New Zealand; and John Kaye – Member of the Legislative Council of the Parliament of NSW;

Introduction: Secularism and ‘Faith-Based Welfare’, Muriel Fraser, Editor of the Website Concordant Watch

Australia’ Foundations Were Definitely Not Christian, Helen Irving, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney

Logo of Realising Secularism

Is New Zealand a ‘Christian Nation’? Bill Cooke, Writer

New Zealand’s Contribution to the Global Secular World,

Lloyd Geering, Emeritus Professor of religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington

Clericalism in New Zealand: A Conspiracy of Silence, Max Wallace, Director of the Australian and New Zealand Secular Association

Christian Right-Wing Activism in New Zealand, Nicky Hager, Author and Investigative Journalist

The Culture Wars, Schools and Secularism, Jane Caro, Sydney activist and author

Undermining New Zealand’s Sate Secular Education System Part 1, Iain Middleton, Wellington Humanist and Editor of New Zealand Humanist

Undermining New Zealand’s Sate Secular Education System Part 2,

Jim Dakin, Formerly Associate Professor of the Department of University Extension at Victoria University of Wellington

Atheism and Religious Diversity, Ken Perrott, Retired Scientist and blog author

Secularism and Republicanism in New Zealand, Lewis Holden, Chair of the Republican Movement Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Copies of Realising Secularism may be purchased at wholesale price from the Humanist Society of New Zealand for $25 plus $4.50 for postage and packaging. Make cheques payable to the Humanist Society of New Zealand.

· World Humanist Day & Winter Solstice Celebration:

Sunday 27 June from 4 pm: Now that winter has descended, share some warmth with us at Lachman Prasad’s home 50 Kanpur Rd, Broadmeadows, Wellington. RSVP 04 232 4497. Please bring a favourite dish to share and if there are enough Monty Python fans maybe we could enjoy watching their classic movie Life of Brian. Wellington Humanists have been celebrating the winter solstice with a shared meal for more than 30 years.

World Humanist Day, 21 June, was selected to coincide with the Winter Solstice, but we will celebrate it the following Sunday. The June Solstice occurs at a particular point on the Earth’s orbit and most often occurs on the 22nd of June in New Zealand but the 21st June in the UK and time zones east of Greenwich!

The right to Freedom of Religion and Belief: Kent Stevens attended a Human Rights Commission meeting in Wellington on May 7 where feedback was invited on the final draft of the Statement on the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief. We have sent in written feedback and included with this newsletter is an article from the recent International Humanist News which further discusses this issue. We strongly agree with the author’s final conclusion that “this right (to belief or non belief) does not and should not trump all other rights.”

Obituary: Bob Robertson, a Humanist member in Christchurch died on March 10, and we extend our condolences to Bob’s family. Bob was very keen that Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion should be in all school libraries. On informing us of her father’s death, Bob’s daughter told us “that the Humanist Society was very important to my father. It helped him to prepare to accept his death. Thank you for his involvement with your group.”

Other meetings 2010: Science Express @ Te Papa meets on the first Thursday of the month in Te Papa

Cafe Scientifique in Lower Hutt meets on the last Thursday of the month at a new venue, the Cadillac Diner, High St, Lower Hutt

Skeptics in the Pub, Wellington, meets fortnightly.

It’s Your Turn – Diana Brown

Should religion and culture receive special consideration?

In 2007 two young people in the Indian state of Haryana were murdered in a so-called “honour killing” for marrying within the same gotra (Hindu clan). This is forbidden by their culture and, as we see in the case of other practices such as female genital mutilation, culture and religion are sometimes difficult to separate. The young couple were killed by family members who were subsequently convicted by a state court and sentenced to death. A leader of the khap panchayat (a traditional local governing council) was also convicted, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Even though these killings were illegal and the decisions of the court were legitimate, there has been an uproar because the murders were considered justifiable by the standards of an ancient tradition. Various khap panchayats are supporting the convicted men and demanding that Indian marriage law be changed to include a prohibition of marriage between members of the same gotra (1). It is difficult to imagine that constitutionally secular India, or even one of its states, would alter its law to accommodate this demand. It is even less likely that “honour killing” will be legalised. But honour killings will still occur, just like child marriage and sati (the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), which have long been illegal, and those who take part in or promote these practices will face the legal consequences.

Arguments over such issues are part of a much broader picture. In many parts of the world we find resistance to the basic modern principle of one secular law for all, with no special exceptions for cultures or beliefs, and equal treatment for all before the law.

The case of Islam

In recent decades, many mainly Islamic countries have moved away from secular law towards Islamic (Shari’a) law. Viewed in terms of universal human rights, this is a very objectionable step. Islamic law normally treats men and women unequally. It also treats non-Muslims as inferior in rights to Muslims. Typically, blasphemy, apostasy and atheism are treated as crimes – even capital crimes – and someone can be an “apostate” even if he or she never freely chose Islam in the first place. Some forms of Islamic law permit or even mandate cruel and severe forms of physical punishment such as lashing, amputation and stoning to death.

Of course, where a majority of the population are in favour of such laws, a case might be made for them, but the whole principle of international human rights is founded on the rights of the individual as opposed to the group. The individual should be protected against the tyranny of the majority. It is also doubtful that in a fair, secret ballot the majority of the population would necessarily favour Islamic law if they were fully informed of its provisions.

Many western countries now have sizeable Muslim minority populations and there are constant calls for the implementation of Shari’a law, even if only for the determination of family disputes. But many western Muslims like their secular western constitutions and there is doubt about how many women are able to freely express their opinions on the subject. Where Shari’a family law is adopted, even on a voluntary basis, women may well be coerced into using it in preference to the general secular law.

How about Judaism?

Judaism is another patriarchal religion that makes special claims. Israel was established as a Jewish state and ultra-orthodox Judaism is the main force behind the annexation of Palestinian territory that is causing such a dangerous situation in the Middle East. The ultra-Orthodox Jews claim that over 3000 years ago their god gave them dominion over the regions that they call Judea and Samaria. Yet the majority of Palestinians are Muslims, some of whom, apart from feeling aggrieved at being dispossessed of their more recent ancestral territory, believe that once land has been under Islamic control, it should always remain so. This is a classic case of different religions putting forward incompatible claims, and it illustrates the need for completely secular law.

Interestingly, ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews claim and receive exemption from military service, even though much of the effort of Israel’s armed forces goes into supporting their territorial ambitions or dealing with their consequences.

And what of Christianity?

Historically, Christianity dominated much of Europe and western Asia from the time in the fourth century CE when it was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before then, Christians were sometimes persecuted as atheists, because they did not accept the prevailing polytheism and refused to worship Emperors. However, once they were in a position of power, they set about persecuting others: polytheists, atheists, and apostates. The anti-Semitic attitudes that led to the 20th-century Holocaust owe much to the Church’s view of Jews as “Christ-killers”, handed down over the centuries. The Church split many times in its history over doctrinal and political issues, but the main church from the time of the Great Schism in the 11th century CE has been the Roman Catholic Church, which at present claims some 1.2 billion members (2), with other Christian denominations claiming a total of about 900 million.

For many centuries the Catholic Church exercised huge economic and political power in western Europe, and then later in the Americas and Africa as western colonisation flourished. As long as it held such power, it was intolerant of other religions and of “heresy”, resulting in the torture, trial, and execution of many dissenters from official church doctrine. Moreover, the church was a law unto itself, with clerics being exempt from obedience to civil law, but subject instead to canon law.

Over several centuries, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of new lands, and the rise of science led to challenges to the prevailing Church thinking. Gradually, the Church had much of its power in Europe wrested from it, but it happily turned to establishing control wherever it could in Africa, South and Central America, and some islands around the Pacific.

Protestant churches grew up, but they tended to be almost as authoritarian as the Catholic Church, and the same could always have been said of the eastern Orthodox churches. But the multiplicity of churches did help sow the seed of an idea that any one particular church might not have a monopoly on truth. Eventually this idea could lead to a more daring one: perhaps no church was necessarily a conduit for truth. After several centuries of struggle, the idea took root of a secular state that did not have to privilege a religion, and partially successful efforts were made to implement it. Needless to say, the churches fought against secularism every step of the way and have not given up the fight.

“Persecuted” Christians

Readers of International Humanist News will be aware of the invention of the word “Islamophobia” to characterise any criticism of Islamic views or practices. Its use has been successfully promoted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to deflect attention from their shortcomings in the field of human rights. They have worked energetically to make people view it as equivalent to racism.

The Vatican thought that this was a good idea and came up with the idea of “Christianophobia” to describe the attacks of secularists on the Christian religion and its entrenched power. Of course, genuine persecution of Christians does take place in a number of countries, including Pakistan, Egypt and Nigeria. IHEU has joined with other NGOs to support their cause. But attempts to show that Christians are persecuted in the west have descended to the level of farce.

The BBC recently broadcast a very biased programme called “Are Christians being persecuted?” discussing the views of some UK Christians who claim persecution by the law. After trotting out a few feeble examples, the programme was forced to the conclusion that they were not being persecuted, but that they felt “marginalised”. (It should be noted that this was in a country whose Head of State is also head of an established church and where this same church and the Roman Catholic Church both run large numbers of state-funded schools as indoctrination centres.) Three cases were featured:

1. A teacher employed to give mathematics tuition in the home to seriously ill children was suspended as a result of a complaint from the non-Christian parents of one pupil. They had asked her not to discuss religion with their 14-year-old daughter, who was becoming distressed by her proselytising, but she persisted.

2. A nurse (a friend of the above teacher) objected to the hospital policy that nurses were not allowed to wear necklaces when on duty, as she wanted to wear a cross on a chain. She was told that she could pin a cross to her uniform – like the watches that nurses normally wear instead of wrist watches – but she still felt victimised.

3. A registrar, whose job was to register births and deaths and perform civil marriages and, in addition, preside over civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex couples was fired on account of her refusal to conduct civil partnerships because her religion taught that homosexuality was sinful.

The second and third complainers had their cases dismissed in court. This and a few similar cases led the former Archbishop of Canterbury to suggest that a permanent panel of judges be established, with a “proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues”, to try such cases (3).

Conclusion
Everywhere we find expectations and even demands for special treatment for religions and beliefs. The UN human rights instruments establish a right to belief or non-belief, but this right does not and should not trump all other rights. As Humanists, we need to defend our own rights and those of others, but surely we should attack unjustified privilege wherever we find it.

1 http://www.hindustantimes.com/Khap-leaders-to-oppose-verdict-in-Haryana-honour-killing-case/H 1 -Article 1 -530654.aspx

2 This number refers to people baptised Catholic in infancy, and therefore includes an unknown number of apostates and non-practising believers.

3 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/toVcomment/faith/article7098299.ece

*Diana Brown is former editor, IHN

Originally published in International Humanist News May 2010