Kia ora: At our April meeting it was interesting to hear different perspectives on the Melbourne Atheist Convention. Iain gave an outline of the convention, with a synopsis of the speakers and their talks. Gaylene reported on Taslima Nasreen’s address where she told us of the persecution and death threats she has received since she first wrote her novels exposing the terrible experiences of young Muslim girls who have become pregnant after rape by Islamic Mullahs. The auditorium grew quiet and many eyes were seen to hold tears. Taslima received a standing ovation a tribute to her courage and acknowledgment of her profound sadness at her exclusion from her homeland. Peter gave us some clear and concise ‘thought bites’ which are printed below. Grateful thanks to Peter for this summary.
Richard Dawkins: Richard Dawkins’ talk centred on two aspects of gratitude. The first was his sense of gratitude to Evolution and the processes of Natural Selection for bringing us into existence. More interestingly, he talked of our sense of gratitude as one element in human nature that might account for religion in so many cultures. Co-operation and reciprocity have been necessary to our evolution. To facilitate their development, we have evolved a benefits-received counter, in the form of gratitude. It measures how much we owe to whom and motivates us to return favours. We have also evolved the ability to hold grudges against those who do not reciprocate. We resent them!
Our local environment also provides us with benefits. These may be a good harvest, the discovery of valuable minerals or even winning a lottery, but once again, we automatically generate the same gratitude on receiving a benefit. In ethological terms, this feeling is a ‘vacuum activity’. We commence the activity, in this case, feeling gratitude, in the absence of the normal and appropriate initiating stimulus. However, if there is a god to thank, we can direct that gratitude in the same way that we normally do. We seem to have little difficulty in extending this feeling, so necessary in some circumstances, to a belief in the existence of that provisioning deity.
Peter Singer: We evolved over thousands of generations in small bands rarely exceeding a few dozen. One of our evolved emotions is captured in the words empathy, sympathy and compassion. When we felt this for someone injured or sick or in any way troubled, it was necessarily triggered by the presence of someone physically close to us and directed towards this person. We needed to see or hear their distress in order for our brains to generate the emotions which motivated us to help them. In their physical absence, there was no point in generating compassion and we are consequently virtually incapable of doing so. Today, in the rich West, we have sufficient resources in the forms of food, shelter, protection from danger and medical assistance to enable us to live long and mostly healthy lives. Those who do not have these and who would, if they were in our presence, be the recipients and targets of our compassion, all live thousands of kilometres distant. The people who nowadays need our assistance lack the one property necessary for its provision, namely, proximity. If we believe that deprived faraway people should receive the same assistance as deprived people in our vicinity, we have to find a motivation for providing it. However, there is no natural emotion so we have to use our intellects as a substitute. Knowing that there are such people, we must impose an obligation upon ourselves to provide a portion of our bounty to them, despite our lack of a ‘natural’ inclination. Morality ceases to be based only upon our emotions; we must use rationality to determine moral action.
May monthly meeting: Monday 3 May Watch and Listen to more Videos of conversations with prominent Humanists and philosophers
Venue for meeting: Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington. We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm
Radio Access: Humanist Outlook, Humanist Outlook, Future broadcasts at 10.30am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday, 1 May, 29 May, 26 June, 24 July and 21 August. 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.
· 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.
Book Launch: You are invited to attend a Book Launch at parliament on 6 May 2010. The first copies of the new book will be available. Realising Secularism Australia and New Zealand Parliament, 6 pm on Thursday 6 May 2010 This Book Launch is on Thursday next week. It is your chance to meet some interested politicians and discus the realisation of a secular society and the separation of church and state with them and some of the contributors to the book. Free Entry is restricted to those who have registered. The Book Launch will be hosted by: Keith Locke, NZ Green Party, the Australia New Zealand Secular Association, and the Humanist Society of New Zealand. Registration. To adhere with Parliament security policy and to assist with catering numbers early registration is essential. Places are still available. If you have not already registered, please email your intention to attend to: HSNZ Book Launch. Put ‘Book Launch-Realising Secularism” in the subject line and be certain to include you name, address, and telephone number. Alternatively you can phone 04 232 4497. After the formal launch at Parliament we intend to gather at the Kingsgate Hotel, Hawkestone St, Thorndon. If you are unable to attend the 6 pm launch then do join us at the Kingsgate from about 7.30 pm.
For more precise timing in the evening you can contact Gaylene on 021 155 7084.
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
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
· Best lesson learnt!: Glenda Hughes, Public relations specialist, former police officer, and former Commonwealth shot put representative (Dominion Post 26 April 2010) You can do anything in this world as long as you don’t care who gets the credit, revenge is a wasted energy and those who get to the top by pulling other people down are always going backwards
• 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.
· 2009/2010 Subscriptions: subscriptions remain unchanged and are now due. Renewal forms were included with the newsletter posted to members last month. A pdf version is attached to this email and may also be used to renew your subscription but be certain to put your name and address on it.
All addresses have been checked with the Post Office online data base and some have been amended. Please check that your details are shown correctly and provide corrections as necessary.
DEMOGRAPHY – Battle of the Babies
A new book argues that liberal secularism and high birth rates are fuelling a revival of religious fundamentalism. Casper Melville speaks to its author Eric Kaufman.
This article is continued from New Zealand Humanist Newsletter April 2010
IF ISRAEL IS THE paradigm, and an example of the direct way in which birth rate can lead not only to the numerical growth of a sect but the expansion of their political power, the US provides a more diverse picture. Partly because, as Kaufmann is at pains to point at, birth rate matters much less when you are talking about a big country. The political issue is your share of the total population.
Strangely enough, Kaufmann has some cheering words to say about American secularism. While acknowledging that America is, and will remain, far more religious than Western Europe, the data shows that America is indeed becoming more secular (for the purposes of Kaufmann’s study it is not belief in God but affiliation to any particular religion which matters). Kaufmann cites statistics from the eminent American sociologist Robert Putnam, whose new book American Grace is all about American religiosity, that something like 35-40 per cent of young white Americans are secular. “America really is a case of delayed secularisation, what happened in Europe in the middle of the last century is happening to America now in terms of the young turning away from organised religion. Currently America is about 14 per cent secular, that is unaffiliated, and we predict this will grow to about 17 per cent by 2050, then plateau out.” This growth is not a matter of fertility rates. Secular fertility in America is as “stagnant” as everywhere else Kaufmann looks at, well below replacement at 1.65. But, Kaufmann admits, secularism profits from “conversion” – people born with religion become secular. However, these secular converts come overwhelmingly from moderate religions. Against what we might expect, the closed sects manage to cling on to their kids despite the temptations of mainstream society.
THIS IS THE HEART of the American case. While secularism will grow, a bit, and moderate religions lose out a lot, it is fundamentalism that flourishes. There is a polarisation taking place where the outer reaches – irreligion and fundamentalism – grow and moderate religion is squeezed out. The consequences will be, in Kaufmann’s view, to increase the friction between the two groups.
In his American chapter Kaufmann goes to some lengths to describe the huge, and hugely unexpected, growth rates of sects we might have imagined would be obliterated by modernity. Thus the Hutterites, Anabaptist followers of 16th-century dissenter Jakob Hutter, who shun the modern world and live quiet communal lives in rural Middle America, have grown from a colony of 400 souls in 1900 to 50,000 today. Since they do not proselytise this is all internal growth. In the same period the buggy-driving Amish have grown from 5,000 to 250,000. That will double by 2050. For those born after 1945 there are more Mormons than Jews in the US population, and by 2050 Mormons will displace Jews as the third largest religious group in America (by which point American Muslims will push Jews into fifth). Kaufmann stresses that the situation is very different to that of the Haredi in Israel; these are still very small communities in terms of the overall population, and communities like the Amish and Hutterites are uninterested in politics or imposing their values on others, at least for now.
HOWEVER THE success-through-fertility of these groups has served as a powerful model for newer variants of fundamentalism with a far more sinister agenda. One such is the Quiverfull movement (The name derives from Psalm 127: “Children are a heritage from the Lord/Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them”). Kaufmann describes Quiverfull as “backward engineered religion”, an attempt to replicate the successful growth of these historic sects, combined with an ambitious agenda for political power. Under the leadership of the infamous religious conservative Doug Phillips, son of Howard, who was instrumental in the early stirrings of the Religious Right, Quiverfull, a coalition of nee-fundamentalist protestant denominations and communities, dedicated to biblical literalism, deeply patriarchal and morally conservative and separatist in mindset, has a 200-year plan, a “self-conscious strategy for victory through fertility”, as Kaufmann calls it. “They look around and see the low birth rate amongst the secular population, and the success of the sects, and they say, ‘Hey, we can take over here and quickly.’ They think that God should be the family planner. For them contraception is one step toward abortion. There are stories of Quiverfull women who can only have three or four children breaking down and feeling that God has not blessed them.”
Throughout his book, and our conversation, Kaufmann has been careful to suppress any moral judgements about the rise of fundamentalisms like Quiverfull – he even expresses a certain admiration for those with strongly held beliefs – but can’t he see that for many of us the emergence and strengthening of patriarchal religious cultism like this looks terrifying? Just imagine what it might be like for a girl born to Quiverfull parents who was unable to bear children, or was, God forbid, a lesbian.
“Yes,” he agrees, “it’s a nightmare.” For Kaufmann it is too early to tell what impact these new variants of ultra-modern fundamentalism will have, how successful their gyno-political strategy will be, but already he can see signs that the ultra-religious are collaborating on specific issues. “Conservative Catholics and Protestants have combined on single issues, like the passing of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage legislation, in California and we are going to see much more of that.” In this coalition of the pious, American Muslims are set to play a much bigger role too. While American variants of Islam largely shun Islamism because of its anti-Americanism – with a few high profile exceptions – the growing size of the American Muslim population, in Kaufmann’s view, will mean that they vote with other religious conservatives on moral value issues.
AND FINALLY TO EUROPE, or “Eurabia” as it is known in the more hysterical screeds of right-wing propagandists like Melanie Phillips, Mark Steyn and Geert Wilders. Do his projections regarding Europe’s population change confirm or contradict the dire warnings that (white, Christian) Europe is dying and being replaced with Muslims?
“Well,” he says, “a little of both. What I’m arguing about Europe is different to what I’m arguing about Israel. In Europe the impact is less direct. In some minor cases fundamentalist sects are growing – like the Orthodox Calvinists in Holland – but immigration is a much bigger issue here. Immigrants have a much higher fertility rate and are also religious, but they are not all fundamentalists. Most immigrants are traditional and moderate. But this then collides with the secular culture, and out of that you can get fundamentalism of a modern variety, explicitly pitched against secularism. What even theorists of secularisation will admit is that religion can flourish when it takes on an ethnic role, for example in Poland Catholicism became symbolic of resistance to the Russians. Something similar is happening here. Immigrants come in, they are ethnically different and religion comes to symbolise the ethnic identity, especially so if they feel embattled. This insulates religion from secularism. Rather than becoming more moderate immigrants and their children become more religious. This is not to say that all Muslims will become fundamentalists, but it does allow the religion to grow. The next question is, does contact with secularism lead to the growth of extremism, and there is some evidence for this.
“In our projections for Western Europe by 2050 we are looking at a range of 10-15 per cent Muslim population for most of the high immigration countries – Germany, France, the UK. So there will be an increase but it is not what the Eurabia critics say. Their projections are completely off base. Muslims will not be a majority in Europe, but a significant minority. Here, as in the US, the issue is not of the takeover by one or other fundamentalist sect, but of the possibility, I might even say likelihood, of ultra-Conservative sects, both Muslim and Christian, making common cause and political alliance. They are already showing that they can successfully piggyback on the inter-faith agenda to acquire a political voice.”
It’s a stark picture, but is he right? It is hard for a non-specialist to argue with the demographic data, although the fact that he hedges quite a bit on the outcomes suggests there is some room for interpretation. Not, perhaps, about Israel, but certainly about what role fundamentalism will play in Europe. I ask him what he thinks we should be doing about it. Should we, for example, all be shagging for secularism?
“Well, I don’t think we want to get in a population footrace. It may be necessary for secular people to have slightly more children but it would be nicer if we could get fundamentalists to have fewer children.” A strangely authoritarian notion to fall from the lips of a self-confessed liberal. “Yes,” he admits, “imposing restrictions would be condemned as discriminatory. But there are carrots as well as sticks. In Israel there is a push to withdraw subsidies to the Haredi, and to insist that they serve in the army. But I’m not convinced that that will do a lot.”
Another scenario he imagines in his conclusion is that secularism might start to do a better job of winning over the children of religious fundamentalism. But at the moment he sees no statistical sign of this, and he seems gloomy about the prospect. Why? “Part of my argument is that religion does provide that enchantment, that meaning and emotion, and in our current moment we lack that. This is the challenge for secularism: can it come up with such an ideology?”
Allies against extremism? Moderate Muslims for Secular Democracy rally in London, October 2009
TO MY MIND this looks a worrying prospect. Counter religion by producing a new kind of secular enchantment? Doesn’t it also be-tray a lack of conviction about the values that underpin our current society and the appeal they might hold for anyone who comes into contact with them? In a review of Christopher Caldwell’s book on European migration, which made similar warnings to Kaufmann’s, Kenan Malik undercuts the scaremongering that so often accompanies discussion of demography by suggesting that we already have a powerful weapon against the trends, if only we could see it. “What has eroded,” he argues, “is faith in the idea that it is possible to win peoples of different backgrounds to a common set of secular, humanist, enlightened values. And that is the real problem: not immigration, nor Muslim immigration, but the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project.”
What Kaufmann and Malik are certainly in accord on is the need to displace the multicultural “celebration of difference” model of toleration with one that contains a far more robust sense of common values and a far more stringent rejection of reactionary fundamentalism. “We need a stronger sense of liberal values,” Kaufmann told me. “We should answer back to all fundamentalisms.”
To achieve this he argues, in a way that will make Tony Blair’s heart leap, that secularists might need to collaborate more with religious moderates – find common cause in the way fundamentalists are doing. “The issue is not belief in God, but organised religion, especially fundamentalism. Non-believers can still have a rich conversation with moderate people who believe in God. You can’t have a conversation with a fundamentalist.”
If Kaufmann admits that his scary head lines somewhat belie the provisional nature of his findings, he has an answer: “I am trying to force a certain rethink of the idea that we are moving naturally toward secularism. To shake up our complacency and perhaps, stir up some debate.”
Secularists may well be shaken by his book, but will they be stirred? NH
Caspar Melville is editor of New Humanist. New Humanist is published by the Rationalist Association, London, England.
Originally published in New Humanist March April 2010.