Kia ora:

While perusing a magazine, Marie Claire, January 09, I came across a photo journalism article depicting the results of physical abuse suffered by some women throughout the world, e.g. female circumscion. Among these photos was one by Veronique de Viguerie, of a young girl from Cameroon, West Africa. I was shocked to see it showed this young girl’s breasts being crushed by a tree branch. Investigating, I learnt that this depicted what is called “breast-ironing”, a Cameroon custom aimed at delaying a young girl’s natural development and thereby hoping to combat a high teenage pregnancy rate. 24% of all girls in Cameroon have been subjected to this practice. The young girls are traumatised and suffer infections, cysts and even cancer. While other victims find that later on, they are unable to breastfeed their babies!

November monthly meeting: Monday 2 November The Human Nature of Religion & Science, An Evolutionary Odyssey
Frederick March, President, Humanist Society of New Mexico
Fred March will give us a 45 minute presentation based on his presentation to the American Humanist Society Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, on 6 June 2009.
This is a rare opportunity for New Zealanders to meet an overseas Humanist. Fred says he is looking forward to meeting NZ Humanists at the meeting.

Fred, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a writer who focuses on religion, its philosophy, psychology, and history. The Bible through the eyes of its Authors was his first book, published in 2006. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and retired from a career in worldwide economic development, which provided the diversity of exposure to religious cultures that motivated his writing career.

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

Last month’s meeting: “Society without God. Phil Zuckerman’s book Society without God was written to combat the American Christian Right doctrine that societies without religion are inevitably immoral. Zuckerman examined “societal health” measures in secular countries and the USA and his conclusion was that an examination of Danish and Swedish societies’ behavioural patterns and beliefs invalidated the doctrine of American Christian Right. Peter then went through Gregory Paul’s Successful Society Scale and discussed correlation graphs which led to Paul’s conclusion that there is a Triple Threat to Religiosity: Science, Evolution, and Education; Economic & Societal Security; Corporate/Consumer popular culture (where people are materialist rather than spiritual/political.). Wherever any one of these do not obtain, religion can flourish. It cannot flourish where all three obtain. Peter Clemerson asks “What might NZ Humanists do?” He suggests researching the areas where NZ performs badly, investigating relevant research, and then lobbying Government!

Change to Radio Access Programme time slot: Humanist Outlook is to be broadcast now, on a Saturday morning at 10.30 am. This change has been made at Radio Access’s suggestion.

Radio Access: Humanist Outlook, 10.30 am, 783 kHz, on Saturday 14 November, Saturday 12 December.

AGM 2009: At our AGM on 25 October, current office holders were re-elected to their positions. President: Iain Middleton, Vice President: Kent Stevens, Secretary: Gaylene Middleton, Committee: Mark Fletcher, Rochelle Forester, Lachman Prasad.

2009/2010 Subscriptions: subscriptions remain unchanged and are now due. Renewal forms were included with the newsletter posted to members. A pdf version is attached to this email and may also be used to renew your subscription. A pdf subscription renewal form for the 2008-2009 year was attached to the October newsletter.

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.

2009 Seminar Galileo & Darwin: This year’s seminar was very successful and well attended. Both Ross Powell and Dr Geoff Chambers gave interesting talks. Ross along with astronomical detail and a very clear explanation of the relevant thought of Aristotle, brought to life and illuminated the trial of Galileo. Dr Chambers’s talk was of great breadth. He elucidated for us the writings of the “Four Horsemen of the New Enlightenment”: Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchings. He gave us a well documented assessment of their place in contemporary discussion on the religion – evolution interface.

The Rise of Atheism’ Convention: The Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc in partnership with Atheist Alliance International will be holding a Convention in Melbourne, 12-14 March 2010. International speakers will include Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, Taslima Nasrin, and Max Wallace (who spoke at the 2008 Conference in Wellington.) Registrations for this conference are now open. Organisers are suggesting registering early as there has been a great deal of interest expressed in attending. To register go to www.atheistconvention.org.au and then click on Tickets (along top of page towards the right)

New Humanist Sep/Oct Vol 124. No 5 The response to the New Humanist article included in the October newsletter is included below.

Gaylene Middleton

TEACHING HUMANISM

Last issue’s article about how to raise children as humanists received hundreds of responses. Here its author, Danny Postel, chooses his favourites, and, below, philosopher Roger Scruton makes the case for bringing children up with religious faith.

THE ART OF UNCERTAINTY

I have been moved by the response to my essay in the previous issue of New Humanist about my search for books for my sons to counterbalance the influence of their mother’s Catholicism (“Good Books?”, July/August). The reactions were voluminous, impassioned and came from multiple directions.

More than 100 comments were posted on the New Humanist blog and hundreds more atAlterNet.org, which republished the article; many bloggers discussed it and I’ve been on several radio shows to talk about it. Clearly the piece struck a chord.

Some of the most thought-provoking responses came directly into my e-mail inbox, many from friends or acquaintances, but also several from complete strangers who’d read the article or heard me on the radio.

Some accused me of being too squishy. “I certainly wouldn’t expend any energy worrying about whether my kids were get-ting equal access to all spiritual options or not,” wrote David Cahill. “Christians hardly worry that their kids don’t have access to atheism or agnosticism.” He’s got a point.

Another of my favourite responses came from the poet Martin Espada (author of City of Coughing and Dead Radiators):

“Danny,” he wrote,”a bit of advice: Make ’em laugh. First of all, kids love to laugh.

Robert Bellah’s challenge really hits home. Is my humanism nothing more than a theory?

Secondly, when it comes to religion, there is much laughing to be done. This can be tricky, of course, as you don’t want to openly ridicule their mother’s religion. (Not if you want to stay together, anyway.) However, if the kids learn to see everything with a sceptical and sardonic eye, religion will fall under the same lens. It’s a way of tilting your head to peer at the world from a skewed angle, churches included.”

From the other direction, I was honoured (if not, ultimately, convinced) by philosopher Roger Scruton’s wonderfully engaging case for teaching children faith. Roger’s response is so characteristically elegant we have reproduced it in full (below).

Some other distinguished thinkers offered different advice. Cultural critic Marshall Herman (author of the brilliant All That Is Solid Melts into Air), thought it was unnecessary to look for alternatives to the Bible – instead we should argue with it. “Look,” he wrote to me, “the Bible is a collection of thousands of stories, many told from ambiguous and conflicting points of view, some as rich and profound as any poem or novel, and thrilling to read regardless of your theology. People have spent thousands of years engaged in dialogue about what the stories mean. Why don’t you make yourself part of this dialogue? Here’s an interesting question for the whole family to talk about: in Genesis, when God condemns and punishes people for things they’ve done, hasn’t God himself set them up for a fall? Cain and Abel being the most blatant case, but there are plenty more. But to get in on the dialogue, you gotta read the stories yourself.”

The sociologist Robert Bellah (author of the widely cited Habits of the Heart) provided a really fascinating distinction between religion and humanism: “Hispanic Catholicism is a practice and only incidentally a theory,” he told me. “Your humanism is a theory. You can’t fight a practice with a theory. Practice is embodied, verbally much more narrative than theoretical. Humanism after all came out of Biblical religion and owes a lot to it even when it criticises it. How about the common ground? And how about thinking of humanism as a practice, not just a theory? What kind of practices does a humanist teach his children? How are they embodied? What stories do they live by? I am suggesting that you fight fire with fire and don’t worry if you get a bit burnt along the way.”

I’m still chewing that one over. But how wonderful to get such pertinent, and personal, responses, which are of quite a different order to the sterile pantomime arguments that usually characterise discussions between believers and humanists (incidentally, I think Bellah professes a faith, and I know Scruton is an Anglican, but I’ve no idea of Marshal Berman’s position on God).

Some more militant humanists will undoubtedly take me to task for treating these arguments seriously rather than digging in and going on the counter-attack. To be sure, I do not agree with Scruton about teaching faith, and I’d like the chance to debate the issues Bellah raises with him. But I feel less inclined to dispute or combat those points than to churn them around a bit and see if there might be something of value in what they’re saying. Has my penchant for polemical combat dulled? I don’t think so. But I’m on different terrain here. This isn’t quite like other intellectual or political debates I’ve been engaged in. This is deeply personal — it’s about my children and our life as a family.

Bellah’s challenge hits home. Is my humanism merely a theory? If not, how does it take form in practice? How might it? To put it in Bellah’s own terms, this isn’t a theoretical question for me, but an extremely practical one.

I am grateful to all my interlocutors for giving me much to think about as I work through both the theory and the practice of being a humanist parent. A task that, as any parent knows, is never finished. •

Reproduced from New Humanist September October 2009-10-29

Roger Scruton

COUNTERPOINT

Children need the securities of faith

DANNY POSTEL’S ARTICLE about his search for a humanist literature for his children, was charming, but it could well be that this search is likely to prove frustrating. There is of course a growing quantity of pagan literature for children. JK Rowling and Philip Pullman seem to have little time for God, and Pullman has a decided antipathy to the Christian faith. But their books are as alien to the humanist worldview as those of CS Lewis, and their version of “children’s gothic” is hardly a preparation for the use of rational argument in the face of adult life.

That children are drawn to magic, that they spontaneously animate their world with spirits and spells, that they find relief and excitement in stories in which the heroes can summon supernatural forces to their aid and vanquish untold enemies – these facts reflect layers of deep settlement in the human psyche. But they also remind us that, in the life of the child, belief and imagination are not to be clearly distinguished, and that both serve other functions than the pursuit of truth. It seems to me that humanists should wake up to this point, and be careful when they seek to deprive their children of enchantment, or to replace their spontaneous fantasies with the cold hard facts of empirical science. It could well be that religion is a better discipline than pop science, when it comes to shaping the rational intellect, and that Danny Postel’s partner is offering their children more in the way of a solid foundation, by anchoring their imagination in sacred stories and religious doctrines, than they are likely to be offered by those “Darwinian fairy tales'” as David Stove has called them, which have gained such currency in the wake of Dawkins and Hitchens.

In response to a child’s metaphysical curiosity grown-ups can say that everything has a scientific explanation. But they will know that this is a lie. The proposition that everything has a scientific explanation does not have a scientific explanation – it describes an amazing fact about our universe, a point where reasoning falls silent. There are many such points, as anyone who has children knows: why is there anything? Why should I be good? What existed before the Big Bang? What is consciousness? You can wrestle with these questions through philosophy, but science won’t answer them. Children have an inkling of this. They also recognise that behind these questions lies a huge void – an emptiness which must be filled with love and reassurance, if their existence is not to seem like an accident. Of course, children don’t put it in that way. But they are just as prone to existential anxiety as adults are. Hence they will look for the stories that fill the void, that tell them that they are, after all, the centre of their world, and that we are not here on earth without a reason.

“It is in the early years that the art of certainty is acquired”

Beliefs which fill the existential void are not scientific beliefs. We don’t arrive at them by the hypothetico-deductive method, or by observation of the empirical world. They are matters of faith –that is to say, of certainties that cannot be grounded by anything more certain than themselves. But these foundational beliefs perform their reassuring function only if they carry with them a message of love. That is what religious instruction does in the world of a child. It is part of the general process of attachment. It is of a piece with mother-love and family unity, a way of understanding the contours of the world so as to overcome its fearfulness. One day, no doubt, the child will learn to doubt. But you don’t teach children the skill of rational argument until you have first made it safe for them. And it is in the early years, the years of attachment, that the art of certainty is acquired.

It is, to my way of thinking, a paradox of the new humanism, that it looks on human beings through the lens of evolution, but refuses to accept what evolution tells us. The need for foundations is quite dearly an adaptation, and these foundations must provide the promise of protection and love, if they are to fit the new organism for its brief time in the world. If that is so, you are not going to eliminate the need for faith: the best you can do is to withhold all objects of faith, so that a child goes hungry into the life to which he or she is destined. More often than not, a humanist education will leave a child exposed to massive and mind-dogging superstitions of the Harry Potter and Star Wars kind. But these superstitions contain far less in the way of insight than is contained in the first chapter of Genesis. Religious stories are also the result of natural selection – though selection at another level: they have come down to us because they have fulfilled a moral need. They have survived refutation because they contain, beneath their superficial falsehood, the moral truths that people need, when they must order their lives by good examples.

From the earliest age children can understand that faith is not a matter of rational argument, but a form of worship, a way of putting yourself in the presence of the unknown and trusting in a reciprocal interest. This can do harm, when we teach children that other ways of addressing the transcendental are evil and that those who practise them should be destroyed. But this is not what Christians are taught. Their liturgies and sacred texts teach humility and charity, and the Christian faith makes room for debate as no other faith that the world has known – save possibly Buddhism. I therefore think that Danny Postel should thank the Force, or whatever it is that a good humanist thanks, that his children’s mother is striving to imbue his children with the rudiments of Christianity. Whether they lose their faith or retain it, they will be the more sure of who they are, where they are, and why. •

Reproduced from New Humanist September October 2009-10-29