Kia ora:

As anticipated the Skeptics Conference was thought provoking and fun. The Barbershop arrangement of Jeff Hunt’s “It’s getting Better” was enjoyed. I am hoping that we may be able to make a recording of this song. Frank Andrews, formerly of Carter Observatory, Wellington gave a very clear, fascinating talk on the beginnings of the universe. Astronomers can trace our history back to just after the Big Bang. However, there is a veil over even earlier events of the Big Bang, because the telescopes required to penetrate this veil have not yet been developed. The 2010 Skeptics Conference will be held in Auckland, traditionally during the first weekend of the Term 3 School Holidays. Negotiations are being held at present, to bring James Randi to this conference, if at all possible.

October monthly meeting: Monday 5 OctoberPeter Clemerson will discuss Phil Zuckerman’s book, Society without God
Phil Zuckerman’s recent book Society without God records his findings during fourteen months residence in Denmark in 2006/07, during which time he also visited and researched in Sweden. He wished to ascertain the validity of claims made by the religious right in the USA, that without God, any society was condemned to moral chaos. Along with discussion on this book, Peter will present research by Tomas James Rees of East Sussex University in the UK and Gregory S Paul, an independent researcher, who have both investigated the relationship of religion and societal health. Some information related to New Zealand’s comparative position (not wonderful) will also be presented and some suggestions made as to what the Humanist Society of NZ might do to further ascertain our position and what might be done to improve it!
Venue for meeting: Turnbull House, Wellington.
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm.

Radio Access:Listen to Humanist Outlook programmes at 11 am, 783 kHz, on 18 October, 15 November, 13 December 2009. 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.

November monthly meeting: Frederick March, the president of the New Mexico Humanists, is visiting NZ and will speak to us at this meeting. More information in the November newsletter.

2009 NZ Humanist Society AGM.
• Sunday 25 October, 10.30 am. Turnbull House, Bowen Street. Nominations for Council Positions are now open.

2009 NZ Humanist Society Seminar
Sunday 25 October, 1.15 pm until 4 pm. Open public lecture in the Mezzanine floor meeting room at the Wellington Central Library.
Recalling two Major Conflicts of Western Civilisatio – Galileo & Darwin
This year 2009, marks 400 years since Galileo constructed his first telescope and 150 years since Darwin published the Origin of the Species
Ross Powell, Wellington Astronomical Society will discuss: Galileo, Politics and Religion.

Dr Geoff Chambers, Research & Teaching Fellow, Molecular Biology and Evolution, School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, commemorates Darwin by discussing:
“The Four Horsemen of the New Enlightenment”
A talk based on Dr Chambers’ article in Science review (2008), discussing the work and impact of modern thinkers such as Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett on the Religion – Evolution interface.”

Subscriptions for the 2008-2009 year are now overdue. Subscription rates remain unchanged from the previous year. Have you paid? Please check your records. For those who have not paid, a subscription form in pdf format is attached to this email. An individual form was previously posted to all members in November last year.

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 Jul/ Aug Vol 124 No 4 & Sep/Oct Vol 124. No 5: Articles dealing with bringing up Humanist children are included in these two issues. The first article is included overleaf and responses to this article will be included with the November newsletter.

Gaylene Middleton

GOOD BOOKS?

What can humanist parents use in the battle against religious indoctrination?

Danny Postel investigates

“DADDY, WHY DID Jesus invent butterflies it they die after two weeks?”The late Jim Dakin, formerly Associate Professor, Department of University Extension, Victoria University of Wellington, wrote extensively on Adult Education. After retiring, he became interested in Humanism and Secularism in New Zealand and was for a period President of the Humanist Society of New Zealand. His investigations into the secular history of New Zealand led to book that was originally serialised in New Zealand Humanist in eight parts beginning with issue 146 in June 2000. The Secular Trend is now available in Book form and includes a bibliography of Jim Dakin’s writing. A limited number of copies are available.Order your copy of The Secular Trend by Jim Dakin, published in 2007. Send $10 plus $4.50 postage ($19.50) to Humanist Society of New Zealand (Note; this postage price applies to New Zealand only).The Humanist Society of New ZealandThe Humanist Society of New Zealand is a non-profit society dedicated to Humanist thought and ideals in New Zealand. The Society supports: ethics giving the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others; the constructive use of rational thought and scientific enquiry; democracy and human rights; personal liberty combined with social responsibility; a secular world based on observation, evaluation, and revision, rather than any fixed dogma; the fulfilment of human potential through the visual and performing arts, music, and literature; and Humanism as a life stance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through ethical and creative living available to everyone everywhere.Visit our website: http://www.humanist.org.nz

I just about hit the panic button when my six-year-old son Theo put this question to me not long ago. His mother, who is a Christian, had taught him that Jesus was God. When Jesus’s visage appears in a painting or on television, Theo sometimes exclaims, “That’s God!” In his butterfly question he seemed to reason, syllogistically, that if Jesus was God, and God created the world and its life forms (butterflies being one of them), Jesus “invented” the winged creatures. Either that or God and Jesus are simply interchangeable in his mind.

“First, Theo, your question presumes that Jesus was God,” I responded. “Many people, like mommy, believe he was, but many others don’t. It also presumes that there is a God – we don’t know for sure that there is.” “I think there is,” he retorted. “There may very well be a God, Theo. But not everyone agrees on that – there are many people who doubt there is a God. We might never know for sure if there is or not,” I told him. “When we die we’ll know,” he came back. “Maybe,” I said. “But maybe not.”

The literalism packed into Theo’s question alarmed me, but this was by no means my first encounter with the influence of religion on my progeny. My ten-year-old son Elijah enjoys going to church with his mother – not every Sunday, but not infrequently. I’ve never discouraged it. One Monday morning a few months ago, though, I saw him reading the Bible, a children’s Bible he’d been given at his mother’s church. In no way did I discourage him from reading it. But I confess (as it were) that I went to work that day a bit preoccupied.

To be sure, I’d always been comfortable with our familial arrangement: our boys have parents with very different views on religion – their mother a Catholic, their father an agnostic humanist. This is only one of the several ways in which our family is “mixed”: Nilsa is from Puerto Rico, I from the Midwestern US; she grew up in a working-class family in the countryside, I in a middle-class one in the suburbs; she speaks to the children in Spanish, I in English. Our differences regarding religion must therefore seem, to the kids, par for the course, no?

I’ve also sensed (hoped?) that having one religious parent and one secular one could be healthy for the boys (“hmm, if mom believes x but dad doesn’t, I guess there are multiple perspectives to consider, and who knows which one is right? Maybe none has a monopoly on truth…”).

Nonetheless, the sight of Elijah reading the Bible that morning did leave me with an uneasy feeling. Of course it was wonderful to see him reading. And the Bible is in any case a seminal world-historical text: familiarity with it is an essential form of cultural knowledge. Churches, however, don’t typically dispense Bibles merely as cultural texts but rather as the Word of God. It was in this register that I worried a bit about Elijah’s engagement with the book. And it made me ask myself what exactly I was doing to share, or impart, my secular worldview to Elijah, as a counterbalance to the Catholicism he was imbibing from his mother. She takes him to services. What do I take him to? She has him reading the Bible. What do I have him reading?

I HAVE READ all sorts of books with Elijah that I think of as humanistic, broadly speaking: lots of poetry (particularly Pablo Neruda, whose Book of Questions is ideal for children); books like David A White’s Philosophy for Kids, and its sequel, The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids. I recall feeling especially proud one evening after doing a chapter of Philosophy for Kids, which is designed for discussion between parent and child -1 think it was a chapter on the meaning of friendship – followed by some verses of Neruda. I put Elijah to sleep that night thinking to myself, a diet of Aristotle and Neruda for my eight-year old -how cool is that?

Cool though it may be, does it actually counterbalance the influence of the churchgoing and Bible-reading? Or does it operate on a parallel track from it altogether? Does Elijah juxtapose whatever he may be taking away from the philosophy and poetry with the stuff he hears at church? Does he consider one in relation to the other at all? Seeing his head buried in that Bible that morning really made me wonder if I was perhaps approaching the matter too sideways. Maybe I needed to tackle the situation head-on.

But how? Are there any children’s books, I wondered, that directly address religious questions from a humanistic point of view? Not necessarily an anti-Bible, but a strong alternative or counterpart in a secular key.

I CALLED A FRIEND of mine, who works for a humanist charity and is a parent too, feeling sure he would have some sage advice. His response surprised me. Not only did he not know of any good humanist children’s books, he said, he didn’t like the idea of such a thing. Rather than attempt to counter-indoctrinate kids with explicitly anti-religious messages, he argued, far better simply to expose them to the widest range of reading as possible – weren’t Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss essentially humanistic? – and expose them to the manifold religions and philosophies in the world in order to nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the Universe, and help them view religion in a comparative context. The antidote I was seeking, he suggested, was to be found in books of evolution and science fiction, not didactic manifestos.

She takes him to services. What do I take him to? She has trim reading the Bite. What do I have him reading?

Sounded wise, though I didn’t expect to hear it from a full-time, professional humanist. And I was disappointed that he didn’t have a ready-made list of books of the sort I had in mind.

THE DILEMMA REMAINED: what if all the science and fantasy and comparative metaphysics fail to do the trick, and Christian literalism, despite my efforts, works its magic on my children’s minds? Call me intolerant, but I’ll admit it: I don’t want to tell my children what to believe or not to believe, but I would be displeased and disappointed if they were to embrace conventional religious views. I just would be. Isn’t there a more direct way, I thought, to militate against that outcome?

I turned to Amazon and found that there are several books in this register. Many of them are published by Prometheus Books, an American press with a long history [see the inside story of Prometheus’s founder on page 13]. Within minutes I had found books such as Humanism, What’s That? A Book for Curious Kids by Helen Bennett and Dan Barker’s Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics. I particularly liked the title of this one. Could I have found what I was looking for? I had liked the idea about ex-posing the kids to the array of religious traditions. Wouldn’t this naturally tend to weaken the notion that any one religion holds the key to Truth? Another friend of mine had challenged this idea – wouldn’t this, he asked, merely sanction or naturalise the religious frame of understanding the world? Isn’t the message, in effect, “Look at these various religious beliefs and practices – you are free to pick among them”? “What about the millions of people who live without religion?” he asked. “Why not present secular modes of thought alongside the religious traditions?” He had a point, but since I was already getting some explicitly secular books I added The Kids Book of World Religions to my shopping cart.

If we raise our children to be free individuals, they may make choices that we don’t like. Tough

WELL, WE’VE READ the books, but I’m afraid there’s nothing terribly interesting to report either about the texts as such or about my children’s reactions to them, which have been rather quiet, if not altogether bored – tough to tell, and I’m strongly disinclined to go fishing for their thoughts. I’ve been tempted, but better, I think, to let them process it all in their own way (assuming the books made an impression at all). The books themselves are a mixed bag: at turns poignant and clunky, clever and awkward. I might re-read them with the boys at some point. Or maybe they’ll pick them up themselves and read them on their own. We’ll see.

And I might look for other humanist books that engage my children more than this first batch did. Raising my children as a secular father in a society saturated with religion, and in a home that is itself mixed (up?) on the religious question, creates anxiety. But maybe I should just relax. “Kids mostly just want to play with their friends, and religion isn’t that big a deal – though it is, unfortunately, to parents,” writes Emily Rosa, one of the contributors to the book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, in an essay evocatively titled “Growing Up Godless: How l Survived Amateur Secular Parenting”.

All PARENTS MUST confront the prospect that if we raise our children to be free, self-confident individuals, they may make choices that we don’t like. Tough. The companion volume to Parenting Beyond Belief bears the title Raising Freethinkers. Sounds appealing – I’d like to raise freethinkers. But what if raising my kids to be truly free in their thinking results in their becoming religious? What if my efforts to instill scepticism in them lead them to become sceptical of my humanism? So be it.

“Teaching” your children (about) humanism can be a fool’s errand, plagued by some the same pitfalls involved in raising children “in” a particular faith tradition. Richard Dawkins has provocatively argued that indoctrinating children with religion is a form of child abuse. But couldn’t secularism, as Jeremy Stangroom recently wondered, constitute its own form of indoctrination? (See his “Can secular humanism be a kind of brainwashing?” at www.jeremystangroom.com) Might the attempt to impart one worldview or another to one’s children – whether religious or secular – itself be ill-conceived?

And yet one doesn’t want to be passive, especially in the American context, in which religion in one form or another constitutes a kind of default position. One can certainly understand the impulse behind the humanism-for-kids books, whatever their faults and limitations, and the desire of secular parents to get their hands on them. They arise from and speak to a very real hunger, whether they satisfy it or not. •

Reproduced from New Humanist July/August 2009