Kia ora: Three short words sum up the Melbourne Atheist Convention, FUN, FUN, FUN. Melbourne was fun. Being on holiday was fun. Our first night we stayed at the Exford Hotel in the middle of Chinatown, our room overlooking the spectacular Chinese Arches. After our evening meal we walked through Melbourne’s streets and were intrigued by the unique traffic system designed to enable cars and trams to coexist on the streets. At road and tram intersections right turning cars pull to the left in front of waiting cars and as soon as lights turn green speed off to the right with waiting cars following behind. I thought this a stately choreography, entrancing to watch. The next morning we moved to the Kingsgate Hotel to be closer to the Convention Centre on the South Bank of the Yarra River. As we waited at reception we saw a news item on TV about a 3.4 Richter Scale earthquake that had just occurred on the east coast. As Kiwis we were very nonchalant, but to the Australian news service it was a significant item and warranted an interview with a person on the spot. In the weekend section of The Age, 13 April 2010, (Melbourne’s daily paper), there was an article, The Odd Angry Smack by reporter Greg Bearup, who was examining the ‘pros and cons of sparing the rod.’ Our New Zealand experience was included in the article. However, I displayed my ‘Kiwiness’, by finding the multitude of people and the traffic overwhelming. The Convention Centre quite dwarfs our Michael Fowler Centre, and walking to the Centre on Saturday and Sunday mornings, to ensure a good seat, I was reminded of Canaletto’s beautiful Venice paintings, as we crossed the bridge over the Yarra, in the early morning light.

· April monthly meeting: Monday 5 April Melbourne 2010 Atheist Convention Thoughts & Impressions:
Peter Clemerson, and Iain & Gaylene Middleton, who attended the Convention will share some of the thoughts of the Convention speakers and other impressions gleaned from this exciting weekend. And perhaps as Easter is based on a pre Christian festival, we can indulge in some Easter fare as well.

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

· Radio Access: The time slot has 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.
If you are outside the Wellington radiobroadcast area, go to to listen or to download a pod cast after the event.
Future Broadcasts are on Saturday 3 April, 1 May, 29 May, 26 June, & 24 July.

· Atheist Bus Campaign:
After a successful fund raising campaign, New Zealand Bus changed its position and refused to run the advertising slogan “There’s probably on God so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” or to enter into mediation. A letter has been sent to Te Tari Whakatau Take Tika Tangata – The Office of Human Rights Proceedings, requesting free legal representation to aid us in the dispute with NZ Bus. A confirmation letter that our letter has been received states that at least four working weeks are required to make a decision.

“In Conversation with Noel Cheer:” on Triangle Television: Noel Cheer has sent us a copy of his interview with Iain Middleton, our President, which was broadcast at 7.30pm on Wed. 24 March on Triangle Auckland (UHF Channels 41, 42, & 52). I thought this an excellent interview. Noel’s interviewing style is very relaxed and friendly, making very watchable television.

· Realising Secularism,
Australia and New Zealand edited by Max Wallace, (Australia New Zealand Secular Association, 2010). This publication contains papers from the 2008 Secular Heritage Conference held in Sydney, Australia and Wellington, New Zealand. Papers were presented by Helen Irving (Aus), Bill Cooke (NZ), Lloyd Geering (NZ), Max Wallace (Aus), Nicky Hager (NZ), Jane Caro (Aus), Iain Middleton (NZ), and Lewis Holden (NZ), and includes extra papers by the late Jim Dakin (NZ), and Ken Perrott (NZ). Details about purchasing this book will be included in a later newsletter. Publication was completed in time for the Melbourne Atheist Convention and Max will be sending us copies shortly.

· More Convention Impressions: 1,500 people gathered for the Friday evening and Saturday sessions. For the Sunday sessions that included Peter Singer, AC Grayling, and Richard Dawkins there were 2,500. I was reminded of experiments in human group behaviour as convention participants were divided into three groups by the colour of the ribbon holding their Convention pass. Those who paid a premium full weekend pass to have front seats were gold. Those with a standard full weekend pass sitting behind the gold’s were blue. Those who came on Sunday only were red. It was interesting to watch even atheists being human and identifying with their colour. A ‘blue’ was heard to call out to the ‘reds’ “see what you get, by only coming to hear Dawkins”. The ‘reds’ were sitting at the back. I found the people at the Convention very friendly, perhaps more so than at New Zealand gatherings. I think it is an Australian characteristic to be less reserved but Australian Humanist members commented on this too. They felt there was the added ingredient of a common bond. Even at the Convention dinner, where there were 10 people at each table, conversation was easy and all inclusive. Convention organisers showed that they understood the human need for drama. Each speaker was introduced by a fanfare of a short segment of music. Comedy was interspersed during the Friday evening session, Saturday dinner and immediately before Richard Dawkins. The latter act did draw some censure as it certainly pushed boundaries. Max Wallace, who presented a paper at our 2008 Secular Heritage Conference, gave an excellent presentation on the need to expose taxpayer subsidy of religion. His book The Purple Economy sold out and orders had to be taken. I can only say, do think about attending the next Convention because there was mention of a second in a couple of years, and if in Wellington come and hear Peter, Iain and Gaylene on 5 April!

· Atheist Convention Quote
‘Religion is excellent for keeping common people quiet’ Napoleon.

• Email discussion group: Join the group to contribute to the discussion.

Operating on Yahoo at

• Other meetings 2010: Science Express @ Te Papa meets on the first Thursday of the month, their March meeting.

Cafe Scientifique in Lower Hutt meets on the last Thursday of the month at a new venue, the Cadillac Diner, High St, Lower Hutt, 6pm to 7.30pm

Sceptics in the Pub, Wellington, meets at Kitty O’Shea’s, fortnightly.

Gaylene Middleton

DEMOGRAPHY – Battle of the Babies

Caspar Melville

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.

WHENEVER DEMOGRAPHY is the subject a panicky headline usually follows. Generally these take the form of anxieties about overpopulation. “Are there just too many people in the world?” asks Johann Hariin the Independent. “The World’s population is still exploding,” confirms the Optimum Population Trust (patron David Attenborough). Though equally they could be about the opposite. “Is Europe Dying?” queries Catholic apologist George Weigel (before answering his own question: “The brute fact is that Europe is depopulating itself’). “Falling birth rate is killing Europe says Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks” is the Guardian’s offering. To these hysterical headlines let’s add another, especially for you secular folk: with birth rates of seven babies per women fundamentalists will take over the world. And here is the kicker: it’s all secularism’s fault.

This grim prognostication comes courtesy of political scientist Eric Kaufmann, a reader in politics at London’s Birkbeck College, and the author of the new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth ?, out in March from Profile Books. If, like me, you skip the six dense chapters of politico-demographic analysis, in the very last line of the book you can find his answer: “The religious shall inherit the earth.” There is, of course, an “unless” and we’ll get to that later, but let’s just let the idea sink in first.

What Kaufmann is arguing is that the secularisation thesis, the assumption that modernity leads inexorably to a lessening of religious belief and a day when we are all rational humanists, is wrong – at one point Kaufmann approvingly quotes Rodney Stark and Roger Finke’s view that this is “a failed prophecy”. Further he is saying that there is something about our current form of liberal secularism that contains (here’s another headline) the seeds of its own destruction. Since the birth rate of individualistic secular people the world over is way below replacement level (2.1 in the West), and the birth rate of religious fundamentalists is way above (between 5 and 7.5 depending on sect), then through the sheer force of demography religious fundamentalism is going to become a much bigger force in the world and gain considerable political muscle. Literalist religious conservatism is being reborn and we secular liberals are the midwives.

So there’s the challenge. I met up with Kaufmann in February to see how well his case stands up. He arrives looking fresh and unrumpled after the 15-yard walk from his Bloomsbury office to ours. A surprisingly boyish Canadian, who has lived long enough in London to have acquired a wife and two kids of his own (just below the replacement rate, I couldn’t help noting), this is his third book – his first focused on American voting patterns and his second on Orangism in Northern Ireland. Kaufmann is not a demographer by trade but a political scientist specialising in ethnic conflict. He was drawn into the science of population flows because researching those books brought home the way in which ethnic and religious conflicts with political consequences are being reconfigured (the textbooks call this “religious restructuring”). The traditional rift between different religious sects is closing, while that between religious people of all denominations on the one hand and (what he calls rather inelegantly) the “seculars” on the other is widening. Embedded within these new trends was the unremarked but increasingly pivotal role played by differential fertility. This is the subject of the new book.

BEHIND THE SHOUTY headlines, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? is a detailed and patiently argued study, with convincing demographic data woven together with deft political analysis in three core case studies – of Israel, the US and Europe. But before delving into the detail I wanted to start with the central thesis. What is it about secularism, I wondered, that contains the seeds of its own destruction? “Well, I should make clear that I’m talking about our very specific kind of contemporary secularism,” he says. “By this I mean post-‘60s secularism, one that is post-ideological, multicultural and liberal. My argument is that there is something about this multicultural liberal secularism that is good for fundamentalism and bad for itself.”

OK, how? “I think in three ways. Firstly secular liberalism is individualistic, and therefore it goes hand in hand with delayed child bearing and lower fertility rates. Now you might say this is very good for the planet, but if you compare these rates with those who self-consciously maintain or increase their fertility rates you can see that this leads to population change. Second there is what you might call multicultural toleration of religious fundamentalism. Compare today with what happened when the Mormons tried to establish a theocracy in Utah in 1857. The US government would not allow it, and went to war with the Mormons to prevent it. You can’t imagine the government taking up arms against a religious sect today. The environment of toleration that characterises the West today gives religious fundamentalism breathing room and a degree of protection.” And third? “We are in a post-ideological phase. In place of the big political ideas, the quasi-religious ideologies like Communism, we have the issue of which party manages the economy better. The draining away of liberal ideology creates a vacuum that fundamentalism can exploit. These three things put secularism, in my view, at a disadvantage.”

The irony is that in terms of growth fundamentalism is the most successful model for religion in Western secular societies” Eric Kaufmann

But what kind of fundamentalism is he talking about? The book covers a wide array of sects from Haredis in Jerusalem to Hutterites in Montana and Salifis in Manchester. Some of the American and Jewish sects are hundreds of years old, but others – like Quiverfull and Salifism – are relatively new. What do they have in common?

“I CALL THEM ‘endogenous growth sects’. The defining features are that they have strong boundaries to the outside, they try to live segregated from the rest of society, they practice ‘in’ marriage, they have high fertility rates and high retention of members – it’s grow-your-own-fundamentalism. The irony is that in terms of growth this is the most successful model for religion in Western secular societies. This is not true for the developing world, or for the Muslim world, but it is for the West.” The reason why Kaufmann covers both older forms of fundamentalism like the Amish and Hutterites, sects that are not likely to put the fear of God into secularists because they seem so passive, so withdrawn and uninterested in imposing their worldview on the rest of us, alongside more aggressive and self-consciously power-hungry forms of evangelical Christianity and Islamism is because, in his argument, the older sects provide the model of success that is now being followed by the newer ones. To understand them, Kaufmann argues, we need to look at the older forms they are self-consciously aping.

Many of the arguments about the future are based on unique projections Kaufmann has made in collaboration with researchers at the World Population Program at Laxenburg in Austria, looking forward to 2050. But how reliable are the figures? “The data at IIASA is compiled from large social surveys done every two years in many countries,” he explains. “We take six years at a time to get a reliable data pool and correlate this with existing age structures for all the given groups, and of course fertility rates, to project ahead. It isn’t an exact science, but as far as social science is concerned it is pretty reliable.”

Turning to the data we should start with what Kaufmann describes as the “paradigm” case, that of Israel. What does Israel look like in 2050? “Simply put, a majority of the population in 2050 will be Haredi, that is Orthodox Jewish. From a trace element of the Israeli population in the 1950s, one out of three children in grade one are now Orthodox. They have achieved this with a fertility rate of 7.5 babies per woman, which has actually risen in the past decade.” Haredi have always had high fertility but this growth has been significantly helped by explicit government policy. Ultra-Orthodox communities have been subsidised so the men don’t have to work – they devote themselves to study and are relieved from service in the army. This of course has huge consequences for the politics of the region: “Traditionally the Haredi were relatively agnostic in regards to the peace process. They were anti-Zionist because they felt it was wrong to try and establish the state of Israel before time – they would play the hawks and doves off against each other. But now, since many live in settlements that are in occupied or disputed territory they are becoming increasingly hawkish. And of course they have their own parties and they are politically active.” So demographics are bringing this traditionalist, paternalistic, inward-looking and reactionary belief system to the centre of Middle East politics. To be continued. 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.