Kia ora: During the last month we contacted Christchurch members to enquire how the earthquake has affected them. Most sustained only a little damage; however members in the St Albans and Sumner areas have been badly affected. The unfolding consequences of the force 9.0 earthquake and resulting 10 metre tsunami in Japan have been unsettling to observe. Could it happen here? Yes, New Zealand has been struck at least 38 times by tsunamis since 1820 making New Zealand the fourth most likely country to be struck by tsunamis in the world after Japan, Hawaii, and Indonesia. Here are some of the largest. In 1820 a greater than 10 metre tsunami originating in Foveaux Strait killed many people in Orepuki; in 1848 an earthquake in Marlborough sent a tsunami across the Lyall Bay Kilbirnie isthmus into Wellington harbour; in 1855 a 9.1 metre tsunami struck Palliser Bay and crossed the Lyall Bay Kilbirnie isthmus with a height of about 5 metres; and in 1947 two large 10 metre tsunamis struck Gisborne on the 25 March to be followed by a 6 metre tsunami on the 17 May. Evidence indicates that 35 to 45 metre tsunamis have struck the East Coast of the North Island in the past. We are poorly prepared for these events and very vulnerable in some areas. We certainly should not be complacent.

April monthly meeting: Monday 4 April

The Wealth of Nations – why are some nations wealthier than others?

Why? It is 235 years since Adam Smith published his important book The Wealth of Nations 1776 regarded as the start of the modern study of economics. Despite some progress since the book was published, significant differences remain between nations. We will look at how wealth is generated and some of the reasons that differences may remain. Do cultural aspects impact on the per capita wealth of nations?

Venue for meeting:

Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington.

We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm

Last month’s meeting.

We had an interesting presentation on the Christchurch earthquakes, giving an introduction of the geology of the region, the causes of earthquakes, and what might happen next. The impact of the earthquakes on roads, rivers, services, houses, and buildings with before and after photographs was discussed along with the impact of liquefaction and how houses and buildings fail. Finally, we discussed how Humanists respond to such events. The second part of the meeting introduced the Mr Deity tapes, with a short presentation on how they started, and introducing the principal characters. We then watched a number of episodes.

Radio Access:

Humanist Outlook, 10.30am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday, 2 April, 30 April, 28 May, and 25 June.

Humanist Outlook is broadcast at 10:30 am on Access Radio, Wellington, 783 kHz, every fourth Saturday. If you are outside the Wellington area, go to www.accessradio.org.nz to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event.

Stratos Television

Watch “In Conversation with Noel Cheer” On Stratos Television, Nationwide: Monday at 7:30pm (repeated Wednesday at 6:30am and Friday at 12:30pm). Stratos is found on Sky Digital Channel 89 and Freeview (satellite and HD) Channel 21. Stratos is also found on Telstraclear Cable Channel 89 in Wellington, Kapiti, and Christchurch and on the streaming television website ecasttv.co.nz. The intervies can also be seen on Triangle Television, Auckland (UHF Channels 41, 42 and 52): Wednesday at 7:00pm (repeated Friday at 12:30pm).

NZ Humanist Society Subscriptions for 2010/2011:

Subscription invoices have been posted to members for the August 2010 to August 2011 year. Invoices have not been sent to Christchurch members as the council has waived the 2010/2011 subscription for Christchurch members as a small gesture of support for the difficult circumstances members are experiencing in the aftermath of the February 22 earthquake.

This year, we are introducing internet banking for members who wish to use this facility. Details will be provided by a separate email soon.

Marriage Celebrants:

Peter Clemerson, a Wellington Humanist, may be contacted by phone (04) 938 5923 and by email to Peter Clemerson clemerson(a)paradise.net.nz . Pam Sikkema, an Auckland Humanist, may be contacted by phone (09) 570 4390.

IHEU World Congress 2011, Oslo, Norway:

The 18th World Congress will be held in Oslo, Norway between 12 & 14 August 2011. There is a link to the Congress from the IHEU website www.iheu.org

Submission on Extending the Storage Period of Gametes and Embryos:

A submission has been sent to ACART (the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology) expressing our concern at some aspects of their proposal. The 2004 Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act allowed an initial 10 year storage period for embryos and human gametes that expires in 2014. After 2014 all embryos and gametes stored for 10 years must be destroyed unless ACART develops guidelines allowing an extension. We were particularly concerned about cases where people who are now sterile may have their gametes or embryos destroyed, despite their wishes, or without their knowledge, preventing them from having children of their own in the future. The limit of 10 years storage was imposed as a result of a largely religiously motivated backlash against assisted reproductive technology.

Anti-gay Christian couple lose foster care court bid:

We thank Barry, a Christchurch member, for sending a news cutting of a Reuters report about this court case in Britain. A Pentecostal Christian couple opposed to homosexuality have lost a court battle over their right to become foster carers. A social worker had expressed concerns about them becoming respite carers, after they said they could not tell a child that a “homosexual lifestyle” was acceptable. The couple asked judges to rule that their faith should not stop them becoming carers, and that the law should protect their Christian values. The judges at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, however, ruled that laws protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation “should take precedence” over the right not to be discriminated against on religious grounds. The lesbian, gay, and bisexual charity Stonewall welcomed the ruling saying the interests of children should “override the bias of any prospective parent”. The couple, however, issued a statement via the Christian Legal Centre saying: “We have been excluded because we have moral opinions based on our faith, and a vulnerable child has probably now missed the chance of finding a safe and caring home.” The Centre and Christian Concern added: “The law is being increasingly interpreted by judges in a way which favours homosexual rights over freedom of conscience.”

Gaylene Middleton

2010/2011 Subscriptions: subscription rates remain unchanged. A renewal form has been posted to members and a copy is attached to this newsletter.

Be certain that your name and address on the form when it is returned.

Is you address correct? Please check that your details are shown correctly on the copies mailed to you and provide corrections as necessary.

Arrears: Subscriptions for the previous year (2009/2010) are now overdue. If you did not pay last year you may include arrears with your current payment.

Internet banking: For those who would like to use Internet Banking, details will be sent by separate email shortly.


Islam’s Relationship with Europe

When people discuss Islam within Europe, they often forget that it is hardly a novelty in that part of the world. Some years ago, when the EU constitution was under consideration, there was much talk about the ‘Judeo-Christian roots of Europe”; the religious wishing to ignore the influence not only of the Enlightenment but of Islam too.

In 652 CE, in the early days of Islam, a small Islamic force invaded Sicily, but, more importantly, from 71 ICE onwards, Islam was established in Spain and Portugal in the Caliphate of Cordoba. Although there were conflicts between the Caliphate and the Christian kingdoms of the North, within the Caliphate a relatively liberal regime allowed both Christians and Jews to participate in public life and to follow their own religions. The Caliphate had an advanced culture for the time and it had considerable influence on the intellectual development of Europe.

The Caliphate fractured into a number of warring kingdoms and eventually, in 1492, the last Islamic kingdom, the Emirate of Granada, surrendered to Queen Isabella of Castile who is known as “Reina Isabel la Catolica”(Queen Isabel the Catholic).

Despite their conquest of the Caucasus and Spain, the Islamic armies did not succeed in establishing a foothold in Eastern Europe until the early 10th century when the Volga Bulgarians accepted Islam as the state religion. In the early 14th century, the western Mongols also adopted Islam, so that more than half of modern Ukraine and European Russia was Muslim. There was also a Muslim community in Hungary by the 12th century, probably as a result of trading along the Silk Road.

Islam is therefore far from being a new phenomenon in Europe. It did in fact make important contributions to European history and culture. So why is it now seen as being so alien? Nowadays we are all exposed to ideas about other peoples and cultures. We can either travel or see films about other parts of the world. So why, after all those centuries, are we unable to live together in peace? The answer, I suspect, is twofold: the xenophobia with which Europe has frequently greeted newcomers and the nature of modern radical Islam. The vast majority of European Muslims are of different ethnic origins from the indigenous population, so the big challenge is to avoid racism while maintaining the right to criticise Islam.

Most European Muslims have their roots in countries with different cultures, often old colonies or protectorates of European states. They came to Europe for work, with the intention of making a living, accumulating a little wealth and often planning to return home. They had little incentive to join the indigenous society, because they knew they were going back. The reality they experienced was different! Instead of making lots of money, they were mostly confined to ill-paid jobs that nobody else wanted to do.

Most Muslim immigrant men married women from their home countries, very often from traditional backgrounds. These women normally were expected to stay at home and raise the children. Many of them hardly ever met people from outside their immediate community.

So the Muslims lived apart and nobody cared. Things changed when unemployment grew and they were considered competitors: “Here they are, they are different and they take our jobs!” So racism grew and flourished; as long as people fight against one another, they don’t fight against the structures. People who are subject to discrimination look for support among others in a similar situation. Those having Islamic roots found one another. They looked for security in rules and traditions to which they had previously given formal allegiance but had never practised.

Now Europeans, Muslim and non-Muslim, are reacting to a potent mixture of issues: the political situation in the Middle East, racism, social marginalisation and terrorism. There is racism, undoubtedly, but criticising a religion, Islam or any other, is not racism. Problems with youngsters will not be solved by putting them in prisons but by providing good education in decent schools and listening to their concerns.

By now you will know all about our congress in Oslo next August. But I would like to draw your attention to the theme: peace! There will be a session on life stance and peace (among others). We need you there to meet, think and discuss! It is an opportunity to show how concerned Humanists are with the World, with societies and with people… But above all: it is a great opportunity to become aware of different ways of looking at life and to understand different ways of organising society. Just register and come!

Registration, please visit www.human.no.oslo2011

Sonja Eggerickx is president of the IHEU.

Reproduced from International Humanist News February 2011

Humanism at Large

Lawrence Rifkin

The Paragraph I Wish Sam Harris Would Write

Say you are a religious believer and you’ve just read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Let’s further say that you are persuaded by Harris’s characteristic clarity and forceful writing that there are right and wrong scientific answers in moral decision-making and that there are scientifically demonstrable better and worse ways of affecting the well-being of sentient creatures. Would this be enough for the scientific moral landscape to replace your God-based moral landscape?

In your worldview, God is the very source, foundation, and inspiration for morality. What foundation of nontheistic ethics can compete, both emotionally and intellectually, with such core beliefs? Is there a humanist moral foundation that is emotionally resonant for those who prefer to hang their moral coats on something that actually exists? Harris and other humanist writers rarely explicitly express a naturalistic, first-principle answer to the most fundamental and motivating moral question: What is the underlying belief and value that inspires and justifies humanist morality?

So here are the introductory sentences of the paragraph I wish Harris and other writers on secular ethics would write: “We know that sentient creatures experience pleasure, suffering, and greater or lesser well-being. Therefore, we ought to act to make other lives better as well as our own.”

“Harris and other humanist writers rarely explicitly express a naturalistic, first-principle answer to the most fundamental and motivating moral question: what is the underlying belief and value that inspires and justifies humanist morality?”

But why ought we? What is the connection between sentence one and sentence two? No science, no exercise of pure reason, can link sentence one to sentence two. Why should we care about others’ experiences if they will never affect our own lives? How do we go from recognizing others’ interests and experiences to valuing them? Scientific statements about facts and well-being by themselves are not moral facts that can motivate and call us to act morally. That is one of the criticisms religious apologists hurl at secular ethics. Even for nontheists, there has to be a link, an assumption, a “something extra” that we believe in order to provide a connection between facts and morality. In an endnote. Harris acknowledges that any framework of knowledge, including morality, rests on assumptions, for no framework is perfectly self-justifying. But like so many other secular thinkers, he implies but does not explicitly focus on or promote these nontheistic foundational assumptions. Yet it is precisely those beliefs and not the pure facts themselves that provide the motivation and basis for goodness.

Billions of people, of course, believe that the link between sentence one and sentence two is God. God is said to be the source of goodness, the goodness itself, and the judge of what’s good. Can we fashion a nontheistic alternative moral foundation that is psychologically fulfilling? Continuing the paragraph, I wish Harris and others would write: “Neither science nor pure reason can link sentence one to sentence two. What links sentence one to sentence two—the ground and fundamental value of humanist ethics—is caring, compassion, and love. These are visceral passions, a foundation from which more abstract concepts like freedom and fairness can grow. Caring, compassion, and love, for ourselves and for others, emerge from actual human experience and require no supernatural justification.”

“Caring, compassion, and love”—by making them an explicit focus of humanist ethics, we can show those with religious mindsets that humanists share their deep moral wellspring and that it is possible to be filled with the same positive moral passions and ideals that inspire them, albeit without complicated supernatural justifications or explanations. Once we acknowledge these psychologically resonant beliefs as nontheistic foundational links between facts and values, nothing else in subsequent humanist moral analysis and argument changes. Our distinct methodological approach and secular humanist goals still hold. But by making our moral foundations explicit in this way, we potentially broaden the appeal of humanist ethical thinking. It’s only the beginning of a naturalistic moral world-view, but it is a moral foundation we can sell. Messages like compassion and love have had a successful memetic track record throughout history, from Buddhism to Christianity.

Humanists cannot allow words like love to be co-opted by Christian theologians. Christianity holds no copyright on love. Humanists can also claim language about love, create our own branding, and no longer allow others to publicly frame the meaning of concepts so core to human experience. Potential philosophical worries about definitional vagueness are not particularly relevant here. Caring, compassion, and love are all expressions of various types of deep emotional feelings for the well-being of others. The idea is to promote these as a foundation of naturalistic ethics and as a powerful secular motivating theme. Knowledge and love make for powerful partners in secular ethics.

This is not advocating any kind of “dumbing down” or “accommodation” of humanism. Because we are not giving up our commitment to evidence, consequences, naturalism, or scientific inquiry, we will not lose our rationalistic, tough-thinking street cred.

Humanist ethics is informed by science, naturalism, and consequences, and it is inspired by compassion, caring, and love. Science and reason tell us how the world is and how to make it better. But it is fundamental values such as caring, compassion, and love—not facts and reason by themselves—that actually motivate and inspire.

Our leading thinkers sometimes seem hesitant to make this inspiration explicit or to use language about caring and love. Perhaps this is out of fear of losing a targeted political focus, confusing our foundations with our methods, or using concepts that may seem vague or weak. If our ideas are expressed clearly, these fears are misplaced. Appreciating the value of emotion in morality does not necessitate or justify the devaluing of reason, science, consequences, or evidence. If humanist morality does not speak effectively to the hearts and emotions of others, it is also less likely to reach their intellects or affect their actions. FI

Lawrence Rifkin, physician and writer, has been published by the National Academy of Sciences and in Medical Economics, in which he was named the Grand Prize winner of the Doctor’s Writing Contest. His essays in Free Inquiry explore humanism as a source of meaning and inspiration.

Reproduced from FREE INQUIRY FEBRUARY/MARCH 2011 secularhumanism.org