Humanist Society of New Zealand (Inc.), PO Box 3372, Wellington, New Zealand – Registered Charity No. CC36074

The Humanist Society of New Zealand is a Member Organisation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union

Humanist Newsletter– August 2019

Kia Ora: I am remembering the period from 30th July to 9th August 9 2018 when Humanist New Zealand and NZARH hosted the Humanist Conference and Humanists International General Assembly in Auckland, followed by the Post Conference Tour. We met and made such amazing humanist friends and many have maintained contact since. News releases from Humanists International have a new familiarity and heightened impact. Our Parliamentary Welcome was brought alive by Leo Igwe’s oratory. Leo’s impassioned address has proven prophetic. Leo’s concluding words were: “Countries should use their power to protect all humanists at risk and end all forms of religious persecution and oppression. Countries should act now in defence of the human rights and freedom of atheists and freethinkers worldwide.” At that time, here in New Zealand, where we only know safety, these words spoke of a reality we then only dimly perceived.

A year later are more fully aware of their urgency. We all met and were inspired by Gululai Ismail from Pakistan, a Humanists International Board member. We were shaken by the events that have overtaken Gululai from her arrest in late 2018 and placement on the Pakistan Exit Control List to now when we are terrified for Gululai as news reports indicate Gululai is in hiding or may indeed be missing. Gululai joined our Post Conference Tour and we all enjoyed her company.

Viola Namyalo from Uganda, for whom pressure had to be applied to obtain a New Zealand Visitors’ Visa, after three refusals, returned to her home country and continues her work to educate young girls and women with a Menstrual Hygiene Management programme (MHM). Recently Viola and HALEA (Humanist Association for Leadership and Accountability) have begun a programme for boys to understand menstruation. MHM, so crucial to girls, requires the support of all including boys and men.

Rana Amjad Sattar, a member of the Pakistan Humanist Society, also attended the Humanist Conference and General Assembly and spoke to us at our September 2018 monthly meeting, outlining the humanist situation in Pakistan. Because of his humanist activities and life stance Rana has received death threats in Pakistan and is now seeking asylum in NZ. After a long year, Amjad’s case is still not resolved. His wife and three children remain in Pakistan waiting and hoping to be reunited soon.

Leo Igwe also has his experience of violent attack because of his humanist stance. Ten years ago members of the Liberty Gospel Church attacked and robbed Leo in Calabar, Nigeria. They invaded and attacked Leo at a conference that he organized to highlight abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs in that region of Nigeria. Will countries heed Leo’s request for protection for humanists at risk? It is encouraging to see some small developments in understanding in New Zealand as indicated in the statements below. Humanists International is also lobbying strongly in this area.

Humanist Catch-UpMonday August 5 @ 6.30pm until 9.00pm

“Street Epistemology”

Jolene Phipps, our President, will introduce us to “Street Epistemology” which refers to a conversational technique introduced in 2013 by Dr. Peter Boghossian, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University. It is a more productive and positive alternative to debates and arguments. A growing number of people worldwide have found value in the technique and are adopting it in their conversations with others about extraordinary (mostly supernatural and/or religious) claims.

The goal of street epistemology is to guide people into engaging their critical thinking skills and applying them to their own beliefs about the world. Street Epistemology is about teaching the most fundamental features of critical thought. It’s about helping people recognize the value of skepticism and the scientific method. It’s about illuminating the distinction between beliefs about the universe and the objective truth of the universe.

Jolene will also use some short You Tube videos which demonstrate the use of this technique.

All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend.

Wellington Venue: Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave St in the Katherine Mansfield Room

July meeting discussion of question: Atheism is a form of prejudice? After our discussion agreement was reached that an ideology cannot exhibit human emotions.  Prejudice is a human emotion and so emotions conveyed belong to a human person. An atheist, being a human person, may convey prejudice but it is not inherent in the atheist life stance.

Peter Ellis and the Civic Crèche conviction 1993: We strongly support Peter Ellis in his decision to ask the Supreme Court of NZ to hear his appeal to overturn his conviction for sexual abuse of children at the Civic Crèche, Christchurch. His lawyer Rob Harrison says “In contrast to most miscarriage cases, where the wrong person is convicted of something, Ellis has been convicted of crimes that never existed” Lynley Hood, who spent seven years researching this case and documenting it in her book  A City Possessed (October 2001) concluded that Peter was innocent. Peter’s conviction was part of a group of similar cases in the United States, known as the “day-care sex-abuse hysteria”—a moral panic that originated out of California in 1982 and existed throughout the 1980s. Humanist New Zealand long felt that this conviction was highly suspect, with very little basis for a conviction and our position was outlined in an article and letters in The New Zealand Humanist (Issues 132 Dec 1996, 133 Mar 1997, and 138 Jun 1998). At the time of the conviction, many people believed that children do not lie, but it was soon shown that children and others are very susceptible to implanted memories and the method of questioning in this case by so called but dubious experts would implant false memories. To compound the problem, the judge allowed cherry picking of evidence from the children so only that evidence that might lead to a conviction was allowed. At the November 2017 monthly meeting, Jonathon Harper discussed issues around this injustice along with some aspects of how our government and justice system works and fails, mass hysteria and witch hunts, and how and why people stick to their silly senseless beliefs. It has been suggested that higher courts in New Zealand are reluctant to overturn jury decisions because this may result in a loss of respect for the legal system, but in this case the failure to overturn this conviction has itself resulted in a considerable loss of respect for New Zealand’s legal system.

End of Life Choice Bill: This Bill passed second reading on 26 June 2019 with 70 votes in favour and 50 opposed.

David Seymour, ACT Party Leader and Sponsor of the End of Life Choice Bill, released his Supplementary Order Paper on 31 August 2019 containing his amendments to the End of Life Choice Bill. The major changes are:

• To restrict the Bill only to those with a terminal illness, judged by two doctors independent of each other, to be likely to end the person’s life within six months.

• Explicitly stating, for the avoidance of all doubt, that a person is not eligible for assisted dying by reason only that the person has a disability of any kind, is suffering from any form of mental illness or mental disorder or is of an advanced age.

• To include a more detailed criteria for the assessment of a person’s mental competency.

• Explicitly stating that a health practitioner must not initiate a discussion about assisted dying with any patient or suggest to any patient that the person should exercise the option of assisted dying.

• Explicitly stating for the avoidance of all doubt that no person can choose to have an assisted death through an expression in an advanced directive, will, contract, or other agreement, or through a welfare guardian acting for that person.

• Providing for the eligible person, as long as they retain competency, to be able to change the date and time of the administration of medication for a period of up to six months.

Statement at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Washington DC, USA– 18 July 2019

Humanist NZ congratulates the Hon Winston Peters on this statement which is inclusive of people with a life stance of non-belief.

Secretary Pompeo,

It is our responsibility to be here today to record New Zealand’s strong commitment to the common endeavour of fostering respect for the right to freedom of religion and belief.

Washington is an appropriate location for this conference because the United States has a special place in the history of advancing religious freedom, through Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786 and by codifying religious freedom, and freedom of expression, in the First Amendment of the US Constitution in 1791. 

New Zealand also has a long history of supporting the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief both at home and abroad.

On 15 March this year, the freedom to practice one’s religion safely, free from violence, free from hate, took on an unimaginable new relevance for our nation. It was the day a simple act of prayer – of practicing one’s faith and religion – led to the loss of 51 peaceful Muslim worshippers. The devastating impact of this loss was sadly magnified by the livestreaming and widespread sharing online of these terrorist attacks against our Muslim community.

In a country that practices religious tolerance, an attack on one of us observing our beliefs is an attack on all of us.

Let me assure you that New Zealand is and will remain a safe and open tolerant society, one with fundamental freedoms protected at its core. We utterly reject such religious-based violence.

The deep national grief New Zealanders feel in the wake of the March 15 attack reminded us of how dearly we treasure these freedoms. It was also a warning of how we must constantly work to secure them. We are acutely aware of the impact that the rise of hateful narratives based on race, religion or diversity can have on religious freedom. For people to be free, and to feel free, to practice their religion safely, we must go beyond legislative frameworks to reject and address all forms of intolerance in our societies.

One important area of our focus is how we can build a more socially inclusive New Zealand. A key element of this will be fostering greater interfaith dialogue and understanding across all levels of society. The responses we witnessed after 15 March this year across New Zealand demonstrated the unifying power of interfaith and intercultural understanding – of the common themes of compassion and respect for human life and dignity across religions and belief systems.

This focus on tolerance and diversity reflects the close relationship between the right to freedom of religion and belief and of the right to freedoms of opinion and expression. These rights have a mutually reinforcing effect. Enabling and encouraging the free expression of religion and belief, as well as the exchange of ideas, contributes to combating intolerance and builds well-informed and politically mature societies.

In summation, Secretary Pompeo, New Zealand reiterates its concern at increasing levels of violence and discrimination based on, or in the name of, religion or belief that are occurring across the globe. In particular the persecution of religious minorities through violence and discrimination that not only undermines their religious freedoms, but their enjoyment of many other basic rights, such as the right to speak freely, without fear of persecution.

In our discussions on freedom of religion and belief we must remember the diversity this right encompasses.

It encompasses the right not to believe. It is not limited to religion but includes agnostic and atheistic beliefs, as well as matters of conscience.

Ongoing attacks and discrimination are a sobering reminder that the international community must remain united in promoting freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief of all persons everywhere.

For its part, New Zealand stands ready to work with you all.

New Zealand’s national “Diversity” statement excludes non-religious people:

Humanists International has praised New Zealand for having abolished its blasphemy law last year, committing to remove abortion from its criminal code, and new anti-racism initiatives. However, concerns remain over the exclusion of non-religious people from the National Statement of Religious Diversity.

During the 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council currently meeting in Geneva, Humanists International engaged with a visiting New Zealand delegation on the country’s human rights record, under the Universal Periodic Review process.

As well as commending New Zealand on its repeal of its blasphemy laws and progress on abortion rights, in its statement Humanists International praised progress on end-of-life issues and a commitment to combating racism and discrimination.

However, Humanists International also lamented the exclusionary nature of the National Statement of Religious Diversity. Requests from the Humanist Society of New Zealand to include a mention of those without religion in its concerns on guaranteeing the right to “safety and security for faith communities and their members” went ignored.

Iain Middleton, of the Humanist Society of New Zealand noted that the members of the reference group behind the National Statement were reported to have thought that “they had already made enough concessions to the non-religious.” Middleton pointed out that, “this should not have been about making concessions but about improving the document so that it is universally applicable and acceptable to all people.”

In its statement to the Human Rights Council, Humanists International pointed out that, “There are persecuted atheists who have sought refuge in New Zealand precisely because if its inclusive nature. It owes it to those individuals as well as to all its citizens, whatever their beliefs, to ensure its safety and security for all.”

The statement follows in full below:

41st Session of the UN Human Rights Council (24th June – 12th July 2019)

Universal Period Review: New Zealand

Jessica McDonald

We thank New Zealand for its constructive engagement with the Universal Periodic Review Process.

We are pleased that the abortion law is currently under review in the country, and that New Zealand has accepted the Netherlands’ recommendation to remove abortion from the Crimes Act 1961 and review the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. However, like Canada, Iceland and Uruguay, we urge the government to go with Model A of the Law Commission report on “alternative approaches to abortion law.” There should be no statutory tests in order for any woman to make choices about her body.

We also note the end of life choices bill that has passed its second reading in parliament; this is an excellent initiative that we hope passes its third reading.

Humanists International would like to congratulate New Zealand on repealing its blasphemy law since its last review. A law that protected ideas over people inherently undermined New Zealand’s commitment to human rights. In tandem with this, we are pleased to hear of New Zealand’s intention to develop a national strategy to address racial discrimination and racism. We note that the government has also signalled its intention to examine hate speech laws with the possible inclusion of religious people. We urge it to include the non-religious also. It is important for New Zealand to be inclusive when tackling hate against individuals, whatever their beliefs.

With this in mind, we were disappointed that the National Statement of Religious Diversity excluded people of various ethical beliefs other than religious ones in “the right to safety” element of the statement. There are persecuted atheists who have sought refuge in New Zealand precisely because of its inclusive nature. It owes it to those individuals as well as to all its citizens, whatever their beliefs, to ensure safety and security for all.

Universal Declaration of Atheist Rights

Atheist Alliance International have produced the following proposal, a Universal Declaration of Atheist Rights, for discussion. Thoughts and discussion about this proposal are sought. To tell Atheist Alliance International what you think, please contact Howard Burman at:[email protected]

There is some comment on Facebook:

  • The material covered is already included in Freedom of Religion statements -All we need are human rights. Are atheist rights different from human rights?-
  • There was criticism of the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights a document created by Islamic Councils in Paris and London in the 1990’s. If we are critical of using the words Universal and Islamic together, then the same holds for Universal and Atheist.
  • Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (19489) states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” This right is also covered in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (1976). These two statements render a Universal Declaration of Atheist Rights superfluous.

Universal Declaration of Atheist Rights

Every day around the world atheists are discriminated against in overt and covert ways. Even in countries that have legal protections for the religious and non-religious alike, these protections are often undermined by a social and political atmosphere in which the non-religious are made to feel like lesser citizens. It is unfair, unnecessary and too often ends in tragedy.

But worse than this, many countries have legislation that discriminates against atheists and criminalizes atheism. In several countries, the discovery by family or friends that you do not believe God exists can bring the wrath of the state upon you. The consequences can be dire. Atheists may lose their employment, their education, their children, their liberty and their life. They can be denied their right to own property, their right of inheritance, and can be subjected to merciless physical violence.

In some countries, the treatment of atheists is reminiscent of the treatment of heretics 1,000 years ago during the Medieval Inquisitions. Atheists may not have to endure the grisly tortures of the Inquisition or be burned alive but they may be brutally lashed, incarcerated and even beheaded in some parts of the world.

During the past 70 years, the United Nations has emerged as the custodian of the world’s conscience. It has articulated rights to be conferred on all human beings and has encouraged and cajoled states to adopt and respect them. Its first effort, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Of the 58 members of the UN at the time, 48 voted in favor of the resolution and 10 abstained or did not vote.

The UDHR sets out basic human rights and freedoms but it is not legally binding on any state. Article 18 confers religious freedoms:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

It should be noted that this article explicitly confers freedom to practice a religion of choice but does not explicitly grant the freedom to have no religion.

Further progress was made in 1966 when the UN General Assembly adopted The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR is a multilateral treaty that builds upon the UDHR and, importantly, makes protecting the rights and freedoms granted by the treaty a legal obligation on states who ratified it.

On freedom of religion, the ICCPR uses similar wording to the UDHR. Article 18 states:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.

No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice…”

Like the UDHR, the ICCPR confers no explicit freedom to have no religion.

With 171 states ratifying the ICCPR, it was an important step toward the recognition and protection of human rights. However, some states demanded “reservations” to exclude certain rights. For example, some Islamic states reserved the right to interpret the treaty within the context of Shariah Law. Pakistan made several reservations including, “the provisions of Articles 3, 6, 7, 18 and 19 shall be so applied to the extent that they are not repugnant to the Provisions of the Constitution of Pakistan and the Sharia laws.”

Twenty states are not signatories to the ICCPR at all. These include Malaysia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, the UAE and Vatican City.

A final Declaration that is relevant is the 1981 Declaration of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Unfortunately, this declaration did nothing to change the status quo for atheists as it used almost identical wording to Article 18 of the UDHR.

So, despite tremendous progress in codifying human rights over the past 70 years, the plight of atheists has been overlooked—not one declaration or treaty explicitly protects the right to have no religion. Indeed, the UN Human Rights Committee recognized this omission and in 1993 published General Comment 22 clarifying the scope of freedom of religion in the ICCPR to include “the right to replace one’s current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views.”

Unfortunately, the committee’s attempt to include protection for atheists seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

In Bangladesh at least 5 atheist bloggers were murdered by machete for crimes of blasphemy.

Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, and creator of a liberal blogging platform intended to foster debate on religion and politics was accused of apostasy. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals for “insulting Islam.”

In Afghanistan, Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death and then her body lit on fire by a mob in Kabul. The violence followed false accusations that she burnt a copy of the Qur’an.

In India, Narendra Dabholkar was murdered because he had campaigned for years against the ‘godmen’ who defraud superstitious villagers by performing illusions presented as divine miracles.  

The Supreme Court of Iran upheld the death sentence of blogger Soheil Arabi for the charge of “insulting the Prophet Muhammad” on Facebook.

In Iraq, 15-year old atheist Ahmad Sherwan was detained in solitary confinement, tortured by electric shock, and threatened with murder, after a discussion in which he told his father that he no longer believed in God. His father reported him to the police who held and tortured him.

These are just a few of the many recent examples of discrimination against non-believers.

Today some 1.2 billion people self-describe as religiously unaffiliated. In some countries, there are more unaffiliated than all the religious groups combined. But it is not in these countries where problems for atheists are acute. It is in the highly religious Christian and, especially, Muslim countries. Muslim majority countries frequently class leaving Islam as a criminal offense. In 13 countries, apostasy can result in the death penalty. In many countries, apostates can be imprisoned, lashed or suffer draconian restriction of rights.

Such environments give license to mobs to take the law into their own hands and we see street beatings and killings. At Atheist Alliance International, we are literally flooded with pleas for help from atheists living in Muslim majority countries who are trapped, isolated and afraid. Some have been beaten up, some have lost their jobs or their families and their children. Some are afraid they will be arrested.

It may be arguable that freedom from religion is implicitly embodied in freedom ofreligion, however since the focus of article 18 is on the rights of believers rather than non-believers its implementation has been incontrovertibly neglected. The fact is, there have been scant few international cases that have addressed the right to be free from the religions of others. Accordingly, Atheist Alliance International is committed to presenting and promoting the position that human rights law should be accessible to those whose freedom from religion has been trespassed upon.

Meaningful enjoyment of these rights requires that the state refrains from imposing religious practices on non-believers as well as actively protecting rights-holders from such imposition by non-state interests. We need international human rights law to be clear, unambiguous and high-profile on atheism. People should be free to believe in no gods and to practice no religion. Anywhere in the world.

This is why we are campaigning for a Universal Declaration of Atheist Rights. We will work with our affiliated organizations and with atheist groups around the world to draft a simple but clear declaration of atheist rights—a catalog of the specific rights and freedoms necessary to ensure the principle of equality in matters related to non-belief. These rights and freedoms will necessarily comprise both negative rights not to participate in religion as well as positive rights to manifest atheism.

We will take it to the United Nations and do everything possible to table it as a proposed UN resolution.

Explicit recognition of the right to manifest atheism will undoubtedly be an unwelcome approach in many states that favour a particular religion. But this fact speaks only to the challenges of implementing these rights; it does not mean that the rights do not exist or that they should not be pursued.

Atheists need this.