Kia ora: It seems only yesterday that I was wording an end of year message for 2009 and greetings for 2010. Here we are, in the same place a year later. National and international calamities which come to mind are the force 7.1 Christchurch earthquake in the early hours of September 4, and over 3,000 aftershocks that have followed! Overseas, Haiti is still feeling the effects of their devastating 7.0 earthquake that took over 200,000 lives on 24 January.

Very much in our minds at this moment is the recent tragedy at Pike River, the deaths of the 29 miners, and the mounting frustration at trying to find a way to recover their bodies. We can be grateful that the miners of Chile experienced such an amazing rescue, a rescue that is a tribute to what may be achieved when people unite to find a solution.

Earlier in the year, wild life and the environment experienced the devastating effects of the BP oil well spill that started with a blow out on April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico.

We think too, of the sadness of so many people that goes unreported and the many joyful moments which do not reach media headlines. Mindful of the end of year break approaching, if we get through all that must be done, I have included with this newsletter a review of a book you may wish to track down, God is the Good We Do by Michael Benedikt, Bottino Books, 2007. I have also included a short description of the work done by an organisation, Children of the Border, founded by Sebastian Velez, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. Velez is the 2010 recipient of the American Humanist Association’s, Humanist Distinguished Service award..

December monthly meeting: Monday 6 December
Meet for a Meal and General Discussion
7.30 pm @ Duxton Grill, Duxton Hotel, 170 Wakefield St, opposite the Michael Fowler car park
With company and conversation, share a marvelling moment in 2010 and a special hope for 2011
The Duxton Grill has an appetising bar menu at reasonable prices. Their chips are very tasty, we discovered this while relaxing after our 2010 AGM and Seminar

Commencement of 2011 NZ Humanist society meetings:

Meetings will resume for the new year on Monday 1 March 2011. The first newsletter for 2011 with details of the meeting will be sent out during the last week in February.

Radio Access:

Humanist Outlook, 10.30am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday 11 December, 8 January, 5 February, and 5 March.

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 to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event.

NZ Humanist Society Subscriptions for 2010/2011:

As we are rapidly approaching the end of the year, subscription invoices will not be sent out with this newsletter but held over until the March 2011 newsletter.

Eileen Bone Scholarship for 2011:

The recipient, Ross Jordan, proxime accessit of Naenae College, receives $1,000 to help with study costs at Victoria University in 2011. Ross, who will study for joint BA, BSc degrees, told us that he enjoys learning and wants to study everything that he can. It is refreshing to hear this attitude. It was also good to hear, a short time ago, an Auckland Pasifika student, who was Dux of his school, express similar views when interviewed on TV. We acknowledge the support of the Eileen Bone Humanist Charitable Trust in awarding this scholarship.

Book Launch:

A public book launch of the book “Realising Secularism – Australia and New Zealand”, Edited by Max Wallace, a compilation of lectures given at the 2008 “New Zealand and Australia Secular Heritage and its future” public conferences in Wellington and Sydney, was held in parliament in May 2010. A request to the Eileen Bone Humanist Charitable Trust to cover the costs associated with this event was declined by the Trust.

Darwin Day Saturday February 12, 2011:

Join us for refreshments and a light meal from 5.00pm at the Kingsgate Hotel, Hawkestone St, Thorndon, Wellington. For more information, nearer the day please contact us on (04) 232 4497. Last year we had an enjoyable late afternoon in the sun discussing different aspects of Darwinian theory and evolution with Dr Geoffrey Chambers.

2010 AGM:

The present office holders and committee were re elected for the coming year.

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

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani:

Ms Ashtiani was to be stoned to death on 3 November 2010 but the IHEU reports that word has been received that global protests have managed to prevent her execution by stoning. However, the threat of imminent execution remains. The International Committees against Stoning and Execution have received reports that the highest court has sent the order for her execution to Tabriz prison; so Ms Ashtiana could be executed at any time. The International Committees against Stoning and Execution thank all protesting people worldwide who called for an end to her execution. It is because of this public outcry that Ms Ashtiana is alive today. The Committees ask that people continue their protests, exerting pressure on governments and the Islamic Republic of Iran until her execution is officially rescinded and she is released along with her son, Sajjad, her lawyer, Houtan Kian and the two German journalists arrested on 10 October 2010. For more information see and

From the International Humanist News November 2010:

An Eskimo hunter asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo, “did you tell me?”

Gaylene Middleton

Review by CARL COON
God Is the Good We Do

by Michael Benedikt (Bottino Books, 2007) 304 pp.; $29.95

Carl Coon is the chair of the American Humanist Association Advisory Board, author of One Planet, One People: Beyond “Us vs. Them,” and a former ambassador to Nepal.

AS A CARD-CARRYING humanist I applaud the efforts of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Kitchens to disrobe the fundamentalists and reveal the silliness of the religious doctrine they so enthusiastically proclaim. Preachers of irrationality and intolerance deserve anything we can dish out to them, and the fare served up by our redoubtable four horsemen is certainly up to the task.

But something is missing. There’s a lot of theology out there written by thinkers who are not at all fundamentalist—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, and Paul Tillich, to mention a few. I’m not about to get into an analysis of their theological musings. Suffice it to say that they accept evolution for the most part and cut the definition of godhead back a few notches, from an omniscient, omnipotent, and personally accessible father figure to something more remote and less interventionist. If you put belief in God on a spectrum, with atheists at one end and the millennial fundamentalists at the other, they are someplace in the middle. In some cases they are closer to the non-believing end of the spectrum than the other.

Michael Benedikt, who holds the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism at the University of Texas in Austin, is an architect by training but a theologian by inclination, and an eloquent one. His book, God is the Good We Do, is a plea for what he calls theopraxy, which is built around the concept of God as something that just happens when people do good things, rather like a flame just happens when people light a match or a fire. God didn’t create anything. God didn’t even exist until evolution produced sentient beings with a conscience. Therefore God is a young and fragile entity, a recent arrival in the long saga of the cosmos, and our responsibility rather than the other way around. God is what lights up our lives and makes us feel good when we do good.

It seems to me that this is about as harmless a definition of what used to be called “The Almighty” as can be imagined. Doing good is what morality is all about, isn’t it? And we humanists are just as moral as anyone else; we do good all the time, without having to bow and scrape to some imaginary creature. My own take is that morality evolved as part of our ancestors’ genetically determined behavior patterns out of a primitive instinct to act altruistically toward kinfolk. What’s the difference, from a purely functional perspective, between my take on morality and Benedikt’s, if the end result is that either theory ends up with humans thinking in moral terms and acting in moral ways? In other words, for the nonbeliever, the Benedikt version comes closer to the humanist view than any other theologically inspired explanation you’re likely to run into. And if people start out with an ingrained desire to believe in God, which many certainly do, then theopraxy is a reasonable parking place for their religious instincts. To the extent it encourages them to behave well, a belief that good and God coincide can operate as a reinforcement for socially responsible behavior.

Of course, it all hinges on how you define “good.” Benedikt devotes a separate chapter to this, which takes off from the following proposition: “Good is what we call all free human actions that preserve, honor, and promote all forms and instances of life.” There are caveats, of course—fine print spelling out how you resolve some of the more obvious dilemmas that arise when applying this simple rule to the real world. His first caveat establishes a hierarchy between more highly evolved and complex life forms and simpler, less evolved ones. Higher ones can violate his prime directive when their own survival or well-being depends on it This somewhat .convoluted proviso, as explained in subsequent text, allows us to clobber bacteria with antibiotics and eat animals, if we must, or at least eat vegetables. Since we are the most highly evolved species, we can get away with quite a lot But Benedikt doesn’t give us a total carte blanche here: According to his logic, the green environmentalist causes God to flicker into being more frequently than more consumer-oriented civilians.

This may be the weakest feature of the book’s whole argument. However, I like to think of it as a starting point for a more expansive exploration of the nature of good behavior in this modern era. Obviously any reasonably useful definition has to be complex, to match the complexity of current societies. But I’d rather start where the author does than with some rant from an ancient seer.

It isn’t always clear whether Benedikt limits “goodness” to ethical issues, or includes other values like truth and justice and beauty. The moral aspects of goodness get the most play, with somewhat less attention to beauty and justice. As for truth (epistemology), I didn’t find much serious discussion. And yet at the root of the book is the question (which wasn’t answered to my satisfaction): Why is it necessary to introduce the idea of God at all into this otherwise wise, even profound dissertation on the nature of good and evil? Much of the book’s effort to respond goes into demonstrating the differences between theopraxy and the alternative views and proposals set forth by other modern theologians. I found this of limited use except as a bit of a refresher course.

I found Benedikt’s attitude toward atheists more interesting. It is not unsympathetic: a recurrent theme is that a good atheist is better than a bad believer. He devotes a chapter toward the end of the book specifically to the atheist challenge to his theopraxy. He thinks that some atheists are already better practitioners of theopraxy than many of the more faithful, but may be influenced by an emotional need to reject their parents’ heritage, or by a deeper sense that the material world is all that matters. (I am not doing that chapter justice, but those are the highlights).

Perhaps his strongest argument is developed elsewhere in the book. That is the difficulty that science confronts in explaining the sense of awe and wonder one senses when hearing great music or poetry, or approaching a scene of great beauty. The adherent to theopraxy has no problem here, the God-flame is burning brightly, and he basks in the light it sheds on and around him. But how does the atheist explain this quintessentially human kind of experience? My personal answer is that I have no problem in these situations, I just experience them, requiring neither God nor science to help me understand or explain them.

I have to acknowledge that, despite some disagreement with his central message, I enjoyed the book and found it profitable, both as an exercise in the never-ending search for truth and goodness, and on a more mundane level, for flashes of dry but wise wit. Some of his aphorisms are noteworthy. For example, Benedikt (who is Jewish himself) had this to say about the “chosen” people: “… the Jews were not the chosen people. They were the choosing people. They were not the ‘elect of God,’ but elected God …They were not God’s first choice among peoples, but the first people to choose God among the scores of gods that were worshipped in ancient Mesopotamia.”

In conclusion, I can recommend the book to anyone interested in the issues it raises, even though the reader might not agree with all its content. It is thoughtful ‘and, considering the density of the subject matter, commendably clear and well written. H

Reproduced from THE HUMANIST I November – December 2010


Sustainable Humanism

Sebastian Velez, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, is the founder and director of the Border, a development project serving the impoverished people in the southernmost border region between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Velez works with a Haitian and Dominican field staff and with Harvard student volunteers to alleviate widespread problems of unemployment, poverty, and limited access to education and healthcare. His group was also instrumental in providing aid relief after the devastating January 12 earthquake. Velez is the 2010 recipient of the American Humanist Association’s Distinguished Service award.

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION about humanists is that we’re like a debate club, always focused on the difference between a humanist and an atheist and an agnostic. We also talk a lot about how we can do good without God. The reality, however, is that there are few openly atheist or humanist charities. When my organization does charitable work in the Haiti-Dominican border region, people there so often respond, “We thank Jesus for bringing you. I went to church and gave him an offering.” And I say, “Well, Jesus didn’t call me. I’m an atheist.” And usually the response is, “Oh, well, never mind then. But thank you very much!”

Our employees and volunteers in Haiti and the Dominican Republic are people who used to go to church and take those offerings, but who now call themselves atheists or humanists. When we were loading one of the boats a person came to me and said, “Sebastian, I really like what you are doing and I’d like to become a humanist.” So I explained what humanism stood for, that it’s not a club or a cult or anything like that. After he left one of our workers came up and said, “You know Sebastian, I don’t think you should help that guy become a humanist because “humanist” is a very high standard, requiring very strong morals, and that guv—he’s really up to no good.” In their minds, to be a humanist you need to pass some threshold, you need to be a moral person.

And you teach that by doing. Our student volunteers from Harvard are tired of the arguments over whether God exists or whether one can do good without God. They know already. (They’re very educated, after all.) These are young people who need to do stuff. So we forget about the theoretical questions—we just go out and do it. H

Note: this is the first page only of a five page photo essay in The Humanist

Reproduced from THE HUMANIST I November – December 2010

Reproduced from International Humanist News August 2010