Kia ora: It rather feels like coming out of hibernation, as I begin our yearly cycle of newsletters. There is much to occupy our time. Cafe Scientifique in Lower Hutt and Science Express @ Te Papa will begin their programmes, the upcoming Melbourne Atheist Convention in March, Sceptics in Pub meetings, and the Sceptics Conference in September in Auckland, and of course our own Humanist broadcasts and meetings…….!

• Next meeting: Monday 1 March.

March monthly meeting: Monday 1 March – Atheist Bus campaign Forum

If you have been following the Atheist Bus Campaign website,, you will know that over a dramatic fortnight before Christmas 2009, $20,000 was raised to have the slogan, “There’s probably no God so relax and enjoy life” placed on buses for a few weeks. However, difficulties have arisen which need resolving. INPUT IS REQUIRED and YOUR OPINIONS are sought. Simon Fisher, spokesperson for this campaign, will outline developments to date. (See the press release below.)

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

• April meeting: Monday 5 April. We hope to bring you feedback from the Melbourne Atheist Convention 12-14 March.

• Obituary: Auckland member, George Pirie, died age 91 on the 20th January 2010 after a short illness. George was a former long standing chair of the Auckland branch of the Humanist Society of NZ and a long standing Humanist Marriage celebrant. In accordance with George’s wishes, George was taken directly from the hospital to the crematorium without a formal funeral ceremony. Until the end, George remained a generous supporter of the Humanist Society and his daughter reports that he always enjoyed reading our newsletters and communications. An informal memorial gathering for George’s friends, to share stories and memories, will be held at the Homestead Cafe, Bells Road, Pakuranga, between 4.30 pm and 6 pm on Saturday 20th March.

• Darwin Day Commemoration, Friday 19th February 2010: The date of this gathering, planned for Friday 12th was changed to Friday 19th February. Wellington did us proud with a sun filled late afternoon. The Kingsgate was a pleasant venue, and a relaxed early evening of conversation with victuals and the knowledge of Dr Geoffrey Chambers, who willingly answered our questions on evolution and genetics, was greatly enjoyed.

• “In Conversation with Noel Cheer” on Triangle Television: Don’t miss, Iain Middleton, our President, “In Conversation with Noel Cheer”, scheduled for broadcast at 7.30pm on Wed. 24 March on Triangle Auckland (UHF Channels 41, 42, & 52), and broadcast nationwide on Thursday 25 March at 9 pm on Stratos (Freeview satellite Channel 21 and Sky Digital channel 89) as well as TelstraClear cable (Channel 89) in Christchurch, Wellington and Kapiti and on streaming video (within NZ) on (broadband required) at that time.

• Radio Access: The time slot has changed at Radio Access’s suggestion. Humanist Outlook is now broadcast on 783 kHz at 10:30 am on Saturday mornings from Wellington 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 6 March, 3 April, 1 May, & 29 May.

• Email discussion group: Join the group to contribute to the discussion. On Yahoo at .

• Other meetings 2010: 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. This month, 25 February, their discussion is on NZ Oil with Chris Uruski. Science Express @ Te Papa meets on the first Thursday of the month, their March meeting, 4 March, discusses the evolution of NZ Birds. Sceptics in the Pub, Wellington, meets at Kitty O’Shea’s, fortnightly, next meeting Friday 26 February.


Reported by Kelly Burns, Dominion Post, Wednesday 24 February.

A group of atheists says it faced discrimination when a bus company rejected its advertisements and is now considering legal action.

The bus advert, which reads: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” has been used worldwide but was dismissed by bus companies in New Zealand as too divisive. It was to run on at least 24 buses in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. But NZ Bus rejected the advertisements after staff and the public expressed “distaste and distress” at the campaign. New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign spokesman, Simon Fisher said the move was discriminatory. “In a way, the rejection by NZ Bus has shown why this campaign is needed in the first place.” “The message of atheism is not accepted in the public, showing the double standard between religious and non-religious messages,” he said.

The campaign was started in December, aiming to raise $10,000 for the slogan adverts on buses – identical to ones used in Britain. It cruised past the target in just 30 hours and now had more than $22,000 for the four–week advertisements. It aimed to provoke discussion on religion and raise awareness about atheism, as one-third of Kiwis had no religion. But in a backlash, religious groups had written to NZ Bus, which then pulled out, Mr Fisher said.

Campaign organisers complained to the Human Rights Commission and sought mediation with NZ Bus, which was declined. Now the group was considering taking its case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

“It is a potential violation of the Human Rights Act, Discrimination on the grounds of non-belief,” Mr Fisher said.

There was a clear double standard with “atheist messages not allowed on buses while religious messages are often seen on buses and in public.”

A NZ Bus spokeswoman said it received inquiries from the public and staff about its involvement. “NZ Bus has the right to decline advertising that may, in its perception, be considered controversial or divisive.”

NZ Bus is a national bus operator; other buses contacted had also opposed the advertisements. Wellington lawyer Michael Bott said though the bus companies were privately owned, the decision appeared unfair and discriminatory. “They are not the view of the bus company; it’s the view of the advertiser.”

New ways to advertise were now being investigated by the group.

· Conceptual Art:

A Canadian artist Brian Rushton Phillips wishes to share his atheism-inspired project, “Sticks & Stones” which can be viewed at http:/ This is a response to the approximately 809 million people who have died in religious wars since civilization began. The possessive forms of the Abrahamic religions are spelt out with an alphabet constructed from battle-size sticks and stones and bloody punctuation points. The artist would love to hear your responses.

· 2009/2010 Subscriptions: subscriptions remain unchanged and are now due. Renewal forms were included with the newsletter posted to members in November. A pdf version is attached to this email and may also be used to renew your subscription. Please ensure that you have put your name and address on it.

All addresses have been checked with the Post Office online data base and some have been amended. Please check that your details are shown correctly and provide corrections as necessary.

· 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 and then click on Tickets (along top of page towards the right)

Gaylene Middleton


Who Needs God? – Why is religion on the rise in so many different countries? – Tom Rees finds the missing link

MODERNITY WAS supposed to see the end of religion. Surely all those ancient superstitions would crumble and collapse when exposed to the white-hot heat of science and rationality? All that was needed was to sit people down and explain to them how nonsensical, how illogical, their beliefs were. The whole edifice of religion would be undermined, and the world would enter a gleaming new age of rationality. “By the 21st century,” the American sociologist Peter Berger told the New York Times in 1968, “religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” Those words sound ridiculous in hindsight, but Berger was voicing a commonly held view. The idea that modernity inexorably undermines religion was pretty much taken for granted by sociologists of the day.
Looking back from the vantage of the early 21st century, Berger’s theory clearly missed the mark. While religion in Europe and Japan continues to slide out of public consciousness, in the USA it has bounced back with renewed vigour. In Russia, where religion was once almost extirpated, the churches are once again booming. And in many Middle Eastern countries, the secular regimes of the mid-20th century are increasingly giving way to governments with an Islamist flavour. By the late 1990s, Berger himself had recanted. “It wasn’t a crazy theory,” he wrote, “but I think it’s basically wrong.”
Many sociologists agreed, and leading the charge was Rodney Stark. In the late 1990s, he wrote a devastating critique in which he declared so-called “modernisation theory” well and truly dead. He acknowledged that the European churches were in decline, but argued this was because they were state-owned monopolies. But if modernisation doesn’t explain the collapse of religion in Europe, what does? Like any monopoly, they had no incentive to attract customers. Stark’s big idea was to apply concepts based on free-market economics to the sociology of religion. This, he said, explained why the USA, with its rigorous separation of church and state, its multitudinous sects and denominations, had never undergone the secularisation seen in the UK. The fervent competition between churches meant that there was something for everyone within the religious fold.
RIDING ON STARK’S coat-tails have come a number of other pundits who assure us that not only is religion here to stay, an inevitable part of human nature, but it is actually set to bloom as the ties between church and state are gradually cut. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, journalists who have spent some time globetrotting to investigate what they think is a global religious resurgence, assured New Humanist last year that religion not only does not conflict with modernity, but is actually a partner to it!
But hold on a minute. While simple modernisation theory clearly has its problems, many sociologists (especially those in Europe) aren’t that enamoured of the free-market theory either. Steve Bruce, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, has effectively skewered a simplistic free-market notion of religion with a series of damning statistics.

New ideas are needed to explain why there is more religion in some parts of the world than in others
The problem is that, while it seems to work well when comparing different regions in the USA, it doesn’t work so well outside it. For example, one key prediction of free-market theory is that the more religious options (sects, denominations, and faiths) there are in an area, the more religious people will be. But in Europe, the opposite happens. The more diversity you have, the fewer religious people there are.

Clearly, new ideas are needed to explain why there is more religion in some parts of the world than in others. In 2004, Pippa Norris, at Harvard University, and Ronald Ingelhart, at the University of Michigan, stepped into that breach with a subtle twist on modernisation theory. They argued that the major reason why people turned to religion was fear. Fear of death, naturally, but also fear of sickness, of losing a loved one, or even of losing a job. There was a link between modernisation and religious decline, they declared, but it wasn’t new ideas and new social structures that caused it. Rather, the increased personal security provided by stable, well-governed, wealthy countries meant that people had no need to turn to God for reassurance. In the non-religious nations of Europe and Japan, it was not that so much that they no longer believed in God. It was more that they simply no longer cared.

Their theory coincided with a renewed interest among psychologists in the causes of religion. A new field, the “cognitive science of religion”, has brought together a broad group of scientists in an attempt to identify the psychological, neural, and even evolutionary roots of religious belief. There have already been some remarkable discoveries. For example, it turns out that although irrational beliefs are part of human nature, whether or not people succumb to them depends on how threatened they feel. If you remind people of death, then they react by rejecting other cultures and clinging to their own conservative beliefs. If you make people feel lonely, then they start thinking that household gadgets have got personalities. And if you threaten their sense of control, then they start seeing things that aren’t there.

IN A SERIES OF CLEVER studies, Aaron Kay of the University of Waterloo in Ontario has shown how this directly acts to buttress religious convictions. For example, he found that when you make people imagine themselves to be in a situation over which they have no control, it actually makes them more likely to say that the universe operates according to a plan. It seems that people have a comfort zone when it comes to control – take them outside that zone and they respond by grasping on to the belief that God has everything in hand. If people are anxious, then appeals to rationality will all too likely fall on deaf ears.

Reverend Jesse Jackson leads an anti-poverty march, San Francisco, September 2009

As income inequality increases, so does the frequency of prayer.

It all sounds very plausible, but does it really explain why the USA is more religious than other countries? How do these theories (modernisation, religious regulation, and personal insecurity) stack up against each other when tested in the real world?

MY OWN RESEARCH published this year in the Journal of Religion and Society, suggests that that they all really do matter. I looked at how often people pray in different countries around the world. Now, this isn’t a measure of “religion” in the broadest sense. Some people call themselves “religious” but rarely or never pray – perhaps because they believe in a distant, impersonal God that isn’t about to take much notice of prayers, or perhaps because their life is going OK and so they don’t feel the need to call on God for help. I found that those countries that had higher infant mortality, homicide rates and levels of corruption, had lower life expectancy, had more AIDS and more abortion all tended to have a population that turned to prayer more often. The other interesting finding is that all these factors also went hand in hand with higher income inequality. In other words, income inequality acts like a kind of barometer of societal health.

By comparing income inequality with other national factors that are supposed to affect how religious people are, you can get a feel for which is more important. It turns out that countries that are wealthy, highly urbanised and religiously diverse are indeed less religious – which suggests that “modernisation theory” is right. But I also found that in countries where the government gets involved in religion, the people are less religious. The effect is smaller, but still important.

And it also turns out that Norris and Ingelhart were probably right: income inequality also seems to play a major role (almost as important as modernisation itself). Together, these three theories can explain most of the differences in religious intensity between countries. What’s more, it’s not just prayer that can be explained by income inequality. According to very recent research by Frank van Tubergen at the University of Utrecht, the same three factors (modernisation, government regulation and income inequality) can also explain a large part of why church attendance is higher in some countries rather than others.

Why is the USA so religious, despite being the epitome of modernity? Because of the higher levels of stress

It has to be admitted that what has been shown here is correlation, not causation. We can be confident that countries with high inequality are more religious, but we can’t rule out the possibility that religion is the cause, not the consequence, of inequality. Kenneth Scheve, at Yale University, has shown that religious people are less likely to support social welfare. Since state welfare spending is the most important leveller of incomes, this helps explain why more religious countries have more inequality. And remember those studies by Aaron Kay I described earlier? Well, he’s also shown that faith in God and faith in the government are in balance. The more you erode people’s confidence in the government, the stronger their religious beliefs become. What may well happen is a kind of vicious circle, in which religious countries cut back on welfare spending, which leads to higher inequality and so even more religion.

We’re still a long way away from a universal theory to explain why some parts of the world are more religious than others. But the research linking societal stress and income inequality to high levels of religion at least helps to explain some conundrums that have perplexed sociologists. Why is the USA so religious, despite being the epitome of modernity? Well, largely because of the higher levels of stress faced by its citizens, compared with the relatively worry-free lives led by people living in the bosom of the European welfare state. It also helps to explain the blossoming of religion in Russia and other parts of the old Soviet bloc, which occurred against the backdrop of a sharp decline in living standards and the crumbling of the old certainties provided by the monolithic communist state.

There is a lesson in all this for humanists, too. If we want a world free from superstition and irrationality, we need to recognise that persuasion and direct logical argument can only take humanity part of the way along that road. We also need to recognise that deeper emotions chain people to religion, which is such a potent source of security and reassurance in the face of a potentially unpredictable and threatening world. Whether or not it survives will be determined by the type of society we choose to build. NH

Reproduced from New Humanist JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2010