2008 dawned with the death of Sir Edmund Hillary and Hone Tuwhare, two persons of great stature in our country. Of all the media comment, I thought that Rosemary McLeod in her Dominion Post column 24 January was insightful. I quote her closing words. “It’s odd that this burglary, car chase and shooting (an incident in Waihi between police and a 19 year old youth Monday 21 January) happened against the backdrop of the state funeral of a famous New Zealander, who represented the values and hopes of a former time, and became a great humanitarian. The extravagant mourning of Sir Edmund Hillary is, in part, mourning for our own lost illusions, our meandering flagging sense of nationhood. If only we could climb a mountain and save the world. If only we could stop the brutality in our own back yard. If only life were simple. But it never was.”
Watching the funeral it was interesting to observe, as Lloyd Geering noted in the excellent documentary NZ Festival: The Last Western Heretic (TV 1 Sat. Jan. 12 ) the humanising that has occurred with funerals. Remembering and celebrating a person’s life is now an accepted and integral part of the funeral rite. This development may have been spearheaded by the Humanist Funeral celebrations that began many years ago.
Meetings: Please mark your diaries now and come along to add to the discussions. February monthly meeting: Monday 4 February NZ Humanist President Kent Stevens will lead: Sharing memories of Sir Ed. Bring your favourite memories, stories, Sir Ed. quotes, and perhaps a Hone Tuwhare poem to share as a farewell to these two great men. What did Edmund Hillary achieve? What was he like? Was he really a heretic, a Humanist, or was he religious? How and where should state funerals be conducted?
March monthly meeting: Monday 3 March
Advance notice: Darwin’s Bicentennial in 2009 Kent will talk about and outline activities planned throughout this year and into 2009 to celebrate the Darwin bicentennial. Remember Darwin Day Tuesday February 12.
Venue for both meetings: Turnbull House, Wellington. We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm.
Any thoughts and musings you may wish to convey are very welcome. Send to Kent at KentStevens77@yahoo.com.
The Purple Economy by Max Wallace: Max’s book is the subject of an article “The God dividend” by Sally Blundell under a banner header “Purple economy” in the latest NZ Listener, February 2-8, 2008 p. 27.
Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz 10 February and 9 March Radio Access have now developed their website to enable listeners to listen to programmes already recorded. If you have missed our Humanist Access spot, then, go to www.accessradio.org.nz .
A poem by Hone Tuwhare 1922-2008
When you offer only three
vertical lines precisely drawn
and set into a dark pool of lacquer
it is a visual kind of starvation:
and even though my eyeballs
roll up and over to peer inside
myself, when I reach the beginning
of your eternity I say instead: hell
let's have another feed of mussels
Like, I have to think about it, man.
When you stack horizontal lines
into vertical columns which appear
to advance, recede, shimmer and wave
like exploding packs of cards
I merely grunt and say: well, if it
is not a famine, it's a feast
I have to roll another smoke, man
But when you score a superb orange
circle on a purple thought-base
I shake my head and say: hell, what
is this thing called aroha
Like, I'm euchred, man. I'm eclipsed?
(Please mark your dates now for the February and March meetings as the next newsletter will be produced mid March)
Living With Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith
A Conversation with Philip Kitcher
The John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, Philip Kitcher is one of the worlds most eminent philosophers. He is the author of many books on science, literature, and music, including Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism; The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities; and Science, Truth, and Democracy. His research concentrates on the philosophy of science, the study of the ethical and political constraints on scientific research, the evolution of altruism and morality, and the possible conflict between science and religion. He recently discussed his new book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith. (Oxford University Press, 2006) with D. J. Grothe, an associate editor of Free Inquiry.
FREE INQUIRY: You call yourself a secular humanist in this book. What do you mean by that?
PHILIP KITCHER: I mean that I am someone who doesn’t believe that any of the doctrines of the world’s religions are true, and yet I may have some respect for their moral teachings, knowing that none have a monopoly on the truth about moral teachings. A secular humanist is someone who is interested in the project of humanity, interested in human values and in advancing the well-being of humanity broadly construed. I think of secular humanism not simply as a reaction against religion but as a Positive set of beliefs in its own right. One of the problems with contemporary secular humanism is that it has tended to emphasize the secularism and hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the humanism.
Fl: Did you write the book to sell secular humanism or atheism to the public?
PHILIP KITCHER: I think of secular humanism not simply as a reaction against religion but as a positive set of beliefs in its own right.
FI:Your book addresses many of the same issues as the best sellers by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Do you have the same audience in mind?
KITCHER: I am not all that happy with any of their books They have something of a biting tone and are in many ways unremittingly negative. They want to get rid of religion, to sink it, without seeing that, while religion has in so many places and at so many times given rise to extremes of human unhappiness and suffering and continues to do so today it has also provided meaning, consolation, and genuine uplift for people. To snatch this away and say in the; voice of a very commanding doctor, “Read a couple pages of the Origin of Species and you’ll feel better in the morning” Is simply not enough. There has to be something more positive about the contribution of secular humanism than what we are seeing at the moment.
FI: You remind us that John Dewey taught a way to replace religion without getting rid of its usefulness and benefits. With that in mind, your book seems to answer the “What now?” question people have after they have read Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris and have been persuaded that religion and faith is problematic.
KITCHER: I don’t think I completely answer the question, but I emphasize how important the question is and why the message one gets from these other authors is shrill and unsatisfying. Take Dawkins a brilliant man, someone who has participated in the great scientific adventure. You can understand why he would be excited by science. He can’t understand why other people aren't equally excited by it. Well, if you are Richard Dawkins and you really are making a contribution to our scientific understanding of the world, that gives your life a point.
FI: And religion works for most people, giving their lives meaning, in the way that science works for Richard Dawkins.
KITCHER: Right. While there are some people who get it like Dawkins does and who can say, It’s wonderful to be part of an age that is throwing off superstition, for most people, it is not that easy, especially in the United States. I don’t think it is surprising that, in this terribly atomized society, the loss of religion is felt so severely.
FI: So, if religion is something people take like medicine to cope with life, does it follow that religion's replacement needs to be as potent as the medicine of religion?
KITCHER: Yes, it needs to treat the same symptoms and conditions of life. People have to be given a sense that their lives matter. The countries that have achieved secularization most easily are the ones in which a widespread spirit of community has been fostered. There is a social network, a safety net, to support people better than they are in the United States. Religion thrives in places where people feel most at risk. Where people feel secure and feel that those around them care about them, we can meet their genuine human needs without lapsing into discredited myths. This is putting the human back in secular humanism, which is part of a humane social program that holds the well-being of humanity as central. This is a small part of the conversation. To hear the rest of D. J Grothe's talk with Philip Kitcher, go to pointofinquiry.org
Sam Harris Contest:
The winning respondent to the remaining three questions are continued below. The first question was originally included in the November/December 2007 newsletter.
Even though I'm an atheist, my friends are atheists, we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.
Patricia Guzikowski, Hales Corners, Wisconsin wrote: The idea that atheists do not need religion while so called other people do is divisive and places the criticism on individuals rather than on religion. Many atheists are former people of faith. If they survived the transition from faith to unbelief, so will others. People do not need religion. They need effective coping mechanisms to deal with existential anxieties. Death is a frightening and isolating fact. Cosmic indifference seems cruel, and meaningless suffering pointless. Religion offers a way to cope with these realities by denying them. Atheism offers so much more, and atheists who think that other people need religion will fail to promote alternatives. Life is sweeter for its brevity. Cosmic indifference is liberating. The purpose of life is to live it and to focus on the here and now. To punish ourselves for past mistakes is unproductive; to place all hope in the next life provides no incentive to make the best of this one. While religionists choose to focus on the differences between their faiths and others, atheists understand that the human condition is universal. Let us not make the same mistake religionists make: focusing on our differences rather than our collective potential.
People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims\u2014political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.
Keith Merrick, Birstall, Leicester, U.K., writes: \u201c\u2018John\u2019 says religion is not a motivating factor in people\u2019s lives. I myself am a Christian, but he says that my religious beliefs are rationalizations for my actions and my churchgoing is more social than religious. So why didn\u2019t I choose a bar to socialize in? Sure, he says, you demonstrated outside an abortion clinic, but that wasn\u2019t because of your religious beliefs. Apparently my belief that it is wrong to kill anything with a soul is not what made me act. That was a pretext.
I won't talk to the gay couple across the street, but John says this has nothing to do with my reading of the Bible. My real reason is… I've forgotten. Was it economic? So, were the London bombers religiously motivated? No, they were showing political support for their brothers in Iraq and Palestine. Brothers? But the bombers were neither Iraqi nor Arabic. Did he then mean Muslim brothers? No, of course not! Oppressed brothers! The fact that all of the bombers happened to be Muslim was a coincidence. I'm sure he must be right, though to me it does feel like my religion moves me to act. Still, I suppose John knows best.
It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.
Laurence Boyce, Cambridge, U.K., writes: \u201cIf religions are not making claims concerning reality then what exactly is the point of it all? In fact, religions do make numerous existential claims: namely that there exists a supernatural deity who exerts a causal influence upon the natural world through scripture, miracles, prayer, even divine insemination. Seen in this light, religion stands not so much in conflict with science, but rather religion, in its pure form, is a science. It also happens to be a science that has been perfectly falsified.
It is at this stage, when making this argument, that the believer may begin to hop inelegantly between the natural and the supernatural domains, as and when it suits but this will not do. If a clear, causal link exists between the two domains, then, in effect, they become one. Conversely if the two domains are completely decoupled, then it surely follows that we ought to concentrate our efforts upon the one world we inhabit and the one life we live.
It really does matter whether the claims of religion are true. For it makes all the difference between religions being a light in a dark world or the burden upon humanity which they appear more closely to resemble.
Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.
Jennifer Kerns, High Springs, Florida, writes: We might as well say, Fraud will always be with us. Strident opponents of fraud are just wasting their time. Differences in degree can make all the difference when we\u2019re talking about crime, and the same holds true with religion. Europe and East Asia have proven that you can have modern, orderly countries without having religion, and that nothing in human nature forbids such a thing. This is a version of the “it’s-an-irrational-world” argument: “People aren’t moved by reason, and trying to talk them out of their irrational beliefs is a waste of time, so why bother?” Well, have we been atheists all our lives? How many of us were actually raised by atheists to be atheists ourselves? At some point, most of us encountered (or developed) rational arguments that led us to reject the religions of our societies and families. We are living proof that reason changes people’s minds. I’d never accuse science teachers of wasting their time because Scientific ignorance will always be with us. To the contrary when science is attacked, we step up our efforts at science education, and we should do the same with our stance on religion.