Kia ora:

Last month, Rochelle Forrester gave us a superb introduction to her book. We look forward to its launch on publication. For myself, I have begun reading John Gray’s Black Mass, Apocalyptic Religion and the death of Utopia. It is very readable and I recommend it for a very different and interesting perspective on human history. For the simple things in life, our garden has produced a self-seeded cape gooseberry plant. Do you remember the delights of this old fruit of our youth? A winter chilled cape gooseberry on the way to the washing line is a sheer delight. It is less than delightful that the group Focus on Families with an interest in Intelligent Design has sent material to NZ schools as reported by the Dominion Post 28 June 08. This was further discussed on Nine to Noon on National Radio 1 July, 2008 (available to listen to on the Radio New Zealand website or for download).

July monthly meeting: Monday 7 July: Nigel Kearney, a Humanist member
Venue for meeting: 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

Humanist society member Nigel Kearney has been a candidate for ACT in the last two elections and will lead a discussion on issues of interest to humanists in this year’s election, including:
– Secular education vs education driven by parental choice.
– Religion vs. science and the global warming debate.
– Same sex marriage, drug legalisation, and other outstanding matters of personal freedom and choice.
– The Electoral Finance Act and freedom of expression.
– The growing gap in living standards between New Zealand and Australia (and almost every other developed nation).
– Constitutional matters. In particular, what is the best way to reconcile expert opinion and the wishes of voters? Are our elected representatives doing this properly and effectively?
Note: The Humanist Society of New Zealand does not endorse the policies of any political party.

· 2008 Conference
A Secular History of Australia and New Zealand
Wellington, New Zealand, Saturday 30 August:
A collaborative effort between the Humanist Society of New Zealand, the NZ Rationalist and Humanist Society, and the Australian National Secular Association, is in planning at present. Speakers include Lloyd Geering. Final details in August newsletter.
Mark your diary now.

· Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 27 July, 24 August, 21 September, and every fourth Sunday after this.
Go to to listen or to download as a pod cast if you are outside the Wellington area or after the original broadcast.

· Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917- 2008)
A Tribute from Free Inquiry June/July 2008. Sir Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greatest futurists and science-fiction writers of the 20th century. He authored some 100 books, including 2001: A Space Odyssey. He co-wrote the screenplay for the film of the same name with Stanley Kubrick, who directed and produced the movie. Sir Arthur was a long-time secular humanist. He signed Humanist Manifesto 2000 and was a Laureate of the Council for Secular Humanism’s International Academy of Humanism. He thoroughly enjoyed reading Free Inquiry and helped promote the journal. In 2006, he sent a message of encouragement to the Nigerian Humanist Movement in honour of its 10th anniversary celebration and conference.

Sir Arthur’s imaginative scientific writing predicted a worldwide system of satellites, cell phones, space stations, and the Internet. Highly influential astronomers, U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts accredited him with helping to initiate the age of space exploration. Born in Britain, Sir Arthur moved to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1956. In 1962, he suffered a polio attack that left him weakened. Since 1984, he struggled with post-polio syndrome and was confined to a wheelchair in his later years. He received numerous science-fiction awards, including the Hugo and the British Science Fiction Association awards. In 1994, he received a nomination for a Nobel Prize, and in 1998, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him.

Sir Arthur left strict instructions the there were to be “absolutely no religious rites of any kind” at his funeral. He also requested a funeral without politicians. However, he was buried at a cemetery in Colombo on March 22, 2008, with a Catholic priest and about a dozen Buddhist monks in attendance. The Sri Lankan government asked its citizens to observe a moment of silence in his honour.

He will be remembered for his impressive contributions to the prolific growth of scientific knowledge during his lifetime. 90th Birthday Reflections (Sir Arthur had 3 wishes) Firstly, I would like to see some evidence of extraterrestrial life. I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But we are still waiting for ETs to call us-or give us some kind of sign. We have no way of guessing when this might happen – I hope sooner than later! Secondly, I would like us to kick our current addiction to oil and adopt clean energy sources. For over a decade, I’ve been monitoring various new energy experiments, but they have yet to produce commercial-scale results. Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency. Our civilisation depends on energy, but we can’t allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet. The third wish is one closer to home. I’ve been living in Sri Lanka for 50 years-and half that time, I’ve been a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished-it requires a great deal of hard work, courage, and perseverance.


New Opportunities for Secular Humanism

A recent survey indicates that Americans have been changing their religions at a rapid rate. Remarkably some 44 percent have moved from their religions of birth into other denominations, other religions, or none at all This Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey released in February of 2008 and based on 35,000 responses, also shows that 40 percent of Americans have intermarried with persons of other religions or denominations, which further intensifies the breaking of ancestral bonds. Historically immigrants who came to America from Europe and other parts of the world brought with them the religions of their forebears. They would congregate in ethnic communities in various cities or rural areas, build a church or temple, and raise their children within their denomination. Apparently, this is now changing. The biggest losses seem to be occurring in the Roman Catholic Church, mainline Protestant churches, and relatively liberal synagogues.

The key to understanding religion in America is that the free market is at work. Religions are being offered-and evaluated-like other consumer products. Americans tend to select religions that satisfy their tastes and needs. No longer living in the neighborhoods in which they were born and freely moving to other parts of the country they are easily able to change.

The Pew study demonstrates that large numbers of people are abandoning the religions in which they were raised. Most likely, Americans are now undergoing the process of secularization that has already occurred in Europe. Europe has become post-Christian and largely postreligious, with the exception of growing and highly devout Islamic minorities.

In addition, other surveys have shown that some 43 percent of the population today is already unchurched: though unchurched individuals may identify with the religion of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, they have not joined one. In one sense they’re rootless-which can be a good thing when it connotes openness, flexibility, and freedom from preconceived limits.

This new data signals a great opportunity for secular humanists to appeal to those who are in flux and who may not identify with existing religious denominations. Secular humanists need to make it clear that it is possible to provide a rational, scientific interpretation of the universe and the human species instead of relying on the ancient mythologies of the past, none of which are in accord with modern knowledge. It is crucial that we provide a new basis for ethics. There is a great difference between dogmatic morality handed down from On High and a new morality of humanism and secularism that speaks to current concerns.

In spite of our television-oriented, Internet-permeated society there is still a need for communities. If the old-time religions no longer satisfy then we need to build secular centers that do-places where intelligent men and women can meet like-minded people and share ideas and values, especially with those who are unaffiliated or have intermarried.

Although scientific and skeptical criticisms of religion and the paranormal have served a certain segment of the population as a powerful antidote for their creeds of birth, our movement has thus far been unable to develop an effective ethical eupraxsophy-a full-featured approach to living that can serve as a vibrant alternative to religious doctrines. That, I submit, is the frontier for neo-humanist and multi-secular appeals.

Secular humanists are uniquely committed to a set of humanist values and principles. These include the civic virtues of democracy and the toleration of diverse lifestyles. Such humanists cherish individual freedom. They celebrate human creativity and fulfillment; love amid shared experiences; happiness and well-being; the values of the open, pluralistic society; the right of privacy; and the autonomy dignity and worth of each person. Neo-humanists, as we might call them, are deeply concerned with social justice and the common good, environmentalism, and planetary ethics. They may have a deep appreciation for nature and a sense of awe about the magnificence of the universe and the continuing evolution of life. Their focus is on the good life here and now for themselves and their fellow humans. They recognize that humans are responsible in some sense for their own destinies and that they need to use intelligence and goodwill to solve problems. They attempt, wherever possible, to deal with conflict rationally and to work out compromises using science, reason, and humanist values.

If today’s polls are correct, there is an eager audience for what we have to offer.

Paul Kurtz is Editor in Chief of Free Inquiry

Republished from Free Inquiry V. 28 No. 4. June July 2008


The Truth about Altruism

We are here on earth to do good for others.
What the others are here for I don’t know.

W H. Auden (The Week, November 16, 2002)

The most popular of ethical viewpoints clearly seems to be altruism. What does altruism amount to? As philosopher W G. Maclagan put it in an article in The Philosophical Quarterly several years ago, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows…. Altruism is to … maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” Altruism means selflessness, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice.

In most novels, movies, sermons, and political speeches, altruism is treated as virtually equivalent to morality or ethics. For many who talk about ethics or depict ethical people, being ethical is identical to being altruistic.

On the other band, people are rarely altruistic in their daily lives. Sure, off and on they lend a hand to others, even to total strangers. This is usually in some emergency when others are in dire straits or just could use a leg up. But in their normal doings, most people concern themselves with getting ahead in their lives, with trying to benefit themselves and their intimates in their careers, family affairs, neighborhoods, and so forth. To all appearances, most people act like moderate egoists, focused on what will further their own best interests. As they carry on at work, on the road, in the grocery store, and in the broader economy most of them are not altruistic at all. Does this mean there is hypocrisy afoot? Not necessarily When most of us think about how other people should act, most of us quite naturally praise them when what they do helps us.

“… there is a decisive and… understandable disconnect between the ethics most people practice and the ethics they propound.”

We want others to be altruistic, since this promotes their care for us, or so it may appear.

Of course, most of us do not want others to meddle in our lives, even as we praise their intent to help us. Knowing that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we generally insist that people take care of themselves and help others only when special needs arise.

What seems to mislead us into thinking that altruism is the dominant, even correct, ethical position is that most discussions of how people should act concern what they do in their interactions with others. And in these interactions, what seems to matter most to those who discuss ethics is what people do for other people.

Yet, as the late W D. Fhlk, a philosopher from the University of North Carolina, pointed out in several of his writings, by focusing on how people talk about ethics, we are misled about what really concerns them and guides their conduct.* Falk shows that while most of us voice altruistic views, we actually act much more egoistically focusing principally on how best to live our lives and to succeed as the people we are. Altruism is, so to speak, the more noisily championed moral stance. It is given great lip service, because of what most commentators focus on when discussing ethics in public forums: namely how others should act. But in their private and even their social lives, most people are not altruists at all.

So there is a decisive and perhaps understandable disconnect between the ethics most people practice and the ethics they propound. As in most cases, such a disconnect between practice and theory is unhealthy Unfortunately, those who discuss morality and ethics professionally, namely most philosophers and theologians, are fully complicit in perpetuating the disconnect. They promote altruism without making it clear that this could very well be a mistake, that a proper ethics for human beings does not require sell-sacrifice, selflessness, and so forth but rather a sensible focus on one’s own success in life as a human being. FI

*WD. Falk, “Morality Self, and Others,” in Hector-Neri Castaneda and George Nakhnikian, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct (Detroit: Wayne State University 1963).

Tibor B. Machan is a Hoover research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University. He also holds the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University.

Republished from Free Inquiry V. 28 No. 4. June July 2008