Kia ora: The impact of the Christchurch earthquake is still uppermost in our thoughts. The 4th Century CE has a lot to answer for, because along with the murder of Hypatia (see below ), a late 4th Century CE Bishop of Brescia, Philastrius said “There is a certain heresy concerning earthquakes, that they come not from God’s command, but, it is thought , from the very nature of the elements. Paying no attention to God’s power, the heretics presume to attribute the motions of force to the elements of nature like certain foolish philosophers, who, ascribing this to nature, know not the power of God.” Brescia is a city in the Lombardy region of northern Italy.

Bob Brockie in his World of Science column in the Dominion Post, May 30 gives us some information on a new theory of earthquake prediction proposed by Russian scientists. This theory is still in a developmental stage and not yet widely accepted. We often hear of earthquake weather, very warm and still, and quiet with no birds singing. A friend of mine in Christchurch described the evening before the earthquake as indeed very much like this. Russian scientists led by Professors Dimitar Ouzounov and Sergey Pulinets think that events in the upper atmosphere – the ionosphere, may be predictive of earthquakes. When a big earthquake is developing, rock in the earth’s crust begins to split, freeing up a lot of the colourless, odourless radioactive gas Radon. Drifting in the upper air the Radon, ionises the atmosphere and raises the temperature. In the days leading up to the Japanese earthquake in March, four different techniques recorded big jumps in “electron concentration” and temperature in the ionosphere 300 km above the Earth. Similar things happened in the upper atmosphere above the 2008 Chinese earthquake, the 2009 earthquakes in Italy (for which seismologists are being charged with manslaughter) and Samoa, and the 2010 earthquakes in Chile and Haiti. Other scientists have yet to confirm the Russian findings. The Russian research team has told Bob Brockie that they have found similar changes in the ionosphere over Christchurch about the time of the two recent earthquakes. They are to report on their findings at a conference in Melbourne in June 2011.

June monthly meeting: Recent Events in the Middle East
An open discussion on what has been happening in the Middle East

With a cup of coffee or tea, a glass of wine or juice, and some nibbles share your thoughts and opinions. If you wish please bring some nibbles with you. Included with this newsletter are some opinions published in the May/June 2011 issue of the New Humanist.

Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington. We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm

Last month’s meeting: Mark Fletcher gave a very interesting talk on Bishop John Shelby Spong and his Humanism.

Radio Access: Humanist Outlook, 10.30am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday 25 June, 23 July, and 27 August.
Humanist Outlook is broadcast at 10:30 am on Access Radio, Wellington, 783 kHz, and every fourth Saturday. If you are outside the Wellington area, go to www.accessradio.org.nz to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event.

Winter Solstice celebration:
Saturday 25 June from 5.00pm. Mark and Lynette Fletcher welcome us to their home in Belmont. Please bring a favourite dish to share. Mark’s home is at 28 Meadowbank Drive, Belmont, Lower Hutt. Take the Western Hutt Road and turn off to Belmont at Grounsell Cres, turn left into Park Rd, then left into Redvers Drive, and then left again into Meadowbank Drive. In NZ we also celebrate the appearance of the Matariki cluster, also named the Pleiades, in the morning sky and the bright star Puanga or Rigel emerges at this time.

HSNZ Subscriptions for 2010/2011: Thank you for subscriptions received via both mail and internet banking.

Marriage Celebrants: Peter Clemerson, a Wellington Humanist, may be contacted by phone (04) 938 5923 and by email [email protected] Pam Sikkema, an Auckland Humanist, may be contacted by phone (09) 570 4390.

Thanks again to Sheena Hudson for her years of service as the Humanist Society marriage celebrant in Wellington.

In Cinemas 26 May, AGORA:
(The release date was put back from April to May) In the 4th Century CE, religious upheaval threatened the great Library of Alexandria. The brilliant astronomer and secular philosopher Hypatia (370-415CE), was a developer, or some claim the inventor, of the astrolabe. Daughter of Theon, she collaborated with him and then became an independent writer and commentator on mathematics and astronomy. Unfortunately, none of her writing survives. As head of the Neo-Platonist school of Alexandria, she fought to save the texts of the Ancient World but was killed by Christian extremists. This movie endeavours to tell both Hypatia’s story and the story of the rise of the Christian cult. Peter Craven in the Arts & Entertainment section of the Dominion Post (May 26) says the movie “aims to depict the tension between a sophisticated, pluralistic, philosophical, paganism and a Christianity that can turn feral and fundamentalist.” Hypatia, renowned for her, learning, eloquence, and beauty, attracted pupils from all over the Greek world. St Cyril of Alexandria, a founding church father, envious of the crowds who attended Hypatia’s lectures, manipulated his Christian followers into savagely murdering her. Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, tells us that “her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.” This film is a story based on the known facts.

Movie outing to Agora at Petone Lighthouse Cinema Saturday 4 June.
Council members would like to see this movie and would enjoy seeing it with other interested members. We will go to the 5.35pm session Saturday 4 June, Petone Lighthouse Cinema, Beach St, Petone. Book your own seat, we will see you there, and chat afterwards.
If you are unable to make a booking for this session, there will be a 1 pm showing on Sunday 5 June. The film will also be shown at the Penthouse and Paramount theatres in Wellington.
If you can’t join us in Wellington, keep a look out at your local cinema.

Good News for Christchurch.

New Zealand GNS scientists have indicated that from comparison similar faults worldwide that the two faults that moved on 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 causing significant damage in Christchurch are unlikely to move again in the next 2,000 to 6,000 years. However, other sections of the same fault lines or the many other faults in the area may still move. It seems that there is about a 23% chance that an earthquake of between 6 and 7 occurring in the area in the next year. This probability decreases with every day that such an event does not occur. Another piece of good news is that the examination of the offshore faults near Christchurch has failed to find one that is likely to cause a significant tsunami of more than one to two metres.

However, further to the north, the main plate boundary – an extension of the main South Island alpine fault that runs eastward through Cook Strait and then up the east coast of the North Island – may create a similar earthquake and tsunami to that which hit Japan earlier this year. It appears that just like in Japan, the plate boundary is stuck and may suddenly move. Because the plate boundary here is closer to the land than the Japanese boundary, the magnitude of the shaking felt on land will be larger and the warning time for the tsunami will be smaller. Depending on just where the movement occurs, all east coast centres of the North Island and much of the South Island will be venerable to large local tsunami with significant destruction and loss of life. In the past Wellington has been hit by tsunamis of up to 50 metres, penetrating the Hutt Valley as far inland as Stokes Valley! Such a tsunami will also cause a major inundation in Christchurch.

Wellington City council has recently painted tsunami safe lines in Island Bay. These lines, which must have been determined by somebody working with a road map, have produced both mirth and consternation. In principal you should be safe if you are on the uphill side of the line but a line painted on Tamar Street that runs up the west side of the valley is at a much higher altitude than the near by line on The Parade that Tamar Street crosses. Almost opposite, on the east side of the valley, a line is painted on Clyde Street on a downhill slope. To reach the line a tsunami will either have to come across the brow of a hill about 10 metres higher or cross the tsunami limit line on The Parade and come up from behind. Residents are left wondering which side of the line is the safe side!

The low lying Mount Maunganui – Papamoa coast, which has a high population during the summer, is very susceptible to tsunami. The decision to install warning sirens is welcome but the council correctly expresses its concern that there are no national standards for tsunami warnings. In the event of a Tsunami warning the council considers that over 100,000 people will have to be evacuated along just two roads!

The Four Horsemen at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne 13-15 April 2012:

The Atheist Foundation of Australia has announced that their next convention-“A Celebration of Reason” will feature speakers Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (health permitting).

The Foundation has succeeded in obtaining financial support from the Victorian Government – see www.atheistconvention.org.au

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 www.iheu.org

Gaylene Middleton

Can I get a Wiitness?

Jim Al-Khalili

Scientist & broadcaster

The Islamic World needs to recover its scientific spirit

MANY IN THE WEST who really should know better think that what we call proper science only began with Copernicus in the 16th century and that what is referred to as the scientific method was only laid out in the 17th century by Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Even those who have some vague awareness that the medieval Islamic Empire went through a scientific Golden Age at a time when Western Europe was mired in its Dark Ages probably view the scholars of Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba as no more than curators of Greek knowledge happy to dust it off and pass it back to an eager Renaissance Europe. The reality is very different.

Between the 9th and 15th centuries, the international language of science was Arabic. Scholars in the Islamic world (Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabians, Zoroastrians, Pagans and Agnostics) contributed towards a spirit of rational enquiry that gave the world algebra, chemistry and the foundations of optics; Persian and Arab astronomers provided the geometrical theories of celestial mechanics that formed the basis of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the Universe; Arab physicians described blood circulation and the inner workings of the eye centuries before Europeans tackled those problems. But the most significant legacy of this golden age was its evidence-based approach.

It’s worth recalling that for six centuries Arabic was the language of science.

As a practising scientist, humanist and atheist, I am convinced that the scientific method, and the knowledge humanity has gained from science, gives us far more than “just one way of viewing the world”, a phrase I often hear from those with a religious faith. I have, however, never been a religion-basher. This is partly because I grew up in a household of mixed religious beliefs: Shi’a Muslim father, Protestant Christian mother. So I found tolerance and mutual respect between two people with different faiths as natural, and that extended to my own tolerance and respect of people with faith, despite my own firm belief that they are wrong.

Sadly, the Muslim world today has a long way to go to reclaim that lost spirit of rational enquiry, for it does not yet even have the luxury of being able to accommodate a frank and open dialogue on, say, evolution versus creationism. Yet here is where my views depart from those of many of my fellow humanists and atheists: I believe that to highlight the incompatibility between science and religion (in the Muslim world) can be counter-productive, and a more subtle, tolerant and softly-softly approach is required.

Science as an intellectual pursuit cannot and should not be culture-dependent. The language of science is a common one across the world. And so, just as engaging with the public on scientific issues – from evolution to genetics to nuclear power – is a form of intercultural dialogue, what is fascinating is that the universality of science can also be used as a means of unifying different socio-religious cultures.

Reminding the Muslim world of its scientific heritage can, I believe, give many Muslims a sense of cultural pride at a time when they need all the help they can get if they are steer clear of intolerance and extremism, to embrace liberal and enlightened attitudes, and to keep their nerve in those countries where they have dared to rise up and demand freedom. If science shows intolerance towards religion we should not be surprised if that is reciprocated.

Jim al-Khalili will be delivering Birkbeck College’s 2011 Bernal Lecture, on “The Hidden Story of Medieval Arabic Science”, on 5 May at Senate House, London. See bbk.ac.uk/events for more details


Padraig Reidy

News editor – Index on Censorship

Qur’an burning is senseless, but free speech is sacred

WHEN FLORIDA PASTOR Terry Jones threatened to set fire to copies of the Qu’ran back in September 2010, those of us whose job it is to defend free expression found ourselves in the odd position of standing up for the rights of a book burner.

It is not infrequent that we find ourselves defending the rights of the exact people who would deny them to others: it’s pretty much the denning stance of liberalism, But the symbolism of the bonfire of books, always in our mind’s eye surrounded by saluting Nazis, made this task somewhat more odious for some.

Writer’s group PEN International was the first to break the line, with president John Ralston Saul declaring: “There is only one religion of book burning. Whatever the book – a text from any religion, a novel, a philosophical treatise, a poem – those who cast it into the flames stand arm-in-arm with Goebbels on a square in Berlin worshipping at the altar of hatred.”

Ralston Saul went on to say: “PEN stands for unlimited freedom of expression. But we also…”

Actually, I think we can stop at that “But”. It is the “but” that always haunts free expression: no other human right is so qualified; no other right is so expected to prove its purpose at every point. We say that free expression is good for democracy, or good (ultimately) for societal cohesion: we rarely say it is quite simply good in itself.

And when people like Pastor Jones and his sidekick Pastor Wayne Sapp turn up, it’s easy to see why we hesitate so. In March, Sapp went ahead with a Koran burning, a little noted event, but one that eventually led to the murders of UN workers by a Kabul mob seeking revenge against the “west”, which Jones apparently represents.

But Jones and Sapp themselves have not killed anyone. Or even incited anyone to be killed. If anyone can claim the latter honour, it is the imams of Kabul, who sought to whip up once again the resentment, humiliation and paranoia that have been the Islamist mode ever since Ayatollah Khomeini attempted to distract a distraught Iranian population with his death sentence on a foreign fiction writer.

But ultimately, it is the perpetrators of murderous violence who must be blamed for murderous violence (in a civilian setting, that is). While rioters may well have held the Qu’ran dear, this is not a reason for killing. As philosophy writer Nigel Warburton pointed out on Index on Censorship’s Free Speech Blog: “no idea or object should be sacrosanct from criticism or ridicule, and we should be clear that we condemn violence far more than we condemn the expression of offensive views.”

Afghanistan’s President Karzai has sought the prosecution of Jones and Sapp, but, admirably, US authorities have not for a moment suggested this could be a possibility.

The Kabul slaughter was horrific. But it should only strengthen our resolve in defending free speech, both from and for book burners. •


Kerem Oktem

Political Scientist

Middle East politics has been changed forever

TEACHING THE POLITICS of the Middie East used to be straightforward: authoritarianism, tribal politics, statism and Islamism were the well-worn concepts; Israel-Palestine, Iran and its Islamic revolution, and, since 9/11, terrorism and al-Qaeda the predictable, dominant themes.

That is, of course, until Tunisia, Egypt and the still unfolding events now referred to as the “Arab spring” (a pretty euphemism for revolution). Now, those of us who teach the politics of the region need to rapidly revise next term’s course outlines.

These events are heralding the end of the neo-colonial deal. What the post-colonial future of the Middle East will look like is anybody’s guess, and everybody’s guessing: could the messiness of democracy pave the way for a liberal turn, as Nicholas Kristof suggested in the New York Times, or is an Islamist takeover more likely? Will the US be ousted as the key patron state, or retain a grip on the region? There are indications for all these outcomes and many more besides, and putative Middle East experts appear no more able to predict the outcome than anyone else.

In such times, the political science lecturer might be forgiven a bit of nostalgia for the fixed certainties that barely required updating year-on-year; Egypt, after all, has only had three leaders since 1952; Gaddafi has ruled since 1969, and Syria has remained in the hands of the Al Assad clan since 1970, not to speak of the supposedly permanently entrenched dynasties of the Gulf. Of course the West played its part in this “stability”: offering patronage, cheap weapons and the opportunity for unlimited plundering to whoever would guarantee the flow of oil and lay off Israel.

Those of us who teach the politics of the region will have to rapidly revise our courses

The deal stuck and both gave birth to and became reinforced by a pervasive, racist myth: Islam was simply not compatible with democracy, and the “Arab Street” needed to be kept firmly under control lest it should attack Western interests and values. Yet the assumption is fallacious, entrapping people in their own past by assuming that they will only act as Muslims, because chance has made them members of a Muslim society. They don’t. Their universal demands for equality, justice and transparency maybe articulated through Islamic idioms, but that’s not the same thing at all. If Turkey’s example of the Justice and Development Party is anything to go by, there is no reason to believe that Islamist parties cannot play the game of democracy, free market and neoliberal adjustment, albeit without the full apparatus of a deliberative democracy.

What matters now is that history has returned to many countries in the Middle East. Everything that we thought to be solid in the region melts in the air. Whether in Damascus, in Jerusalem, in Tehran or in Cairo, nothing is as it was before. And we should welcome this. Let’s rethink how to teach the politics of the Middle East now that people power has toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and Libya can still make it too. After decades of stagnation, suddenly Middle Eastern politics is the most exciting, and most unpredictable, and therefore most fascinating, game in town.

These three opinions have been reproduced from MAY JUNE 2011 New Humanist