Kia ora:
A few more comments from the Atheist Convention. The opening speaker, Peter Singer, spoke about Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the subject of our November meeting last year, and included a reference to the “Flynn Effect”, an observation by Professor Flynn from Otago University that the average IQ has been increasing over the last century. Daniel Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen spoke on “How to tell if you are an atheist”. He suggested that if we think God is a concept, which enriches spirits and inspires people, then we are definitely atheists. He also spoke about the Clergy Project, where clergy who no longer believe in their ministry can receive confidential support and practical help to leave their ministry and find a new life outside of god and the church. Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, who also spoke at the 2010 Convention, suggested to us that there is no purpose OF life, but there is purpose IN life. As long as there are problems to solve, knowledge to gain, beauty to create, then it is possible to find a purpose in life. Dan is a supporter of the Clergy Project as for many years he ministered as a pastor. Richard Dawkins told us that the ability to design was the crowning glory of our species. He thinks that religion has hijacked technology, as religious thinkers will attribute this design ability to God. Commenting that St Paul was the designer of Christianity, Richard posed the question, “was Plato or Paul the biggest _ _ _ _ !of all time?” Sam Harris, the third Horsemen spoke on Death. The reality of death is central to religion. Religion provides an answer that many people want. But for the atheist, nothing happens after death. It is up to us to make the world a better place. We must live for this moment, the present, for often we are always hoping to be happy in the future or letting the past cloud the present. A feature of the 2012 Convention was the large number of young people present and a young student Jason Ball, President of the Freethought University Alliance, spoke of this new Melbourne University group, supported by the Victorian Humanist Association. On the Melbourne campus there are 13 religious groups. The University Alliance wants to encourage freedom from superstition and dogma. PZ Meyers, author of the science blog Pharyngula attested that to be a good atheist in the 21st century we must be dedicated to finding the truth. Atheists must come out of the closet! PZ Meyers declared that “we are not sheep we are a fierce dedicated hunting pack working together to demolish the city of god!”.

  • Last Meeting:  Those present enjoyed watching Nikos Petousis DVD discussing his visit to Ancient Ionia on the Eastern side of the Mediterranean and his reflections on the achievements of the ancient Ionians. Ionia, situated in what is now a part of modern Turkey, was settled by Greek people from around 1000 BCE and became one of the most prosperous and developed areas of ancient Greece and the birth place of modern philosophy and science. In the discussion that followed, Iain outlined how the ancient trading city of Miletus, one of the most cosmopolitan, populous, and prosperous cities of the Greek world, situated at the mouth of the river Maeander was in 624 BCE the birth place of Thales, who is often described as the first real philosopher and scientist. In the civilisations that had gone before, there were scientists, but their names are unknown and their achievements were generally used by the civil and the religious leaders to support their control of society. The early achievements of Thales and the scientists of Miletus who followed were astounding. The scientists of Miletus based their philosophy and science on the acceptance of a consistent reality that they argued must apply equally to the heavens above and to the earth. It is also significant that not only do we know the names of these early Greek scientists, but we also know something of their lives and achievements. Pythagoras of nearby Samos, born in 570 BCE., followed. Pythagoras is best known for the theorem which explained the already recognised relationship between the sides of a triangle. Considered the founder of theoretical mathematics, Pythagoras believed that mathematical relationships were a changeless reality while the world itself was constantly changing. He was something of a spiritualist and founded his own religious sect. Almost 150 years later, Plato, a creationist, was born in Athens in 424 BCE during the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. He was substantially influenced by the malaise that followed the defeat of Athens and became critical of and blamed the defeat on aspects of Greek culture that we now admire. He developed to extremes the separation of philosophy and theoretical science from reality begun by Pythagoras, and argued against evidence based science. His influence is unfortunately still seen today. Plato argued that reality lies in the world of thought and reason and that the world we perceive is an imperfect reflection of that reality. Despite Plato, Greek science did survive for many years. Plato’s name means “broad”, a nickname given to him by his wrestling coach on account of his stature, or is it better translated as “thick”? The ideas promulgated by Plato continue to provoke strong reactions from modern scientists including Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, and remains a concern when people place more weight on their theories and computer models than on empirical evidence, or disregard conflicting evidence. Platonic science is like a platonic relationship, all in the mind. The subject of Greek science is much larger than could be adequately covered in one evening.

June monthly meeting: Monday 4 JuneOpen to the public – All interested people are welcome – bring a friend


How we know it Happened and Why it Matters
A video presentation and discussion evening
Speaker: Dr. Donald Prothero
Dr Prothero is introduced by Michael Shermer
This is a video recording of a Skeptics lecture given at the Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

One of the greatest cultural controversies has been the Intelligent Design challenge to the Theory of Evolution, peaking in 2005. This challenge played out in the classrooms and courtrooms of America and around the world. Proponents of the argument for Intelligent Design claimed that the Theory of Evolution was in serious trouble. Claiming, that the evidence for evolution was weak, and that the gaps in the theory huge, they argued that these flaws should be taught to students. With a brilliant synthesis of scientific data and theory, Occidental College geologist, palaeontologist, and evolutionary theorist Dr. Donald Prothero presented the best evidence available that evolution happened, why Darwin’s theory is important, and what the controversies really are in evolutionary biology.

Dr. Donald Prothero teaches Physical and Historical Geology, Sedimentary Geology, and Paleontology. His specialties are mammalian paleontology and magnetic stratigraphy of the Cenozoic. His current research focuses on the dating of the climatic changes that occurred between 30 and 40 million years ago, using the technique of magnetic stratigraphy. He is the author of Evolution of the Earth, Bringing Fossils to Life, After the Dinosaurs, Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals, and the textbook Sedimentary Geology.

All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend.
Refreshments and nibbles provided
Come, share your views, and learn from others
Venue for meeting:
Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington.
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm

Access Radio:
Humanist Outlook, 10.30 am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday 23 June, 21 July, 18 August, and 15 September 2012. 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.

If you are outside the Wellington area, go to to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event.

2011- 2012 Subscriptions:
Thank you to those conscientious members who have paid their subscriptions for the 2011-2012 year.
Subscriptions were due following the AGM on 29th October 2011 and remain unchanged from the previous year.
A subscription renewal form was posted to members last year with a printed newsletter and an email giving details of how to renew your subscription using internet banking was sent on 27 January this year.

Winter Solstice Celebration:
Saturday June 16, from 4.00 pm. Mark Fletcher warmly welcomes us to his Lower Hutt home, to celebrate with a shared meal, please bring a plate. Ring Mark on 565 1185 (evenings) for the correct address and directions and to let him know that you are coming. We will screen the Stephen Hawking discussion Did God create the Universe?, before our meal and after listen to the recent excellent interview between Kim Hill and Lawrence Krauss, (Saturday mornings with Kim Hill May 24) where they discuss the same cosmic theory of “how something, (our universe) came from nothing !”

North Shore discussion Group:
Warren Atkins, a North Shore Humanist hosts a discussion group on a casual basis in this area. Warren may be contacted for more information on 09 410 3580. Warren is also an author and artist with a website for you to explore.

Gisborne Lunar Society:
The Gisborne Lunar Society meets once a month on the Sunday nearest the full moon at 11am. Contact John Marks on 06 867 9768 or Kevin Hyde 06 868 5253.

Mayan discovery debunks end of world theory:
Science journal has reported a discovery of Mayan wall writings showing calendars that go beyond 2012, thus discounting the popular culture theory that Mayan civilisation expected the world to end in 2012.

Gaylene Middleton

Andy Norman

CFI’s Celebration of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell

In early December 2011, the Center for Inquiry-Transnational held a fascinating conference on the scientific study of religion in Amherst, New York. I was fortunate enough to attend, and I would like to share what I learned with readers of FREE INQUIRY.The conference was, among other things, a tribute to philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Published in 2006, the book called for a thoroughly naturalistic understanding of religious phenomena. The conference was, in essence, a series of dispatches from the front lines of the effort to develop such understanding. In what follows, I recount seven highlights of the event; the picture that emerges should be of interest to freethinkers of all stripes.

“… No account of religion as a ‘natural’ phenomenon can do justice to the artifice involved. Religions are cognitive ‘technologies’—tools that harness and extend natural capacities in ways that vary from culture to culture.”

Dynamic young psychologist Azim Sharif kicked off the conference by arguing that religion played a vital role in human evolution. By helping to solve the free-rider problem, religions helped to stabilize the social units that would prove biologically successful. He cited studies showing that, on average, religious communes survive much longer than secular ones, as well as studies showing that verbal and written religious “cues” have psychological effects that tend to deter cheating and increase trust. Parochial gods and the spirits of ancestors helped promote social cohesion in pre-agricultural societies, but the larger social constellations made possible by agriculture necessitated a shift to the “big,” universal, all-seeing gods of the Abrahamic faiths.

Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained, offered a more complex picture. If we examine hunter-gatherer tribes, it becomes clear that creedal, supernaturalist religion is not a cultural universal. Religious thoughts and behaviors, however, are found in all cultures, so it is these that we must study to understand the underlying cognitive and emotional systems. Belief in a universal, supernatural god is not a biological inheritance but a cultural innovation that solved a “branding” problem faced by larger social organizations with monopolistic aspirations. Religions are best understood as social “cartels.” We should not regard them as “pro-social” (no more, presumably, than we should commercial cartels).

Psychiatrist and researcher James Thomson presented fascinating evidence that ritual can stimulate the release of sociality-boosting neurochemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Song, dance, prayer— even synchronized activity of the most elementary sort (like walking side by side or marching in lockstep)—can increase pain tolerance, create a fervent sense of togetherness, and induce a kind of euphoria. Human touch can quiet the brain, improve focus, and create trust. Thomson then performed an unusual experiment: he had about one hundred ardent secularists link arms, sway back and forth, and sing Amazing Grace. A quick “after” poll indicated noticeable changes in people’s moods, attitudes, and pain thresholds. Why, we were led to wonder, do secular humanists make so little use of rhythm, ritual, and touch? It is seculars, not the religious, who are outliers here.

Wesley Wildman, cofounder of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion, argued against an aggressive secularism. The concept of religion has morphed into something that makes naturalized religion seem a strange notion, but in fact, religions without supernatural trappings have a long and distinguished history (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Unitarianism, for example). Religious communities have real power to bind people together, to afford moral guidance, and to add depth and meaning to our lives. Collective wisdom on these matters is not served by pugnacious secularism: on Wildman’s view, gentle, noncoercive engagement holds more power to promote understanding and raise consciousness—on both sides.

Helen De Cruz of the Research Foundation Flanders then argued that no account of religion as a “natural” phenomenon can do justice to the artifice involved. Religions are cognitive “technologies”—tools that harness and extend natural capacities in ways that vary from culture to culture. Everywhere we look, religions involve deliberate practices (prayer, dance, ritual), imaginary beings (gods, spirits), and material objects (holy objects, iconography, temples) to induce valued—and very real—”placebo effects.” Religion, she concluded, is not a natural condition but a deliberate construct.

Freelance researcher Gregory Paul left no doubt as to why MSNBC labeled him “public enemy number one” of the nation’s churches. Using demographic data, Paul showed that American atheism is on the rise and poised for further dramatic growth.
He also pointed to strong correlations between religiosity and societal dysfunction. Religions thrive when and where anxiety caused by economic inequality, injustice, and insecurity runs high. The way to move beyond religion, he argued, is to build just “societies. Not content to let the slow arc of “Justice” do all the work, Paul went on to develop a novel twist on the age-old argument from evil. According to science, about one hundred billion humans have lived on our planet, and about half of them died in childhood. Believers in a benevolent god, Paul argued, should be confronted with the fact that at least fifty billion children have died, many of them horribly, of diseases God presumably created without ever encountering Christian . teachings or having the option of choosing Jesus Christ as their savior. What kind of god, asked Paul, would allow such a holocaust of suffering?

Daniel Dennett concluded the conference with an admirably compassionate Darwinian analysis of the plight of ministers who have lost their belief in God. Just as a biological cell must capture energy and protect its inner workings from disruption, long-lived social institutions—or “social cells”—must harvest participants (money,resources) from their environments and sustain permeable “membranes” to keep out disruptive entities. The Internet, however, is making it nearly impossible for churches to keep faith-undermining information from the priests they recruit. Collaborator Linda LaScola has been interviewing closet atheists from various ministries, well-intentioned men honest enough to admit their doubts but trapped by the expectation that ‘ they will not share those doubts lest they undermine the faith of others. How widespread is the phenomenon of disbelieving clergy? How widespread will it become? Can an anonymity-preserving online meeting place for nonbelieving clergy help to ease their isolation?

All told, this was a fine conference. The talks were engaging, informative, and thought-provoking . . . enough to warrant a ten-year retrospective on Dennett’s book in 2016!

Andy Norman teaches philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. His work focuses on the philosophical foundation of humanism, and he speaks frequently on the foundation of ethics, the nature of reason, and the teaching of wisdom.

Reproduced from APRIL/MAY 2012 FREE INQUIRY page 21 Review

Breaking Their Will

By Janet Heimlich
Published by Prometheus
Price £18.99

When US police found the body of 16-month-old Javon Thompson in early 2007, he was so badly decomposed that identification was near-impossible. It subsequently emerged that the toddler had been starved to death by a small Christian sect who denied him food and water as punishment for his failure to say “Amen” at mealtimes.

This story was one of a litany of cases that inspired Janet Heimlich to write Breaking Their Will, a harrowing account of religiously motivated child abuse and neglect.

The suffering Heimlich documents is simply overwhelming. The toddlers beaten to death by parents convinced that zealous corporal punishment will save their child from sin. The youngsters dying from preventable diseases after they were denied basic medical treatment in favour of faith healing and “Christian Science”. The children exposed to sexual abuse – and not only within the Catholic Church – by religious communities convinced that a “man of God” could never be guilty of such crimes.

The author’s aim is to help end the denial she believes is prevalent about both the extent of such tragedies and their inherently religious character. She also seeks to shed light on how and why the abuses happen. Heimlich suggests that the problems are especially acute within “religious authoritarian” communities, which are characterised by a strict hierarchical social structure, a theology based on fear, and a desire to keep themselves separate from wider society.

The United States, she points out, is one of only two countries in the world (the other being Somalia) that have chosen not to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This follows a sustained lobbying campaign from religious groups who fear that the treaty’s requirement that states intervene to promote young people’s “best interests” would limit the freedom of parents to beat and home-school their children.

Heimlich is at pains to stress that religion, when done right, can be enormously beneficial – and that no faith has a monopoly on abuse and maltreatment. But from the evidence she presents it’s difficult to avoid concluding that certain types of abuse are peculiarly prevalent within Christianity.

A recurrent theme of the book is power – the basic power relationship between parent and child, the power of a religious leader to persuade parents to set aside their natural feelings and impose harsh, faith-based child-rearing methods, the power of priests and pastors to evade scrutiny and cover up their abuses, and, perhaps most shocking, the power of faith organisations to deny victims protection by using their political influence to secure “religious exemption” rules within child abuse legislation.

Religious groups have been active in lobbying against attempts to lengthen or abolish the statute of limitations within which child molestation victims can sue their abuser. Shockingly, as recently as 2008, the Catholic Church was aggressively mobilising its members to defeat New York state’s Child Victims Act; which would have allowed abuse victims an additional five-year window in which to pursue legal action. Given how long it can take for victims to summon the courage to come forward, a short time limit effectively guarantees that thousands of crimes will never be brought to light.

While Breaking the Will largely focuses on the United States, the recent killing in London of a young child accused of witchcraft (see page 36 of this issue) reminds us that there is no cause for complacency here. As our government seeks to give faith groups a greater role in our education system, and churches press for more legal exemptions from equalities legislation, this book is a timely reminder of the harm that can be done when the power of religious institutions goes unchallenged and under-scrutinised.

Reproduced from NEW HUMANIST MAY/JUNE 2012