- Kia ora: Holidays are over and I’m back at the keyboard. Over the holidays I read a book recommended by my daughter, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. This novel chronicles the development of a missionary family who journeyed to the Congo to preach the gospel. The four daughters in the family each tell their story, of how their outlook on life and religion is changed by their experience of a different culture. It is an excellent and thought provoking read.
- Last Meeting: We had a surprise visitor from overseas who dropped in for a chat. As a final 2004 meeting we each shared our thoughts on the past 12 months and matters of interest to us as Humanists.
- March monthly meeting: Monday 7 March 7.30 pm Turnbull House. Wellington. All welcome. Topic Saudi Arabia and links to terrorism. Religion in Saudi Arabia and links to the monarchy. Is Saudi Arabia the home of terrorism? Will the USA invade Saudi Arabia?
- Summer Get Together: An enjoyable time for about a dozen of us. Eric Bell travelled from Auckland for the event. Kent Stevens joined us after supporting Wellington College students in their protest action against Destiny Church using their School Hall on Sundays. Two students Kent meet later talked with Jeff and Kent on Access radio which aired 13 February.
- Radio Access 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 13 March. Two CD’s have been compiled of past programmes and are now available. This is an endeavor to make available the excellent material that Jeff and Joan produce in this monthly programme. If you are interested please e-mail Jeff or write to the NZ Humanist Society.
- Committee/ Council meetings: Sunday 13 March 10.45 am at Jeff and Joan’s 8 Amritsar St Khandallah. Caroline has resigned from the committee and we thank her for her time and effort in taking committee minutes for us.
- Email discussion group:. Is operating now on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nzhumanism Have you registered to meet with other members via the web world of communication.
- Eileen Bone Humanist Scholarship for 2005: A second scholarship has been awarded to Naenae College student Jonnel Jaunique. Jonnel intends to study for a degree in Biomedical Science. We intend to organise an occasion to formally present this scholarship to Jonnel. We will advise at a later date.
- 2005 Plans: This year we intend to continue the monthly newsletter, produce The NZ Humanist ( the next issue is almost off the computer ), maintain the Web site, produce a monthly Radio Access programme, award a third Eileen Bone Humanist Scholarship, organise a keynote speaker for the AGM in September. At present costs are being investigated to publish Jim Dakin’s series of articles on the history of secular thought in NZ (published in the NZ Humanist ) as a booklet. Ideas in development are initiating a competition to write a secular “prayer” for parliament and a second scholarship for tertiary study with Humanism as its focus.
Dr. Indumati Parikh: Articles about Dr. Indumati Parikh have appeared in past issues of The NZ Humanist.
In Memoriam: Dr. Indumati Parikh (1918-2004)Dr. Indumati Parikh, medical doctor and the doyenne of India’s Radical Humanist movement, has died in Mumbai, India. She was known as “Indu Tai” to many social workers in India.
from Free Inquiry October/November 2004 Vol. 24 No. 6.
Indumati served the poor in Mumbai’s suburbs. Among her chosen causes were population control, personal hygiene, and other social issues. Seeing the devoted treatment that she offered to the downtrodden, visiting humanists often compared her with Mother Teresa. U.S. Humanist leader Edd Doerr described her as a greater personality that Mother Teresa.
As a student, Indumati came into contact with Humanists and gravitated towards Humanist reformer M. N. Roy’s Radical Democratic Party in the early 1940s. She married Dr G. D. Parikh, who served as rector of Bombay University and was also an enthusiastic follower of M. N. Roy During those days, Indumati served Humanist organizations and the party as a silent worker.
After the death of her husband, Indumati plunged into Humanist activism, emerging as a leader whose influence was felt all across India.
She was elected as president of the Indian Radical Humanist Association and served in that capacity for several years. She raised funds toward establishing the M. N. Roy Centre at Mumbai, a rallying point for radical Humanists.
Dr. Parikh attended many Humanist congresses, touring across India and abroad. She was honoured by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), whose co-president, Levi Fragell of Norway called her a Humanist heroine.
Religion – Worth Reporting On
Stephen Crittenden is Head of ABC Religion Department. This is an edited version of his speech to the Sydney Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS) Convention on Sunday 2 May 2004.
The Religion Report is a current affairs program, is like the 7.30 Report, except it deals in religion. I come from a Catholic background and describe myself as a lapsed Catholic, but I think religion is important. When I first became the Editor of the Religion Department I declared that I was the first atheist head of that department and that upset a few people, but it’s worked out very well. One of the things that it means is that even though I have a greater knowledge of, for example, the Catholic Church in Australia, I’m not coming from a position of being a doorkeeper for any one religious tradition. Certainly the Religion Department at the ABC now is very, very different from what it was at its inception 50 years ago, when the founder was an Anglican clergyman, who I think saw the radio as a great opportunity for preaching the gospel. For many years the ABC Religion Department, it’s not unfair to say, was a radio branch of the Anglican Church in Australia.
The times have changed and the ABC Religion Department has changed with them. One of the things that I was most intent on doing when I came to the department from mainstream current affairs and the arts was to preserve its own area of study, which was religion. There were pressures, particularly in the Shier era, of removing the ‘religion’ word and turning the department into something like ‘faith and belief or ‘faith and ethics.’ I think the very clear implication was that, over time, the department might transform into something a bit like Radio National’s Life Matters. I’ve run the line all along that the way to avoid that was not to lose sight of religion and the Churches as objects of interest. What I’ve attempted to do is to come at what I do from a mainly secular point of view.
So this afternoon I hope to offer a few ideas about what’s going on at present in the world of religion, with a view to where secular humanism might fit in all of this. I want to refer to an article by David Brookes in Atlantic Monthly. He’s the contributing editor of Newsweek, the senior editor of The Weekly Standard and on the conservative side of American politics, but a very interesting man. He wrote recently that like a lot of people these days he was a recovering secularist and until September 11 he’d accepted the notion that as the world became richer and better educated, it became less religious. He said, “extrapolating from a tiny and unrepresentative sample of humanity in Western Europe and parts of North America, this theory holds that as history moves forward, science displaces dogma, and reason replaces unthinking obedience. A region that has not yet had a reformation or an enlightenment, such as the Arab world, sooner or later will. However, it’s now clear that the secularisation theory is untrue. The human race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and better educated. We’re living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we’re in the midst of a religious boom.”
Now, I wouldn’t describe myself as a recovering secularist, but I do have a lot of sympathy with some of the things that I think David Brookes is saying. In particular, my experience at the ABC has been one where I inherited an ABC dominated by baby boomers and still is. Kerry O’Brien will still be there in ten years time and that generation that grew up with Vietnam is hostile to religion and materialistic in its basic precepts of the world. My generation, the under 40s didn’t, as a rule, roll its eyes at the announcement that I was moving from the arts to religion. It’s much more open to ideas about spirituality and that religion, like it or lump it, is here to stay and is important. I guess all I want to share with you is the idea that for many of the baby-boomer generation it’s fair to say that they were tone-deaf to religion and to the non-materialist ways in which the world works, though this tone deafness is breaking down. Religion is back, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that committed faith in religion is back. What’s back is interest in religion, which may be interest from the outside looking in. However, not all religion is back. On a program like mine, I spend a lot of time on a very small number of unfolding issues. The clash with militant Islam is obviously one, whether militant Islam in South East Asia, the war in Iraq or Al-Qaeda. Another issue ironically enough is the story of the decline of mainline Christianity. In saying that, I see myself as no different from an ABC reporter stationed in Baghdad or in New Delhi who is reporting on what’s happening there.
One of the big issues in the last two years has been that September 11 has not simply revealed a clash between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, but a triangular clash between a pre-modern world, a medieval Islam, and the modern world. Although the mainline Christian churches which have modernised in many respects in the case of the Catholic Church in particular, they are still fundamentally pre-modern organisations, and not unlike Islam, are having problems dealing with the modern world.
The other triangle is post-modernism which for many of my contemporaries is experienced as a withdrawal from active participation in the political realm, the decline in the sense of the individual as citizen and a decline in trust in major institutions, like parliament, the police force, the judiciary and government, and a decline in the trust in reason. There are aspects of post-modernism which have a lot in common with pre-modernism. The decline in the faith in reason is replaced by a valuing of anti-rational ideas and the rise in the importance in the newspapers of things like star charts, to give one very trivial example.
One of the things I’m doing in telling the story of the Catholic Church is talking about the way in which two very interesting parallels exist between the Arab world and the Catholic Church at the moment. One of the things that not being tone-deaf to religion and looking at the clash in the Middle East is enabling people to do, is to think about the role of the Arab tribe in the way that it affected Islam over the last thirteen centuries, and the way in which a closed tribal anthropology has infected Islam itself and been transported all across the world.
Similarly, with a lot of the work that I’m doing on the modernist crisis in the Catholic Church, which was at its height around the 1910s and 1920s. It’s a way of looking at a clash between an Anglo-Saxon cool, common sense and valuing of progress, and an anthropological world-view that’s Mediterranean. You can understand this best if you think of movies like The Godfather or if you watch TV programs like The Sopranos. In other words, a world-view that has a lot to do with the Mediterranean family, with the closed secretiveness and sense of conspiracy of the Mafia, and it perhaps gives an explanation of the inner workings of an organisation like Opus Dei.
I suggest that secular humanism may in part be a victim of its own success. You only have to go to a shopping complex and stroll around, on say, Easter Sunday morning, to see what I’m talking about. The materialist creed has been fully implemented in Australia, and what it means in practice is not collectivist farms and the collapse of the class system, but Australian Idol, endless home renovation, home delivered pizza and mobile phones that take photographs of yourself while you and your boring girlfriend are standing in the queue for the checkout at Ikea.
There’s another sense in which secular humanism has been a failure, if you turn that image I’ve just given you on its head. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw all of this, in that the death of God opened up a huge challenge. If life without God wasn’t just going to be trivial or absurd we’d have to live like supermen and create our own values. Nietzsche knew that we would probably not prove worthy of our freedom and that instead of supermen we would end up with supermarket-men, and a therapeutic society rather than a society of heroes, and perhaps it’s just as well when you consider that Hitler, Stalin and Mao taught us what it meant to live like supermen in practice in the 20 th century.
As Professor John Gray of the London School of Economics put it recently in the New Statesman, “the role of humanist thought in shaping the past century’s worst nightmares is easily demonstrable, but it is passed over or denied by those who harp on about the crimes of religion. Yet the mass murders of the 2O~” century were not perpetrated by some latter day version of the Spanish Inquisition, they were done by atheist regimes in service of enlightenment ideals of progress. Stalin and Mao were not believers in original sin, even Hitler, who despises enlightenment values of equality and freedom, shared the enlightenment faith that a new world could be created by human will. Each of these tyrants imagined that the human condition could be transformed by the use of science. History has demolished these ambitions. Even so, they have not been abandoned in dilute and timorous forms, they continue to animate liberal humanists. Humanists angrily deny harbouring the vast hopes of Marx or Comte, but still insist that the growth of scientific knowledge enables mankind to construct a better future than anything in the past. There is not the slightest scientific warrant for this belief”
I think one of the things also that’s happening at the moment is that recovering like David Brookes from this sense of secularism, people see religion as interesting again and want religion explained to them. And one of my key insights here has been that religion informs all kinds of contemporary ideas and values in ways that perhaps we haven’t always recognised, and I want to say to you that my definition – well I wouldn’t want to make a definition of religion – but to me religions are no more than grand ideas, grand ideas that have become combined with a cultural tradition and so those ideas grow and transform and are transmitted across the centuries. Often they wither and die, but one of the key ideas I’m trying to convey in my program is that our Western Enlightenment is heavily predicated upon the gospels. It was in fact made possible by the gospels, because it’s intellectually important to acknowledge that ideas like individuality, egalitarianism, feminism and democracy are indeed incipient in the gospels.
As John Gray, who is no friend of the Enlightenment puts it, secular societies may imagine that they are post-religious, but actually they’re ruled by repressed religion. He is no friend of religion either. One of Christianity’s most dubious legacies, he says, is the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone. Well, I’m a child of the enlightenment. On my program, I think one of the things that I’m trying to do in the post-September 11 world is cast around at ways of reviving the enlightenment because I think the third of the three triangles is the triangle of enlightenment and modernity. In so many ways our post-modern society has ditched the enlightenment along with religion. We still enjoy all of the fruits of science for example, but perhaps we’re no different in that respect from the medieval Islamic world.
For me the future is somehow bound up with recapturing those enlightenment values with I guess recapturing the ideas of Diderot and of Thomas Jefferson. These are the universals, the ideas of the rights of man, justice and truth. A lot of those are ideas that have been ditched by post-modernism, and I guess I’d also want to say that I don’t think the future, for secular humanism, does in fact have anything to do with Darwin in that respect. I’m talking about a set of political ideas, rather than a set of scientific ideas and perhaps the faith in science and its ability to create a perfect world and to make meaning of our lives has irrevocably gone. It may make us more comfortable, it may provide us with hot and cold running water, all things that the Islamic world doesn’t have, but it’s not going to necessarily provide us with meaning in our lives.
I’ll conclude with a passage from an article by Giles Fraser a couple of years ago in The Guardian. He says that the problem with militant secularism is not so much that it is anti-religious, but that in its desire to eliminate the religious instinct, it closes off any sense of an explanation out of reach. In that sense I think that’s a very similar idea to what I mean by being tone deaf He says the challenge is to make humanism something more than reactive or just unobjectionably inane as when the National Secular Society of Great Britain declares its aims to be, “on the side of all humanity, the side of intelligence, rationality and decency”, he says that’s just like saying you’re on the side of truth or good things as opposed to bad things. Or when the British Humanist Association declares its belief in “an approach to life based on humanity and reason.” Well what does that ultimately mean he says, and he goes on to say that these kinds of aspirations are very close to a similar kind of aspiration which you’ll find in the ecumenical movement, in the Christian churches. That sort of broad belief in truth and reason and why can’t people all just be kind and nice to each other and get on. The truth is that human nature just isn’t like that.
One last thing. I wonder whether the nuns have something to teach us. I wonder whether what we are left with in Australia in the Howard era is an Australia in which the great social activists are nuns, and I wonder what that tells us. Of course they’re not the only social activists, I’m not suggesting that for a moment, but I wonder whether the idea of bearing witness with your own life is something that secular humanism has lost. That idea the nuns have to teach us is that ideas shrivel and die unless they’re put into practice in peoples’ real, everyday lives. r
From Australian Humanist No. 76 Summer 2004