Kia ora:

March monthly meeting: Monday 5 March.
Do we need to be religious to be good?
This year our Wellington meetings will be on the first Monday of the month. Mark your diary or calendar now. Our venue as always is Turnbull House, Wellington. We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.30 pm.

Marilyn Galt who has been studying papers from the Religious Studies Faculty at Victoria University of Wellington talked at our March meeting, her question being: Do we need to be religious to be good ? ”

We would love to see you at the meeting, you are always welcome, but if you are unable to attend you may wish to convey your thoughts on this subject to Kent at [email protected] Kent will bring them to the meeting.

Our yearly cycle begins. However, over the holiday period council members were busy with submissions. Submissions were completed to the Health Committee on the Human Tissue ( Organ Donation ) Amendment Bill, to the Ministry of Education on the New Zealand Curriculum, to the Charities Commission and to the Race Relations Commissioner on the Draft National Statement on Religious Diversity. Discussion meetings on the Draft statement on Religious Diversity were also attended.

Did you catch a view of Comet McNaught in late January ? We were at Mt Maunganui and saw its spectacular sweep in the sky from Pilot Bay. Those in country areas were fortunate indeed to see the comet without the distraction of city lights.

To return to our March meeting topic, Richard Dawkins in his recently published book The God Delusion has devoted a chapter to this issue. In the preface to his book Dawkins suggests if a person thinks that religious belief is necessary in order for us to have justifiable morals then they might read Chapters 6 & 7 to see why this is not so.

Condolences: Sadly we inform you of the deaths of two longstanding Humanist members. Derrick Read from Auckland, a long standing Humanist marriage celebrant, who died on 6 December 2006 age 82, and Dorothy Offenberger from Wellington who died on 22 February 20007 age 82. These two outstanding people will be missed by all who knew them. We send our thoughts and sympathy to Linda Read and family and to Peter Offenberger and family.

Summer gathering lunch: A pleasant lunch and afternoon was spent at Mark Fletcher’s. We enjoyed a sunny, windless Wellington day from Mark’s balcony overlooking the Hutt valley.

Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz 11 March. Jeff and Kent return for another year of exploring topical Humanist issues. Radio broadcasts are every four weeks so mark your diary or calendar for the year now. Remember that outside Wellington this programme can be listened to via streaming on the Internet. The internet site is www.accessradio.org.nz. Click on Wellington Access Radio. At the home page click on the talk/link icon. Then on the Menu on the left hand side of the screen click on Radio, and with your sound up the radio is very audible. Broadband is not required to listen.

Email discussion group: Is operating on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nzhumanism . Have you ventured into this group to contribute to the discussion ?

Streehitakarini: We have received the 42nd Annual Report from this women’s organisation in Mumbai, India. Our society made a donation of $1,000 to Streehitakarini about 6 years ago. This organisation begun by the late Dr. Indumati Parikh with 12 other women and a small sum of just Rs. 1200/- is now involved with 39 projects. One project, their Mumbai Maternal Nutrition Project was severely affected by torrential rains on the 26 July 2005. The consequent flooding of the Mithi River entirely washed away their premises, and the food supplement programme had to be curtailed. Since January 2006 Streehitakarini have been able to fully implement this project. Health Clinics, Dental Clinics, Sewing Classes, Immunisation Programmes are a few of their other programmes for the poorer women and families of Mumbai.

Joke-time: Coffee Dilemma. A man and his wife were having an argument about who should brew the coffee each morning. The wife said ,” You should get up first, and then we don’t have to wait as long to get our coffee.” The husband said, ” You’re in charge of the cooking around here and you should do, because that is your job, and I can wait for my coffee.’ Wife replies,” No you should do it, and besides it is in the Bible that the man should do the coffee.” Husband replies,” I can’t believe that, show me.” So she fetched the Bible and opening it showed him at the top of several pages , that it indeed says: HEBREWS.

Gaylene Middleton

God on Trial
My God, How the Money Rolls In

“In every age, in almost every culture, priestcraft has been a ticket to comfort. Churches and holy men reap earnings and exalted status from the supernaturalism they administer to their followers.”
James A. Haught

A jobless West Virginian, living on welfare, began preaching in Pentecostal tabernacles to support his family Within a few years, T. D. Jakes had raked in so much money from believers that he was able to pay $870,000 for two side-by-side mansions, one with a pool and bowling alley. Then his soaring cash flow enabled him to pay $3.2 million for a Texas megachurch vacated by a crooked evangelist who had gone to prison. Before long, Jakes was grossing more than $20 million annually Today he ranks among America’s flagrantly rich preachers, traveling by private jet, wearing enormous diamonds, living like royalty.

We’ve seen all this before, whether on an individual or institutional scale. Thirty-two centuries ago, during the reign of Ramses III, Egypt’s great temple of the supreme god, Amun-Re-supposed creator of the world and father of the pharaoh-owned 420,000 head of livestock, sixty-five villages, eighty-three ships, 433 orchards, vast farmlands, and eighty-one thousand workers, all obeying the ruler priests. In medieval Europe, as the church acquired tighter control over all facets of life, the clergy discovered a gold mine: simony- the sale of blessings. Fees for absolution, baptism, burial, marriage, and the like escalated into a cash-and-carry system whose wares included the sale of high church offices. Most outrageous were indulgences, church documents bought by worried families to release dead relatives from the alleged pain of an invisible purgatory In the 1200s, Pope Innocent III denounced simony, saying the clergy “are enthralled to avarice, love presents, and seek rewards; for the sake of bribes they pronounce the godless righteous.”

In every age, in almost every culture, priestcraft has been a ticket to comfort. Churches and holy men reap earnings and exalted status from the supernaturalism they administer to their followers. As self-proclaimed emissaries of invisible spirits, they outrank the common folk who support them.

The Internal Revenue Service says Americans took tax exemptions for $88 billion in religious donations in 2004-thus the U.S. Treasury funded churches by forgoing taxes on that $88 billion. And this total doesn’t count unknowable sums dropped into Sunday collection plates. Religion is lucrative.

In 1931, amid the misery of the Great Depression, novelist Theodore Dreiser accused the churches and clergy of sponging off people-calling them parasites and hypocrites railing against “sin” while doing little for the hungry, “For it is not men who are talking, as they assert, but God through them,” Dreiser wrote in Tragic America, “and so through the mouths of tricksters and social prestidigitators, and no more and no less, comes all this hooey in regard to the hereafter.” Two centuries earlier, in The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine likewise wrote that religions are “no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Through the years, other writers have sounded similar warnings. Yet most people rarely think about the giant earnings accruing to faith or their consequences. The topic mostly escapes notice.

For example, how many know that riches from religion contributed to the downfall of classical Greece? Few have heard of the Sacred Wars that helped deliver the peninsula into the hands of Alexander the Great. Here’s the historical account: in Ancient Greece, priests reaped wealth through various methods. One, apparently was sacred prostitution. The Greek historian-philosopher-geographer Strabo wrote that Corinth’s Aphrodite temple had one thousand consecrated women who served male worshipers for fees, enriching the temple. Presumably the holy hookers were slave women, visited especially by sailors arriving at the large Corinth seaport. If Strabo’s account is accurate, religion spawned a profitable bordello.

Even more lucrative were oracles, the fortune-tellers who captivated the ancient world. Superstitious Greeks flocked to oracles. First, the worshipers purified themselves by bathing and prayer, then they paid dearly to hear mumbo jumbo from priests and priestesses. At Dodona, a barefoot priestess sat on a high cliff, listening to the supposed voice of Zeus in the rustle of leaves or the flutter of dove wings. She provided yes-or-no answers to written questions. At Delphi (named for a dolphin that Apollo allegedly became), a stuporous priestess breathed vapors in a grotto and gave incoherent answers, which were then “translated” by a priest. The messages were murky-but swallowed avidly by paying believers.

“The Internal Revenue Service says Americans took tax exemptions for $88 billion in religious donations in 2004- thus the U.S. Treasury funded churches by forgoing taxes on that $88 billion.”

As the fame of the Delphi shrine spread, so did its storehouse of gold, silver, and jewels taken from gullible clients. Kings and generals came to Delphi, seeking Apollo’s guidance on important decisions, and they brought rich donations to the gods. Soon, various city-states built treasuries around the shrine to hold the wealth. The Amphictyonic League, a consortium of twelve city-states including Athens and Sparta, governed Delphi cooperatively and secured its riches, like directors of a bank.

But money breeds trouble. The Phocians, mountain people whose territories surrounded the shrine, saw an opportunity to cash in on the holy traffic and began levying steep fees on visitors. Other members of the league sent troops to halt the extra profiteering. The Phocians resisted. The First Sacred War erupted in 601 B.C.E. and lasted ten years. The Phocians were defeated and forced to serve the shrine.

A century later, in 480 B.C.E., a Persian army under Xerxes marched on Delphi to seize its wealth, but a landslide (caused by Apollo, the faithful said) blocked the troops.

A generation later, Phocians again grabbed Delphi’s treasuries, and the Amphictyonlc League again attacked. This Second Sacred War, in 447 B.C.E., ended like the first.

Seventy years after that, a different stash of religious wealth was looted. During many, many wars between Greek city-states, an Arcadian army plundered the treasuries of the mighty temple of Zeus at Olympia in southwest Greece. Naturally this theft triggered more warring by kings and assemblies who had donated riches to the supreme god.

Soon afterward, back at Delphi, the Third Sacred War flared in 356 B.C.E., when the Phocians seized the Apollo shrine once more. Phocian leaders promised not to loot the treasuries-but soon did so. The wealth that had been drained from believers was squandered to hire mercenary soldiers to battle neighbors, to bribe opposing generals, and to reward cronies. Historian Charles Morris related:
One hundred seventeen ingots of gold and 360 golden goblets went to the melting pot, and with them a golden statue three cubits high, and a lion of the same precious metal. And what added to the horror of pious Greece was that much of the proceeds of these treasures was lavished on favorites. Necklaces of Helen and Eriphyle were given to dissolute women, and a woman flute-player received a silver cup and a golden wreath from the temple hoard.

This time, the Amphictyonic League had been sadly weakened by centuries of fighting, especially by the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and by constant conflict with Persia. From the north, King Philip of Macedonia had been gaining power, expanding his territory and sending legions in attempts to grab Greek lands. Alter the Delphi shrine was seized a third time, some local assemblies asked Philip to drive out the occupying Phocians. Shrewdly he obliged. Posing as a devoted champion of Apollo, he waged a long war that finally quelled the temple grabbers. To inflict the vengeance of the god upon the looters, Philip drowned three thousand Phocian prisoners on charges of sacrilege. Subtly he formed Greek “alliances” that made him de facto ruler and protector of the holies.

Then the Fourth Sacred War erupted in 339 B.C.E., after a different neighbor state invaded the sanctified Delphi region. The Amphictyonic League asked the Macedonian army to save the oracle temple again. However, some city-states perceived that Philip was using his defense of Apollo as a pretext to seize large sections of the peninsula. They fielded troops to resist-but ten thousand Macedonians in full battle array were unstoppable. At a crucial clash at Chaeronea, Philip’s army crushed Athens, Thebes, and other allies. Philip’s son, Alexander-who had been born at the start of the Third Sacred War-was a brilliant eighteen-year-old cavalry commander in the decisive massacre.
“Although ancient Greece saw multitudes of wars, and other self-destructive factors abounded, the wealth that priests took from the gullible was an important trigger that helped to topple the classical civilization.”

Victory in the Fourth Sacred War gave Philip complete control of Greece, except for defiant Sparta in the south. But he didn’t live to rule. He was assassinated in 386 B.C.E., and Alexander took command. Greece was subsumed beneath Macedonia into a mighty war machine, Alexander’s engine of conquest. The era of city-states ended. After Alexander’s death, Greece fell under Roman rule. More than two thousand years were to pass before it regained independence.

Although ancient Greece saw multitudes of wars, and other sell-destructive factors abounded, the wealth that priests took from the gullible was an important trigger that helped to topple the classical civilization. It’s a little-known footnote in the age-old tale of riches from religion. Apparently the tale never will end, as long as believers feel compelled to give tribute to purveyors of the supernatural.

James Haught is the editor of the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette and a senior editor at FREE ENQUIRY. He is also the author of several books, including Holy Hatred (Prometheus Books 1994).

free inquiry http.//www secular humanism.org

Reproduced from Free Inquiry Vol. 27 Dec. 2006/Jan. 2007