Kia ora:

Welcome to 2012 and our first thoughts are with our Christchurch Humanist members. The recent news coverage one year after the quake reinforces how little those of us outside Christchurch can know of your continuing stress. Have we as New Zealand Humanists responded? I cannot express myself better than Bart Ehrman who writes: “Humanist organizations need to become as recognizable as the Baptist church on the corner and the Episcopal church up the street. They need to be seen as the first responders when an earthquake hits Haiti, to be seen as major forces in the fight against poverty, homelessness, malaria, AIDS, and other epidemics. They need to be seen as vibrant and viable alternatives to the religions of the world, which often do so much harm while trying to do good. Whatever else we might say about organized religion, it cannot be denied that it is often the catalyst for much of what is good in the world. But it shouldn’t be the only catalyst, especially since so many people are silenced, oppressed, and harmed by religion. In other words, people must be liberated not only from something but also for something. That, in my opinion, should be the leading goal and objective of every humanist organization.” In all the civic services held in Christchurch a Humanist contribution was absent. The paragraph quoted was from an article adapted from a speech by Bart Ehrman when he received the Religious Liberty Award at the American Humanist Association’s 70th annual conference last year and published in The Humanist Nov/Dec 2011. The paragraph preceding the one above is also thought provoking: “In my part of the world, in the Southern States, humanists are largely known as negative opponents of all things religious, strident protesters against values that people in my world hold near and dear. So forgive me if I’m being overly obvious, but in my opinion, for humanism to strive and to succeed in these places, it’s not enough to protest. Humanism must make a positive impact on people’s lives and be looked upon, even by outsiders, as a good and healthy phenomenon. Among other things, humanists need to provide social outlets that mirror what believers have in their churches. When someone leaves the womb of the church, they need to have somewhere else to go. They need warm, loving, welcoming, safe communities of like-minded people where they can establish social networks and find fellowship with people who share their world views, their loves, hates, concerns, passions, and obsessions. They need context within which they can discuss the big issues of life, not just politics but also life-and-death issues. They need places where they can celebrate what is good in life and where they can work to overcome what is bad.” The complete article “Biblical Scholarship and the Right to Know can be read at http://thehumanist.org/november-december-2011/ .

March monthly meeting: Monday 5 March

Open to the public – All interested people are welcome – bring a friend

Eleanor Middleton will also briefly tell us of her recent meeting with Humanists in Nepal and their plans to open a Humanist School in Katmandu. They purchased a building just last week, and the school’s opening is imminent.

And then
Stephen Hawking – Did God Create the Universe?
What is Stephen Hawking’s answer to this question?
Hear Stephen Hawkin explain what he really meant with his various statements over the years.
A video presentation with a discussion to follow
Refreshments and nibbles provided
Come, learn, and share your views

Venue for meeting:
Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington.
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm

Radio Access:

Humanist Outlook, 10.30 am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday 3 March, 31, March, 28 April & 26 May 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 www.accessradio.org.nz to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event.

· 2011- 2012 Subscriptions

Thank you to those conscientious members who have already paid for the 2011-2012 year. Subscriptions are due following the AGM on 29th October and remain unchanged from last year. A subscription renewal form was posted to members last year a printed version of the newsletter and an email giving details of how to renew your subscription using internet banking.

Darwin Day Sunday 12 February 2012:

A relaxed late afternoon and early evening was spent discussing evolution and other issues of interest. Keep this date in mind for 2013. It was a pleasant start to our 2012 Humanist year.

Initiatives for 2012:

Thank you to those members who have suggested that we should take an interest in the following items during 2012.

1) Female Genital Mutilation: This practice is banned in NZ, and information can be found at www.fgm.co.nz. On www.stuff.co.nz 16 Jan 2012 Neil Reid posted an item “Migrant girls ‘at risk’ of mutilation” where he reported that “a newly released United Nations report on a hoped-for global end to female genital mutilation states: “… a growing number of women and girls among immigrant communities have been subjected to or are at risk of female genital mutilation in Australia and New Zealand.” ” We are following this issue up.

2) The Occupy movement: Campbell Jones, a sociology lecturer at Auckland University, on Media Watch, Radio NZ, on Sunday 5 Feb. said he felt that NZ society was “ready for an intellectual and rigorous debate on the issues.”

3) Charter Schools: We would like to consider this proposal as there are concerns that fundamentalist organisations could use this legislation to set up schools with a very narrow focus or with undesirable results.

If you, as a Humanist Society member have concerns in these areas and can offer some help do contact us. The more active members are the more we may achieve. If you have other concerns please make them known to us.banking.

Marriage Celebrants:

Our society has two marriage celebrants very happy to help celebrate and solemnise a marriage, perform a Naming Ceremony for a new baby or lead a funeral for a person who would like a non religious ceremony. In Auckland our celebrant is Pamela Sikkema, who can be contacted by phone (09) 570 4390, and in Wellington Peter Clemerson, who can be contacted by phone (04) 938 5923 and by email [email protected]

Informal Gathering of Auckland members:

In early January, Pamela Sikkema hosted a very pleasant afternoon and we thank her very much for her hospitality. It was pleasing to see so many Auckland Humanists at the meeting and we thank them for their input and suggestions. A visiting Humanist, José-Antonio, from Chile also attended and was very pleased to meet NZ Humanists. José-Antonio attended the IHEU Conference in Oslo last year and strongly recommended that members consider going to the 2014 IHEU Conference which will be held in England.

Christopher Hitchens:

Christopher Hitchens died 15 December 2011. His final column in Free Inquiry is attached and from the final page of his autobiography Hitch 22 “After various past allegiances I have come to believe that Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self criticism. ……The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time, and I feel absurdly honored to be grouped in the public mind with great teachers and scholars such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.”

Christopher Hitchens OP-ED

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

In Defence of Richard Dawkins

image of Christopher Hitchens

“I… am a self-taught amateur writer who quite enjoys getting a bit scruffy in debates with those who think that Earth was designed with them in mind. Dawkins, on the other hand, has spent decades of his life refining and deepening the teaching of biology…. Why should he sit still and see a valued and precious discipline being insulted, even threatened with not being taught?”

If you haven’t read it, you will almost certainly have seen it: the critique of Professor Richard Dawkins that arraigns him for being too “strident” in his confrontations with his critics. According to this line of attack, Dawkins has no business stepping outside the academy to become a “public intellectual” and even less right to raise his voice when he chooses to do so. Implied in this rather hypocritical attack is the no less hypocritical hint that Dawkins might be better received if he were more polite and attract s better class of audience if he used more of the blessed restraint and reserve that is every Englishman’s birthright and which he obviously possesses in such heaping measure.

I think that Dawkins would be quite right to refuse the oily invitation that is contained in this offer, and I hope that he continues to do so. I say this while having actually found his manners to be quite unusually polite and even quiet, especially when one considers the context of this discussion. I, for example, am a self-taught amateur writer who quite enjoys getting a bit scruffy in debates with those who think that Earth was designed with them in mind. Dawkins, on the other hand, has spent decades of his life refining and deepening the teaching of evolutionary biology—a revolutionary subject that is only just beginning to disclose its still-more revolutionary, and healing and educational, properties and aspects. Why should he sit still and see a valued and precious discipline being insulted, even threatened with not being taught? It’s no exaggeration to say that in some parts of the modern world, real efforts are being made to stifle evolutionary biology and to impose the teaching—under various disguises of differing ingenuity—of creationism. In which case the real question ought to be: Where are the other professors? Why is the academy being so cowardly in failing to stick up for the teaching and the free inquiry on which it lives? I don’t think that Professor Dawkins should be left to do this important work all by himself.

In doing so at all, of course, he comes from a potentially great tradition. In the famous nineteenth-century debate with Bishop Wilberforce, or “Soapy Sam,” in which the theory of evolution was tried and found sound in the Oxford school, it was Thomas Huxley who emerged as “Darwin’s bulldog.” It wasn’t to be expected that the mild and retiring Charles Darwin would or could appear each time to defend evolution by natural selection, but at least there was someone upon whom he could rely, and the evidence is that Huxley was very happy to undertake the task. My view now would be that that was all very well for the nineteenth century, when the struggle was to expand and deepen the circle of scientific knowledge. But now that the discipline is clearly established, it should not require a full professor to justify his right to be teaching it! Instead, he and others should be getting on with important projects. Yet just today I spoke to some biologists who work closely with the National Institutes of Health and are regularly forced to waste time in red-herring discussions about the ethics of using existing stem cells. Alas, in testimony before Congress, they are forced to be polite and understated, lest they meet with the wrath of God.

This is why I suppose people lay traps for Dawkins, trying to catch him out. Most recently there was an attempted “gotcha” when he showed reluctance to have a public exchange with the Protestant fundamentalist William Lane Craig. This time the chorus turned sarcastic and pseudo-ironic— “Dawkins declines debate, etc.”—as if this time they wanted him to be more strident rather than less. It’s not as if Craig is a biologist or has any other sort of serious credential, but he does like to claim “credibility” by taking on great names. Dawkins is usually willing to accommodate debates with the “other side.” But he had serious misgivings about the premise of this one because Craig had set out an especially hard and brutal defense of the genocide of the Amalekites. In general, we of the “Four Horseman” faction avoid direct engagement with Holocaust deniers, lest the idea of denial become insidiously more acceptable. And, cloaked as it is in biblical rhetoric, Craig’s defense of the exterminationist view expressed in the Pentateuch is as close to denial as makes damn little difference.

Indeed, as I try to point out, it is considerably more like Holocaust affirmation. The whole project of extirpation is approved, right down to the slaughter of the Amalekite children, on the grounds that a place is reserved for them in heaven. They just happened to be born in the wrong place (and to the wrong people) to be able to accommodate God’s children.

So here again I find myself unreservedly seconding some “stridency” by Professor Dawkins. It is disgusting to preach mass ethnic murder out of holy books. It is moreover, in the current highly charged situation in Palestine, fantastically irresponsible. Israeli settler zealotry is financed and encouraged to an important degree by American Christian evangelicals: if they seem to be advocating or excusing genocide it helps lower the threshold at which these horrors can be introduced and discussed. Such a thing seems to me to call for unequivocal condemnation. As to whether Craig is invited to disown mass murder from the platform, or as a condition of taking part, I don’t much care. But I do think I know who the demagogue is in this situation and who is the honest professional attempting to make the best use of his time in the interests of scholarship. At least two cheers for stridency! FI

Christopher Hitchens authored Arguably (Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2011) a collection of essays and reviews, as well as numerous other books and essays.

Reproduced from FREE INQUIRY FEBRUARY/MARCH 2012 secularhumanism.org


image of Stephen Hawking

Review

Anything is possible
Stephen Hawking’s childlike glee in overturning assumptions, especially his own, is what makes him such an iconic scientist, says his biographer Kitty Ferguson

JANUARY FEBRUARY 2012 NEW Humanist)

IN MAY 1995, Peter Lennon in the Guardian upbraided six scientists and authors for letting down the atheist cause. In an article facing a full-page blow-up of one of William Blake’s representations of God, Lennon called this group “Science’s New God Squad”. One of the accused was, of all people, Stephen Hawking. Granted, CS Lewis warned years ago that a young man wishing to remain an atheist can’t be too careful of his reading. But must he, or she, steer clear of A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design?

Hawking requires little introduction. In books, lectures and documentaries, he has tried to make his science understandable to what he calls “ordinary people”. “Ordinary people” have made him a world-wide celebrity. Science popularising – some remarkably good – isn’t rare among his colleagues, but few present their science with such a spirit of fun and adventure as he. In spite of devastating disability, his life and his scientific journey are, for him, nothing less than a ripping yarn. His earlier work on singularities and discovery of Hawking radiation placed him in the forefront of theoretical physics. His later more speculative proposals, not yet accepted on the same level, still unfailingly stir up considerable reaction and activity.

Hawking is fearless about stepping on (or running over) toes, ready to say, “You’re wrong” to just about anyone and admit when he’s been wrong himself, eager for his lay public to recognise that good science demands this honesty and flexibility. But reversals like that led Lennon to call the “God Squad” “shifty as priests”.

Hawking’s ‘shiftiness’ takes the form of pulling the rug out from under his own discoveries

Hawking’s “shiftiness” takes the form of pulling the rug out from under his own discoveries and assertions and, in the process, out from under anyone’s philosophical or religious conclusions based on them. In his doctoral dissertation in the 1960s he showed that the universe began as a singularity where the laws of physics and hopes of predictability and a scientific explanation break down. However, in the 1980s, bringing in reinforcements from quantum theory to battle that singularity, he with physicist Jim Hartle proposed that in “imaginary time” (where the time dimension becomes a fourth space dimension) chronological time is a meaningless concept, the singularity is smeared away, the universe has no beginning and the Creator is out of a job. Meanwhile, Hawking showed that the area of a black hole’s event horizon can never grow smaller. Then, with “Hawking radiation”, it could. In 1981, having declared repeatedly that everything that happens, has happened or will happen is determined “either by God or a Theory of Everything”, it occurred to him that when a blackhole grows smaller and eventually disappears, information trapped inside it is lost, irretrievably, from the universe. Such information loss undermines scientific determinism. In 2004, Hawking proposed a solution that he believes removes the problem and scientific determinism is back on its plinth in his book The Grand Design. In even more of an about-face, Hawking now suspects that a fundamental theory of the universe, something he has spent his life pursuing, will never be found. We can know several approximations to the final underlying theory, never that theory itself.

Hawking insists such “about-faces” are not reversals. One of the marvels of science is that it is an ongoing, continuously self-correcting process. No one is being “shifty”.

Might he ever make that most enormous about-face and say the God he has battled in print for much of his life actually does exist? Peter Lennon probably needn’t worry, for according to Hawking’s own philosophy, and, in spite of his derogation of philosophy, he does have one, we can never know that level of “reality”. “We never have a model-independent view of reality. But that doesn’t mean there is no model-independent reality. If I didn’t think there is, I could not continue to do science.” Hawking doubts that “reality” includes God, but the lack of a sure road to independent reality works both ways and Hawking’s questions tread the borderline of human knowledge. In spite of a promise of ultimate answers on the cover of The Grand Design, he hasn’t stopped asking those questions. Ultimate truth has not been captured. He calls himself a child “who has never grown up”. Anything is possible.

KITTY FERGUSON’S biography Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work is published by Bantam Press