Kia ora: In this last month two prominent members of our society have died, Jeanne van Gorkom and Jack Mulheron. A short obituary for Jeanne and Jack is included later in this newsletter.
May monthly meeting: Monday 29 May, 7.30 pm until 9 pm, Turnbull House, Wellington. All welcome. Topic: The Da Vinci Code. Kent will lead a discussion that includes Opus Dei, the fictionalised evil monks in the Da Vinci Code. Share your thoughts on this subject – Kent would very much like you to e-mail him at KentStevens77@yahoo.com with your thoughts. Kent will share e-mail contributions at the meeting.
June monthly meeting ( advance notice ) Monday June 26. Sonya Hogan who is the New Zealand Programme Co-ordinator for Save the Children will speak about Save the Children and the repeal of Section 59 of the crimes act.
Winter solstice celebration: With midwinter approaching, a pot luck Dinner is to be held Saturday 24 June from 4.00 pm at Mark Fletcher’s home in Lower Hutt, ph. 569 3711, or 232 4497 for details. You are warmly invited. Bring some food and refreshment to share. If members would like to visit our memorial trees on Wrights Hill earlier in the day do get together at your mutual convenience.
Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz June 4. Beth Wood who is the Advocacy Manager of New Zealand UNICEF will be interviewed about UNICEF and the repeal of Section 59. See November 2005 newsletter for directions to listen via the Internet. The May 7 broadcast featured an interview with Boris van Beusekom who is one or the chief co-coordinates of the Human Rights Film Trust Festival. This festival is in its 2nd year. Last year 6,000 attended, which was 50% more than anticipated. The Film Trust is a non-advocating group whose aim is to bring information on human rights issues to the public.
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New Zealand Humanist Trust: We wish to thank the Humanist Trust for supporting the 2005 Humanist Seminar and this year’s 2006 Eileen Bone Scholarship to Victoria University.
Stem Cell research: On Wed. 17 May, Kent Stevens, president of HSNZ, and Iain Middleton presented an oral submission on the proposed Guidelines for Using Cells from Established Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines for Research. This followed a written submission prepared by Kent Stevens and council members. The Humanist Society advised the Ministry Committee that it favoured a liberal position, and presented supporting evidence. The society considers that the early embryo is not a sentient being before day 14 of development, nor a person, nor a moral agent.
Jeanne van Gorkom died April 15 2006, age 75 years. Jeanne joined the Humanist Society in the late 1970s and served in a number of positions including the Wellington branch committee. She was elected president of the society in 1991, 1992, and 1996, and was a long standing Humanist marriage celebrant and a recently appointed Civil Union Celebrant. She operated the Humanist Bookshop for many years and founded a Humanist Fellowship in Taranaki in 1994. I will remember Jeanne for the dignity of the ceremonies she conducted.
Jack Mulheron died April 26, 2006 age 81. A long term reader of NZ Humanist and in recent years a society member, Jack was a tireless fighter for Secular Education in New Zealand. Jack was a founder, secretary, and principal spokesperson for the Committee for the Defence of Secular Education (CDSE), established in March 1978 to counter the activities of the Churches Education Commission that sought to introduce Christianity into schools using dubious means, and the Integration of Private schools into the state system that was taking funds from state schools and state housing. This organisation, later renamed the Society for the Protection of Public Education, continued until 1991 when Jack at the age of 66 was unable to continue the work. Jack is survived by his wife Soni, children Sarah, Michael, Danny and Johnny, and eight grand children.
John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873
In the second of a series on thinkers who are significant for humanism, PETER CAVE marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Stuart Mill.
If a tenth part of the pains taken in finding signs of an all powerful benevolent god had been employed in collecting evidence to blacken the creator’s character, what scope would not have been found in the animal kingdom? ” declared John Stuart Mill.” It is divided into devourers and devoured, most creatures being lavishly fitted with instruments to torment their prey.”
He meant that to base moral values on what happens in nature would be to justify the worst excesses of human behaviour. So any god, whose will and character is revealed through nature, has a good deal to answer for. As can be seen, this most radical and courageous of thinkers had a pretty dim view of some basic traditional religious teachings.
John Stuart Mill was born 200 years ago. Towards the end of his life, he took an interest in the emerging theory of evolution, but his final view tended to be that it was slightly more likely than not that there was a finite intelligent designer that had ordered the world. Given the development of evolutionary theory in recent years, it is likely that the balance of probability in his eyes would now tip away from such a designer. This kind of thinking is Mill’s hallmark. He considers the evidence, reasons towards plausible explanations, and is prepared to speak out against entrenched opinions.
Mill’s concern for reason and evidence arose from his extraordinary education. His father James was himself a university graduate, and later would become a leading member of the council of the ‘godless’ University College London, though he thought formal schooling over-rated. He embarked on an ambitious education programme for John, starting him on ancient Greek at the age of three.
This early training certainly had an impact on the young Mill and in his maturity, he believed education vital, allowing people to make better choices about themselves and about the greater good. That ‘greater good’ is the foundation of utilitarianism; the philosophy which advocates actions that promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Some humanists have traditionally been wary of utilitarianism, precisely because of its seemingly numerical, materialist and calculating approach to social philosophy. But Mill’s utilitarianism should not offend humanists, for his idea of happiness was far more enriched, involving individual flourishing that would typically involve concern for others, for feeling, for dignity and much more. Mill categorises some pleasures as more valuable than others. They are the higher pleasures. Poetry gives a higher quality pleasure than pushpin (a child’s game); it is better, as he famously put it, to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.
Talk of higher pleasure might make Mill sound like an elitist. In a sense, he was – but the way in which he was not was that he thought that virtually everyone could achieve these higher pleasures, given better education and welfare. Advocating votes for all adults, men and women alike – though still with some qualifications concerning paying taxes – he consistently campaigned for women’s suffrage. Indeed, his feminism is probably one of his most radical and forward-thinking principles.
It seems, indeed, that in his youth he was arrested and brought before magistrates for distributing birth control tracts. And when in 1865 he was elected to parliament as a liberal, he strongly supported one of Gladstone’s most significant reforms: the Married Women’s Property Act.
But despite his engagement with politics, Mill was vocal about the need for minimal state interference. The state should only be able to restrict the actions of sane adults if those actions are likely to be harmful to others, and should certainly have no business legislating on what people do privately. When he finally married his long-term love, Harriet Taylor, Mill voluntarily resigned his statutory rights, opting for a more equal partnership and refusing to allow state control of his private relationship.
However, he strongly believed that when people voluntarily take on obligations, they should honour them: so it’s perfectly all right for an individual to live in an intoxicated haze, but not if that would harm children or other dependants. Having offspring creates an obligation to nurture and educate them well. If would-be parents cannot afford this, they ought to remain childless.
I suspect he would oppose maternity and paternity pay, on the grounds that we should make our own destinies and be responsible for our own choices. In that sense, he’s something of a pivotal figure, hovering between the self-reliance espoused by Enlightenment figures like Adam Smith, and socialism’s emphasis on the responsibilities of the state.
Perhaps Mill’s most humanist principle is his commitment to liberty. To fulfil our potential, he argued, we must be free to make our own choices – otherwise, we are robots. The most fundamental liberty, for Mill, is the right to free speech, which he saw as essential for progress. If what is spoken is true, that benefits us; if false, that should stimulate us to challenge. In a sentiment with powerful contemporary resonances, he maintained that mere offence that may be caused by what is spoken is swamped by the benefits of the speaking.
Mill spoke of the ‘Religion of humanity’, optimistic that social cooperation and fellow feeling would increase with improved conditions and education – all part of the truly human flourishing life.
Peter cave is Chairman of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group. His programme on John Stuart Mill is on BBC Radio 4, May 17, 1100am.
AC Grayling’s appreciation of Kant will appear in the July/August issue From NEW HUMANIST MAY/JUNE 2006 p.15
BREAKING THE SPELL Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel C Dennett
Viking 2006, xvi + 448 pp.; hardcover US $17.13
The title reflects the author’s aim in writing the book. He wants those of his readers who may be under the spell of religion to break that spell, and to regard their religion as open to scientific investigation like other natural phenomena. As an American, he addresses himself primarily to his fellow citizens, paying particular attention to Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
But why is scientific research into religion so important? The author’s ultimate concern is ethical. We all know that wars fought over religious differences have caused untold misery and suffering, and recent events have shown that this volcano is far from extinct. We also know that religious convictions have inspired many people to undertake important humanitarian tasks, often at considerable cost and risk to themselves. The author hopes that scientific studies will suggest ways in which the balance of the effects of religion can be tilted in favour of more positive outcomes.
The prevalence of religious beliefs among humankind is a natural phenomenon, capable of being explained in terms of natural causes. Dennett, who has also written a highly-regarded exposition of Darwinism, has chosen an evolutionary approach to the explanation of religion. He argues that every activity incurs a cost, and in a competitive environment an activity will not persist over time unless its cost is more than offset by a consequential benefit. To understand why a religious phenomenon continues to occur, we must ask: who benefits?
Some of the raw materials of religion can be found in the animal world. For most animals, the detection of movement in the environment has survival value. This value is enhanced if the animal can discriminate between unimportant motion (such as that caused by a breeze) and motion caused by an animate agent, since that agent could turn out to be a predator or prey or a mate or a rival.
In higher animals and birds, agent discrimination becomes more sophisticated: they are able to identify the nature of the agent and respond appropriately to its expected behaviour (e.g. by taking flight or preparing to fight). Such responses have obvious survival value and need not involve conscious reasoning.
In human groups, awareness that other members also have minds and intentions leads to the development of ploys and counterploys of increasing complexity. Here again, there is obvious utility in identifying the various agents and trying to guess their intentions. From there, it is but a short step to imagine an invisible agent behind important phenomena, such as illness or the weather, and to seek ways of influencing that agent through sacrifice or some other ritual.
But what if the healing ritual does not lead to recovery or the rain dance is not followed by rain? Where is then the benefit, which is a necessary condition for the practice to continue over time? Dennett answers this question by referring to B.F. Skinner’s classic experiment with pigeons, which demonstrated that intermittent reward is sufficient to reinforce a particular behavioural pattern. Sometimes rain will follow a rain dance, and failure of the ritual to produce results on a given occasion may be rationalised by assuming that a flaw must have occurred in its performance.
This stage of religious development is what Dennett calls folk religion. Those practising it do not consider themselves as having a religion at all: their rituals are simply part of their practical lives, like hunting or harvesting.
The transition from folk religion to organised religion is marked by the emergence of specialist practitioners. These specialists, claiming a direct link to the gods, become the guardians of religious practice. They promise that the gods will support and protect their adherents and help them through their difficulties, provided that the right rituals and prayers are performed. The sense of reassurance and comfort which this provides in times of adversity is a genuine benefit to the adherents, even if the promise ultimately remains unfulfilled.
The guardians have of course a vested interest in the maintenance of their religion. The definition of its doctrines is in their hands, and they may be expected to maximise the appeal of their teachings and to discourage doubt.
In the case of Christianity, the most obvious doubt-discouraging feature has been the threat of hellfire. The prospect of spending eternity under torture would seem to be a powerful incentive to believe in whatever will avert that threat. But there is a problem here: genuine belief cannot be created by the mere desire to have it. (This difficulty is neatly illustrated by the prayer quoted in Mark, ix, 24: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’.)
Dennett suggests that what most people actually believe in is ‘belief in God’: they believe that believing in God is the right thing to do, without being too sure just what that entails. One reason for that uncertainty is the incomprehensibility of parts of the creed, such as the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. Oddly, incomprehensibility is a strong point, rather than a weak-ness, in a religion. There is a certain appeal in the notion that at the core of one’s faith lies an ineffable mystery beyond human comprehension; in any case, one cannot really doubt something that one is unable to understand.
The final chapter, though it bears the promising title ‘Now what do we do?’, offers little by way of answers. Dennett argues that the scientific study of religion is still in its infancy and that it would be dangerous to base firm recommendations on what has been learnt so far. Accordingly, his chief recommendation is for more research. He does, however, discuss at length the conflict between the right of parents to bring up their children in their own religion and the right of children to be protected from indoctrination before their critical faculties have developed. Tentatively, Dennett suggests that parents should be permitted to teach their children whatever religious doctrines they like, provided they do nothing to close the children’s minds through fear or hatred, or disable them from inquiry by denying them an education or keeping them in isolation from the world.
From Australian Humanist No. 82 WINTER 2006 p.22