Kia ora:

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The Humanist Society of New Zealand

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Fortified with a left over Easter egg my monthly task is upon me again. In Wellington Autumn has arrived and I’ve noticed our cat Mango is putting on her winter coat.

May monthly meeting: Monday 7 May Conversation and discussion on the National Statement on Religious Diversity along with the Brussels Declaration, European document dealing with Religious Diversity.
Venue: Turnbull House, Wellington. We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm. We would love to see you at the meeting, 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.

Previous meeting: Previous meeting: Dr Vincent Gray discussed Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. His review is included with this newsletter. The Australian Humanist has recently published a review of The God Delusion by Dierk von Behrens. It is interesting to note that the Council of Australian Humanist Societies recent April Convention in Melbourne considered the issue “Being Good without God”. We discussed this as “Do we need to be religious to be good?” at our March meeting. I would have liked to have flittered over for the day, but alas, I have no wings.

Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz 6 May, 3 June. Radio broadcasts are every four weeks. Remember that outside the Wellington area 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?

I came across the April 2007 issue of The Walrus with a couple of articles that interested me. It can be found at WALRUSMAGAZINE.COM. The first Too Wired to Think, the downside of info-tech by John Lorinc and the second, some more thoughts on The God Delusion from Daniel Baird.Too Wired to Think also titled Driven to Distraction. How our multi-channel, multi-tasking society is making it harder for us to think. Here is a quick summary of the article.

In the late 1920’s a Russian-born psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, observed that waiters could accurately recall the small details of many orders without committing them to paper. This observation was the basis of a paper published in 1927 outlining the Zeigarnik Effect. This thesis is that the human mind is best at remembering incomplete tasks. Quantum leaps in wireless digital technology enable us to be in constant contact with each other, to access digitised entertainment, and to plug into the Internet almost anytime, anywhere. But there is a psychological cost that is rooted in the way our brains function. Do we control this technology or will it come to control us?

For information to pass from short term memory into long term memory the brain centres need time to scaffold incoming information by building the neural circuits on which the data will be stored. David Kirsh an expert in cognitive science who directs the Interactive Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego says that “multi-tasking” was invented to describe a computer’s capabilities, not a person’s. The human brain from an evolutionary stand point remains a machine programmed to look after its owner’s survival- the approaching predator, rather than the what the conscious mind wants to learn. The fast paced video game is more captivating than vast amounts of information containing text. A healthy brain actively rejects information that is not urgent or relevant to enable us to think efficiently and creatively. Technology has not been able to mimic our biological need to concentrate, allowing short term memory to consolidate into long term memory that can be transformed into thought and when necessary, action.

Gaylene Middleton

VINCENT GRAY BOOK REVIEW THE GOD INSTINCT

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion. Bantam Press 2006 406 pages $40.

In 1877 Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford University for writing a book entitled “The Necessity for Atheism. Today we have the distinguished Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science writing a work in a similar vein and prospering from it. We have certainly made progress in anti-religious tolerance, at least in Great Britain. The question is, how far does such tolerance extend, and can the “God Delusion” be explained?

When somebody asks me why I do not believe in God I always reply “because there is no evidence” I might get a reply, suggested by Dawkins, that there is no evidence that humans exist elsewhere in the universe, but it is still highly likely, given the probable large number of planets capable of hosting our own existence. So why do I not think God to be just as probable? Then, I have to reply that nobody has been able to explain where, who or how God exists. It is, by contrast, easy to understand how humans could develop elsewhere. But I draw the line at an unsubstantial undefinable being.

Dawkins does a fine hatchet job in ridiculing both the beliefs and the explanations for the mainly Christian God. Many of the “arguments”, even if accepted, fall down when God cannot be identified. He places great emphasis on the absurd extent of religious beliefs in the United States, presumably aimed at his US sales. He uses kid gloves on Islam, which has even more outrageous beliefs, and he is unwilling to tackle Hinduism. Buddhism does not even count.

The Bible comes in for detailed dissection. He shows that a believer in the literal truth of the Bible has to contend with a recommendation for genocide (Joshua Fit de battle of Jericho), the stoning of adulterers, gang rape (Chapter 19, Judges), and discrimination against homosexuals and masturbators.

I must admit that my take on Jesus has been influenced by the two alternative versions of the gospels proposed by Robert Graves in “The Nazarene Gospel Restored” and his novel “King Jesus”. But Dawkins goes further in pointing out that the gospels disagree as to where Jesus was born, that there was no census at the time postulated, and there is even doubt whether the Hebrew word that was translated as “virgin” might really have meant only “maiden”. Luke is proud that Joseph was descended from David. And there would not be much point in this if Joseph was not Jesus’ father.

Having done an excellent job in taking apart the absurd beliefs and practices of the worshippers of the (mainly Christian) God, Dawkins makes a very poor effort in trying to explain why they do it.

It all seems to lie in his inability to “believe” in social evolution, and his embrace of his own alternative “religion”, which turns out to be “The Selfish Gene” upon which his reputation has been made.

Nobody can deny that genes determine heredity, and that survival of the genes of effective individuals is the engine of evolution. But Dawkins cannot seem to move beyond individual survival or recognise that survival or prosperity of a society can often decide survival of individuals within it.

Social evolution is the stuff of history, generally recognised long before Darwin. Darwin was inspired by the writings of his contemporary, Herbert Spencer, who wrote an influential history of civilization, and coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the changes that have taken place, a phrase that was enthusiastically adopted by Darwin to describe evolution by individuals.

Dawkins seems to realise the lack of a social mechanism in his thinking but cannot quite bring himself to admit it. He expresses his angst at greater length in his book “The extended phenotype”. He invents a concept called a “meme” A meme, is a “unit of cultural inheritance” and a “non genetic kind of replicator, which flourishes only in the environment provided by complex, communicating brains”.

Dawkins tries to argue that belief in God is a “meme” but he cannot allow memes to evolve like social customs since it is not a “replicator” Surely he is talking about “instincts” a topic which Darwin discussed at great length. Instincts are genetically controlled forms of social behaviour. Society itself may not be a “replicator”, but instincts developed by society are “replicated” together with the rest of each “selfish gene. Those societies which form evolutionary effective social practices survive by comparison with others, and the “selfish genes” of individuals within the successful society which survive best are those who support the successful social behaviour..

As an example of how this works, I always quote the example of the BBC programme on genetics hosted by David Suzuki, when he visited a sheepdog trainer. Dogs are wolves, with an inherited instinct derived from its social success, of attacking sheep in packs. The job of the trainer is to select those dogs where this instinct is weak and who also have a strong inherited instinct to be capable of training to override it. Most societies strive hard to train us to suppress instinct that arose during the early stages of our evolution and are no longer desired.

Early human societies only survived when they had a strong leader, a tight discipline, and a ruthless ability to kill animals and enemies. In such a society, loyalty to the boss was necessary for survival, and if the boss could persuade his flock that he was sanctioned by God it could make the society even more successful. Loyalty to the boss and a belief in his divine origin became part of their genetics, an instinct. This instinct is still powerful and is dominant in most human societies today. It can explain the unquestioning carrying out of disastrous orders such as the example Dawkins gives of the charge of the Light Brigade, and even the advance on the Somme swamp in 1917. It would be interesting to hear a discussion on why anyone should voluntarily join an army. The continued survival of Kings, Queens, and Royalty is another example of the instinctive loyalty to a formal leader.

Dawkins’ confusion can be illustrated by his attitude to language, where he is forced to admit, from the writings of Chomsky and Pinker, that language is a fully-fledged “instinct” that has evolved in a social context. Children deprived of society never learn to speak, and a society of deaf-mute children develop their own sign language.

Dawkins is similarly confused in his discussion of Morality. He admits that morality constantly changes (the “Zeitgeist”) but cannot admit that this is part of social evolution, survival, and prosperity. He approves of the atheists’ “New Ten Commandments” (obtained from a website) which “praises truth, beauty, and goodness, as “the sort of list that any ordinary, decent person would come up with”, but puzzles why some atheists, such as Hitler and Stalin, do not follow it. This is where he fails to understand that the “God instinct” can easily transfer itself to other irrational beliefs (maybe including “the Selfish Gene”) Stalin was a theology student who converted the rather utopian concepts of communism into a personal state religion with himself as a Caesar, every bit as potent as that of ancient Rome, and a society that was even successful, from an evolutionary point of view, for 74 years. Hitler, with his substitute religion of German racial superiority lasted only 14 years, mainly because non-Germans were unlikely to buy it.

Dawkins does not mention that belief in God has helped to prop up many successful civilizations of the past despite the strange or absurd nature of the beliefs. Religion still plays a vital part in many current societies, but it can be considered as a handicap in many of them.

Dawkins is altogether silent on other substitutes for God. They include spiritualism, which was so popular with Victorian intellectuals when Darwin destroyed their faith, Stalinist communism, fascism, and environmentalism, the fad currently sweeping the world. These substitute religions may sometimes be more dangerous for survival than beliefs in God. Many of us consider that Dawkins’ atheists’ charter would be preferable for our future survival, but we have yet a long way to go to prove it. r

Dr Vincent Gray is a Wellington member of the Humanist Society of New Zealand.