Kia ora:

It is unbelievable and frightening to listen to current news concerning the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. It is terrifying to learn that the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, has said he plans to sell the girls into marriages and sex slavery. Safe, here Down Under it is difficult to fully comprehend: Why? Why do some men in the world develop and rabidly encourage such dreadful paths of behaviour? It calls to mind Voltaire, who said “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. I hope these girls can be found and brought home.

Monthly Meeting: Monday 26 May 2014

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

The 1918 Flu Pandemic

American soldiers are credited with bringing Influenza to Europe, where the first cases appeared near the huge American transit camps at Brest and Bordeaux in early April. By June this illness had spread across Europe.

Brought back to NZ by returning soldiers, this lethal influenza pandemic struck between October and December 1918. In two months New Zealand lost about half as many people to influenza as it had in the whole of the First World War. By the time it eased in December the death toll had topped 8600. Maori suffered heavily, with at least 2160 deaths. But death did not occur evenly either among Maori or among other New Zealanders. Some communities were decimated while others escaped largely unscathed and death rates varied significantly between nearby Pacific islands and between countries – New Zealand was harder hit than Australia.

Ryan McLane studied the 1918 pandemic for his recently completed PhD thesis, looking at the reasons for the different death rates and will give his perspective on this lethal outbreak, New Zealand’s worst pandemic.

All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend..

We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.30 pm

Tararua Tramping Club, 4 Moncrieff Street, Wellington.

Moncrieff Street is off Elizabeth Street, which is off Kent Terrace, Wellington – a short distance from Courtney Place on bus routes 1 & 3.

Meetings this year will be on the 4th Monday of the month at the Tararua Tramping Club rooms, 4 Moncrieff Street.

Mid Winter Solstice Gathering Friday 20 June, The Old Bailey, corner of Lambton Quay & Ballance St, Wellington, from 7pm. All welcome to celebrate this traditional time, as the days begin to lengthen.

Student Sponsorship for Ambience International School, Kathmandu, Nepal
Humanist Society members are contributing five scholarships for students at this Humanist School in Kathmandu. The school originally founded in 2004, was purchased by SOCH Nepal and associates in February 2012. There are 189 students and 23 staff members with many teachers part-time. SOCH Nepal was founded in 2005 and is a Humanist Organization devoted to promoting the ideals of Humanism according to the Amsterdam Declaration 2002. SOCH’s working areas are promotion of Secularism, Humanism, Secular Education, Critical Thinking and fighting against Kuriti – Kuriti are bad cultural practices, including Witch Hunting, Dowry, Temple girls, Child Debt Slavery, Caste, and Gender Discrimination. SOCH have identified 57 Kuriti practices which they want abandoned. Establishing a school seemed an avenue through which to educate children, at an affordable cost, with high-quality Humanistic, Ethical, and Scientific Education, that will lead the students to re-evaluate these many practices which are woven into the warp and weft of Nepalese society. The school faces many challenges. It is difficult to recruit high quality teachers, some teachers are working without pay, there are infrastructural problems, and to retain students the staff need to teach what parents want. Nepal was a Hindu Theocracy until 2006 and introducing Humanist principles will be a slow and careful process.

The school year begins in April in Nepal and Kuldip Aryal, a school manager, is at present selecting students for whom sponsorship will be most helpful. Student selection will be based on financial need, participation in school life and academic achievement. The cost of sponsorship is NZ$280 per year. The Scholarship will include Tuition Fees, Examination Fees and Field Trip Costs. Members sponsoring a student will receive a student profile, updates on their student’s academic progress, a letter from their student and there is the possibility of a Skype meeting. Families attending the school come from the lower middle class and parent occupations include domestic workers, street vendors, small shop owners, and tailors. The monthly income of families is about NZ$55.00 – NZ$71.00. This is 5000-6000 Nepali rupees per month. Families have a yearly income of about NZ$600 – NZ$850. An illustration of monthly expenses is: Rent 3000 rupees, Food 2000 rupees, Water 1000 rupees, Gas 1500 rupees. This has already reached a total of 7500 rupees without including school tuition fees. As already indicated a family’s total monthly income will only be up to 6000 rupees! Tuition fees are between 1000 rupees and 2400 rupees per month depending on the age of the child.

Although there is a public school system in Nepal, in Kathmandu, the public schools have very high student/teacher ratios and they do not teach English. Private schools are very popular because they teach English and student/teacher ratios are lower. Ambience International School teaches a wide age range of students. There are preschool classes up to Senior classes where teenage students sit their Senior Leaving Certificate,(SLC). In 2013, 100% of Ambience International School senior students received their SLC. In the school year, just beginning, students will be able to enjoy a school library which was set up in early 2014. The Library which started with 142 books contributed by The Humanist Society of New Zealand in January now has 300 books with other books contributed by teachers and pupils. Our Society has also helped with school infrastructure. Kuldip has told us that maintenance work on staff facilities, for which our Society contributed funds is underway and nearing completion.

More sponsorship opportunities for Ambience International School students would be very welcomed and greatly appreciated by SOCH and the school management team. Humanist Society members are now providing five scholarships for the new school year.

If other members would like to contribute to this sponsorship programme please contact us. We are planning to put up an Ambience International School page on our website, where we can post new information and news of school activities.

Ambience International School Library
Pictures taken in the new school library.

image of Ambience International School Library
image of Ambience International School Library
image of Ambience International School Library
image of Ambience International School Library

Last Months Meeting
Eleanor Middleton gave us an account of her year spent as a volunteer in Kathmandu with SOCH, the Humanist Society of Nepal, and teaching at Ambience International School which included her work to promote their first science fair in the school and the establishment of a school library. She talked about the problems that superstition present in Nepalese society and action that SOCH is taking to overcome these problems, and the attitudes of Nepalese to education, and the problems that the school has with limited funding. After the talk a member present described the presentation as both fascinating and highly educational and added that he felt that more should attend such interesting presentations.

A Precariat Charter, From Denizens to Citizens (April 2014): Guy Standing: Professor Standing’s recent book follows on from The Precariat, the new and dangerous class (2011). Professor Standing’s thesis is that throughout history, class-based revolt has led to the creation of charters of demands, from the Magna Carta to South Africa’s Freedom Charter. He suggests it is now time for a Precariat Charter. On the back sleeve of the book, Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales writes ‘His call for ‘social empathy’ in politics offers an important corrective to decades of neoliberalism, while his demand for rethinking the nature of work rightly seeks to undo centuries of damaging thought’. As in The Precariat every page has a razor sharp analysis of current trends and stresses in society. From a section of the book discussing education and the role of governments in this vital area and clearly applicable to NZ Professor Standing writes ‘Many governments are tightening control over the content of university research and the orientation of research, notably by constricting and legitimizing grading of institutions, by directing money to where they claim there is ‘value for money’ and by evaluating institutions by how much commercial money they attract.’ Contrast this attitude with another vision ‘The purpose of a university is not to replicate but to enlarge; not to simplify, but to understand; not to reflect or serve the world in which we live, but to enrich it through the creation and exploration of an infinity of possible other worlds.’ These are the words of Brooker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, from her Graduation address to 2014 students graduating from the Faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences Victoria University and from the NZ School of Music, in Wellington (13 May 2014.) Eleanor’s words echo John Stuart Mill who said ‘Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood ……but to make capable and cultivated human beings.’ In The Precariat, Professor Standing writes ‘The commercial rejection of this principle must be something that the precariat must taunt into retreat. The philistines must be stopped.’ (The Precariat page 160)

Secular Education programmes:
Partners for Secular Activism PSA ( formed in February this year is a new non-profit educational organization based in Washington DC, USA. This organisation’s intention is to facilitate education about secular, scientific, and civic issues for the public. Upon signing up for a course, specific reading and discussion goals are set weekly, completing four units in four weeks. Within this framework, participation is in your own time. There may be some required reading but everything else about the courses, is provided inside the classroom website. There are forums for discussions with the lecturer and students may ‘visit’ the class anytime 24/7 to contribute thoughts and receive replies. Course topics include diversity, social justice, the psychology of politics, humanist communities, natural ethics, critical thinking and promoting science. In June, secular advocate Sean Faircloth, from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, who visited NZ last year, lecturing in Christchurch, Auckland, Napier and Wellington is holding an online session on “Defending Secular Government: Strategies for Success.” Other courses are ‘The Science and philosophy of Free will’ with Richard Carrier, the author of Sense and Goodness without God ‘Does Morality Need God? A Christian and an Atheist debate Answers’, by Dr. David Baggett and Dr. John Shook. John Shook is the president of PSA. George Dvorsky, a futurist and writer on ethics and technology, will give an ‘Introduction to Transhumanism’ course”.

IHEU World Humanist Congress Oxford 2014: For details see: . Registration for the Congress is now closed.

Alom Shaha’s

The Young Atheist’s Handbook –
Lessons for Living a Good Life Without God

In May 2012 every state school in England received a new copy of the 1611 King James Bible from the government – with a brief foreword by Michael Gove, the Education Minister, to mark the 400th anniversary of its translation. Gove says of this translation: “It’s a thing of beauty, and it’s also an incredibly important historical artifact. It has helped shape and define the English language and is one of the keystones of our shared culture. And it is a work that has had international significance.” The Department for Education estimated that the cost of the scheme was £375,000, and so philanthropic sponsorship was sought to fund this scheme. This initiative was criticised by secular campaigners as a waste of money. The National Secular Society said that schools were already “awash with Bibles”. It urged the Government to send out a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species instead.

Richard Dawkin’s comment was ‘For some reason the Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) was not approached for a donation in support of Michael Gove’s plan to put a King James Bible in every state school. We would certainly have given it serious consideration, and if the trustees had not agreed I would gladly have contributed myself. In the event, it was left to ‘millionaire Conservative party donors’ ‘Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation, is one of the glories of English literature. The whole King James Bible is littered with literary allusions, almost as many as Shakespeare. In The God Delusion I have a section called “Religious education as a part of literary culture” in which I list 129 biblical phrases which any cultivated English speaker will instantly recognise and many use without knowing their provenance: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how are the mighty fallen. A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian’.

‘European history, too, is incomprehensible without an understanding of the warring factions of Christianity and the book over whose subtleties of interpretation they were so ready to slaughter and torture each other. Does the eucharistic bread merely symbolise the body of Jesus or does it become his body, in true “substance” if not “accidental” DNA? Prolonged wars have been fought over how we should interpret the words allegedly uttered at the Last Supper. Three bishops were burned alive just outside my bedroom window in my old Oxford College for giving the unapproved answer. Centuries-long schisms were based on nothing more serious than the question of whether Jesus is both God and his son, or just his (very important) son. Even bloodier wars were fought against a rival religion that sees him not as God’s son at all but just reveres him as a prophet’.

In May 2014 the British Humanist Association (BHA) sent out copies of The Young Atheist’s Handbook to secondary schools in England and Wales. Subtitled, Lessons for Living a Good Life Without God. This book is by science teacher Alom Shaha and tells of his upbringing in a Bangladeshi Muslim community in south-east London, and tells, said the Association, “how he overcame his inner conflict surrounding his atheism, and the lessons he learnt in leading a good life, full of awe and wonder, based on humanist principles”. The BHA raised more than £11,000 to send the book to schools through public donations from “thousands of people”, and hopes the initiative will give young people “access to resources that enable them to come to their own decisions about their values and beliefs”. The Young Atheist’s Handbook is a book for anyone who thinks about what they should believe, and how they should live their life. It is a blend of memoir, philosophy, and science, exploring the questions about faith and the afterlife.

Alom Shahae tells his own story, drawing on the theories of some of history’s greatest thinkers and discussing the fallacies that have impeded humanity for centuries. Alom Shaha who was born in Bangladesh, but grew up in London, says of his book “I grew up in a strict Bangladeshi Muslim community in South-East London in the 1970s and 80s. I was expected to go to mosque regularly and recite passages in Arabic from the Quran, without being told what they meant. I spent my teenage years juggling two utterly different worlds: my chaotic, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic family life on a council estate, and that of a student at a privileged private school. In the years since I realized I neither had nor wanted faith in the religious sense, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the world and how to develop my own moral and ethical compass. The Young Atheist’s Handbook is the result of that thinking.

The roots of my beliefs are based not in the religion of my birth but in the science I learned at school and the books I devoured at home. I was lucky to find a way to think for myself about how the world works, about God and faith and doubt, and how to live my life in the best possible way without necessarily being tied down to what my parents, priests or teachers might have told me to believe. The book is made up of a series of “lessons”, which explore religion in the context of knowledge from science and philosophy, as well as ideas from the greatest minds in history. Along the way, I’ll tell the story of how I came to question the beliefs that were handed down to me by my parents, how I encountered the ideas that I now hold dear and how I came to define myself as an atheist. Combining factual content with a personal narrative, I’ve created a handbook for others who, like me, may need the facts and the ideas – and the courage – to break free from the beliefs they have simply inherited, and to decide for themselves what they believe and who they want to be.”

This report was compiled from reports originally printed in The Guardian.