Humanist Newsletter – May 2015

Science Projects in Nepal

Kia ora: This month has brought tragic events. The vast unbridled forces of nature, the 7.9 earthquake followed by a 7.4 aftershock, which has devastated much of Nepal. The tragedy of the unrestrained ignorance of human nature, the murder of a third Humanist blogger in Bangledesh, Ananta Bijoy. Nine bloggers have been murdered since 2013. Their writing is logical writing, related to science and reason. At the time of his murder Ananta was to be speaking at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. However, his visa application was denied because he was deemed to be a person with a high risk of overstaying!
Science Projects in Nepal

The tragedy of the inhumanity of humankind, the plight of the refugees exploited by people smugglers, fleeing Myanmar and Libya. Pictured are Ambience International Students demonstrating their science experiments during the School’s Science Day in January 2014. Our thoughts are with the students and their families as they manage life in the aftermath of the earthquake destruction.
Science Projects in Nepal

We think too of the bravery and the grief of the Bangladeshi Humanist bloggers and their families, and of the despair of the boat refugees.

Monthly Meeting: Monday 25th May

This month’s meeting will be at the Tararua Tramping Club, 4 Moncrieff St., off Elizabeth St., off Kent Tce.

Making & Changing Moral Decisions

Dan Burkett, PhD Student and philosophy tutor at Rice University, Houston Texas

Dan is currently in Wellington and teaching a short course on ‘Disputed Moral Issues’ at Continuing Education Victoria University. His current area of research is the ethics of punishment – he previously completed his MA thesis at Victoria University on the possibility of time travel. Dan will discuss, ‘What is a moral decision?, and, ‘When and how is it permissible to change a decision? Dan will begin with a brief summary of what philosophers, specifically, moral philosophers, ‘do’, before moving on to discuss moral decision-making.

We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.30 pm

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

Venue: Tararua Tramping Club, 4 Moncrieff St, off Elizabeth St, off Kent Tce, Wellington

· Last month’s meeting: Ryan McLane’s most informative talk about nursing people ill with Ebola in Sierra Leone will be written up in a later newsletter.

· Winter Solstice Celebration 22 June from 6 pm at Blondini’s Jazz Lounge & Café, situated on the first floor of the Embassy Theatre 10 Kent Tce, Wellington: In June, instead of meeting at our usual venue, the Tararua Tramping Club, Moncrieff St, Wellington, we plan to have a solstice celebration at Blondini’s Café at the Embassy Theatre. An invitation to join us is extended to members from Skeptics and the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists. This is also an opportunity to farewell Council member Cormac Maguire who is soon departing our shores for those of Australia. Can you match up the questions and answers from ‘The Undying Sun Quiz’ devised by Eileen Bone, our esteemed and long departed member who was with us until February 2000. Eileen is still sadly missed.

· Blasphemy Law Repeal: We are working with international humanist and atheist groups and others to repeal and abolish Blasphemy Law in all countries. These laws, which contravene international law, have been used to affirm and justify some of the worst Islamic violence of recent years. A document examining Blasphemy Law in New Zealand has been prepared for circulation and wider support for repeal of our ridiculous section 123 will be sought.

· Seeking to repeal Section 78 of the Education Act: A legal challenge to repeal Section 78 of the Education Act has been was launched by Jeff McClintock from the Secular Education Network, after his daughter Violet was made to sit alone in a corner of her Red Beach School’s classroom, kneeling on the floor reading a book next to the rubbish bin, after her parents opted for her to sit out religious studies. Richard Francois, their lawyer who is taking the case ‘de bono’, said he would challenge the Education Act’s legality, arguing Section 78 was in breach of the Bill of Rights and discriminated against pupils who did not hold Christian beliefs. This section allows schools to close up to an hour a week for religious instruction. This case is to be held in the High Court Auckland on Thursday 22 May. If successful this could lead to religious studies being removed from the school classroom.

Nepal Earthquake

Report from Nepal: Within the week of May 20 to May 26, the US Geological Survey, estimates that the chance of at least one magnitude of 5 to 6 is about 40% and up to three such events are likely to occur,” the U.S. body said in its latest weekly advisory for Nepal. Chances of aftershocks of magnitude 6 to 7 or higher were much less. More than any of us, the people of Christchurch will understand how Nepali people are feeling enduring the aftermath of the 7.9 earthquake of April 25. In the first hours after the earthquake a message was sent: ‘After 80 hours nightmare, we are more or less back to our normal life but no one is sure there won’t be any bigger aftershocks. Also I’m guessing there can be more terrible situation ahead as no clean water to drink, lack of medicine, food and tents. Please stretch your hands to support us.’ And another: ‘Bloody earthquake, this has made people fear a lot. I am laughing at religious people today. They think this is will of God. Then God has killed about 10 thousand people in Nepal. He is full of sin. He should be hanged because he took life of innocent and poor people. I have neither seen or communicated to him. Religious people if you have seen him, please tell me where is he, I will teach him morality and make at least like a kind human being.’

Society for Humanism SOCH Nepal has been working hard to help with relief. They have been delivering relief supplies of tents to the devastated area of Sindhupalchok. Tents have also been handed out to residents from their Kathmandu Office. When helping with supplies for the village of Pawati, the truck was not able to negotiate the road so villagers had to walk down to the truck. Individual Humanist members are also working with neighbourhood groups on projects. One project is the construction of portable toilets for delivery to devastated areas. With donations from individual persons and also the British Nepal Lawyers’ Association, toilets have been constructed to place over pits dug by villagers:’ As this is also the mobile toilets, if the pits get full we can easily move it to another place where we can build a new pit.’ The cost of the toilets is NZ$300 with free delivery. At time of writing the first consignment of toilets are ready for delivery. As SOCH Nepal members travel with their trucks delivering relief supplies they have messaged ‘I was in Dolakha to distribute relief materials. It’s close to last earthquake’s epicenter. Some towns are completely abandoned by people. It was like ghost town. Earlier thousand of people use to live here.’ Photos of Society for Humanism SOCH Nepal’s work can be found on Facebook: Along with relief work SOCH Nepal is organising meetings to discuss the rebuilding of their country: ‘We could organize a purely informative program among experts and politicians today. We invited all guests at our school.’ SOCH Nepal is now beginning programmes for the children, organising activities and singing. Schools were to reopen on 15 May but the 7.4 aftershock has delayed the return to school for another fortnight. Update 22 May: “The school will reopen in ten days. Our school building is relatively OK but some cracks have been seen. We are planning to keep students in tents for some months and out of the buildings.”

· Humanist Society of NZ’s support for Ambience International School, Kathmandu: We would like to contribute towards long term support for SOCH Nepal’s Humanist School. Fortunately, as it was not a regular school day, no teachers or students were injured during the earthquake. Parent/teacher interviews were being held as it was the beginning of the new school year. Students from outside Kathmandu who board at the school were returning with parents. It was lunchtime when the earthquake struck. It was extremely loud, bricks from nearby buildings were falling and everything was shaking like leaves on a tree. On a regular school day there may have been injuries, if students had panicked while running down the building stairways to get outside. The building did not collapse but it is very badly cracked and thought to be unsafe. We are hoping that the vision of SOCH Nepal to provide secular, science based education developing critical thinking in their school students is able to be resumed soon. The school buildings have been inspected by engineers but we have not heard of the final assessment. Education for the children of Nepal is vital for their future as they will be part of their country’s rebuild. We already have our sponsorship programme in place. Society members are supporting 7 students. We would like to ask other members to consider supporting a student with payment of school fees. School fees are US$20 per month. The school has boarding facilities and it is customary for students from outside Kathmandu to attend schooling in Kathmandu. It may be possible that we could offer help for students to board at the school. Many outlying district school buildings have been destroyed. We are working on completing our Ambience School page on our Humanist webpage by mid June. We have been in touch with the Norfolk Humanists in the UK who have expressed an interest in helping as well.

If you have an interest in a long term commitment to secular, science based education for a young Nepali student please do contact us at or you may make a lump sum donation for Nepal relief to bank account BNZ 02-0392-0094973-001.Please email us with the details of your transaction.

· Basic Income NZ: Following the NZARH/ Humanist/Skeptic Conference held in Havelock North in February this year, several people were inspired by Professor Guy Standing’s talks on ‘The Precariat’ and ‘A Precariat Charter’. In particular, Article 25 of the Charter prompted a closer look at the concept of an Unconditional Basic Income. Trials of providing a Basic income have been conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund in India, and described in the book Basic Income by Guy Standing and three others, had great positive outcomes. Six people met in Wellington on 29th March and it was decided to investigate the possibility of starting an Incorporated Society in NZ for the purpose of promoting Unconditional Basic Income. Further investigation has found that people in NZ have been working on the concept of a Universal Basic Income since the 1990’s. The idea of a basic income has not captured the public imagination, as has the idea of the living wage. A living wage will only benefit those lucky enough to have employment. A Basic Income applies unconditionally to all persons, including children. If you have an interest in exploring this concept please contact Karl Matthys at: .

Gaylene Middleton

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Harper 2015)

Andrew Anthony reviewing Ayaan’s recent book, Heretic, for the Guardian Monday 27 April 2015 writes: ‘This call for historic reform by one of Islam’s most divisive critics, only highlights the scale of the task.’

The Somali-born author and human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an unequivocal figure. Admired by many secularists for her fearless denunciation of Islamic fundamentalism, she is loathed not just by Islamic fundamentalists but by many western liberals, who find her rejection of Islam almost as objectionable as her embrace of western liberalism.

Confronted by the tribal, patriarchal and religious confines of her upbringing in east Africa, where she suffered female genital mutilation, and the liberty of the Netherlands, where she sought asylum from an arranged marriage, she chose the cultural values of her adopted home over those she had inherited. Not only did she turn her back on her native religion, she became one of its most articulate and vehement critics.

The price she paid was 24-hour police protection, and the loss of an artistic collaborator, the film director Theo Van Gogh – he was murdered in an Amsterdam high street by a jihadist, who promised to kill Hirsi Ali too. When she moved to the safer environs of America, and the welcoming arms of a conservative think-tank, her departure was little lamented in Europe. Hirsi Ali was variously accused of being a self-hating Islamophobe and a traumatised apologist for western imperialism.

Even in the US, she is still unpopular in progressive circles. As she records in her new book, Heretic, an honorary degree from Brandeis University was withdrawn following a petition by students and the faculty accusing her of “hate speech”. The campaign, she notes drily, saw “an authority on ‘Queer/Feminist Narrative Theory’ siding with the openly homophobic Islamists”.

Such a spectacle is just one of the many ironies that litter the contemporary discourse around Islam, freedom of speech, racism and terror. But Hirsi Ali is not much concerned with such sideshows. She is a plain speaker (too plain for some). Her views about the violence and misogyny she sees as inherent in Islamic culture have seen her denounced as an “enlightenment fundamentalist”.

Having previously argued that Islam was beyond reform, in Heretic she says she wants to strike a more conciliatory note. She sets out to find common ground with the majority of Muslims who view their religion as peaceful and spiritual. While this may be a noble aim, one doubts that a meeting of minds is about to occur anytime soon. For one thing, Hirsi Ali calls for a wholesale Islamic reformation. It makes no sense, she says, to maintain, as so many politicians and religious leaders do, that the terrorism seen in Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere has no religious justification in Islamic texts. “We delude ourselves,” she writes, “that our deadliest foes are somehow not actuated by the ideology they openly affirm.”

She quotes chapter and verse of violent exhortations in the Qur’an, and argues that as long as Muslims hold to the notion that the book is the literal word of God then extremists will be able to lay confident claim to theological rationale for their acts. Put simply, her position is that “religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform”.

But how? The statistics she assembles do not make optimistic reading. For example, 75% of Pakistanis are in favour of the death penalty for apostasy and sharia law is gaining ground in many Muslim-majority nations. However, Hirsi Ali sees the potential for change in the social protests of the Arab spring – even if they have mostly ushered in either dictators or Islamists.

She also believes that Muslims in the west have a vital role to play in forging a new identity for Islam. She divides followers of the faith into three distinct groups: the Mecca Muslims, the large majority who represent the more tolerant side of the religion, as articulated during Muhammad’s early Mecca period; the Medina Muslims (or the jihadist wing) who are inspired by the harsher aspects of the Qur’an that Muhammad is thought to have expressed during his later consolidation in Medina; and the Modifying Muslims – those dissidents and reformists who actively challenge religious dogma.

The reformers and extremists, writes Hirsi Ali, are currently locked in a battle to win the hearts and minds of the mass of passive Mecca Muslims. She claims to be hopeful that the reformers will prevail, yet she produces little evidence to support such an outcome. Instead, her strengths lie in showing the difficulties in bringing about reform – not least the widely held belief that as a final and perfect rendition of God’s word, Islam is powerfully resistant to the very concept of reinterpretation.

Even her fiercest detractors would struggle to deny much of what Hirsi Ali states about the current predicament within Islam. Unfortunately that doesn’t make it any more palatable, particularly in an era dominated by the modern commandment not to offend anyone.

It’s an unpleasant paradox that Islam’s best hope of reform might lie in its worst incarnation. In making such a visible horror show of their crimes, groups such as Isis, Boko Haram, the Pakistan Taliban and Al-Shabaab have laid down a challenge to mainstream Islam for the soul of the religion. Simply denying that these groups are part of the faith is no longer a viable option.

Whatever one may think of her solutions, Hirsi Ali should be commended for her unblinking determination to address the problem. ✹

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