Kia ora:

The end of 2007 is nigh so I wish you all the best forth the end of year winding down that is almost upon us and enjoyment on the dawning of 2008. This is our final newsletter for the year. I will resume communication in February next year.

November monthly meeting: November monthly meeting: Monday 5 November, NZ Humanist President Kent Stevens will review Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Jennifer Michael Hecht who wrote Doubt: A History, a book Hitchens has used as a source of some of the history in God is not Great, has written a review of this book in the Oct/Nov 07 issue of Free Inquiry. Jennifer recommends the book with her final words “it is difficult to even remember to question society’s favourite people and favourite ideas. When Hitchens does it, whether or not his argument convinces, we are reminded to ask the questions, and to speak truth, to the best of our ability, no matter whom you might enrage”.
Venue: Turnbull House, Wellington. We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm. Any thoughts and musings you may wish to convey are very welcome. Send to Kent at [email protected]

December Monthly meeting: Monday 3 December is CANCELLED as Max Wallace is to launch his book The Purple Economy (published with funds from the Eileen Bone Humanist Trust) in Wellington later in December.

Book Launch: The Purple Economy by Max Wallace Thursday 13 December 5.15 pm until 7.00 pm, Venue: Turnbull House. There will be refreshments available. All are very welcome to attend. If these arrangement details change then those with e-mail will receive an e-mail with updated details. If you are not on e-mail but would like to come please check with Middleton’s 04 232 4497.

Radio Access: Radio Acces has now developed their website to enable listeners to listen to programmes already recorded. If you have missed our Humanist Access spot, then, go to www.accessradio.org.nz .

2007 AGM and Seminar: Office holders remain the same. President: Kent, Vice President: Iain, Secretary: Gaylene, and committee members: Mark & Leigh. Webmaster & Radio Show: Jeff..
Constitutional changes. Changes to the constitutional were approved at the AGM. The changes were made to meet the requirements of the Charities Commission and do not significantly alter the intent of the constitution. Changes include: improved wording of the objectives; additional financial controls; replacement of undesirable words; elimination of sexist language; improvements to administrative procedures; and correction of typographical errors. The revised constitution will still require approval by the Charities Commission to enable us to become a registered charity.
Subscriptions remain the same as last year and are now due. A renewal form is attached to this newsletter in pdf format. Please return the completed form with your payment or disregard if you have already paid.
Our seminar speaker Dr David Wratt is on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC ) which was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007. The Seminar is supported by the Eileen Bone Humanist Trust.

Summer Meeting: Our annual summer social lunch gathering will be held at Middleton’s on Sunday 27 January from 12.30 pm. Come and bring some lunch to share. Looking forward to your company.

Obituary: A long time Humanist member from Christchurch, Bert Helm, died recently in August. Just before Bert died he had sent us a copy of his memoirs. This was very interesting to read.

Sam Harris’s competition: In the Feb/Mar 2007 Free Inquiry Sam Harris quoted four silly retorts to atheism that he ranked as most in need of deflation by freethinkers. He invited Free Inquiry readers to offer their answers, attracting more than 500 entries. The first question is below, the remaining three will follow next year.

Question 1: Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.

Patricia Guzikowski, Hales Corners, Wisconsin wrote: The idea that atheists do not need religion while so called other people do is divisive and places the criticism on individuals rather than on religion. Many atheists are former people of faith. If they survived the transition from faith to unbelief, so will others. People do not need religion. They need effective coping mechanisms to deal with existential anxieties. Death is a frightening and isolating fact. Cosmic indifference seems cruel, and meaningless suffering pointless. Religion offers a way to cope with these realities by denying them. Atheism offers so much more, and atheists who think that other people need religion will fail to promote alternatives. Life is sweeter for its brevity. Cosmic indifference is liberating. The purpose of life is to live it and to focus on the here and now. To punish ourselves for past mistakes is unproductive; to place all hope in the next life provides no incentive to make the best of this one. While religionists choose to focus on the differences between their faiths and others, atheists understand that the human condition is universal. Let us not make the same mistake religionists make: focusing on our differences rather than our collective potential.

Gaylene Middleton

SHADIA B. DRURY
Faith, Hope, and Charity

The idea that Western civilization is a magnificent flowering that extends back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and was enriched and nourished by Christianity is a myth. Nevertheless, it continues to be perpetuated by philosophers, historians, and theologians.

In truth, the success of Christianity in the declining years of the Roman Empire was a triumph of an Eastern and Semitic religion over the pagan civilizations of Greece and Rome. This is particularly evident when we compare the respective virtues of the pagans with the Christians. Nothing represents the inner core of a civilization more than its ideals, particularly its conceptions of the good in general and human excellence in particular. The ancient Greeks and Romans expressed their vision of human excellence in terms of the four cardinal virtues wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. These were the highest ideals to which humanity could aspire, not only for the good of the community but for human flourishing, completion, and the happiness of the individual in this world.

The victory of Christianity over Rome involved an introduction of a new set of virtues faith, hope, and charity. Christian philosophers and theologians thought that they were completing and enriching the legacy of pagan philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. But on careful examination, the new virtues cannot simply be added to the old ones the way more sugar can be added to lemonade. The addition of faith, hope, and charity was an addition of something foreign that had the effect of destroying the original virtues.

Faith would not be incompatible with wisdom were it simply a recognition that reason cannot suffice to penetrate the mystery of existence. But faith is much more than that. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224 to1274) defined faith as a gift of God’s grace that allows the intellect to surrender to the authority of God by believing in the unknown and unseen. However, Aquinas did not want us to confuse faith with any ordinary opinion or belief. He tells us that, while mere belief is filled with doubt, faith is characterized by a fearless certainty that accounts for the pleasure faith gives to believers. The certainty of the faithful comes from their conviction that they are on the side of God, and, like God, they are in possession of infallible truth. Their fearlessness comes from their belief that God will care for them and harm their enemies. Indeed, Jesus promises the elect that God will destroy their enemies: And shall not God avenge his own elect…. I tell you that he will avenge them speedily (Luke 18:7 8).

Since faith is the greatest of Christian virtues, it follows that demons do not have faith. Aquinas tells us that demons believe and tremble, but they cannot be said to have faith. Demons have an opinion about God: they think he is both powerful and vengeful, and they tremble because they suspect that a dreadful fate awaits them.

Even though faith is the supreme Christian virtue, this capacity to surrender one’s intellect to God is not an achievement but a gift. Nevertheless,
The victory of Christianity over Rome involved replacing the ancient world’s four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice with Christianity’s trio of faith, hope, and charity.

>p>The mere possession of the gift is rewarded by the promise of eternal bliss. This is why faith is intimately connected with the hope that the unknown and unknowable God will deliver the faithful from the pain and horror of existence and whisk them away to a perfect world beyond the grave.

Since God has a habit of neither speaking clearly nor revealing himself to all those who desire such a revelation, there is a need to determine what the will of God to which one should surrender is. The problem is invariably solved by declaring some authority or other the representative of God on earth and the infallible interpreter of his word as it appears in the sacred texts. Aquinas thought that the Catholic Church was that infallible representative and interpreter of God’s will.

First, the Church makes blind obedience and surrender of one’s intellect into the supreme virtue. Abraham becomes the supreme manifestation of faith, for he is prepared to do anything that God demands, including killing his innocent son. With blind unthinking obedience established as the supreme virtue, the Church then posits itself as the highest authority to whom this surrender is due. In other words, faith defined as the intellectual (and moral) surrender of the individual to God turns out to be a surrender to the self-proclaimed infallible human authority.

The infallible authority betrayed the trust and launched humanity on a long path of unspeakable barbarity It commanded the unprovoked slaughter of Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land during the Crusades. And if infidels could not be tolerated in the Holy Land, then why should they be tolerated in Europe? So, the Church demanded that Jews be isolated in ghettoes, made to wear distinctive clothing, robbed of their property and children with impunity and subjected to pogroms on the grounds that they were dangerous and depraved Christ-killers. This infallible authority ordered the slaughter of fellow Christians in the so-called Albigensian Crusade (1208 – 1226), during which heretics, defined as those who questioned the authority of the Church or did not share its interpretations of Holy Writ, were stoned, burned, and crucified by the thousands. This ‘infallible’ authority required the drowning or burning alive of women who were on the flimsiest evidence accused of consorting with the devil.

The addition of faith, hope, and charity was an addition of something foreign that had the effect of destroying the original virtues.

This infallable authority instituted a system of legal investigations, the Inquisition, to stamp out heresy defined as insubordination, that is, unwillingness to surrender. The Inquisition was a shocking innovation and a complete sabotage of the rule of law as practiced by the Romans. The popes declared that it was the duty of every Christian to denounce heretics to the authorities. Children were encouraged to accuse their parents and husbands to report on their wives. Bringing about the hideous death of a loved one was deemed an act of faith and devotion to God. This was history’s longest and most sustained assault on every principle of natural justice, every instinct of human decency and every scruple of moral conscience.

The defenders of religion usually dismiss the evils committed in its name as examples of bad people doing bad things that have nothing to do with faith. But that is not the case. Faith is the source of the wickedness. The barbarities of the Church are integral to the faith, not a foreign or alien imposition. Only faith can inspire good people to do or defend terrible things with a clear conscience. Thomas Aquinas, by all accounts a gentle soul, endorsed and defended these wicked commands of the Church. He defended the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of Jews, and the burning of witches. Why? The nature of his faith required it.

Faith hungers for certainty on the one hand and is painfully aware of its fragility on the other. As Aquinas explained, heathens and Jews hinder the faith by their blasphemies and evil persuasions. Faith can be harmed by the mere existence of unbelievers. That explains why Jews were isolated, forbidden to appear in public during Christian festivals, and forced to convert on pain of death. And since a single heretic can ‘contaminate’ the faith and threaten salvation, it is better for a hundred innocent people to be burned alive than for one heretic to go free.

It is the fragility of faith, faith in the unknown and unseen that accounts for this exaggerated concept of harm. Far from being characterized by fearless certainty the faithful are full of doubt and fear-doubt about the extravagant dogmas they must believe to be saved, and fear that they will lose the faith at the slightest provocation. It is not the demons but the faithful who tremble.

Far from being a virtue, faith as understood by Thomas Aquinas and his Church is a vice that undermines the cardinal virtues admired by the pagans. To enjoy a fearless certainty in the absence of all rational evidence is antithetical to wisdom. Surrendering one’s intellect to fallible authorities and failing to take responsibility for one’s actions epitomizes puerility and cowardice, not courage. Succumbing to fanaticism and committing atrocities flies in the face of the virtues of moderation and justice.

As to charity, it was certainly not extended to Jews, heretics, or unbelievers. It was more often than not squandered on idlers, beggars, mendicants, and most of all on the Church itself, which made sure that it was the greatest beneficiary of Christian charity

Far from being a friendly amendment to the pagan virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, the Christian virtuesâ of faith, hope, and charity destroyed the pagan understanding of human excellence and subverted the civilizations of Greece and Rome. FI

Shadia B. Drury is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is Terror and Civilization: Christianity Politics, and the Western Psyche (paperback, 2006). Her book, Aquinas and Modernity: The Lost Promise of Natural Law is forthcoming with Rowman & Littlefield.

Reprinted from Free Inquiry Aug./Sept. 2007. free inquiry http://www.secularhumanism.org