Kia ora: In a recent e-mail from Darlene Lieblich regarding her new film The Heart of the Beholder, she says, ´Its a known fact that motivating free thinkers is like herding cats. We love our independent thinking and it’s that same free thinking attitude that keeps us from effectively organising like religious groups do.´ This film is about a family owned video store in St Louis, USA in 1980, which was terrorised and bankrupted by a Christian group because it held Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. This film is now available on DVD.

*Last Meeting: Kent Stevens ably chaired the Right vs. Left Debate, with representatives from the Green, Alliance, Act, and Libertarian Parties. It was interesting to hear the policies of the parties present. I found I liked parts of them all. The debate was held with respect and friendliness.

* October monthly meeting:
Monday 3 October 7.30 pm until 9 pm, Turnbull House. Wellington. All welcome. Topic: China – where is it going? A look at this rapidly growing country including a tour through 3 books on China, 1421 The Year China Discovered the World Gavin Menzies, Wild Swans Jung Chang, and Mao The Unknown Story Jung Chang & Jon Halliday. If you have read any of these come and add your contribution.

* Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 23 October. In last Sunday’s broadcast, Kent Stevens discussed with Michael Morris, Green party candidate, the Exclusive Brethren pamphlet. Michael Morris says the pamphlet has only one correct fact.

*AGM and Seminar 2005 Sunday October 16. The programme for the day is as follows:
AGM: 9.30 am Turnbull House.
Lunch, sandwiches will be provided, with a call for pizza if needed.
Seminar: A potpourri of Religion, Evolution, and Politics.
Seminar venue: Senior Citizen’s Lounge, Mezzanine Floor, Wellington Public Library.
1:15 pm Registration, 1:30 pm Seminar starts,
3:30 pm Seminar ends.
Our speakers are:
Marilyn Maddox from Victoria University. Marilyn is a major authority on religion and politics and she will address us on these themes.
David Penny from Massey University is an acclaimed scientist who has won NZ’s highest scientific award, the Rutherford Medal. He will talk about evolution and the origin of morality.
Both speakers are great communicators. More details below.

*Subscriptions: Our subscription is lower than that of many comparable organisations and it is 14 years since the last increase. The society has absorbed increased postal and other costs during this period but it is now necessary to increase subscriptions slightly.

* Email discussion group: Is operating now on Yahoo at
Have you registered to meet with other members via the web world of communication.

*Email News: Those people who have provided an email address receive additional email Humanist News bulletins and items of interest. If you would like to be on the mailing list, please email . Remember to let us know if you change your email or postal address.

*Skeptics Conference 2005: is in Rotorua September 30 until October 2. For details go to

*Skeptics Conference 2005: International Academy of Humanism World Congress 2005 October 27-30, New York, USA. Towards a New Enlightenment. Responding to the assaults on Science, Reason, Free Inquiry, Secularism and Humanist Values, and providing New Directions. Speakers include Richard Dawkins, Paul Kurtz, Anthony Flew, Jim Herrick, Laurence Krauss (author of The Physics of Star Trek), Lionel Tiger (author of The Decline of Males).

*Bob Brockie Dominion Post 19/9/05Bob Brockie Dominion Post 19/9/05 writes of statistics, which showed that violent crime decreased in NZ 20 years after legalised abortion was allowed in 1977. Do the figures indicate that good parenting reduces crime?

We hope to see you at the seminar.
Gaylene Middleton

Humanist Seminar 2005

For this year´s seminar we have two outstanding speakers, Professor David Penny, and senior lecturer Marion Maddox. They are experts in their research interests and they appear on TV and radio for their important comment on humanist related issues. Marion Maddox has written newspaper editorials for a major newspaper. Come along for a great experience.


David Penny

The Royal Society of New Zealand has this year awarded New Zealand’s top science and technology honour, the Rutherford Medal, to Professor David Penny FRSNZ of Massey University.

Professor Penny is a theoretical biologist who has made significant contributions to theoretical biology, particularly in the area of molecular bioscience. His studies in molecular evolution and mathematical biology focus on the fundamental basis of DNA analysis, and range from evaluating how changes in DNA are involved in evolution, to studies of the origin of life, and patterns of human origins and dispersal. Born in Taumarunui, New Zealand, Professor Penny studied Chemistry and Botany at what was then the University of New Zealand (Canterbury University College), before receiving his PhD from Yale University.

In 1966, Professor Penny returned to New Zealand to undertake a lecturing position at Massey University, Palmerston North, where he is still located. During his 38 years at Massey, Professor Penny has taken a number of sabbatical leaves to overseas institutions, including the University of Cambridge, and Oxford University.

Within the area of Molecular Bioscience, Professor Penny’s research interests are diverse, and include: developing new mathematical methods for evolutionary trees and the analysis of DNA; studying the evolutionary process, and investigating the evolutionary history of birds and plants; researching the origin of life; investigating patterns of human origins and dispersal, including human origins and the peopling of the Pacific.

Together with his research and teaching, Professor Penny plays active roles in taking science to the wider public and informing the public of scientific issues. An example of this is his participation in revising the Animal Welfare Act to recognise in law the latest scientific findings on the mental abilities of Great Apes. This involved submissions to a Parliamentary Select Committee, television programmes, newspaper, magazine and radio interviews, and radio talkback shows that were reported in at least 7 countries.

Professor Penny is an active member of several international and national scientific organisations, including the Royal Society of New Zealand, where he was elected a Fellow in 1990.

The excellence of Professor Penny’s work, and the group that has developed around him, was the basis for the establishment of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Biology and Evolution at Massey University in 2002. Professor Penny is Research Director of this, one of the first Centres of Research Excellence to be established. The group continues to provide a training ground for biologists and has active, strong reciprocal links with numerous overseas laboratories, and his students and postdoctoral fellows have gone on to senior positions world-wide.



Marion Maddox
Smear campaign points to a worldwide trend – academic 14 September 2005

Revelations that an ultra-conservative Christian sect secretly funded a smear campaign against the political left reflects a worldwide trend, a religious studies lecturer says. Seven members of the Exclusive Brethren last week admitted being behind anti-Labour and anti-Green pamphlets distributed in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. National leader Don Brash initially denied knowing anything about the $500,000 campaign, but later confessed he had met with the group and knew who was behind it.

In an editorial printed in the Sydney Morning Herald today, Victoria University of Wellington lecturer, Dr Marion Maddox, said the Exclusive Brethren’s eruption into the election scene pointed to ´a broader coalition of right-wing business, political parties and religion´.

In New Zealand, a loose coalition is now pushing New Zealand down a right-wing path, as seen not just by the emergence of the Exclusive Brethren, but by the rise of the Pentecostal church-based Destiny Party, the ´family-focused´ United Future (formed from a 2002 merger of the centrist United party with Future NZ, an explicitly Christian party), the largely evangelical-funded conservative Maxim Institute think-tank, and even a branch of the Christian supremacist Parliamentary Prayer Network.

Because Exclusive Brethren believe Government is ordained by God, they do not vote. However, in recent years – particularly in Australia and the United States – they have started involving themselves in political lobbying.

Dr Maddox said the Brethren’s glossy, professionally produced leaflets looked “very similar” to various advertisements in Australian newspapers in the weeks before John Howard’s re-election in October, endorsing his Government and attacking the Greens.

In the United States elections, the Exclusive Brethren spent more than $US 500,000 ($NZ 720,670) on newspaper advertisements supporting George Bush and the Florida Republican Senate candidate, Mel Martinez, known for opposing gay marriage and hate crimes legislation, and linked to the Republican strategy for turning Terri Schiavo’s 15-year coma into a “great political issue”.

Dr Maddox, the author of God Under Howard: the Rise of the Religious Right in Australia, said with so much money and power at their disposal, it was ´no wonder even moderately religious politicians such as Howard and avowed agnostics such as Brash, are hitching their stars to the conservative Christian comet´.



This should be an interesting and thought provoking seminar covering
Religion, Evolution, and Politics.
1:15 pm, Sunday October 16, 2005.
Location, Senior Citizens Lounge, Mezzanine Floor, Wellington Public Library.
Mark your diaries and make travel arrangements now.


Part 2
John Teehan The Evolution of Religious Ethics


Religious rituals and rules function as such hard to-fake signals, and indeed, Irons has characterized religion as a ´hard-to-fake sign of commitment.´ He points out that religions are learned over a long span of time, their traditions are often sufficiently complex to be hard for an outsider to imitate, and their rituals provide opportunities for members to monitor each other for signs of sincerity This is a costly and time-consuming process. Showing oneself to be a member of a religion signals that one has already made a significant contribution of time and energy to the group. That is, it signals that one is a reliable partner in social interactions and can be trusted to reciprocate.

From an evolutionary perspective, religious morality provides a vehicle for extending the evolutionary mechanisms for morality, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism. Also, by serving as a hard-to-fake sign of commitment, religions function to discriminate between in-group members (those who have invested in the religion and so can be trusted) and out-group members (those who have not invested in the religion and so cannot be trusted). Furthermore, it is possible to detect these evolutionary concerns embedded in religious moral traditions and so ground such ethical systems in an evolutionary matrix. For the sake of exemplification, we shall restrict our discussion to the Judeo-Christian moral traditions, although I contend it can be applied just as readily to Islam.


We look first to Judaism, beginning with the stories of the patriarchs. We can see these as embodiments of the logic of Kin SelectioEmail News:n. Jews are all children of Abraham. All Jews, through their tribal lineage, are members of one extended family This extended family is the basis of Judaism and Jewish morality It is the basis but of course, not the whole. Kin Selection can only do so much in binding a complex society As we turn to the Mosaic law, we see that it functions, at least in part, to extend the force of this basic tribal ethic.

The law begins by establishing the pre-eminence of the Hebrew God over all other gods and connecting the prosperity of the community to obedience to God and his law ´I the lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love mc and keep my commandments´ (Exodus 20:5-6). This yoking of communal prosperity to obedience to God’s law is the defining characteristic of the relationship between God and his chosen people and serves the function of fortifying social bonds with divine sanction.

As we read the specific rules set out in Mosaic law, what we find is not so much a system of rules for spiritual purification as a system of rules for social cooperation. We see prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and perjury as well as formulas for compensating for harm done-all of which can be justified on purely practical grounds as minimal requirements for social living. Which is, of course, just what is to be expected from a set of religious ethics that ultimately functions as a social bond.

We also find much in the law that attempts to keep the covenantal relationship central to Jewish life. Circumcision, Sabbath observations, and the dietary and purification laws serve to bind the people to their God, but they also clearly set off the Jewish community from other ancient Mediterranean cultures. These are costly and time-consuming rituals. (Sabbath observation may not be as costly as circumcision or as complex as dietary laws, yet the punishment for failing to master this signal of commitment, namely death, highlights its value as a measure of commitment.)

In considering Christianity we are faced with a more complex situation. This is not due to a qualitative difference between Judaic and Christian ethics, but to a more fluid and dynamic sense of what constitutes community Christianity began as a sect within first-century Judaism, but developed into a cosmopolitan, Hellenized religion. An evolutionary analysis of early Christian ethics, therefore, requires a much more specific and detailed consideration of the developmental story than is possible here. Still, we can pull out examples from the Gospels that offer prima facie support for an evolutionary account.

We may start by considering how Jesus summarizes the moral message of the Mosaic law In Matthew 7:12, Jesus declares, ´So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.´ When later asked to identify the greatest of the commandments in the law, Jesus replies:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:37-40]

´Do unto others´ is the classic expression of reciprocal altruism. This central principle of evolutionary morality is here declared by Jesus to be the basis of all the teachings of the Jewish law and the basic moral rule for Christians. Significantly it is subordinated to only one other commandment, a complete devotion to God-which is consistent with the evolutionary logic of religious ethics. God serves to uphold the laws that bind society together and enables reciprocal altruism to function better. This supreme commandment signals a complete commitment to the being that oversees the good of the group.

Christian morality is also filled with imagery to encourage kin selection. We are all children of God, so fellow members are brothers and sisters as well as neighbors. Here, however, we can find evidence of a confusion over moral boundaries and Christianity’s attempt to clarify and extend the moral community We read of an occasion when Jesus was informed that his mother and brothers had come to speak with him. Jesus replied,
´Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?´ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister, and mother´ [Matthew 12:46-50]

This is a radical extension of the moral community, but it is formulated in a way that triggers an evolutionarily ingrained moral predisposition toward kin. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses kin relationships as models for exemplifying moral obligations. In this passage, he defines kin as those who follow God’s will. Kinship is now determined not by blood but by willingness to abide by that morality.

Early Christians also developed a variety of ways to signal their identity with the group. Rejecting circumcision and dietary laws distinguished Christians from their fellow monotheists, the Jews; while sharing of the Eucharist and refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods set them apart from their pagan neighbors. This last act served as a very effective hard-to-fake-signal of commitment given the often drastic consequences that followed upon practicing it.

Thus far, we have been looking at morality as a means for establishing a sense of community and a code of in-group behavior. In serving this function, morality also identifies an out-group and implies an out-group ethic. Outsiders are not invested in the group and so have little motivation to cooperate or to reciprocate cooperation. Therefore, they endanger the community For all the constructive morality found in religion, we find an equally prominent place for warnings against outsiders.

In order to consider this flip side of morality let’s consider the rule against killing. On Mount Sinai, God enshrines ´You shall not kill´ as a divine command (Exodus 20:13), yet the first order Moses gives upon descending from the mountain is for the execution of those who have fallen into sin while he was gone: ´And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, ‘Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord…’ (Exodus 32: 26-29).

After having received the law and communicated it to the people, Moses then leads the Hebrews on what can be described as a blood-soaked trek to the Promised Land. We are told, for example, that when God delivered the land of Heshbon to the Hebrews, they ´utterly destroyed every city men, women, and children; [they] left none remaining´ (Deuteronomy 2:34). They then moved onto the land of Bashan, where they ´smote him until no survivor was left to him … destroying every city men, women, children´ (Deuteronomy 3:3-7).

In case we might be tempted to think the extent of the killing was an excess brought on by the heat of battle, rather than a divinely sanctioned slaughter, we read in Numbers of a case in which Moses angrily chastises the army generals for not killing all the inhabitants of a city. In their defeat of the Midianites, the Hebrews took as captives the woman and children after slaying all the men. Moses, we are told, ´was angry with the officers of the army´ asking them ´Have you let all the women live?´ (Numbers 30:14-15). He corrects their error by instructing them thus:
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. [Numbers 30:17-19]

What can we make of all this? One is certainly tempted to charge the Mosaic law with hypocrisy However, from the evolutionary perspective developed here, there is less reason to be surprised. Morality develops as a tool to promote in-group cohesiveness and so better enables individuals to enhance their genetic fitness.

Morality then, is a code of how to treat those in my group; it is not extended to those outside the group, at least not in the same way. Since these others are not bound by the same code, they must be treated as potential cheaters. Those outside the group are in fact a potential threat to my group’s survival. The peoples the Hebrews encountered on their journey were obstacles that needed to be overcome in the interest of their own survival. As such, the moral injunction ´You shall not kill´ did not apply to those peoples.5

The evolutionary logic behind these actions is perhaps most apparent in Moses’ instructions to spare the virgins among the Midianite prisoners. This was clearly not done from compassion, for he had no compunction about ordering the death of older women and male children. In the brute terms of reproductive fitness, the young girls were prime resources for the propagation of the community while the older women and boys would have been a drain on the resources of a nomadic people. Moses’ actions seem coldly calculating to modern readers and not what one would expect of a religious hero, but to the degree that morality serves evolutionary ends, Moses ably fulfilled his role as moral leader of his community.

While Christians set boundaries differently than did Jews, they nonetheless demonstrated the same in-group/out-group divide seen in Judaism. One of the clearest expressions of this dichotomous approach is found in Christ’s parable of the sheep and goats, in which the sheep are the ´blessed´ who ´inherit the kingdom´ while the goats are the ´cursed´ who have earned ´eternal fire´ (Matthew 25:32-41).

What is particularly notable about this passage is the severity of the treatment toward those in the out-group. In our examples from the Jewish scriptures, those outside the group merely suffered death; here, they suffer eternal torment. Christianity raised the stakes for being on the wrong side of the divide. Throughout the Gospels, the opponents of the Christians are categorized not merely as dangerous or evil but as in league with the devil. This escalation is consistent with the underlying evolutionary logic: Given their marginalized role, early Christians had little temporal power to exercise in defense of their group and so were less able to punish those who defected. This made defection cheaper and raised the cost of cooperation. A group cannot survive under such circumstances. Divine retribution then assumed a more essential role. An individual might defect and hope to be protected from punishment by the more powerful majority group. However, in doing so, they were now aligning themselves with the enemy of God and could have no hope of escaping divine justice. So, we can understand this shift away from physical punishment of opponents toward spiritual punishment as an example of the same evolutionary moral logic found in our discussion of Judaism, applied to the specific environmental conditions of early Christianity rather than as a repudiation of that logic.

The role of violence in religion is a vital issue. People puzzle over the apparently paradoxical morality found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Proponents characterize these religions as religions of peace and then struggle to explain evidence to the contrary. From an evolutionary perspective, there is no paradox; it is just what is to be expected. Morality evolves as a means of fostering pro-social in-group behavior and of defining and defending the boundaries of that group. Religion, as an expression and extension of that morality embodies these goals. Despite universalistic aspirations often invoked by religious moralities, their histories and their texts belie their evolutionary origins. FI

1. Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained:The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
2. Ibid. 3. Ibid. 4. William Irons, ´Religion as a Hard-to-fake Sign of Commitment,´ Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, Randolph M. Nesse, ed. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001)
5. See also John Hartung, ´Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-group Morality´ Skeptic 3, no. 4 (1995) 86-89)
Republished from free inquiry
free inquiry, June/July 2005
John Teehan is an associate professor of philosophy at Hofstra University. This article is based on a paper presented at the Center for Inquiry’s conference Science and Ethics in Toronto, Ontario, in May 2004.