Humanist Society of New Zealand (Inc.), PO Box 3372, Wellington, New Zealand – Registered Charity No. CC36074

The Humanist Society of New Zealand is a Member Organisation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union

Kia ora: On April 28 2020 Murabak Bala, President, Nigerian Humanist Society, was detained in Northern Nigeria. It is now Day 154, five months later, and there is no word of his whereabouts. Murabak’s crime: in a Facebook post Murabak allegedly insulted Prophet Muhammad by writing: “Fact is, you have no life after this one. You have been dead before, long before you were born, billions of years of death.” It is a tragic feature of our modern world where there is so much advancement in science and the understanding of our human nature and psyche that primitive religious concepts remain embedded in societies such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iran. Humanists International receives on average thirteen requests for help every month from persons unable to live life safely as a non-religious person in their country of birth. Freedom of Expression and freedom of religion and belief are fundamental Human Rights embedded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Nigeria ratified in 1993 and by which Nigeria is bound by International Law. People are entitled to discuss religion freely without the person expressing ideas regarding religion being harmed. Discussing religion is not Blasphemy, and Blasphemy is not a real crime.

·         Monthly Meeting

Monday 5 October 6.30 pm until 9.00pm

Andrew Copson

Chief Executive Humanists UK and President of Humanists International

Co-Author with Alice Roberts President of Humanists UK

The Little Book of Humanism – Universal lessons on finding purpose, meaning and joy

From the early hours of a UK morning Andrew Copson will Zoom into our NZ evening October meeting to chat to us about the recently published Little Book of Humanism. This slim volume of 256 pages shares over two thousand years of humanist wisdom through a collection of stories, quotes and meditations on how to live an ethical and fulfilling life, grounded in reason and humanity. It is an anthology of humanist thought from some of history’ and today’s greatest thinkers. Jim Al-Khalili, former President of Humanist UK says of this book:

“Gorgeous and full of wise quotes and stories that we would all do well to heed in today’s crazy world.”

Andrew is a compelling and vibrant speaker. Covid-19 meant we missed the opportunity to hear humanist leaders speak at the cancelled 2020 Humanists International World Congress in Miami, USA, but our newly learnt Zoom skills will bring Andrew to our Thistle Inn meeting room and your living room.

Andrew will talk to us by Zoom link at 7.00 pm 5 October. The Zoom link will be posted on our Facebook Events page and website: so if unable to attend the Wellington meeting you may click on the Zoom link to listen to Andrew. Or email and the link will be emailed to you.

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

Venue: Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave St, Wellington

Hate Speech Law: Following a visit to Christchurch, 24 September, to unveil a memorial plaque to honour Al Noor Mosque victims, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the Labour Party intends to make it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of someone’s religion. This was a response to Muslim leader Imam Gamal Fouda’s impassioned plea for stronger political leadership around hate speech laws. But it is already illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of “religious belief”. Section 21(1) of the Human Rights Act 2001 currently states: For the purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are … religious belief. Free and secular thinkers, humanists and rationalists have long maintained that ideas must always be open to critical analysis. People most certainly have rights but ideas do not have rights. There is a possible unintended consequence that if Hate Speech Law includes religion it may become a defacto Blasphemy Law. Humanist New Zealand will be watching how this Hate Speech Law develops. We want careful discussion before any further law is enacted. Intelligent discussion that causes offence should never be criminalised. Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion and Belief are fundamental Human Rights.

Reflection by Keith St Clair Butler Anglo-Indian humanist

A different communion; human solidarity –

Why I, a humanist, found myself on the doorstep of the local church was because I was helping a friend attend a Mass organised to comfort relatives of local Covid victims. I recall being slightly surprised, but pleasantly so, on hearing the Church was reaching out to the bereaved community in what I perceived was a spirit of universal compassion.

And so, it was that I stepped into the high ceiling vestibule of the local church and into the all too familiar rush inside me of being instantly downsized by the proportions of the building. Church architecture has a divine ratio: humans – small: God – big.

A royal blue cloth covered table with what appeared to be white napkins neatly laid out on it caught my eye. I approached the napkins and saw they were pamphlets, two rows, seven or so to a row. Each had a title Covid-19 Spread, Anger, Frustration, Marriage Breakdown, Depression, Domestic abuse, Loss of family members  . . Much thought had been invested into caring for people. The plan was, the verger explained, to consider one of these pamphlets as relevant to me and when the time came, I could light a candle next to that pamphlet on the stand in front of the altar. Nothing wrong with a communal gathering in response to such historic challenges.

Entering the nave through the glass doors was like entering a recording studio of evacuated air. Sound was magnified. People seemed to pad around in slow exaggerated movements. Or maybe there was not enough air so everybody had to move slowly to preserve oxygen. I left my friend to his prayer group and walked halfway up the aisle and slipped into a seat. I could see parishioners coming in, they seemed mainly older, bowed down, burdened. But in that moment, we were not young or old, gender diverse or not, Maori or pakeha, local or immigrant. We just were. A communion of solidarity.

A guitar twanged a hymn, it seemed too loud. Then the Mass started, a thing outside us, dissipating our inner communion like water on sugar or so it seemed to me. A procession of older priests, three men good and true, of pale hue, started proceedings; a Mass, that thing of ritual and incense and sacred text and readings of writings by other older men long gone. People appeared to be comforted by the ceremony. A movement caught my eye and I glanced to the end of my row. There, sat a red-eyed girl of about 12. A woman put her arm around her. I speculated: had she lost a grandparent in a retirement home?

A verger signalled for us to approach the stand of pamphlets positioned in front of the altar. We all lined up like worry beads dangling on frayed string. I was thankful there were no exhortations from the priests, no twanging hymns, just a befitting silence. We waited our turn to light a votive candle next to the pamphlet of our choice. Many lit theirs, stood with head bowed for a moment then moved off. My turn came and I chose ‘Worry for overseas famil. my children and grandchildren were overseas, and things weren’t that good there on the Covid front. My consolation was that the virus did not appear to attack the young. With that thought I lit the white candle. It was long and slender with a curl of flame atop.

We returned to our seats. Then came the moment of the homily. This was where the priest would reach out to his battered and somewhat beleaguered flock with all-embracing words of comfort and commiseration. Without much ado the priest launched into reminding the congregation that sacrifice was part of the Christian experience; God sacrificed his only begotten son; Christ’s crucifixion had redeemed us; the exemplar of His sacrifice was our consolation. Taken aback by his utterances I’m unsure what else he said, and perhaps some other reassurances were offered, but the homily centralised on theodicy – the explanation, especially in Deuteronomy and the prophets Jeremiah and Amos – of how an all loving god has a special plan which allows for disasters to happen in the world. Covid 19 was very much such an event. The priest piled on more explanation of God’s justification for human suffering and then ended, with a tad of self-conscious lameness, ‘It’s just the process.’

I happened to glance at the girl of twelve, she looked slightly puzzled.

After the service my friend wanted to have a cup of tea in the parish hall. I made a mental note to avoid the priest. We wandered into the adjoining room where hot drinks and assorted snacks were laid out on tables. Parishioners trooped in and the young girl, still teary, headed for the snacks and stuffed herself with savoury pies and cake. I’m sure that was more consolation than the homily. The priest happened to wander by, stopped to introduce himself to me, shook my hand warmly, inquired who I was, what I did for a living, and how was I coping with lockdowns. In no hurry to move on he told me about the small town he hailed from, how well New Zealand was doing with the crisis, and weren’t people generous with each other. ‘May I get you another cuppa?’ he asked. I couldn’t help but like him. He was articulate, friendly, genuinely interested in me and very socially adept. Was this the same person who gave the homily, who could not find the words to comfort his flock but could be so socially intuitive in the tea room?

The simple truth of the matter is that religion is embarrassingly inadequate to meet the challenges of the modern world. It, as has been noted by others, makes good people do bad things. Here we were, not in an evangelical literalist congregation, but in a mainstream articulation of the faith and yet, instead of much needed and promised compassion, the parishioners got cold cant.

As I drove my friend home, I pondered whether I could endure this again, taking him to church.

At UN, Humanists International highlights importance of artistic expression during Covid-19

At the 44th session of the Human Rights Council, Humanists International addressed threats to artistic expression in the context of COVID-19 and raised specific examples of censorship in Nepal, Chile and Cuba

Humanists International delivered its statement during the interactive dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye.

Humanists International’s Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, highlighted that:

Whilst artistic creativity is necessary for social connection and resilience, the physical distancing necessitated by COVID-19 has come at a great price for both artists and audiences.

As observed recently by the head of UNESCO “art has the power to unite and connect in times of crisis.” Yet, an increase in censorship, compounded by lack of funding and restrictions on performance and interaction, has led to a widespread denial of freedom of artistic expression. In this time of heightened fear, of enforced isolation and loss, we argue that the arts and the free expression they depend upon have never been more needed.”

Humanists International illustrated the plight of artists around the world using three examples:

(1) In Nepal, a filmmaker was detained after he recorded a youth-led protest in Nepal against the government’s handling of COVID-19.

(2) In Chile, several audio-visual artists were threatened and had their Instagram account hacked because of a visual installation on the effects of a COVID-19 lockdown.

(3) A crackdown in Cuba led to at least 132 people, including artists, journalists and activists being placed under arrest and house restrictions, as well as having their access to Internet cut, when they reported on protests against police violence.

In times of crisis, artistic expression and appreciation can serve as a source of escapism and sanctuary for individuals. Art is also a profoundly powerful means of speaking truth to power. Because they are seen as ‘subversive’ in the political arena, artists as a group are often targeted for persecution and censorship. Motivations for restrictions on artistic expression can be political, but also stem from a desire to insulate religious, cultural or moral interests and sentiments.

Humanists International has always sought to defend the cultural rights of humanists around the world through our advocacy work and statements at the UN, as well as our campaigns in support of persecuted artists. We have written about the case of Sri Lankan writer Shakthika Sathkumara, who stands accused of having hurt the religious feelings of Buddhists and ‘advocating hatred’ in connection with his short story, ‘Ardha’

Case against Sri Lankan writer for hurting religious sentiments should be dropped

Award-winning Sri Lankan writer, Shakthika Sathkumara, stands accused of having hurt the religious feelings of Buddhists and advocated hatred in connection with a short story that he had published on his Facebook page.

The short story, ‘Ardha’ (‘Half’) angered Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka, who allege that the story is derogatory and defamatory to Buddhism owing to its indirect references to homosexuality within the Buddhist clergy and also due to a different rendering, told by the characters of the short story, of the legendary story of “Siddhartha” in Buddhist literature. Sathkumara maintains that he did not intend to insult Buddhism nor wound the feelings of any religious community in writing his short story, which is written in a post-modernist style.

Writer Shakthika Sathkumara is the author of seven short story collections, four poetry anthologies, a novel and at least 17 non-fiction books on literary theory, theatre and Buddhism, in addition to being a regular contributor to several literary supplements of various Sinhala-language newspapers. He has earned recognition at both provincial and national levels for his short stories and poetry anthologies.

Arrested on 1 April 2019, Sathkumara was detained on suspicion that he had committed offences under Section 291B of the Penal Code and Article 3(1) of Sri Lanka’s ICCPR Act (2007). Following multiple procedural delays, Sathkumara was granted bail on 5 August 2019, and released 3 days later. On 22 May 2020, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions issued an opinion that Sathkumara’s 127-day detention was arbitrary and in contravention of Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. At the most recent hearing, held on 19 May 2020, Sathkumara’s case was postponed to 22 September 2020. A legal petition alleging violations of Sathkumara’s fundamental rights is due to be heard before the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on 28 July 2020.

Article 291 B of the Sri Lankan Penal Code states that ‘[w]hoever with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both,’ while Article 3(1) Sri Lanka’s ICCPR Act (2007) states that ‘no person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’ and makes any such crime a non-bailable offence which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Andrew Copson, President of Humanists International said:

“Shakthika Sathkumara shouldn’t be subject to criminal law simply because his story-writing has offended Buddhists. Freedom of thought & expression are universal human rights, not to be limited by religious sentiment or state fiat. Free speech is no crime.”

Humanists International stands against the incitement of violence or hatreds, however, having reviewed the content of Sathkumara’s story, we do not believe that the story constitutes incitement to violence. Humanists International believes that Sathkumara is being targeted solely for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression and calls for the Sri Lankan authorities to drop the case immediately and unconditionally.