Kia ora: There is a lot to keep us thinking at present, the election, international situations.
Last Meeting: Scott Stevens gave us an informative talk on the Maxim Foundation and Destiny church.
September monthly meeting: Monday 5 September 7.30 pm till 9 pm Turnbull House. Wellington. All welcome. Topic: Right vs Left Debate with Michael Morris, Green Party and Nigel Kearney ACT Party. Both are candidates in the Rimutaka electorate. All welcome with your questions.
Late News: Representatives of Libertarianz and Greens may also take part.
Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 28 August and 25 September. In the August broadcast Jeff and Kent discussed with Nigel Kearney, Humanist member and ACT party member, the Humanist Political Survey, which is included with this newsletter.
AGM and Seminar: 2005 Sunday October 16. Programme for the day as follows:
AGM: 9.30 am Turnbull House
Lunch, hopefully at a Wellington Cafe
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.
4.30 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. ( see also enclosed article )
Both speakers are great communicators.
Nominations are called for Council officers and members. Nominations are to be sent to P.O. Box 3372 Wellington and must be signed by the proposer and seconder and carry the written consent of the nominee. Nominations close 50 days before the AGM. Council members are required to attend regular council meetings in Wellington and undertake a share of council work. The president is expected to arrange and attend monthly evening meetings in Wellington.
Email discussion group: Is operating now on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nzhumanism
Have you registered to meet with other members via the web world of communication.
Political Survey: Kent e-mailed eight different political parties about Humanist issues. Two written responses were received. These are included with this mail out.
Skeptics Conference 2005: is in Rotorua September 30 till October 2. For details go to www.skeptics.org.nz
Sea of Faith Conference 2005: is in Christchurch September 23-25. What Makes Us Human? Art, Religion and Science in Dialogue. For details go to www.sof.org.nz
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 )
Update on The New Zealand Humanist Charitable Trust: The Trust has a net worth of approximately $166,000 as at 2005 and it now generates over $9,000 worth of income each year before sponsoring The Eileen Bone Victoria University Scholarship of $1,000. An application of $1,327 to cover some costs involved with bringing Humanism to public attention, e.g. Radio Access fee, Website fee, Seminar costs, was declined.
Enjoy the following reading and hope to see you sometime.
Election Questionnaire – 2005
Eight political parties were asked to ´please state whether you agree or disagree with the following proposals and give a brief reason where suitable.´
Replies were received from two parties and are reproduced below.
1. The repeal of the Civil Unions Act.
United Future: United Future would consider conversion of Civil Unions to ´civil partnerships´ if we were in a position to negotiate a support agreement for majority government post-election. (´Civil partnerships´ are an alternative arrangement proposed during the Civil Union debate which would allow any two people to agree to next-of-kin status and other legal requirements, but does not require that the parties have a romantic commitment to each other).
Progressive: The Progressive Party supported this legislation from the outset and would not wish to see it repealed. In our view it is a human rights issue and was rendered inevitable when discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was outlawed under the Human Rights Act. We do not see it as having anything to do with religion, which is a private and individual matter in a secular society such as New Zealand.
2. Law that explicitly states that marriage is only between and a man and a woman. This directly rules out the possibility of same sex marriage. This is common in many US states.
Progressive: The Progressive Party did not support the proposed Private Member’s Bill introduced into parliament on this issue on the basis that the current law is quite clear and does not require legislation in clarification. It is not the practise of parliament to re-pass existing laws. The Progressives have no policy on same sex marriage and would need to see any proposed legislation before adopting a stance. However, our general frame of reference would be to see this as a matter of human rights.
United Future: United Future supports the current common law position that marriage is between a man and woman, and has sought to progress an amendment to the Marriage Act 1956 which would codify this. United Future believes that the majority of New Zealanders are content to leave the possibility of formalising same-sex relationships with the option of a Civil Union, but do not support widening the definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships.
3. The legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. This should be done only exceptional circumstances and it must be done with consent of the person concerned.
United Future: United Future does not support voluntary euthanasia.
Progressive: The Progressive Party saw this as a conscience issue and has no policy on it as such. As it happened the leader Jim Anderton voted against, and his colleague Matt Robson M P voted for the Private Member’s Bill which proposed it.
4. Teaching of intelligent design as part of science class in schools. Intelligent design says that the world was created by an Intelligent Designer that some people would refer to as God. This alternative has been introduced into some US schools.
Progressive: We are familiar with this debate in the United States but it does not appear to be an issue which concerns most New Zealanders. We believe in a free and open education system and children should therefore be aware of the existence of this belief in a critical framework of reference which allows them to assess it both on its own terms, in its historical context as an idea, and as a point of view usually driven by religious fundamentalism.
United Future: United Future is satisfied with the current focus of the science curriculum and wishes to continue to place a strong emphasis on the achievement of basic literacy and numeracy skills by our young people.
5. The repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act that allows parents the ability of “reasonable force”.
United Future: United Future does not support the repeal of section 59, but instead advocates that the law should give a clear indication of what constitutes appropriate discipline of children.
To this end, United Future supports an amendment to the current section 59 which would ensure it cannot be used successfully as a defence for the physical abuse of children, while upholding the ability of parents to use physical force to discipline their children when appropriate. It clarifies the intent of section 59 by differentiating between discipline and abuse. The court is left with a broad discretion and flexibility in its application of the section but must have regard to the factors listed. When read together these factors provide a clear signal by Parliament to the court that it may not conclude that the use of force was justified when, in the circumstances, it clearly overstepped reasonable boundaries.
The threshold required to be met by parents seeking to use the provisions of section 59 to justify their actions is a very high one. The discipline must be reasonable, controlled, considered, of limited duration and frequency, and administered with the deliberate intention of disciplining. Where an object is used, the manner and extent of its use will be factors for the court to consider as will the medical effect of the actions on the child and the age and physical size of the child. It is intended that, by providing a high threshold, parents will be restrained in the extent of their use of physical correction and will consider other disciplinary options first.
Progressive: The Progressive Party and its predecessor parties have consistently supported this proposal in the interests of protecting children from violence by their parents or guardians. We believe that much of the opposition to it is over heated, and that characterising as ‘anti-smacking’ legislation is inaccurate and emotive. We do allow physical violence between adults under almost any circumstances, and it seems to us that it is inconsistent to allow it towards children who are smaller and more vulnerable.
No Barmy Swami
Courtesy: Evening Standard – 17 Jun 2004.
This World: Secret Swami, BBC2, 9pm – Pick of the Night
With hilarious regularity -American ‘televangelists are revealed to have feet of clay – an illegitimate child here, a few million embezzled there. It would certainty be possible to laugh at the Indian guru Sal Baba – although his message is worthy (if bland) his Western followers are the types who claim to have met Sal Baba physically 21 years before I met him physically. His miraculous powers are sub-Paul Daniels and he bears an unnerving resemblance to Leo Sayer. Yet this is no barmy swami. His 30 million devotees view him as ‘God in human form the avatar’. And while this godmans claims are more serious than those of his American rivals so are his alleged crimes.
According to past followers from the US interviewed in this BBC documentary, the guru sexually abuses his younger male followers. Or, as the interviewer indelicately puts it, ´why would God want to put his penis in your mouth?´ Predictably, his followers and more alarmingly the Indian government, brush off, such allegations angrily – so untouchable is Sal Baba that the gunning down of four intruders in his room was swept under the carpet. More polemic than debate, but worrying viewing nevertheless.
The Evolution of Religious Ethics
CAN DARWINISM EXPLAIN THE WORD OF GOD?
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov presents an argument that can be summed up by the statement: If there were no God, then all would be permitted. This is for many the simple relationship between religion and morality-the necessity of religion as the grounding for morality In contrast, I claim that not only is morality a natural phenomenon, but also that religious moralities can be understood as cultural expressions of an underlying evolutionary logic. This reverses the transcendent position and suggests, instead, that religious ethics are grounded in a moral logic that is itself grounded in nature.
From an evolutionary perspective, morality is a means to resolve social conflict and thereby make social living and cooperative action possible. The benefits of cooperative behavior are obvious, but such benefits come with costs. Cooperation requires an individual to share the dangers and costs necessary to promote the good of the group. This raises a problem: from an evolutionary perspective, individuals who most successfully promote their own interests have an advantage in the struggle for survival, so sacrificing my interest for the good of the group does not seem to make sense. This is the problem of altruism. For our present purposes, altruism may be defined as any behavior in which an individual sacrifices time or resources to assist another. The problem is to understand how behavior that may lower an agent’s fitness and raise the fitness of another can arise from a process driven by so-called selfish genes.
While work continues on this issue, it is no longer a problem for evolutionary theory There are two major models that provide an explanation of altruistic behavior consistent with Darwinian mechanisms. The first is Kin Selection, rigorously established by William Hamilton in 1964. Sacrificing for one’s children makes sense, because one is protecting one’s genetic investment. Hamilton realized, however, that childbearing is not the only way to get copies of an individual’s genes into the next generation. My kin also possess copies of a certain percentage of my genes, so sacrificing for them can also be seen as long-term self-interest. This broader conception of genetic sell-interest is termed inclusive fitness.
The second model, Reciprocal Altruism, first set out by Robert Trivers in 1971, explains how altruism toward non-relatives likewise develops in a manner consistent with Darwinian processes. Simplistically this is a strategy of ´I’ll rub your back, so that you will rub my back.´ My sacrificing some time and effort to help you pays off when you later help me and so also functions as an investment in my long-term fitness. This second process that underlies altruism was expanded and enriched by Richard Alexander in 1987 with the notion of Indirect Reciprocity As Alexander explains, my helping you now may benefit me, even if you do not directly reciprocate. A cooperative member of society may benefit in several indirect ways: gaining the reputation for being a cooperator may encourage others to cooperate with such an individual; an individual may be rewarded, either materially or in terms of status enhancement, by society for her contributions; or an altruist may improve his or his family’s fitness by increasing the fitness of the community.
Such processes work only if people do, in fact, reciprocate. There is, however, a great temptation not to reciprocate-to cheat or defect-since, if you have already benefited from someone’s cooperation, any reciprocation on your part would just be an unnecessary cost. Also, the larger and more complex a society is, the greater the possibility cheating may go undetected, so the cost of cheating is reduced. If a society is to function at a level beyond the family it must develop a system to encourage cooperation and discourage cheating. One solution is the development of a moral system-a code of behavior that approves of and rewards behaviors necessary to cohesive social functioning while condemning and punishing those contrary to such functioning. These moral systems need not be religious in nature, but in fact, have often been so. What we need to understand is why religion is so well suited to play this role.
We are living in the midst of one of the greatest periods of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies. Scholars from anthropology psychology evolutionary biology neuroscience, and philosophy are developing a cognitive science of religion that promises, I believe, to revolutionize and profoundly deepen our understanding of religion. The work of Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, Stewart Guthrie, Justin Barrett, and a host of others sets a compelling account of religious belief as a natural outgrowth of basic cognitive functioning. No divine revelation is required for belief in gods.
In order to move my thesis along, it will help to focus on one particular cognitive aspect of god concepts. The most common, if not universal, feature attributed to gods is a mind, and a special type of mind.’ In our day-to-day interactions with others, it is crucial to be able to distinguish potential cheaters from potential cooperators. To do so requires a wide range of information, not the least of which concerns the mental states of these other agents: what information they have, what they lack, what their intentions are. Boyer points out that we conceive of humans as “limited access strategic agents.” We assume that others do not have access to complete or perfect information. Our information is limited, our ability to discern another’s intention faulty, and these limitations are mutual. Say for example, I tell my boss that I must stay home to care for a sick child in order to cut work and go to a ballgame. I see this as a promising strategy because I view my boss as a limited-access strategic agent. That is, I assume she does not have access to my true intention or to the actual health status of my child.
People, however, represent gods as ´full access strategic agents.´ That is, they view their gods not necessarily as omniscient but as having access to all information relevant to particular social interactions. The gods know my child is healthy and at school and that I plan to spend the day at the ballpark. The gods have access to all that is needed for making a sound judgment in any situation. Not all gods may be represented as possessing this quality but the ones that do will be in a particularly privileged position to assume a moral role.2
´Gods, as full-access strategic agents, occupy a unique role that
allows them to detect and punish cheaters and reward cooperators.´
Religion is much more than morality and, in fact, it is not always concerned with morality. However, under certain conditions, the connection between morality and religion becomes significant. The larger and more complex a society becomes, the greater the temptation to defect from social cooperation and the greater the chance of doing so successfully This makes sacrificing for the social good more costly and a less rational option. Moral bonds weaken as a society becomes more anonymous. Religion provides a remedy to this situation.
The solution is simple to state: Gods, as full-access strategic agents, occupy a unique role that allows them to detect and punish cheaters and reward cooperators. In moral religions, such gods are conceived of as ´interested parties in moral choices.´3 They are concerned with social interactions and fully cognizant of the behavior and motives of those involved. Communal belief in such beings lowers the risk of cooperating and raises the cost of cheating by making detection more probable and punishment more certain. Religion then becomes the vehicle for the moral code of a society required for that society to continue to function as a cohesive unit as it grows in size and complexity.
Religion not only supports evolved moral mechanisms by providing supernatural oversight; it also powerfully functions as a signal of willingness to cooperate. As noted, it is imperative to be able to discourage potential cheaters. Belief in a moral god helps, but only if such belief is commonly shared. If you do not believe god is watching you, how can I trust you to reciprocate my cooperation? Humans have developed a wide range of ways to signal a commitment to cooperate in order to encourage cooperative behavior from others. However, humans also possess the ability to deceptively signal such an intention, and so one must be wary of the sincerity of such signals. Given this, evaluating signals of commitment is a crucial task. A sound rule to guide this task is set out by William Irons: ´For such signals of commitment to be successful they must be hard to fake. Other things being equal, the costlier the signal the less likely it is to be false.´4
To be continued.
From 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.