Kia ora: There seems to be so much happening at the moment, but then there always is. I wonder why the media can’t leave the private lives of politicians alone when there is the electoral spending issue to consider. I think the issue of this century will be the relationship between religion and violence. With the controversy stirred by content from a speech by Pope Benedict I am reminded of a comment from the Dali Lama when he visited NZ several years ago. In response to a question about god and violence the Dali Lama said that ” if your religion caused you to kill somebody, then you should abandon your religion.”

CANCELLED September monthly meeting: Monday 25 September, This month’s meeting is cancelled because there is a Seminar TALKING EMBRYOS on the use of human embryos for research, 5.30 pm – 8.30 pm 25 September Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre. Entry is free RSVP to Kat French 04 439 7645 or [email protected] Jason Curry’s talk has been re-scheduled for the Monday October 30 meeting. Jason will be talking about a chapter of a book that he is currently writing called “Your In-credible God.” The chapter called “The Ventriloquial God – Shining a light on religious experiences” deals with religious experiences – latest neurological studies, the implications of epilepsy/bi-polar visions, “God told me to kill my children”, inconsistent revelation, the use of fasting, hypnotic rituals and hallucinogenic drugs in religious ceremonies to bring on spiritual experiences. Jason will circulate this chapter in written form at the end of the meeting.

AGM/Seminar 2006

AGM: Time: 10 am
Date: Sunday, 15 October 2006
e.. Place: Turnbull House

Nominations for Council positions, seconded and signed can be posted to P. O. Box 3372 Wellington

Humanist Society Seminar: STEM CELLS NOW
Date: Sunday, 15 October 2006
Time: 1.30 pm
Place: Mezzanine Room ( by Clark’s Cafe ), Wellington Central Library

Our speaker is Dr. Michael Berridge from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research who will speak on stem cell research.
Dr. Berridge graduated with a PhD from Auckland in 1971 and pursued post-doctoral research in developmental biology overseas, returning to NZ in 1976.
In Wellington he established a research programme on red blood cell development at Wellington Hospital and Victoria University. He currently holds a James Cook Research Fellowship with the Royal Society of NZ and is Deputy Director of the Malaghan Institute. Current interests include the role of the plasma membrane in cancer cell metabolism and the use of novel screening strategies to identify bioactive molecules from NZ biota.

2006 Skeptics Conference: Friday 29 September – Sunday 1 October Kings College Auckland.
For more details see

Sea of Faith Conference: for details see Held same weekend as Skeptics but in the Wairarapa.

Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz September 24. No details. Listen in for a surprise.
For those living outside the Wellington reception area it is possible to listen to the broadcast on the internet from anywhere in the world. Go to: Click on Wellington Access Radio. At the home page click on the talk/link icon. On the Menu on the left hand side of the screen click on Radio, and with your sound on your computer turned up the radio broadcast is very audible. You do not require broadband to listen.

Email discussion group: Humanist Society discussion group is operating on Yahoo at

Quotable Quotes: Bill McLeod has sent me 3 pages of amusing quips. Thank you Bill. Here are two examples.
“The grouse are in absolutely no danger from people who shoot grouse.” The Duke of Edinburgh addressing conservationists.
And from Arthur Negus, antiques expert “When this table was first made it was brand new.”

Gaylene Middleton


Should we Respect Religion?
Lecture to the Ethical Society, London, 28 May 2006

On 25 May I took part in the Oxford University Union Debate on the motion that “Free Speech should be moderated by respect for Religion”. Needless to say, I spoke for the opposition. The chief speaker on my side was Hemming Rose, the Danish editor who published the controversial Mohammed cartoons. As there is a seven-figure bounty on his head, the security arrangements for the debate were heavy, everyone being searched on the way in.

In the days when, as President of the National Secular Society, I used to take part in a lot of university debates, mainly in the 1970s to 90s, I was almost invariably on the losing side when it came to the vote, but this time we won by a good margin – 129 to 59.

Had the word ‘religion’ in the motion been replaced by any other abstract noun, we would have won by 188 to nil. Suppose the word was ‘science’. The motion would then have read “Free Speech should be moderated by respect for Science”; and no reasonable person would vote for that – least of all a genuine scientist. So why is religion given its unique privileged status? After thousands of years, it has become the norm, so no one ever thinks it needs justifying.

As I pointed out in the debate, the precept to respect religion is similar to the Mosaic commandment, “Honour thy Father and thy Mother”. But suppose your father and mother happened to be the serial child murderers Fred and Rosemary West? Should their children respect them? Should we respect religions, however undeserving?

So should we respect religious faith? Certainly not. Well, should we respect religious people? Yes – as long as they are not antisocial and don’t aim to impose their religious views on others.

No Respect Due For Beliefs
But even if we respect them as good-living people, we cannot respect their beliefs. Faith, which means firm belief in the absence of evidence, betrays human intelligence, undermines science-based knowledge, and compromises ordinary morality. If there were objective evidence for its doctrines, it would no longer be faith: it would be knowledge.

We have to excuse the medieval sceptics who pretended to respect Christianity rather than risk being burned at the stake, and likewise the apostate Muslims of today who pay lip-service to Islam in those Islamic countries where apostasy is still a capital offence; but we who live in a comparatively liberal society have no such excuse. In fact, it is all the more incumbent upon us to give our support to victims of religious oppression everywhere, by coming out of the respectful closet and speaking our minds. Free speech, not respect.

Scepticism is of paramount importance, because it is the gateway to knowledge; but unless the sceptical ideas are freely argued over, they cannot be assessed, nor can the ensuing knowledge spread through society.

There can be no real freedom of religion without freedom from religion, which is part of the whole concept of free speech.

As J. S. Mill wrote, no idea can be justified unless it is open to opposition – which means free speech and free expression. And free speech must include the right to laugh at absurd ideas. Indeed, ridicule – including satirical cartoons, which have recently provoked terrorism – has always been an important element of the free exchange of ideas on everything, not least religion. Without that free exchange there can be no advance in knowledge and no social progress.

Muslims, we are told, are sensitive, and are really hurt when their religion is joked about. Don’t they credit their supposed creator god with any sense of humour? Didn’t he actually invent laughter? And is he too weak to withstand a joke without some humourless cleric rushing to his defence? Or is their own faith so weak that they fear its contamination? Let them heed the old playground retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Claiming to be ultra-sensitive and really hurt by mere words or pictures is, of course, a way of gaining privilege. Everyone else has to speak softly so as not to hurt you.

Violence Was Deliberately Stirred Up
Incidentally, the violence provoked by the Danish cartoons was deliberately stirred up by Islamic extremists publishing exaggerated versions of them in Muslim countries up to four months after the originals were published.

I have discussed it with several moderate Muslims, and while they roundly condemned the violent reprisals, they generally added “But people ought not to insult religion”. Why not? No-one would denounce the ridiculing of political views, which are open to free debate. In fact, true respect for religion would allow it to be opened up in the same way, relying on the truth emerging. But at present it is shielded from honest scrutiny. This suggests that the faithful realise it could not stand up to it.

The humanistic slogan, Live and Let Live, calls for practical tolerance without smarmy respect, but it is never accepted by fundamentalist proponents of any locally powerful religion. That is especially true of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Known as ‘the sibling faiths’, they certainly exhibit innate sibling rivalry, eclipsed only by their shared hatred of outsiders, whether pagans or atheists.

Totalitarian extremists, of whatever religion or sect, invariably put faith first and freedom nowhere. Censorship, including insidious self-censorship, is then the order of the day, followed closely by violence. In a society where religious orthodoxy rules, there is no freedom of religion. Though we must take care to avoid a native backlash against the mostly peaceable British Muslim community, succeeding governments have carried the exoneration of Muslim villains too far in the past. For instance, as long ago as 1989, when, even on BBC television, imams were offering bribes for the murder of Salman Rushdie, they were never charged with incitement to murder. The word ‘appeasement’ is rarely used except in the context of Neville Chamberlain’s deal with Hitler in 1938, but what about the present appeasement of Muslims in Britain?

Of course the law must protect people – in fact, that is basically what the law is all about – and we have plenty of general laws for the protection of people, without special laws for the protection of ideas, of a particular kind.

It is obviously impossible to genuinely respect an ideology that our reason rejects as superstition – let alone dangerous superstition; so what the precept to respect religion actually means is that we should pretend to respect it, for the sake of political correctness. At the very least, then, as I pointed out in the debate, the motion called for hypocrisy. So the final majority vote was for honesty, not hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is not the worst of it.

When the ideologies we pretend to respect indoctrinate children, some of whom may even grow up to be suicide bombers because of it, hypocrisy becomes complicity in the mental abuse of children, in the oppression of women, in the obstruction of social reforms, and even in incitement to terrorism. This has been exacerbated by our political representatives, for the sake of votes, setting up state-supported schools to promote indoctrination in a particular faith – though they themselves probably accept a different, incompatible set of superstitions.

We are told that Islam itself cannot be blamed for the terrorist attacks on New York, Madrid, and London, followed by widespread carnage in retaliation for the publication of a few innocuous drawings. That is like saying that the horrors of the Inquisition had nothing to do with Christianity.

Manic Denunciations Of Disbelief

In the gospels, Jesus consistently identifies righteousness with believing in him; and in the ages of faith the statement by Thomas Aquinas that “Unbelief is the greatest of sins” was incontrovertible. Hence the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Christian burning of witches, heretics, and Jews – the flames being fanned by Christian faith. This use of torture was not a case of bad people perverting a good religion; the persecution of sceptics follows logically from the Christian correlation of faith with salvation, not to mention the scary notion that God could punish the whole of society for the disbelief of a few.

Mohammed followed on from Jesus, and the Koran contains even more manic denunciations of disbelief than the New Testament. Moreover, Islam has failed to moderate its cruel practices to the extent that mainstream Christianity has done, in the past couple of centuries.

The Taliban, Al-Qa’eda, and the Back Corps, are certainly extremist, but they are orthodox – deriving logically from the Koran, which denigrates women and tells believers to wage jihad against heretics and infidels. Moderate Muslims often try to explain away this tyranny and violence as misinterpretation of the Koran. If that is so, why did Allah, or his Prophet, lapse into such ambiguity?

It is argued that, since the common-law offence of blasphemy in this country survives, though only for the protection of the doctrines of the Church of England, parity demands that the law be extended to protect other religions. But it is now practically a dead letter, and the best solution would clearly be to abolish it altogether, as in fact the Law Commission has recommended several times to succeeding governments. But now the concept of blasphemy has been given an independent lease of life by renaming it ‘disrespect for religious feelings’.

The present government has even endeavoured to criminalise such disrespect with another change of name, ‘incitement to religious hatred’; but fortunately, ameliorating amendments to the relevant Bill introduced in the House of Lords were finally accepted in the Commons – by just a single vote, when Blair himself was absent – on the 31st of January this year. But the attenuated Bill then became law.

What About Atheism?
On the 20th of February, Pope Benedict called for mutual respect for all the world religions and their symbols – though he failed to mention, of course, parallel respect for atheism. Anyway, how can the Pope sincerely respect Islam when it teaches that believers in the ‘blasphemous’ Christian Trinity are destined to spend eternity in hell?

Pressurised by religious leaders sinking their differences in the common cause of authoritarianism, the Council of Europe is currently considering the introduction of legislation in the European Parliament, and even the United Nations, to enforce ‘respect for religious feelings’ internationally. Insertion of the word ‘feelings’ lends this tendentious goal a semblance of humane empathy. But religion cannot, in all conscience, be intellectually respected, if honesty is to prevail over hypocrisy – and giving it false respect would not just be obsequious and dishonest: it could actually allow superstitions of the Dark Ages to triumph, destroying the whole range of social and individual freedoms courageously won over the past few centuries.

So, for the sake of liberty and equality as well as truth, we must resist the indefensible furtherance of hypocritical respect. Far from our agreeing to moderate free speech in favour of respect for religion, we should moderate respect for religion in favour of free speech.

Reproduced from Ethical Record, June, 2006.


From Australian Humanist No. 82 Winter 2006