In the July 07 Newsletter I summarised Peter Clemerson’s talk to us on Evolutionary Psychology. My final sentence was “We do not naturally include or easily choose to include all humans or sentient creatures within our IN-GROUP.” I have recently read the sequel to Chapterhouse: Dune, Hunters of Dune, 2006, by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson. I found two pithy comments which continue this theme. “It is often easier for us to destroy each other than it is to resolve our differences. Such is the cosmic joke of human nature!” (p. 350) and “We all have an innate ability to recognize flaws and weaknesses in others. It takes much greater courage, however to recognize the same flaws in ourselves.” (p. 577).
Along the same vein, was an article published in the Dominion Post (Dec 19, 2006) by Alexandra Frean. This article outlines the thoughts of NZ political scientist Emeritus Professor James Flynn of the University of Otago, as given at a lecture in Cambridge, England. Professor Flynn, who discovered the “Flynn effect”, the steady increase of intelligence test scores in developed countries over the last century, irrespective of class or creed, has now observed that intelligence test scores have stopped rising. This may suggest “that certain of our cognitive functions have reached – or nearly reached – the upper limits of what they will ever achieve. We can’t get much better at the mental tasks we are good at, no matter how hard we try.” The article ends with Professor Flynn’s assertion that “the challenge for humanity now is to enhance our ability to debate moral and social questions intelligently.” He also says, that we have a long way to go on this front is suggested because, “as a society, we are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve the environment”.
This leads us to the subject of our 2007 Seminar “What will we do about Global Warming?” (See below for more detail.)
September monthly meeting: Monday 3 September
NZ Humanist Council member Mark Fletcher talks about
Religion & Intelligent Design in NZ schools: a personal experience
7:30 pm Turnbull House, Wellington.
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm. We would love to see you at the meeting, but if you are unable to attend you may wish to convey your thoughts on this subject to Kent at [email protected]
Previous meeting: Jerry Lieberman talked about how the Florida Humanists operate. They developed a Strategic Plan and then obtained funding from all available channels to implement the plan. Council members also contribute funds from their personal finances. Once secure funding allowed, people were employed part time and then full time to implement the Florida Humanist’s objectives. As part of this plan they have established a Humanist Charter School which is now in its second year. The Florida Strategic Plan is available at www.floridahumanist.org . Jerry presented us with ideas which NZ Humanist’s could consider. Jerry and Gin would like to maintain links with us here in NZ.
Skeptics Conference: 21- 23 September in Christchurch. This conference presents an opportunity for Christchurch Humanists or in Christchurch on these days to meet informally. If you are interested in doing this then contact us here in Wellington. If plans develop then we will inform all Christchurch members.
Bishop John Shelby Spong is visiting New Zealand during September. He will speak on “Jesus for the non-Religious”, the title of his book released this year, at St. Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington, on Saturday 22 September, and again at the Sea of Faith Conference in Auckland on Saturday 29 September. See the Sea of Faith website www.sof.org.nz for more details.
Dame Catherine Goodman gives a non-religious perspective on “My God”, TV1 at 9 AM on September 16.
Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 23 September, 21 October, 18 November, and 16 December. Radio Access have 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 . Last Sunday’s programme delivered by Jeff and Joan discussed Jim Dakin’s book The Secular Trend which has been published and is available from NZARH.
2007 AGM and Seminar: Sunday 14 October. AGM 10.30 am Turnbull House,
HSNZ Seminar 1.30 pm Mezzanine Floor Wellington Central Library. Speaker: Dr David Wratt. Topic: What will we do about Global Warming? Dr David Wratt studied atmospheric Physics at Canterbury University. He joined the Met Service in 1976, and was Research Manager there from 1988 until 1992 when he joined NIWA as a principal scientist. His activities include climate change research and international climate change impact assessments. Dr Wratt convenes the Royal Society’s NZ Climate Committee.
Council of Australian Humanist Societies Convention, Melbourne, 22 April 2007
Dorothy Bell, humanist Society of South Australia President, and Harry Gardner, Humanist Society of Victoria Education Spokesperson, making music against a Darwin Day banner at the Council of Australian Humanist Societies Convention, Melbourne, on 22 April 2007.
Australian Humanist of the Year
History and Humanism
Speech by Inga Clendinnen on accepting the award of Australian Humanist of the Year 2007, on Saturday 21 April 2007.
With luck I’ll get to ‘History’, briefly, towards the end, but I want to begin with the question ‘what is a humanist?’, largely because you answered that question superbly and succinctly with your choice last year.
Peter Cundall is a humanist at forty paces. Someone who cheerfully, charmingly dismantles both passionate polemics and cosy simplifications. Someone who is open, ready to take the time to discover the kind of person he is talking with, but someone who has the personal courage and the confidence in his own examined judgements to be tough when he needs to be. Someone who rejects simple categories and slogans, who thinks precisely and independently; someone who will always count the human cost. That’s Peter Cundall. That is also Albert Camus (Algerian-born French writer, 1913— 1960), another practising humanist.
Camus defines a humanist thus: one who ‘cares about individual human life, endeavours to maximise individual freedom and responsibility, and who will not conspire in furthering the misery of fellow-humans for any abstract end, however noble.’
Camus understood that the humanist position is a strenuous one. Given that all religious mythologies are unconfirmable projections of the human imagination, humans are on their own in the world, and have to work out how to live as honourably they can, within the necessities imposed by biology and situation. But humanists can’t take even these apparent necessities for granted. They are obliged to ask, ‘are these indeed ‘necessities’? Or can their constraints be loosened to allow yet more freedom for human choice and autonomy?’ Therefore, humanists’ moral and political lives can seem to be inhumanly taxing. Here I think that Peter’s garden provides the perfect model for the humanist’s role in the social world. Sustenance, social solidarity and aesthetic delight in return for patient, intelligent, situation-responsive care: an activity which carries with it the reassurance of being able to predict and to manage the consequences of actions and events, including unscheduled catastrophes like drought, or locusts, or war. Michel de Montaigne (French lawyer, essayist, 1533—1592) contrived to retain humanist values through a period of religious fratricide, and he acknowledged his dependence on the natural rhythms of his garden — natural rhythms which he could help sustain. Death did not alarm him in the least, though he hoped it would come for him when he was happy in his cabbage patch. Voltaire famously urged that when the great world becomes unmanageable we should retire to our gardens, not to lounge about among the flowers, but to get to work, to cultivate them, to create an ordered, intelligible, productive space in a chronically disordered world.
Of course it needn’t be a garden. It might be a Bach sonata, or chess, or dog-breeding. But we need an earthly vision of a humanly-ordered, potentially controllable world, because being a humanist is a demanding business, and practice doesn’t make it any easier. Humans like simplicity. They like to be allowed to forget suffering people; they like not to be troubled by conflicting viewpoints and endless adjudication between competing responsibilities. A garden, whether actual or in the mind, reassures us that human reason and human labour can combine to produce unequivocal good: that humanity can make sense out of experience and give it form and order. I think our individual gardens might be our alternative to religion.
I note your discussion programme for tomorrow focuses on relations between humanism and religion. Tonight I would like to remind you that there are religious individuals, even religious groups, with whom we would do well to collaborate. Camus has provided us with the essential criteria. If we find people we would classify as believers, whose primary aim in the world is ‘to maximise individual freedom and responsibility, and who will not conspire in furthering the misery of fellow humans for any abstract end, however noble’, they are our natural allies. If they believe themselves to be simultaneously in communication with some invisible presence, why does that matter? I was made aware of this by conversations with a woman I got to know at the Austin Hospital when I was a long-term patient there. She was, officially, a chaplain, and she was uncannily good at unravelling the hard knots tied by physical debility and fear and the sudden collapse into total dependence on strangers. She was there at all hours of the day and night, and she spoke no faith talk at all. Later we discussed how she did what she did. She believed it was her relationship with God that kept her going. I thought she was a woman of such powerful imaginative sympathy that she simply could not rest when she knew others were suffering. Someone like that could work alongside Peter in his garden very happily, with never a cross word.
I wouldn’t waste time talking with fundamentalists of any persuasion, because fundamentalists are the kind of people who, when they are trying to decide what to do next, don’t look about them. They don’t look back to history, either. They are not interested in human experience because they know unredeemed humans to be a bad and wanton lot. Instead, they look up, beyond the human, into a mythic landscape populated by usually cantankerous and often murderous gods. They are in love with abstract ends and sublime destinies, the higher in human cost the better. They are our enemies. We don’t want proselytising evangelicals, either, because it’s only the next world that really interests them. Nor ought we reduce our commitment to the separation of church and state and the defence of a shockingly deprived secular education.
But ‘religion’ is a capacious term, and throughout human history it has meant very different things to different people at different times and places; even different things to particular persons at different stages of their lives. I think it now is urgent that we secular humanists move from our old ideologised position and cultivate an anthropological approach to that vast, amorphous term, so we can see whether certain aspects of religious practice and sentiment might not be useful to our own endeavour to extend the role of reason and social justice in the world. Why? Because, in view of the events of the last century and of this one, I think we’re going to need all the help we can get. We can no longer sustain an Enlightenment view of history as a natural progression towards more justice, more rational conduct, more equality, more democracy. The Enlightenment project is taking a beating everywhere, while fundamentalist religions and fundamentalist politics are on the march, and more and more polities, some of them overtly secular, are dominated by an increasingly robust superstition: that corruption and death are being spread secretly by invisible evildoers who have penetrated our anxious defences. These days secular liberal democracies are beginning to look like an endangered species.
There is still time. Australia is still a secular society, with no unifying myth beyond the vision of a secular, liberal democracy — for some of us, a liberal democracy which is also socially just. But we need allies, and we need them now.
Inga Clendinnen, a distinguished historian and award-winning writer, particularly of essays. Her recent publications include Reading the Holocaust (1998), ABC Radio Boyer lectures 1999, True Stories (1999), Tiger’s Eye: A memoir (2001), Dancing with Strangers (2003) and Agamemnons’s Kiss (2006).
From Australian Humanist No. 87 Spring 2007
My story is told
in a run on gold;
publishers preface it
with a payment deficit.
The foreign exchange
was my life’s range.
I lost my liquidity
My only salvation
David Tribe, freelance journalist, poet, editor, and lecturer. Former president of (UK) National Secular Society and editor of the (UK) Freethinker.
From Australian Humanist No. 87 Spring 07