Kia ora:

We seem to be at saturation point with both national and international news. Nationally, this month is the anniversary of the 2010 Christchurch earthquake. At that time, there was rejoicing because no one had been killed. We could not see five months ahead to the second earthquake, February 22, 2011, when 185 people were killed. Four years later, many people are still dealing with the devastating consequences of that day. Internationally there is the rise of ISIS and the savagery of this movement is overwhelming. Three men, James Foley, Steve Sotliff and David Haines, barbarically executed. Why?? It is a puzzle that we seem to operate at both ends of the spectrum. From ISIS savagery, to the selflessness of Wellingtonian Jean Watson, whose remarkable generosity to the children of Nilakottai in Tamil Nadu, India, is documented in the film Aunty and the Star People. For 30 years her Karunai Illam Trust has helped orphaned children and children with difficult circumstances with their education, providing them with a home during the school term. Jean sold her home to buy the land on which to build the first home, called an Illam, for the children.

Monthly Meeting: Monday 22 September 2014

Open to the public – All interested people are welcome – bring a friend

Witch Hunting: In the 21st Century?

Though in our society witch hunting is largely abandoned, it remains a problem in Africa and parts of Asia. Recently the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) have been sued by the wealthy evangelical preacher and ‘witch hunter’ Helen Ukpabio, for ‘half a billion pounds’, because of their criticism of her teachings and methods. Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Humanist Society, is a tireless campaigner against witch hunting practices on the African continent. SOCH, the Nepal Humanist Society, is also working to eliminate witch hunting practices in their country.

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

We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.30 pm

Tararua Tramping Club, 4 Moncrieff Street, Wellington.

Moncrieff Street is off Elizabeth Street, which is off Kent Terrace, Wellington – a short distance from Courtney Place on bus routes 1 &3.

Regular 2014 monthly meetings are on the 4th Monday of the month at the Tararua Tramping Club rooms, 4 Moncrieff Street.

2014 AGM and Seminar: Saturday 18 October

Ground floor of the Law School, Old Government Building 11am

If you are interested in joining our Council, please contact us – you are very welcome.
If you plan to attend both the AGM and the Seminar, please bring some finger food to share in between. After the Climate Reality talk we will go to a nearby eatery.

Seminar: 3pm-4pm – Climate Reality 2014

Cathy Iorns BA LLB(Hons) Well, LLM Yale. Senior Law Lecturer, School of Law, Victoria University

Ambience International School Kathmandu Nepal Scholarship Partnership:Funds for three student scholarships have been sent to Ambience School, bringing our scholarship total to six. Kuldip Aryal, on the School Management team, has asked us to ‘convey our heartfelt appreciation and heartfelt thanks for granting scholarships for these poor and needy children.’ In a few weeks a second ‘science day’ is planned, where students are encouraged to think about and develop a display or experiment using a scientific principle. When visiting the school early this year, we were present at the first day, where students had made models of their hopes for a green Kathmandu with clean air and water. We saw the universal delight of young students making a volcano with baking soda and vinegar. For this day we noticed that funds for supplies and simple equipment for the science projects were limited. As an addition to our sponsorship for individual students, we would like to add a ‘Special Education Activity Fund’. If you would like to contribute to this, please contact Gaylene Middleton [email protected]

Who needs freedom of religion?

Text of talk given by Meg Wallace, from Australia, in Christchurch and Napier 23 &30 August

My PhD thesis arose from concern that people tend to demand freedom to practise their religious or other personal beliefs, while lacking consideration of the equal right of others to do the same. I use as a basic understanding of fair and just governance, the political theories of John Rawls.

Rawls concluded that, in liberal democracies, individuals wear two hats: as a private individual and a citizen. As a private individual, a person follows personal values and beliefs in private life. Circumstances may be unequal, and practises discriminatory, based on those values. These must be voluntarily adopted. As a citizen, a person is responsible for respecting public political values. These values are based on absolute equality (e.g. equal suffrage, personal autonomy, non-discrimination on religious, gender, racial grounds etc.).

Everyone loves human rights. Nearly every country in the world, (197) has signed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights: (UDHR) as a condition of membership of the UN. 175 nations have also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: (ICCPR), which commits them to accountability for implementing the same human rights. New Zealand has signed both. In addition, NZ has adopted the Human Rights Act 1990, which incorporates these rights.

In both the UDHR and ICCPR, Article 18 provides ‘freedom of religion or belief’’ in similar language. So, all 197 signatories of the Declaration have undertaken to ensure the promise of Article 18 is fulfilled.

Briefly, Article 18 provides for

  • · Freedom of ‘thought, religion and conscience’;
  • · Freedom to ‘manifest’ (practise) one’s ‘religion or belief’ in ‘public or private’;
  • · Manifesting one’s ‘religion or belief’ can only be limited when necessary in the public interest or to protect rights of others.

But Article 18 misconstrued. The language gives the impression that it applies exclusively to religion, and that religion has a special status in society. Therefore, people and religious organisations believe they can expect special privileges, such as exemption from the law, funding for their activities, enforcement of their values, and exemption from taxation. However, it has been made quite clear by the UN that it’s about more than that. Article 18 applies to the religious or secular doctrines (‘Beliefs’) you hold about life’s meaning; your relationship to the natural, social and political order; and the values and ethical principles that govern your activities. It’s about doctrinal freedom

By treating Article 18 as relating to religion the tendency has been to focus almost exclusively on mainstream religions, even within the UN. This prevents adequate concern for freedom of minority and non-religious personal doctrines. It shows what choice of words can do in shaping perceptions. As a result, Article 18 is widely seen as the ‘right to freedom of religion.’

The false perception that religion is privileged would be remedied by removing specific reference to religion. Religion would no longer have special status. As you would probably agree, there would be a lot of resistance to that. It would also highlight the fact that doctrinal freedom means freedom from Belief as well as freedom of Belief.

So, why don’t we have freedom from Belief? People don’t want it. There are strong interests in maintaining cultural, psychological and financial benefits religion now enjoys, despite the fact that all nations, have agreed to fulfil the promise of Article 18. Not one nation is guiltless of violation of Article 18. Misinterpretation is used to further sectarian interests. Government involvement in religious or other beliefs is ubiquitous throughout the world.

Some nations have even repudiated aspects of Article 18. They want doctrinal freedom of Belief, but on their own terms. For example, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (56 member states) in 1996 adopted an alternative version of human rights, while members maintain their membership of the UN. Under its Cairo Declaration of Human Rights all rights and freedoms it stipulates are ‘subject to the Islamic Shari’ah’, which is to be the ‘only source of reference for the explanation or clarifications of any of the articles’. This makes the Cairo Declaration, a religious document that presumably overrides both the contrary principles of the UN Declaration and International Covenant which they have signed. The Cairo Declaration is recognised by the UN, which thus appears to give credence to contradictory statements of rights. I think this undermines the integrity of the UN Declaration.

Some member States of the United Nations Human Rights Council subscribe to the Cairo Declaration or otherwise do not accept the provisions of the UN Declaration. The Council is the peak body that oversees the implementation of human rights throughout the world. Of the 47 member States of the Council, 17 States either “severely discriminate” directly against Belief, or commit “grave violations” directly against Belief. They restrict inter-religious marriage, prohibit “blasphemy” or “insulting religion” making it punishable by prison. Eight of these States punish apostasy or blasphemy with death. This is not to mention other member States that tolerate human rights violations against women and children through practices based on Belief.

One can but wonder at the acceptance of these countries as members, given the Council decree that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

Different attitudes to Article 18, has led to compromise within the UN. Compromise has allowed the UN to agree that so long as a State doesn’t actively prevent individuals from practising their Beliefs, it’s not violating Article 18. Compromise has also led to the acceptance of discretion on the part of nations as to how they implement Article 18. Despite good intentions, then, the UN seems to have left the door to theocracy ajar, muddying the waters in respect of the relationship between state and Belief, and the meaning of doctrinal freedom itself.

In New Zealand there is the freedom to adopt and practise the religion of one’s choice, but Government favours Christianity (comprising only 43% population) economically, socially and politically. New Zealand’s Head of State, the Queen, is supreme governor of the Church of England. The national anthem is in fact a religious hymn, Parliament sessions begin with a prayer. There is religious instruction and practise in schools.

But, don’t forget the money! Religious bodies get special treatment through government funding and tax exemption. Dr Michael Gousmett and Callum McLean of the NZARH have estimated that there are 6500 registered religion-associated charities. They have almost $9 billion in equity. Because ‘charity’ includes ‘advancement of religion’, and ‘religion’ means belief in the supernatural, religious organisations, whether they adopt good works or not, are exempt from most taxes, even on some commercial enterprises.

Whether it’s by influence in social affairs, or through subsidisation by the taxpayer, I maintain that in New Zealand, as in other countries, people as citizens do not enjoy true freedom from religion.

How, then, can we ensure that people enjoy freedom from Belief as well as freedom of Belief? The State must become fully secular, that is, adopt a political structure involving scrupulous separation of State from religious belief and practise. The coercive power of the State must be justified on the grounds of compliance with the public political conception of justice, eliminating bias and discrimination based on Belief. This applies equally to non-religious Belief, for example, atheism. The state should not be seen to identify with religion or any of its alternatives. We all need freedom of religion (and other belief). We need freedom from religion even more.

This leads me to the conclusion that we don’t need Article 18! Article 18 has been the basis of major misconceptions that have undermined the true intent of doctrinal freedom for everyone. We do need rights: those relating to opinion, thought, speech, assembly and association. Religion is no different. These rights are contained elsewhere in the Declaration and the Covenant.

Seminar: The Future Direction of Humanism &Rationalism

February 13-15, 2015

John Timpson, from Hawke’s Bay and assistant conference organiser, has provided the following information about this event for 2015.

As a member of the organising committee of the forth coming combined conference of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH), the Humanist Society of New Zealand (HSNZ), and the New Zealand Skeptics (NZS), I want to encourage as many people as possible to attend the conference.

The conference is over the weekend 13, 14, &15 February 2015 and will be held in Hawke’s Bay at Duart House, Havelock North. We strongly urge attendees to book accommodation now since there are many events in February in the Napier-Hastings area.

The theme of the conference is to look at the future direction of Humanism & amp;Rationalism and for that reason we have chosen a wide range of topics and speakers. Also the organisers are keen for the various groups of like-minded people to network in the belief that working collectively will make us more effective.

In support of the conference I tender some personal observations. In my opinion Humanism and Rationalism has a mature developmental history and is in a strong position to offer leadership in a world where the political system is failing society. We are beset with huge problems such as global warming, poverty in New Zealand and globally and environmental degradation, to name a few matters. These problems affect literally human existence.

Among other things, I think the conference needs to look at the very fabric of human thinking and observe for example how religion re-creates itself for the benefit of the few. An example of the vulnerability of human thought is where Richard Dawkins gave a lecture claiming parents should ditch fairy tales in order to “foster a spirit of scepticism” A local psychology academic said there was no evidence in research showing fairy tales caused children any damage. This academic must surely be sleep walking, because I recall Al Gore’s global warming documentary movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ had only three people in the audience at my local cinema, yet the ‘Lord of the Rings’ was consistently full to capacity. People clearly have great difficulty dealing with reality and instead opt for fantasy, even when their very existence is threatened.

Humanism & Rationalism are comprehensive ethics but they have generally focused on challenging religion. Islam is a serious challenge but Christianity is basically kaput and we are now in the mopping up stage. However, religion seems to mutate and take on a new dimension. I believe we are confronted with a new ‘economic’ religion surrounding, for example, such beliefs as market forces, private enterprise and the trickledown effect. As is usually the case with religion, modern day powerful economic vested interests proclaim and have established, with religious fervour, beliefs that are spurious and don’t benefit the majority of people. Economics is at the heart of humanity therefore I believe we need to rationalise economics.

Although some of the matters I have mentioned may not be specifically discussed at the conference, my intention has been to convey that there is plenty to think about and discuss as we evolve where Humanism, Rationalism and Skepticism will take us. So come along and share your ideas at the sunny Hawke’s Bay conference.’

Speakers: We are fortunate to have an international speaker Professor Guy Standing who is the Professor of Developmental Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and co-President the Basic Income Earth Network. Professor Standing is the author of Work after Globalisation (2009) The Precariat, the new dangerous class (2011) and A Precariat Charter (2014). In The Precariat, Professor Standing writes: ‘There is a need for a new politics of paradise that is mildly utopian. The timing is apt, for a new progressive vision seems to emerge in the early years of each century. There were the radical romantics of the early 19th century, demanding new freedoms, and there was the rush of progressive thinking in the early 20th century, demanding freedom for the industrial proletariat.’ Among other speakers, Professor Martin Manning from Victoria University will speak on climate change, and Russell Wills, NZ Children’s Commissioner will speak on ‘Future issues for young people in NZ’