Category Archives: religion

European and Māori major non-believers in NZ

This was a bit of a surprise to me.

The 2013 census data show that a similar proportion of the European and Māori ethnic groups declared themselves as having no religion in the 2013 census – 46.9 percent of European and 46.3 percent of Māori (see 2013 Census QuickStats about culture and identity).

The graph below illustrates the proportion of non-religious for the different NZ ethnic groups differentiated in the census.


Recent sociological research does show differences between European and Māori economic values and beliefs and I thought this might be reflected in different religious affiliations.

But apparently not.

I wonder if these non-religious Māori feel as offended as I do when a Christian prayer, disguised as a karakia, is imposed on them? I feel this is dishonest and takes advantage of the unwillingness of New Zealanders to complain as the complaint could be interpreted as racist. But it must also offend non-Christian Māori for their culture to be hijacked like this.

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Should all scientists really be militant atheists?

As my title implies this post discusses the New Yorker article by Lawrence Krauss – All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists. I basically agree with his analysis but feel he has left himself open to an unwarranted criticism often made of the scientific approach.

The headline is very provocative – and was clearly meant to be. The term “militant atheist” is just silly. But it did smoke out the expected criticism from the faithful (for example Should Scientists Be Atheists? More Nonsense From Lawrence Krauss by Kelly James Clark from the Brooks College and Kaufman Interfaith Institute). These critics attempt to avoid Krauss’s central complaint about the unwarranted privilege religion gets in our society (to the extent that when a law-breaker like Kim Davis is punished there are loud complaints of Christians being persecuted or Christian beliefs being made illegal). And they also attempt to denigrate his point that the scientific process should not be perverted in its exploration of the evidence and application of reason by demands of unjustified respect for belief or faith when it conflicts with evidence.

The people who wish to protect this religious privilege – even in scientific investigation – are the ones who describe any criticism of their stance as “militant.”

Rejecting the “sacred” justification

Krauss dismissed the demand for respect with:

“The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

Applying this to the scientific process he wrote:

“In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Unfortunately his use of Haldane’s quote – together with his provocative title “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheistsconveyed the impression that scientists should approach their investigation with a bias that already rejects some possible outcomes.

No relationship between science and religion

However, that was not Krauss’s claim. He used the term “atheist” in its negative sense (not theist) – not implying an imposition of any preconceived beliefs or ideas.

His real point was expressed in his point that basically there is no relationship between science and religion:

“In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Clark, more or less agrees with Krauss’s central claim  when he retaliated with:

“Scientists can be religious, liberal, communist, or even gay. But when they’re doing science, those beliefs are irrelevant and should not affect the practice of science. So be it. Scientists are under no obligation to affirm the opposite of any of those beliefs; and they needn’t deny them–but they should not bring those beliefs into their scientific practices.”

And in effect, he also agrees with Haldane – when we take into account the flippant words Haldane used. Of course scientists “assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere” with their experimental investigations. In the same way they assume that goblins, fairies, and all sorts of mythical creatures will not interfere.

Mind you, I really wonder at his assertion that a scientist need not deny her beliefs when the evidence shows them wrong. Surely that is unhealthy?

Scientists must be completely open to all and every outcome of their investigation – and perhaps they should even be “militant” about this rejection of blinkers. It is one thing to start with a strong, empirically supported, acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics – but quite another to be restricted by a strong belief in a myth without any evidential support.


The “god idea” is just such a myth. It is never expressed even as a concrete hypothesis (which implies testability) let alone a rational theory with an evidential base.

Unfortunately, for much of history humanity’s attempts to investigate and understand the world have been hampered by an a priori insistence that investigation be based on such myths. Modern science has broken away from such bonds – and that is why it is so overwhelmingly successful.

Yet, there are people who work hard to reapply those bonds. Who wish to introduce  a”theistically-correct” approach to science which denies the need for evidence and (what amounts to the same thing) insists that “supernatural explanation’ are accepted.

People like Krauss are standing up to this pressure – and good on them. We need people who are prepared to be “militant” in this way.

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Freedom of religion and belief – not a license to interfere with others


This is so relevant.

I am all for freedom of religion and belief – but that does not give adherents of these religions or beliefs the right to interfere with my life.

And, seriously, if I demand my right of freedom from such interference this does not deny the rights of those adherents to their belief. To claim that it does it just childish.

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Australian census religion question – progress


World Religions. Credit: Islam Beyond Borders

Looks like Australians have won another small victory in the way that their religiosity is officially assessed. In particular how census forms pose the religion question on census forms is posed.

I discussed the problems in my article Non religious in Australia and New Zealand. The Australian census form buried the “no religion” option – and may, therefore, have skewed results – see below:

Compare that to the New Zealand census question below:

I asked the obvious question:

“Do Australians opt for a religion in their census answers because they don’t , at first glance, notice the “no religion” option?

Does the Australian census overestimate religiosity?”

Greater minds than mine also asked this question. Rationalist and sceptic groups lobbied the Australian Bureau of Statistics to change the question during the post-2011 census review. They argued it was about accuracy. And they succeeded (see Census change: Is Australia losing its religion?).

“No religion” moves to first

So, for the first time “no religion” will be first on a list of answers to the question “what is the person’s religion”, and the “Catholic” option will move into second place – see below:
New question

It may seem like a subtle change, a psychological victory for the “nones,” but The Sydney Morning Herald argues it “may completely change the way Australia sees itself and have drastic consequences for the way government money is spent on welfare and education.”

“If Christianity did lose its position as the majority religion, this could impact government spending programs such as the school chaplaincy program, according to those advocating for the change.

“Many government services and resources depend on census accuracy, and the figures are used by religious organisations to maintain their status and influence in terms of grants, tax-free services, access to schools for religious instruction, and for their generally privileged position within the community,” president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Meredith Doig, said this week.”

So it is more than a psychological victory. Surely it is important that allocation of resources to people of different beliefs should not be wroughted by the trickiness of questions like that in the old census form.

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Religious instruction scrapped from school curriculum in Victoria

Religious instruction scrapped from curriculum – what a great headline to see in the newspaper.

Unfortunately, it is just for the Australian state of Victoria. But it could well happen here, considering the opposition to religious instruction in state schools we are seeing in New Zealand.

Victorian schools are scrapping special religious instruction from class time to make way for new content on world histories, cultures, faiths and ethics. The changes to the state’s curriculum raise doubts about the future of the controversial religious instruction program.

The state government said “Extracurricular programs should not interfere with class time when teachers and students should be focused on the core curriculum.”  And curriculum changes mean that classes addressing domestic violence and respectful relationships will also become compulsory for all prep to year 10 students from 2016.

I certainly consider these subjects that are a far more important and necessary use of school time.

The changes mean that he weekly 30 minute religious instruction program will move to lunchtime and before and after school in 2016. Mind you, that opens up the possibility that other religious sects (and, heaven forbid, non-religious ones) may demand equal time for their own presence on school property for lunchtime and before and after school indoctrination opportunities.

These changes are welcomed by teachers – and no doubt by many parents. Lara Wood, a spokeswoman for Fairness in Religions in School, a group that has spent the past four years campaigning against SRI, claimed victory. “We won, we got what we wanted.”

She said religious instruction providers were proselytising in primary schools while students missed out on learning. This has been a common complaint from parents because the chaplaincy organisation involved is well-known for its evangelical orientation and attempts to convert children.

But, predictably, this move is opposed by some religious organisations – including the chaplaincy organisation Access Ministries, the main provider of religious instruction.

In New Zealand, the Secular education network (NZ) is working towards the same ends as the Australian Fairness in Religions in Schools. I hope we can see similar successes here in the near future.

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Progress in removing religious instruction from public schools?


Image credit: rethinking schools

Looks like we might be making a bit of progress in attempts to establish a genuine secular education system in New Zealand.

There are reports that “secular education advocates have had a win in their fight against the Bible in Schools programme.”

The Secular Education Network has been asking for months for removal of sectarian religious instruction classes from public schools. They have now been given access to guidelines the Ministry of education may suggest to resolve the problem.

Network spokesman David Hines said schools would be encouraged to end religious instruction during class time.

“And instead have it at lunch, or after school. Parents would also have to give written permission before they could get put in these classes. They are suggested guidelines. But these are both problem areas, so it’s good that they’re addressing those,” he said.

Apparently the suggested guidelines would also make it clear religious instruction is not part of the New Zealand Curriculum and would discourage religious observances in school assemblies. The Ministry will also consider how to raise awareness about the difference between religious instruction and religious education.

So this is progress. Religious instruction will be relegated to an out-of-school-hours activity like sport. Hopefully, there will also be changes to make this an opt-in choice and not the current opt-out system where parents requests are often ignored.

I agree with the Secular Education Network that there is a place for religious education (and education of other belief systems) in schools but this is very different to religious instruction which is a form of dogmatic brainwashing.

Clearly this is an ongoing process of negotiation by of the Education Ministry with concerned parents and schools. I just hope this progress is confirmed and there is no backsliding.

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Something to consider


Social health policies, freedom of choice and responsibility

Social health policies inevitably raise the issue of the individual’s freedom of choice. While debates around these policies often concentrate on questions of fact, scientific consensus and reliability of evidence, these tend to be surrogates for the underlying values issues. To what extent should I sacrifice my freedom of choice, or my freedom of choice to decide for my children, for the good health of the community? And what if my freedom of choice violates the freedom of choice for others?

hall-offit-fullPaul Offit discussed these issues in a recent Point of Inquiry podcast – Paul Offit, MD, on Measles in the Magic Kingdom and the Anti-Vaccine Movement. He is a Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit is the author of the book Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.

He basically talks about the spread of measles throughout California and neighboring states because of a source of infection at Disneyland. Although measles were eliminated in the U.S. by 2000, the misinformation of the anti-vaccine movement has caused a return of a full-fledged outbreak.

Levels of responsibility and consequences

Paul makes the comparison of opposition to vaccination with opposition to blood transfusion.

1: Blood transfusions. A person my refuse to accept treatment involving blood transfusion because of their personal religious beliefs. More questionably they may refuse on behalf of their children. However, the consequences are limited to the person or her child. The decision does not harm the community at large.

2: Vaccinations. A person may refuse a measles vaccination for themselves or their children. But in this case the consequences are not personal – they affect the whole of society. By lowering the degree of immunisation in the community they threaten the lives of others – particularly the most vulnerable, children.

In these two cases the person has refused an intervention, a medical treatment or vaccination, which could be seen to violate their freedom of choice – or even to violate their body. In the first case the consequences are personal, limited to the person who made the wrong decision. But in the second case the consequences are social. An personal wrong decision has taken away the freedom of choice, the health and in some cases the lives, of others in society.

A bit like the personal decision to drive on the wrong side of the road. Society has taken away a small personal freedom of choice in our road rules to protect the lives of all of us.

3: Fluoridation. Social health policies like community fluoridation of water, salt, milk, etc., are recognised as being safe, beneficial and cost-effective. But they are opposed by a vocal minority. Activists will passionately promote the freedom of choice argument and, considering they don’t have the scientific evidence on their side this is often seen as their strongest argument. After all, it is values-based and therefore can’t be tested and rejected by evidence.

But, this third case is different to the other 2.

  • The act of fluoridation or not is social, taken by society as a whole or their representatives. An person may contribute to the decision but cannot decide the issue by a personal action as they can with vaccinations or blood transfusions. Although individual political action, or dissemination of information or misinformation, may influence that social decision – and hence the social consequences.
  • Fluoridation does not involve an intervention or treatment, medical or otherwise. No one is forced to drink fluoridated water or milk, or to consume fluoridated salt. The freedom of choice argument is invalid here because there are always alternatives.

Despite actively promoting the freedom of choice argument even the NZ anti-fluoride activist Fluoride Free NZ provides information on these atlernatives. They list alternative water sources, distillation, ion exchange filters and reverse osmosis. Most of these choices are cheap and available.

So what is driving anti-fluoridation propagandists?

Unlike opponents to blood transfusion they cannot argue freedom of choice to refuse an intervention on religious grounds. There is no intervention. The only personal imposition is that they may wish to buy a water filter (many already have these) or buy water from a different source.

Again, unlike opponents of vaccination they cannot argue freedom of choice to refuse an intervention even on grounds of personal belief – because there is no personal intervention.

Given the lack of any forced or personal intervention I am forced to conclude the freedom of choice issue that concerns the anti-fluoride activists is their freedom of choice to decide the oral health quality of other members of their community. And given the health and scientific expert consensus on the issue they are really arguing for their freedom of choice to decide the oral health of others on the grounds of their own minority personal beliefs or convictions.

In last year’s High Court judgement on the question of fluoridation in South Tarinaki, Justice Hansen wrote:

“Provided it does not have consequences for public health a person has the right to make even the poorest decisions in respect of their own health. But where the state, either directly or through local government, employs public health interventions, the right is not engaged. Were it otherwise, the individual’s right to refuse would become the individual’s right to decide outcomes for others. It would give any person a right of veto over public health measures which it is not only the right but often the responsibility of local authorities to deliver.”

The freedom of choice the anti-fluoride activists are promoting is their freedom of choice to decide health outcomes for others – not themselves.

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Stephen Fry not pulling any punches

Stephen Fry on God | The Meaning Of Life | RTÉ One – YouTube.

Stephen Fry has a great skill of getting right to the core of an issue.

Here he answers the question of what he, as an atheist, would say if he ended up at the gates of heaven.

Sunday reading – Richard Dawkins reads some of his “fan mail”

This is a more recent version of Richard Dawkins reading some of his “fan mail.”

Don’t remember much of the first batch he read – but get the impression the language skills of fundamentalists has become even poorer in the intervening period.

Warning – explicit language.

via Love Letters to Richard Dawkins – YouTube.

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