Category Archives: Buddhism

The future of religion

Two recent newspaper articles provide some hope for the future. They deal with the changing nature of religion throughout the world and in the USA.
Alan Wolfe in his Atlantic Monthly article The coming religious peace writes that although many people fear the possibility of rising religious fundamentalism and conflicts “many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice.” Wolfe argues that although secularisation may not appear inevitable to many commentators the facts do indicate “that material progress is slowly eroding religious fervor.”

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Secular believers

The teaching of religion in schools is currently under discussion in New Zealand (see NZ Human Rights Commission discussion document Religion in schools). For many there is a conflict between “religious instruction (the old way limited to Christianity) and teaching about religion (where children are taught about all the relevant religions). Teaching about religion should provide opportunities for encouraging tolerance and understanding. It would also fit well into values teaching as described in The New Zealand Curriculum (see also
In Praise of the New NZ School Curriculum).

However, teaching about religion would be a travesty if the non-religious or secular ethical systems were ignored, given the large numbers of non-religious in our society (see Trends in religious belief in New Zealand and God’s not as popular as we thought). Unfortunately many religious and political leaders make this assumption of exclusion and the Human Rights Commission discussion document also ignores this group. Maybe this indicates that many religious people still fear secular ethical beliefs.

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Religious diversity and human rights

Over the Solstice/New Year holiday, and while blogging activity is low, I am reposting some of my previous articles. Comments are still welcome.

The United Nations Organisation can do it. The Norwegians can do it. But the USA can’t. Neither can we in New Zealand. I refer to the ability to recognise the common values of humanity, irrespective of religious belief, and therefore the possibilities of common action to overcome social and political problems.

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Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality

The previous articles in this series discussed the attitudes towards religious diversity in New Zealand, a personal perspective of what atheism means and why it should not be separated from other beliefs when human rights are considered, and the conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we consider the relationship between atheism and theism. This final article deals with atheist attitudes towards values, morality and spirituality and argues that we all have common values which enable common action.

Values, morals, spirituality

Some theists claim their god, and their holy scriptures, as the source of all human values. This argument is often used to justify claiming New Zealand as a Christian country.[1] As a non-theist I find these claims insulting because they imply that personal values require a belief in a god; that atheists cannot be moral. Another common claim is that non-theists are somehow (unconsciously) adopting theist beliefs to produce their values. Christopher Hitchens points out that this attitude is an insult to humanity in his comment on the Old Testament Ten Commandments: “.. however little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.[2]

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Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion

The previous articles in this series discussed the attitudes towards religious diversity in New Zealand, a personal perspective of what atheism means and why it should not be separated from other beliefs when human rights are considered. This article deals with the issue of conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we consider the relationship between atheism and theism.

Conflict Between Science and Religion?

Some people claim science and religion deal with different spheres of knowledge; they each have their own role and therefore can coexist peacefully. And indeed they do, often within the same person. Many scientists have a personal religion and many (perhaps most) religious people accept scientific knowledge. Sometimes this is because the religious beliefs are no longer those old ones which conflicted with scientific knowledge. But many people are able to hold concurrent beliefs which are not consistent. The physicist Stephen Weinberg mentions meeting an oil man who believed in creation of the earth 6000 years ago. At the same time he held scientific beliefs about the far greater age of the earth which enabled him to explore for and discover oil![1] I think this is possible because of the emotional commitment that many people have to one or another belief, particularly a religious belief.

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Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective

In the first part of this series I described the current situation in New Zealand. In particularly how current attitudes towards religious diversity ignore the non-religious. The problems with this attitude are evident in the National Statement on Religious Diversity. This second part prevents a personal perspective on atheism and argues that there is no reason to consider atheists different to people with other beliefs when we consider human rights.

Aatheist beliefs personal perspective

The words atheism and theism are limited descriptions of beliefs as they only define one small aspect – non-belief or belief in a god. Personal beliefs are of course much more extensive than that – they include this but are not defined by it. So, we cannot characterise or understand the beliefs of all “atheists” by that word alone. I can only give my own perspective, although I believe that many non-theists hold similar beliefs.

My beliefs have a strong philosophical alignment with the scientific motivation and method. Emotionally and spiritually there is a powerful sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the natural world and our process of understanding it. This stretches from subatomic particles to the cosmos itself. They include an appreciation also of the beauty of humanity’s cultural and artistic achievements and a strong appreciation of personal and social values and morals. I discuss these further below.

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Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand

This is the first of a four part series. The complete series was originally published as one article in the AEN Journal special issue on Faith and Ethnic Communities and will also be published in Open Society, the journal of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists. I will post Parts II, III & IV over the next few days.

Part I: Religious diversity in New Zealand.

Efforts to develop understanding and cooperation in New Zealand are concentrating on ethnic and religious groups. The third of the population with non-religious beliefs are mostly ignored and this undermines true acceptance of diversity. We need to widen our horizons beyond the “Interfaith” approach if we are to address problems underlying suspicion and conflict between people of different beliefs.

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Dawkins responds to his critics

Chidlren labels googleIn his speech at the AAI Convention (see video below) Richard Dawkins illustrated his comments on the injustice of labeling children with the religion of their parents using data from google searches. I have replicated similar searches here. Dawkins point is that it is inhumane to label children with a religion (e.g., Christian child, Muslim child, etc.) because they are not in a position to really consider what the beliefs are. We can easily see this if we label children as non-religious (e.g., atheist child, agnostic child, etc.) or politically (liberal child, conservative child, Marxist child, etc.).

The google search results, however, suggest that whereas political and non-religious people recognise the inhumanity of labeling their children in this manner, religions seem to have no qualms.

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A value in religious mysticism

samSam Harris created some controversy with his speech at the AAI Convention (see video below). Most attention was drawn to his suggestion that use of the term “atheist’ was diversionary and that atheists should instead define themselves by activity around positive issues. Unfortunately the second part of his speech has been completely ignored in the resulting discussion. This is a pity because he was suggesting that some religious traditions have aspects that are of value to modern societies, a value which should be appreciated by non-theists as well as the religious.

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From superstition to religion


The origins of religion are not often discussed. There almost seems to be a taboo against investigation of its origins and development. Daniel Dennett suggested in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that this may result from a fear that the “tricks” religion uses for its advancement and protection could be exposed.

Consequently the scientific investigation of religion is still in its infancy and there is much work to do. Michael Shermer presents some ideas in How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. The comments by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs & Steel : The Fates of Human Societies are also relevant. Consider his description of the transition of superstition to religion resulting from the development of chiefdoms and state societies (p 277): Continue reading