Category Archives: tradition

Compulsory payments for advancement of religion – let’s get rid of that.

I read  recently how cynically humans use the word “freedom.” (I think it was in Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History)  How often do you see a fascist or otherwise undemocratic organisation with freedom in its name or slogans?

This came to mind again when I saw this post Students: Free at Last. (At Say Hello to my Little Friend – a blog which has a smoking gun in its heading. The blogger justifies the graphic saying “it depicts the way I like to ruthlessly “whack” bad ideas.” Rather unfortunate use of gangster terminology – especially as he uses the blog to advance his own “bad ideas”).

This particular post is “whacking” the “bad idea” of compulsorily union membership. I agree that, in this case, it is a bad idea  – in principle. During most of my working life I supported unionism – and the union I belonged to was voluntary, a comparatively strong and active union because of that. In fact people of my “socialist” persuasion saw compulsory unionism as a right-wing fetter, promoting class apathy and, in most cases, ensuring a leadership complaint with employer interests.

But, in my experience, most of those who have campaigned against compulsory unionism did so because they were more opposed to the “unionism” part than the “compulsory” part. They had their own ideological reasons for their campaign and it wasn’t desire for freedom.

This is why I find this, and similar campaigns, by conservative Christian groups and blogs (as “Say Hello” is) hypocritical. Some of these groups don’t allow their own members to join unions, compulsory or not. And many of their policies are the very opposite of freedom.

For example – I oppose the classification of “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose for purposes of tax exemption – and local body rates. In practice these means part of my taxes are used to subsidise the tax-free status of people, organisations and buildings whose only purpose is proselytization of ideas I find abhorent. I don’t see that a charitable purpose, nor would most New Zealanders. Yet provided these organisations or people are proselytising a supernatural world view they can get tax exemption. No real charitable work is required for this.

Sure, many religious organisations do genuine charitable work – and I have no problem with their receiving tax exemption for that part of their work. None at all.

But this subsidy for the “advancement of religion” is undemocratic on two grounds:

  1. It is available only to those who hold supernatural beliefs;
  2. We all pay for it through our taxes and rates, we have never been asked if we wish to and most people are just completely unaware of this imposition on their earnings.

I think it is hypocritical for conservative Christians to argue on the one hand against compulsory unionism, or deduction of union fees or their equivalent. Then, to argue on the other hand that the compulsory payment of taxes to subsidise their specific supernatural beliefs is somehow OK.

It is not.

If we want to talk about freedom lets not be hypocritical about it. Let’s recognise that this compulsory deduction from our earnings to subsidise the advancement of supernatural ideas also violates our freedoms – specifically our freedom to be treated equally, irrespective of religion or belief. And our freedom of, and freedom from, religion or belief.

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A fight-back – or simply spite?

I urge you to read Brain Rudman’s article Blessings erode our secular bedrock – if you haven’t already. It’s been a while since I have found myself agreeing so much with a NZ Herald column.

Brian leads with the point that the current “proliferation of religious ceremonies in civic life is at odds with our democracy.”

He feels that the odd and anachronistic ceremony of “the religious blessing, New Zealand style, has burst from obscurity into public life, as Christianity disappears rapidly in the other direction. These days it doesn’t need a sneeze to attract a blessing. It’s as though there’s a decree from the Beehive that says you can’t open anything public without a ceremonial blessing.”

Less than half population

It is certainly strange. We didn’t have these blessings in my youth when Christianity enjoyed a very dominant position. Now they are everywhere, at a time when religious influence is declining and Christianity was nominally the religion of only 49.5% of the population in the 2006 Census (see Is New Zealand a Christian nation?).

Is this a result of a misguided belief that somehow exposure of the godless public to what Rudman describes as a “throwback to the Middle Ages” will reverse the decline? Is it a conscious attempt to return religion to its once dominant position in our society?

Or is it a spiteful response to its declining influence. A wish to impose on others ceremonies they claim are “sacred?” To make the godless public endure their “sacredness” whether they like it or not?

Sneaky use of “Maori voice”

I am pleased that Rudman raises the way that New Zealand Christianity manipulates multiculturalism and natural ethnic respect in their campaigns:

“God’s intrusion into our civic affairs has been quite sneaky. He/she has slipped in using a Maori voice, taking advantage of the increasing use of tangata whenua as providers of the ceremonial at public occasions.

This infusion of Christianity into public ceremonial has occurred by osmosis, really, drifting into our lives without debate, surviving because liberal politicians, who you might expect to raise objections, stay quiet, fearful of being labelled anti-Maori.”

It’s hard enough to protest when a non-consensual blessing, prayer or other religious ceremony is imposed – but infinitely harder when the objector is labelled a racist.

Rudman continues:

“But is it anti-Maori to fight to preserve the secular bedrock of our democracy? We don’t have a written constitution but our traditional practice has been to keep religion out of public life. The origins of that was an endeavour to stop bickering Christian denominations continuing the conflicts still festering in their European homelands.

In 21st-century New Zealand, the reasons for keeping the state and religion apart are very different.”

And these reasons relate to democracy and human rights:

“It’s not just that non-believers outnumber each of the Big Three Christian denominations – Anglican, Catholics, Presbyterians – by more than two to one; it’s only a matter of time before “non-belief” overtakes Christianity as a whole. Then there are other major world religions, now gaining a larger public face thanks to recent immigration.

This makes the belated invasion of Christianity into our public life rather perplexing. It wasn’t deemed acceptable when it was the main religion in town. It’s surely even less appropriate now that it’s fading away.”

Political risk of turning “blind eye”

Some people might argue that Rudman’s criticism is unwarranted. That New Zealanders are happy with the current situation. But these naysayers are ignoring the reality. Many people, believers and non-believers, do find non-consensual imposition of religious ceremony offensive. Even Christians can feel embarrassed by this unwarranted intrusion on others which violate human rights and religious freedoms.

And there are ongoing objections to the privileged involvement of Christianity in state occasions. The Christian prayer at the start of parliamentary business (and often in local bodies). And the blatant dominance of Christian personalities and prayers in state ceremonies and functions.

Our politicians have tended to acquiesce in Christian privilege – often because they are aware of the way the Christian conservative groups can mobilise against any changes they oppose.

But as Rudman concludes: “given the numbers, it’s something politicians preside over at their own political risk.”

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Background Briefing for Mockton’s NZ visit

Christopher Monckton speaking in Melbourne last year. (Photo: Australian Conservative.)

Apparently Christopher Monckton will visit New Zealand for a few days (August 4 – 7) at the end of his Australian tour. His fanboys in the local climate change denier/contrarian/sceptic groups will obviously do their best to make as much publicity out of the visit as possible.

Others who want a more balanced assessment of Monckton might like to listen to the Backgrounder prepared by the Australian ABC (see Background Briefing – 17 July 2011 – The Lord Monckton roadshow). It includes extensive recordings of Monckton’s statements plus checking of many of his claims (he is often completely wrong and misrepresents science and scientists). There is also information on his mining industry financial backers.

The backgrounder illustrates how Monckton is attempting to whip up an anti-science and anti-scientists campaign (listen to him present his aim to prosecute and imprison scientists). The experience of the reporter who was exposed to the hysterical anti-media campaign at one of his meetings is also enlightening.

Download Audio – 17072011
Listen Now – 2011-07-17

See also:
Background Briefing on Monckton
Monckton’s Nazi jibe over the top: Abbott
A letter to Viscount Monckton of Brenchley from the Clerk of the Parliaments
Astroturfing works, and it’s a major challenge to climate change
Monckton requires religious certification for scientists?

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Clarifying some myths in the history of science

I want to deal here with some myths about religion and science. Specifically the religious apologetics claim that Christianity was a requirement for the scientific revolution. And the more widespread popular belief that blames early Christianity for the “dark ages.”

I have been reading about that early period lately. A couple of historical novels on the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia‘s murder by a Christian mob in 415 CE were interesting. These were Hypatia’s Feud by Nicholas Fourikis and Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice. I recommend both, but especially Selene of Alexandria. Both authors have taken care with  known historical facts.

The religious mysticism of that early period is undeniable. But the causes may not be as  the popular concepts imply. Reality is, after all, never simple.

So I was pleased to read Richard Carrier’s comments on these myths. The science of the ancient Greeks and Romans is a research speciality of his.

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A secular bible

Here’s something for your winter reading – The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

I purchased it recently and am enjoying browsing through it. It’s a collection of wise sayings, proverbs, etc. Ideal for browsing – just as well as its 600 pages long.

Wisely, A. C. Grayling does not describe himself as the author – rather the book was “made” by him.

The Good Book is a collection of comments – proverbs, songs, parables, etc. – advising on the good life. Secular comments originating as far back as Confucius and the ancient Greeks. As Grayling remarks in his Epistle to the Reader:

“Throughout history the commonwealth of humankind has had master-thinkers whose mighty works are monuments to posterity; it is aspiration enough to be a guide among them, and to take from them resources to promote what is true and good.”

To this end he has made this book:

“consisting in distillations of the wisdom and experience of humankind, to the end that reflecting on them might bring profit and comfort. “

Its secular nature is a tremendous advantage. Grayling describes the book’s purpose as:

“not to demand acceptance of beliefs or obedience to commands, not to impose obligations and threaten with punishments, but to aid and guide, to suggest, inform, warn and console; and above all to hold up the light of the human mind and heart against the shadows of life.”

A.C. Grayling was interviewed about his book by Kim Hill last weekend. You can hear the interview at  Saturday Morning with Kim Hill. Or download the mp3 file.

Here’s an example from the book – a list of proverbs on Books:

1. Something is learned every time a book is opened.
2. A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
3. Books are ships that traverse the seas of time.
4. Books cannot always please, however good; minds are not always craving for food.
5. Books give no wisdom where there was not wisdom before.
6. Rather a study full of books than a purse full of money
7. There is nothing so old as a new book.
8. The best companions are good books.
9. The books that help most are those that prompt most thought.
10. The virtue of books is to be readable.
11. There is no frigate like a book to take us to lands far away.
12. Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
13. The world may know me by my book, and my book by me.
14. Word by word the great books are written.
15. The reader’s fancy makes the fate of books.

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Is there a role for science in morality?

In our discussion of the science of morality commenters often assert that science may be able to describe why and how we are moral but it cannot make moral decisions for us. Or tell us what is right and wrong. Sometimes these commenters have their own motive – a covert or overt interest in promoting a religiously determined moral code and they don’t want another discipline intruding into “their” arena. At other times they may be reacting to a simplistic interpretation of the role of science. This is common in criticisms of The Moral Landscape (and Harris did not help by using the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”). In partial mitigation of Harris’s position he does make clear, often, that he is using “science” in a very general sense – including philosophy and history.

Emotions in human decisions

Our moral decisions are different to the apparently straightforward decisions a physical scientist might make relying on evidence. Logic and reasoning, and validation against reality. Being social animals things are never that simple for us. And we have evolved not to be a rational animal, more a rationalising one. Our decisions will usually involve our emotions and intuitions as well as evidence and reasoning. In fact research suggests that an emotional component is essential in decision-making. Where emotions are impaired people find decision-making impossible. We are also influenced by the moral attitudes of others, and in some situations a moral decision may involve a democratic process. Moral ideas get validated against society and not objective reality.

But the fact is human morality is now a very live area of scientific research and discussion. This is generally about how our morality works and its origins, and not using “science” as such to prove a moral position. But there is no doubt that an awareness of the science of morality may actually influence moral decision-making, particularly during public discussion and deliberation. Science indicates our morals are not simply “relative” (anything goes depending on our own feelings) or “divinely” commanded (our god tells us what is right and wrong – just accept it), or based on tradition. If that is publicly accepted then the proponents of “divine” commands, tradition, or relativism will have less influence on our moral deliberations.

Sure, our prejudices and emotions will still be involved. Our religious beliefs and cultural influence will also play a role. But there will be far more acceptance of discussion about facts and accepted ideas of what is good for society and individuals. In the past religion and tradition have been far too influential in such discussions. Hell, this example from a potential US presidential candidate shows they are still too influential (see Bachmann: God Told Me To Introduce Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage In MN). I think our moral progress has only been possible to the extent we have been able to override those influences.

Role of public deliberation

One argument that came through strongly for me in the Edge New Science of Morality  Seminar was the role of social or public deliberation of moral questions. (See The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) ) Particpation of a range of individuals helps make sure that prejudice and individual emotion don’t play a determining role. A group can be more rational than an individual. This indicates that groups and social decision-making may produce better moral, and hence legal, decisions than those made by individuals.

Of course, in the end our actions are made mostly by individuals. And very often these decisions and action are the result of unconscious moral decisions. But, as I pointed out in Foundations of human morality, our subconscious moral position is always changing. We are always learning and what we learn consciously becomes integrated into our subconscious. Similarly we are learning without deliberate intellectual consideration just by being a member of society, exposed to the changing moral zeitgeist through our entertainments and social contact. Just consider what influence the portrayal of women and gays has had on influence individual moral attitudes over the years.

Yes, there is an important role

So, I think the current interest in the science of morality is important. It’s important from the point of view of knowledge, of finding out and understanding more about our species and its behaviour. But I also think its important because it will help us be more rational about our moral deliberations and decisions.

That must be a good thing.

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The secular Egyptian protest a good start for a successful revolution


The ongoing Egyptian revolution has captured the attention and sympathy of people around the world. This is helped by the worldwide availability of internet access and social messaging devices. Even when the Mubarak regime cut off the internet, demonstrators were still able to get their message out. A warning to tyrants everywhere.

Twitter has been full of messages of support. And it is amazing what can be condensed into 140 characters. I like the simple messages which used the image of software installation on a computer to make a political point. For example this for d@dn2k which makes the point that Mubarak’s downfall is just the start of the beginning.

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.dn2k (@dn2k)
12/02/11 9:18 AM
RT @25Egypt: ّ Uninstalling dictator COMPLETE 100% ██████████████████ Installing now: egypt 2.0: █░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ #jan25 #Feb11

Egyptians certainly do face some huge political tasks with many opportunities and many pitfalls. The army’s support is essential for any new regime – and there will be an ongoing struggle by all sides to exert influence here. And some commentators have been preoccupied with the possibility of extreme Islamic groups influencing the revolution.

I have been heartened by the discipline and peaceful nature of the protests. Most violence seems to have been instigated by the security forces and  stooges of Mubarak’s regime. The occupation of Tahrir Square  over such a long period reveals a welcome degree of organisation. Protesters have organised to maintain their control and to provide services for the occupiers.

I hope this demonstrates that the various political forces within the protest have been negotiating among themselves to build a basis for unity. Also that they have been negotiating with the army and elements of the old regime to build some sort of trust and agreement on transition.

The protest itself has had a strong secular character. There has not been a preoccupation with religious agendas. At the same time the protests have not been sectarian. This was demonstrated by the cooperation of majority Muslims with minority Christians. Even to the extent of providing protection for each others prayers and services. Even cooperating together with some of these.

The unity and secular nature of the protest, and the revolution so far, are positive indications for the near future.

But to get back to Twitter. there has been some comment that the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will encourage people in other countries to demand their human rights. Already we have seen big protests in Jordan and Yemen.

Daisy McDonald used another computer graphic to suggest world wide possibilities.

daisy_mcdonald (@daisy_mcdonald)
12/02/11 12:36 PM
@eddieizzard MT @jmgoig Please wait while uninstalling rest of dictators of the world: █░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ #egypt #jan25 <–fingers crossed!

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The god gene – or is it a meme?

Is humanity doomed to a future of religious fundamentalism? Some recent internet articles appear to suggest it is.

The prediction is based on the established fact that the birth rate for members of fundamental religions is much higher than for the non-religious, or the members of the more main line churches. Similarly some Europeans worry about Islamic immigration because Muslims also have a relatively high birth rate. They fear a future involving a majority Islamic religion in their countries.

A recent scientific paper written by economist Robert Rowthorn promoted some of this speculation (Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. [See full text]). This presented a model based on the assumption of a “religious gene,” or at least a gene which “predisposed humans towards religion.” While they acknowledge that such predisposition is unlikely to  be determined by a single gene this simplification was required to make the analysis possible. And they argue that the general conclusions can be applied to the normally expected multi-gene situation.

Together with the fact that birth rates for many conservative, religious groups are much higher than for the non–religious population this model predicts that the human species will evolve to a situation where conservative, fundamentalist religions predominate.

What a horrible prospect. But is it at all realistic?

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“Other ways of knowing” – some sense at last

There’s been a lot of rubbish written about “other ways of knowing”. So it’s quite refreshing to read Richard Carrier’s classification of methods of knowing. This is from his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Well worthy reading by the way.

He starts by pointing out that no method of obtaining knowledge can produce absolute certainty. We can always be wrong, make mistakes. But we can list possible methods in order of reliability:

What is rational is to assign degrees of conviction to degrees of certainty established by a tried-and-tested method. What is rational is reasonable certainty, not absolute certainty.”

The methods of logic and mathematics are well-developed and provide the greatest certainty we have yet been able to find regarding anything, other than a present, uninterpreted experience. The next greatest certainty has been found in the application of scientific methods to empirical problems. In third place is our own daily experience, when interpreted with a logical or scientific mindset. Fourth is the application of critical-historical methods to claims about past events. Fifth is the application of the criteria of trust to the claims of experts. Sixth is the untested but logical application of inferential generalizations from incomplete facts—that is, plausible deductions. Such is the scale of methods that we have historically been able to discover and confirm as effective.”

“Experience shows that our degree of certainty will generally be weaker with regard to facts at each stage down this six-rung ladder, though within each category lies its own continuum of certainty and uncertainty, and the ladder itself is a continuum of precision and access to information: the more data we have to ground our conclusions, the farther up the ladder we find ourselves. Thus, mathematics is just perfected science; science, perfected experience; experience, perfected history; and history, perfected attention to experts; while plausible inference is what we are left with when we have none of those things.”

“Lacking any of the above approaches to the truth, we are faced with untrustworthy hearsay and pure speculation, where only the feeblest of certainty can ever be justified, if at all.”

Carrier writes that accurate methods of knowing have the properties of predictive success and convergent accumulation of consistent results.  However, these should be evaluated intelligently. Even the best method may produce faulty knowledge if used incorrectly.

So how do the different methods rate?:

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Overlapping Magisteria?

The relationship between science and religion, and the demarcation of their fields, or magisteria, seems to be topical at the moment. On the one had the boundary appears to be violated by religious promotion of creationism and attacks on evolutionary science. On the other, scientists are starting to make assertive comments about the nature of morality and the lack of any requirement for gods in understanding the origins of the universe and life.

This has been accompanied by debates among scientists about how to relate to religion. Whether religion should be immune from criticism or not? Should we challenge religion’s fanciful claims about reality?

So its not surprising that the concept of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” is being discussed again.

This concept has both its supporters and critics. Different people ascribe different meanings to the concept. And there are of course political and ideological reasons for this.

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