Archive August 2011

Religious theology of secularism Ken Perrott Aug 30

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There has been a debate among local bloggers about the nature of secularism and the problem of religious privilege in a secular society. These sort of “god debates” generally produce more heat than light. However, it is worth actually considering elements of some the arguments being used. And how meanings have been manipulated to achieve a desired result.

I have listed a few of the arguments here.

What does “secular” mean?

I discussed this in Secular democracy and its critics. Here I favoured the meaning that is “Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as ’sacred’ (whatever that means).”

This certainly describes the secular arrangements we have in New Zealand – although Professor Paul Morris (Director of The Religious Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington), for example, acknowledges that our society is not completely secular in that it does tend to favour one religion – Christianity.

But even this simple definition gets distorted in ideologically motivated debates. Take how Madeleine Flannagan at MandM treats the document The Tolerant Secular State,’* prepared by the NZ Association of Humanists and Rationalists (NZARH), (see The New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanists and the Privileging of Secularism). She takes the first sentence: “The NZARH strongly believes that government should be secular; that is dealing with the issues of this world rather than following a religious agenda” – then manipulates it!

She says:

“They start by defining secular in the first of these senses, in terms of ’dealing with the issues of this world.’ The switch to the second definition occurs immediately in the claim that a secular state must not follow a ’religious agenda.’ From what the NZARH subsequently argues it is clear that this second sense is what it really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” (My bold).

See what she does? Takes a perfectly standard and proper definition of “secular” and converts the inclusive concept  that people of all religions and beliefs can come together to deal with the issues of the real world (not possible if the state has a religious or anti-religious agenda). Now comes the switch – she converts a simple inclusive approach to an exclusive anti-religion one.

She, not NZAHR, is doing the switching.

Her introduced words in bold, “must not follow,” creates an atmosphere of compulsion, of privileging a non-religious approach. A common trick of dishonest advertisers and politicians.

So now she can say “the second sense is what it [NZAHR] really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” NZAHR’s second sentence: “Our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another and the state should treat religious organisations the same as any other organisation’ then becomes sinister – according to her. Rather than describing an inclusive, democratic arrangement she claims it describes a “privileging of secularism” – and by that she means privileging anti-religion!

Secularism a “viewpoint” fallacy?

Here comes another switch in the meaning of “secularism:”

“So let us get this straight. Secularism is a type of viewpoint that 1) the NZARH seeks to privilege over religion.” (Again my bold).

She wishes to replace the meaning of “secularism” as an inclusive, over-all arrangement neutral to religion and anti-religion by a meaning which it implies it is actually a non-representative ideology!

It’s like saying democracy is  simply a political ideology – advocates of democracy seek to privilege their viewpoint over the ACT Party! (whereas, of course, our democratic political arrangements allow the ACT Party to work alongside all other parties. It’s just that our democracy does not have an ACT, National, Labour, or any other political party agenda).

Actually, Madeleine almost concedes her point – which illustrates she knows what she is doing:

“Of course, if one assumes from the outset that secularism is not a specific view and is somehow some kind of neutral position that everyone can subscribe to then the statements read together might make sense but that is an erroneous assumption.”

So she labels any correct reading of the statement “erroneous.”

These little switching tricks have a purpose. She wishes to protect religious privilege – things like tax exemption for supernatural beliefs (see Avoiding tax — supernaturally). She sees this privilege threatened by secular democracy. Therefore she, quite naturally, wishes to discredit secularism. This switching of meaning also helps to divert attention away from the real inequalities – those areas of society where religion, and especially Christianity, maintains a privilege over other beliefs (in conflict with our human rights legislation).

Some ridiculous results

Madeleine disagrees with my description of accountancy as a secular activity (see Secular democracy and its critics).

“It is not secular. When a Christian does accounts he invokes God in the sense that his math is correct and his tallying of the books is honest. We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. You do not understand Christianity if you think this. I know Christians who pray through such activities and praise God when the numbers add up.”

” Therefore, by adopting a secular stance the State is taking a viewpoint that excludes Christianity (and other religions that hold to a similar stance).”

Yes it’s a strange old world! I have a picture of an old school with pupils being forced to read their books. They are surrounded by nuns who hit them with a ruler at any sign they are not praying or “invoking god” while doing their sums. Perhaps Madeleine could comment on whether these clergy in the Boston Archdiocese were praying and invoking their god in their activities? After all “We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. “

But what an insult, she seems to think that when I do accountancy my maths will be incorrect and my tallying dishonest because her god has no place in my work!

So Madeleine rejects educating our children in accountancy, mathematics, science, history, social studies and anything connected with the real world – unless its accompanied by prayer and invoking of her god. She rejects secular education.

To be consistent she should also reject anything that education has produced. Cars, banks, culture, medicine, etc., etc.

It’s an approach that very few Christians would support – and I honestly suspect Madeleine doesn’t run her life this way. She has just got into this ridiculous situation because of the way she has switched meanings to justify her argument about “privileging secularism.”

However this mental gymnastics has allowed Madeleine to define anything our democratic society does as “anti-religious” because it is secular. Therefore the current situation “privileges secularism” and she is disadvantaged because of her beliefs!

Perhaps while she is boycotting our secular schools, government departments, hospitals, research institutes, universities, etc., she could also boycott the NZ Charities Commission. Refuse to accept her tax exemption for supernatural belief (subsidised by the rest of us – see Examples of Charitable Purpose) because the institution is secular?

Yeah, right!

*It’s worth reading The Tolerant Secular State- it’s brief and gives a clear statement of the problem of religious privilege and the interference with human rights in New Zealand.

Martydom of the priveliged Ken Perrott Aug 29


It never ceases to amaze me how some people who have gained a privilege through an accident of history will whine and moan when they fear their privileges may be removed. We saw this recently in local politics when the idea of introducing a capital gains tax was floated.

I guess it’s not surprising. Many people think with their wallet.

But I also saw this last week at the NZ Diversity Forum on The State and Religion. There was a discussion on the fact that while New Zealand is largely a secular country with freedom of religion and belief, Christians still had some historical privileges over other religions and over the non-religious. Several Christians there argued that the parliamentary prayer be retained – because they “believed in a god.” To hell with what other people believed.

But this defense of privilege gets really childish when conservative Christians present any attempt at removal of privilege or discrimination as an attack on their religion. As an attempt at ’eradication of religion from public life.’

I have seen a local theologian, Matt from MandM, seriously argue that evolutionary science should not be taught in schools because a fundamentalist family with children attending the school would be offended! Everyone else should suffer because a fundamentalist might be offended by reality!

Now that takes a real sense of privelige!

Parliamentary prayers

The same person attacked the NZ Rationalist and Humanist (NZARH) document The Tolerant Secular State for pointing out the “New Zealand parliament opens with a Christian prayer rather than having a secular statement that allows all politicians to reflect on why they are they are there.” He claims this “states religious prayers should be banned from parliament”. He sees introduction of an inclusive ceremony as an attack on Christianity – what warped thinking.

I guess this is the same as those men who opposed universal suffrage because they saw it as an attack on men. Or marriage equality whoicxh recognises same-sex marriage as somehow an attack on heterosexual marriage!

Another privilege described in The Tolerant Secular State is “the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose. This gives religious/supernatural beliefs an advantage over other beliefs in being subsidised by the taxpayer.” My experience is that this is a privilege conservative Christians will defend to the last. They bring all their theological training, their mental gymnastics and obfuscation, into play when they see that threatened.

Wallets as well as dogma – a powerful combination!

Secular education

Madeleine at MandM has also attacked The Tolerant Secular State – using the same tactics of misrepresentation and distortion. She particularly likes to distort the meaning of the word “secular” (meaning neutrality towards religion) into somehow meaning anti-religious or atheist.

Therefore she refers to The Tolerant Secular State statement “The NZARH strongly believes that public education should be free, secular and available equally to all children” as somehow being anti-religious. She says it means “Taxpayer dollars of all citizens must only be used to support their secular viewpoint and their viewpoint alone” (Here she uses “their” to mean NZARH). And whines: “What about citizens (like me) who do not want their tax payer dollars going towards secular schools?”

Perhaps she doesn’t want to pay for children to learn anything – except religious indoctrination which of course is not secular. Actually she is specific – she considers secular education to suppress her “right to manifest one’s religion including the raising of children. This gets overridden by the practice of sex education in schools.” She opts her son out of those classes. Does she also opt her son out of mathematics, science, history, social studies, and all the other secular subjects.

Poor kid.

Madeleine claims that the  NZARH don’t want schools to talk at all about religion. Ignoring completely the document which says:

“While public education should remain free from religious observance and instruction, it is fine to educate about religion. Teaching about different belief systems, both religious and non-religious, is important. Doing so encourages greater tolerance by broadening students understanding of other beliefs, and challenging the notion that any currently held beliefs are somehow superior to other beliefs.”

And Matt  also has a go at “secular eduction.” He claims that “religious parents are required by law to fund a secular education they disagree with and do not use.”

So religious parents and their children do not use their education in mathematics, science, social studies, history, etc.? All those subjects dealing with the real world and therefore defined as secular?

Matt plays the martyrdom card by claiming that “parents who want to teach there child a religious education pay twice, first they are compelled on threat of jail to pay for other peoples children to be given a secular education, and then on top of that they pay for their own childrens religious education.”

Well Matt, any parent wishing to give their children an agnostic, atheist, Marxist, or any other ideological education must do the same. Pay for the secular education (which is required by law and is neutral towards these ideological and religious beliefs) and on weekends or after school give the ideological education they desire.

Matt finally concludes that New Zealand discriminates against religious parents!

See what a mess you can get into when you start distorting the meaning of words.

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Another book for the kids Ken Perrott Aug 25


This looks like another great sciency book for young kids. Ankylosaur Attack (Tales of Prehistoric Life) is aimed at an age level of 4 and up. It should really appeal to the kid already interested in dinosaurs.

The author is Daniel Loxton. He is also  the author and illustrator of Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which I reviewed in One for the kids. That book is a finalist for Canada’s largest children’s non-fiction prize, the Norma Fleck Award. (Winner to be announced Oct 4, 2011.)

Here is the book description for Ankylosaur Attack:

“This mind-blowing feast for the eye uses photo-realistic, computer-generated images to illustrate what dinosaurs might have looked like in their natural environment. Complementing the extraordinary images is an exciting, scientifically accurate story about a young ankylosaur (a plant-eating, heavy-plated dinosaur) living along the banks of a grassy lake. When he encounters an old ankylosaur, he gently endeavours to make contact, only to be rebuffed. Then a T. rex attacks, and the youngster knows the old dinosaur is in grave danger. Will the T. rex triumph? It looks that way, until the young ankylosaur comes to the rescue, tail club swinging. Ankylosaur Attack is book one in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series. Dramatic stories + eyepopping visuals = a surefire hit with young dinosaur lovers.”

Publication date is September 1, 2011.

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Secular democracy and its critics Ken Perrott Aug 24


“Secularism” and “secular”are very much maligned words. Partly because they are not really understood by some people. But also because some religious people feel threatened by the words.

But they shouldn’t. Despite some attempts to equate the words with atheism and oppose them to religion they really don’t mean either of these. Unfortunately, though, some people insist on using the words that way.

Consulting dictionaries is not always helpful either because they usually list several different meanings.

What does “secular” mean?

However, when we use words like “secular” and “secularism” to describe our modern society definitions equating them with atheism or opposition to religion are completely inappropriate. When applied to society the meaning is more aligned with neutrality towards religion and other beliefs. As the cartoon implies.

So proper dictionary definitions of “secular” include:

  • “Not controlled by a religious body or concerned with religious or spiritual matters;”
  • “Worldly rather than spiritual;”
  • “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body: eg secular music;”
  • “Of or relating to the worldly or temporal;”
  • “Of or relating to worldly things as distinguished from things relating to church and religion; not sacred or religious; temporal; worldly.”

And so on. You get my point.

Secularism – Monk doing monastery accounts

Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as “sacred” (whatever that means).

I have the picture of a medieval monk sitting at a desk in an old monastery. A candle by his side he is doing the monastery accounts. He is doing secular work. (I don’t think even the most convinced religious apologists would consider accountancy “sacred.”)

We are all “secularists”

All of us, no matter our beliefs, are involved in secular activities most of the time.

As a scientist I worked alongside scientists with all sorts of beliefs. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, and so on. Bloody hell, one of them was even a member of the ACT Party.

However, despite our different “world views”, we did our work, our scientific research, in basically the same way. We were all involved in collecting evidence, hypothesising, testing ideas against reality, producing effective scientific theories and validating them against reality. Our religious beliefs did not change the way we did our job.

Scientific research is secular – but done by people who hold many beliefs.

Most of you will also be doing secular jobs. If you are an accountant, a plumber, a builder, or whatever, your religious beliefs just don’t influence your work. Your job is secular. And you don’t feel any conflict with that.

Democracy secular by definition

We can look on society in much the same way. Of course opinions and beliefs inevitably do intrude into political and social activity. But while we can express religiously derived views we are actually dealing with a society which does not have uniform religious beliefs. Our society is pluralist. Religious opinions are very diverse. So while in New Zealand you can argue for an ethical or political position because your god told you it was correct or it is written in your “holy” book, such arguments are completely ineffective (outside your direct religious community).

This inevitably means that simple religious arguments cannot carry any weight politically or socially. The sensible protagonist will look for arguments which have wider appeal.

And that’s how it should be. Our political system is democratic, Our society is pluralist. No one belief can be imposed by loyalty. We have to engage in the market of ideas, putting forward our best arguments. And the best arguments are the ones that most people can respond to. Religious arguments just aren’t effective.

Consequently, in democratic, pluralist societies the political and social activity, the live discussion of ideas and decision-making about the best social or political situation, is inevitably secular. It must be to be democratic.

Our politics and social activity is secular even though the participants may hold a range of religious views.  It is secular because it is democratic.

So those religious apologists who argue that modern society somehow
“privileges” secularism over religion are making a basic category error. It’s like a political party condemning democracy, the very institution which provides them with a venue for their activity.

Unless of course, they would prefer a society which was undemocratic, but placed them in power while denying all other parties the freedom to exist.

Perhaps this is the way these religious apologists complaining of the “privileging” of secularism see it. Perhaps they would like to return to a society where there religious arguments were the only ones allowed in public discussion.

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Hitler objects to atheist charge Ken Perrott Aug 18


I haven’t seen any of those dubbed Hitler raves lately – until last night.

And this one seems very fitting. He is reacting to the claim, made by some religious apologists, that he was an atheist.

A load of rubbish, of course, as Hitler points out.

Hitler Learns Christians Claim He Is An Atheist – YouTube.

Thanks to @akicktotheeye

440 FOI requests in one day! From one person! Ken Perrott Aug 17

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The Australian Age has highlighted the practice by climate change deniers/contrarians/skeptics of using freedom of information requests to harrass scientists ansd insitutions invovled in climate change research (see Think tank warned over climate information requests).

“RIGHT-WING think tank the Institute of Public Affairs has received a warning from the Department of Climate Change after it submitted more than 750 freedom-of-information requests in four months.

The institute, which strongly opposes carbon pricing, has made more than 95 per cent of FOI requests lodged with the department since April.

The department last week wrote to the institute’s director of climate change policy, Tim Wilson, and asked that he stop submitting requests so it could deal with the backlog.”

The shear numbers of  these FOI requests show that they are uses as harassment and are politcally motivated.

“It is believed Mr Wilson submitted about 440 information requests on one day in late July and more than 140 on one day last week.

A government source said it took about 39 hours of staff time to process each application.

”He is conducting a political campaign against the government’s policy on climate change and this is coming at significant cost to taxpayers,” the source said.”

The local, New Zealand, equivalent of The Institute of Public Affairs is The NZ Centre for Political Research. They are closely aligned with the NZ ACT Party and local climate change denier/contrarian groups like The Climate Conversation Group and the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition. These last groups have been doing a little FOI harrassment of their own. Of course, they also hope this sort of activity will create an illusion that the scientists or their insitutions are guilty of something. A sort of “When are you going to stop beatin g your wife?” type tactic.

With thanks to Graham Readfearn (@readfearn)

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There is something about Wellington Ken Perrott Aug 16

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This lovely video, filmed & edited by Ro Tierney on August 15th 2011, says something about New Zealanders. Well, about Wellingtonians, at least.

Where else do you find people venturing out into the snow in shirts?

Mind you, as a born and bred Wellingtonian I assure you this snowfall was unique.

Snow on Cuba Mall in central Wellington (HD) on Vimeo on Vimeo

Thanks to Lyndon Hood (@lyndonhood)

Some things for the kids Ken Perrott Aug 15

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Well actually for their parents and grandparents. Especially with Christmas on the horizon.

Right where you are now

Right Here You Are Now is a bedtime story for kids. It’s also scientifically accurate, so it’s more than just a bedtime story–it’s an educational adventure. This book will help kids understand geologic time. Seems pretty important to me.

This is how Tracy Reva describes the book in her review:

“While this book contains a lot of information it’s presented in a very appealing manner that will make children want to read it. The pages are bright and colorful, and the illustrations make children wonder what comes next. The facts are presented in a manner that encourages the curiosity of young readers and the passages of reading material are short ones. The book itself is 26 pages and it packs a lot of interesting facts into each and every page. I am so impressed with it I plan to buy a couple of copies to use as presents for my grandson, niece and nephews.”

See also: review by review by Lavanya Karthik

The book will be launched in the UK on 25 September.

Register here to be informed when the book is released and can be purchased.

Thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Charlie and the kiwi

Charlie and Kiwi: An Evolutionary Adventure is another book aimed at young children (4 – 8 yrs). And it has a local theme which will appeal.

It was supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation, so again it will be scientifically accurate. It uses Charles Darwin to take the reader on a journal through time and through the important scientific principle of evolution.

Published last June it is available now.

Again thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Skeptics dictionary for kids

The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids is a web site – and obviously for the older kids. great for research, school projects and just searching.

This was set up in July and is being continually added to. The web page also has some interesting links which will be useful for kids interested in science.

And links to some kid’s sciency books:

Thanks to Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer.

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Congratulations PZ Ken Perrott Aug 14

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PZ Myer, of Pharyngula fame, has just been awarded Humanist of the Year at the 18th World Humanist Congress in Oslo (see It’s so…sniny… ).

Congratulations – well deserved!

The blinkered view of politics? Ken Perrott Aug 12

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Picked this up in Twitter (thanks kev sampson (@kev667)).

Sure – it’s a photoshopped spoof. But I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a message there somewhere.

Is the UK government reacting to the riots in the typical blinkered political way. With their eyes firmly locked on the emotions and prejudices of the electorate? While ignoring, and therefore being unable to deal with, the deep moral, economic and social roots of the problem?

Maybe even purposely refusing to look behind them?

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