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The true meaning of Christmas Ken Perrott Dec 24

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I reckon you can’t beat Tim Minchin’s song “White Wine in the Sun” to convey the real atmosphere of Christmas – at least in Australia and New Zealand.

Here’s a new version – recorded at the Uncaged Monkeys show in Manchester on 6th December 2011. It’s a bit shaky at the start but gets better.

Tim is accompanied by Prof. Brian Cox on keyboard in this version

Tim Minchin & Prof Brian Cox – White Wine In The Sun

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Australia’s “New Normal?” Ken Perrott Jan 11

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Sometimes the local climate change deniers/sceptics/contrarians behave as if they aren’t on the same planet as the rest of us. Well, perhaps that’s a bit extreme – but they do sometimes seem to at least be in a different hemisphere. While we are currently sweltering in New Zealand, and Australia is burning, they are scanning Northern Hemisphere newspapers trying to find headlines about local snow, record low temperatures, etc!

For  a while there they did start to discuss the Tasmanian fires – but what do you know? Temperatures were ignored – instead they were blaming the fires on the Australian Green Party (see Greens win, so Tasmania burns)! (Rather supports the idea that climate change denial is motivated by right wing politics).

Of course it’s easy to pontificate on local weather and temperature records (high and low) and cherry pick data to suite one’s prejudices. But as the New York Times recently pointed out the effect of climate change has been to increase the frequency of extreme weather and temperature, rather than cause specific examples (see Heat, Flood or Icy Cold, Extreme Weather Rages Worldwide).

Anyway, just to underline the local extremes here’s a climate change infographic produced by the GetUp Action for Australia Campaign. (see GetUp! – Our New Normal).

BASXeekCIAAbMw1

Click on image to enlarge

Religion in schools – a sensible approach Ken Perrott Nov 25

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Here’s a short Aussie video on the problem of religious instruction in secular schools. It’s well presented, and the situation in Australia is quite like that in New Zealand. In particular, the legal structure which allows access by religious groups to secular schools and the influence of evangelical groups within the bible in schools movement. The Access Ministries referred to in the video supplies material to New Zealand groups. So New Zealand readers can learn something from it.

The video is presented by the group FIRIS Fairness in religion in Schools (YouTube page

Mission Field: Education not Expected

See also:
Capturing kid’s minds with emotions
What really happens in religious instruction classes?
Cynical evangelisation of children.

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The arrogance of supernatural privilege Ken Perrott Nov 21

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I’ve often criticised the arrogance of some of those with a supernatural ideology. Their claims of special access to the “Truth,” to morality, etc. But I get especially angry when this arrogance rides roughshod over the most innocent and vulnerable people in society. Our children.

 Recently the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a Royal Commission to uncover the truth about sexual abuse of children in Australia. This is a response to the public outrage against revelations and accusations of paedophilia and its cover up by a number of institutions with responsibility for care of children  – including Churches. The commission has generally been welcomed across the political spectrum with the strongest concern being that it should get to work and produce results quickly. That it shouldn’t dawdle on for decades and itself contribute to the cover up.

 So I was shocked to see a local blogger, Kereopa at beingfrank, interpret this commission as “persecution” of the Catholic church (see Persecution begins against the Catholic Church in Australia)! Talk about (guilty) paranoia. Gillard made clear that the Catholic Church was not the only institution targeted. That its scope would cover:

 ”all institutions, including religious institutions, state-based organisations, schools and not-for-profit groups such as scouts and sporting clubs. It will also look at the response of child services agencies and the police to accusations of abuse.”

 So what does Kereopa want? Exclusion of the Catholic Church from such an inquiry? And how can she/he justify that? Because of its supernatural privilege? That it must be protected from such accusations and investigations because it is “sacred?”

 How else can Kereopa interpret an objective investigation of all bodies as persecution of his/her own organisation?

 Plain supernatural arrogance. Arrogance which is medieval and in this day and age deserves only a laugh. Why should the Catholic Church be exempt from such investigations, immune to even accusations or concerns? Especially as we now know its functionaries have often sexually abused the children in their care. And the organisation has often denied these crimes, protected the criminals and gone to great efforts to cover up the crimes. To the extent of allowing the crimes to continue and usually slandering the victims in the process.

As if to rub the salt into the psychological wounds of the victims of this child abuse, apologists for the Catholic Church have been frantically attempting to defend the supernatural privilege of confessions, the seal of the confessional. To protect this from investigations by the Royal Commission. They think their obligation to protect children in their care can be superseded by mythical supernatural claptrap.  Here’s how blogger Lucia Maria at New Zealand Conservative argues for a privilege of exempting Catholic confessions from the law:

“Confession is where a person is forgiven of their sins so that they are able to enter eternal life (ie not go to Hell). The priest represents our Lord Jesus Christ, and has been given the power to forgive sins.”

So, put a guy in a dress and give him a cross and he can represent a god! And you then claim that such a claim supersedes the rights of the victim? Innocent and defenceless children? Or the rights of society to get justice?

Who do these people think they are fooling – or even talking to? Most of us just don’t share their particular brand of supernaturalism. We are not convinced they have special privileges putting them above the law. Their talk of angels, hell and heaven don’t convince us that they should not have to obey the same laws we do. Especially when it comes to protecting our children.

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Are you offended yet? Ken Perrott Oct 11

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Loved this from a commenter on The Sensuous Curmudgeon’s recent post How Librarians Classify Creationism. Apparently his favourite librarian had a sign prominently displayed in the library which reads:

IF NOTHING HERE OFFENDS YOU, PLEASE COMPLAIN

On the same subject – ever notice how those who are most offended usually seem oblivious to the offence they cause others? If you haven’t already seen this video you will enjoy how Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard puts the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, in his place over the offence he has caused many Australian women.

Julia Gillard’s Speech Over Oppon’s Sexism, Misogyny

What really happens in religious instruction classes? Ken Perrott Jul 26

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In the current public discussion of the religious instruction classes in New Zealand public schools I notice many Christians are also opposing the current system. I had thought “Good on them. They are seeing this the same way I am as a matter of fairness, human rights, and opposing indoctrination of children.” And those letter-to-the-editor writers supporting the current scheme all seem to use rather extreme arguments which are not common with reasonable Christians.

However, I came across this video recently which makes me wonder if another motive for Christian concern about religious instruction in our schools is the way the more extreme religious cults can make use of it for evangelism. It’s one thing to know your child is being tutored by a kindly old Anglican woman – but the thought of a strident Exclusive Brethren having access to your children is a worry.

The video is of a talk by Joel Pittman, a former Pentecostal religious instruction teacher in Australia. They call their classes Scripture Classes or Special Religious Instruction (SRI), but essentially they have the same system as ours with the public school theoretically closed and instruction provided from an outside provider.

Religious Education and the Pentecostal Movement – Joel Pittman, Skepticamp Sydney 2011.

Joel describes how evangelicals use SRI for evangelism, how they frighten children into “giving their lives to Christ” and then encourage them to attend youth camps where they can be further indoctrinated.

I am sure many moderate Christian would be concerned if this was happening in New Zealand. And I am not saying it necessarily is. After all, the video describes the Australian situation. But it is obviously possible. Some of the more fundamentalist churches do recognise the possibilities religious instruction offer them in New Zealand. And it’s not as if school boards or the Ministry of Education vets the curriculum used, or the tutors. (After all, the school closes during the religious instruction classes).

The Trust Board of the Churches Education Commission (CEC) (which is one of the main providers in New Zealand) has representatives from many Christian denominations. It also has a rule to “ensure that no more than 40% of the total number of trustees at one time are from any one Member Denomination.” That seems good, but doesn’t necessarily ensure that extremist denominations have no influence. And the fact that some parents report their children being taught creationist stories does suggest they do have some influence.

The current CEC board includes representatives from Methodist, Assembly of God, Anglicans, Open Brethren, Presbyterian and Salvation Army.  And their last financial return shows donations from Anglicans, Associating Churches and Ministries of New Zealand (self-described as “fundamental, evangelistic and Holy Spirit honouring”), Baptist, Christian Brethren, Methodist and New Life churches.

Joel Pittman makes the point that the fundamentalist churches in Australia have the cash and can often override the less financial but more moderate churches with provision of SRI tutors and resources. It would be horrible to think this may also be true in New Zealand. I am sure most Christians would be concerned if this were so.

Perhaps its time for a bit more transparency. Who are the teachers supplied for teaching religious education in our schools? What are their denominations, beliefs and agendas? And how do they really run the classes?

Thanks to Chrys Stevenson at Gladly, the Cross-Eyed BearWhat REALLY happens in your child’s Scripture class – and beyond …

See also
Human values are secular


Mixing values and Jesus in secular education

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Ethical enquiry or moral instruction? Ken Perrott Jul 19

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There has been a raging debate locally about the religious instruction classes in New Zealand public schools. I commented before that the Churches Education Commission, who run this programme, are hiding behind the provision of values teaching in the school curriculum (see Human values are secular).

This is somewhat opportunist because it promotes the idea that religion is required to teach morality (“you can’t be good without God”) and that their activity accords with the secular curriculum. It also ignores the fact that values is already taught in the normal classes.

The video below gives some idea of how values can be taught as part of a secular curriculum – its worth comparing this with the bible story mythology used by the Churches Education Commission (I provided some examples of their curriculum in Human values are secular).

Primary Ethics – What Happens in an Ethics Class

The classes shown in the video were developed by the St James Ethics Centre in Australia. They were trialed as an alternative to the Scripture Instruction classes in a number of public schools in New South Wales. The trial was so successful a larger programme now operates and is provided by Primary Ethics Limited, a public company founded by the St James Ethics Centre. It is effectively operating in a similar manner to the Churches Education Commission here (school “closed” during lessons, voluntary teachers, etc) – except it does not yet have charitable tax exemption in the way that the church’s programme does. (It won’t be able to get it on grounds of advancing religion).

I am not suggesting this set-up as an alternative for New Zealand – partly because I can imagine that when a school is closed to provide separate Christian and secular classes (and logically Hindu, Muslim, etc., classes) the divisions created could cause playground trouble. In fact all children should participate together in a programme exploring human ethics, whatever their religion. Dividing children up according to sectarian interests would only impose moral instruction, which treats children as puppets to be indoctrinated, rather than training them to become morally autonomous.

If the current values component of New Zealand’s curriculum is done well I imagine classes would be similar to that shown in the video.

Below I have extracted some topics from the curriculum offered to children in NSW. Have a look and compare that with the mythology imposed on children by the Churches Education Commission in New Zealand’s religious instruction classes.

Kindergarten (Stage E1)

Thinking together

  • Asking good questions
  • Time for thinking
  • Taking turns – speaking and listening

Thinking together about questions that matter

Finding answers to different kinds of questions. Children will begin to distinguish ethical from other kinds of questions and learn how to disagree respectfully.

Putting it all together: ethical inquiry

Discussion topic: Being left out

Giving and asking for reasons

When should/do we give reasons? Giving reasons to our teachers, parents, friends, brothers or sisters

Needs of animals

What do animals need in order to live good lives?

Distinguishing social conventions from morals

Examples: Pushing in, staring, table manners, please and thank you.

Friendship

Why do people have friends? How do we know if someone is our friend? What makes a good friend?

Acting fairly

Discussing what is fair in a variety of situations familiar to Kindergarten students.

Telling a secret

A discussion around what secrets are and when it’s OK to share them and why.

Why do we have rules?

Do rules apply to everyone? What if there were no rules? Classroom/school-based examples.

Should we tell on people who do the wrong thing?

A discussion of what ‘doing the wrong thing’ means and asking the questions:

  • Should we always tell?
  • Should we never tell?
  • Should we sometimes tell?
  • How can we work it out?

Caring for the environment

Is it always OK to swing on the branches of a tree? Or to collect shells from the beach? Or catch tadpoles in the creek/small crabs/ insects…?
How do we decide what’s OK to do?

Year 6 (Stage 3.2)

A fair society?

Students will use The Outsiders story to consider issues of fairness in society.

Should Human Rights be extended to other animals?

Human rights: where do rights come from and how are they justified? What obligations do they impose on governments and individuals? To what extent, if any, should human rights be extended to other living creatures?

Fatalism

Are our futures and fates fixed? Does what we do today have any effect on what happens in the future?

Beliefs, Opinions, Tolerance and Respect

What does it mean to respect another person’s beliefs or opinions? Should we always respect the beliefs of others? To what extent should we be tolerant of moral difference?

Moral responsibility

To what extent can we be held morally responsible for our actions? What might it mean for society if it turned out that even our conscious decisions were determined in advance?

Drugs in Sport

Performance enhancing drugs are banned in all sports. Students will discuss the concept of unfair advantage and whether the taking of performance enhancing drugs is morally wrong.

Appeal to Authority – Revisited

To what extent do we still appeal unquestioningly to authorities in our everyday lives? What are the consequences of thinking and acting for one’s self? Students will look at examples of groups that have refused to follow blindly.

The value of nature and the environment.
Does nature have intrinsic value? Is the environment worthy of moral consideration just because it exists? Or does it have value only because it meets human needs?

Can war ever be just?

What is wrong with war? Is it ever right to go to war? Students will examine the issue of pacifism and non-violence (e.g., Ghandi) and discuss if there is a moral way to conduct war.

An ethical life

Consideration of our moral responsibility to others. To what extent do we have a responsibility to continue examining and discussing ethical issues once we leave Primary Ethics classes? Should we always stand up for our beliefs?


I think such discussion topics would be a very useful part of values classes – and I am sure the kids would enjoy the discussion.

See also: Primary Ethics Curriculum.

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Australian census confirms healthy trend Ken Perrott Jun 25

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The early results from the Australian 2011 census have appeared. There has been a lot of comment on the trends for religion. The No Religion group has now moved to second place (22.3%), behind Catholic (25.3%) and ahead of Anglican (17.1%). And, the No Religion group is the only one of the major religious groups that has increased since the previous Census (2006) – all the other major religious groups have declined. I have summarised the data (from 2011 Census QuickStats: Australia) in the figure below.

This trend is just a continuation of that clear since earlier census results (see Secular twins and Non religious in Australia and New Zealand). And Australia still has some catching up to do with New Zealand. (In 2006 the No Religion was about 34% in New Zealand and 19% in Australia).  Although this might be at least partly due to the fact that in New Zealand we put the “No religion” choice at the top of the box while the Australians put theirs at the bottom (see Non religious in Australia and New Zealand).

I’ll return to this when the Australian detailed census data is published. My interest is to see the breakdown with respect to age. Previous results in Australia and New Zealand show that the “No Religion” choice is much higher for younger people (see Religious belief and age). And the recent Pew data for the USA show there was a sharp jump in non-belief among younger people in the middle of the last decade (see Sharp increase in “nones”).

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Toss out the moderator for a better discussion Ken Perrott Apr 23

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Here’s an interesting video – a discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss at the Australian National University recently.

I have a couple of thoughts about this event:

  1. It really only took place because both speakers were in Australia for the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. I think this endorse a point made by one journalist that such conventions do have important spin-offs. Of course there are economic ones – and this convention, which attracted over 4000 participants, would have brought tourists and money into Melbourne and Australia generally. That’s why governments actually help fund events like this.
    But this journalist was also talking about the intellectual and cultural benefits the convention brought to the country. The in the country inevitably leads to other events – TV interviews, debates, lectures and discussions like this. This contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the country.
  2. Just look at how many people there were in the audience. it is gratifying to see top rate scientists creating such interest and drawing such crowds.
  3. The format of the discussion. Richard Dawkins has for some time expressed disappointment in the debate and moderated argument format. He repeats his reasons at the beginning of this video. Consequently he has undertaken a number of unmoderated discussions along the lines of this one. Personally I think they are successful – and much prefer them to debates which can end up as just glorified verbal boxing matches. I welcome readers thoughts on these formats.
    I look forward to such an unmoderated discussion where the participants have stronger difference. I like to think it could be successful. What do you think?

Thanks to:  Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in conversation at ANU | The RiotACT.

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Christmas gift ideas: Aussie wisdom Ken Perrott Dec 15

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Here’s another one suitable for Aussies, but one many New Zealanders will also find interesting

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.


Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism Edited by Warren Bonett.

Price: AU$35.00
Format: Paperback (448pp )
Size: 234mm x 153mm
ISBN (13): 9781921640766
Publisher: Scribe Publications (November 2010).

This is a book by Aussies, for Aussies. But given our similar histories and cultures there is a lot here for Kiwis as well.

It’s a collection of short articles by 33 Australians. They cover personal recollections and reflections. National history, education, social and cultural areas. Politics, philosophy and science. There is even a section on ’Religion and the Brain.’

As is the nature of such collections most readers will find something of interest. And different readers will inevitably have different favourites. My review reflects my own interests.

Why an Australian Book on Atheism?

And why now? Aussies, like Kiwis, are easy going. We don’t easily get our knickers in a twist — especially about religion. We feel our societies are secular. And why not ’live and let live?’

The editor, Warren Bonett tells us why in his article ’Why a Book on Atheist Thought in Australia?’ And his reply is relevant to us as well. Despite our illusions, Bonett argues, religion is embedded in the political systems of our countries. It has ’an automatic and largely unquestioned place in the public forum.’

Australian paid over $150 million for ’Catholic World Youth Day.’ And $1.5 million to help celebrate the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. Society places faith-based groups in charge of social services. Religious spokespeople appear to have unlimited access to politicians. And any criticism of religion provokes a response which ’sounds like aggression.’ How often have we heard such criticism, or indeed those making the criticism, described as ’aggressive, strident, and intolerant?’ Even ’fundamentalist.’ There is an unspoken rule ’You can’t criticise ideas of they are religious beliefs.’

And the privileges! Not least of which is the subsidy* we pay for with tax exemption purely based on supernatural belief. Religion also gets almost automatic, and unwarranted, recognition for authority on morality and ethics, education, human rights, healthcare and social services. Rarely are spokespeople for the non-religious consulted.

A New Zealand example of this is the work of our own Human Rights Commission on religious diversity. It treats this as a purely interfaith project thereby effectively excluding the non-religious sector from our diversity. Resulting publication give only lip-service, if that, to the non-religious. A typical example is their religious diversity police handbook which helps culturally sensitive behaviour from police in dealing with various religious groups. But no consideration of non-religious groups despite the high proportion of the population (one-third in the last census.) (See Police ignore non-religious).

Warren ably argues the case for the book. And, despite our illusions, he is not wrong.

Humour, history and theology

Many readers will welcome the inclusion of the words for Tim Minchen’s poem/song Storm. This is a real modern classic and I appreciate having the words easily accessible in a book I own. It’s something I am sure I will come back to often. To relive the performance.

Chrys Stevenson begins the book with a history of atheism in Australia (Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-wing Loonies.) It is fascinating. One day I hope someone produces a similar history for New Zealand.

Peter Ellerton’s article ’Theology is Not Philosophy’ attracted me. It is fashionable today for theologians to hide behind the label Philosophy. To use the word as if there is only one version of philosophy and it is the one they peddle. To try to give respectability to their dogma and pronouncements by labelling them ’philosophy.’

Ellerton, who teaches secondary school philosophy critiques theology by showing that, in contrast to real philosophy, theology does not encourage critical thinking and reasoning skill in pupils. As he says: ’theology promotes an acceptance of avoiding, minimising, or otherwise refashioning philosophical analysis, inductive reasoning, and deductive logic, while dishonestly brandishing them as the legitimate tools of its trade.’ It is ’difficult to avoid circular reasoning within a teleological framework.’ And ’it is this inescapable aspect that neatly cleaves off theology from the rest of philosophy.’

Well worth reading.

Meaning, Purpose and morality

I am pleased to see several articles confronting the issues of ethics, morality, meaning and spirituality. Areas where religion claims special skills and tries to deny to unbelievers. Dr Robin Craig’s article ’Good without God’ develops an argument for secular ethics. It rejects the religious monopoly and argues that secular morality does not conflict with the old ’is-ought’ problem which by critics of secular ethics often trot out

Professor Peter Woolcock argues for meaning and purpose in the lives of non-believers in his article ’Atheism and the Meaning of Life.’ And the President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Ian Robinson, talks about spirituality in ’Atheism as a Spiritual Path.’ This pleased me as I think spirituality is a word we sometimes avoid because one of its meanings relates to supernatural ideas. In doing so I think we often enable our critics to extend the meaning and argue that we cannot appreciate the higher things in life, art, music, culture and even nature.

Another section that interested me was that on ’Religion and the Brian.’ This includes two articles ’The Neurobiology of Religious Experience’ by Dr Adam Hamlin, and ’Neuroscience, Religious Experience, and Sensory Deception’ by Dr Rosemary Lyndall Wemm. Necessarily brief these give a taste for some of the current research literature in this field.

Conclusion

Last March I attended the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. So I recognise some of the authors in this collection who also spoke at that convention. Sometimes their articles summarise those talks. Both that convention, and this book, has helped me understand the huge depth of atheist thinking in Australia. In this collection the authors have widely diverse backgrounds. There are historians, politicians, writers, lawyers, broadcasters, social workers, doctors, musicians, comedians, teachers, engineers, philosophers, scientists, bloggers, social scientists, anthropologists and psychologists. And then there are a few who hold positions in Australian atheist, humanist and sceptics organisations.

Warren Bonett, the editor, seems ideally placed as editor. He owns a bookshop, Embiggen Books, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, which specialises in scientific and sceptical books. This generalist approach must explain his ability to contact such a wide and representative sample of authors.

I recommend this book to anyone at all interested in atheism down under. Even if your interest is limited to a narrow aspect like law, philosophy or education, rather than the movement as a whole. You will find something of interest and relevance here.

*A useful appendix in this book (’The Cost of Advancing Religion’) includes a table itemising the ’Cost of Religious Exemptions and Subsidies to Taxpayers.’ The estimated total for Australia is $31.1 billion!

See also: Warren Bonett – Down Under Reason. A point of inquiry interview where Bonett discusses this book.

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