Not reasoning the need, Maurice Goldsmith

Heathen in Godzone: Seventy Years of Rationalism in New Zealand
Bill Cooke
New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, (no price given),
ISBN 0 473 05392 6

This book is devoted to the institutional history of Rationalism in New Zealand. Basically Rationalism is a doctrinal stance. It involves a rejection of faith and of the supernatural as explanations of the world. Its institutional history is that of a series of organisations in which Rationalists have associated to oppose the doctrines of Christianity and the social and political influence of Christian organisations, especially Christian churches.

Bill Cooke’s book is almost entirely concerned with one set of Rationalist associations – those being the most successful and most continuous ones based in Auckland. The book mentions other Rationalist, Humanist and “free thought” societies, but only in so far as they come in contact with the Auckland sequence of societies do they actually form part of this history. Thus we have a book devoted to the Auckland Rationalist Association (refounded 25 May 1927; originally founded 1923) and its descendants, and published to commemorate the 70th anniversary of its refounding. (Bill Cooke, editor of The New Zealand Rationalist and Humanist, was president of the current society from 1993 to 1997.) The book traces the Auckland societies through 70 years, identifying and commenting on the personalities involved and their activities. It includes appendices listing officers and publications of the societies.

The organisation arrived at its current state through a series of transformations. By June 1929 the ARA had become the New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Rationalism. At a special general meeting on 5 October 1931, the organisation dissolved itself and reformed into the Rationalist Association and Sunday Freedom League. In 1954 the society appropriated the name of the defunct Christchurch organisation and officially became the New Zealand Rationalist Association. Its final transformation occurred in 1997 when it became the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists.

The backbone of the organisation was dozens of dedicated Rationalists. Cooke gives short sketches of the lives and activities of many of them and mentions many more. In one chapter (Chapter 8: “Beyond Bombay”) he strays beyond Auckland to talk about some of the other societies. These, he claims, had intermittent existences; the flame of Rationalism was ignited in small coteries of like-minded anti-religionists and kept alive by the committed efforts of one or a few enthusiasts, becoming moribund when those groups were broken up by death or other factors which removed the spark. While this may indeed be an explanation for the lack of continuity of those societies, it leaves the success of the Auckland societies unexplained, especially since the book itself reveals that the Auckland societies were equally dependent on individual enthusiasts and often beset by financial difficulties, despite the eventual achievement of purchasing a property in Symonds Street as a permanent base.

There were several types of activities in the Auckland societies. First, there were periodic meetings, often dedicated to lectures or debates on favourite subjects, such as the historicity of Jesus, the truth of evolution, the untruth of the Bible, sex and (after the mid-1930s) Communism and atheism in the Soviet Union, but also, especially in periods of the societies’ relative flourishing, other types of entertainments, including films. Secondly, the societies maintained a periodical, which itself changed its titles and format from time to time. They also occasionally published books. Thirdly, the societies attempted to influence public policy in Auckland and in New Zealand.

The societies opposed restrictions on Sunday activities for several reasons. Those restrictions were religiously supported and intended to strengthen the hold of Christian superstition by removing alternatives to churchgoing. Moreover the restrictions were applied in Auckland in ways detrimental to the societies. Their meetings and lectures were deemed “entertainments” and their application that they be permitted was refused. The societies opposed prayers and religious instruction in schools, supporting secular state education. They campaigned for more space in the newspapers and more broadcasting time for Rationalist views. They promoted freedom of thought and expression and the propagation of science.

Cooke is indignant that reason did not more frequently prevail – naively so, since he lacks a conceptual framework for assessing the activities of pressure groups. His book provides a good record of facts about the Auckland societies and also supplies normative judgments on individuals and events: right and wrong decisions, conservative and liberal individuals; the right and wrong sides of disputes. But the grounds for these judgments are frequently unexplained.

That Rationalists have normally been Left in their politics appears from the anecdotal evidence of radical working class members at the ARA’s inception, connections with individuals prominent in the Labour Party and the addiction to Stalinism (Cooke calls it Marxism) which lingered into the 80s. It is also clear that hostility to religion by lapsed believers strongly motivated many members. Cooke, however, seems incapable or unwilling to ask historical questions.

Were there changes in the composition and connections of members over time? How do these societies compare in their success and continuity with similar voluntary organisations in New Zealand? How do they compare with Rationalist societies abroad? Why did Stalinism linger on so long? Why the hostility to Humanists? There appears to have been a shift from imitating the British model to greater American influence after the war. Was this merely a reflection of the rise of the United States as a world power and Britain’s decline? Not all these questions may be answerable but the failure to ask these kinds of questions makes the book a memorialising of the institution rather than a history of an intellectual movement in New Zealand.

Maurice Goldsmith has recently retired from the Philosophy Department at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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