Preface to Heathen in Godzone
by Bill Cooke
Why on earth would anyone want to read, much less write, a book about Rationalism? In this day and age? After all, we now live in world where the word 'rational' is a term of abuse and is usually prefixed by the adverb 'coldly'. Similarly, 'rationalising' has taken on the meaning that 'sophistry' or 'casuistry' used to have.
We are in a period where the word 'spirituality' is enjoying a vogue; a rather vague vogue. This term seems to be both a modern pineal gland in that it functions as a junction between body and soul, while also being a replaceable commodity, one that can be renewed with each succeeding pseudo religious or pop psychology sensation to emerge.
Certainly few words are as militantly unfashionable as are the three words that most sum up the Rationalist position. They are reason, science, and tolerance. Each of these concepts has been subjected to withering scorn over the past half century. So much scorn, in fact, that many people think - and some rejoice - at the passing of these rusty old shibboleths. Many claim to have seen the corpses, and some claim to be their slayers. On the one hand, postmodernists gladly bid farewell to reason, usually in long books that follow an argument coherently (more or less) from premise to conclusion. On the other hand, a resurgent fundamentalism shrieks hysterically about the menace of secular humanism. And standing on the periphery, liberal theologians, unaware of how insipid their message is to the mass of the faithful, are glad to see the end of a 'barren secularism', preferring to speak occasionally of the faith dimension of Humanism.
A book seeking to write positively about reason, science and tolerance will elicit a benign smile from all these people who like to think that we have 'moved beyond' such naive scientism, eurocentric progressionism or humanist nihilism (apply to taste). We move beyond things these days. It saves us the bother of actually arguing one's case systematically. Indeed, to argue a case systematically is nothing more than buying into the discredited 'Enlightenment project'.
So, it will be obvious that this is not a book for the followers of fashion. This book is dedicated to the notion that reason is an indispensable component of being a civilised human being. Equally, it is dedicated to the idea that science is going to play a significant part in saving our planet and the black sheep of the family that lives upon it - homo sapiens. It is also dedicated to the notion that tolerance is a civic responsibility. This book is critical of many people, movements and ideas. Tolerance, however, does not preclude criticism, because Humanists do not wish their opponents dead, nor do they see them as wicked. Wrong, misguided, even deluded - but never as intrinsically evil. Bertrand Russell, in his 'liberal decalogue' decreed
Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
It is one of New Zealand's best kept secrets that it can boast a long and distinguished history of Freethought. On May 25 1927 the Auckland Rationalist Association was formed and this year is the seventieth anniversary of the organisation which, under five different names, has carried on the Rationalist cause. But this was not the first Rationalist organisation, nor even the first Auckland Rationalist Association, let alone the first grouping dedicated to Freethought. It is merely the longest lasting of the many organisations devoted to Freethought in this country. Freethought, by the way, will be used here as a superset category, with Rationalism and Humanism as subsets of that broader term. Rationalists and Rationalism will have a capital letter throughout the history, both as a mark of courtesy and as a recognition that we are referring to members of an organisation. Humanists and Humanism will go uncapitalised until the formation of the Humanist Society, when the same rules will apply. This has nothing to do with any lesser respect accorded to Humanism, as this story will demonstrate.
There has been a flowering of church histories and biographies of church personalities, but there has been very little research into this interesting aspect of New Zealand's history. This study of the NZ Rationalist Association, the longest running association devoted to Freethought in New Zealand, is an attempt to bridge this huge gap.
Most of the references to the Association in current literature are dismissive. Peter Lineham, a prominent historian who has publicly declared his Christian commitment, has referred to Freethought's apparent failure to 'inspire unbelievers' and notes that 'the establishment of the New Zealand Rationalist Association in Auckland did not significantly reverse this trend. If the churches complain of declining numbers, they should be grateful that they have not declined as much as Rationalism has.' Another work, written by Allan Davidson of St John's Theological College, dismisses Freethought and Rationalism as one arm of religious indifference, and a sectarian one at that. Given that so little has been written about Rationalism until now, it is hard to imagine upon what basis these judgments are made. Things have not been much better with the various biographers of Freethinkers that have been published over the past twenty years. Recent biographies of John Ballance, Michael Joseph Savage, and James Shelley barely mention their Rationalist sympathies. Edward Tregear and John A Lee fare a little better. Lee was a long-standing member of the Association, Shelley a vice-president right through his period as Director of Broadcasting during the First Labour Government, and Savage, Ballance and Tregear were all freethinkers of various stripes throughout the vast majority of their life.
Rather than having declined catastrophically, this book will show that, contrary to all expectations, organised Rationalism has, without a single penny of financial assistance from government coffers, survived over a long period of time. Given the resources at its disposal, its achievements have been remarkable. And rather than Rationalism having failed to inspire people, the important fact is that it has never sought to inspire people. Rationalism is nothing more than an ongoing discourse of reason. Rationalists have always done religion the courtesy of taking it seriously. But equally, they have never been in the business of providing inspiration. Inspiration is usually provided by means of slogans, creeds and uncritical belief, and nothing could be further from the Rationalist point of view. Karl Popper described rationalism as 'an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience.' There is far too much work in Rationalism for it ever to inspire more than the very dedicated.
It is also obvious that Allan Davidson misunderstands Rationalism by seeing it as an arm of religious indifference. The cerebral nature of Rationalism and its insistence that one must always be ready to learn is hardly the stuff of which religious indifference is built. The accusation of sectarianism, sadly, has more validity. The periods when Rationalism best fitted that ugly description were those when it most resembled a religion; in particular the neo-religious creed of Marxism.
Because Rationalists have always taken religion seriously, their problem has been how to take religion seriously. Is it enough to oppose religion; can that be an end in itself? Or must something else be offered? And if something else is to be offered, does this mean that Freethought is just another religion? These have been the questions that have exercised Rationalists for over seventy years.
As with most organisations, the Rationalist Association has had its ups and downs, and doubtless some will take pleasure in recounting the periods of the Association's history are not noteworthy examples of reason in action. But those who will be happy to sneer at the apparent irrationalities of Rationalists should remember that Rationalism is far from being a guarantee of good behaviour. Charles Watts, a very prominent Rationalist at the beginning of this century wrote that 'although reason is not infallible as a guide, it is the best one known to us.' Later on H G Wells, beyond doubt one of the most influential Rationalists of the century, noted that 'man is an imperfect animal and never quite trustworthy in the dark. Neither morally nor intellectually is he safe from lapses.' And most recently Ernest Gellner has lamented that the Promethean aspiration of programme of self-creation defines us, even though it can never to totally fulfilled. We are, in Gellner's words, 'a race of failed Prometheuses. Rationalism is our destiny. It is not our option, and still less our disease.' Rationalism requires, first and foremost, a responsible individual who values veracity above all things when dealing with religious, philosophical or social issues. In many ways this is the story about people trying to make a success of an organisation, with its concomitants of structure and conformity, while holding dear a world view involving a Promethean individualism. Given that unstable mix, it is remarkable the Association has survived at all, let alone prospered in its own modest way.
The people who have devoted their time and energy to the Rationalist Association have been ordinary men and women. Up until the fifties, the identikit Rationalist would have had a religious upbringing in a family of modest rather than poor means. This early piety was usually broken by reading a Rationalist or scientific book; more often than not, one on evolution. It is remarkable how often the same authors are mentioned as sources of the break from faith. Books like Winwood Reade's The Martyrdom of Man or Vivian Phelips' The Churches and Modern Thought were mentioned regularly until at least the Second World War. Authors mentioned usually include Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Joseph McCabe and H G Wells. This Rationalist usually had relatively little formal education but was nonetheless is a wide reader and retained a Wellsian confidence in the improving power of learning. Not infrequently, their leaving the Church was often marked by long and painful battles with family, friends and themselves, which left permanent emotional scars. By and large these Rationalists spent their active time in the Association after retirement.
After the sixties the average member was less likely to come from a religious home and was more likely to have gone on to further education. Their loyalty to the pool of Rationalist authors mentioned above was far less intense than the earlier generation. After that, virtually no further generalisation can be made about contemporary Rationalists. They range from the classic Rationalist portrayed above to young, very intelligent and well-educated, dauntingly computer-literate technocrats. These are the people who have made the Rationalist Association their philosophical home for the past seventy years and, for better or worse, this is their story.
The chapters run in chronological order from the first, unsuccessful, attempt to form the Association in 1923, to the present day. This is a history of the people who have played a part in the Rationalist Association and, in deference to that fact, little attention will be given to outlining the Rationalist world view. This book is not an intellectual history, but the history of an association, and of the people who have constituted that association. So huge is the gap in understanding of Freethought in New Zealand that this historical narrative has to be written before any analysis of the intellectual history of the movement can be attempted.