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Secularism in New Zealand (1998)

Finngeir Hiorth


Cooke, Bill (1998) Heathen in Godzone. Seventy Years of Rationalism in New Zealand, New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, 64 Symonds Street, Auckland 1001, New Zealand, 240 pp., appendices, bibliography, other sources, index. Price paperback $NZ 34.95 + postage.

This book gives introduction to and survey of secularism in New Zealand, particularly focused on the history of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanist. This association was founded in May 1927 as the Auckland Rationalist Association.

This was not the first rationalist association of NZ as it for one thing had been preceded by a similar organization which axisted for most of 1923 and which had been founded on the occasion of a visit by Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) to New Zealand. McCabe is famous in freethought circles. He was an Englishman who at 23 was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. He served the Catholic Church for about 10 years, also as a professor of philosophy, then left it and started a life-long campaign against religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. However, McCabe had also many other intellectual interests and when he died 88 years old he had published about 200 books or long pamphlets on a wide range of subjects.

McCabe visited New Zealand in June and July 1923 and gave talks to various audiences. A number of the early stalwarts of the Rationalist Association went to these meetings and were deeply inspired. Some had also read some of McCabe’s books. Quoting the London-based Month, the NZ Catholic magazine Tablet called McCabe a “fourth-rate amateur” and a “palpable outsider”. Cooke suggests that the founder of the Christian religion also might be called a “fourth-rate amateur” and a “palpable outsider”, but many Christians, of course, do not care or do not agree, and even believe that he was the son of God.

Cooke’s book on NZ rationalism also mentions some other early NZ groups of secularists or individuals. Organized secularism in NZ can, in fact, be traced back to the 1850s. There was reportedly a “Secular Society” in Auckland ca. 1853-1860. Later, in Dunedin, on the South Island, there was an organization of secularists who called themselves “freethinkers”. It was founded in 1878 and existed until 1890. An important figure in this group was Charles Bright. Although Cooke also gives us some glimpses into early groups of secularists, his account is mainly limited to the history of of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists from 1927 until mid 1997.

This association undoubtedly has had its ups and downs, and Cooke does not try to hide conflicts and periods of decline. With regard to numbers of members, the association seems to have a reached a peak of 1274 members in 1946. In 1957 the association had 700-800 members, and in 1962 338 members. At the end of 1996 the association had almost 400 members and the economy was fairly satisfactory.

A significant development during the last 40 years has been the purchase of a Rationalist House in Auckland in 1960. The association still owns this house. It is a freehold property with a value which has been estimated at NZ$ 1.000.000 and it brings about NZ$ 30.000 a year in rents. But renovations in recent years have cost at least NZ$ 117.000, so much money has disappeared into this “black hole”.

Another significant development has been the rise of the Humanist Society in NZ. Cooke does not enter into the details of the development of this society, but it was founded in 1967 and still exists. Many years the relations between the Rationalist Association and the Humanist Society were quite bad. but, if we are to believe Cooke’s account, this has improved considerably during recent years. And I suspect that Bill Cooke has played an important role in ‘ this development as he was president of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists from June 1993 to June 1997. Cooke has also edited the NZ Rationalist and Humanist since 1992 in an excellent way.

Cooke’s book is arranged chronologically. Most of the freethought activities in NZ have been on the North Island, and particularly in Auckland. But there have also been groups in other cities or townships, a few on the South Island. Nowadays there are about eleven groups of secularists in NZ, not all independent from each other. They call themselves “rationalists”, “humanists”, “atheists”, “skeptics” or “freethinkers”. The name “freethinker” has become more popular in recent years, although it has been used by individuals or groups at least since the 1870s.

Bill Cooke was born in Kenya in 1956 and has lived in New Zealand since 1965. He has been a member of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists since 1986. Cooke is a lecturer at Manukau Institute of Technology’s Art and Design Department, where he gives courses on philosophy, systems of belief and mythology. His book has been adapted from a PhD thesis written for the Religious Studies Department of Victoria University of Wellington.

Cooke has produced an excellent book. It contains an impressive wealth of information. It is easy to find one’s way through the book and a good index makes it even easier. Cooke has a clear style and most of his book is easy to understand. His focus is on organizational development more than on the ideas of the many secularists that he mentions, but there is also quite a lot of information on ideas.

The title of the book, “Heathen in Godzone”, suggests that secularists in New Zealand are quite isolated and live on islands in a sea of religious faith. But Cooke does not give much information about the Character and prevalence of religion in New Zealand. It is my impression that in many countries today both convinced secularists and religious believers live as islands in a sea of indifference. As far as sympathy from this indifferent mass is forthcoming, it is amazingly often in favour of the religious rather than of the secularists. Whether this applies to New Zealand I do not know.

Secularism in New Zealand has been clearly influenced by developments in Great Britain, particularly through the Rationalist Press Association, and by developments in the USA. One might suspect that developments of NZ secularism is of no interest for secularists in Europe or North America. But for an old atheist like myself it has been fascinating to read Cooke’s book. It is with pleasure that I recommend this book to anybody who is interested in secularism in general or in secularism in New Zealand in particular.

Finngeir Hiorth

Kirkehaugsveien 3

N-0283 Oslo


7 August 1998.

“Secularism in New Zealand” is copyright © 1998 by Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1998 Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.