What would Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, Sir Robert Stout, John A Lee (politicians), A R D Fairburn, R A K Mason (writers and poets), Sir James Shelley, and Sir T A Hunter (academics) have in common? Very little, except that they were all members of the NZ Association of Rationalists & Humanists. This organisation has been going without a break since 1927. So, what’s it done in all that time?
In New Zealand, Rationalism was first established in Dunedin in 1878. The foundation stone of its Freethought Hall was laid by Sir Robert Stout, a Chief Justice and Prime Minister of New Zealand, who was a leading member of the movement.
The Auckland Rationalist Association was formed in 1927, and established a journal entitled The Truth Seeker. The first issue was dated 3 July 1927, priced at 3 pence. It was well received and sold rapidly. Monthly meetings were held at the Majestic Theatre. They proved an immediate success, attracting audiences of up to 2000.
The Association came to prominence by defending state schools from over-zealous religionists desperate to have their brand of Christianity shoved down everyone’s throat. The Association also campaigned to free up Sundays in a way we now take for granted. In the 1920s there were the sorts of killjoy who actually thought it beneficial for the spiritual welfare of children that their playgrounds and swings in public parks be chained up on Sunday. Permits were needed – and usually refused – to show a film or to have a game of rugby or bowls on a Sunday. The Rationalist Association was prosecuted – twice – for screening films on Sundays.
During the Second World War, the Association campaigned for the civil liberties of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had been banned by the government because they were thought to be a threat to the war effort. We also advocated the rights of conscientious objectors, even though the Rationalists themselves were overwhelmingly in favour of pursuing the war effort vigorously. Rationalists have often supported the ‘underdog’ when they themselves have been subjected to persecution.
After the war, it was our turn to be persecuted – again. This time it was for distributing sex literature! The material, called The Journal of Sex Education, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today. Among the more terrible pieces of advice in this journal was that sexual problems could be caused by stress and by feelings of having to be more than what you are. What would seem commonplace today was subversive in 1953, and again the Association paid the price for being ahead of its time.
In 1960 the Association purchased its present headquarters at 64 Symonds Street in Auckland, from where we have continued our activities. In recent years we have fought for abortion rights, voluntary euthanasia, and the strict separation of church and state. We have also opposed the discriminatory use of public funds to sponsor specific religious events, such as a Christmas nativity scene that was erected in Aotea Square by the Auckland City Council at the expense of Auckland’s ratepayers.
From the very beginning the Association has sponsored or co-sponsored academics and speakers to visit the country to speak on issues of current importance. In recent years these have included the American skeptic and conjuror James Randi; the Australian geologist Ian Plimer, author of Telling Lies For God; and the British psychologist David Marks, author of The Psychology of the Psychic.
The Association holds monthly meetings with guest speakers and discussions on topics relating to Rationalism and Humanism. Our executive council also meets monthly to conduct the Association’s administrative affairs. Our journal, now called The Open Society, is published quarterly. (In February 1997 the name of the Association was also altered to include the term ‘Humanist’.) The Association’s private library houses one of the largest collections of freethought literature in the southern hemisphere. 1998 saw the publication of the official history of the Association, Heathen in Godzone: Seventy Years of Rationalism in New Zealand.
The NZ Association of Rationalists & Humanists has always tried to protect the freedoms of all people by preserving the best guarantee of that freedom, which is a secular state that shows no favour to any system of belief.