Bill Cooke is the Past President and a Trustee of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.). Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Bill Cooke: My background is unusual, I suppose. I was born in Kenya when it was a British colony. I am one year away from being second-generation Kenyan.
We left Kenya in 1965, two years after it became independent, unlike most English people my parents knew, who left soon after. We then moved to New Zealand, rather than return to England.
I grew to adulthood just at the time when the English became ‘pommie bastards’, in reaction to Britain joining the EU and hanging countries like New Zealand out to dry.
As to religion, my father’s favourite comment sums my parents’ views up. When asked if he was religious, he would answer, “Religious? Certainly not. We’re Church of England.”
I was brought up in a house crammed with books. That is a habit I have maintained, owning something around 4000 now.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Cooke: Neither of my parents had much formal education. The war intervened. But they both valued learning and education. I was the first in my family to go to university. I ended up three masters degrees and a PhD.
Jacobsen: As the Past President and Trustee of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.), what comes along with this experience, in perspective as a past president, and this new role, as a trustee?
Cooke: My mantra while active is that nobody is indispensable. The curse of voluntary organisations (especially if they have money) is people who come along, so some work, and presume themselves indispensable to the organisation’s future.
The moment anyone gets anywhere near such a thought is the moment they should be sidelined. So, proper procedure and processes, while dull, is what is indispensable.
Jacobsen: What have perennial threats to the work and practice of the rationalistic and humanistic movements in New Zealand?
Cooke: New Zealand is such a secular country that remaining relevant is among the key challenges.
As well as maintaining a continuing critique of religious claims and pretensions, rationalist and humanist organisations really must offer up a contrasting vision of how life can be led successfully without recourse to the supernatural in any way.
Jacobsen: Who have been important allies in the activist work for the organization?
Cooke: In my view we should ally ourselves with liberal religious groups, who often share similar views about evangelical religion. I have in mind groups like Unitarians and the Sea of Faith.
Also, a range of single issue groups like voluntary euthanasia, penal reform are natural allies. I would like to see much more effort made to work with green organisations. The anti-science Gaia-inspired fluff many of them like to spout is a barrier to the progress that is needed.
Jacobsen: What have been substantial or, at least, noteworthy legal and sociocultural wins towards more equality and instantiation of rationalist and humanist values within the public sphere?
Cooke: Changing attitudes toward homosexuality, blasphemy and euthanasia. And there is something of a reduction in the casual prejudice against atheists.
Jacobsen: If you could mark one man and one woman who have been integral to the work of the international rationalist and humanist movements, who have they been? Why them?
Cooke: Paul Kurtz had many faults, but he put his money where his mouth is and made many serious contributions to humanism, both in the United States and around the world.
And Alice Roberts in Britain is doing excellent work in articulating a science-based humanist outlook to the general public.
Jacobsen: What are some other recommended organizations, books, and so on, with rationalist and humanist content?
Cooke: The Center for Inquiry in the US, the Rationalist Association in Britain and the Atheist Centre in India are the standout organisations in my opinion.
For books, the list is too long, but a core list would have to include Bertrand Russell’s ‘The faith of a rationalist’ and ‘Why I am not a Christian’. I enjoyed Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Book of Atheist Spirituality and Robert Solomon’s Spirituality for the Skeptic.
In other moods I got a lot from Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Floris van den Berg’s Philosophy for a Better World does a fair job of lining atheism up with green priorities. I also got a lot from Tzvetan Todorov’s Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Cooke: Time and money are the two most important ways to contribute and there is no shortage of ways to employ those two resources.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Cooke: The movement is not, in my view, doing enough to articulate what a humanist life, free from the pretensions of supernaturalism, would look and feel like.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Cooke.
Cooke: Happy to help.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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