Interview with Peter Harrison – President, New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.)

by | March 29, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Peter Harrison is the President 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?

Peter Harrison: Born in Auckland into a church going family I was introduced to Christianity at a young age. However, the influences of TV, especially Star Trek and the Spock character gave me a respect and love of science.

As I grew I also embraced the martial arts and some of the philosophies of Buddhism. While I attended Sunday School the stories were always understood as mythology rather than literal truth. I’ve never been a theist, but my family is mostly Christian.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Harrison: I reached six form certificate before joining the software industry in 1990.  I have always had a passion for computing and artificial intelligence.

In 2002 I helped form the New Zealand Open Source Society and became it’s first President. As part of this role I opposed software patents in New Zealand.

Thanks to the efforts of many people this campaign was a success. This experience educated me in running social campaigns and managing voluntary organisations.

Jacobsen: As the President of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.), what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Harrison: The responsibilities of President have primarily been organisational. From time to time I am called on to speak for the association, but to be honest this is not a position which carries much fame.

I have presented before select committees and Auckland Council in relation to submissions we have made. I have participated in several debates which can be found on our YouTube channel. Such duties usually rest with the President.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more important upcoming initiatives and programs of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.)?

Harrison: This year we hope that the legal case related to religion in state schools will be heard. This has been an ongoing campaign since 2012. The NZARH has committed significant resources to help this legal case proceed.

We are also supporting law changes such as the decriminalization of abortion and the End of Life Choice Bill that is before Parliament. We are also supporting the end of Blasphemous Libel law.

Later this year we expect Statistics New Zealand will release the latest number on religious affiliation from the last New Zealand Census. If the expected projections are correct Christians will no longer be the majority in New Zealand.

We have also been helping atheist refugees fleeing Islamic countries settle in New Zealand. This is an increasing problem and one which needs international attention.

Jacobsen: Why are rationalists and humanists, typically, treated in a different way than the religious in countries around the world, and often for the worse?

Harrison: Ask the easy questions why don’t you. New Zealand is a pretty tolerant country. I think that here we don’t really face overt day to day discrimination to nearly the extent people do in the rest of the world.

That said there are still discriminatory laws on the books that give religious organisaitons special rights that secular organisations don’t have, while we continue to have discriminatory religious indoctrination in state schools.

In some countries atheism is a capital offense and those proclaiming it face execution. In countries we consider more enlightened and democratic such as the United States atheism is less respected and more hated than Islam despite many great people from the United States being atheists.

A full answer to this question is beyond the scope of a short interview.

Jacobsen: Who are prominent New Zealand writers and speakers on the subject matter of rationalism and humanism?

Harrison: I don’t think we have a ‘Christopher Hitchens’ type character who is well known outside our community.  Max Wallace and his wife Meg Wallace have written books about the Purple Economy, meaning the religious economy resulting from tax exemptions.

Robert Nola was a professor at Auckland University, now retired, who taught Philosophy and engaged with religious topics.

Bill Cooke, now residing in the UK, has written multiple books, the last one on the history of Humanism called ‘A Wealth of insights’. I have spoken several times at various venues, including a number of engagements with Christian venues. 

See some these videos for some videos from the above speakers.

Jacobsen: If you could move the dial of equality for the rationalists and the humanists within the country more towards equality, how would you do it?

Harrison: The mission of the NZARH is not to fight exclusively for the interests of humanists and rationalists, rather it is to support our objects, which means the promotion of reason and evidence being a way to know about reality, and supporting the right to freedom of belief and speech for all. We support a open and tolerant society.

While we will certainly campaign to see inequality in the law towards atheists addressed we also stand beside minority religion in terms of their right to belief and free speech.

What we don’t agree with is bigotry and hatred against groups based on ethnicity, gender or sexual preference. We don’t agree with special rights and privileges for the religious or religious organisations. 

Jacobsen: In terms of activism and advocacy, what have been real successes and honest failures of the rationalist and humanist movements within New Zealand? What can other organizations around the world learn from those successes, to build on them, and failures, to enact course corrections in case of heading in that direction?

Harrison: One of the lessons I discovered at the Open Source Society is that the President has no command authority. There is no army, no ranks, no ability to direct. 

Furthermore unlike religious organisations we hold free thinking as our primary value, and so our organisation is filled with people who have strong views differing from one another in many respects.

Individual agency and open discussion in the NZARH is the norm, and a collective orthodoxy does not exist. Religious organisations have an agreed orthodoxy which cannot be challenged which defines their community, within which there is security and support.

For these reasons sometimes getting everyone pointed in the same direction can be challenging.

But this weakness is also strength because people do not simply accept what they are told blindly. I’m proud that we have people who are capable of acting independently with integrity and honesty. One thing that runs high is our commitment and dedication. 

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?

Harrison: Becoming a member and contributing financially is always welcome. We use this money to run campaigns which aim for significant social or legal change.

Social networks have allowed us to reach more people, but it is still a challenge to convert social media support into more real world support. We have not been entirely unsuccessful with this but it is still a non trivial problem.

Many people are concerned about specific issues, and so their focus will be on what they are personally invested in. We are involved with several campaigns where people can help support directly.

What this means depends on the campaign. Some might involve writing to your MP, others might involve protests, others involve attending committees and councils. 

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Harrison: The importance of reason and evidence today cannot be overstated. We live in a world where the leaders of the most powerful country in the world denies the science behind the most serious existential risk we have seen to humanity behind nuclear war.

It is troubling to see the rise of science denial such as flat earth belief and the proliferation of beliefs which are manifestly in contradiction to what we know from the science.

We are in the end game now. What we do as a species over the next twenty to fifty years will potentially seal our fate as a civilization if not a species.

We have seen the degeneration of reasoned debate and the advent of a toxic political environment where people are being vilified, abused and threatened. If we don’t get our house in order the price we pay will be our future.

At the end of the day my motivation for volunteering as the humble servant of the association was to do what little I could to turn the rudder, even if only a little.

Obviously there are many also trying, a personal hero of mine today despite his flaws is Elon Musk. He respects science and evidence. He understand the threat we face and has done more than any individual I know to turn the rudder. We need more like him.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Peter.

Harrison: Thank you for taking the time to write.

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:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Philipp Trubchenko on Unsplash

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