Interview with Ngaire McCarthy – Past President and Trustee, New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Ngaire McCarthy is the Past President and a Trustee of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.). Here we talk about her life, views, and work.

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?

Ngaire McCarthy: I am Māori: Born 1942 in Auckland. My Iwi are Ngapuhi, Ngati Tamatera, Ngati Hako. I have six siblings; my father was an atheist my mother was a sceptical religionists.

Although I was not introduced to religion I observed it at school and at functions, I was astute enough to notice that Christians saw us Māori as sinners that needed to be converted to their god. I resented them and their hypocrisy. My eldest brother introduced me to science fiction, from those books grew a curiosity about science, astronomy and the complexity of the world around me. 

I read my father’s books on Socrates and Plato, so my education started at home. I was brought up with a social conscience and a healthy disrespect for authority.

My mother taught us about our tikanga our Māori culture, the first thing I noticed was the place of women in the pakeha world, before colonisation Māori women were equal to their men, Christianity tried to change that, happy to say that they did not succeed, we Māori women worked hard to retain our place in our own society while pakeha women were suppressed and had no rights.

I joined the Women’s Liberation movement to help my pakeha sisters fight for equality and respect. As far as creation stories go I prefer the stories of my Māori ancestors, we have about 95 gods and goddesses, they were adventurous, magic and funny, and they only warred among themselves.

In my teens I became involved in the fight for the rights of my people which led me deeper into the history of the part that religion played in the oppression and suppression of Māori.

I became interested in the NZ anti nuclear disarmament organisation and discovered Bertrand Russell, that was the beginning, the foundation of my thinking that led me to grow an insatiable thirst for knowledge and justice.

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

McCarthy: I was formally educated until 5th form college, I left school to join the workforce which was quite normal for large families at that time for both Māori and Pakeha; however, I left school as an A student, with my eyes wide open. My favourite place to be was the Auckland Public library and when I could I slipped into any free lectures of interest that were on at the University.

My main education took place at the University of hard knocks, as I learned to navigate around racist gate keepers who were there to make sure that as a Māori you could never advance up the ladder in the workforce, or rent an apartment, or get the same wage as Pakeha.

I found the “NZ Rationalist Ass” when I saw them on a march in Auckland, complete with banner in support of Māori rights.

Jacobsen: As the Past President and Trustee of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.), why was the association founded in the first place?

McCarthy: In 1923 word arrived in Auckland that Joseph McCabe was to visit NZ the author of 65 books at the time he was renowned for his books on the history of papacy, spiritualism and evolution.

His imminent arrival in Auckland was the catalyst that prepared the way for the formation of the Auckland Rationalist Association.

Dr. Bill Cooke has written the full history of the NZARH. “Heathen in God zone” 

Jacobsen: What were some of the early bumps and achievements along the way to success for the organization into its current level of development and growth?

McCarthy: In the early days the Association concentrated on religion and the way it had infiltrated into our law and public schools. They laid the foundation for our aims and objectives, all of this had to take a back seat when the second world war started, the Association was upfront in its condemnation of fascism.

The NZARH is self-funded and relying on the generosity of its members was not enough, leadership issues and lack of money was an ongoing problem.

In 1927 the Ass’ began its own journal called “The Truth Seeker” an ambitious undertaking for so few people, but it proved successful, over the years it has had a number of name changes, today it is called “the Open Society “The journal is now in its 91st year of continuous production financed solely by the Association and is one of the unsung triumphs of NZ publishing history. 

Jacobsen: Who have been, typically, opposed to the work and advocacy of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists (Inc.)?

What are effective means by which to build bridges rather than burn them, and to correct misrepresentations, if deliberate, or misinformation, if accidental about rationalists and humanists?

McCarthy: Naturally the largest group of people who are opposed to our work are religionists and those who are opposed to a separation of church and state.

Over the years I have watched the attitude toward our organisation change as decades of our Associations work in the field of lectures, journals, education on atheism, lectures and conferences have finally come home to roost.

We own a magnificent freehold historic building in Symonds street opposite the Auckland University, purchased by past members in 1960 which houses the largest collection of free thought literature in Australasia, we build bridges through education which is the only effective way to combat misinformation and misrepresentation.  

Jacobsen: What is the specific flavor of New Zealand rationalism and humanism?

McCarthy: Tolerance, justice, a fair go for all citizens, the right to food, shelter and above all a society that is humane and without superstition.

Jacobsen: Who are respected authors and speakers for the broader audience of the rationalist and humanist community? Those who would even, and in fact do, appeal to the wider masses of the public who simply reject non-religion and scientific skepticism a priori.

McCarthy: We have excellent speakers and authors within our membership ranks, we have branches throughout NZ, members in the UK, and Australia, we lack any super star speakers, however as a team our authors and our speakers command respect where ever they go.

Jacobsen: What is the one big thing missing from the community of humanists and rationalist around the world?

How can we work, as a global community, to build this more, not for superiority in any way but, rather, for equality with those who wish to follow a path of church-life and religious scripture?

McCarthy: Over the last decade, globally Rationalists, Humanists, Sceptics, Atheists and all free thinkers have been drawing closer together. We are exchanging ideas and attending each other’s conferences we are building a strong community of freethinkers all over the world.

The only way forward for global free thought freedom, is for our organisations to collectively concentrate on a secular education for all public schools.

To attain “Freedom of religion and freedom from religion” should be the driving force of all free thought organisations, it is time to concentrate on removing special privileges from all religions in secular countries, it is time to declare secular countries as the only healthy way forward for a healthy open society.

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?

McCarthy: Every organisation in the world is asking these questions.

We now reach out to young atheist humanists through our website, the young do not join associations. Our membership fluctuates between 3 to 400 paid membership.

Our reach through social media is 2,000 and climbing. We have a face book page which is very busy. Everyone is time poor, but when something needs to be done our members are there to help.

Our building brings in huge rent, our building ” Rationalist House” is an Auckland icon and gives us a well known profile. Our journal and our website carry application forms to join our association.

We are active in the community of NZ through our Celebrants, who do secular weddings and funerals, we are asked to contribute to social government policy making and we debate religionists, we have been around long enough to avoid debating with militant religionists and pseudo scientists.

Social media has been a game changer for all news media, clubs and organisations, we embraced the change.

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

McCarthy:  The NZARH has had a different road to travel than other free thought organisations, the biggest hurdle has been educating the public, NZs and Māori, about the place of Māori in a secular world.

Our treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of our nation and as such we are partners with our government. Our Treaty is entrenched in law and protected; however, the churches and religious journalists who are against secularism use scare tactics and fake news to spread negative lies about us losing the Treaty if NZ becomes secular.

So far we are succeeding, as Māori leave religion faster than NZs. We noted that in our last census 2013, (latest census figures yet to be released) that religion was on the rise in Auckland our biggest city, which goes against statistical trend.

On further investigation we found that Auckland has the biggest intake of global refugees in the country and they are all religious. So for me it is obvious that the next big challenge for free thinkers is to work toward a secular state where separation of church and state is entrenched in law.

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

McCarthy: Nga mihi.

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.

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 Kent Pilcher on Unsplash

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