How do we decide what is right or wrong?

Jehan Casinader wrote this – As a Christian, Israel Folau’s searing sermons from cyberspace make me angry –  in relation to religion, but can also apply to politics.

Surrendering to a higher power doesn’t make you a saint. Those who believe in God, including me, are just as broken, flawed and selfish as everyone else.

That’s why Folau – and those who have vilified him – have lost sight of the bigger picture. Judging others is easier than engaging in deeper conversations about faith, truth and morality.

If there is a God, what is he or she really like?

Where do we find meaning?

And how do we decide what is right and wrong?

Many people seem to treat politics based on beliefs and faith similar to religious beliefs. They believe politicians from their chosen party and politicians, they support them unquestioningly.

And they seem to fear opposing parties and positions to the point of vilifying them no matter what the merits of what they propose, do or say.

For some, politics is an extension of their religion

For others, politics seems to have become their religion.

If there is a political ideal, what is it really like?

Where do we find meaning?

And how do we decide what is right and wrong?


A more tolerant view of religion

I think I have a more tolerant view of religion than I used to have. Religion is an important part of billions of people’s lives, and often a useful part of their lives.  That I believe something different, or don’t believe, is generally my own business and not something I should try to impose on anyone else.

If other people’s beliefs and actions related to their beliefs aren’t imposed on me or affect me adversely then I should be tolerant of their right to hold and practice those beliefs.

I had a largely non-religious upbringing, apart from some token attendance at Sunday school and church, and occasional bible classes in school. My main impression was that bible stories and parables were not my preferred sort of literature.

As an adult I have had some interaction with churches and religious schools through weddings and relations involvement, but my religious experiences have been very superficial.

Some things raised my eyebrows, like when a family friend got married and promised to honour and obey her new husband (in the 1990s), but that didn’t affect my life (and I don’t think it affected hers, and like many of us these days they parted before death).

Obviously many people who practice a religion get something out of it. As well as community and social aspects there must be something significant to be gained by sharing time with people with similar specific beliefs.

I know someone who was brought up in one religion and as a child enjoyed going to church because of the singing, but as soon as it was their choice didn’t practice a religion.

I have seen where religion has played a significant part in peoples lives in a positive way. I know a woman who was widowed, left with eight children aged ten and under. Life was tough for her, but she was supported a lot by her church community, and got a lot out of her faith, which she always retained.

People follow religious faiths and practices because it is good for them.

I have come to realise that because I don’t believe the same things is not a good reason to criticise their beliefs.

From my experience there are only isolated exceptions to people accepting my choice of beliefs and practices, or lack thereof.

In the main New Zealand society is relatively tolerant of different beliefs. We live amongst, work with, play sport with and socialise with people with various beliefs and religious preferences with religion being left as persona choice and private. I often don’t know whether people I associate with are religious or not – and this doesn’t matter.

It does us good to understand other religions and beliefs, and we should protect the right of people to practice what they want without prejudice or fear.

I have deliberately not named any religion here. Please keep any discussion similarly non-specific.

Unity of religions, but what about the rest of us?

There has been a big show of unity amongst different religions around New Zealand, but one thing has been missing – being inclusive of those who don’t follow a religion.

However Jacinda Ardern’;s example did quietly demonstrate that the religious and the non-religious can co-exist haarmoniously in New Zealand.

From ‘We are all forever changed’: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reflects on the week

“I consider myself to be agnostic, but given I was raised in a religious household, I like to think I’m very open-minded to everyone’s choices and faiths and their ways of life.” 

I’m pleased she has said that. One think missing from a lot of what I have seen, and specifically from the Dunedin vigil, was recognition that many New Zealanders don’t practice and don’t believe in religion. It was good to see the joining of many different religions in a common purpose, but they were not inclusive of those who live outside the religious world. But this is a minor quibble given the circumstances.

The religion question nudged at an even greater one, about how people find a way through dark experiences like this.

“I think if you still have an absolute faith in humanity, and I still have that.”

Many people find strength and support in religious faith, so religion is good for them.

But non religious people can also have faith, without a god, like faith in humanity. The religious and the non-religious could understand each other a bit better and accept each that we have varying belief systems.

With Ardern’s leadership we may move towards better understanding and tolerance of different religions and religious practices, as well as recognising that non-religious people can have faith and humanity like anyone else.

Both the religious and the non-religious can live alongside each other accepting their differences – this is a significant positive of living in New Zealand. There are exceptions, but it is generally the case.


“Tolerance New Zealand’s real religion”

It should be, but there are still a lot of people who don’t follow it. We should acknowledge that we can all be intolerant, but can all work towards better understanding of and tolerance of other people, other cultures, other religions.

ODT editorial:  Tolerance New Zealand’s real religion

White nationalists, Islamophobes and other hate groups openly extol a clear goal – to separate ”them” from ”us”. In the wake of Friday’s terrorist attack, it seems prudent to confront the myth some believe in: that when it comes to religion in this country, there has never been an ”us”.

Evidence indicates the first humans to set foot in Aotearoa were Eastern Polynesian settlers some 800 years ago who brought religious beliefs with them.

Those beliefs centred around the idea that, through genealogy, all things were connected – hills, rivers, animals, plants – to the Maori themselves. Yet within the several hundred years Maori lived here before European settlement, the way those beliefs were expressed was already evolving and diverging.

Europeans arrived with a variety of takes on monotheism. Catholicism and Protestantism were the major players, but there were others.

The State, of course, was an extension of the British Crown and, as such, it is easy to look back at the last hundred or so years of New Zealand history and conclude we are, and have been, a Christian country.

But the beliefs of those who have settled here, who have journeyed to one of the most far-flung land masses on Earth and made a life for themselves, are far more varied than that. In reality, we have never been a solely Christian country. Since the arrival of Europeans, we have been a nation of multiple religions.

And agnostics and atheists.

A major fallacy in the argument of those wanting New Zealand to ”remain” or ”return” to being as culturally, ethnically or religiously ”pure” as it always was is that New Zealand has never been mono-ethnic, mono-religious or mono-cultural. And it never will. Because our national genealogy is not one of ”purity”.

Far from it. we are a diverse mix of cultures, nationalities, races and religions.

Islam is an ancient religion, born from the same part of the world Christianity was, just a few hundred years later. It is widely practised around the world and has as much right to be considered ”normal” in New Zealand as any other religion does.

Yes, there are radical arms of Islam. There are radical arms of Christianity, too. And of football fans, environmentalists and many more groups besides. It takes an appalling negligence of consideration to believe only the radical arms of a large group of people define that group.

Generalising is common. Like Christians. Muslims. Maori. Asians. Europeans. Colonialists.

All are quite varied, diverse, and there are often mixes and blends.

It is absurd for any New Zealanders to believe Islam has less right to be practised freely, safely and given respect in this country than other religions. Muslim New Zealanders are simply New Zealanders who practise a religion. Religions, while culpable for many unpleasant aspects of history, also bring meaning, stability, guidance and context to billions of people.

We are not a Christian country, despite being a country of many Christians.

We are not a religious country, though we are a country of many religions.

In fact, if there was to be any ”religion” that defined New Zealand, it should be a religious devotion to inclusivity, tolerance and openness.

Let that be the New Zealand religion and, in our pursuit of it, let’s ensure Muslim New Zealanders know, feel and trust they are, now and forever, simply Kiwis.

We all have to work hard on accepting differences, and tolerance.


Folau fulminating and media mire

Perhaps I didn’t say things very well yesterday in The Israel Folau furore continues – there have been some positive outcomes as various people have spoken up against Folau’s archaic and insulting (but still very common) religious beliefs.

But very few if any people would have been hurt or offended if his small comment on Instagram had been like millions of other online comments every day and had been ignored.

The social media and furore gave the comments publicity they didn’t deserve, and that exposed people to offence and hurt that otherwise wouldn’t have been suffered.

Protesting and publicising the comments exposed millions to possible hurt and offence.

While it is a feature of modern media and social media, why did Folau’s comment get so much attention and opprobrium?

Folau is a rugby player. Until now his public utterances were not seen as important.

In comparison Destiny Church Brian Tamaki says ‘cry baby gays’ will go to hell

Outspoken Destiny Church self-proclaimed pastor Brian Tamaki has come out in support of Israel Folau, hitting out at “cry baby gays” and agreeing the LGBTQ community could go to hell.

“The Bible says hell is a possibility for anyone who doesn’t repent. Jesus didn’t apologise for offending people when speaking God’s word. If the gay community want to be accepted as a part of society then ‘take it on the nose’ like the rest of us.”

He then used a hashtag he made up, “#crybabygays”, to sign off the message.

Tamaki speaks to and tries to influence many people, but apart from a few passing mentions gets nothing like the criticism that Folau got.

However Tamaki is largely ignored as an attention seeking nutter, while the normally private Folau is plastered and blasted.

David Cohen at RNZ – Folau comments: Keeping an eye on the wider picture

It is easy enough to say Israel Folau was wrong to get all religiously high and mighty on social media about homosexual behaviour.

The question also naturally arises of how the mainstream media ought to be dealing with fundamentalist beliefs of any stripe in the first place – not to mention the perils of holding up people who happen to be good at kicking a ball, as also being liberal champions.

It has been said before – by this writer, in fact – that not only sports stars but poets, critics, movie-makers, playwrights and rock performers tend to make for notably unreliable authorities on pretty much all matters outside of their chosen field (if on that).

With only a few notable exceptions, they offer bad ideas on social policy, banal observations about economics and, yes, whoppingly ill-considered religious views, too.

Some mainstream commentators have used the controversy to anguish over the limits of free speech. In the news business, these are sometimes known as whyohwhyofwhyohwhy pieces – commentaries that rather skirt a fundamental issue, in this instance the question of fundamentalism itself.

Folau was, after all, simply giving his own, particularly rigid, Christian stance on homosexual behaviour. He also was expressing a view shared by many who take a severe interpretation of any of the three great monotheistic religions.

Threatening hell for all sorts of behaviours has been common for yonks, as anyone who went to a religion orientated school (or church) in the past can probably attest.

Christianity’s record in this regard is well known, notwithstanding the fact that plenty of thoughtful, devout believers, would argue the toss, or at any rate, question the focus on what consenting adults choose to do among themselves.

But the ultra-Orthodox stream of Judaism isn’t exactly known for sanctioning homosexuality (although Israel – the country, not the player – generally takes justifiable pride in being the most LGBTQ-friendly country in the Middle East).

And the ferociously anti-gay record in parts of the Muslim world, where homosexual acts are sometimes punishable by death, ought to make a western liberal blanch.

As the British diver Tom Daley recently pointed out after winning the synchronised 10m Platform competition at the Gold Coast tournament, no fewer than 37 Commonwealth nations currently have anti-LGBTQ statutes: a rainbow mosaic of bigotry.

But all hell breaks loose when someone known for sporting rather than speaking prowess has a comment dug out of the depths of the Internet and plastered all over the world.

The media can even lead the way. A more constructive approach (other than sporting associations to insist their stars learn a few social manners) might be to pause a while longer before dining out on any such comments made by celebrities in the first place, and try to keep an eye on the wider picture.

Sometimes fixating on just the one chance Instagram comment isn’t just unhelpful. It can even be a bit (sorry) sinful.

Expecting the media to lead the way on sensibly dealing with things like this is probably as futile as hoping to go to heaven when you die.

Seymour on immigration and Islam

David Seymour has again suggested that immigrants should accept and sign up for “the most basic values of New Zealand society”.

Whaleoil: EXCLUSIVE: David Seymour’s thoughts on Islamic Immigration

All immigrants should accept the most basic values of New Zealand society: namely freedom of speech, equality of gender and race before the law, that spirituality is a private matter of personal conscience, and that LGBT people should be allowed to express themselves.

It would be good if all New Zealand citizens accepted those values as well, but you can’t force values on people.

If they don’t like or agree with the most basic of rights, they can find somewhere else to go.

New Zealand citizens who don’t like it here can find somewhere else to go, as some probably do. People who don’t like the look of new Zealand values are unlikely to apply to immigrate here, they are likely to look for somewhere more to their liking.

When looking at refugees, choices get harder.

I believe New Zealand should take its quota of refugees and we shouldn’t simply bar refugees from certain countries or with certain faiths.  Not only would that make us like the people we opposed by making religion a state concern, and probably be impractical, it would be unfair on the majority of Muslim immigrants who are just as horrified at Islamic terrorism as the rest of us.

We shouldn’t bar people based simply on religion. And yes it’s likely many Muslims abhor Islamic based terrorism, that’s why there are so  many displaced people and refugees.

Vetting people for religion at the border is akin to carrying out state-sponsored persecution of an entire religion, and would play into the Daesh narrative that there is a clash of civilisations and that there is something noble in dying for Islam.

To remain safe and free, we need to promote our values first and foremost, then invest in the best possible counterterrorism to deal with the minority who wish to do us harm.

That’s both reasonable and realistic.

One New Zealand value would be, or should be, not being prejudiced against people simply based on their nationality, their ethnicity, or their religion.

Struggling churches

Church as a significant societal influence in New Zealand is receding, as is religion generally. While many people still get something personally out of their connection with faith it is less important or unimportant for a growing number.

Today’s ODT editorial looks at Churches in modern times

These are difficult times for mainstream Christian churches.

Parishes in many places cannot afford full-time clergy, and rural and urban churches close regularly.

Census data illustrates the fall in those professing to be Christian. More than 90% did so 100 years ago and that figure is now under 50% and falling. Regular church attendance has declined during that period from about 30% to about 15%. Society and technology changes from the 1960s have had a huge impact.

Where once churchgoing in some circles was expected and part of maintaining one’s position in the community, it is now clearly a minority pastime. Not everyone is concerned about this trend because churchgoing, rather than being a default position, requires a willingness to be different, even countercultural.

That’s a major but real social change.

Nevertheless, despite its Christian heritage, Christian underpinning and in some senses ‘‘Christian” culture, New Zealand is going the way of parts of northern European and rapidly becoming more and more secular.

In this context, the questioning this week from the retiring Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, the Rt Rev Dr Kelvin Wright, about whether the Dunedin diocese should replace him with a full-time bishop is realistic and sensible. Maintaining the established church hierarchy in the face of falling numbers can become too expensive and a questionable use of precious resources desperately needed in the parishes and in parish and church outreach into the community.

Churches built in early Dunedin show that money for them was a high priority. While the structures remain it’s now becoming hard to finance the people to run them.

While the broad church shares Jesus as its inspiration and the Bible as its scripture, what that means in practice can be poles apart. That is no better illustrated than in widely differing and seemingly irreconcilable attitudes to same-sex marriage.

Without a tolerance of differing views, the mainstream churches could well face further decline and further loss of relevance.

Views and beliefs have certainly fragmented, and heads of churches have diminished influence. Individuals decide for themselves.

In this changed world it’s important for those who remain faithful to tolerate those who don’t feel a religious need, and the reverse is also important, for the non-religious to accept ongoing worship of those who benefit from it.

One of the great things about New Zealand is that in everyday interaction most people probably don’t know about or care about what religious views those they associate with or intersect with have.

Tolerance of different religious views is a strength.

‘NZ a model of religious tolerance’

Helen Clark, back in New Zealand opening the new Religious Diversity Centre, said that New Zealand provided a model of religious tolerance for the rest of the world.

NZ Herald: Helen Clark: ‘NZ a model of religious tolerance for the rest of the world’

“Our world badly needs such models. On so many days now when I see the news headlines I often think how fortunate we are,” she said in Wellington.

“To see societies ripped apart by violent extremists with the extremists claiming so often to act in the name of the faith and yet prepared to violate every single principle of those faiths.”

“The world badly needs voices of reason and tolerance and those who will work to build dialogue and respect across faiths and beliefs. I do believe that New Zealand can show the way.”

While tolerance in a country with a strong Christian influence should be a given Clark supports a strong stand and military means in the Middle East.

Speaking to the Herald later she said the whole purpose of terrorist attacks was to make people feel insecure “so in general my response would be ‘don’t let it stop people doing what they would normally do'”.

“Of course, I was horrified at what happened at Brussels airport. I was through it with my husband as recently as December … ”

“What I would ask is that as well as the security response which is important, there is also a focus back on what is driving this, what is the lack of opportunity, the perceived sense of injustice, the ignorance which underlies the formation of the criminal elements which make up these groups.”

She was not questioning the military response to Isis (Islamic State), however.

“I think IS will only be taken out of Syria and Iraq through military means.”

That would not mean the ended of Isis.

“As we saw when al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan, it didn’t stop al Qaeda. It morphed into cells around the world. I think we are in for the long haul on this. But there are a broad range of responses that are needed to deal with it.”

A forceful response is sometimes necessary but tolerance and better communication are essential if we want a better world.

And not just religious tolerance – a modern world should be tolerant of both religious and non-religious views.

Violence and religion

In response to a number of comments…

While I think that Islam as a whole has a responsibility to reduce some Muslim tendencies to violence and oppression I don’t think all Muslims can be held responsible for the violence perpetrated by a small minority of radical Muslims.

Just as I don’t think all Christians around the world should be held responsible for the violence of some. And there are many examples of Christians being involved in violent acts, with Hitler and the German Nazis and Mussolini and the Italian Fascists being significant examples.

More recent examples that come to mind are the large scale Rwanda (0.5m-1m deaths) and the ex-Yugoslav states in the 1990s, both involving atrocities on a massive scale.

And more recently (from Christian terrorism):

Central African Republic

Christian militia groups destroyed almost all mosques in the Central African Republic unrest. In 2014, Amnesty International reported several massacres committed by the Anti-balaka against Muslim civilians, forcing thousands of Muslims to flee the country. Other sources report incidents of Muslims being cannibalized.

In May 2014, it was reported that around 600,000 people in CAR were internally displaced with 160,000 of these in the capital Bangui. The Muslim population of Bangui had dropped from 138,000 to 900.

India – Tripura

The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), is a rebel group that seeks the secession of Tripura, North-East India, and is a proscribed terrorist organization in India. Group activities have been described as Christian terrorists engaging in terrorist violence motivated by their Christian beliefs.

Over 20 Hindus in Tripura were reported to have been killed by the NLFT from 1999 to 2001 for resisting forced conversion to Christianity. According to Hindus in the area, there have also been forced conversions of tribal villagers to Christianity by armed NLFT militants. These forcible conversions, sometimes including the use of “rape as a means of intimidation”, have also been noted by academics outside of India.


The Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla army, was engaged in an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government in 2005. It has been accused of using child soldiers and of committing numerous crimes against humanity; including massacres, abductions, mutilation, torture, rape, and using forced child labourers as soldiers, porters, and sex slaves. A quasi-religious movement that mixes some aspects of Christian beliefs with its own brand of spiritualism, it is led by Joseph Kony, who proclaims himself the spokesperson of God and a spirit medium, primarily of the “Holy Spirit” which the Acholi believe can represent itself in many manifestations. LRA fighters wear rosary beads and recite passages from the Bible before battle.


In 2011, analyst Daryl Johnson of the United States Department of Homeland Security said that the Hutaree Christian militia movement possessed more weapons than the combined weapons holdings of all Islamic terror defendants charged in the US since the September 11 attacks.

In 2015, Robert Doggart, a 63 year old mechanical engineer, was indicted for solicitation to commit a civil rights violation by intending to damage or destroy religious property after communicating that he intended to amass weapons to attack a Muslim enclave in Delaware County, New York.

In November 2015, Robert Lewis Dear killed three and injured nine at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Dear voiced on several occasions his support for radical Christian views and interpretations of the Bible, and praised people who attacked abortion providers, saying they were doing “God’s work.” He also described members of the Army of God, a loosely organized group of anti-abortion Christian extremists that has claimed responsibility for a number of killings and bombings, as heroes.


Christian Identity is a loosely affiliated global group of churches and individuals devoted to a racialized theology which asserts that North Europeanwhites are the direct descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people. It has been associated with groups such as the Aryan Nations,Aryan Republican Army, Army of God, Phineas Priesthood, and The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. It has been cited as an influence on a number of terrorist attacks around the world, including the 2002 Soweto bombings.

These groups are estimated to have 2,000 members in the United States, and an unknown number in Canada and the rest of the British Commonwealth. Due to the promotion of Christian Identity doctrines through radio and later the Internet, an additional 50,000 unaffiliated individuals are thought to hold Christian Identity beliefs. The primary spread of Christian Identity teachings is believed to be through white supremacist prison gangs.

Others have also mentioned the actions of countries like the USA (in Iraq, Vietnam) and Russia (for example in the Ukraine, Georgia and Chechnya) which have all involved many deaths.

I don’t hold billions of Christians responsible for the violence perpetrated by a few, and neither do I hold all Muslims responsible for the violence of a few.

Just as I don’t hold all men responsible for violence and sexual violence, nor do i hold all feminists responsible for the extreme views and accusations of a small minority.

Blaming and ostracising large numbers of people because of the actions by small minorities is not only wrong and unfair but it is more likely to provoke violence than reduce it.

I condemn all individual, group and state acts of violence no matter what race, religion or nationality is involved.

I think that religion has long been used as a false justification of violence that is contrary to religious and humanitarian principles.

It’s minorities that abuse religion that is the problem. That should be isolated from the larger peaceful demographics –  believe that most people in the world prefer and support peace and non-violence, and that should be encouraged and highlighted more.

Condemning majorities for the actions of small minorities is more likely to provoke and perpetuate violence rather than reduce it.

Small terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS play on the prejudices and fears of people to drive division and animosity between larger groups to try to achieve their aims of wider religious conflict.

Don’t do what they want.

How religious is your neighbourhood?

NZ Herald has a nifty interactive map that you can drill down into to see how religious your neighbourhood is.

See the oddly (and possibly inaccurately) headlined God and money: Interactive map shows rich suburbs have most atheists.

A Herald interactive map, based on 2013 Census data and the New Zealand Deprivation Index, shows that religious New Zealanders live mainly in poor suburbs, with rich Kiwis increasingly turning their backs on God and religion.

The number of Christians decreased to 1,906,398 (48.9 per cent of people with religious affiliation) from 2,082,942 (55.6 per cent) in 2006.

Zooming into Dunedin and drilling down into my own area I get:

Area Unit – Ravensbourne
Deprivation Index: 5
% No Religion: 52.7
% Christian: 37.1
% Hindu: 1
% Buddhist: 1
% Muslim: 0.5
% Jewish: 0.3
% New Age: 0.8
Total people stated: 1155

It looks like I’m relatively deprived of neighbourhood bible bashers (and quiet believers).

One of the poorer areas of Dunedin:

Area Unit – St Kilda Central
Deprivation Index: 9
% No Religion: 47.3
% Christian: 46.8
% Hindu: 0.4
% Buddhist: 1.1
% Muslim: 0.2
% Jewish: 0.2
% New Age: 0.8
Total people stated: 1578

But this proves the deprivation theory wrong:

Area Unit – Vauxhall
Deprivation Index: 1
% No Religion: 43.7
% Christian: 50.6
% Hindu: 0.6
% Buddhist: 1.3
% Muslim: 0.6
% Jewish: 0.1
% New Age: 0.5
Total people stated: 3699

And also in Invercargill:

Area Unit – Waianiwa
Deprivation Index: 2
% No Religion: 42.2
% Christian: 54.7
% Hindu: 0.5
% Buddhist: 0.2
% Muslim: 0
% Jewish: 0.3
% New Age: 0
Total people stated: 1842

The Herald probably didn’t test their theory south of the Bombay Hills.

Nor in Auckland properly:

Area Unit – Herne Bay
Deprivation Index: 1
% No Religion: 46.8
% Christian: 48.5
% Hindu: 0.8
% Buddhist: 0.9
% Muslim: 0.2
% Jewish: 1
% New Age: 0.3
Total people stated: 2592

Area Unit – Waiata (includes Remuera)
Deprivation Index: 1
% No Religion: 31.6
% Christian: 61.7
% Hindu: 1.2
% Buddhist: 2.2
% Muslim: 0.4
% Jewish: 0.9
% New Age: 0.1
Total people stated: 4068