Story: Atheism and secularism

Page 2. Organised secular groups

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Small groups of non-believers thought that religious values (and laws) should not be imposed on those who had no belief. Some organised themselves into associations.

The freethinkers

‘Freethinker’ was a common 19th-century term for people who based their opinions on science, logic and reason. New Zealand’s first freethought organisation, the Auckland Secular Society, appeared in 1854 but lasted just two years. Atheist Charles Southwell established an anti-Māori, anti-missionary and pro-settler newspaper in Auckland in 1856, alarming the government. The Auckland Secular Society re-emerged in 1866 as the Auckland Secular Association, but that too faded away. By 1884 there was an Auckland Rationalist Association, and a Freethought Conference was held in Dunedin that year. Freethinkers were not fringe radicals but included influential men such as Robert Stout (premier from 1884 to 1887) and John Ballance (premier from 1891 to 1893). In Christchurch William Collins, another former Liberal MP who was president of the local freethought association, published a monthly journal, the Examiner, from 1907 to 1917.

The rationalists

In 1923 a Rationalist Association was formed in Auckland in preparation for the visit of the outspoken English author and rationalist Joseph McCabe. It had about 150 members, but only lasted a year. Rationalists attacked religion where it impinged on the lives of people without belief. Many rationalists had rejected religious upbringings.

Plumb hears McCabe

Presbyterian minister George Plumb, the central character of Maurice Gee’s novel Plumb (1978), hears rationalist Joseph McCabe (a real historical figure) speak: ‘I knew all about McCabe: his Catholic upbringing, his twelve years in a Franciscan monastery – Father Anthony – his struggle to shake superstition off: and then the books, the pamphlets, the lectures, the life lived with a purpose; the crusade, if you like, against the forces of religious obscurantism.’ 1

The association, which re-formed in 1927, published a list of objectives which included promoting a system of education based on science and getting rid of all laws that interfered with the free use of Sunday. By the end of 1929 hundreds, and sometimes thousands, attended its weekly Sunday meetings (the major attraction was that a film was shown at the end of the lecture). From 1927 the association produced the journal The Truth Seeker – still published by the New Zealand Rationalist Society in the early 21st century as The Open Society.

From their inception rationalists strove to be non-partisan. However, many were politically left-leaning, and rationalism was closely associated with socialism. Michael Joseph Savage, a socialist and later prime minister, was a rationalist during the 1920s. From the 1940s the organisation was troubled by internal politics and declining membership, but a high point came in 1960 when it purchased a property in Symonds Street, Auckland, naming it Rationalist House. A major issue for rationalists in the 21st century was that a movement attacking religion seemed less relevant in a period when fewer people went to church.

The humanists

In the late 1950s younger rationalists were interested in issues such as nuclear proliferation, racial and sexual equality, peace and social justice. They termed themselves humanists and broke away from the older rationalists, who were still focused on attacking religion. In 1967 the humanists formed their own organisation, the Humanist Society of New Zealand. They focused on developing a world with better human rights, gender equality and social justice.

Watch out, zealot

Some rationalists and freethinkers of the 19th century were devout believers in evolution. Classics professor John Macmillan Brown warned fellow freethinker John Ballance that he was in danger of turning his anti-religion into a religion.

The New Zealand Skeptics

The New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal was formed in April 1986. They became the NZ Skeptics in 2007. They focused on exposing the lack of objective scientific evidence to support claims for things such as psychic abilities, alternative health practices and creationism. They had no official position on religion – in their view, belief did not require proof and could not be investigated scientifically.

  1. Maurice Gee, Plumb. London: Faber & Faber, 1978, p. 102. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Atheism and secularism - Organised secular groups', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018