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


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/03/29

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.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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