PZ Myers: "I compared religion to knitting - a hobby"

Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers discuss life, religion AC Grayling's new university.

"We come from a culture which values critical thinking," said biologist PZ Myers last night. In conversation with Richard Dawkins at the Institute of Education, the pair of New Atheists attempted to show that they could demonstrate that quality.

Dawkins and Myers are both biologists, and both share the same strong ideas on evolution (fact) and religion (fiction). Myers believes it's OK to practise religion, but that it should never be taken seriously. "I compared religion to knitting - a hobby," he said. Both claim they would remain skeptical about the existence of God even if a 15ft Jesus stood in front of them and boomed "I exist!"

The discussion sparked some interesting questions: "Can we already predict what is outside of life?" and "What is the supernatural?" Of the former, Myers said that "carbon seems to be the tool" and Dawkins added "to believe the supernatural would be to give up".

The pair came across as intelligent, if occasionally self-righteous. Dawkins claimed: "If you teach a child that it's a good thing to believe that just because he has faith you don't have to justify it, then those children are going to grow up in a minority. They're going to say, well, my faith tells me to go and bomb skyscrapers."

They also tackled the question of whether believers should be respected. "I will not tolerate this excuse of faith, of wallowing in faith," said Myers. Dawkins agreed, complaining that "they teach children that faith is a virtue".

You might expect a discussion between two such strident atheists to attract the ire of religious groups, but in fact it was another group which took exception to the event - students. Protesters angered by Richard Dawkins' involvement with AC Grayling's private university, the New College of the Humanities, disrupted the evening by popping up periodically to shout at the speakers. The audience didn't seem to have much sympathy for the students, though, so perhaps they had picked the wrong crowd.

Towards the end of the question time, one protester asked why Dawkins felt that the university was acceptable at a time when students were fighting hard for their right to education.

Dawkins made it clear from the beginning of his response that his answer was, basically, that life is not fair: "like it or not we do live in a political system where some people are richer than others". He added: "If you want to picket Anthony Grayling, you might as well picket anybody who owns a car that is above average price."

Dawkins told the audience that he would like it if "the government, through taxation, paid for free education for everyone" and his supporters appeared satisfied. The discussion on the university was closed and there were a few more questions about faith. The biologist predicted that soon there would be no need for the word "atheist", as "you don't need to say what you don't believe in, because there's no reason to believe it in the first place".

Henrietta also blogs here.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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