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 struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad