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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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