“The Invisible Big Kahuna”

Andrew Zak Williams discusses this week’s New Statesman article in which prominent atheists told him

Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Polly Toynbee ... I expect that most writers who have tried to interview an equivalent stellar cast have found that their phone calls went unanswered and their emails were assigned to the Trash Box. But there's something about the perceived irrationality of belief in God which brings many atheists out fighting.

The religious sometimes wonder why anyone would choose not to believe in God. But, as Sam Harris told me, it is they who must shoulder the burden of proving their case. After all, "every Christian can confidently judge the God of Zoroaster to be a creature of fiction, without first scouring the universe for evidence of his absence."

For Harris all that one needs to banish false knowledge is to recognise an absence of evidence. And there is one hymn sheet from which even atheists are willing to sing: that headed "Lack of Evidence". For instance Richard Dawkins told me that he doesn't believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves or a whole range of gods, and for the same reason in every case: "there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them, and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe."

Particle physicist Victor Stenger added that the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims supposedly plays such an important role in the universe that there should be evidence that he exists. But instead, "there is nothing in the realm of human knowledge that requires anything supernatural, anything beyond matter, to describe our observations."

But it's not just an absence of evidence upon which several atheists relied. Rather, there was perceived to be clear evidence which suggests that God is no more real than an imaginary friend. The clearest pointer seems to have been suffering. No wonder that Polly Toynbee told me that the only time that she is ever tempted, momentarily, to believe in God "is when I shake an angry fist at him for some monstrous suffering inflicted on the world for no reason whatsoever."

Some believers - and Christian philosophers - respond that suffering on earth actually enriches our lives. But as psychologist Richard Wiseman told me, if that were so, it would paint a picture of heaven being a rather miserable place. For other believers, it may be that God has a very good reason for allowing suffering but we can't understand what it is because we lack his divine knowledge. Biologist Jerry Coyne gives this argument short shrift: "If there is a god, the evidence points to one who is apathetic - or even a bit malicious."

Publisher and author Michael Shermer gave me an intriguing overview to the question of God's existence:

"In the last 10,000 years there have been roughly 10,000 religions and 1,000 different gods; what are the chances that one group of people discovered the One True God while everyone else believed in 9,999 false gods?"

When it comes to the God Debate, one can't ignore the commodity to which the religious cling to sustain their beliefs: faith. Several months ago, I carried out an equivalent investigation when I asked many prominent Christians to give me their reasons for belief. Several of them admitted that it must ultimately come down to whether you take it on faith; once you do, you'll experience God's love and you won't worry about having the answer to every intellectual argument.

For many believers, faith is all that matters, shielding them from arguments and evidence which they would rather not have to consider. These are the ones who oppose the Critical Thinking of science and prefer the Critical of Thinking inherent in their faith.

But if you rely on blind faith, what are the chances that you're going to see the light?

For others, their religion satisfies them intellectually. Yet when they can't reason their way past specific problems (say, suffering or biblical inconsistencies), their faith comes riding to the rescue. But faith is hardly a white horse: more like a white elephant, trumpeting a refusal to engage in debate as though it were something about which to be proud.

The atheists that I spoke to are the products of what happens to many intelligent people who aren't prepared to take important decisions purely on faith, and who won't try to believe simply to avoid familial or societal pressures. And as philosopher Daniel C. Dennett put it: "Why try anyway? There is no obligation to try to believe in God."

I could hardly end this piece without mentioning PZ Myers who evidently managed to dig out a metaphorical old joke book from his vast collection of weighty tomes about the God Debate:

"Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because god says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with your god. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a god when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren't, a god will set you on fire for all eternity. These are ridiculous propositions. The whole business of religion is clownshoes freakin' moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behavior, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an invisible big kahuna."

Amen to that.

A girl in an Ariana Grande top. Photo: Getty
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The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop - we can't let the Manchester attack change that

What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

This morning, while the radio news talked of nothing but Manchester, my 10-year-old daughter asked me if it was still safe to go and see Adele at Wembley Stadium in July. The ticket was her big Christmas present and the printout of the order confirmation has been blu-tacked to her wall for months. She’s as excited about it as she has been excited about any event in her life, but now she’s also scared. Could this have happened to her when she saw Ed Sheeran the other week? Could it happen to her at Wembley, or anywhere else? I am sure that there are similar conversations happening across the country. Some long-awaited birthday treats will be cancelled. Red letter days erased from the calendar. Parents can allay their children’s fears (and their own), and decide to go ahead despite them, but they cannot pretend the fear isn’t there, suddenly, where it wasn’t before.

When I first started going to gigs in 1989, I never worried about not coming back. I fretted about missing the last train back to the suburbs, or not having a good view of the stage. You can feel unsafe at a gig, especially if you’re a girl in a moshpit where boys can’t keep their hands to themselves, but usually not life-or-death unsafe. Fatal crowd disasters such as Roskilde in 2000 and Cincinnati in 1979 have spurred the concert industry into making venues as safe as possible. There are sensible, practical measures you can take to avoid crushes.

Terrorism at music venues, however, is relatively new and hard to deal with. This is why the Bataclan massacre in November 2015 had such an enormous impact. There is no hierarchy of tragedy — a death due to terrorism is a death due to terrorism, whether it’s in a concert hall in Paris or a mosque in Iraq — but some tragedies are so close to home that they change the way you think. The first show I attended after the Bataclan (New Order in Brixton) was charged with a strange electricity, as defiance defeated anxiety and the rational mind silenced this new kind of fear. A few weeks later I saw Savages in Paris and it was even more intense. The venue was small and subterranean. I have never paid such close attention to the location of the exits.

Everyone has tried to reassert normality after an atrocity has felt like this: the first time they took the tube after 7/7, or went to work in New York in September 2001, or danced in Miami after the Pulse shootings, or stayed out late in Istanbul after last New Year’s Eve. In some countries the fear is never allowed to fade. What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop, and it is often misunderstood, if not patronised and dismissed. Their excitement doesn’t derive purely from fancying the star on the stage — when I saw Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (at the MEN arena in fact), the screaming was as intense as it is for any boy band. In fact, it’s not entirely to do with what’s happening on the stage at all. As a critic in my 40s who’s been to hundreds of shows, I may be bothered by an incoherent concept or a mid-set lull, but nobody around me is solely interested in the performance. Even shows that I’ve found disappointing have an ecstatic carnival atmosphere because a pop show is a catalyst for a great night out — one that may have been anticipated for months. The pop star is a vessel for a mess of inchoate desires and thrilling, confusing sensations (Bowie knew this) so the girls aren’t just screaming for the star; they’re screaming for themselves and for each other. They are celebrating music, of course, but also youth, friendship, the ineffable glee of the moment, life at its most unquenchable. It’s a rite of passage that should never be contaminated by even an inkling of dread.

First and foremost, I feel compassion for the victims and their friends and families. Then for the survivors, including Ariana Grande, who will be traumatised for a long time to come. But beyond those immediately affected, this atrocity will cast a long shadow across the youths of countless pop fans. Will something like this happen again? Perhaps not. Statistically, the possibility of an attack at one particular show is minuscule. Over time, the fear will subside, because it always does. My daughter is absolutely still going to see Adele, and she’ll have a whale of a time. But the knowledge that it could happen at all means a loss of innocence.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

0800 7318496