“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 National Trust property. Photo: Getty
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The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.

                                                                                       

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.