“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.

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Ukip's "integration agenda" is another lurch away from the mainstream

Ukip's only chance of survival is on the nativist fringe. It won't be a happy - or successful - existence. 

After Ukip leader Paul Nuttall failed to steal a famous by-election victory in Stoke-on-Trent, his party’s militant tendency offered a prompt and simple diagnosis: the party was just too nice.

Two months on, with Nuttall now pledging to ban the burqa, sharia courts, new Islamic schools, subject girls from at-risk backgrounds to yearly female genital mutilation checks and make race an aggravating factor in some offences, they are unlikely to making those same complaints. Of the many criticisms one can make of the controversial policy blitz, a surfeit of niceness isn’t one of them – even if Nuttall is comparing himself to Gandhi. But what explains Ukip’s lurch deep into Breitbart territory – and what does it mean for the future of the party?

It’s tempting to chalk this one up as a victory for the hardliners who derided Nuttall – who, absurd though it seems now, was Ukip’s unity candidate – and his attempts to court women voters with a softer, “Nicekip” platform. It’s true that Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, loathed by the fags-and-flags wing of the party for their wet anti-Faragism and prim sensibilities, are safely gone. Liberated from the strain of, erm, having an MP, the true believers have taken back control.

That neat analysis quickly falls down when one takes a look at the chippiest defenders of Ukip’s new “integration agenda”: Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn. Once the pair were at the vanguard of the push to unseat Farage and chart a friendlier tack into Tory seats in the Shires. Now they try and spin policies that could be justly criticised with a favourite Carswell slur – “ugly nativism” – as a sort of noble muscular secularism. That they of all people are endorsing the new line underlines just how much trouble Ukip are in. Deprived of their ownership of Brexit, the party has little, if anything, left to offer the political mainstream.

The consequences have been felt more keenly inside the party than in the country, where Ukip has plunged to below 5 per cent in some polls. Plenty would argue that the party – even at their high watermark around 2014 – never operated within the mainstream currents of political thought anyway, instead dragging the Tories to the right. But it was always an uneasy and at times barely coherent coalition between the authoritarian and libertarian right, united only by their rejection of Europe. For the latter, Ukip isn’t about opposition to the sensibilities of polite society but compatibility with them. Theirs is a focus on grammar schools, hard graft and flat taxes, not smearing Romanians and hanging child murderers.

Whatever the likes of O’Flynn and Evans say, though, Ukip has now ceded that libertarian ground it once had claim to. Disgruntled and departed Kippers point to Nuttall’s loss in Stoke-on-Trent Central as the reason why.

“Since the focus on the EU has gone, and after the election in Stoke, there have been people within the Ukip NEC trying to drive the party towards the far-right,” says Tariq Mahmood, a practicing Muslim and self-styled libertarian who stood for the party in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent South in 2015. He has since joined the Conservatives, and complains that efforts to court the aspirational middle classes and British Muslims (among whom he says Ukip are now “100 per cent” finished) have been jettisoned in favour of what an essentially nativist platform. While Ukip stress that their beef is with cultural practices and not Islam, Mahmood believes that argument is a mere figleaf - and Ukip, he says, know the distinction will be lost on many people. 

“It was an uphill struggle even previously to try to persuade individuals that we were a libertarian party and that we were not hostile to any individual belief,” he adds, ruefully. “Now, with what Peter Whittle and Paul [Nuttall] have said on integration, and with the prevailing mood with the NEC, the strategy seems to be to create division.”

The logic behind this ideological retrenchment is clear enough. Though Ukip stood in 624 seats at the 2015 election, insiders acknowledge that they are unlikely to reach anywhere near that total this time. Its chances of winning even one seat are perilously slim, as is painfully clear from Nuttall's prevarication as to whether he'll stand or where exactly. Resources will instead be poured into a handful of target seats that broke heavily for leave last June, and the party’s (white) core demographic courted much more ruthlessly. 

But those resources, historically scant anyway, have been depleted by its rightward lurch: both Mahmood and Owais Rajput, a former parliamentary candidate in Bradford East, speak of a flight of Asian members from the party. “There’s nothing left for me, other than to resign. It’s not only me – there are lots of other British citizens of Muslim faith who are following me as well,” he told me on the day Ukip dropped its new policies. “Their policy, long-term, is to try to create division in local communities, which is very, very dangerous.”

Both agree that Ukip’s future is as an ethnic nationalist party, which Nuttall and those around him have vigorously denied. But if that is the party’s strategy, it’s a witless one. Ukip has already swallowed most of those votes already, as the decline of the British National Party shows, and the electoral ceiling for those politics is a low one. The party may well tighten its grip on its small demographic core, but will hasten the flight of softer members and voters to the Tories.

Its breakneck change of pace will also bodes ill for its survival as a cohesive fighting force. There will inevitably be further tension among its febrile cohort of elected politicians. Nuttall’s foreign affairs spokesman, West Midlands MEP Jim Carver, this week resigned his post in protest at the burqa ban proposal (“I’m an old liberal,” he told me. “You’ve got to have that freedom of choice.”). He insists he won’t be quitting, and likened Ukip’s internal wrangles to those in other parties. “What you’ve got to is call out people you disagree with,” he said. “Look at the stick that people like Tom Watson is getting from Momentum! This isn’t just happening in Ukip. There’s a tug of war going in all political parties.”  

But Carver is a Ukip member of abnormal vintage, having joined the party in 1996. For others the allegiance cannot and will not hold as the party’s public face gets uglier and its electoral positioning even more uncompromising.  As the exodus of its 2015 supporters to the Tories shows, Ukip’s electoral cachet is a much more ephemeral thing than the parties of old. Senior figures protest that policing Brexit remains key to its policy platform.

Its new strategy underlines how the party cannot remain a broad church defined entirely by its opposition to Europe. “All I know,” Carver told me, “is that I’ve got to be true to my principles”. Recent events prove for most of the wetter wing of his party, that will mean leaving.

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

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