“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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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters.

With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry. Yet as migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.