“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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Theresa May confirms Brexit Britain out of the single market – 8 other things we learnt

The Prime Minister dropped the Brexit bombshell that we're out of the single market, and more. 

Theresa May confirmed suspicions that the UK will leave the single market after Brexit in a major speech on her objectives.

The Prime Minister said the Brexit vote was a clear message about controlling immigration, and “that is what we will deliver” – but this meant the UK could not continue following the rules of the single market

She said: I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the  single market. European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the “four freedoms” of goods, capital, services and people.

"And being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are."

May also repeated that maintaining the open land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be a priority, and that she wanted trade deals with the rest of the world.

But leaving the single market wasn’t the only Brexit bombshell May dropped. Here is what we learnt:

1. The single market may be replaced by a European free trade deal

The Prime Minister has ruled out a single market, but is hoping for a deal to replace it. She said: “As a priority we will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with our neighbours in Europe."

2. No more European Court of Justice

May said Brexit will end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain, and that “laws will be interpreted by judges not in Luxembourg but in courts across this country”.

3. Parliament will get a vote on the Brexit deal

Most MPs already expected to get a vote – as their peers in the European Parliament would get one. May confirmed this, saying: "I can confirm today that the government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.."

4. EU citizens still face uncertainty

May has always been clear she wants to confirm EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK, but only if British citizens receive the same guarantee in other EU countries.

She made no further guarantees, saying: "I have told other EU leaders that we could give people the certainty they want straight away, and reach such a deal now. Many of them favour such an agreement - one or two others do not"

5. She will try to stay in the customs union

May explicitly said the UK will have to leave the EU single market, but she was far more nuanced on the customs union, which negotiates trade deals on behalf of the EU member states.

She does not want Britain to share the EU’s common commercial policy, or be bound by common external tariffs, but does want to “have a customs agreement with the EU”. This could mean the UK becoming “an associate member of the customs union”. 

6. Some payments may continue

May said that Britain voted to stop large contributions to the EU, but she stopped short of ruling them out altogether. There may be payments that are “appropriate”, she said, if there are programmes the UK wants to be part of.  

7. Brexit could be in phases

The PM said several times she wanted to reassure businesses – who are increasingly unhappy about the uncertainty ahead. She wants the negotiators avoid a “cliff edge”, but also avoid “permanent political purgatory” (something Brexiteers fear). 

May suggested a deal could be done by the time the two-year process of Article 50 ends, and this could be followed by a “phased process of implementation”.

It’s worth bearing in mind at this point that two years in EU deal-making time is extremely speedy.

8. The UK’s nuclear option: Corporate tax haven

The Chancellor Philip Hammond has already floated the idea that a disgruntled Britain could slash corporate tax in order to attract unscrupulous multinationals to its shores.

May said that the UK would be prepared to crash out without an agreement, saying “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”. 

In such a situation, Britain "would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain". In other words, become an offshore tax haven. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.