“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 the “conscience” objection for doctors is being used to threaten safe access to abortion

A new parliamentary report seeks to expand how far a doctor’s “conscientious objection” to providing abortion can stretch.

Getting an abortion in the UK is an exercise in hoop-jumping. You have to find a doctor willing to refer you (jump), convince them your case satisfies the conditions of the 1967 Abortion Act (jump), have a second doctor confirm this (jump), and get yourself to a clinic (jump). Given that the 1967 Abortion Act doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland, and provision varies by region depending on doctors’ expertise, jumping all these hoops will involve travelling hundreds of miles and spending hundreds of pounds for many women every year.

That, however, is still considered too much of an easy ride by the politicians and campaigners who’d like to close down women’s right to choose. With no prospect of achieving an end to legal abortion, anti-abortion activists have focused their efforts instead on tightening those hoops and adding a few more, in the hope that some women will get stuck on their way through. So far, they haven’t had any legislative success, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying.

In February 2015, Fiona Bruce tried to add an amendment to the serious crime bill to “make it clear that conducting or procuring an abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is a girl – or a boy (although this practice mainly affects girls) – is illegal”. It was, as the campaign group Abortion Rights (I’m on the executive committee) pointed out, a Trojan horse: using the pretext of a non-existent sex-selection problem, Bruce sought to reclassify the foetus in law as an “unborn child” and, by specifying that “procuring” an abortion should be illegal, implied that women who seek abortions for supposedly “bad” reasons should be criminalised.

Sensibly, Bruce walked back from the latter wording; thankfully, the amendment was defeated anyway. But she hasn’t given up, and now she’s back with a new hoop. Yesterday the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, of which Bruce is a member, published its report on freedom of conscience in abortion provision. If the Trojan horse amendment was about restricting the remit of the 1967 Abortion Act, this new approach is about making it harder for women to find healthcare providers who will facilitate terminations at all.

Under the 1967 Act, medical staff can exercise a conscientious objection to involvement in “any treatment authorised by this Act”. The exemption is important – no doctor should be forced to act against their own conscience – and so is the specification that it applies directly to treatment. In 2014, two Glasgow midwives lost a case at the High Court in which they argued for an expanded interpretation that excluded them from delegating, supervising and supporting staff carrying out abortions: the court concluded that treatment meant only direct involvement in the procedure, and in doing so, protected women from incalculable interference in their ability to obtain abortions. This broader reading is a creeping, tendril-ish interpretation that would allow any anti-choice professional, however tangentially employed in the procedure, to obstruct it simply by making scheduling impossible.

Unsurprisingly, the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group would like this prohibitive reading of the law to stand. Among their recommendations are that “the Government should consider the feasibility of extending conscientious objection to indirect participation” and “no doctor who has a conscientious objection to abortion should be required to refer a patient to another practitioner”.

The general interpretation of the law now is that doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion should refer women to another practitioner who is able to consider the procedure. Without this convention, getting an abortion becomes a labyrinthine task for women, in which any path might turn out unexpectedly to become a dead-end. Retreat and start again. Count the time you have. Think about the other steps you have to get through. Think about how many more dead-ends there might be.

In the end, this will stop women from getting abortions. Not as surely as a ban would, but in its quiet way, it will ensure that some women who do not want to be pregnant are forced to remain pregnant because the first doctor they approach shuts the door on them. And that is immoral. The language of conscientious objection, as employed by the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, assumes that morality is an exclusive property of those who object to abortion. This is incorrect.

Every day, practitioners perform abortions for women from the most deeply considered ethical reasons. Their training may well have dealt with this in detail (at UCL, for example, medical students explore the ethics of abortion in a series of seminars that introduce multiple perspectives). They do it because they know that denying women safe, legal abortion forces them to have recourse to unsafe, illegal means. They do it because they recognise that the actual life of a woman carries more weight than the prospective life of a foetus. They do it because they recognise that decisions about how a woman’s body is used are for her to make, and that to force an unwilling woman into maternity is a profound kind of violence.

Practitioners may recuse themselves from certain stages of the process. But an ethical medic does not prevent a woman from accessing the treatment she needs. And for those who can never be reconciled to the morality of abortion, there is a more definitive way out of involvement than conscientious objection: the UK government could simply remove abortion from criminal law, and treat it as healthcare.

There should be no more requirement for two doctors to authorise each procedure. No more unnecessary involvement of doctors in early-term abortions that could be safely overseen by a nurse or midwife. No more demand that women prove they are doing this for the “right” reasons. Just dismantle those hoops, and let women exercise their own consciences in concert with understanding doctors. Morality doesn’t belong solely to the authoritarian right, however much anti-choice campaigners would like that to be true. Matters of right and wrong direct all of us, and when it comes to abortion, the greatest wrong is for a woman to be denied the choice she makes for herself.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.