“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.

Photo: Getty Images/Peter MacDiarmiud
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While teacher shortages threaten our schooling, the government is obsessing with free schools

Rather than worrying about the name of the place that teaches children, the government should focus on the shortage of people to teach them in the first place. 

This week new analysis was published that reveals the Government is set to miss its recruitment target for teachers for the fourth year in a row. Overall, applications to teach have fallen by almost 21,000 in one year. It is subjects that are key to boosting our country’s competitiveness, such as English and Maths, which are among the worst hit. Some headteachers are saying they have never known it so bad.

You would imagine that tackling this critical problem would be at the top of the list of priorities for the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary’s programme for schools over the next Parliament. The urgency of the situation cannot possibly have caught them off guard. Experts within the education sector have been warning for years that the Government’s approach to teacher recruitment, including doing down the profession, increasing workload, and completely failing to properly handle rapid changes to the teacher training model, was storing up trouble for our schools.

Now, with schools facing simultaneous challenges of falling applications into teaching, missed recruitment targets and the highest number of teachers quitting the profession in two decades, you would be fooled for thinking that David Cameron and Nicky Morgan would understand the importance of getting to grips with this crisis. And yet, instead of a comprehensive and robust plan of action to deal with the shortages that schools up and down the country are struggling with, significantly the Tories marked the beginning of the new academic year with an announcement to open 18 more free schools.

On the one hand, we shouldn’t be surprised. Over the last five years, despite the fact that time and time again it has been shown that free Schools are not a panacea and that they can fail with disastrous consequences, the Tories have not wavered from their obsession with them. I find it remarkable that in the face of all the evidence that says what actually matters most is the quality of teaching in a school, David Cameron chooses instead to be fanatical about the name of an institution above its door. Indeed he is so fixated, that just this summer his Government amended the regulations so that any new school will now be legally classed as a free school - all so in 2020 he can say he has met his target of 500 more. That the Prime Minister considers this the priority for Britain’s education system in the modern, competitive world is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

And while the Tories tinker around with whether a school is called an academy or a free school or whatever, they offer simply no serious solution to the immense challenges facing our schools. How will the Government reverse the falling number of applications to teach, which are affecting schools at the same time as the their number of pupils increases? Where is David Cameron’s plan for raising standards in the one in five academies that are currently failing their Ofsted inspections? Why is the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the peers being allowed to widen and what will the Government do to reverse this?

For what the Prime Minister seems not to have grasped is that at the end of the day it won't matter one jot whether a school is a free school, academy, or maintained by the local authority, if there are not enough maths teachers to teach in it. The Tories may well bury their heads in the sand over the teacher recruitment crisis. But if it comes at the expense of the next generation’s education, it will be our children who suffer and the country that pays the price.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education.