“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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Sadiq Khan's decision to scrap the Garden Bridge is a victory for ordinary Londoners

Perhaps the rich really do want to give something back to London. If they do, I'm sure it'll be lovely. But if they don't, I'm bloody glad I don't have to pay for it.

The obvious question about the Garden Bridge is: where did it all go wrong?

The bridge, after all, should have been a lovely addition to the fabric of the city. An oasis of greenery in an area devoid of it, a new way of crossing the river and a new tourist attraction, akin to New York's High Line, all rolled into one. The Garden Bridge was not like the hilariously pointless “Emirates Air Line”, the cable car to nowhere which is even now ferrying empty pods between two windswept ex-industrial estates in a deserted bit of east London, like one of the follies listed by Marge Simpson at the end of Marge vs the Monorail. The Garden Bridge should have been great.

Yet in the years since it was first proposed, it's sunk further and further into controversy. The Garden Bridge Trust, the charity responsible for getting it built, has failed to raise enough money or acquire the land required to start construction before planning permission runs out this December. Official reports have repeatedly raised questions about the Trust's financial plans.

And today's news that London's mayor Sadiq Khan has written to the Garden Bridge Trust to tell it that the taxpayer would not provide the financial guarantees required for work to continue – effectively killing the scheme – is more likely to be celebrated than mourned. So how did something so lovely end up so loathed?

The obvious explanation is the growing sense that the whole thing has been a bit of a con. When first the bridge was proposed, the intention was that it would be largely privately funded, with just a smidgen of Transport for London money required to get things moving.

The longer things went on, though, the more the ratio between those two sources of funding seemed to change. The predicted cost of the bridge continued to climb; yet the amount of money promised by private donors first flatlined, then began to slide.

So the amount of cash the taxpayer was going to have to put into this thing soared, with no end in sight: without a clear plan for funding the upkeep and maintenance of the bridge, it seemed likely to become a permanent line in the capital's own budget. As a result what had once been pitched as a gift to London began looking more and more like a pointless indulgence we would have to pay for ourselves. It felt like we’d been had.

But I think there's another, more philosophical reason why a lovely idea like a Garden Bridge should have become so unpopular: it fitted with a lingering sense that something has gone terribly wrong with this city.

We are, after all, in the middle of a housing crisis, which is seeing even relatively well-off people forced out of the city, and which has forced untold numbers to live in tiny under-regulated patches of squalor. The official definition of “Affordable Housing” has become a bad joke, yet new housing developments bend over backwards to avoid making even this limited provision. And in the midst of all this, the most visible property developments aren't much-needed homes for the masses, but commercial skyscrapers and luxury apartments.

Contemporary London prides itself on its tolerance and diversity and the way different social classes are all jumbled up together, without any of the ghettoisation seen in, say, Paris. Yet huge chunks of what look like public space are now private estates, often patrolled by private security. In our flattering, metropolitan liberal self-image, this isn't what London is meant to be.

It was, however, exactly what the Garden Bridge was going to be: a private garden masquerading as public space, yet funded by the taxpayer. The people most determined to see it built were a flotilla of rich, posh people: Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Thomas Heatherwick, Joanna Lumley. They were not us, but them – yet still they expected us to pay for it.

And then, once in a while, the bridge would close so that an investment bank or a private equity firm could throw a garden party, drinking champagne and eating canapes in full view of London as a whole, on a bridge we paid for but which we were not allowed to cross.

Perhaps the project isn't dead. Perhaps the Garden Bridge Trust will somehow find enough donors to get it finished without taxpayer support, and even find a way of funding its upkeep. Perhaps the rich really do want to give something back to London. If they do, I'm sure it'll be lovely.

But if they don't, I'm bloody glad we will no longer have to pay for it. This city has quite enough symbols of economic division as it is.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, where this blog post was originall published. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

0800 7318496