“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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In the fight against climate change, humanity has a choice of two futures

We must fight man-made climate change, says Patricia Scotland. 

So here we are at this fork in the road. On one path, the risk of a future of chaos. A new world map with miles and miles of stormy ocean where there were once islands and schools and playgrounds, businesses and life.

A globe with acre after acre of arid desert where there were once fertile mountains and valleys, green vegetation and food.

A path where our existence is defined by pandemics and migration crises, as the earth’s population tries to squeeze into the ever-reducing areas of habitable land.

In this reality, all the arguments about progress and advancement are consigned to the pages of our history, the only agenda item at international meetings is survival.

But the other fork is an alternative path. From the window of an airplane, with wings that exactly resemble a bird’s feathers, views of healthy mangrove as far as the eye can see, miles of luxurious, green canopy, interrupted by shimmering blue oceans.

Nature in all its glory and striking colours, thriving. And when it meets a city it doesn’t mind pausing for a while, because this metropolis is powered by geothermal energy, and the office buildings are made of carbon-eating concrete that behave like trees, and the mall is modelled after a termite mound. Every roof is lined with solar panels.

Two sides of the same coin. The first possibility a dystopian apocalyptic vision; the other a reality, already happening, which may just prevent and reverse the existential threat on this precious planet we call home. 

Last month, representatives of Commonwealth governments met with climate change experts, academics and businesses to launch an alternative pathway to addressing climate change, one that moves beyond adaptation, beyond mitigation, to actually reversing the human effects of climate change. 

It proposes to regenerate the environment by taking excess carbon and carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere, where it is poisoning our planet, and putting it back in the soil where belongs.

This initiative, Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, in collaboration with the Cloudburst Foundation, creates the potential for climate change to become an opportunity for innovation and sustainable, eco-friendly economic growth.

Strong support from some of the greatest environmental advocates, including Prince Charles, Mary Robinson and Anote Tong, and powerful presentations from some of the finest minds in the climate change arena, gave us the gift of possibility.

World-renowned experts like Paul Hawken, Thomas Goreau, Janine Benyus and Ben Haggard pointed out that these innovations are already happening. And it is quite simple really. For years man has watched nature and copied nature and nature has always led the way. How else did we make human flight happen if we did not copy God's own 'animal aircraft'?

We see it in other ways too, and the truth is that we already have amazing examples of biomimicry – technology that mimics nature. The eco-friendly Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe is modelled after termite mounds. In China, the dry, barren plains of the Loess Plateau have been regenerated and restored to healthy green land; and we have similar examples of land regeneration in Rwanda.

What I am saying is that the genius of man, which created technologies that have huge benefits for human beings but detrimental effects on our environment, is the same genius we will employ to help us through mitigation and adaption, and ultimately to reverse climate change and stop global warming. But there is a fundamental problem. We have ecologists, scientists, environmentalists and academics coming up with these solutions working in silos.

So what the Commonwealth began to do last October, when we had our first climate change reversal workshop, is to bring them together. We invited 60 experts who are pioneering these approaches to climate change to Marlborough House. They explored how we can create an integrated plan on climate change reversal.

My goal is to be able to offer every Commonwealth country a package of multidisciplinary, multisectoral solutions to this multidimensional problem. Collaboration and political will are key, because we will need to weave the ideas into our curriculum, insert them in our building codes and business regulations and integrate them into our gender, agricultural and environmental policies.

But how will cash-strapped countries fund this? This is where initiatives like our Climate Finance Access Hub comes in. This programme gives countries the capacity to make successful applications for funding from the Green Fund and other climate change financing mechanisms.

We also have to listen to what the captains of industry are saying. At our meeting last month, Paul Polman, CEO of the mega-consumer goods company Unilever, stressed that when businesses consider investment they take into account sustainable development goals.

If there is no justice and peace, if there is hunger and destitution and if they are operating in cities which are not sustainable, on land that might be reclaimed by the sea or deteriorate into desert conditions, they are investing in a venture that will fail. So the regenerative approach does not have to come at the cost of economic growth. Actually, it will boost investment and development.

The Commonwealth has been at the forefront of the climate change discussion since the 1980s when it first became topical. Our milestones include the Langkawi Declaration in 1989 which commits us to protect the environment, and our leaders' summit in 2015, days before COP21, was instrumental in the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. But the empirical evidence shows us that even at 1.5 degrees, islands will disappear into the ocean.

This November when governments convene at COP23, we will be posing the question: which pathway will you take? But this is not just a question for governments and organisations, it is a question for every single individual on this earth.

So what are we going to teach our children? More than 60 per cent of the 2.4 billion people in the Commonwealth are under the age of 30. How are we going to harness this exuberance and abundant talent and transform them into innovative solutions? How are we going to run our businesses and manage waste and energy in our homes? What path are you going to take? One that risks our future? Or one that is built on the principle that we can work with nature instead of against it to progress and develop?

Patricia Scotland is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth

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