“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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Labour loses Copeland to the Tories but clings onto Stoke-on-Trent Central

It is the first time a party in opposition has lost a by-election to a governing party since 1982.

Labour have lost the seat of Copeland, which they have held since 1935, to the Conservatives. 

Meanwhile, the party only narrowly saw off a threat from the right-wing populist Ukip leader Paul Nuttall in Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Jeremy Corbyn, who is to set out the party's path to Brexit today, tweeted: "Labour's victory in Stoke is a decisive rejection of Ukip's politics of division. But our message was not enough to win through in Copeland."

The Labour leader's unpopularity with the country at large is likely to loom large in the by-election post-mortem. In Copeland, an area heavily reliant on the nuclear industry, the Tories made much of Corbyn's unwillingness to counter further expansion.

In Copeland, the Tory candidate, Sellafield worker Trudy Harrison won with 13,748 votes, beating Labour's Gill Troughton by 2,147 votes. The Conservatives won with an increase of 8.5 points, taking 44.3 per cent of the vote.

The election was characterised as one of "nuclear vs the NHS", with locals also worried about a relocation of hospital services which could leave them travelling 40 miles for treatment. Despite a candidate who was a former doctor, and the NHS being Labour's bread and butter, the party failed to keep the seat.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, by contrast, party activists will be relieved to see off Nuttall, who has tried to rebrand Ukip as the party of the working class. Nuttall is reportedly determined to carry on as party leader, but as my colleague Anoosh writes, the party will now have to mull over a fundamental question: if Ukip can't win in Stoke, where can it win? 

However, given Nuttall's reputational meltdown over a false claim to have lost close friends at Hillsborough, Labour's Gareth Snell only narrowly beat him.

Snell received 7,854 votes, compared to Nuttall's 5,233, a majority of 2,621. Labour squeaked to victory despite a 2.2 point reduction in its previous vote share.

In his victory speech, Snell said his constituency would not be divided by race or faith: "So for those who have come to Stoke-on-Trent to sow hatred and division, and to try to turn us away from our friends and neighbours, I have one message – you have failed."

Both Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent voted Leave in the EU referendum. However, the Liberal Democrats, which has styled itself the voice of Remainers since the EU referendum, enjoyed a surge in the by-elections.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, the Lib Dems increased their vote share by 5.7 points, while in Copeland they did so by 3.8 points.

Lib Dem president Sal Brinton said of Stoke: “We would have done even better but for many voters, drawn to the Lib Dems, who felt they just couldn’t risk being represented by a Ukip MP, so reluctantly backed Labour."

Corbyn allies among the Labour MPs have tried to play down the loss of Copeland, with Richard Burgon describing it as a "marginal" (albeit one held by Labour for more than 80 years), and Paul Flynn taking a swipe at former Copeland MP Jamie Reed, tweeting: "Copeland MP is pro-nuclear right winger. No change there."

 

 

 

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.