“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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Leadership contests can be a gory affair – so I was glad to provide some comic relief for Labour

My week, from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Brexit satire boom and the return of the Pink Bus.

I have a lot to thank the New Statesman diary for. My rather tragic musings in this column about life as a former special adviser, going from hero to zero and watching Daily Politics in my pants, seemed to provoke great amusement. So much so, that I decided to write a show about the whole thing: my time in the Labour Party, where it all went wrong, and wondering how a hardcore feminist ended up touring the country in a bonkers pink bus. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my stand-up comedy show, Tales from the Pink Bus.

I was nervous about performing at the ­Edinburgh Fringe – it was more than ten years since I’d been there as a stand-up. You’re competing against household names and the crowds are very discerning. I opened my set by admitting that I hadn’t done any comedy for a long time, but I’d been advising the Labour Party for the past decade. For some reason, that got a massive laugh.

Memory deficit

I was also anxious about how I would remember my material for the whole show. Fifty minutes is a long time without notes. I’m haunted by the memory of my old boss Ed Miliband, forgetting a section of his final party conference speech after trying to do the whole thing from memory. The bit he missed out was on the deficit. I didn’t want people to miss my deficit material. I’m not going to lie – there’s a lot of it. I’m trying to cut it down but it’s been a struggle. Who knew. 

Thankfully, all my shows went really well, largely thanks to the brilliant team at Funny Women and the Gilded Balloon who made it all happen. I had lovely audiences and decent reviews, and sold out every night like the big fat Red Tory/New Labour Blairite that I am. (I’m here all week.)

Therapy party

A lot of friends and family came to support me. I was so paranoid about no one coming that I made all my family buy tickets, including my cousin, who came all the way from India. Speaking of family, it was also great to get support from so many Scottish Labour folk. Kezia Dugdale, Alistair Darling, Margaret Curran, Ian Murray, Dame Joan Ruddock, plus loads of party staffers, were all there to cheer me on. It was like a Labour safe space.

I was worried that it would all be a wee bit too close to the bone, but as one of them said to me afterwards in the bar: “Christ . . . it was a relief to laugh about things instead of crying. You’ve just saved us a fortune on group therapy.”

Stand-up fight

It wasn’t all good times, though. I watched the Labour leadership hustings on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. It occurred to me that any comedian performing in Edinburgh would feel great empathy for Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. There are endless gigs, hard-to-please crowds, brutal reviews, you miss your loved ones back home – and by this point even they are bored by their own material.

The hustings continue to be a gory and vulgar display of a party self-harming. Each side is taking lumps out of the other, with very little discussion about policies or making things happen. Corbyn showed once again that he’s still hugely popular with the members. Smith showed he’s a strong performer who cares about how we can win again – but power doesn’t seem to matter to us any more. I jump in a cab and ask the driver what he makes of it all. He tells me he really likes that Corbyn chap because he doesn’t live in a fancy house, doesn’t claim any expenses and takes public transport. “Will you vote for him?” I ask. “Dinnae be daft, love,” comes the reply.

Sharp takes on our times

Politics was rife at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Everyone was talking Brexit. I chaired a panel on satire and the message was clear. The nation wants to talk about politics, but not in the arid way that we see every day on the news. The audience was crying out for sharp political satire to help us make sense of things and hold politicians to account in a ruthless, truthful way. A group of American students told us their generation was energised and educated by political satire such as The Daily Show. In these tumultuous times, there’s only one thing for it – bring back Spitting Image. I also appeared on another panel on satire with Rory Bremner and Ricky Gervais for Radio 4’s Front Row. I can see David Brent’s next adventure already: running for parliament.

Syrian voices

One of the most critically acclaimed pieces of theatre at the festival this year is ­Angel, written by Henry Naylor. It’s a nail-biting story set in Syria, about a young girl who ends up becoming a Kurdish freedom fighter and killing a hundred Isis men: when a woman kills them they don’t get to paradise and get the virgins.

The lead performance by Filipa Bragança is stunning and you leave feeling floored, as if you’ve watched a cinematic epic rather than one woman amid the bones of a sparse set on stage. It’s a harrowing reminder of the war in Syria and how we have forgotten about it. Angel should be performed in parliament and every MP should see it. It makes our politics seem very small.

No exit from politics

I finally get a holiday and arrive in Rhodes. I need solitude, and most of all a break from politics. I’ve done my time. After a day of relaxing and trying not to look at Twitter, I start to feel the tension ebb away. I’m at the secluded restaurant and suddenly all I hear is: “All right, mate? Fancy seeing you here!”

I turn around and there are Roy and Alicia Kennedy – the Posh and Becks of Labour. Roy is a key Lords frontbencher and Alicia is Tom Watson’s chief of staff. As I waddled off after the breakfast buffet this morning, I  heard them call, “Remember to vote, Ayesha – ballots have dropped.”

No rest for the wicked. 

“Tales from the Pink Bus” is in London on 31 August. For tickets or further information, visit: funnywomen.com 

Ayesha Hazarika is a former special adviser to Harriet Harman

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser