“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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.