“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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0-0, yawn yawn - and Everton were just as poor as Spurs

Watching the game was grim. Hearing it, too, would only have made it worse.

Have you ever had a hearing test? Nor me, till last week. I think I can hear OK, just that I’ve started asking my wife to repeat things, usually just one word, that’s all I ever miss.

I’d imagined the nurse would crouch down behind a couch and whisper things you’d have to repeat, a bit like a sight test at the optician’s. Or perhaps you’d get put in front of the TV and they’d progressively turn down the volume really low.

Instead she got out the sort of thing I use in the Lake District to keep down the moles. It’s like a big pencil, with a battery inside, which you put in the grass and it gives a high-pitched ping and drives moles mad.

She stuck it in my right ear and switched it on. I had to put my arm out, then drop it when I heard any pings. I failed one out of five. My left ear was worse – two wrong out of five. So I have to go to the Royal Free. Perhaps the test there will be different: shouting in your ears.

The next day, going to Spurs, the noise, my dears, and the people. I think they’ve trebled the volume of the video nonsenses on the big screen since last season. People were standing with fingers in their ears. The Prem now insists on this manic, faux-operatic music when the teams come out. It was so loud that the teams in fact came out in silence – the silence of the crowd, who usually scream their loyalty, but were overwhelmed by the canned rubbish.

So, what’s new? Spurs’ kit has a slash across the front, as if a car has run over it. That stupid Prem ball, the new multicoloured one. First time I’d seen it close up. Looks like a plastic toy, won at a fairground instead of a goldfish. Apparently it’s Nike’s “Ordem 3”, which boasts a “bold geometric design”. There’s a similar ball for the Spanish and Italian leagues, with slight colour differences, depending on the league. How many fans don’t know which country they’re in?

For years we’ve had new kits every season, just to sell more new kits, then it was multicoloured boots. Now they’re having a go at the balls, just to give us more balls. How about multicoloured grass? It’s been green for years, so boring, come on, Nike.

It was Spurs-Everton. I couldn’t hear what they were singing, until my son translated, yet they were singing something I’m supposed to be an expert on – a Beatles song. It was “Money Can’t Buy You Stones”. Chelsea, of course, has been trying to buy John Stones from Everton. They rather mangled it, trying to make the words fit the tune, or it could have been my ears. Arsenal do it better when singing about Giroud to “Hey Jude”. “Yellow Submarine” is still the all-time Beatles-related football song, especially in Europe. When the Evertonians grew bored with their Beatles pastiche, they fell back on “Fuckoffmourinho”.

Nothing new about Spurs, alas. If anything, they’re back to their dismal, predictable, lumpen ways. They overachieved last season – by being merely mediocre and middling. On Saturday, there was not one Spurs player I was looking forward to watching; Eriksen wasn’t playing.

Harry Kane is a conundrum, for Spurs and England. When you watch him in the flesh it’s clear he has no confidence. His touch has gone; he looks nervous and tired, despite it being so early in the season. Was last season a one-off, his mirabilis moment? I’m beginning to fear so. Earlier in his career he was loaned out several times, which is always a worrying sign – to Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich, Leicester. He did poorly, especially at Leicester, so all my Leicester friends tell me.

Or is it because defences have got wise to him, doubling up and marking him out of the game? Everton hardly worried about him, just let him miss his chances. Having said that, Harry will probably now get a hat-trick for England.

It was 0-0, yawn yawn, and Everton were just as poor as Spurs, both of them giving the ball away, useless at free-kicks and corners. What do they do in training all week?

Spurs roused themselves in the second half and the crowd responded, becoming really, really noisy. So I was told . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses