“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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.