“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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The High Court is right to rule the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with small children

The idea this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work has been exposed as a myth. 

Thursday’s High Court decision that the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with children under the age of two is another blow to the Tories failing austerity agenda. It is failing on its own terms, it's failing our communities, and it’s failing the most vulnerable in our country – including the victims of domestic violence and those facing homelessness.

The judgment handed down by Mr Justice Collins was damning. Upon considering the impact of the benefit cap, he concluded that “real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

The government’s claims that this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work have been exposed as a myth. Seven out of eight households hit by the cap have very young children, are too ill to work or have a work-limiting disability. The spiralling cost of childcare has left many unable to find or afford good quality childcare in order to allow them to work. In some cases, families lose up to £115 a week, pushing them into deeper into poverty.

Labour warned the government of the impact this policy would have on lone parents with very young children during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act. We tabled amendments to exempt lone parents with young children. They refused to listen and thousands of families have been pushed into poverty as a result, including survivors of domestic violence.

Many parents are perpetually stuck in insecure, poorly paid work on a zero hours contract, with the majority of their earnings spent on childcare. Alternatively they are unable to find work which fits around their childcare responsibilities and are then subjected to the benefit cap resulting in families struggling to make ends meet. Just under 320,000 children now live in households likely to be affected by the new lower cap, which was introduced last November. This is at a time when one in four of our children are growing up in poverty.

Despite these obvious barriers facing families with young children, particularly lone parents, it has taken a brave group of campaigners to challenge a government which lacked the foresight to see the real damage they are inflicting with another one of their disastrous austerity cuts. The Government’s own evaluations show that only 16 per cent of families impacted by the benefit cap move into paid work compared to 11 per cent who would have moved into work anyway.

For too long, this government has pushed our children into a lifetime of poverty, as punishment for parental circumstances, whilst continuing to give hand-outs to the privileged few.

What a difference a year makes. Only last July, the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street pledged to “fight the burning injustices” facing our society. Not only has she failed spectacularly, her government continue to pursue policies that are further entrenching these injustices.

It is clear that the benefit cap hits the poorest in our society the hardest. This judgment is a further blow to Theresa May’s unstable minority government and I implore the Prime Minister to accept the High Court's judgement and end this discriminatory policy against lone parent families.

This is the latest in a series of judgments found against the government in relation to their austerity programme. After rulings on the bedroom tax, Personal Independence Payments and now the benefit cap, the government should now accept the ruling instead of spending yet more taxpayers’ money on an appeal. 

Labour has proudly stood against the benefit cap, its discrimination against parents with young children and the government’s cruel austerity programme which has caused too many people real misery.

A Labour government would immediately implement the High Court ruling and only a future Labour government will transform the social security system so that, like the NHS, it is there for the many in our time of need.

 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.

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