Preview: The Four Horsemen of New Atheism reunited

Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris together for the final time in

Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris together for the final time in the NS.

In the special Christmas issue of the New Statesman, guest-edited by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and available for purchase here, the four leading members of the New Atheism movement have been brought together for the final time.

The name "Four Horsemen" refers to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris and was first used during a 2007 debate in which they discussed their criticisms of religion and advocated critical thinking.

Inside the pages of this New Statesman double issue, Richard Dawkins has contributed an essay, "The tyranny of the discontinuous mind" and written the NS leader column, in which he launches a scathing attack on David Cameron and his government's imposition of religious tradition on society in the form of faith schools. He writes:

Modern society requires and deserves a truly secular state, by which I do not mean state atheism, but state neutrality in all matters pertaining to religion: the recognition that faith is personal and no business of the state.

For the issue, Dawkins also travelled to Texas to conduct an exclusive interview with the late author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. In what turned out to be Hitchens's final interview before his death on 15 December, he and Dawkins discussed topics ranging from religious fundamentalism and US politics, to Tony Blair, abortion and Christmas. At the time, Hitchens said of his legacy:

It may strike some people as being broad but it's possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn't have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word "polymath" came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who's interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely - to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it - and I think I've got good memory retention. I retain what's interesting to me, but I don't have a lot of strategic depth.

A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I'm in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I'm not. But it's something to at least have had the comparison made - it's better than I expected when I started.

The American author, neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris has offered an essay on the illusion of free will (further extracts from which can be found here):

Even though we can find no room for it in the causal order, the notion of free will is still accorded a remarkable deference in the scientific and philosophical literature, even by those who believe that the mind is entirely dependent on the workings of the brain. However, the truth is that free will doesn't even correspond to any subjective fact about us, for introspection soon grows as hostile to the idea as the equations of physics have. Apparent acts of volition merely arise, spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference), and cannot be traced to a point of origin in the stream of consciousness. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you decide the next thought you think no more than you decide the next thought I write.

And finally, the American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has written "The social cell", an exclusive NS Christmas Essay which poses and attempts to answer the question: What do debutante balls, the Japanese tea ceremony, Ponzi schemes and doubting clergy all have in common?:

We need to look dispassionately at possibilities that can illuminate - and might eventually eliminate - some serious sources of suffering in the world. Once we appreciate the necessity of metabolism, reproduction and protective membranes for social cells as much as for protein-based cells, we can see more clearly the effects that novel environmental factors are likely to have on the prospects for these phenomena . . . Societies are complex in more ways than colonies of bacteria are. What does shine through is a principle of good design. Darwin showed us that the secret of life is the differential reproduction of effective designs for fending off dissolution. When we approach social phenomena with the same spirit of reverse engineering, we find a bounty of insights that can help us plan intelligently for the future.

To subscribe to the New Statesman or purchase this special issue, click here

 

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.