Jim Al-Khalili: "Indoctrination from any perspective, in any point of view, has to be wrong"

The new president of the British Humanist Association explains his views on the "broad church".

Jim Al-Khalili. Sketch: Dan Murrell/New Statesman

You’ve just been appointed president of the British Humanist Association. What defines your idea of humanism?

A humanist is someone who doesn’t believe in the need for a supernatural being to tell us how to lead our lives. But humanism is a very broad “church”. I don’t feel I need to “put right” people who have religious faith.

For instance, my mother is a very devout Christian. I would never think it worthwhile or morally right to tell her what she believes is wrong, maybe because I know she’s not going to say, “Oh, yes, of course there’s no God. How could I have been so stupid all this time?”

For me, humanism is about making sure that we live in a secular society in which you are free to believe but that doesn’t impinge on the way society is run. Faith schools are something I’ve been very passionately against for many, many years. More important is to get across to those with a religious faith that they’re wrong about this arrogant attitude that you need God to be good, that you need religious faith to provide the moral compass.

When someone says, “Why can’t we have faith schools?” what is your reply?

Even at a benign level, faith schools suggest: “You are part of our group and this is the way we think and we are right and the others are wrong.” By definition, an education is to teach children to think for themselves and to make up their own mind about their world-view – and I think that [faith schools] stop them.

How would you persuade those who want faith schools that they’re wrong?

I think the connection between culture and religion, particularly for, say, Muslims or Jews, is very powerful and they can’t see that there is another perspective. My worry is that when we argue, “You shouldn’t be indoctrinating your children,” they’ll say: “Humanists or atheists are doing exactly the same thing. You are trying to indoctrinate children in this idea that there is no God.” So indoctrination from any perspective, in any point of view, has to be wrong.

What about your educational background? You were educated in Iraq.

I went to an Arabic-speaking school, because my father’s a Muslim – although he’s really an agnostic Muslim. Iraq is a pretty secular society. Well, it was in the 1960s and 1970s. I never had to sit and memorise stories from the Quran or anything like that.

But back home, I grew up thinking, “My father’s a Muslim and my mother’s a Christian. They both believe in the same God and Allah is just Arabic for God.” I think I was probably about 13 when I decided they can’t both be right and therefore they’re both wrong.

Some philosophers dismiss humanism, arguing it suggests human beings are superior to other animals, rather than just another beast.

From an evolutionary perspective, we are just another member of the animal kingdom but, for me, humanism does celebrate those attributes that we have evolved, to be part of society. What defines humanism is things like empathy and compassion and having a conscience. It’s not magical; it’s something that has arisen from the complexities of evolution.

Some say that contemporary physics has stepped over the line from hard science to dealing with philosophical concepts.

Theoretical physics in the past hundred years has sometimes bordered on metaphysics or philosophy, especially when we come up with ideas that we can’t see a way of testing experimentally. For me, science is empirical – it is about gathering evidence. It’s debatable whether something like superstring theory, which is at the forefront of theoretical physics, is proper science because we still haven’t designed an experiment to test it.

Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is a theory that we’ve tested again and again. We wouldn’t have most of the technologies of the modern world if it wasn’t for quantum mechanics. The difference between when a scientist says, “I believe this is how nature works,” and when someone with religious faith says, “I believe that God wants this,” is that we look for scientific evidence, empirical evidence, testability and reproducibility to back up what we’re saying, whereas in faith you don’t need them.

What still perplexes you as a physicist? I remember you were very confident that neutrinos were not travelling faster than light, despite experimental evidence from Italy which appeared to show just that.

I took my kids, when they were young, to a museum and there was a big pendulum hanging off the roof. You could hold it close to your nose and, being very careful not to give it a push, just let it go. And it swings. Don’t flinch when it comes back to you. You could break your nose if you move or if you’ve given it a push. But if you’re confident you haven’t given it a push, [you’re fine]. I have faith, if that’s the right word to use, in the laws of nature that tell me it will swing less each time, not more.

I felt the same about the neutrino. All my training and all the evidence that I’ve learned is out there, confirming nothing goes faster than the speed of light.

Why is the word “spiritual” misused to mean something that inspires wonder?

It’s another word, like “faith”. Why should they hijack the word “spiritual”? Why can’t we have the word “spiritual” to imply something mysterious? “Mystical”, there’s another word. [With] a lot of these words people suggest that you must be religious, you must be spiritual, in order to use them. I would very strongly fight to broaden things out so that we can use them as well and not feel as though we have to defend and define those words.

Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist and broadcaster. For details of the British Humanist Association, visit: humanism.org.uk