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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".

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:

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.