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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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David Cameron's speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.