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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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.