Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.