What God means to me

With Tony Benn, Marina Mahathir, Polly Toynbee, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Sacks, C

Linton Kwesi Johnson

God is the answer to all the questions that science can’t answer, so God, like science, is here to stay.

Tony Benn

All the founders of the great religions taught the same thing: “Treat other people as you want to be treated yourself.” You will find it in every religion and on trade union banners alike.

That aspect of religion unites the world. It is the leaders of religion that divide the world.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

God for me is whispering conscience. I pray every day wherever I am. I can’t often break through the ritual and worldly thoughts but there are moments when I am filled with a sense of another world beyond ours. Death is not the end. My faith gives me that assurance.

Peter York

God is the comfort of Hampstead Parish Church, my default position – pretty 18th-century building, good music. And He’s big; various brands of God are gaining huge market shares now – everywhere except Britain.

Sigrid Rausing

I find it difficult to conceive of a “God”, either as an image, or as a real force, to attach my religiosity to – I waver between thinking that the religious sensibility is only genetic and cultural, and thinking that there may be something, still, beyond nature and culture; an ungendered force similar to Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the “unmoved mover”, the cause of time, matter and space. I don’t think of it as a force which is personally involved in our lives.

I do, however, think of prayer as a form of meditation through which you can reach a state of stillness, or acceptance, or grace, which may or may not be connected to the force which may or may not exist.

Graham Linehan

Man in a beard, white hair, sits on a throne on a cloud, tells people whether they’ve been naughty or nice, doesn’t like women.

Howard Jacobson

I don’t know what people mean when they say they don’t believe in God. In which God don’t they believe? There is an incontrovertible God of history as well as a personal God of faith, someone to whom, in one guise or another, people have been talking, in reverence or in rage, for time immemorial. You can’t just close that conversation. Civilised colloquy has included God for too long to drop him now on a mere passing whim of disbelief. The great mistake of those who don’t believe is to leave God to those who do.

Marina Mahathir

I grew up thinking of God as the biggest, most powerful, smartest and richest being there is . . . but also most definitely male. It took a long time to realise that God has no gender and that the Quran says that He or She takes men and women into equal consideration.

That realisation has been very liberating for a Muslim woman like me. Patriarchy is a human creation, not God’s.

Polly Toynbee

The idea of God is a danger to reason and humanity – a sentimental lie, a self-imposed oppression, an excuse for abusing women and a battle cry for tribal culture wars.

Phillip Blond

For secular atheists God has nothing to do with any desirable human objective or hope.

Yet the fact remains that Christianity was the first human universalism and the first purely human politics to assert radical equality regardless of race, sex or class. So for me Christianity is a measure against which all human activity is to be judged and made meaningful and good.

Yiyun Li

China in the 1970s was an atheist country, but my grandfather used to say to my sister and me, “Three feet above your head are the eyes of God.” The very powerful chairwoman of the neighbourhood association used to lead young men to our door after midnight to look for American spies – my grandfather and both his sons had fought against the Communists – and the heavy poundings on our door at night had become a nightmare. Many years later, the chairwoman slipped in the rain and became permanently paralysed. My mother, upon hearing the news, sighed. “Remember

Grandpa used to say that three feet above your head are the eyes of God?” she said. “You should believe him now.” That was perhaps my only contact with the idea of God while growing up: for those who wait long enough, the eyes above would not fail us.

Anthony Giddens

Pass – too cosmic for me.

Kwame Kwei-Armah

The concept of God, of a creator, simply equals “continuity” to me. That there is something greater than wo/man. That in some unfathomable way most things are connected and that the higher self has something to measure itself by – to aspire to. God is not for me some old man with a white beard and a Barry White bass, but something I see in nearly everyone I meet.

Peter Mandelson

I don’t do God.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks

God, for me, represents the holiness of otherness. Through an encounter with the divine Other I come to value the encounter with the human other. What I ask God to do for me, God asks me to do for others: listen to them, empower them, believe in them, trust them, forgive them when they betray that trust, and love them for what they are, not what I would like them to be. More than we have faith in God, God has faith in us, and because he never loses that faith, we can never lose hope. God is the redemption of solitude.

Roger Scruton

God is the self-created Creator of all things, who is a person like you and me, the fount of love, the judge of human action and the refuge of all who suffer.

Camila Batmanghelidjh

My idea of God is when you are so diminished as an individual that in your nothingness you can participate in the whole. The best expression for it is an awe of vaster possibilities than those permitted in one person.

Martin Rowson

God means about as much to me as the personification of any other ideology I don’t happen to endorse, be it Ba’athism, Stalinism or the dicta of the Liberal Democrats. But I suppose it depends which God or gods you mean: are we talking about the externalisation of a common human sense of the numinous, or the psychotic sky-god Yahweh and his hegemonic avatars, Jehovah and Allah? If it’s the latter, I see him, her, it or them as a combination of the Wizard of Oz, a paper tiger, a teddy bear and a tab of Valium, invented and utilised by cunning priests and kings to keep the rest of us in a state of grateful terror. And if you accept God into your heart as nothing more than an ancient political construct, it’s almost impossible not to reach the same conclusion as Bakunin when he upended Voltaire: “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”

Ann Widdecombe

God is the first cause, the Creator, who made the universe. That is the God who is close to me as I walk on Dartmoor and see the glory of His creation all around me. He is a God of love, but also a demanding God. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and consider what they suffered and am glad that, whereas they faced the stake, the worst I am likely to have to cope with is a grilling from Jeremy Paxman.

Martyn Atkins, general secretary of the British Methodist Church

As a young convert to Christianity, I took Jesus Christ as my focus, my “way in” to God. He was my inspiration and still is. Over time this focus on Jesus was broadened and enhanced by an increasing awareness and appreciation of God as creator, sustainer, divine caring parent. In more recent times the Holy Spirit becomes ever more important to me. She fires my spirit, brings grace and humour, energy and passion into my life.

George Monbiot

God is a self-justifying myth available for all occasions. He justifies whatever course of action you wish to take. If you want to smite the Gideonites, Midianites, Amorites and Ammonites, all you need is God. If you want to invade Iraq, he’s given you prior clearance. You want to blow up a train? Fly a plane into a skyscraper? He’s there for you. It’s true there are some people – a small minority – who use their conception of God to create a better moral code. But they are greatly outnumbered by those who have used it to excuse every form of venal, grasping, brutal and murderous behaviour. God is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger

I don’t believe God is describable in human terms, nor that She/He is able to intervene in human affairs – after all, we have been given free will (by God) – but I believe God is the ultimate Creator, above and beyond us, as well as the still small voice inside us, giving us the possibility, and often the prod, to do good.


Rachel Billington

A few years ago I wrote a Life of Jesus for

child readers. It made me realise that my Catholicism was based on my idea of Jesus, not on God. This is partly because at school we were never encouraged to read the Old Testament and all the religious teaching was based on the New Testament. This didn’t mean we disbelieved in God, because Jesus was God made man, but that we didn’t feel the need to dwell on the Father as much as the Son.

For good or ill, this approach has stayed with me. Probably it reflects my practical – I nearly said “down-to-earth” – approach to my religious life. I have never been good on abstractions, just as in my novel-writing, I like to deal in reality – or at least reality as I see it. On the other hand, I am not at all worried and indeed enjoy being aware of things that I don’t understand. In fact, I admire them – like a Latin unseen or Anglo-Saxon verse that I can’t translate properly but still recognise as a great work.

The closest I get to God is through art and nature – Beethoven’s late string quartets or the beauty of the Dorset countryside. I would be utterly bereft if I stopped believing in the hand of God. On the other hand, Jesus is my leader, with the Holy Ghost lurking inspiringly. The Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost is another of those mysteries. Brilliant, and maybe even more brilliant for being beyond human understanding.

Tell us what God means to you - by emailing your thoughts godandme@newstatesman.com. A selection of contributions will be displayed on newstatesman.com

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge