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.

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

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror