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Britain’s hidden religion

In last week’s NS a host of distinguished writers debated what place God should have in our society.

A little while ago I telephoned Professor Antony Flew at his home in Reading. The philosopher once described as “the world’s most famous atheist” was having his lunch. Could I call back later? When I did, however, the great man was not exactly forthcoming. “Professor Flew,” I began, “I wonder if you would be willing to be interviewed for the New Statesman?” “I am old and decrepit,” replied the prof, “but my mind is still sharp. So my answer is no.” Click, brrrr.

The reason for Flew’s refusal, and his brevity, was not some curious dislike for the NS. The answer lies in the designation above. He may once have been described as “the world’s most famous atheist”, but no more. Flew caused a stir – made news around the world, in fact – in 2004, when it was reported that he now believed in God. There had already been rumours of his “conversion” three years previously, which he denied with a response titled: “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m still an atheist!” This time they were confirmed.

New scientific discoveries persuaded him, he said, “that intelligence must have been involved” in producing life. He later backtracked on the reasons for his change of heart, saying he had been misled by the evidence he’d been presented with, a statement that ­attracted some derision in humanist and philosophical circles. Which is why, I suspect, that at the age of 86, Flew doesn’t want to go into all this in depth again.

He does, however, still believe in God – or, in his case, god. For Flew had become not a Christian, but a deist, a distinction the British Humanist Association correctly noted on its website, where it continued for a while to list him as a “distinguished supporter” with the regretful rider: “Professor Flew has recently become a deist. Nevertheless, we would like to thank him for his many years of support.”

Flew was no more sympathetic to the revealed religions of the Book, with their “monstrous Oriental despots” of gods, as he called them, than before. He had simply come to the conclusion that, at the very least, there was probably some kind of “first cause”; and that this, rather than an interventionist deity presiding over an afterlife, was what he meant by “god”.

Most people have probably never heard of the term deism, or, if they had, would fail to distinguish it from theism. The confusion would be understandable given that the two terms’ derivations differ merely in that deist comes from the Latin deus and theist from the Greek theos, and that both mean “god”. The two are very different, however.

Deists believe in a god who created but does not intervene in the universe. That god, however, does not have to be anything more than an entity that set creation in motion. It does not give you the anthropomorphised deity to whom many believers pray, nor any of the trappings and beliefs that we associate with religion.

Theism, on the other hand, implies belief in the God of the Abrahamic religions, who remains present to and active within the world at the same time as transcendent over it.

But, from the Enlightenment onwards, the influence of deism has been vast. Many of America’s Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jef­ferson and Benjamin Franklin, were deists, as were the philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire and the English radical pamphleteer Tom Paine. The precise nature of Flew’s deism is a matter of considerable controversy. Some allege that the philosopher has been taken advantage of, and that his 2007 book There Is a God was mainly the work of his American co-author, Roy Varghese, although Flew vigorously denies this. Nevertheless, many felt that the book lacked the coherence and style of his earlier works, such as God and Philosophy and his essay “The Presumption of Atheism”, and did not show the brilliance of a mind known to generations of undergraduates. A New York Times reviewer summed up the mood of the new book’s detractors: “I doubt thoughtful believers will welcome this volume. Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, it rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”

The deism of the Founding Fathers, however, was significantly stronger than that which can be ascribed to Flew with con­fidence. Theirs was that of a natural religion, one that was not revealed to Middle Eastern prophets but could be arrived at by reason. The laws of nature must have been designed, goes the argument, hence there must be a designer, and the concept of natural rights (which so permeates the United States constitution) is embodied in his creation.

Any belief in scriptural authenticity or an ­afterlife is not entailed, although many of these deists were close enough to religion for it to be queried today whether they were, in fact, not deists but rationalist theists. Benjamin Franklin was typical of those who took this approach. “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” he wrote to the president of Yale University in 1790, “I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

If Franklin’s words strike a chord with many, including those who think of themselves as being Christians, perhaps that is no surprise. According to Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham and a world-renowned New Testament scholar, most of them are in fact deists – whether they know it or not. “I think that almost all ‘ordinary English’ people – and a good many others, too – simply take a deist framework of thought for granted and when they hear the word ‘god’ that’s what they are thinking of,” he tells me. “The fact that there is a major difference between deism and the three Abrahamic religions is not just news to most; it is incomprehensible when the ‘news’ is told them.”

Wright’s analysis certainly fits with the vague professions and low-level observance that characterise the popular image, and often the reality, of English churchgoing (as opposed to the more rigid theologies and greater demands placed on followers of, say, Catholicism and Islam). And if it is correct, it is of far greater significance than the decision of one particular atheist, however famous, to join them. C S Lewis was once himself a deist, until he took a journey to Whipsnade Zoo in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike, at the end of which he found he had become a Christian. But his later words, subsequent to his final conversion, are a stern rebuke to any Christian who fails to affirm the divinity of Christ, or thinks of him merely as a great teacher; for they have in fact lapsed into deism. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” wrote Lewis. “He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

No in-between path can be taken to be truly Christian. In which case, the multitudes that do take just such paths, while still occasionally taking a pew, and the similar numbers of those who profess no formal religion, but maintain a hazy conviction that there must be some originator of the universe, may make up the millions of what could be thought of as Britain’s hidden religion – a deist faith that the world has forgotten.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain