What God means to me

I don’t “believe” that God exists outside of the human imagination, but, believing very much in this imagination, I take the notion seriously - Alain de Botton

God is not only the reason I exist, but essentially the reason I think, write, seek to know and understand the world in which I live in all its profusion and confusion. Archimedes said that, given a firm spot, he could move the world. God, for me, is that enduring position, the reason everything else needs to be subject to critical scrutiny, and is open to improvement, reform and constant amendment - Ziauddin Sardar

God, to me, means any one of more than 3,000 deities created by human beings over the ages to try to make sense of the world. From Atum, the ancient Egyptian hermaphrodite god, through to the Aztec water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, who changed people into fish so that her floods wouldn’t drown them, these figures provided comforting explanations for natural phenomena at a time when humans knew little about the universe. We live in an age of science and reason. If we let go of this mythology, we will be letting go of the reassuring idea of immortality and the certainty and sense of community that come with faith – but we will also be able to see the world as it truly is. - Ariane Sherine

In my mid-teens, the idea of God gradually stopped making sense to me. It seemed as natural a progression as letting go of the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. A universe without God, to most atheists, is not a universe devoid of mystery or wonder. I am full of questions about the physical world; I just don’t think the notion of God even begins to answer those questions, or why such a God would need us to worship Him at all. If everything is part of God’s grand plan, which only He can understand, then why pray, even if you believe? - Preeta Samarasan

God doesn’t exist, given that evil, including Tony Blair, does. Plain truth does exist, as does beauty, notably Mozart. They play some of the role God would have had. Death, too, is tolerable for another reason: you can identify with the ongoing decency that will persist after you, a hope for a humanity. To which can be added that science, lacking the concentration on logic that is the reality of decent philosophy, is no better on religion than it is on the natures of consciousness, time, determinism and freedom – and terrorism. - Ted Honderich

It seems so obvious that God was an invention of man rather than the other way around. The universe becomes more astounding once you remove a hairy, creative deity from it. Rather than one “good book”, I can enjoy loads of good books. All that time I might have spent poring over Leviticus or Exodus can instead be spent reading Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan, with a luminous marker between my teeth, ready to underline the next startling discovery that makes the world we’re on even more magnificent. - Robin Ince

God, eh? That’s a tough one. I have a clear idea of heaven: fresh flowers and clean linen sheets every day, and a masseur at my beck and call. Hell is obvious: Heathrow.

But God? A ventriloquist’s dummy, I suppose. Everywhere I’ve lived, the churches, the mosques, the temples are staffed by puppeteers who pull our gods’ strings, and speak in their name, demanding of us frankly irrational acts. - Elizabeth Pisani

When I’m asked about God, my view generally echoes that of the Buddha: that it’s not an issue one should concern oneself with much. - Sunny Hundal

“When I look at my son – nearly two – I find it impossible to believe that life is governed by chance and that there is no higher purpose. And if we are simply a bundle of competing, selfish genes, then wherein lies morality? It is moral consciousness that is at the heart of what religion and God mean to me. The militant atheists – who seem more obsessed with God than any religious fundamentalist – don’t get that. The atheist buses touring London are quite revealing. “There’s probably no God,” reads the hoarding. “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” There you have it: what is stopping people enjoying life is apparently not war, famine, unemployment, murderous social inequality, or the insecurity and unfairness that arise from a system of global exploitation, but a misplaced belief in God. Some materialism, that! - George Galloway

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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.