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Please, let’s not do God

The Vanity Fair columnist and author of God is not great on Tony Blair's new faith foundati

I stipulate that for purely secular reasons I still admire Tony Blair for standing by the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq and Sierra Leone against the various combinations of tyranny and aggression with which they were confronted. (The refusal to “do God”, as we are apparently stuck with this irritating phrase, neither enhanced nor inhibited the execution of those admirable policies.) But far more irritating is Blair’s new banality, which rises almost to Queen’s Christmas broadcast level – “science has given us great power for good or ill” – combined with his addiction to junk statistics, and his unexamined assumption that there must be some natural connection between faith and rectitude.

Of his supposed two billion Christians, for example, how many belong to congregations that are at each other’s throats, or that rant about the imminence of the “end times”? The leader of Blair’s own Christian sect cannot decide which is worse – Aids or condoms – and has just readmitted a neo-fascist bishop who thinks that the “deicide” committed by the Jews against Jesus is a historic fact, but that the genocide practised by the Nazis on the Jews is a fiction.

Speaking of the Jews, does Blair really believe that 13 million of them go anywhere near a synagogue? They (we), the inventors of monotheism, have become the most secular population in human history and have flourished mightily since throwing off rabbinical rule. And doesn’t he know the first thing about that supposed tsunami of new converts in Africa, many of whom are animists in another guise? Just ask the luckless Archbishop of Canterbury (that feckless and sheeplike advocate of sharia), whose own pathetic little Anglican faction is being riven by cruel and fanatical African bishops who think that homosexuality is a mortal sin. Or consult the dissenting Christians of Russia, now faced by the emergence of a full-dress Putin dictatorship, garbed in the clerical robes of a state-sponsored Orthodoxy.

One and a half billion Muslims? Possibly, if you take the claims of Muslim propagandists at their face value. But be careful of standing too near the “wrong” mosque in Iraq or Pakistan, lest the soldiers of Allah be intent on murdering their Sunni or Shia brethren and heedless of those who get in the way.

And so it goes on. There is something crass and nasty as well as something vulgar in Blair’s quantitative triumphalism (“more than 900 million Hindus”: such good news for those who think like the sectarian Bharatiya Janata Party). Those of us who have our doubts about the God delusion have never been under the impression that it is under-supported. But the way that Blair talks, it seems that religion’s chief pride is its availability in bulk and wholesale form. Why doesn’t he mention Mormonism, the crackpot Joseph Smith-oriented faith that is said to be the fastest-growing of them all?

One’s qualms are not quelled by the suffocatingly boring five-point agenda that is tacked lamely on to the quantitative proclamation. I think we have all, already, declared ourselves to be against malaria. With only very slightly less enthusiasm, we can perhaps find a pulse that interests us in interfaith “interaction”. Could I hint that “globalisation” has been a big subject for some time? And could I also suggest that the notion of an ethical imperative in the world of economics is not primarily or only a religious one?

On the fifth proposition, that of an “Abrahamic” coalition, I can only give way humbly, to those who think it moral and exemplary for mythical tribalists to circumcise themselves at the age of 90 and to offer their sons as human sacrifices when they hear voices in their heads. As our former prime minister phrases it so smoothly: “While in office, it was best, in my view, not to shout that too loudly from the roof­tops.” So shout it out loud now, Tony, and see if it makes those demons go away. But why weren’t you so brave before?

With the exception of the last of the five initiatives, then, there would be nothing that any secular charity could not undertake. This still leaves a good deal of ground untilled. There remains an urgent need for campaigns that would, inter alia:

  • Fight against the genital mutilation of children of both sexes;
  • Fight against dowry and bride-price for underage girls;
  • Campaign for the right of men and women to employ contraception;
  • Call for an Islamic ruling against suicide bombing;
  • Call for a rabbinic ruling against the theft of non-Jewish land.
  • This list is suggestive rather than exhaustive, but it is at least as relevant as the menace of malaria and it also serves to demonstrate that the religious are not morally brave, as they like to brag, but are instead quite unable to face the fact that they are the cause, and not the cure, of so much suffering and stupidity and misery.

    Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of “God Is Not Great” (Atlantic Books, £8.99)

    Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

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

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    The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

    With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

    Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

    Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

    Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

    Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

    The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

    In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

    The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

    So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

    — Jason Cowley, Editor 

    Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

    Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

    John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

    Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

    David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

    John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

    Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

    Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

    Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

    Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

    Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

    Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

    Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

    Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

    John Bew mourns the lost left

    Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

    Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

    David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

    This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times