In this week’s New Statesman: After God

PLUS: David Blanchflower’s verdict on the budget.

After God: What atheists can learn from believers

Swept away by science and the scathing scrutiny of New Atheists, religion seems to be on the point of extinction, yet billions still cling to it. For our cover story this week, we ask some of the leading “New, New Atheists” – those who “separate their atheism from their secularism” and treat religious heritage as “a treasure trove to be plundered” – if faith has a place in modern life. Here is a preview of each contributor's position: 

Alain de Botton: The three elements of religion that a post-religious society should “steal”

“The challenge facing atheists,” de Botton writes, “is how to separate many ideas and rituals from the religious institutions that have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them . . . Secularism is not wrong. It is just that we have too often secularised badly.”

1. New priest

“The most sophisticated response we have yet come up with is psychotherapy . . . [But there] is also, in a serious sense, an issue of branding. Therapy is hidden, unbranded, depressing in its outward appearance. The priests had far better clothes, and infinitely better architecture.”

2. New gospels

“So, why does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons of literature and art as believers live according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us? The fault lies with academia. Universities are entirely uninterested in training students to use culture as . . . a source that can prove of solace to us when confronted by the infinite challenges of existence . . .”

3. New churches

“You sometimes hear it said that art museums are our new churches . . . The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as they served those of theology, for centuries.”

Francis Spufford denounces the “burning simplicities” of New Atheism

This post-Christian puritanism, largely oblivious now of its history, is highly visible in the New Atheism of the 1990s and 2000s, and especially in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Strange indifference (except at the margins) to all religions except Christianity? Check. Sense of being locked in righteous combat with the powers of darkness? Check. Puritanism, it turns out, can float free of faith and still preserve a vehement world-view, a core of characteristic judgements . . .

I don’t expect the puritan call will lose its appeal to the young and the zealous, but maybe we are entering a phase of greater tolerance in which, having abandoned the impossible task of trying to abolish religion, atheists might be able to apply themselves to the rather more useful task of distinguishing between kinds that want to damn you and kinds that don’t.

Jim Al-Khalili: “It is time now for the New, New Atheists”

Believing in a god is fine by me, if it is important to you . . . But what I, and many other atheists, take issue with is the arrogant attitude that religious faith is the only means of providing us with a moral compass . . .

Our society is no longer predominantly religious. Atheists are the mainstream. This is precisely why we should set out our stall to be more tolerant and inclusive . . . The New Atheists have laid the foundations; maybe it is time now for the “New, New Atheists”.

Karen Armstrong: “The biblical God is a starter kit”

Most of us are introduced to God at about the same time as we hear about Santa Claus, but over the years our views of Santa mature and change, while our notion of God often gets stuck at an infantile level . . . The biblical God is a “starter kit”; if we have the inclination and ability, we
are meant to move on. Religion, too, is a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart. Like premodern philosophy, it was not the quest for an abstract truth but a practical way of life.

Richard Holloway: The former bishop of Edinburgh calls for a “critical sympathy towards religion”

A good approach here is not to try to stop the revelation argument from going round and round but to ask a different question, thus: given that there probably is no God, where did all this stuff come from? To which the obvious answer is that it came from us.

So it’s a mistake to do what most unbelievers usually do at this point, which is to dismiss them as fairy tales . . . The word to grasp here is myth: a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.

The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE: 

 

David Blanchflower: This budget was Osborne’s last hurrah – and now he can only hope for the good times

Reacting to yesterday’s Budget, our economics editor, David Blanchflower, cites damning figures for growth and increased borrowing, and describes George Osborne’s proposed £3bn increase in capital spending as “both pitiful and inadequate”. Blanchflower calls on Vince Cable, who in an essay for the New Statesman this month made the case for greatly expanded capital spending, to oppose the Chancellor “for the sake of the country”.

Read his piece in full on our website now

 

Laura Kuenssberg: Budget briefings, Osborne’s unpopularity and a bleak future for Cyprus

This week Laura Kuenssberg, the business editor of ITV News, writes our Diary. On the Budget, leaks from the Treasury and the unpopular Chancellor:

As the Budget feels rather empty, apart from the bleak economic outlook, it’s understandable that the Treasury has got into the habit of giving away rather a lot ahead of time . . . At any rate, the decision to reveal some of the nicer bits of the Budget won’t save Osborne from a difficult day . . .

Three years in to the coalition, the public is rather less willing than it was to defend the Chancellor’s decisions. At ITV News, we have been tracking attitudes to the government’s economic plan every week. Our latest findings suggest that nearly half the public would shove the Chancellor out of his job, if it were up to them.

The former US president Lyndon Johnson, who knew a thing or two about ploughing on in the face of resistance, once said that being in charge is “like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”

On the bailout crisis in Cyprus:

With no faith in the institutions today, why would Cypriot savers leave any of their money in the bank tomorrow? One senior trader told me darkly, “The run is unavoidable. The question is where the money will go and who will take it.” Eurocrats and the Cypriot government may have just made a very bad decision that will be impossible to unpick.

 

James Lovelock: A man for all season

In the NS interview, John Gray speaks to James Lovelock: the maverick environmentalist who supports fracking and nuclear power.  “A resolute independence has shaped James Lovelock as a scientists”, begins Gray, continuing:

Lovelock has always cherished the freedom to follow his own ideas and stood aside from institutions in which science is conducted as a vast collective enterprise. Partly this is an expression of his ingrained individualism, but it also reflects his radically empiricist view of science as a direct engagement with the world and his abiding mistrust of consensual thinking. In these and other respects, he has more in common with thinkers such as Darwin and Einstein, who were able to transform our view of the world because they did not work under any kind of external direction, than he does with most of the scientists who are at work today.

 

Doris Lessing: A room of one’s own

As part of our Centenary celebrations, we republish this piece by Doris Lessing which original ran in the magazine in August of 1963. The preceding year Lessing had published her breakthrough novel, “The Golden Notebook”.  In this short memoir, Lessin recalls moving house…

When I came into this flat of four small box-like rooms, the bedroom was painted pale pink, except for the fireplace wall, which had a fanciful pink and blue paper. The woodwork was a dark purple, almost black. This paint is sold by a big decorating shop in the West End and is called Bilberry. Two girls had the flat before me. Very little money, obviously, because the carpeting was going into holes, and the walls were decorated with travel posters. The woman upstairs told me they were young and often had parties that lasted all night. “But I liked to hear them, I enjoy the sounds of life.” She was reproachful: I don’t have parties often enough for her.

In the Critics:

  • American novelist Jonathan Lethem pays tribute to Philip Roth, who turned 80 on 19 March;
  • Steven Poole reviews David Hendy’s Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening;
  • Alwyn W Turner reviews Mod: a Very British Style by Richard Weight;
  • Ryan Gilbey watches Danny Boyle’s new film, Trance, and Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45;
  • Rachel Cooke is disappointed by the BBC’s TV adaptation of The Lady Vanishes;
  • Kate Mossman reviews What About Now, the new album by Bon Jovi;
  • Will Self visits the Old Town in Prague for Madness of Crowds;
  • and much more...

Read our full "In the Critics this week" blog here

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

 

 

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA