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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How will British science survive Brexit?

What the future of science and tech looks like in the UK, without the European Union.

Science and tech are two industries most likely to be affected by Brexit. British science and tech companies were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining. A Brexit survey run in March by Nature found that of the 907 UK researchers who were polled, around 83 per cent believed the UK should remain in the EU.

UK scientists receive close to £1bn annually for research from the EU – a testament to the quality and influence of the work done on British soil. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK sector supported EU projects by spending €5.4bn, and was rewarded in return with funds of around €8.8bn; it’s a give and take relationship that has seen growth for both.

The combined science and tech sector has laid down the framework and investment for some of the most important research projects in the world. To date, the brightest minds in the UK and Europe have combined to work on highly influential projects: the Large Hadron Collider headed by CERN discovered the Higgs Boson particle, the Human Brain Project set itself the gargantuan goal of unravelling the mysteries of the human brain, and the European Space Agency has helped expand space exploration as European and British astronauts have headed into the ether.

In May 2016, chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Sir Michael Sterling announced that UK scientist Professor John Womersley will lead Europe's next major science project – the European Spallation Source  which is a "multi-disciplinary research centre based on the world's most powerful neutron source." It's the type of project that creates openings and opportunities for researchers, in all fields of science, to really materialise their most ingenious ideas.

The organisation techUK, which according to their website represents more than 900 companies, said in a statement that the result has created many uncertainties but has attempted to appease concerns by declaring that the UK tech sector “will play its part in helping the UK to prepare, adapt and thrive in a future outside the European Union.”

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has reinforced techUK’s concerns surrounding uncertainty, highlighting areas which need to be addressed as soon as possible. The institute believes that discussions with the EU should focus on ensuring access to digital markets, freedom to innovate and growth of “our academic research base and industrial collaborations in computing . . . to shore up and build on a major driver of UK economic success and international influence in the digital sphere”.

Confusion over the UK’s position in the EU single market has prompted questions about the freedom of movement of labour, raising concerns among researchers from Europe about their future role in UK-based projects. The naturally collaborative nature of STEM research, the cross-breeding of ideas which foster scientific and technological advancement, could be severely hampered if limitations are imposed as a result the UK’s separation from the single market.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and director of The Francis Crick Institute said: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science." The Royal Society reports that researchers at UK universities house more than 31,000 researchers of EU origin. The danger of losing much of that support is now imminent.

Many other leading voices in the community chimed in too. Paul Drayson, former Minister of Science in the Department for Business, told Scientific American: “The very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.” Remain advocate Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities and science (and brother to the leave campaign’s front man, Boris Johnson), stated his concerns to a House of Lords committee of there being very little means to make up for severed EU finances. The referendum result means that a solution to replace that money from a different source must now be sought. He also tweeted:

Despite the science and tech sector favouring a Remain vote, there were some who were leaning towards Brexit pre-referendum. Scientists for Britain, a group of UK scientists who, according to their website were “concerned that pro-EU campaigners are misusing science for political gain”, issued a statement after the referendum. They thanked leave voters for sharing their vision of the UK “outside the political structures of the European Union.”

Though there are many new policies which will need to be drawn up, it is evident that the UK’s requirement to prop itself up once outside the EU will only serve to hinder science and tech growth. The industries best served through European and global outreach are now at risk of being marginalised.

Currently in place is “Horizon 2020” – an enterprise touted as “the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever” as almost €80 million is available to researchers seeking to take their ideas “from the lab to the market”. Once Article 50 is invoked, it is crucial that any negotiations that take place ensure the UK’s spot within the programme is maintained.

There are options to maintain some European integration; gaining an “associated country” status like Switzerland could continue to strengthen the STEM sector, for example. But prioritisation of science and tech seems bleaker by the day. As a new landscape takes shape post-Brexit, we must work tirelessly to prevent our most progressive and forward-thinking frontiers caving in.