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23 February 2012updated 26 Sep 2015 8:31pm

In this week’s New Statesman: The God Wars

Richard Dawkins & Bryan Appleyard | Marina Lewychka on Occupy | Amanda Levete on the legacy of the B

By Alice Gribbin

god wars

Richard Dawkins: Atheist in memory lapse and slavery shock

Following Richard Dawkins‘s Today programme exchange with Giles Fraser over the New Testament and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the evolutionary biologist and former New Statesman guest editor addresses the “smear tactics” used against him over the past week, first of which was the former canon chancellor’s attempt on radio:

Far from being a real gotcha, Fraser’s diversionary tactic can only be seen as a measure of desperation, designed to conceal the embarrassing ignorance of their holy book shown by 64 per cent of Census Christians [people who self-identified in the 2001 census as “Christian”]. In any case Darwin’s Origin, I hope I don’t have to add, is nobody’s holy book.

Dawkins uses the NS Cover Story to present the results of a large-scale Ipsos MORI poll into Britain’s relationship with Christianity. Among initial findings such as that the percentage of the population which describes itself as Christian has dropped from 72 to 54 per cent, Dawkins reports that:

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“I try to be a good person” came top of the list of “what being a Christian means to you”, but mark the sequel. When the Census Christians were asked explicitly, “When it comes to right and wrong, which of the following, if any, do you most look to for guidance?” only 10 per cent chose “Religious teachings and beliefs”. Fifty-four per cent chose “My own inner moral sense” and a quarter chose “Parents, family or friends”. Those would be my own top two and, I suspect, yours, too.

Dawkins states that these facts – not negotiable opinions – cannot be changed by smears and irrelevant digressions:

In modern Britain, not even Christians put Christianity anywhere near the heart of their lives, and they don’t want it put at the heart of public life either. David Cameron and Baroness Warsi, please take note.

Bryan Appleyard: The God Wars

Also in this week’s NS Cover Story, the author Bryan Appleyard explores what drives Dawkins and other rational minds – the “militant neo-atheists” – to such “cultish intolerance” towards religion. Or, as Sayeeda Warsi, the Muslim cabinet minister, puts it to Appleyard, “Why are the followers of reason so unreasonable?

Darwinism, the “AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops”, has been used to argue that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality. Yet the problem with militant neo-atheism, according to Appleyard:

. . . is that it represents a profound category error. Explaining religion – or, indeed, the human experience – in scientific terms is futile. “It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love,” [Alain] de Botton says.

The ultimate futility of neo-atheism, Appleyard argues, is that “religion is not going to go away”:

It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been . . . how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown.

Alan Milburn: A radical vision for NHS reform

Writing in the New Statesman, Alan Milburn, health secretary under Tony Blair from 1999 to 2003, challenges Labour to be bolder in its health policies and attacks the coalition parties for their “badly misjudged” NHS reforms, in which, he argues, “they are drowning”:

Obsessed with policy tinkering, [Andrew] Lansley ignored the politically inconvenient truth that the Conservatives simply did not have enough public trust on the NHS to inflict change within it. The baggage they carried of being ideologically obsessed with privatisation weighed them down once they hit a wave of opposition to their health reforms. [These reforms] fail to equip the NHS with the tools it needs to re-engineer itself for the new world of permanent austerity it is now entering.

This failure, Milburn writes, carries huge political costs for the Conservatives:

They have forfeited any claim to be the party of NHS reform.

Yet he argues that Labour has permission to make the necessary changes to the health service; what it now needs is the volition to do so:

The public trust Labour enjoys on the NHS is why, as health secretary in Tony Blair’s government, I could make radical changes to it.

Milburn calls on Labour to propose its own necessary changes to the NHS, arguing that “a new era of fiscal conservatism and radical reformism beckons”:

Labour today has a big opportunity. The failure of the Conservatives’ health changes leaves the reform terrain wide open. Ed Miliband should use the hiatus around the government’s Health and Social Care Bill to set out a reform blueprint that can make the NHS sustainable for the long term.

Next, the party must explain how a Labour government would balance the books:

This should not just be a case of indicating which areas of public spending would rise and which would fall. It should also indicate how value – getting more out for what is being put in – would be improved across the public services. Clear commitments to major reforms of services will be instrumental to Labour regaining its reputation for economic competence. This will be the central battleground of the next general election.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this plus a special Photo Essay “Five to a room”, in which award-winning photographers document child poverty in the UK today; Mehdi Hasan reports on the plight of Palestine’s Bobby Sands; in the NS Interview, the Barbican’s new exhibiting artist Song Dong talks to Alice Gribbin about “Olympic tyrannism”, living in the middle of an artwork, and his favourite from among the 10,000 everyday objects in his installation “Waste Not”; in Observations Helen Lewis remembers the fearless journalism of the late Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, and in Critics, the architect Amanda Levete writes a hymn to the brutalist vision behind the Barbican on the arts centre’s 30th birthday.

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