Jim Al-Khalili is the new president of the British Humanist Association, having taken over in January from the journalist and social justice campaigner Polly Toynbee. He's the author of a rather good book on quantum mechanics, and is clearly a good communicator. His background is interesting: his mother is an English church-going Christian, his father an Iraqi (lapsed) Muslim.The post was apparently supposed to go to philosopher AC Grayling, but he had to step aside because of the furore surrounding his new elite university.
I'm not sure how much difference it will make, but Al-Khalili is a lot less intense than either Toynbee or Grayling; in fact he talks about being a more 'cuddly' sort of atheist. This is partly a matter of temperament, but also because, he thinks, atheists are doing so well they can afford to calm down a bit.
I would say that it's because we are winning the battle that we can afford not to be so strident, belligerent, antagonistic, confrontational. Because we're winning the battle that more and more people can see that humanism is an inclusive thing, it's not an exclusive club, or a group of happy-clappys, or a group for people that like to have weird and wonderful weddings or ceremonies. It's not a sect. Because that is changing we don't need to be on the attack against people with faith.
Al-Khalili espouses a conventional scientism: that science describes the way the universe really works, and it hasn't found God anywhere in it, so religion is false. (I always find that disappointing in people I like, but then what did I expect?) He feels strongly that scientists should do more than talk about science, they should also 'help defend our rational, secular society against the rising tide of irrationalism and ignorance'. However he also thinks it isn't necessary to go round rubbing people's faces in it.
[Religious people] are looking at the same reality, but they're interpreting it differently. They're ascribing a different meaning to it. And I've always said, if this gives them comfort, if this gives them a purpose in life, if this makes them better people, I have no issue with that. I don't want to say, 'Well, actually your world view is wrong - that's not how the world is, this is how the world is'.
We don't want to offend, or most of us don't, and I don't mind if someone wants to believe something different from me, I don't mind . . . I've talked with intelligent people of faith, I've been on platform with [Archbishop] Rowan Williams and with the Chief Rabbi, and these aren't fools. They're not the sort of people that are going to go, 'You're right! You know, I've never thought about it like that.' I think it's very naive of scientists who are atheists to think that somehow, just through the sheer force of logic, they're going to convince the world that they're right and that there should be no such thing as religion.
This last quote incidentally is from the current issue of the New Humanist, written by its editor Caspar Melville. In a way, Melville's response to Al-Khalili moderateness is just as interesting. Other humanists may see it as a failure of nerve, or even hypocrisy, but Melville doesn't; on the contrary, he welcomes the return of 'good manners and a sense of proportion'. In fact he thinks Al-Khalili's appointment marks the growing maturity of British humanism.
We may be terribly clever, and right, but it doesn't follow that people we don't agree with are stupid. They may not even be wrong. They are certainly entitled to believe what they like - surely actions and consequences should be the overriding concern of humanists, and finding ways to improve the one short life we all get.
Asked by Melville for his definition of humanism, Al-Khalili responds
It means, I think, that humankind's fate and future is in its own hands. The reason why we strive for a better world and to be good is not because some old scripture or mythology tells me that I'll be rewarded if I'm good and punished if I'm bad. But because being good defines me as a human. Anyone who wants to be good because they think they should be, not because their religion tells them to be, for me is a humanist.
Oh good. That would include me. In fact if I could describe myself as a humanist, without implying that I'm also an atheist, I probably would - it's the only label I'm completely comfortable with. Considered purely in moral terms, the boundary between humanism and spirituality is quite fuzzy. And when atheists talk like this I sometimes think their ideas could develop in different directions if their understanding of religion wasn't so narrowly defined in terms of scripture and myth.
It also leads me to believe that the scientistic view is at least sometimes held because it is so obviously much more true than the perceived alternatives offered by religions. No nuance is allowed, because it has to act as a kind of moral bulwark; if it should fail, we are reduced to a kind of slavery, under the thumb of gods and superstitions. That's particularly interesting in the case of scientists like Al-Khalili who have a close-up understanding of quantum mechanics, which in other quantum scientists has often encouraged a much less rigid view of reality.
Al-Khalili rejects the relatavistic view that science offers just another set of stories, that will one day be superceded; he thinks there is a stable reality out there, and that scientists are closing in on it. My position is not dissimilar from his, in that I believe that, to the extent that reality can be understood by humans at all, it reveals itself to humans through their observations and experiments. I just wish I could persuade him that my very different picture of the universe is not only empirically true, it's not as threatening as he thinks.