Russell Targ's The Reality of ESP
Rupert Sheldrake at TED

Cuddly Humanism

Al-khalili 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.


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Interesting stuff.

A few random, off-the-cuff initial reactions:

1)"[Religious people] are looking at the same reality, but they're interpreting it differently. They're ascribing a different meaning to it."

But as AlexRosenberg stated in his refreshingly honest book on atheism, it is impossible for the atheist worldview to encompass any sort of "meaning", as the universe (and hence our brains, minds, thoughts and emotions) is totally devoid of meaning.

2) Interesting that so many humanists/atheists think in the same polarised terms as religious fundamentalists - there is a "battle" going on which the atheists are "winning". They are "right" and "religious" people are "wrong".

3) Dawkins' fan club will, I am sure, be seriously dischuffed that Al-Khalili is suggesting greater tolerance towards "religious" people. Dawkins himself stated that religion should be accorded no respect whatsoever, and that tolerance of religion is part of the problem.

And, if the atheists are "winning" the "battle", surely the correct strategy in battle is to redouble the troops' efforts just at the point the enemy is weakening!

4) Al-Khalili thinks it's a humanist attitude to "be good" without "religion". But what does it mean to "be good" if there is no ultimate basis for what constitutes "goodness"? And why would one WANT to "be good" anyway - if being evil helped humanity's longterm survival, wouldn't that be a better goal?

5)Interesting also that Al-Khalili, with his understanding of the quantum world, thinks that there is a "stable reality" which is "out there". Yet other physicists -Eugene Wigner, Henry Stapp, Amit Goswami, Casey Blood, Richard Henry amongst others - interpret the quantum world in a totally different way; the universe exists only in our minds!

6) Why, oh why, do atheists see "religion" SOLELY in terms of "ancient scripture" and an anthropomorphic, dictatorial god? Surely there are other ways of approaching religious belief? (My own "religious" philosophy is not based on a holy book but on the concept of panentheism, which - to me at least - makes sense of both the subjective world of mysticism and the objective world of physics as interpeteted by Wigner, Stapp et. al.)

It seems sad to me that atheism and scientism are "battling" a medieval concept of god, while religious fundamentalists stoutly defend the same concept!

"It seems sad to me that atheism and scientism are "battling" a medieval concept of god, while religious fundamentalists stoutly defend the same concept! -"Rupert McWiseman"

Yep. That's why it feels so futile to have a discussion with someone from either camp. It's like discussing quantum physics with someone who's talking about the weather.

Indeed, RabbitDawg.

If anyone is rash enough to admit any religious sensibilities to a hardline atheist, they will invariably be assumed (in the UK and USA at any rate) to be a believer in the literal truth of the Bible - loaves & fishes, walking on water, virgin births etc. - and a young-earth creationist.

On the other hand, come "out" as a panentheist within earshot of a religious fundamentalist and you will be branded as an atheist, a satanist or - quite possibly - possessed!

Which is why I refuse to discuss my beliefs with members of either church!

Everyone these days seem to hate the "relativistic view that science offers just another set of stories, that will one day be superceded;"

Well, maybe. These days, I'm inclined away from either naive realism or naive relativism. I think there are a lots of very difficult issues here that get glossed over. For example, if you move from objectivism (a component of materialism) to an intersubjective view of knowledge, then to me anyway, some form of relativism's strongly implied. But I'm seeking a higher synthesis between relativism or perspectivism and objectivism, mainly because I think that there are points in favour of both. But these are questions it takes a lifetime to sort through, really.

"he thinks there is a stable reality out there, and that scientists are closing in on it."

Again, maybe, or maybe not. Maybe it's stable in some aspects and not in others. I can think of lots of ways in which it isn't very stable at all (especially in life, and cartainly in perceptual terms). And we shouldn't forget that many sciences tend to seek out regularities (stabilities) and discard the seriously irregular or unrepeatable. So maybe a harmonious, stable universe is basically a sort of illusion.

And finally, I'd question whether paranormal phenomena are 'stable' in the way you describe. One reading of the history of this subject is that such phenomena tend to be particularly UNstable. If you combine this with the probability that they're tied up with consciousness in some way, and that they seem to manifest themselves differently according to culture, etc., then seeking a stable reality in the paranormal might be a rather difficult task....

There may be a contradiction between this idea and naturalism that often accompanies atheism. According to scientism, science describes how the universe really works. So human beings are able to understand how the universe really works. And according to naturalism, human beings are just biological product of natural selection that we are made to reproduce. So humans are not made to understand how the universe really works.

So what are we left with? We can stay with scientism and naturalism, but we have to accept that the ability to understand how the universe works is a fortuitous result of biological evolution. Is not this highly implausible? Could it be that we are not as special as atheists often claim? But then we not really understand the universe? What if we are so able to describe how the universe works, then this situation will be more compatible with theism which says that the universe is an intelligent creation and we are a reflection of the divine intelligence?

I still prefer to think of myself as agnostic. There seems to me ample evidence that it is possible there is more to our existence than simply this physical life.

I do not understand how anyone can look at this evidence and simply dismiss or ignore it. One may not accept it as incontrovertible but surely a realistic world-view must account for it? Other than assuming it must be fraud I mean.
I don't see that acceptance of survival would necessarily prevent one being an atheist or a humanist.

I don't care what the devoutly religious think, nor do I care what the devoutly scientific think. All I ask is an anechoic chamber so constructed that the telepathic brain waves of neither can affect my consciousness at any level.

Beautifully reasoned piece, as always, our Robert. But where you find your patience is a complete mystery to me. Fundamentalist dichotomies *far* exceed my boredom threshold and leave me with an increasingly tenuous grip on the will to live. 8/

"Fundamentalist dichotomies *far* exceed my boredom threshold and leave me with an increasingly tenuous grip on the will to live"


I find the view that atheists are somehow "winning" to be hilarious.

It reminds me of the story of the guy who falls out of a window of the 20th story of a building. As he's passing the second story on his way down, someone hears him say "so far, so good."

Society at large is experiencing a breakdown of old religious models across the board. Atheism is benefiting by increasing their numbers, but Wicca too, and much more so. Heck, even the Jedi's are benefiting from this change.

"...their ideas could develop in different directions if their understanding of religion wasn't so narrowly defined in terms of scripture and myth." It's this deliberate ignorance that makes me most cranky about the belligerent atheist crowd.

And Julie, brava! for "Fundamentalist dichotomies *far* exceed my boredom threshold and leave me with an increasingly tenuous grip on the will to live. Made me laugh out loud. What a great line!

Robert believing in God or gods or believing there isn't any God or gods it's all just belief.

[This's why some religious people move onto mysticism once belief's no longer enough precisely because it claims to provide methods to verify its claims which's also why atheists ignore or poopoo its existence].

Similarly believing in or disbelieving the scientific method's also all just belief and the simple proof of that's not only is the scientific method utterly dependent on the technical limitations of the day but the data produced by those technical limitations's subjected to committees who vote much like the Catholic cardinals currently voting on who's to be the next Pope on whether the data produced's actually acceptable then what that data actually means.

And it was precisely that 'scientific' voting process which recently decided by a majority rather than a unanimous verdict that animals are indeed conscious.

And this's why I laugh when humanists like Al-Khalili pronounce they're winning 'the argument' because even as we speak chimps and gorillas are solving iPad number based IQ tests at speeds so great no HUMANS're thought capable of competing hence the spectacle of humanist scientists now scrambling to reintrepret the implications of those phenomenal results in such a way they can be used as scientific proof of our supposed SUPERIORITY over ape kind.

And the even bigger laugh's if scientists'd been able to credit never mind test the possibility animals were not only conscious but in their own way as intelligent as us say even a mere fifty years ago then humanists might now be having to call themselves humani-chimpi-apists [or chimps and apes humans].

But of course they couldn't because they were humanists and therefore KNEW as a scientific FACT* apportioning equality never mind superiority to anything other than humanity was at best an insult to their lofty towering genius at worst a sign of their suspiciously heretical evidence gathering detractors' psychoses.

But as's normal with humanity even while our glorious loftily omniscient supermen and women're pronouncing their latest intellectual achievement the final victory of the scientific FACT* humanism over its rivals reality and on this occasion non-humanity's got completely other ideas.

* FACT a thing manufactured or made

Glad to have brought you a smile, our Nancy! :)

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