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Radio review: A Believer’s Guide to Atheism, and Sunday Feature: Everybody likes music, don’t they? 

20 September 2019


BELIEF might be in a state of fragmentation — there are a plethora of credal sub-categories — but what about atheism? In the words of the lead researcher on the Understanding Unbelief project, Dr Lois Lee (Comment, 3 November 2017), the term “atheism” is almost meaningless. “The language we have [to describe unbelief] is useless,” she admitted in A Believer’s Guide to Atheism (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), in which Michael Symmons Roberts explored that fastest growing of self-identities: the “nones”.

Nones may not, in fact, be atheist at all, although it is the term that is still most commonly employed. The likes of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins would be horrified by what the waves of Arnold’s receding sea have left behind on the shore. Angels, the soul, and life after death: belief in all of these appears to be not just holding firm, but on the rise.

This hardly represents a new insight, of course; but Roberts, as an earnest philosophy student and atheist who converted in his late twenties, is an insightful inquisitor. The tone of encounters with even the most professionalised of atheists was sympathetic, and several claimed to be open to the possibility of having faith themselves, were proof to reveal itself. Roberts, however, was quick to call their bluff on this claim: what would such proof need to look like to convince them? It was not a question that they were capable of answering; “proof” is, in this context, another meaningless term.

Books about the psychology of belief will soon be outnumbering those that deal with the content of that belief; and, since they have an impact not just on our spiritual but also on our political and economic lives, books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers (Radio 4, weekdays), also the name of his series, are finding wide audiences. The main point of this one is that human beings have a natural “default to truth”, or, put another way, a default to credulity. It is generally more efficient to believe someone than not to believe someone. When a man appears on the door to check the gas meter, few of us think it a reasonable use of our time to ring the number on his badge and check that he is who he says he is.

In particular, we are misguided in prioritising face-to-face encounters when we assess a personality. We fall for a lie much more often when it is told to our face. A computer is, a recent study in a New York court suggests, better at assessing a prisoner’s bail application than a judge. Facial expressions denoting even basic emotions are not universal, and can be faked or misread, with disastrous consequences.

In Radio 3’s Sunday Feature: Everybody likes music, don’t they? we heard that musical appreciation is not a human universal. Real “tone deafness” — the inability to distinguish pitch, timbre, or emotional content in a piece of music — is a rare but significant disability; far more so than the mere social awkwardness of droning below the note in the hymns.

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