Facing the future: an interview with Jim Al-Khalili
Theoretical physicist and star science presenter Jim Al-Khalili has just become the President of the British Humanist Association. Caspar Melville finds out what we can expect from his tenure
My sharpest memory of Jim Al- Khalili is from when he appeared at our annual rationalist jamboree Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, back in 2011. He was on the bill delivering one of those erudite but down-to-earth science lectures for which he is well known, and has recently become quite famous. But, interesting as it was, it wasn’t the lecture that I remember. It was a moment later on, when he was standing in the wings watching the rest of the show. On stage the actress and comedian Jo Neary was part-way through a memorable routine in which she pretends to be an nervous librarian delivering a lecture on sex toys. The gag is that she’s mortified, choked with embarrassment but determined to press on. At one point she coughs and appeals for a glass of water.
Suddenly a leg appears from stage left, and it is only the quick intervention of the compere Robin Ince that prevents the rest of Jim Al- Khalili appearing, as he rushes onstage with the requested soothing beverage. This impressed me at the time, and still does, as a very sweet gesture. While we were all busy getting the joke, he had responded, immediately, to a plea for help. Perhaps it was a little earnest, but it was so humane. And a fitting introduction to the man who has recently become, at least in principle, the most important and high-profile non-believer in Britain. In January Al-Khalili was confirmed as the next President of the British Humanist Association.
What does this appointment tell us about the state of humanism in Britain, and its likely future? Undoubtedly Al-Khalili is bringing something new to the godless pantheon. For a start, though I must admit I haven’t exhaustively researched the political background of all prior BHA Presidents, I’m prepared to bet he is the only one who was once a member of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Ba’ath party (which I’ll explain shortly). But more than that he embodies a dramatically different take on religion from the trenchant political critique of his predecessor Polly Toynbee – who spoke for example of “the poisoned heart of religion” – or the combative atheist humanism of his almost-predecessor AC Grayling (who, though scheduled to succeed Toynbee, was forced to step aside due to the furore around his elite university, the New College of Humanities). In stark contrast to these views Al-Khalili describes his position quite unashamedly, using a word usually tossed about as an insult in the godless world: “I’m an accommodationist,” he told me when we met in our Southwark offices.
It’s not that he isn’t a convinced atheist – he has been since he was a teenager. He is also, as a scientist, a convinced rationalist materialist who believes that there is a real world out there and given time science can reveal the ultimate truth about it. It’s more that his life experience and temperament, embodied in his lovely manners, have convinced him that a “softer” approach is required: “My view is that if you focus on what’s bad about religion that doesn’t serve any purpose. For a lot of people religion is vitally important, it creates social cohesion in communities and offers comfort. As long as it doesn’t affect me or offend me it’s fine. Get on with it.” Al-Khalili credits the outspoken atheism of Dawkins (“though I don’t agree with everything about his approach”) with clearing a path for a new, gentler and more accommodating brand of public humanism. “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.”
So if Al-Khalili represents a new face for British humanism, what kind of face is it? While he’s not one to put much stock in racial identity, it is significant that his is not a white face: “I tan easily” is his throwaway line on that. In contrast to the very English, grammar school and Oxbridge character of our recent humanist heroes, he is pre-eminently a product of a multicultural world, a cosmopolitan, comfortable in different cultures and heir to diverse intellectual traditions. His father is an Iraqi from the Shia holy city of Najaf, an engineer and ever-more-lapsed Muslim. Though not a religious man, Jim’s father hails from a traditional Shia clan – the Al-Khalilis – who can trace their line back to the splendid intellectual culture of Persia, a matter of some pride in the family. His mother is English, from Portsmouth, where her father, who was intelligent but not educated, worked in the ports. She is a Protestant, in her later years becoming more devout and more active in her Evangelical church.
His parents met in the UK and moved back to Baghdad, where Jim was born in 1962. His father’s job as an air force engineer took them from the capital to Kirkuk and then Mosul. The 14 July Revolution had ousted the Hashemite monarchy in 1958; ten years later a bloodless coup brought the nationalist Ba’ath party to power. But Jim’s family stayed out of politics, and he describes his childhood as “lovely”. His parents gave him the freedom to believe and do as he pleased and his English connections brought him cachet with his mates and the girls who increasingly came to dominate his attention. Despite being run by an authoritarian political regime that became increasingly repressive, Iraq in the 1970s was a far more secular place than it became. Only a small minority of his classmates fasted at Ramadan, few women covered their heads, and pop culture was prized and ubiquitous.
The fact that Match of the Day was shown regularly – albeit several days late – on Iraqi TV meant that everyone supported English football teams – Jim’s was Leeds, his mate Taif supported Liverpool, and another of his friends conceived an unlikely passion for Preston North End. The lads wore flared jeans and colourful shirts, and his friends would cajole him to speak English on the bus to impress girls. Al-Khalili’s father, who had dallied with Communism in the ’60s, never joined the Ba’ath party, and his career suffered accordingly. Jim did join, not out of political zeal, but because his students union at school was affiliated with it; to join one was to join the other.
Then, in 1979 Saddam Hussein, who already dominated the Ba’ath party, assumed the presidency and took full control over the country. “We knew he was a psychopath,” Al-Khalili says. Two weeks later the entire family upped sticks and moved to the UK, to Mrs Al-Khalili’s home city of Portsmouth. He did not, he says, find it particularly hard to settle in, since he’d never lost that link to Britain. Though he spoke Arabic, English was always spoken at home. The hardest bit was rubbing the edges off his BBC accent, learning for example that Fratton Park, home of the Portsmouth football team, was locally rendered as “Fra’un”.
Al-Khalili talks of himself as a typical teenager, social and argumentative, into football and girls. But he was also, clearly, a top student, and had already by this time discovered that he liked science and was good at it. He had always enjoyed puzzles – maths and then physics satisfied his taste for mind games and thirst for enigmas. He became, he says “obsessed”, thinking about science all the time, “when I wasn’t thinking about girls”.
Passing his A-levels, at the second time of asking (a failure of application, you feel, not intellect – “there were many distractions”), and acquiring a steady girlfriend, Julie, who would become his wife, he “settled down” and got a place reading Physics at the University of Surrey. Alongside things about the universe, he learned about himself: “I didn’t like working in a lab: you break things, things go wrong. I realised I like the theoretical stuff.”
Though he had got a job, his supervisor persuaded him to stay on and take a PhD in theoretical nuclear physics, which he was awarded in 1989. After a post-doc at UCL, he returned to Surrey, where he became a lecturer, and then Professor. Alongside his research and teaching he started to publish popular science books, demonstrating a talent for rendering the most complex ideas in theoretical physics – black holes, quantum mechanics, the nature of matter – in straightforward, friendly and elegant English. Long an opponent of disciplinary “gobbledegook”, his writing embodied the belief that science could be for all if presented in the right tone. The books led to TV – his first break came presenting The Riddle of Einstein’s Brain for Channel 4 in 2004, leading to his popular 3-part BBC series Atom. He has gone on to make a dozen acclaimed science documentaries – including the brilliantly written and shot 2011 series Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity – and become one of the most recognisable faces of popular science, currently to be seen palling around with Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain on any number of the live “as-it-happens” science shows that are flavour of the month amongst television commissioners at the moment.
Though typically Al-Khalili describes his media carer as a series of “happy accidents”, he acknowledges that he got where he is by going after what he loves to do: pushing back the tides of scientific ignorance with an empathetic understanding of the needs and competences of the audience, combined with a good deal of showing off. Not as cutesy as Cox, not as august as Attenborough, nor as gobby as O’Briain, Al-Khalili’s courtly manners and soft-spoken enthusiasm make him the ideal science explainer of the age. In recognition of this work in 2006 Surrey created the special chair of Public Engagement in Science for him to sit on and, in 2007, he was awarded the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for Science Communication
But although he is now firmly entrenched in the science establishment, he does not seem to have completely shaken off his past allegiances. In 2010 he published Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science, an assessment and reminder of the fundamental role played by Muslim scholars in the scientific revolution, as well as a subtle cri de coeur for the paucity of ground-breaking scientific inquiry in the contemporary Arab world. While Al-Khalili is no apologist for Islam, Pathfinders serves as a reminder that he has not severed his links with his patrimony. Describing his childhood he speaks of the “pride of being Iraqi and part of the Arab world”, and he doesn’t seem to have completely left that behind.
Even if he wanted to break free from such identifications, it would hardly have been possible during the last decade. The US-British invasion of Iraq in 2002 kept his home country on the front pages for years and gave rise to very mixed feelings. “At the time I was totally convinced it had nothing to do with the desire to rescue the Iraqi people. Bush wanted to show the world that he was fighting back against terrorism, and it didn’t matter who the target was.”
And yet, for his family, the hundreds of other Iraqi exiles in the UK, and the millions in Iraq, the invasion was welcome: “You know the pictures of the allied tanks driving through Baghdad with people throwing flowers, that wasn’t a set-up, that was genuine. The tragedy is, of course, that they had no plan beyond that. Those Arabists and nation builders who would’ve known what to do weren’t listened to, and what happened is the Bush-Cheney neo-con crowd came and thought that they could do the business.”
There is evident sadness in how he talks of Iraq now – most of his family have left, and for those who have stayed there is little sign of improvement. And the invasion was, of course, just one of many conflicts that have riven the country since he left. Conflicts that have not left him unscathed. In hindsight he can see that for many years he suffered from a kind of “survivor’s guilt”. Just a year after the Al-Khalilis left for England, Saddam Hussein threw the country into war with Iran, a war that lasted eight years, the second longest of the 20th century, and claimed more than a million lives. “I found out later,” he says, “that many of my school friends were killed in the war. If I had stayed, I’d most likely be dead too.” This realisation crept up on him. “Somehow I’d kept my emotions in check for so many years.” Then it pounced, in what he describes as a kind of hallucination: “One day I was in a pub with Julie and I saw this guy, and I said ‘I know him, that’s Taif, that was my friend.’ ‘But wasn’t he killed in the war?’ Julie asked, but I was insistent. ‘No, no that’s him.’ And I just lost it. I got really upset. Of course it wasn’t him, he had died. But I remembered him so clearly, his love for Liverpool and that he fancied himself as a bit of a David Cassidy.”
Al-Khalili’s brand of humanism contains trace elements of all these influences: good parenting, including a sense of the moral benefits of Christianity and the potential openness of a certain kind of Muslim thought; an awareness of the death and destruction that can be wrought by totalitarianism and misplaced liberal interventionism; a temperamental inclination towards empathy and plain speaking. I ask him for his working definition of humanism: “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.”
There’s one final piece to fit in the Al-Khalili puzzle. Though he is a pragmatist in his attitude to religion and properly secular in his desire not to convert but to work together, he is something of a fundamentalist about his science. “A lot of people say science is just one way of looking at the world, at reality, and poets and musicians and, of course, people of faith have said there are other ways. I don’t buy that. For me there is an objective reality that is there and real. For a theoretical physicist who’s trained in thinking about quantum mechanics, which involves the idea that by observing something you alter its nature, you have to have some sort of working definition of reality.”
Al-Khalili has no time for the relativistic epistemological approach, which says that all science can do is tell more or less approximate stories about nature. “I have an ontological view. There is an ultimate truth, we’re trying to get as close to it as possible, we don’t know how far we are away from it but we think we’re converging on it slowly. We’re getting closer to an ultimate truth, one we can, at least in principle, arrive at through science.” And this ultimate truth almost by definition excludes the possibility of God? “Yes.” But doesn’t this mean that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at the world? “They’re 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’.” I felt I had to press him on this. You may not want to say it, I reply, but isn’t that what you actually think? He thinks for a moment, “I guess so.”
So when faced with religion – a worldview that he is quite sure is wrong – why doesn’t he think it’s right to say so, to set them right about their error? Because that would be rude. “It’s part of civilised society, that’s what we’re like. 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.” It would also be futile: “I’ve talked with intelligent people of faith, I’ve been on platform with 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.”
Some may think this amounts to a failure of nerve, or even hypocrisy. Having apparently got religion on the run, isn’t now the time to press home the advantage, and reveal the religious worldview for the mistake we are so convinced it is?
I don’t think so – and I would hope many other humanists agree. I welcome the return of good manners and a sense of proportion to the public debate about faith. 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.
Jim Al-Khalili’s appointment, in my view, marks the growing maturity of British humanism. Finding common ground can sometimes seem to be the most asinine of interfaith clichés, but without a firm conviction that this is possible and desirable, humanism would have nowhere to stand. And, rendered in a homely familial metaphor by Al-Khalili, it’s something we can believe in: “I want to use this post to find common ground. It is after all what I do every Christmas at my Mum and Dad’s house. We respect each other’s views, it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’.”