Turning The Tables On Phillip Adams


I press a button and an omnipotent-sounding voice emanates from a speaker. "Come in, godson," says my godfather, notorious atheist Phillip Adams.

It may seem odd for an atheist to have a godson — who is also an atheist. I would find it difficult to believe myself were it not for a photograph of Phillip at my christening, standing congenially next to a bishop.

So here I am at the gate of Phillip’s Sydney residence, waiting to be let in. For a moment I feel like I’m standing at Saint Peter’s gate about to be judged.

I am, after all, extraordinarily nervous. Phillip Adams may be my "spiritual guardian", but I have only met him on a few occasions. To make matters worse, Adams is incredible. He has known every Labor leader since Whitlam, he participates in politics as an unacknowledged legislator, he practically founded our film industry, he made his money through advertising, he’s spoken to and interviewed just about everyone important in the entire world for his so-called "little wireless program" — and he has managed to do all of this without completing high school.

And to top it all off, I am about to interview him. Oh God! But never mind God. As Phillip points out, God is merely "a little thing".

Phillip asks the first question. "So, do you have a subject?"

"Nothing you’ve talked about before. I’ll mainly be asking you about religion, the left and the film industry, just for a change." Okay, I’m not that witty. Particularly when I’m talking to someone I venerate, someone I fear could strike me down with a single thunderbolt of rhetoric.

So I begin at the beginning and ask him what’s left of the left.

"The threadbare little world of the left consists of a half dozen Josephite nuns and what’s left over of the trade unions. The left is defined by the right and that’s got to change." He continues, "one would have hoped the global financial meltdown would have brought some rage back and that there would be marches on campus. And for an instant we heard the vocabulary of words like socialisation, nationalisation, not invariably used as pejorative terms by the right."

But Phillip is dismayed that "the infinitely cautious Obama" and Kevin Rudd may not be "the new leaders we were hoping for". He jokes that he may have late onset Alzheimer’s and that he only "fantasises that there’s been changes to government". His erudition, on the other hand, proves he is utterly in control of his faculties — and, with his messianic charisma, mine too.

"We on the left still wake up and think that John Howard is prime minister and that George Bush is in the White House — and I’m not entirely convinced he isn’t. Unfortunately, it is a rather dull political scene. I think the universities seem dull. I haven’t seen a good riot for ages. It’s always a good sign if there are riots on campus."

Of the right he says, "they think they have the right to rule us — but they do so because the left don’t have an alternative model".

I ask Phillip what he thinks of the attempt by Richard Dawkins, ably aided by Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray, to turn atheism into a political movement. Although he admits that militant atheism is "a long delayed response to Christian, Hindu, Islamic fundamentalisms," he sees it as an exercise in futility — "since people will believe in their dotty beliefs until hell freezes over. An unfortunate image for an atheist to use."

What’s more, Phillip dislikes the way his fellow atheists, whom he describes as being "spectacularly bad tempered about religion", have waged "war on decent religious people and their efforts to do the right thing". Even though Christians have been on both sides of the fence on social issues such as apartheid, Phillip welcomes their help when dealing with the cruel treatment of asylum seekers or the Indigenous population and on climate change. "Recently, theologians have discovered hidden in their holy book some secret passages, probably written in vinegar, about saving the environment."

Phillip Adams, who gave up raging against religion "years ago" (if only he’d give up cigarettes too), agrees with Dawkins that the labelling and indoctrination of children is abusive. "But there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s been some polling done and it seems that children will grow up and rebel against some of the nuttier teachings. They’ll tune the thing down a little. The decibels will be reduced."

I myself think that atheists should strive to propagate atheism, but I find myself seduced into nodding my head when Phillip expresses his dismay at the atheist movement. Phillip is right — merely getting mad at religious people is not much help and I can’t stand Daniel Dennett’s and Dawkins’s advocacy of the term "bright" in lieu of "atheist". All else aside, to call oneself a "Bright" sounds like one is a member of a New Age cult.

Furthermore, even I find Hitchens’s book God is Not Great patronising and Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto preachy. So in spite of the fact that I think atheists ought to be mightily pissed about the actions of some believers, I largely agree with Phillip about the irritating timbre of anti-religious arguments.

"Last year I appeared on the ABC and coined the term ‘faithiest’, which means I have faith in science," he tells me. "I defer to science in the same way religious people defer to theologians. I can’t qualify the scientists’ evidence which means that I have to trust them. The universe that Science presents us with is far more magnificent and mysterious than that presented to us by Religion."

After a conversational detour toward morality, utilitarianism and Peter Singer, the next question on my list — about the health of the Australian film industry — seems rather incongruous. Phillip rescues me by providing a bridge: "Well, one often sees a small box come up on the screen that ‘no animals suffered as a result of this film’ so Peter [Singer] has become a film critic."

On the Australian film industry, Adams is passionately against Australian money being invested in American style films like "that nonsensical hybrid, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia" and is particularly scathing of Australian actors who move to the US.

"We’ve returned to the days when Australians spoke in foreign accents," he said, adding "it’s just a disgrace to see overly famous, overpaid Australian actors lining up on Oscar night to win awards for playing Americans. And praised for it. We wouldn’t accept it from Australian painters if they all packed up and painted other people’s landscapes." Phillip’s patriotism explains why, unlike other demigod intellectuals of his generation like Germaine Greer, Clive James and Robert Hughes, he has not forsaken the sunburnt country.

Phillip carries his undeniable erudition easily — all the more impressive for his not having completed high school. Was it Mark Twain who reminded his readers not to allow their schooling to get in the way of their education? To end our interview, I ask this prominent intellectual, my godfather, what place he accords education in society.

"It wasn’t by choice that I left school — it was expected that I get a job. I didn’t care about education because I never needed it. If I were your age now I can imagine queueing up at your university.

That said, I have great respect for those who are self educated. A person who often sits near where you’re sitting is Paul Keating. I think he’s tremendously intelligent but his education is non-existent. That’s the philistine response though. Over the decades I have interviewed many academics I admire. And I encourage the notion of seeking truth. I’m not entirely certain that’s necessarily what universities are for. I can guess that in many circumstances universities don’t encourage that but rather want to churn out degrees."

Unfortunately, Adams, as always, has a point — especially in this age when an education is synonymous with a way to get a job.

Alas, that is where the interview ends.

I take it I’m not Moses to his Yahweh or else I would have left with a tablet scrawled with commandments. That’s not a bad thing, since he’s too busy thinking to give meaningless instructions to the young — and it’s time for him to get back to work.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.