Editorial: Fine lessons
Funny how atheists enjoying themselves can be so threatening to believers
It is always a tricky balancing act, attacking bad arguments relentlessly and being positive about your achievements and optimistic about the future without slipping into self-congratulatory smugness. It is sometimes hard to resist the temptation, especially in the face of pseudo-science, mystical nonsense and religious moralism, to release a soupcon of scorn, a little squirt of intellectual superiority. I mean some people are really asking for it, aren’t they?
In one of the best lines from his introduction to the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows that we held just before Christmas, comedian Robin Ince makes this very point. He quotes something Richard Dawkins said in a television discussion programme, in response to a Pentecostal Christian who claimed that homosexuality was strictly a choice, and therefore unnatural. Ince perfectly impersonated Dawkins’s witheringly polite tone to deliver the line “The wonderful thing about an opinion like that is that we can totally ignore it.” The loud cheer that greeted the line each night suggested, I believe, not smugness, but a degree of pent-up frustration on the part of those who have to listen to a great deal of absurdity, in the interests of phony media “balance” and are expected always to maintain a conciliatory “respectful” tone.
Of course, some might see this as smug. This was the line taken by Christopher Hart, writing in The Times about the Nine Lessons shows. He described the line-up as “a clique of smug, illiterate scientists and fat, middle-aged comedians”. The fact that he formed this view without the benefit of seeing any of the shows could be taken as a kind of prescience, I suppose, if it had been true. Leaving aside the issue of whether it is really Christian to dismiss what people might say because of their weight, and the fact that so many of the comedians on display were actually as lithe as gazelles and perspiration-free, and that the scientists – Simon Singh, Dawkins and Ben Goldacre – appeared as literate as a Paris Salon; leaving aside, as I said, these blatant errors, Hart was still totally wrong. Because the overall tone of the shows was not smugness or scorn, but celebration. Where there was criticism it was more often than not a deadly subtlety that did the damage, as where comedian Stewart Lee innocently recounted the conversation he had had with his local vicar – letting his impeccable comic timing do the work: “I asked him, if I drink holy water will my pee be magic? No… the vicar replied… that would be… ridiculous.”
Even Tim Minchin’s magnificent beat poem “Storm” which closed the shows, relating his wine-fuelled exasperation with a tattooed hippy chick who “didn’t believe in science” and spouted a stream of “fatuous crap”, avoided a sneery tone with wit and self-deprecation, and a wonderfully touching ending asking why the beautiful complex world we inhabit should fail to be enough to command our wonder.
The real lesson of Nine Lessons was not that religious people are stupid, or that science has all the answers, but that we could all spend more time thinking about the known wonders of our universe, and in particular the incredible capacity of the human brain to move instantly from contemplation of the number and variety of the stars (Richard Dawkins reading from Unweaving the Rainbow was a highpoint) to singing along with a sublimely silly song from Colin Watson about “a monkey, a teddy, a deaf kid and a shoe”.
Would it seem insufferably smug if I reported that the three events hosted a total of 5,000 people over three days and got 4-star reviews in the Evening Standard and the Independent? Or that we expect to repeat this success with more secular celebrations in 2009? Probably. Sorry about that.
Update, April 2009: We have just announced our new London event with Robin Ince: A Night of 400 Stars (a maybe some string theory), a celebration of the universe in comedy and song. Details here.