The Vacuity of the Celebrity Atheist
I'm fed up of atheists. They are exceedingly smug (close your eyes; bring to mind Marcus Brigstocke and Dicky Dawkins; try not to vomit). If Ricky Gervais is anything to go by in this article in The Telegraph is anything to go by, they are exceptionally lazy thinkers. But then again, why should one expect a comedian to offer any insights into the meaning of life? They are paid to make us laugh. It is a relatively recent phenomenon to ask comedians or popular musicians for their views on the great issues of our times. Does anyone recall Arthur Askey being asked his views on the Trinity or the Hypostatic Union? I may be ill informed but did Glenn Miller ever volunteer his views on Third World poverty (or whatever it was called in the 1940s)? Still, then again, Richard Dawkins' area of expertise is the pecking order of chickens yet he feels this gives him all the authority he needs to hold forth on Almighty God.
When Ricky Gervais was a child, he thought Jesus was fantastic. "I loved him because he was kind and strong," he tells me, shortly before taking the stage at a secret warm-up gig ahead of his first major London appearances this year. "He fought for the underdog. He had integrity and charisma."[He fought for the underdog? Well an interesting take, I suppose. He did die for us all and sought out the Samaritan woman and the prostitute but the picture is a little more nuanced and cosmic but we'll let that pass]
I brace myself for a punch-line, but he's in earnest. "From the age of three to eight I thought Jesus was amazing," he says. [Good for you, Ricky]
Then came the moment of apostasy. He was drawing a Bible picture one day when his older brother, Bob, casually asked him why he believed in God. "My mother went, 'Bob!' And I knew. I knew that she was hiding something that he wanted to tell me. I thought about it for an hour and that was it. I didn't believe any more." [Is
that it? You did no more thinking or reflection. You didn't seek out the scriptures or the writings of the great thinkers of the spiritual life? Augustine? Aquinas? Teresa of Avila? No you took your brother's word and that was it. How shallow is this stuff?]
Gervais, now one of our biggest comedy stars, holds fast to the revelation of that hour. [Big comedy star. Must therefore have an authoritative line on philosophy and theology - no?] He has often brought a smirking incredulity [smirking incrdeulity, eh? Who'd have thought? How endearing] to the subject of religion, not least in his debut stand-up show Animals (2003), in which he raided the Bible for implausibilities ("He created the heaven and the earth - in the dark! Amazing!") [Yeah, Ricky, in the dark. Durrrrr. Is that as edgy as it gets or is there more?]. Next year, he will embark on a new solo tour entitled Science - "an exploration of the rational and non-rational". Four years in the writing, it will be, he hopes, his "stand-up masterpiece".[I won't hold my breath on what I've heard so far, but do go on. No, really. I'm fascinated]
You could call him the world's most prominent atheist comic, although there's a fair bit of competition. Billy Connolly has long since found laughs in religion ("I used to be a Catholic before I paid the fine and got out")[Ho.Ho.Ho.], and Eddie Izzard, who has honed the art of Bible-bashing down the years, pushes the boat out in his latest West End excursion, Stripped. [A shame because he's so surreally funny otherwise. Plus he's started dressing as a man again. Most of the time]
"I've come to the conclusion that there isn't a God," [Really? Do expand. Please show us your reasoning] he says at the start of the show. "It's randomness and it's up to us. We've got to go out and think of stuff."[Randomness. Hmmmm. Well it's certainly part of what makes up the Universe - brownian motion, for instance, but there is some order to Creation, isn't there? Or can you just not see it. Or you don't want to see it because it might unsettle your worldview]
They're hardly the earliest pioneers in the field. Monty Python caused the believer-baiting stir of the Seventies with The Life of Brian, and as Gervais points out, "Dave Allen used to do things that could be classed as outrageously heretical." [So nothing new to see here then.]
But they are at the vanguard of a movement that has gained definition and momentum over this past decade. If you want proof, look no further than Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: A Rational Celebration of Christmas, a trio of comedy galas planned for the run-up to Christmas.[Can't quite give up Christmas, though,eh? Still need that security blanket against the chill winds of godless rationality?]
Organised by Gervais's touring sidekick Robin Ince, the line-up includes both men, along with Chris Addison, Phill Jupitus, Stewart Lee, Dara O'Briain and Mark Thomas. The bill is bolstered by leading lights from the world of science - including arch atheist Richard Dawkins - and music from, among others, Jarvis Cocker. [Jeepers! The commanding heights of the intellectual world, then]
"I want these evenings to be like fractured versions of the Royal Institution Christmas lectures," says Ince, "fun, entertaining and informative." [Well informative only in the sense of giving an insight into the bigotry of the proselytising atheist mind]
His motivation is as benign as it is pro-rationalist.[Really? And there was me thinking the Catholic Church has been on about fides et ratio for centuries. I didn't think you guys had the copyright on it. Silly old me] "I wanted to do events around Christmas for people who don't have any belief, to show that they're not bitter, Scrooge-like characters. Everyone is going to be approaching the evening from a passionate scientific perspective rather than from a bashing-the-Bible slant." [Yeah. Right. Whatever.]
There will even be carol-singing, he promises. "Who doesn't like singing a carol? I mean, if you sing Robbie Williams's Angels you don't have to believe in angels, do you? Most singers sing lots of songs that have no truth in them whatsoever." It's that kind of casually derogatory remark that may do much to stir the antipathy of those with religious beliefs. [Casually derogatory? Do atheists go in for that? I really hadn't noticed.]
For Ince and his missionary friends, the word that needs to be spread is that the universe is wondrous even without faith in a divine plan. [Now we get to the nub. Missionary atheists. The flesh creeps. What's the term for that? Non-god-botherers? God Delusion Bashers?] Dawkins will read from his book Unweaving the Rainbow, "which is about how science makes things more beautiful and more exciting - not less". [Dawkins will read from his own book? Come, come, Professor! don't hide your light under a bushel. It would be so unlike you.]
His cameo should help counter the popular prejudice, says Ince, that he is "this crotchety man waving his stick at the sky. Rather than create a marauding mob going out to burn down the churches, it's about people saying 'Take me to the library!'" [and how many of those libraries do you think will have been founded by Christians? What will you read when you get there? The City of God?The Summa, The Pilgrim's Progress? The works of Shakespeare? The Divine Comedy? OK, then - some science, perhaps?The works of Newton, Faraday, Kelvin, Boyle, Kepler, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, Mendel?]
But by holding this rationalist jamboree so close to Christmas, are they not guilty of provocation?
"If it riles people," says Ince, "it does so because they're fools. Anyone who feels we are 'stealing Christmas away' would just be half-witted. Some people are desperate to be offended."[Desparate to be offended? When they are called fools and half-witted? What thin-skinned little things they must be! Who could possibly take such terms the wrong way?]
Irishman O'Briain, once a Catholic but no longer, says: "Atheism has become more angry. It has gone from 'I know you don't accept me', to 'You know what? I don't accept you.'" Dawkins has played a part in that, he says. "He lumped it all in with psychics and reiki and said we should be as irritated by religion as we are by any kind of wishy-washy mysticism." What do comedians who believe in God make of it all, though? [Atheism angry and intolerant? Surely not! Who would have thought all those Catholic priests and Buddhist monks imprisoned, beaten, tortured and killed in Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Republican Spain and Pol Pot's Cambodia. They must have done something to justify all that anger and intolerance, msutn't they?]
Tim Vine, brother of Radio 2 presenter Jeremy, centres his act on fast, silly and secular puns but is also a Christian. Yet there's no wailing or gnashing of teeth from him.
"I think it's great," he says. "It gives Christianity a bad press when Christians start standing in judgment. I'm not turning the other cheek because I wouldn't consider what they're doing a slap. My main thing is that Jesus is all about loving people. I think the more amazing things we discover in science, the more that suggests to me there is a God. But I don't want to shout about it in comedy. Normally I just say 'Velcro - what a rip-off' and we move on."
It would be nice if matters of science versus religion could be resolved so amicably. [Wouldn't it just, but I see no evidence of anything other than gratuitous insult and barely concealed violence here, all the more sinister for being dressed up with tinsel and carols] Perhaps Ince's godless galas point the way towards a more tolerant future. One suspects, though, that they may generate as much heat as light before the year is out. [No shit, Sherlock]