Eight Lessons and Carols for Godless People

This evening I headed to the Bloomsbury Theatre for Robin Ince’s Eight Lessons and Carols for Godless People. He arranged it in response to incessantly mental claims of an atheist ‘war on Christmas’, and his impressive lineup of comedians and musicians provided three hours of secular entertainment. It was excellent. Really, really great, and surprisingly life-affirming.

I have to spend all tomorrow writing and reading logical-fallacy-filled art theories in the uni library, so I’ll write up my thoughts on tonight while they’re still fresh. Sorry if it’s not terribly coherent.

The evening was bookended by Carl Sagan, and (half) the audience laughed at an uncertainty principle joke. It was obviously not your usual event, and, for me, it was like going home. I just felt comfortable. This was mainly due to the makeup of the audience, who were probably all secular freethinkers. This was fantastic, as lots could go unsaid. There were, as you’d expect, plenty of cracks about religion, but the type of audience meant there was no need for ‘of course, we don’t actually think all Christians are morons, and that was a bit of hyperbole for comic effect, and we understand the social and psychological pressures that lead people to have a deep attachment to their religious faith, although we don’t think that’s an excuse etc. etc.’. Instead you could just say ‘anyone who thinks God tinkers with financial matters but ignores the Rwandan genocide is clearly fucking crazy’. Because everyone understood.

At the risk of sounding like an awful snob, the whole thing was sophisticated. Not in an aren’t-we-clever way, just that nobody pandered or was condescending. It was just…mature. And rational. And elitist, in that the people on stage often knew a lot, and weren’t afraid to show it. Great stuff.

Robin Ince compered the evening, and made me laugh a lot. His contempt for Stephen Green (the despicable homophobic head of Christian Voice) was palpable, although sadly the man himself didn’t turn up.

Richard Dawkins read his gerin oil essay, which works surprisingly well out-loud, as well as an extract from Unweaving the Rainbow. I assumed he’d get the loudest round of applause of the night, but that wasn’t actually the case…

Ricky Gervais was as good as you’d hope, and is apparently touring with his long-promised ‘Science’ show next year. I’ll have to get tickets for that.

Stewart Lee was very impressive, as you’d expect from the writer of Jerry Springer: The Opera. I mentioned recently that he tries to make his comedy situational, rather than language-based, and that was certainly the style of this evening. His comedy partner Richard Herring was a highlight of the second half of the show, and his image of heaven as full of your parental ejaculate’s 600 million losing sperm, to whom you have to justify your life, is surprisingly evocative.

Chris Addison is apparently in a BBC sitcom called Lab Rats, which I’ll certainly be checking out. His manic performance was great in that he explained lots about the development of language, which you wouldn’t think is an inherently funny topic, but he proved otherwise. His line about a remote tribe that communicates with clicks and whistles always being surrounded by unexpected horses reduced me to a giggling wreck. I think I remember him from HIGNFY, now I think about it.

I’ll have to investigate Natalie Haynes, too, as her re-telling of a radio debate with a grumpy my-baby-trumps-all mother was a thing of beauty.

Ben Goldacre is a force to be reckoned with. He speaks as well as he writes, which if you’ve read his articles1 you’ll know is very well indeed. His was the only not-so-cheerful talk, but his savaging of the woo community’s response to AIDS denialism was a thing to behold. It wasn’t a direct call to action, but it was lucid, logical, and angry. I suspect everyone in the room found themselves wanting to get involved in that particular battle. I certainly felt guilty that I haven’t tried to do more, and tried (vainly, so far) to think of ways my photographic or computing skills could help. I’m sure he wouldn’t be keen if I said he was a hero, but he’s increasingly a superstar of the skeptical community, as he a) knows his stuff b) does something about it. All while working as a doctor.

But the unexpected highlight of the evening was a final nine-minute beat poem (forgive me if the terminology is wrong) by someone whose name I can’t remember, and doesn’t seem to be written down anywhere. He was barefoot and awesome in his reading of a poem about battling a dinner party woo-meister. The rhymes were unforced, the story witty, the theme uplifting and the musical timing to his backing track impeccable. I must find more of this guy’s work, as I liked everything about it. If only I knew his name. I think he got the loudest applause of the night, and deservedly so.

I don’t have a list of the performers, so I’m undoubtedly forgetting and omitting some excellent people. I’ll probably remember them all while trying to get to sleep. Everybody was entertaining, although I admit one or two of the musical acts passed me by, and at least once I felt like I was missing something big – Peter Buckley Hill? But that’s just personal taste, and is only a minor quibble.

Robin Ince says he hopes to produce similar shows year-round. I think he called it a ‘rationality ramadan’. If they’re as optimistic, entertaining and balls-out-standing-up-for-what-we-believe-in as this one, sign me up. What a wonderful thing.

  1. or book, which I recommend unreservedly and shamefully haven’t written up on here yet []