Seriously considering a PGCE

Michael Gove is apparently in favour of atheist schools:

Answering questions from MPs on the Commons education select committee on Wednesday, Mr Gove said: “One of the most striking things that I read recently was a thought from Richard Dawkins that he might want to take advantage of our education legislation to open a new school, which was set up on an explicitly atheist basis.

“It wouldn’t be my choice of school, but the whole point about our education reforms is that they are, in the broad sense of the word, small “l”, liberal, that they exist to provide that greater degree of choice.”

In that case, your education reforms suck. An atheist school is a horrible idea, and any system that allows it is broken.

I don’t know why so many people think parents have a moral right to bring their children up in a particular worldview. Kids aren’t possessions to be toyed with – their education should be about how to think, not what to think. And the idea that kids should be segregated by whatever mystical beliefs their parents have is just vile. Given that the Tories aren’t actually stupid, or avowedly evil (well, not all of them) I assume that they have some rose-tinted view that children will grow up to be freethinking, independent adults no matter what their upbringing. We clearly need to introduce them to Psychology 101. And Northern Ireland.

And of course Richard Dawkins didn’t suggest an explicitly atheist school:

I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded.

Now that is a proper thing. I have no bloody idea why the entire education system isn’t built this way already, or why the Tories (and Labour)1 aren’t able to figure this out for themselves, but at least there’ll be the option – though only if we do it ourselves. I hate that UK education may come to the point where avowedly freethinking schools are a necessary counterpoint, but I’m worried there’ll be no other way.

  1. not much point even mentioning the Lib Dems []

Humanist Symposium #51

Humanist SymposiumWelcome to the 51st Humanist Symposium, coming to you on a truly auspicious day on which we celebrate two unarguably excellent things.

Firstly, over here in the UK it’s Mother’s Day. Not to be confused with Mothering Sunday, which is a deprecated Christian festival that just happens to coincide with Mother’s Day in Europe – but not in the US. It gets confusing. Mothers, though! I think we can all agree they’re pretty great. Secondly, over there in the US it’s Pi Day. 3.14. Without pi we wouldn’t have the hula-hoop, Stargate or Quidditch, and wedding rings wouldn’t work, so it’s obviously important. Over here we celebrate Pi Day on 22/7, which is more accurate, but we humanists are beyond such petty nationalism (plus the US probably have to convert it into imperial or something anyway).

Such a confluence of events happens only rarely, so it’s pretty much a moral duty to combine the two. So: go phone your mother1, if you’re in a position to do so – don’t worry, we’ll wait – then get some pie2 and settle down to the best humanist writing of the last two weeks.

Are you done? Pie at hand? Excellent. Let’s begin. And let’s start with a properly big subject: free will. Does it exist? In a remarkably clear examination of a difficult topic – and in the process considering heat-seeking missiles, omnipotent vending machines and the ramifications of non-deterministic quantum theory – E.M. Cadwaladr argues that it doesn’t:

One might say […] “I could not make up my mind so I chose the cheese crackers.” This answer admits to no known cause on the part of the chooser, and might be explained in either of two ways. The choice is either genuinely random, or it is the result of some process of which the chooser is simply unaware. If a choice is genuinely random in some quantum statistical sense, then it can hardly be considered an act of free will. On the other hand, if a decision is the result of subconscious motivations (or something of that sort) then it is still the product of an antecedent cause, so the decision cannot be a first cause in itself. There is no more reason to ascribe special causal powers to the subconscious than to the conscious, and even if there were, the possession of extraphysical subconscious powers is clearly not what we mean when we postulate free will.

I think the article makes a compelling case, though I’m glad of the illusion. The big questions of the universe are also raised by Secular Guy, who looks at the issues raised by cosmological investigations, concluding with the largest:

Through experiments that simulate the Big Bang, cosmology is bringing us closer to understanding the details of how universe began. But will it ever be able to explain the reason that out of what had been eternal nothingness, in a split second came the the beginning of everything that ever has been or ever will exist?

I’d raise a couple of points on the science, but the final point stands3. Similarly philosophical, Godlessons considers the relationship between belief and reality, asking why a God would care if you believe in it, and what could possibly motivate a God to create a world identical to one in which they don’t exist:

If I were an all powerful being, I wouldn’t even need to show myself in person.  I could do things like consistently heal people that are prayed for.  I could heal them in ways that couldn’t happen on their own, like make their amputated limbs regrow.  In that sense, I wouldn’t even need to do it every time someone was prayed for, just occasionally.  People could see that when people weren’t prayed for, they absolutely never regrew a limb, but when they were, at least occasionally they would regrow a limb.

These are not things that God does though.  God instead acts in a way that we would expect from a man made fabrication.

When humanists raise such questions we’re often accused of being perpetually negative. This is unfair, and in fact many humanists describe themselves as optimists (I once found myself describing humanism as ‘the positive wing of atheism’). This optimism comes in many different forms, and Peter Frauenglass here explains his perspective:

I have no faith in institutions or organizations, however good their intention – their very nature makes it impossible for them to implement real change. I have no faith in philosophy – people mouth whatever words they’re told, and continue to act exactly the same. I have no faith in God – we’re on our own here, with no benevolent or malevolent force to interfere. But I have faith in individuals.

But wait – did he say ‘faith’? Humanists don’t have faith, do they? As ever, it depends upon your definition – ‘faith’ is a fuzzy concept. The same is true of ‘spirituality’, but it’s nonetheless a tricky word to bring up in skeptical circles. Over at Mind on Fire, John gives his take on ‘spiritual atheism’:

Above all else, I am deeply interested in “an experience of connectedness with a larger reality: a more comprehensive self; other individuals or the human community; nature or the cosmos.” As a skeptic, I don’t believe there is solid evidence for the Gods conceived by the major Western monotheisms, for an immortal soul, for reincarnation, or for any kind of universal karmic moral laws or any purpose to the universe. But I can and have felt this deep sense of connection to others and the pursuit of this connection is important to me.

This connection to – and concern for – others is certainly important to many humanists, but many argue that humanism lacks the built-in community features that help bring people together. Should humanism be trying to replicate the social aspects of religion? Chris Hallquist says no:

There are already all-kinds of non-religious groups that provide these things. I would have thought that obvious, though maybe I’m just lucky to have spent four years of my life in Madison, Wisconsin, a city with an incredible number of quirky subcultures for a city of its size, all with their own little rituals. Even if you don’t know how to find that in your city, if you wanted to start a group like that there are better bases for that sort of thing that “not believing in God.”

He goes on to question the idea of ‘atheist charities’. After all, there are plenty of secular charities already – creating specifically atheist charities seems to put promotion of atheism before helping people. But while this is a valid point, I think there’s room for atheist organisations to act as a go-between. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t all do the legwork to figure out which charities are appropriately secular. Daylight Atheism reports on the launch of the Foundation Beyond Belief, which seems to strike the right balance:

The Foundation is not itself a charity. Rather, it has a list of major issues it seeks to address – environment, poverty, education, child welfare, and so on. Each quarter, it picks an existing charitable group serving each of those issues, one that has a track record of effectiveness and that doesn’t proselytize. Foundation members’ donations are funneled to those charities, divided among them according to the individual member’s choice. You can choose to split your donation equally among all the charities, or give it all to a few or to one.

The Foundation’s business model answers both of the challenges I posed above. As an explicitly secular organization which only supports non-sectarian charities, it makes our donations visible in the same way that religious charities are visible. As Dale McGowan puts it, through the FBB, our donations become “a positive collective expression of our worldview”.

These kind of middleman schemes appeal to me, as we’re all guilty of flocking to the familiar sometimes. It’s a well established psychological bias that we instinctively look for people and ideas that confirm our beliefs, rather than challenging ourselves with those that don’t. We have to be on our guard for this, as was demonstrated by the reaction to a recent press release claiming a statistical link between intelligence and atheism. Various blogs gleefully promoted it, until others pointed out its myriad problems. But, as No Double Standards explains, this is actually a huge strength of the atheist community: we did in fact notice, and publicise, these flaws. They ask why theistic bloggers can’t behave similarly:

I repeatedly see theists make empirical claims about how religion benefits society when there is a wealth of empirical evidence, certainly of a correlative nature that contradicts these claims. It seems they can find no contrary equivalent evidence in their favour and so in response, if they just do not just happily ignore this evidence, promote a variety of dubious opinion survey based social psychology studies, which whenever investigated (at least the ones I have seen) are of poor methodological design such as low statistical significance, small sample size and/or with unbalanced questions formats which fails to control for biases.

Now I am, of course, only addressing this to those theists who do just jump on the bandwagon and uncritically promote these studies  or uncritically agree with them. Where are the theists who say “hang on a second, as much as we like the conclusions, the study being celebrated is highly questionable?”

Right, time for a break, some pie, and a godless LOLcat – for no other reason than it made me laugh:

Humorous Pictures

Back? Replete? Cool.

One of my favourite submissions to this Symposium is Greta Christina’s talk to the Secular Student Alliance, in which she asks what the atheist movement can learn from the gay movement. She describes the many parallels between the two, pointing out that the gay movement’s thirty year headstart enables atheists to draw upon its victories and mistakes. I highly encourage you to read the whole thing, but overall she makes three major points. Firstly, that the LGBT movement was rife with internal warfare between LGBT firebrands and diplomats over the most effective way to reach the public – sound familiar, much?

But when we look at those years in retrospect, it becomes clear that both methods together were far more effective than either method would have been alone. And the LGBT movement has learned — to some extent — to recognize this fact, and to deliberately strategize around it. Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice. And the “good cop/ bad cop” dynamic can be very effective. Again, in the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s, the street activists got attention, got on the news, raised general visibility and awareness. The polite negotiators could then raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the people they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of our issues. And when the street activists presented more hard-line demands, that made the polite negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line between an extremist position and a moderate one kept getting moved in our direction. We see this working today: the same-sex marriage debate has made supporting civil unions seem like the moderate position, even the conservative one — which wasn’t true ten years ago.

I think this is great, and is a message we should spread far and wide. She also shows how arguments over the definitions of gay/lesbian/bisexual parallel those over atheist/agnostic – suggesting, convincingly, that all such disagreements are a waste of time. Amen to that. Humanism and atheism have an Eternal September problem, so there’ll always be a certain amount of such discussion, but at some point we have to let it go.

Finally she talks about the under-recognised issue of diversity within atheist and humanism, which are dominated by white men. Yet the atheist and humanist movements are certainly not racist or sexist – quite the opposite. James at Cubik’s Rube considers the same issue and comes to the same conclusion regarding non-racists who take little notice of race issues:

This is not an entirely alien position to someone like me. But the point is that I still need to do some actual work in this area. I can’t slack off just because I’ve done the easy bit. Sure, so I think black people are great. That doesn’t mean I’m done. It doesn’t mean that I can disassociate myself from any bigotry or discrimination going on around me and declare myself apart from it, tell myself that it’s nothing to do with me, it’s all somebody else’s fault, racist people’s fault, because I’m not racist.

It’s a factor of everybody involved thinking that – since they’re not racist or sexist – there’s no problem to be fixed. But, as Greta says: “an atheist movement dominated by white men will focus on issues that largely affect white men — at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color.” She ends by saying this is something we need to fix right now, before the resentment and bitterness sets in (on both sides).

While race issues within the community might be problematic, humanists are certainly no slouches when it comes to opposing racism in society. This can turn up unexpectedly – Andrew at 360 Degree Skeptic looks at the claim that the US legal system favours the rich, and comes to a surprising, if depressing, conclusion:

The wealth isn’t the real issue. What is? Consider this research finding on a related aspect of the legal system by Scott Phillips, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver:

A defendant is much more likely to be sentenced to death if he or she kills a “high-status” victim. [source; bold mine]

It seems that jurors, juries, judges–and attorneys, too, no doubt–act with favoritism toward high status individuals. To some degree and with great variability among the groups. And in some circumstances more than others, of course. As a telling illustration of this, consider the contemporary practice of lawyers coaching low-status defendants to appear less low-status. Put on a suit, speak proper English, etc.

In other research by Phillips, he found further evidence that status matters:

[B]lack defendants were more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants in Houston. The racial disparities revealed in the prior paper become even more acute after accounting for victim social status – black defendants were more apt to be sentenced to death despite being less apt to kill high status victims.

Racism is also a common accusation levelled at Darwin, of all people. Creationists play the ad hominem card by claiming Darwin tried to justify black inferiority, and directly inspired social Darwinism. As an argumentative tactic this is just poisoning the well – it says nothing about the validity of evolution – but it’s not true either. The Primate Diaries examines the latter claim, using recent research into the proliferation of Darwin’s ideas around the Middle East, and shows how it was in fact Herbert Spencer’s horrific interpretations of Darwin that brought social Darwinism to prominence:

when discussing natural selection in Darwinian terms, the editors were very clear that evolution does “not require that all things progress.” However, when discussed in Spencerian terms evolution and progress were synonymous. It was only in this context that the terms “struggle for existence” or “survival of the fittest” were used in a social Darwinian context.

Godwin’s Law doesn’t only apply to Creationists, of course – it regularly turns up in generally anti-science commentators. You Made Me Say It takes on a particularly murky essay that decries technology in general, claiming it’s powerless against the vast darkness of human nature – Hitler – that only religion can redeem,or something:

Now this is indicative of this nonsense which Mr. Dreher is espousing, which is essentially that human nature is evil and we humans are wretched things. That’s a fairly common idea across multiple religions, this idea that you are wretched. Why? Well then you need help, “salvation” if you will. How do you get that? Ah, through the religion. Marketing 101 states that a product needs to satisfy a need, and in lieu of a need, create one. Every religion follows this, telling you you are wretched or by exploiting tragedies like the recent disasters in Chile and Haiti by serving up their product to people who clearly are in a wretched state. Anyway, the point Mr. Dreher is making is that because we’re so wretched, we can’t have technological advances because we’ll ONLY use them to do wretched things, but even the most cursory look at humanity’s history would show that that is not the case.

Finally, Lamb Around says there’s certainly no need for Woman’s Day magazine to print Bible verses:

Are you kidding me, Woman’s Day? I’ve asked around and I’m not the only one who was under the impression that it’s not a religious magazine. If they want to be religious, they should just go all out and do it, rather than pretending to cater to all women while slyly sneaking in their beliefs.

The magazine also includes a tip on how to “cut a lemon in half, rub it on your armpits, and go out deodorant-free.” It doesn’t say whether you remove the lemons.

That’s it for this Symposium. I hope it’s been of interest! Thanks to Daylight Atheism for setting up and running such a interesting carnival. The next issue will be at Letters from a Broad… on April 4th. Thanks for reading!

  1. do, really – friends who’ve lost a parent have movingly stressed the importance of this to me []
  2. the Argument from Linguistic Coincidence is very annoying, but let’s exploit it this once – after all, pie! []
  3. my favourite answer is: the concept of nothing is invalid, and time is just our interpretation of a dimension. My mind pretty much melted when I heard that []

Oxford Think Week starts this Monday

I promised to mention the upcoming Oxford Think Week, which looks pretty entertaining. It starts this Monday, and runs through next Sunday. There are lots of speakers and events, but some of my highlights:

Stephen Law is a philosopher and author of The Philosophy Gym (philosophical questions ostensibly for children, but just as interesting for adults) and The War for Children’s Minds (one of my favourite atheist books, but sometimes difficult to get hold of). His God of Eth argument – that the non-existence of an omnipotent, benevolent god is actually obvious – takes a while to explain, but is neatly compelling.

Peter Atkins wrote Galileo’s Finger, a poetic guide to modern science that goes a stage beyond the usual concepts, particularly regarding the elegant and subtle role of symmetry. Also generally entertaining in religious debates – when theologian Richard Swinburne said the holocaust gave Jews a wonderful opportunity be courageous and noble, Atkins replied with ‘may you rot in hell’.

Paul Pettinger is the BHA‘s anti faith-school campaigner, which puts him at the forefront of the major education battles in the UK. Knows his stuff, and has been a key player in the BHA’s recent victories in these areas. I’m annoyed I can’t be at his talk, as I’m sure it’ll be fascinating – especially given the sex ed. furore of the last couple of days.

Andrew Copson is the BHA’s new chief executive, and a force for good. One of atheism’s clearest and most eloquent public speakers, I’ve yet to see him wrong-footed in a debate (see Newsnight’s exchange over Jewish schools). Also one of the nicest men in humanism.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher and prolific author. He’s particularly good at explaining philosophy very clearly, and in a way that makes you feel clever. Occasionally controversial in skeptical circles for criticising the ‘new atheists’, he’s very much on the side of good, and you wouldn’t want to argue against him. Another entirely decent guy, too.

Samantha Stein ran the UK Camp Quest, which caused a stir in the tabloids for supposedly teaching atheism – which it obviously didn’t. Tough gig, but it was a worthy success.

The BHA Choir are cool. They sing secular anthems such as Imagine and The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize(!), and are just great. I love the idea of a humanist choir, and hopefully they’ll go from strength to strength.

Evan Harris is the model secular MP – we wish they were all like him. He got the blasphemy law abolished last year, and regularly speaks out on skeptical topics such as homeopathy on the NHS. Understands all the issues, and is actually in a position to get stuff done. As Ben Goldacre once tweeted, vote Lib Dem this election and Evan Harris could be Science Minister in some odd coalition thingy. Also once said hello to me, seeming genuinely interested in the photos I was taking, despite there being Properly Interesting People in the vicinity.

I’ll be taking photos at some of the above. Come say hi if you’re there!

Don’t you know my donation was ironic?

This is my favourite argument ever:

Some religious, and specifically Christian, commentators are indignant that the money from the Atheist bus campaign has been rolled over to support another poster drive which raises questions about the religious identity of children in the context of faith schools.

Why should they care how Humanists spend their money? Usually it’s the other way around. Humanists are deeply unhappy that Christians get their proselytism funded through tax relief on charitable donations.

The reason is that when the original poster campaign was launched, some Christians thought it would be a clever move to make a very public donation to the campaign. Reminiscent of the story Jesus told (the ‘widow’s mite’) about the arrogant religious leaders who made gifts for all to see, they then tipped off the media about what they had done.

Let no one be under any illusions about what was behind the move. The main aim was to take the wind out of Humanist sails. The donations were made in order to try and score a goal in the Match of the Day between religion and atheism.

See, you might be thinking: ‘this argument can’t possibly be going where I think it’s going, can it?’. And you’d be wrong:

Whether Humanists are right to use money, given by Christians for point-scoring reasons, for a poster campaign that highlights [problems with faith schools] is certainly debatable.

That’s inspired.

The other message of the article is a lot more humanist-friendly, and asks whether Jesus would have approved of faith schools discriminating against other faiths (or non-faiths). Which is a good point, from a religious perspective, although still misses the message of the posters: they’re about the problems of labelling children, and aren’t anti faith-school. The BHA’s anti faith-school campaign is being run in conjunction, but they’re not the same thing.

See if you can spot where the logic goes wrong

BHA: Here is a billboard with pictures of some children. Its message is: there’s no such thing as a Christian child; or a Muslim child; or an atheist child. They’re all just children, and should be allowed to grow up and choose for themselves.

Times and Telegraph: HAHAHAHAHA those children are Christians! lol you lose.

BHA: …

The Atheist Billboard Campaign

The Atheist Billboard Campaign launched today. It’s the second phase of the Atheist Bus Campaign, and sees large billboards in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Here’s the London one:

Atheist Billboard Campaign - Old Street, London

Isn’t it cool? The message will be familiar to anyone familiar with Richard Dawkins’ writings: it’s wrong to label children with concepts beyond their understanding. The labels shown in the background – ‘Catholic child’, ‘Muslim child’, ‘Atheist child’, ‘Post-modernist child’ etc. – should all stick in the throat, as there are no such things (the BHA’s campaign page goes into more detail on the divisive and coercive nature of labelling children in this way). Like the original bus campaign, it’s about consciousness-raising – as Ariane Sherine says in her Comment is Free launch article:

We hope the advert’s message will encourage the government, media and general public to see children as individuals, free to make their own choices as soon as they are old enough to fully understand what these choices mean, and that they will think twice before describing children in terms of their parents’ religion in the future.

I played a very small role in the planning of this campaign, and I’m proud to be associated.

There have been many negative comments, of course. So far the complaints seem to be:

  • “It won’t do any good.” – The aim is consciousness-raising – to get this idea more into the public domain. Anecdotal evidence suggests the bus campaign was tremendously successful at affecting public discourse around the world, and I don’t see why this shouldn’t be similarly capable.
  • “Who are you to tell me how to raise my children?” – Firstly, if you don’t want to listen, don’t listen – nobody’s forcing you to do anything. Secondly, what’s wrong with expressing an opinion on how to raise children? Thirdly, they’re not ‘your’ children in the sense of ownership – you’re their guardians, not their owners, and they have rights as people that trump your rights as parents.
  • “You’re smug and arrogant.” – Ad hominem attacks are pretty desperate.

Given the quality of the complaints so far, I think it’s going well.

Atheist Thriller on the Plinth – Part 2

On the way to the plinthIt was a gorgeous afternoon – as sunny and warm as the One and Other team had seen it – and Trafalgar Square was full. This was great. Anything that wasn’t rain was just fine with me, and I found myself pretty excited by all the people. Hopefully we’d get a crowd, at least. The cherry picker moved slowly towards the plinth, the security guard shooing passers-by out of the way, and I started to spot familiar faces. I was, by this point, grinning like an idiot.

I was lifted high above the plinth, and I took the opportunity to appreciate the view. It’s not often you get a vantage point like that! Then the cherry picker lowered me down to meet Margaret, the charming lady representing Scotland, and we quickly swapped places. I was more exhilarated than nervous at this point, but nonetheless pleased to see a pigeon was keeping me company. Sadly it flew off as soon as I stepped out. Hopefully this wasn’t a sign of things to come.

Now stop worrying, by SkudsThe plinth is bigger than it looks. I was carrying a lot, but there was plenty of space, and the ‘There’s probably no God…’ sign, which had seemed way too large in the BHA offices, was obviously going to fit perfectly. There’d still be room for the amplifier and me at one end, too. I quickly set up the radio mic and amplifier, and one of the biggest worries fell away as the LEDs lit up. I then looked down, and the second worry disappeared: about 30 people had RSVP’d ‘yes’ on Facebook, and they seemed to all be there! I saw many friendly faces, which was very nice indeed. But there was a crowd surrounding them, and they all cheered when I announced the plan to teach the moves from Thriller. This was a real confidence boost. I set up the sign, and we were away.

The dancers were brilliant. Extremely enthusiastic, not at all self-conscious about pretending to be zombies in public, and everyone seemed to be smiling. I heard afterwards there was a lot of inter-group teaching and generally making sure everyone knew what they were doing, which is great. I had to move pretty fast to cram it all in, but everyone picked up the steps remarkably quickly, and we were able to race through the song.

Thrillers, by aphexleeIt was working! And time just passed. I was enjoying myself tremendously, and relaxed completely after a few minutes. I found myself oddly comfortable in front of a large crowd – all those years of magic shows apparently paid off. We’d go through a group of steps, then repeat, then put it to music, and I was very surprised when I glanced at my phone and saw half an hour had gone by.

The technology worked, too. The amplifier, at 1/3 power, was easily loud enough to drown out the steel bands; the microphone, despite a few difficulties, carried my voice well; and the iPhone performed perfectly, with its new low-speed-scrubbing feature letting me skip to the exact second I wanted. It’s nice when things work like they should.

The surrounding crowd was great – they were really into it. Every time the dancers finished dancing to music, they’d get a round of applause. And as the dance wore on, the crowd started to join in. We started off with about 15 people, and by the end there were ~30, including a group of children in union flag hats, and a particularly endearing kid in green at the front. Not everybody had seen the initial steps, but that didn’t matter.

Me on Plinth - Ed PhotoI had two hecklers (that I noticed). The first, grey-haired and very drunk, shouted for attention then rubbed his nipples at me. This was actually pretty funny, and he hung around for a while. The second was more of a grump, yelling something about god. I suggested I wasn’t going to debate with him from high atop the thing, and he left. I later found out he was religious and thought the ‘probably’ indicated something important. I possibly got off lightly here.

The sound was fascinating, too. I was concentrating on the dance moves, and watching how the dancers were doing, but a few things broke through. Buses and cars honked, and we all waved at one. I had to do an large number of pelvic thrusts, and these would often cause a burst of laughter / screams from somewhere below. There were a few reactions like this, and you never quite knew whether it was related to you or not. It’s a curious experience, being in your own little world and not quite knowing who’s watching you or what they’re doing.

We finished the chorus with ten minutes to go. I really wanted to finish the song, so we zoomed through the final section. This was a big ask, as it’s not the easiest section, and it didn’t help that I had to correct a slight mistake. But the dancers were awesome, and did incredibly well. With three minutes to go, and the cherry picker making its way across the square, I quickly went for one whole run-through. 90 seconds long, we just made it. The crowd applauded loudly, and it was a great way to finish – it would have been so disappointing not to make it all the way through!

Sky Arts Screengrab

I was pretty happy on the way down, but I didn’t anticipate the reaction. The response was amazing. Tweets flooded in during the hour itself, and I’ve since had many lovely emails, texts and comments. These are set against a whole two negative comments, both drive-by abusive and not worth fretting over. Even the cynical #oneandother followers on Twitter1 were positive, albeit after complaining I was too slow getting started (I wasn’t doing anything without my sign!). Particular kudos goes to @nickjbarlow, for “there’s probably no God, but there’s definitely no Michael Jackson”. The One and Other staff seemed to enjoy it, too – the guy who took me up on the cherry picker hung around for the whole thing, saying we ‘rocked the square’, and inside the green box everyone said how much they enjoyed it, and that they hadn’t seen such a large crowd before. Yay!

My view from the plinth

I was on a high for most of the week. On Thursday Sky Arts called me to say #plinthriller would be featured on their One and Other highlights show, which was pretty exciting. They needed musical permissions, so asked me for the the exact version of Thriller I’d used. They also said Kathy Lette had chosen us as her #1 plinth highlight of the week, so it was quite a disappointment when on Friday she didn’t mention us at all! There was a very brief clip of the crowd during a dancing montage, but that was it -I assume they couldn’t get the music rights2. Shame!

The full video is still up on the oneandother site. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get a copy.

A couple of things I’ll know for next time:

  • Use a headset mic! The lapel mic attached to my t-shirt wasn’t directional enough to pick up my voice properly, so I had to actively lift it to speak, which made some dance moves a little tricky. No big problem, although I realised afterwards that I had a headset in my bag the whole time.
  • Do not name-check people, or you risk forgetting a) some of your oldest and best friends and b) your siblings. Sorry about that.

I’ve used up all the superlatives, but you get the picture: I’m really happy about the whole thing. I need to say a few thank yous, because it was a huge team effort. Firstly, many thanks to the two lovely friends who got me over my nerves in the middle of the week before – I may very well have done something deeply boring if it weren’t for you. Also to Mr Skuds, who came into town specially, very kindly documented the whole event, and gave it a charming write-up – it was nice to see him again. The BHA were very enthusiastic, sorting out a sign and appropriate stands for me, and they and many people helped spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. Special mention in this regard must go to Ariane, who gave the whole event a massive boost. Thanks also to Ed for carrying that amplifier around London afterwards!

But mostly thank you to everyone who came along and danced. It wouldn’t have worked without you. I hope it helped you enjoy your life. It certainly did me: it’s not every Sunday I stand on a plinth and dance, sing, and, well, thrust. I’m glad I did.

  1. ‘Twecklers’, apparently []
  2. I read a few of Kathy Lette’s books when I was 17. It is very weird to think she knows who I am. []

Christian comebacks to the Atheist Bus Campaign

The Atheist Bus Campaign adverts are coming down in the next few days, after an amazingly successful month. They’ve been a remarkable talking-point1, similar adverts are going up all around the world, and they annoyed, then embarrassed, Christian Voice. All great results, but they’re also apparently the vanguard for a wave of god-related banners:

A trinity of Christian groups have created their own series of advertisements to run across London buses

Fair enough, let’s see what they’ve got. Here’s the first, from the Christian Party:

There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.

Quite the non-sequitur. A double helping, in fact. Why would the existence of god mean I should join the Christian party? And are the last two clauses linked? Will joining the Christian Party2 help me enjoy my life? How? It’s easy to see why ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’ would make sense, but this? It’s a little cultish. And pretty tacky: using ‘god exists’ to advertise your political party is just cheap. Next?

There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life.

Reports differ on the wording and formatting: the Telegraph says it’s “There is God, believe! Don’t Worry. Enjoy your life!”. Whatever. As a comeback, it’s (ahem) godawful.

Really, that’s the best you could do? No kind of logical rebuttal? Admittedly this is only a bus poster, but the atheist campaign said a lot in the word ‘probably’ – that was really something to get your teeth into, as it led into the philosophical arguments and the nature of reasonable belief. This banner just says ‘no no no. we win’. And if the Guardian is to be believed, resorts to shouting like a street-corner evangelist. Weak. And the last one?

The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.

My irony meter. You has broken it.

Seriously? After all that complaining over the horrendously insulting “now stop worrying and enjoy your life” you’re calling atheists ‘fools’? And with a quote from your magical book, no less? That’s certainly authoritative. Well done. Maybe your follow-up campaign can be ‘I AM A REAL BOY’.  That’ll do it.

Overall, not impressive. And these are all marketing criticisms – don’t even start me on the philosophical objections. Elsewhere, the BHA’s response has a lovely air of amused we-have-better-things-to-do, and ponders whether the new banners will – hide your irony meters – break advertising rules. I think the best response is to point and laugh.

  1. sometimes a bit disappointing: did anyone see Adrian Childs on The One Show saying they promote amorality? wtf? []
  2. incidentally, their website weirdly says: “Christianity is not a religion as such, it is a dynamic relationship with God in Christ Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.” Right then. []