Whatever | November 2009

Whatever | Militant atheism
Please, Prof Dawkins, can I be a quiet, passive atheist?

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As a pacifist, and a coward, I’m really not looking for a fight. But argy bargy is brewing in the ideological playground, and rather than skulk off or adopt the scarf of the side most likely to emerge victorious, I propose we have a discussion first. What I’m actually saying is: I want to talk to you about God.

Does he/she/it exist, or not? That is the question at the heart of the 21st century’s most fashionable philosophical face-off – one that appears to have been artificially hotwired into life by a small but vocal group of deity-intolerant academics, writers and trendies, led by dashing evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, lapsed liberal and scourge of “the three great monotheisms” Christopher Hitchens and Jewish American author with issues Sam Harris. (I’d call them atheism’s cheerleaders were they not so palpably cheerless.)

Whether by accident or intelligent design, Not Believing In God has been elevated to a creed all of its own, with its own gospels – The God Delusion, The End Of Faith, God Is Not Great – and O-come-all-ye-faithless proverbs, plastered on the sides of 800 buses nationwide earlier this year (“There’s probably no God: stop worrying and enjoy your life”). The bus campaign, as inversely evangelical as any doorstepping Jehovah’s Witness, was funded by donations to the tune of £140,000 – a clear sign that the secular are taking up alms.

I should declare if not an interest, then certainly an anomaly: I don’t believe in God either. I sang O Jesus I Have Promised and learned cute Bible stories at school, but failed to make a meaningful metaphysical connection. At a base theological level, I’m with Dawkins. Bizarrely enough, I’ve even shared a variety bill with him: last Christmas’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, an evening of comedy, music and science curated by Robin Ince and New Humanist magazine. It was literally secularism as a bit of fun, like new toilet book The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.

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My worry is the growing militancy of the atheist lobby, which is where me and it part company. As far as I see it, not doing something is by definition a passive activity. If anything, my lack of faith is an absence, a void, a missing jigsaw piece, not a soapbox from which to convert others to my non-cause. I don’t follow cricket either; but as long as cricket fans don’t come round my house and threaten me with bats, we can bump along without incident. I certainly don’t regard them as brainwashed numbskulls for their lifestyle choice. And yet, in The God Delusion, which I found compelling and repulsive in equal measure, Dawkins suggests that people “cling to religion” because “they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realise that non-belief is even an option.” In other words – idiots! – they’re too thick to be atheists. This is fighting talk.

I have no more affection for gay-hatin’, creationism-lovin’, suicide-bombin’ fundamentalists than you do – they give the Gods that go with them a bad name; the hardcore Morrissey fans of religion – but the “new atheists” can be just as actively belligerent and blind to reason, without spotting the irony. James Wood, writing in the New Yorker, asserted that the new atheism is “necessarily a kind of rival belief.” Christian theologian and author of The Dawkins Delusion Alister McGrath pictured Dawkins “preaching to his God-hating choirs … clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes and raise their hands high in adulation.”

In his bracing tract Straw Dogs, political philosopher John Gray hits upon something that helps decode the virulent fundamentalism of Dawkins and his disciples: that their battle is not against God as much as it is for Science. Gray writes that Science, which brooks no wimpy notions of doubt, now claims the authority once commanded by the Church: “It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers.”

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There seems to be a significant and meaningful crossover between the anti-God lobby and the pro-Science lobby, as if a faith in one is antithetical to a faith in the other – which leaves the majority of Christians who use hair dryers, read weather forecasts and take Ibuprofen in a vast grey area. But Dawkins’ actual title at Oxford until 2008 was Professor for Public Understanding Of Science, a chair funded by a software executive and space tourist. Even his academic post had the whiff of propaganda about it.

I propose a splinter group for quiet, passive atheists. We will hold no meetings, write no books, seek no voice, just get on with not believing in God, peacefully, in the comfort of our own homes. If we had a slogan on a bus, which we don’t, it would be: “There’s probably no God; when does Marple start?”

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Whatever | September 2009

Whatever | Festivals and work/life balance
Why blanket media coverage of Glastonbury has puréed its spirit

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Thanks to extensive coverage in all BBC-hating national newspapers – ie. all national newspapers – we know that the Corporation dispatched “almost as many” reporters, presenters, producers, technicians and support staff to cover this year’s Glastonbury festival as it did last summer’s Beijing Olympics: about 400. Sky News described it as a “sun-soaked event” (counter to the newspapers’ preferred caricature of a “mud bath”), as if to underline the mealy-mouthed assertion that this was a massive “junket”; Matthew Elliott of the purple-faced TaxPayers’ Alliance announced, “All 407 staff can’t be there doing proper work.” Well, sorry, but I think providing three days of output across three channels and red-button interactive services as the festival’s worldwide broadcast partner probably counts as proper work, even when it’s sunny and Dizzee Rascal’s doing Bonkers. And I bet the toilets and mobile reception were better in Beijing.

The question mark hangs not over whether 400-plus BBC employees were working, but whether what they were working on is any longer worth the almighty faff. I find myself in a relatively decent position to judge: a moderate veteran after half a dozen working Glastonburys between 1989 and 1995, I had retired from the annual pilgrimage with no inclination to return. Then, after a rash, sherry-influenced decision at Christmas, I agreed to return, older and wiser and ready to be dismayed by how, hey, corporate and sanitised it had become. I camped for five days without the aid of a backstage wristband or freebie ticket. And guess what? It was just as vast, unfettered and bamboozling as before, the cumulative effect quite unlike either the family holiday or wartime conscription of modern shorthand. Having happily kept up in the intervening 14 years by watching Glastonbury on telly, I was struck by the vast sensory chasm which – more than ever – exists between the event itself and the way it comes across on BBC4, or Sky News, or in a pullout souvenir in the Observer. More Glastonbury coverage does not mean better Glastonbury coverage.

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The armchair music festival season now begins in early June with the Isle Of Wight – broadcast partner ITV2; hosts Fearne Cotton, Rufus Hound; Absolute Radio “set up camp [no they don’t] … to bring listeners around the UK exclusive live performances, interviews and backstage news and gossip.” Come September, the home festivalgoer will have “experienced” T In The Park (BBC3, Edith Bowman; Radio 1; Radio Scotland), Reading/Leeds (BBC3, Edith Bowman, Zane Lowe; Radio 1), V Festival (4Music; Absolute), Bestival (C4; 4Music; Radio 1), Latitude (Radio 2, Stuart Maconie, Dermot O’Leary, Claudia Winkleman, Janice Long; Radio 4; 6 Music), Cambridge Folk Festival (Radio 2) and T4 On The Beach (C4, Steve Jones, Miquita Oliver). Although “Glasto” – as even Andrew Marr now calls it – continues to occupy a regal place on the calendar, it too gets puréed into indeterminate, flag-and-kagoule mush by all this relentlessly upbeat, uncritical, blanket reportage of anything that steps onto a stage, or into a puddle. Festival season is to a certain type of thirtysomething, jeans-wearing, Ting Tings-loving presenter, what pantomime season is to dwarfs. For the rest of us, it’s a surefire way of growing bored of live music. I texted civilisation during Neil Young’s set on the Pyramid Stage and ascertained that he was “boring” on TV; in situ, on a warm evening in Avon, he was mesmerising.

The sad fact is, Glastonbury and the other major pasture-based gigs are now part of the arts furniture, slotted in between Glyndebourne, Hay, Edinburgh, Cannes, the Proms, even the non-horsey bits of Ascot: all subject to their own set of visual and written clichés. A glance through the Telegraph’s online “picture gallery” from Glastonbury is dominated by fragrant young ladies and apple-faced kids in the mud, despite the fact that it only rained once and the ground was bone dry by Saturday. I particularly liked, “Two girls walk through the site with blow-up airbeds.” Pictorially, Glastonbury is the new A-Level results for newspapers like the Telegraph with no real interest in the music or the vibe.

ACGlasto89In 1992, the NME made music press history by turning its Glastonbury coverage round by – gasp! – the Wednesday after the festival, rather than waiting a full week to call in all the copy. Why hurry? Nobody expected to read about it the moment they got home in those pre-enlightenment days. Nowadays, Q magazine comes out daily, onsite. And yet, if it didn’t, the festival would go on. When Michael Jackson died, reporters were desperate to tell the world that a grief-stricken hush had fallen across Worthy Farm. It hadn’t. We were a bit surprised, and then got on with eating a burrito and joining the queue for the Orange phone-recharging chillout tent.

In short, I shall treat all coverage of Ascot with extreme suspicion from now on.

Published in Word magazine, September 2009