I am sitting in a dressing room with tea and chocolate, mulling over possible humanism for an interview. this is where I have got to so far….
Why are you a humanist?
am I a humanist? I suppose it is probably the -ist tag I am closest to when I have to fill in any “what sort of -ist are you?” survey. The older I get, the more remarkable I find the idea of a self conscious, curious, imaginative being is. I think it is important for people to be aware of both the rarity of life in the universe, and therefore, the extreme rarity of self conscious life, at least so far (we haven’t looked too faraway yet).
What are the values and morals that guide your life?
I am fortunate in not being drawn to dogmas, so I think curiosity, doubt, and evidence are what i rely on, with the addition of empathy. The ability to imagine how other humans feel helps guide what I think may be right and wrong. I think i am probably approaching a utilitarian way of viewing things, but I can be malleable.
Where did they originate?
I can’t nail down the root of my beliefs and morals to any one thing. It is a combination of experience, reading, and staring out of train windows, at that point, my perpetual inner monologue plays a variety of debate shows for me. I try and work out why I believe what I believe. I presume that our existence is probably finite, so it is down to trying to think what to do to make the best of the time I am aware. I have found reading Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut always helps, plus some Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K Dick on the side.
How do they affect how you act in your personal life and work?
The main effect is probably the drive to find evidence, to cross reference, to scrutinise. I rarely believe a headline alone. I try to be looser in my opinions. I am less cocksure than I was.
Is there a particular book, person or something else that gives you your values?
it is a hotch potch, but the humanity of Vonnegut shines through, oh, and laurel and hardy film can help too
Can you give us an example of when you took a decision based on them?
Talking about death with my young son is influenced by this. Trying to comfort a six year old when they start to mull over the inevitability of death is tricky without recourse to myth, but I believe it is possible. I find the fact that we are, as Carl Sagan said, “starstuff, the stuff of us is the stuff of the stars,” both useful and beautiful. My opinions on same sex marriage, female genital mutilation, the gap between the richest and the poorest, are informed by evidence rather than commandments.
Did you have any sort or religious upbringing – if so, did you reject it and why?
I never rejected my Anglican upbringing, it just drifted off. Many of may ancestors were vicars, and like them I enjoy being in the pulpit, though I holler about Darwin and the LHC. The idea of a divine creator made less and less sense to me, and I became more comfortable living in a less certain universe.
Have people ever challenged you or disagreed with your beliefs?
Though I am only on the periphery of the public sphere, as I do shows about science and get asked to do questionnaires like this, and as the world wide web exists, then arguments ensue. When I did a benefit for the Brook, a charity that educates teenagers about sexual health, I got some flack from a few Catholics.
When I made a joke about JMW Turner, some artists took umbrage.
Homeopaths can be spiky. Animal rights campaigners can presume the title The Infinite Monkey Cage is a covert celebration of caging monkeys. Witches have sometimes hexed me on social media. You know, the usual humdrum stuff.
Do you think your views will ever change? Are you sure about them?
Of course my ideas and views will change. I would be unable to celebrate science if I sought certainty. Every year, you should be able to look back and mock the self you once were, then get ready to mock the human you are now. Certainty and rigor mortis are close relatives.
What do you believe in terms of what happens after death, and whether life has a ‘purpose’?
I believe that it is up to you to find the purpose. The evolved traits of empathy and altruism are wonderful and useful. After death, who knows. I view death as a spike to prick me into doing things while I am definitely alive. I see no decent evidence of an afterlife, I’ll find out and then the hauntings will begin.
We recently conducted a survey and found that most people think atheists can be just as moral as religious people – what is your view?
did you find your morality or were you given it? ethics and morality is best when it comes from thoughtfulness. If I make a joke, and it may be deemed dubious or offensive by some, I think hard as to whether I can justify it. Have I earned my right to often some. Most of the religious and faithless people I hang around with spend time in cafes pondering. We can ponder, it is useful and delightful to ponder, and this often leads to the most convincing arguments that come from thought not manifestos.
Most people also thought that religion can be harmful – do you agree?
I think dogma is harmful. utter certainty without debate, whether in a political creed or religious doctrine. Anything that burns books and ideas is suspect, heck, it’s more than suspect, it’s bunk.
There are many religious people in the top jobs in fields like politics, and religious bodies are huge, global institutions. What makes you think that they are wrong?
I don’t think it is healthy for the more fundamentalist elements of religion to be given priority due to their deity worship. I prefer my leaders to have no belief in an afterlife, it makes the desire to get it right in the here and now a little more urgent.
What atheists in public life do you admire?
I don’t think I admire people solely for their atheism. I think Richard Dawkins books are beautifully written. I love the work of Harlan Ellison. I enjoy the tapestries of Grayson Perry, the comedy of Josie Long, but their atheism is not my prime concern.
I think Andrew Copson is very good at presenting the secular position, and AC Grayling has great hair, of course.
What is your attitude to religion – e.g. do you look at religious artwork or appreciate religious buildings?
I don’t wear blinkers when walking by an abbey. I enjoy a good church, just as I enjoy a nice castle, though it doesn’t make me hanker for a return to feudalism. The churches had access to a great deal of money, so it was often a necessity of artists to relentlessly paint angels and immaculate conceptions. I appreciate cathedrals and cemetries without believing that deity belief was vital for art and creativity to swell.
Are there good things about religion? Which?
it is not religion itself that generates the good things, community, comradeship, altruism, and the rest can all be created without religion. Shared ideas can bind, what we have to make sure is that what binds us doesn’t strangle or blind us.
Sara Pascoe, Scroobius Pip, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Mary Beard are amongst our guests at this year’s Bloomsbury Christmas shows https://www.thebloomsbury.com/event/run/141215
I continue to tour – Exeter, Edinburgh, Berwick, London and on and on (USA and Australia too) http://www.robinince.com