Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People
Entering it's fifth year in 2012, our Christmas shows are becoming an institution. Curator Robin Ince explains the origins of our yuletide rationalist romp, and past performers Ricky Gervais, Simon Singh, Richard Herring, Natalie Haynes and Ben Goldacre with some seasonally inappropriate winterval witterings
This article ran as a preview to the original shows in 2008. In 2012 the show's had their 5-year anniversary. Follow us on Twitter (or read our blog) to stay up with plans for 2013
Comedian and organiser of the Nine Lessons shows
None of this would have been possible but for Stephen Green of Christian Voice.
Because I’m a non-believer, I get asked on to radio or TV shows to be the angry, snaggle-toothed atheist. Last year I was invited on a show to talk about whether Britain was becoming more secular, but by the time I arrived it had changed to “Who’s taking the Christ out of Christmas?” I got increasingly furious as Nick Ferrari and Vanessa Feltz passed off half-truths – and full-blown lies – about the way councils up and down the country were abandoning Christmas.
I said, “Actually I think Christmas is good, it’s nice to have some time for reflection,” and Stephen Green, who was in the audience, sat there saying, “I don’t think he does like Christmas, I don’t think he is happy with there being Christmas.”
So that was why I decided I would get together a 20-piece orchestra and a choir, and assorted atheist and agnostic comedians like Ricky Gervais and Phill Jupitus, and some scientists like Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Richard Dawkins.
Already people are annoyed, saying, “Oh, typical, you’re just having a go at Christians.” Well we’re not. When we say we’re having a Godless celebration, that means no god at all, from any religion.
Not one. It’s not about having a go at religion – it’s going to be a proper celebration; of the Big Bang, of evolution theory and of comedy. We will be visited by spirits, of course, through the help of a medium. The spirit will be the late great science broadcaster Carl Sagan, and the medium will be a DVD player.
Comedian, actor and writer
Fact is stranger than fiction. Well, it’s more interesting. Because it’s true. Nothing is stranger than the belief that an omnipotent, all-powerful being created the universe 5,000 years ago, and keeps an eye on everything but only gets involved in “mysterious ways”. That’s strange, granted. Unfortunately it’s not interesting because it’s bollocks. It’s fucking mental, to be honest. What’s strange and true is that there is a parasite that changes its stickleback host’s behaviour so the fish no longer flees a heron’s shadow, gets eaten and the parasite can complete its life cycle in a warm-blooded animal. Or that if you were to count, at a rate of one thing per second, everything that happened in your brain in just one second, it would take you 32 million years. That’s strange. And amazing. And beautiful. And true. And it all happened by accident. Or in mysterious ways, if you like.
Comedian, DJ and performance poet
“Science night, Non-holy night …” If only this was what we sang at the end of each calendar year. The fact that knowledge has evolved bit by bit over the years is somehow reassuring. The nature of the human mind is to question. And that is why I think we should be reminded of humanity’s great questions once a year in a festival that should be called “Quizmas”, or “?mas” as we’d write on our cards.
Science broadcaster and writer
It is worth contemplating that the atoms in our body were not forged in the furnace of the Big Bang, but were created within collapsing stars. The temperatures and pressures within dying stars triggered the nuclear reactions that cooked the simple hydrogen and helium into more complex atoms. In the final explosion, as the nuclear fusion reached its climax, these atoms were thrown across the universe and eventually became the iron in our blood and the calcium in our bones. In other words, we are literally stardust. Or, for the less romantically inclined, we are merely nuclear waste.
Musician, member of The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra
Christmas is, as we all know, named after Father Christmas and is thus founded on a childish falsehood. I celebrate the far more rational Xmas instead. But I will spend Xmas furious, as usual, at Hollywood’s disrespectful treatment of its historical figurehead: Father X. What could be more damningly anti-Xmas than Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of a helpless bald paraplegic in the reprehensibly ill-researched film X-men? Lazily capitalising on the success of his role as the leprosy-riddled Professor Christ in the Christ-Men movie franchise.
Comedian and writer
This Christmas I shall be celebrating the achievements of scientists. Because while religious books tell us of the miraculous things superbeings supposedly did hundreds of years ago, the miracles of science are all around us to see with our own eyes. Science has wiped out the diseases that Jesus cured in the occasional individual; science has made it possible for me to fly around the world, which not even the most arduous of praying could achieve; science has discovered DNA, enabling us to understand the complexities of evolution. I think I’d rather put my faith in scientists than in a man who died 2,000 years ago coming back to life and sorting it all out through magic.
I shall be celebrating Thomas Edison, for his discovery of how to record sound, so that now, 30 years after his death, I can still enjoy the genius of Jacques Brel. Even though it now turns out that maybe the first person to record sound was in fact Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, but everyone forgot him because his name is harder to remember.
Comedian and writer
This Christmas, I shall be thinking about girls, because the current generation of teenagers will be the first women not to face the prospect of cervical cancer. Unless their parents are such vicious bigots that they would choose to see their daughters die young as a twisted punishment for adolescent promiscuity, they’ll be inoculated against HPV, the virus that causes 70 per cent of cervical cancers. So hooray for them – I’ll be raising my glass to their healthy futures, and hoping that other cancer vaccinations follow quickly.
Comedian and writer
Someone recently asked me if being an atheist was a joyless experience. As though one cannot hope to enjoy the universe and all its myriad contents, colours, shapes and possibilities without believing it was thrown together in a week by a magic superbeing. Anyway, is it not far more joyless to slavishly attend church to avoid Hell, or cover yourself head to foot in a burkha? I like the idea that I live in a world that has been millions of years in the making, and that will exist millions of years after I’m gone. I only get to be a momentary part of it but this doesn’t make me feel so small and insignificant that I reach for a made-up meaning. It makes me grateful for the short window of life I’ve been granted and pushes me to make the most of every moment.
Singer and songwriter
This Christmas I will enjoy thinking about “chance” or, perhaps more accurately, probability. I was in a random restaurant with friends the other week and as we mentioned another mutual friend, he walked through the door. Everybody gasped at the wondrous coincidence, but chance is a deceptive beast. What about all the other times I mentioned my friend and he didn’t walk through the door? For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nothing particularly coincidental or spooky happens at all. Life isn’t stranger than fiction, it’s much, much duller. This comforts me because it means it’s up to me to make life interesting and I can do far better than a chance meeting in a curry house.
I never liked science class at all. But, then, you never got to play with a bunsen burner in RE. I’ve never wanted to know how magic tricks are done, so part of me probably always yearned to believe in something more than our puny selves. But on a practical level, I do enjoy the way bicarbonate of soda makes pigeons explode. And the way a Mentos mint expedites the release of carbon dioxide when dropped into a bottle of Fanta. So I’m unsure. So what? Galileo was a devout Roman Catholic.
Doctor and science writer
This Christmas I’m going to be thinking about what a magical and amazing place the world can be without any recourse to nonsense; that people can get pain relief simply from taking a sugar pill, or a salt-water injection; that we can have an almost psychic sense that a friend is in trouble, from barely perceptible unconscious social cues; that improbable things really do happen; and people really can meet, and fall in love, with a depth so great that it feels as if it was always meant to be. These are all things to be celebrated, because even if there is no destiny and no magic, the effects are still the same.