How did you find out about online freethought communities, and what’s your favourite thing about them?
Well, it was more of a drift than a discovery… I’ve been involved since sometime in 2000. I think you can blame Richard Dawkins for my online presence. Quite by chance, I got into an email discussion with my first ever pet creationist. I did alright at first, but despite a heap of pop science books, I felt a little out of my depth. So, with no internet to turn to in those days, I wrote to Dawkins, sending copies of the correspondence, a sort of ‘Help! I’m not sure what I’m doing!’ plea. And within a week I got an amazingly supportive and helpful reply, including: “People like [name] sound like they know what they are talking about, but they don’t. You do.”
My wife is heartily sick of me telling her “Richard Dawkins says I know what I’m talking about.”
Anyway, the good Professor also pointed me towards Talk Origins… and Internet Infidels. At about that time, we also went proper-internet. So, I found IIDB, used my replies to my pet creotard as the basis of some early posts (my Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes started as an email), and the rest, as they say, is history. And what a community IIDB was! So many great, intelligent and well-read people! Single Dad, Doubting Didymus, Pantera, Queen of Swords…
The thing with these communities is that you get to interact with people who, you know, use their brains. Who may well talk about the latest episode of bleedin’ Coronation Street like the bozos here at work, but who can also dismantle theist arguments with their eyes closed, and know the difference between Emmerdale and Eusthenopteron. In a word [sic], it’s mentally exhilarating and fun.
What board or fora are we most likely to find you in and what will you be talking about?
Talk Rational, which knocks all previous fora I’ve been involved in into a cocked hat, at least, latterly. And I’ll be talking about… evolution, probably, or something on the news, or playing some sort of word game. Which, incidentally, with mainlines being wild, requires the inevitable mandragoran skiffle: Parsons Green. Two blue tokens, and putting Octavia in knip.
If you had to spend your life marooned on a tropical island with three people that you’ve met online from this community, who would they be, and why?
Three? Not fair. It’s made even trickier by having met quite a few for real, so it’s tempting to pick from Jet Black, Febble, Per Ahlberg, Martin B, Don Alhambra, Nialler, Missus Gumby, David B, DMB, Amen Moses, Luis Garcia…
Okay, people I’ve not met: Boro Nut for the laughs; RBH for chat and general goodwill, and Matty for beer-sodden evenings. Apologies to the several dozen others.
Actually, as it’s ‘spend your life’, it should be Matty (knows about fishing, which would be useful), and any two females of breeding age. It’s a Darwinian imperative. No point trying to rise above your genes’ tyranny when there’s a population of four.
Which freethought or humanist thinkers have most inspired you?
Richard Dawkins, Richard Dawkins and, um, Richard Dawkins. I read Selfish Gene in about ’85, back when it was his only book, Blind Watchmaker as soon as it hit paperback. His objects of focus over time have mirrored my own, from evolution, then pseudoscience and the wonder of science, and latterly that ultimate steaming pile of nonsense, god.
Also, James Randi for Flim-Flam! and philosopher Jamie Whyte, for his marvellous (and hilarious) introduction to logical fallacies, Bad Thoughts, which made me realise that philosophy isn’t all navel-gazing.
What’s your least favourite religious verse, and why?
William Cowper’s The Christian. Mephitic bollocks: “The noblest creature seen below, / Ordain’d to fill a throne above; / God gives him all He can bestow, / His kingdom of eternal love!”
Oh, I see. Well, all the stuff that ought to be least favourite, because it’s so hideous, I really like, as it’s so useful. But, probably the positively barmy (especially because of what it comes after) very last verse of the bible: Revelation 22:21, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.” What a load of old toss.
If you could get rid of one stupid anti-freethought argument, what would it be? Why do you hate this one above all the rest?
The argument from design. Because it is so superficially plausible, but actually, so monumentally ignorant (not to mention self-defeating). Though a close-run thing between that and the old ‘you can’t be good without god’, spy-in-the-sky morality malarkey.
Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster?
Is that a Pascal’s Wager question? Quetzalcoatl. Though, on balance, probably the FSM. In a toss-up between the ineffable and the edible, I choose the one with the nicer sauce. That’s where the Christians went wrong, you know. Wafer, when you could have bolognese?
So what is it you do with your life when you’re not hanging around here, anyway?
For fun, there’s books: I collect Jamesian ghost stories, and pop science, and whatever comes to hand… music: classical, especially early piano recordings (there was a god, and his name was Simon Barere), ‘classic rock’, folk, general pop-ish radio fodder, but above all, Richard Thompson (pbuh)… TV, of course, with House, Shark and Doctor Who being the three things at the moment that just have to be recorded… DVD: many a good horror. And I’m well into another Open University science short course, this time astronomy.
For money: anything. But in practice, it’s sitting in an office, moving electronic and real pieces of paper around.
What’s your favourite book, and why?
*sigh* Another impossible question. Just one, when I’ve got about 4,000 at home at last count? (I’ve even read some of them…) Nope, I refuse to play. You may have gathered I don’t ‘do’ imposed rules!
For fiction, it’d be a three-way tie between Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (so funny, so clever), Pullman’s His Dark Materials (just wow), and a Terry Pratchett, perhaps Wyrd Sisters (for the Macbeth take-offs). Or Nineteen Eighty-Four (needs no introduction). Or Love in the Time of Cholera (one long shaggy dog story). Or The Wasp Factory (gigglesome, plus one of the best horror sequences I’ve read. Teaspoon). Or Michel Faber’s fascinating Under the Skin (dark satire, completely gripping, and would turn a lesser man than I to vegetarianism). Or…
For non-fiction: apart from Dawkins and co, probably Nathaniel Philbrick’s utterly brilliant In the Heart of the Sea. Not my usual fare, but an amazing read. It’s about the wrecking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex by a disgruntled (or possibly randy) sperm whale, the historical basis for Moby Dick. But that is the central action set-piece around which Philbrick weaves the history of whaling, the economics of nineteenth-century Nantucket and of spermaceti, the biology of whales, life on the ocean waves, the effects of starvation and dehydration on the human body, cannibalism, maritime navigation… all wrapped up in elegant, completely gripping prose. Read it.
What’s the most embarrassing song you sing and dance to when you’re absolutely sure no-one else is around?
Given my singing and dancing, all of them. Though I do have a tendency to go all air-guitar, and intricately whistle the guitar solos, for many a Dire Straits song. The live version of Sultans of Swing especially.
What’s the one thing you want to do with your life before shuffling off this mortal coil?
Enjoy it, moment to moment. I’m mainly succeeding. And I’d like to see the aurora (and try to catch a glimpse of Cittàgazze).
What’s your poison? How much of it is needed to drive you under the table?
Hydrogen cyanide, and about 300 mg per cubic metre. *Ahem*… any decent, not too hoppy real ale; white wine, and about two bottles; or simply Bacardi and coke. Stone’s ginger wine and any old Scotch at Christmas.
Lucky #13: Who do you nominate to be interviewed for next month’s issue?
Hmmm. Per Ahlberg, I think.
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