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Interview: Robin Ince

31 August 2012

'I'll let someone else take care of the spiritual stuff'


It's important to dispel the media- grown myth that there is some battle between atheists and Christians in the UK. There are some idiots and crazed dogmatists, but, overall, I think we get on OK. So I come to Greenbelt to see the common ground.

The problem with many debates between atheists and the religious is that they are often designed to create drama through conflict rather than any form of enlightenment through discussion. As I say in my blog, most Christians I know are well-read, and not just the Hamlyn Colour Bible and Cliff Richard autobiographies types. They have read about Darwin, Bohr, Mendeleev . . . yet they still have their Christian faith. Some Christians have found a method of living in a world which is scientific but still finds room for a god. I know idiot atheists and smart vicars (and idiot vicars and smart atheists, too).

I play to such a mix of people when I tour, in terms of age, employment, and so on; but the one thing that normally marks them out is an open-mindedness to ideas; so the Greenbelt audience is not that different.

Dare to reason - those are probably the only three words of Kant I've read and understood. I think I'm an evangelist for people using their own reason, for not being led by others, or ruling their lives through dogma.

I never edit myself in terms of opinion, just in terms of interest. When I'm in schools, for instance, I do more about the Big Bang than political themes. But there's nothing I'd hold back from saying just because it would annoy people. My intention is not to annoy people: I just want to talk about what I'm most passionate about. Some of that might annoy people. . .

I'm very angry about the anti-vaccination movement, because they're putting lives at risk, and we're always seeing the evidence. You only have to look at the mortality rates to see what a difference vaccinations make.

I don't believe in an after-life; so I think we should be striving towards as many people living as long and happy a life as possible. I'll let someone else take care of the spiritual stuff.

I try to watch myself methodically, and never put people into a herd. In terms of God, my lack of belief in that as an idea hasn't changed in a long time, though my approach to what it means to be godless probably has. The more I think about it, the more I think it's about how to live in the world when you don't believe in God. It's entirely my responsibility what I do - there's nothing to fall back on, nothing to blame.

I was discussing this on a show with A. C. Grayling, who talked about godlessness as realising you have responsibility. There's no grand plan, no one to turn to. Responsibility and morality are your decisions.

It's liberating: you don't have to wait for someone else to do things for you. The guy who runs my website is an Evangelical Christian, and he told me about something he did that was morally right, and said it was because God was in his life. But maybe he's just good? I remember a nun who had done some great work saying that God led her there; but she might just be good.

What about the things I do that are bad? I think we are attuned to making the right decisions, analysing, thinking . . . if we battle against herd-mentality, gangs, groups. We need the freedom to think for ourselves, open things up. I'm intrigued, for instance, about the reaction to the Julian Assange case. We have to ask if we're having the same ethical rules now for people who differ from us politically.

When someone says they are a Christian, it is much like someone saying they are a vegetarian. I know one thing about them, but that's far from enough for me to judge who or what they are. I don't really have a view of Christians in general. There are some noisy, unpleasant, venal groups who thrive in the media, but I don't think they represent most UK Christians, at least in my experience.

I'm always impressed when I watch Milton Jones perform.

I am depressed to see some of the very unenlightened debates around homosexuality. People say homosexuality degrades marriage. How? Think it through.

And I am always depressed by someone who clings to a very specific dogma to excuse their hatred of groups of people, but then ignores instructions a few pages on in the Bible because it's not relevant to their bigotry. Richard Coles is classical example of an Anglican vicar thinking with an open mind.

I love recording The Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox and our fabulous producer Sasha. It is a joy, but a frequently terrifying one: to perform live and enthuse about what I love, and shake my fist at what I wish was different.

I probably wanted to be famous and all over TV when I started. Fortunately, my ambition was wrong. The life and career I have now is very exciting. I work with a variety of people on projects that are frequently ridiculous, and make a living doing what I want and am in almost total control - however idiotic my projects may seem.

There is no alternative career path. I do this because I must. If they refuse to let me continue, I presume I'll open a second-hand bookshop.

The wonderful thing about science as your subject-matter is that it includes everything in the known universe, and conjecture about the unknowns. If I can't get a gag about sub-atomic particles to work, then I turn to the behaviour of the Komodo dragon.

I'm not in any way a scientist. I did very well till I was 13 and changed schools. I just couldn't grasp physics. I did my O levels all right, but then it was really arts and politics until in my mid-20s. I started to read scepticism - Carl Sagan, The Demon-haunted World - and returned to the childhood television series that I grew up with, my memories of being ten or 11, and watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I try to theme my work round those ideas.

Science has become lots of schooling in equations, and ideas that don't seem to have any connection with the world we live in. You parrot things that are taught to you, without understanding. But once you get into Darwin and evolution, for instance, it's a fantastic adventure, because every creature you look at, you think, "how did it get to be best mutant in the battle of survival so far?" The world of biology and chemistry is not so difficult, not counter-instinctual like physics.

The humour and joy of physics is the ridiculousness of it. In parallel worlds, you never ended up working for the CT, and we're not having this conversation.

It's difficult, and that's why people are so scared. But it's the world we experience. Being open-minded, being interested. . . it's a great journey, and there's no end to it. We'll never run out of questions.

Being wary of certainties: that's the greatest battle for human beings. In climate-change debates, people say: "Well, even the scientists aren't sure." But that's the point. They never are sure. They are always trying to build up the least-wrong picture of the universe. The danger of religious belief is when it gets in the way of evidence-based thinking, like denying a child a blood transfusion.

Concerning regrets, I have done many things wrong. I have wasted my time, and will waste it again. The list is long; so I don't read it back to myself.

My best decision was doing a show in Edinburgh: it was something of a disaster, and ended up with me punching a melon while singing "Mustang Sally". Its failure allowed me to follow Samuel Beckett's advice and fail better. I lost much of my fear of risk, and also lost my belief that television was a vital destination.

Heroes? Josie Long, Billy Connolly, Laurel and Hardy, Michael Legge, Steve Merchant, Joanna Neary. . . There are many.

Favourite books are anything by Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Kurt Vonnegut, Franz Kafka, and the giant-killer-crabs novels of Guy N. Smith.

Though I don't feel that there is any one part of the Bible that has stayed with me, I always enjoy listening to the New Testament when read by Johnny Cash - a fabulous and very long recording.

My favourite place is sitting on a train, looking out at the sea between Exeter and Newton Abbot.

I would hope I'd pray for an increasing realisation that wealth is not the mark of success.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with Alan Moore, a wonderful writer and man, whose voice would reverberate beautifully around the pews as he told me of the legends of Northampton, and the ideas he had of time and the universe.

Robin Ince was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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