Review: Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

 Designed to raise money for the Mustard Seed school in Uganda, and billed as "a Rational Celebration of Christmas", this show at the Bloomsbury Theatre on 19 December, was inspired by a disagreement between atheist comedian Robin Ince and Stephen Green of Christian Voice. The latter appeared not to understand how Ince could enjoy or approve of Christmas, but Ince wished to prove that he does enjoy the season of "laziness, alcoholism and regret". Originally scheduled to be a one-off event, high ticket demand meant that it ran for two nights at the Bloomsbury Theatre before transferring to the Hammersmith Apollo for a third night.

All performers gave their services for free, and while there were semi-serious contributions from Richard Dawkins and Simon Singh, and the show was bookended with extracts from Carl Sagan's classic Cosmos, this was primarily a comedy showcase. That much of the material was of a remarkably high quality, being both genuinely funny and intelligent was in part due to the high profile of some of the performers involved. These included Stewart Lee, Phil Jupitus, Mark Thomas and Ricky Gervais. The digs at religion and Catholicism in particular were for the most part cheeky rather than bruising or blasphemous with ire more being focused on Christian commentators such as Stephen Green and Ann Coulter, author of Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

The event was, however, as much about debunking bad science and extolling the poetry of good science. An example of the former was the French documentary March of the Penguins, heralded by some Christian fundamentalists as a repudiation of Darwinism. On the other hand, Simon Singh, author of Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About it, recounted how he had corrected a scientific anomaly in the lyrics to "Nine Million Bicycles" by Katie Melua, and how she had, as a consequence, subsequently recorded a scientifically correct version.

Running to an epic 3_ hours (including one interval), there was no question that the event represented value for money, yet those seeking a clearer understanding of the New Atheism might well have been slightly disappointed that there had not been more room for seriousness. Richard Dawkins's essay on "gerinoil", an anagram of religion, was principally a regurgitation of his arguments from The God Delusion but one sensed that it was also a futile attempt to prove that he could match his fellow performers for humour and quirkiness. Ironically his description of the majesty of the night sky, from Unweaving the Rainbow, had a beauty affecting to believers and non-believers alike, and emerged as a highlight of the evening.

Sold out debates with figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have shown that there is a craving for a respectful dialogue between the forces of spirituality and secularism. Yet the slightly confused nature of Nine Lessons was highlighted by an after show stall selling "Godless" tee-shirts, stand-up comedy DVDs and high-minded books on science. Personally I would welcome a follow-up event next Christmas but I hope that the organisers have the courage to be a little more serious, even if this entails causing more actual offence to those of a religious disposition.

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