Walking through Brighton city centre earlier this year, I passed a group of Christian preachers. A few of them were taking it in turns making short speeches about their religious views so I stopped and listened. At one point, a guy said
“If you believe in evolution, that means you think life is meaningless; that you’re born, you live and you die and that’s it”
I wanted to respond there and then and say this was not true. More importantly, I wanted to tell the other listeners that he was not speaking for me when he made this assertion. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to cause a scene.
I thought an interesting way of responding to this guy and to his audience might be to do my own street-preaching. I have been watching a group of Plymouth Brethren who preach near where I work most lunchtimes. They are quiet, unassuming people and I have a certain respect for having the courage to get up in public and preach their message. I profoundly disagree with the content of it, but I like living in a country where such things can be said in public if people wish to.
If these quiet guys had the courage to preach that sort of message in public for a few minutes, did I have the courage to do it myself?
I set about preparing a speech that focused entirely on positively explaining why I am very happy to be an atheist, without resorting to the religion-bashing we so often see atheists indulging in.
Atheists have a reputation for angrily fighting religion and while there is a place for that, I do not want that attitude to have any place in my street-preaching. Rather than telling people what they must do and what they should think, I want only to tell them what I think and how my atheist, humanist views are a source of meaning for my life.
But we hate street-preachers!
All over the country, religious preachers are telling people that atheists have no meaning in life and in response the atheists grumble amongst themselves. Meanwhile, the street preachers go on preaching, doing their bit towards fostering an environment where atheists are seen as the negative, grumpy ones.
I do not expect atheist street-preaching to be the sole way that we change the world’s view of atheists, but it is a battleground almost entirely neglected by us so far and all the while we choose not to engage in this forum, we are ceding it to those who misrepresent us.
Street preaching is synonymous with intrusive statements about how sinful we are and how the only way to guarantee eternal life is to give yourself to some religion or other. But what if street-preaching could become something we no longer mind encountering? What if the messages preached were ones that added to a sense of how great we all are?
We tend to like it when a busker plays a song we love and I think that preaching a message of scientific wonder could be enjoyed in the same way. Street-preaching could be another medium for artistic expression, to be ignored, listened to and perhaps even responded to. I’d love to return from a lunch hour having heard something positive, real and life-affirming rather than having been told I am doomed to hell.
Street-preaching won’t change itself just because we wish it was better. The only way we can improve it is to do it ourselves.
What is the point of this stunt?
One person doing this is clearly not enough, so I think it would be good to copy the Plymouth Brethren’s model, which is this:
1. A group of 4 or 5 people get together.
2. Each one speaks for about 3 minutes.
3. No signs, no props, no amplification.
4. They go away.
In total, the group will give about 12-15 minutes of speeches, short and concise and then they leave.
What I would really like is for groups of a few atheists to get together and give 15 minutes of short talks. Having a bit of support really helps.
I know that I can’t demand that atheists say or don’t say certain things, but here are the restrictions I placed upon myself in a bid to make the speech a completely positive event.
1. Don’t slag off religions. Ideally, don’t even use the word God.
2. Give an account of the positive aspects of atheism from your own perspective.
3. Don’t use the standard, glib atheist catchphrases. Use your own words.
4. Don’t instigate any form of confrontation. Be passive in the face of heckling.
Secular humanism has plenty to offer people without just going over the old arguments about why we don’t like religions. We can have those arguments elsewhere. When it comes to preaching in the street we must not end up causing confrontations or criticising the philosophies of others. I think those methods are not only fruitless, but unnecessary. Let’s provide an alternative to religion, not just criticism of it.
To keep it all above board, contact your local council and see what their bylaws are. Brighton and Hove City Council sent me a copy of their Buskers Guidelines and said I had to abide by them. They also advised me to contact the Police, which I did. the police took my name and address and gave me a serial number so that if they had any complaints they knew who to call on.
(One of the interesting Brighton bylaws for buskers is that if anybody should ask you to stop, you must stop. If you refuse, you are breaching the bylaw. I don’t mind this as it encourages preachers to be utterly passive. If someone had asked me to stop, I would have. And then I would have blogged about it.)
Scripts – the deal
Feel free to use my script if you like, or come up with one of your own. I’d really like to build up a collection of all the positive atheism/humanism speeches that are done, so that new preachers can choose from them if they want to.
I will gladly post your script here, but only if it meets these criteria:
1. It is completely positive.
2. You have given the speech in public.
I don’t want to collect any old scripts – I only want those that have actually been delivered by brave atheist street-preachers. If your speech is just an anti-religion rant, I’m not interested.
Here’s the script I used as a basis of my talk (and which I clearly fluffed quite a bit).
A few months ago, I heard a preacher, here, say that “If you believe in evolution, you think life is meaningless. You believe you’re born, you live and you die and that’s it”. Now I happen to believe evolution is true and I was a little frustrated that he thought that meant I thought life was meaningless. I said nothing at the time, but I decided to respond to his message in the same way he gave it.
If you don’t listen to me and don’t agree with me, nothing bad will happen to you. Feel free to ignore me!
Hearing the assumptions of this preacher and knowing they were inaccurate, I wondered if perhaps a little humility was in order.
There are so many different ways of looking at the world and our place in it, and one thing we can all agree on is that all the different views can’t be right. In fact you could even say that most of our ideas about how the world works aren’t quite right.
We see the differences we have all too clearly, but I believe that if we are to make any progress, we need to remind ourselves about the things we all agree upon. I don’t expect to change anyone’s minds about where the universe came from, but I do believe that if we look hard enough at reality, we can all agree on what it consists of, whatever religion we are from.
The way we explore and describe what reality consists of is science. Ignore the idea that science is opposed to religion. Science belongs to all of us, whether we have faith or we don’t. Believers and atheists, using science and a bit of humility, can certainly agree on what reality consists of.
But is reality enough? Once we all agree on what does exist, where do we go from there? If we use science to describe what we are and where we are, are we reduced to mere clumps of matter, of atoms?
I would say there is nothing mere about human life, human consciousness.
If you look out into the night sky, you can see vast numbers of gigantic objects. Beautiful stars, all going about their spectacularly huge, significant business. Stars may be huge, really really huge but they are dead. They don’t even know they are there. They really are just mere matter.
If you could ask all their component atoms where they would rather be, they would, I believe choose to be in a living creature than in a dead star. If you take all the atoms in the entire universe and look at where they end up, you will see that the proportion that end up in a sentient brain is tiny. The proportion that end up in human brains is even smaller.
The rarest and most valuable thing this universe has to offer any of its atoms is one lifetime of consciousness. One life. Just by simply being alive, we are jackpot winners in a cosmic lottery. Every atom in the universe enters this lottery and the winning atoms are the ones that are here, inside our heads.
Life is finite but for me that only adds to its value. I love humans but surely only humans could win the greatest prize in the known universe and then hope there’s more, and that life might be eternal. We’ve already won!
And surely, only humans could find themselves inhabiting the most elegantly sophisticated object in the known universe and then not feel special and have to make up stories so that we do. The stars would be jealous of us if they only could feel anything.
Yes I am an atheist. Yes I believe evolution is real. My short little life is special and you are all almost miraculously special too.
Thanks to Robert Stovold for filming, Matt Faulkner for working miracles with the sound, Stephen Lamprell and David James for photos and Lawrence Pearce for coming to watch.