Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pat Condell, militant atheist

All hail Gord of Eclexys for alerting me to the existence of British stand-up comedian Pat Condell, an outspoken atheist who has been uploading video after video to YouTube, and has been garnering hundreds of thousands of visits per video (more about him here).

Condell is down on religion, especially in its fundie and/or violently militant forms; he also sees the UK as America's lapdog and is an avid Bush-hater, primarily because of Bush's born-again religiosity. Condell spends several videos dealing with charges of racism because of his very un-PC opinions about the Muslim presence in Europe. In a video scolding polite atheists, he talks about the need to be uncivil and polemical in order to undo the damage being done by religion.

His videos are smoothly executed affairs, with nary a stutter, stumble, or "um." I assume he's reading his words off a prompter, but can't be sure of this: his delivery is quite smooth, and he appears to be looking straight into the camera. Has he, perhaps, memorized his monologues?

As a nontheist and not a classical theist, I find I'm not all that bothered* by Condell's diatribes (and make no mistake: that's what they are), though I do sense he hasn't completely fleshed out his position on certain matters. On the one hand, he claims to have no problem with most religions as long as they're practiced privately and not foisted upon the public; on the other, it seems quite obvious that he does have major problems with the belief systems he derides, and not merely the fundie/militant strains of those systems.

Go watch Condell rant and rave at his YouTube page. The video that got him in some trouble is here (1); his response to Berkeleyan outrage at his video is here (2); the video that has most impressed me thus far is here (3), but the video that made me laugh the most is here (4).

*Condell actually takes time to point out that sincere religious practitioners shouldn't be so petty as to be bothered by him.



  1. Kevin,

    Glad to be of service.

    I think the "I have no problems with mainstream religion" statement along with the apparent deep problems with religion in general works like this:

    To your average atheist, all religions look like ridiculous pyramid schemes. I don't know many atheists who don't have problems with religion on the level of, "They actually believe this stuff?" And after all, why is all this death & resurrection stuff any less ridiculous than the galactic wars at the apex of Scientology? To the atheist, there's no reason to think it isn't... it's just more popular, is all.

    But the atheist has to live in the world, and values his own freedom from religion. Most atheists would not call for the imposition of an all-atheist regime, because not only would it fail -- as it has in several places -- but it also smacks of the fundamentalisms that most annoy atheists.

    But in day-to-day life (or even marriage) an atheist is surrounded by believers, and in day-to-day life, pointing out, "You believe in magic miraculous zombie-gods from heaven! That's crazy!" or "You believe in an invisible friend! How ridiculous!" or "You believe in magical underwear and your own ability to become a demigod! That's nuts!" just antagonizes the natives. (Of earth.)

    So one says, "I have no problem with religion practiced in the privacy of your home," hoping for a mutual, "I have no problem with atheism practiced in the privacy of your own home," because if everyone reciprocates, what we get is a secular society where everyone's free to practice (or not practice, or mock) whatever religion he or she chooses, and free to impose it on nobody.

    In other words, one of those is a philosophical statement, and the other is a statement of willingness to be tolerant in polite society as long as religionists are likewise tolerant. Or am I misreading him?

  2. I haven't watched all of Condell's videos yet (though I think I've seen about two-thirds of them), but I think you're reading him right. The problem is that he'll make statements like "Nothing could be further from the truth-- I have no problem with Islam!" in one video, then in another video he'll talk about how monotheistic belief is a form of insanity, which would seem to indicate that he does indeed have problems with Islam (and Christianity, Judaism, etc.).

    I have some disagreements with him insofar as he often tends to mischaracterize the internal realities of the religious practitioner (his video on the nature of faith, for example, was just flat wrong); his critiques would hit a lot harder if he studied these religions in greater detail. His one jab at Buddhism wasn't even a jab: "A religion with no god? That's like a prison without a cage!" (or something to that effect).

    Not to say he doesn't hit where it hurts, especially for Christians and Muslims. The responses to his videos are ample proof that plenty of theists have been sufficiently provoked, and he's done a good job of proving the point he's been trying to make re: how religion can poison one's psychology.

    I also appreciate the occasional conciliatory gesture he makes when he grants that religion and its scriptures are at their best when they're about true self-improvement and the promotion of peace. He and I stand in perfect agreement on that point.

    But on the metaphysical level, Condell is going to have to deal with the same problem that plagues religionists: having a specific metaphysical position means believing certain hegemonic truth claims. As the analytical philosophers note, there's no such thing as relative truth: when something is true, it's not merely "true for me" or "true for you"-- it's simply true. An apodictic truth like 2+2=4 is one example of this; the proposition "George Bush is currently president of the US" is another. These truths aren't merely "true for me"-- they're brute facts. By the same token, "religion is bullshit" is, if Condell seriously believes the claim, not merely true for Condell, but for believers as well.

    And that's the bind I think Condell is in: sincere belief in the proposition that "religion is bullshit" requires, if the belief is to be meaningful, action-- and sincere action cannot be contained merely within the private sphere. I wrote about this recently from the religious point of view: the idea of a separation of church and state is a good one, one I happen to agree with, but one's religious views are meant to apply not merely to one's private life but also to one's public conduct. In practice, then, one cannot expect religion to be removed totally from the public sphere, and Condell should recognize that his metaphysical position puts him in the same quandary: it would be more honest for him to stop insisting he has no problem with the quieter religious folks, and simply to declare that he has a problem with all religious folks.

    In a sense, this is what Condell is doing by vlogging: he's making a public declaration about what he sees as the insanity of religious belief and the cynical hoodwinking of the masses (a point made a bit more subtly, but no less clearly, by Carl Sagan). But I'm not convinced that Condell has ironed out his approach. He needs to stop making untrue statements like "I have no problem with Islam."


    PS: There's a good chance that I'm misreading him here: it could be that, during those moments when he's making such "I have no problem with X" declarations, he's being subtly sarcastic in a manner to which we Yanks are often deaf.

  3. To go off on a complete tangent, you wondered whether Condell was reading off a prompter or not because he seemed to be looking straight into the camera. The way teleprompters work is that they put a one-way mirror at a 45-degree angle in front of the camera and project the text onto it from below. The camera shoots through the mirror no problem, but the person looking at the camera is actually reading the text.

    That being said, I doubt this is what Condell is doing, because I don't know how common such teleprompters are outside of television studios, and it looks like his videos are shot more or less privately. But it is an interesting thing to know and explains how Bush can look into a camera and complete an entire sentence without looking away.

    And on another tangent: are we ever going to see pics of the Brazilian meatfest? Or at least a drool-inducing description of all that lovely meat?

  4. C,

    re: meatfest

    I've been remiss and need to slap some pics up.

    re: teleprompter

    It occurs to me that, as a stand-up comic, Condell is probably used to memorizing his material, and even if he doesn't recite it all perfectly, he's doubtless learned how to ad lib in a smooth manner.


  5. Yeah, that does sound more likely.

    Looking forward to the pics.



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