Thursday, 12 April 2012

Explain Love You Atheist Bastard

You’ll be familiar with this situation. Sometime after the event, perhaps whilst on the drive home, you’re mulling over the conversation in your head. At the time you didn’t have a good answer to that unexpected question. You hesitated, you floundered, perhaps you went off on a bit of tangent, but now that you’ve had time to think about it, you now know what you should have said. After five mental iterations of the conversation you have honed your answer. Now you have a clever, profound and witty riposte. If only you had thought at the time to call him a bellend and tell him to fuck off. But the moment has passed. The opportunity is lost.

Three years ago I packed my son and daughter off on a summer camp. Camp Quest was the UK’s first summer camp that openly promoted a rational worldview. In addition to the normal camping activities there were sessions on philosophy and critical thinking. The media jumped on the story, relabelled it as an Atheist Summer Camp and found a way to connect it to the ever popular Richard Dawkins. In addition to deftly fielding the unnecessary and arbitrary media interest herself the camp director also asked if any of the parents would be prepared to talk to the media. I put my best foot forward.

I did a short interview for the BBC World Service, the local BBC TV evening news and a local radio phone-in show with a rather pious Anne Diamond. I also got asked to pop into Broadcasting House to record a piece for the Radio 4 Sunday morning religious slot with Roger Bolton. The interview went quite well, Roger was a very likable host and I think presented a reasonable and balanced overview of the camp. He did however catch me slightly unawares with a perennial poser that I really should have anticipated. I’m not quite sure why I happened to be thinking about it again this morning, but only three years late, I have finally composed my rejoinder.

After establishing my lack of belief and my preference for more rational and scientific explanations I was posed the familiar question of how I explain love. An emotion so overwhelming that its explanation transcends the ability of mere science to explain or even comprehend. Leading to the only possible conclusion that love is evidence of some divine power beyond the realms of human logic. I’m sure there’s also an unspoken implication in the question. By daring me to reduce the appreciation of art or even love itself to a series of mere electrical impulses or chemical reactions I would demean the whole experience. By denying the unexplainable spiritual nature of such experiences I would somehow lessen them. Perhaps it’s even assumed that such cold rational reasoning has rendered me incapable of experiencing love with the same intensity of the faithful. If such an implication exists, I object to it.

Time to wheel in the analogy. I’m sure it must have been made before, but it’s only just occurred to me…

I do like a nice magic trick. When Penn & Teller or Derren Brown perform some inexplicable feat of magic that appears to contradict the fundamental physical laws of the universe, I am suitably impressed. I am suitably impressed despite realising that rather than actually breaking the fundamental physical laws of the universe the magicians have simply tricked me. Indeed appreciating the skilled sleight of hand or the ingenuity, planning, practise and banal ground work that is required in order to achieve an effect that I cannot easily explain, is actually more impressive than a naive belief in magic. Removing the irrational belief in magic has not cheapened the trick, on the contrary it has forced me to consider more complex, fascinating and ultimately, more truthful mechanisms. I invariably fail to conclude the exact method of the trick, but there is no doubt that it is a trick. The more you understand the magician’s techniques, the more impressed you tend to be by a really good trick. Nature can pull of some pretty neat tricks too, and love is certainly one of it’s better ones, trying to understand it in biological terms will inevitably add more awe and wonder to it than indiscriminately crediting it to an supernatural force. I may still have failed to answer what love actually is, but I shan’t be cajoled into thinking that when science eventually works it, it will be in anyway diminished.

So I’ve committed these thoughts to memory just in case. In the unlikely event I am ever asked back on the Ann Diamond show and am posed once more with Roger’s tiresome love quandary, I shall be ready with my prepared retort: “Fuck off Anne, you bellend.”

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