[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/52190?ns=guardian&pageName=Christmas+comedy+for+non-believers%3AArticle%3A1314193&ch=Culture&c3=Obs&c4=Culture+section%2CComedy+live+%28Stage%29&c6=Stephanie+Merritt&c7=09-Dec-07&c8=1314193&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Culture&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FCulture%2FComedy[/img]Robin Ince's alternative festive show celebrates a sense of wonder and free speech
If you're not inclined to rejoice in the miracle of a virgin birth this Christmas, perhaps you'd like to celebrate the miracle of quantum mechanics or evolutionary theory, with a bit of a sing-along and some jokes? Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People is a remarkable variety show giving non-religious people a chance to laugh, sing and renew their sense of wonder about the universe with eminent scientists, comedians and musicians. It is not, says comedian Robin Ince, who created and hosted the first sell-out run last year, an exercise in antagonising believers.
"The agenda is first and foremost to make people leave feeling really excited, thinking 'I didn't know that about the universe!'," he explains. "There are enough people talking about atheism at the moment and that's not what the show's about. People think the title is saying there's no God – it isn't at all. The reason for the word 'Godless' is just to say, 'you want a celebration but you don't believe in religion? Well, here's a celebration for you.'"
Despite his conciliatory tone, the show was born out of confrontation, when Ince found himself on a television debate with Stephen Green, spokesman for Christian Voice, which had campaigned against Stewart Lee's show, Jerry Springer The Opera. "To everything I said, [Green] just kept saying 'you want to ban Christmas'," Ince says. "So I thought, 'right – I'm going to put on a celebratory event for people who like Christmas but may not go to church because they don't believe those things.' The only thing that will make people give up the comfort blanket of mysticism is by showing them wonder."
Ince enlisted a host of like-minded contributors, including provocative professor Richard Dawkins, comedian Dara O'Briain, who has a background in theoretical physics and, last year, Jarvis Cocker. "If the Royal Variety Show was put in a matter transportation machine with the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, this is what you'd get," he says happily.
This year's line-up includes Dawkins alongside comedians such as Al Murray, Josie Long and Chris Addison, as well as Bad Science author Ben Goldacre and scientist Simon Singh. But underlying the fun is a more serious point about free speech. Comedians and scientists alike are increasingly subject to censorship; there is a climate of fear of offending belief groups of all stripes – what Ince calls "the voice of anti-science". Live performance allows greater freedom of expression, but it also creates a sense of affinity.
Simon Singh is currently fighting a high-profile libel case against the British Chiropractic Association. "To some extent we are preaching to the converted," he says, "people who are already passionately curious about the universe and science. But such people are in a minority, so hopefully being together for a celebration of science will be an invigorating experience."
For Dara O'Briain, it's a chance to indulge his inner nerd with a like-minded audience. "Last year I opened by saying, 'I bet if I shouted out E to the I Pi equals… you'd know the answer', and people shouted back, 'Minus one!' Now, that's my kind of crowd."
Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People is at Bloomsbury theatre, London WC1, 15-19 Dec and Hammersmith Apollo, London W6, 20 Dec. Part of proceeds go to Mustard Seed secular school in Uganda.
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Guardian: Christmas comedy for non-believers
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