Interview with writer and director Daniel Johnson about his new film ‘Side By Side’

Before I’m able to get the first question in, Daniel has already asked me about my IM screen name. As I embarrassingly begin to explain its connection to my childhood his internet connection is lost. This isn’t a good start. But once he’s back I dispense with the pleasantries and dig right in: are writers too busy trying to make the next stereotypical blockbuster or rom-com or is there a genuine drive towards more original, more artsy films?

Daniel Johnson“It’s so hard to make it as a writer or director – or any kind of artist – and so much of the time people are trying to make something that will appeal to people, that will ‘sell.’ You’re kind of taught to do that – to write in genres that will appeal to people, to write screenplays to formula. Originality becomes tough.”

Indeed, so many Hollywood films these days seem to be sold in a “if you liked that, you’ll like this” brand. My personal evidence of that are the rumours of Matrix 4 and 5 and the pre-/sequels to Blade Runner. But Daniel is less cynical than me and says it’s more about finding a balance between tried-and-tested and adding your own zest:

“I write in a very specific way, and it’s influenced by a lot of people whose work I admire. But I’d like to think it’s original, you know? If I wrote to stereotypes, if I was less original and myself; I’d have an easier time having a career!”

No doubt people know what they like and Hollywood executives like to think they know what will sell. A lot of people are comfortable with stereotypes, whether they are to do with the plot, story, culture or the characters. Widely-held stereotypes are ‘safe’ – most people are capable of understanding and agreeing with them and this makes the watcher feel like they know what’s happening and that they are a part of it. I want to know whether Daniel thinks this is good for writers and good for watchers.

“The characters we see on the movie screens don’t represent all the people, and they stereotype and marginalise all sorts of groups and whatnot, but to be the filmmaker – to change that – is hard. It’s happening more and more in smaller films, but it’s difficult. Hollywood films are, generally, about pleasing a lot of people, about making a ‘product’ that will do well, or at least, they hope so.”

So, as a writer it’s often difficult to be different – to swim against the mainstream. What about his work? His new film, Side By Side, is primarily about the effect of a serious illness (in this case breast cancer) on two people’s relationship. Daniel is under no illusions.

“Cancer is a serious topic and it needs sensitivity and realism and I think my film definitely has that. I’m still re-working a few bits of the script and I have some nurses working as consultants on it, advising me on anything that isn’t realistic or believable.”

The drift, I think, is that this isn’t a procedural medical drama. It’s not about the diagnosis but the people it affects. It’s not about cancer but the emotions of going through it all and getting support from the person you love. After all, it’s not a documentary but a work of fiction.Daniel Johnson

“A few years ago I went to a great screening of a film called The Band’s Visit – by a director called Eran Kolirin. There was a Q+A and someone asked the director if his portrayal of the Egyptian police was realistic. He said, “Who cares, it’s fiction! This is my world!” and I really loved that.”

I’ve known Daniel for a few years and it’s always struck me that he knows a lot about films and that he is passionate about them and so when he said a couple of weeks ago that he had nearly finalised the cast, I knew that he would be excited about it. So how did it go?

“The first actor I cast was Camilla Arfwedson. I didn’t audition her; I just knew she had to play the part. I was a production assistant on a film, about 6 years ago, and she was in it, I was knocked out by her talent and professionalism. I sent her the screenplay and she agreed to do it immediately.”

A dream start. Camilla Arfwedson is a talented actress of both screen and stage but still relatively unknown. She has had supporting roles in The Duchess and Marple and one feels that the leading role as ‘Lisa’ in Side By Side could finally be the break she needs. Daniel, clearly, feels he made the right choice. But what about our leading man? Was it just as easy?

“The lead role of Paul we really struggled with because it’s so hard to get right; this is a character who runs a thin line between being a sensitive, loving guy and an infuriating man who won’t commit to the things in his life. Finding someone who can be both, at once, is tough.”

Daniel took a relatively long time to cast the role of ‘Paul’, waiting to find someone who had the right chemistry with Camilla – and the script. Eventually, he cast Sam Phillips to play the role. Sam finds himself in a similar boat to Camilla – young but experienced: teetering on the brink of a big break. Arguably, his most successful role so far has been as a regular on the successful BBC children’s TV show Hotel Trubble, which has just been renewed for a third season and has featured some prominent guest stars, including Miranda Hart. So how was the process?

“We auditioned a lot of people and then, a few weeks back, Camilla called me up and said I had to come see her in a play she was doing because one of the guys in it would be perfect for the part. So we went and saw him, read through with him and Camilla and he was perfect for it.”

Just like that?

“Camilla and Sam came off the stage; they were doing The Merchant Of Venice, in Derby. They came out to meet us, we met Sam, and then we did a read through and filmed it.”

I didn’t ask whether he offered him the part right there and then, I didn’t think I needed to. The important thing was that Daniel had found someone who could work well with Camilla and was a convincing ‘Paul’. With Camilla finding her own co-star, there’s almost poetry to it – a romance, if you were, noteworthy considering the Portia/Bassanio relationship they play on stage.

Fundraising is another area he has experienced difficulty with. He has made numerous short films before – all of them on a shoe string budget – and this is the first time that he’s had to try and secure serious funding. He’s quite dismissive of funding bodies, with good reason he argues, as he has never had much luck with them and he doesn’t know anybody who has. Side By Side is a different kind of movie and as such doesn’t fit into the cookie-cut genres of ‘horror’ or ‘rom-com’, for example. But he’s optimistic, taking advantage of a clever initiative on the Internet.

“Films like this always struggle but we’re doing okay, we’re getting there. Part of our fundraising is through donations, and credits, on IndieGoGo (http://www.indiegogo.com/Side-By-Side-1).”

The idea is that people give what they can towards the project, whether it is a few dollars or a few hundred. In exchange, people get benefits ranging from a personal thank you up to an Associate Producer credit on the movie. Daniel says that this helps make sure that the project gets its funding, people get the warm feeling of knowing they are helping to make a film and Daniel gets to keep control of the project. “The bigger the budget,” he says, the more it gets “hacked together by people in expensive suits.”

Funding the project through internet micro-donations was the idea of Daniel’s producer, Steven M. Smith. Daniel’s keen to highlight that Steven has been a big help for him and the project.

“Steven is great because he trusts my talent, and judgement. We disagree a fair bit but it’s for the right reasons – we’re trying to understand each other and to do what we need to do to get the film get made. But he’s a big support, and the film is being made through his production company, which takes a lot of the pressure off of me. “

Steven is no newcomer to the scene. As Daniel points out, he has his own production company and he has experience from many different perspectives in film making, whether it is as a writer, director, actor or producer. The optimism doesn’t stop there either; when I ask him about the future he says it’s always been his dream to make a feature film and if Side By Side goes well, he’ll be making more.

“It’s always been the dream … the things I am interested in are: character, emotion, relationships between people – you can’t really explore those in short film. The goal is to be writing and directing feature films. I am lucky in that, the types of stories I like to tell are ones that can be budgeted modestly. I like Woody Allen films and Billy Wilder pictures; it’s more about the people than the aliens.”

What about Side By Side? The plan is to get it screened at a major film festival and hope that it can replicate the sort of success enjoyed by other low-budget films like Once and The Puffy Chair. But when’s the release date? Whenever a film festival schedules it, he says. So when do you start filming? Whenever the script’s ready. I suspect that it’s not because he is disorganised or unmotivated but because behind-the-scenes he is furiously rewriting and reimagining scenes. He wants it to be perfect and to him you can’t force a film to resonate with people. It’s Daniel’s respect and passion for a good story with well crafted dialogue that make his films so delightful to watch. Daniel wants to know things about people – just like he did with my screen name – and tell stories without pretence or arrogance. This is why he has a loyal and humble following. I suspect Daniel revels in this – or at least he would, if he wasn’t so focused on finding and telling stories.

Daniel Johnson is the writer and director of the upcoming film Side By Side, which is being produced through Greenway Entertainment. People interested in getting involved should visit the Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Side-By-Side/157048280972791 or the IndieGoGo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/Side-By-Side-1.

Sack Him!

"You'll Never Walk Alone", Shankly G...

Image via Wikipedia

Barely a day goes by these days without there being some baying crowd calling for the head of a leader. It’s a curious thing, really. I think most people who accept the sentiment “we’re all human – we all make mistakes” as being true and yet to many (perhaps the few outside of the previous group) this sentiment seems to exclude bosses, managers, politicians and any person in a position of power. Why is this so?

The Problem

The person I am writing about in particular is the manager of Liverpool FC, Roy Hodgson. Hodgson has barely spent half a year in charge of Liverpool and yet there are many already calling for him to be fired from his job.

I find this rather sad, really. After all, Liverpool is my favourite football team – they are the team that I grew up supporting with my dad. In my living memory, achievements have been sparse (but great spectacles when they do arrive) and Liverpool’s performance in the league has always been a subject of great scrutiny. It’s under scrutiny currently because Liverpool find themselves in the worst position they have been in for quite some time, as they dangle perilously close to the relegation zone.

It’s rather sad because Hodgson inherited a Liverpool despondent of hope and fresh out of ideas from the previous manager, Rafa Benitez (who, subsequently, has been sacked from his latest job after half a season in charge), who left the club in a seemingly destitute state. Of course, it is not entirely his fault but the feeling is that there were signs showing and opportunities to be taken be heeded neither. Benitez, after some success and many seasons in charge, had to go.

In to this precarious situation steps Hodgson. Hodgson joined Liverpool after a successful season at Fulham FC where he revived their fortunes and took them to the heady heights of the Europa League Final. For what was arguably their best season in their history Hodgson was awarded the title of “Manager of the Year” by the League Managers Association.

The Hodg’s On!

Combining this with his experience in football on all levels and the general aura of respect he attracts, Hodgson seems like the ideal manager. Alas, Liverpool have not been performing well of late. Rather than blame the footballers themselves – the only people physically capable of winning football matches – blame seems to rest solely on the head of Hodgson.

What’s interesting is that the LMA, the same organisation that gave him the award only a few months ago, defends Hodgson. Indeed, there are other football managers whose positions look equally uncertain at the moment and are facing criticism in the press. Richard Bevan, the CEO of the LMA, today urged clubs to stop “scapegoating” managers. He may be right.

He cites research that shows that sacking a manager and then hiring a new one creates an initial boost in points before the club sinks back down to a level below the managerial switch. When you combine that with the monetary impact of prematurely terminating a contract, you have a recipe for for disaster.

The Hodg’s Off?

Could the Liverpool board be seriously considering letting Hodgson go? I always find it very weird that leaders should be sacked when their organisations need them the most. During the cold and snowy December of last year all of the airports in the UK experienced problems, usually because of the inability to clear snow of runways. It was common in the press to see passengers calling for the resignation of the politicians and airport bosses “responsible” for allowing such horrors to happen. Why? Seriously, why?

Indeed, there were mistakes. Once again, both the airport bosses and politicians failed to collaborate to ensure that airports would stay open and remain as unaffected as possible. It’s fair criticism to say that they should have and it even makes sense from a financial point of view. What is crazy is to insist that they lose their jobs, especially during this crisis.

“Crisis” actually means “turning point” or, in other words, a test of one’s mettle. Clearly, the bosses failed. However, this failure is not a sign of incompetence and certainly doesn’t form part of a trend. Indeed, if they were to fail to heed these warnings this year and again prove unable to deal with the situation then it would seem a good idea to seek a replacement. But we must keep in mind that these bosses are paid huge salaries, they are considered to be the pinnacle of management, and they are considered to be the best there is. The idea that you can simply swap one high class manager in for another is fantasy.

We All Make Mistakes

We do. We all make mistakes. And, we all like someone to blame when something goes wrong. Furthermore, when we do not know that person and that person doesn’t even seem like a “real” person (i.e. more of a faceless suit) it’s easy to take your frustration out on them. But we must be calm and rational and think about what we would do if this was a person we knew – a friend or relative. We would see they are like us – fallible – and can often take time to get to grips with things.

When it comes to football managers, sacking someone before they’ve even had the chance to rebuild a squad following a tumultuously bad season seems ludicrous. It is even more ludicrous when that manager is considered by the LMA to be the best manager of last season. In the case of Liverpool, Hodgson needs to get tough with them – he needs to sit down with the players and say to them “if you don’t respect me, if you don’t want to play for me, if you don’t want to wear that shirt with pride then I won’t make you.”

The Liverpool squad has sufficient depth and youth to find players who really want to play football for Liverpool. I suspect many of the seasoned players, regulars like Torres, Gerrard and Reina are starting to lose their passion for the club. If this is the case, it makes no sense to keep playing them when they’re simply liabilities.

In the case of the culture of sacking at the drop of the hat, people need to think about themselves as well. What would they think if they lost their job after one mistake? Some may think I am under-reacting to the failure of politicians and business leaders. Perhaps, but people need time to work and they need time to make things work. The constant replacement of leaders does nothing for stability and continuation of policy and ethic.

Of course, if you disagree you could just sack me and never visit the blog again – but what would that get you?

10 O’Clock Live Pilot

It's 10 O'Clock

Image by zoonabar via Flickr

As a temporary break from the norm, I wish to describe my experience of being in the audience for the ‘filming’ of a ‘live’ TV show pilot.  I’m not sure what the rules are regarding writing / talking about unaired TV pilots but I found nothing in the literature I was sent saying that I couldn’t discuss it, so here goes.

10 O’Clock Live!  Or… 10 O’Clock!  Live.  Perhaps 10 O’Clock, Live?

10 O’Clock Live (I feel like there should be an exclamation mark there somewhere) reunites the new “old band” of comedic news Charlie Brooker, Jimmy Carr, Lauren Laverne and David Mitchell for what named-like-a-drug production company Endemol call “a funny, fresh and clever take on current issues and events” in order to satiate the “appetite for a show that mixes comedy and the news agenda together in a way that produces genuine insight as well as laugh-out-loud moments.”

Brooker, Carr, Laverne and Mitchell formed their merry band of men and woman on Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night where they presented the event with their not-yet-trademark satirical mix of light-heartedness and seriousness and where Brooker pissed himself out of fright.  They reunite to reignite their firebrand embers and turn up the heat on the latest news stories from the week.

Where Does The Show Fit?  Where Do They Fit?

What’s initially interesting about this is the suggestion that there is a gap in the market for this type of show, which (we were told) is scheduled to start airing some time in January in Channel 4’s Thursday 10pm slot.  On the BBC this slot is currently filled by Never Mind the Buzzcocks, although I am unsure if their run will continue much into next month and have to compete for air time.  In any case, with shows like Mock the Week (of which Mitchell is a frequent guest), Russell Howard’s Good News and Have I Got News For You one wonders if a show like this is one show too far.  C4, of course, seems to lack such a show so it seems this is their attempt to capture some of the audience in this market.

Brooker has already said that he is planning a new show for next year, and it was noticeable in tonight’s filming that he was eerily absent.  He popped on-screen occasionally but as I read the lines on the auto-cue for his companions I realised that a lot of them were in his style and could easily have been delivered by him.  When he did feature, for instance in group discussions, he was quiet and unable to get a word in.  In the unscripted universe perhaps Brooker’s acerbic wit is simply lost.  In any case, his role seems principally to be a writer as well as providing Screen/News/Games-wipe-esque vignette VTs.  It was interesting watching him watch the VT – you could almost see him self-analysing; criticising himself as if it was featured in his old Screenburn column.

Carr lived up to his character and was frequently sharp and seemed to play the host or, at a minimum, the compère and he was aptly suited for it being the only stand-up comedian of the group.  During VTs and advert breaks he engaged with the audience, cracking wise like walnuts beneath the thighs of a Russian gymnast, and proved unassailably his vital role in the line-up. Linchpins should be named after him.  Soon football commentators will be saying things like, “Michael Essien really plays the Carr role in Chelsea’s midfield.”  He also interviewed a physicist about his latest book, fulfilling a dual role as well.

Mitchell also plays two important roles.  The first is a simple 3-minute diatribe section, much like his Soap Box videos on the Guardian website, which are, as you might expect, observant and witty.  Indeed, it is Mitchell’s excellent ability to zero-in on a foible in life’s web of woe that makes him so suited for his second role.  Here, Mitchell imagines what it would be like to be David Dimblebee hosting Question Time with the addition of “… and he had a sense of humour.”  In the debate, which centred on the Julian Assange story, he addressed contributors by their full names (even Brooker) as well as convened matters with a mix of wit and classic chairman-like behaviour.  Again, a welcome addition to the band.

Unfortunately, I struggled to understand Laverne’s contribution to the programme.  She had two roles as well; the first being to join segments up and spin a few yarns and secondly to play the audience’s friend by occasionally wondering into the audience for vox pops.  She did also interview a real-life futurologist but I can’t really comment on it as I was distracted by Carr, who was miming a certain oral sex act (undoubtedly an expression of his opinion of the futurologist and not his colleague).  Sadly, her biggest laugh of the evening was when she approached an audience member and asked them their opinion on free speech.  Alas, he was unable to articulate an answer above the level of “it’s good”, though I forget exactly what he said.  I hate to be cynical at this moment but it seems her contribution, at least in this episode, was merely to balance the team out.  Having three witty men chortling with each other on a show like this would invariably make it out to be a ‘blokey’ show doomed to obscure late night repeats on Dave.  Perhaps her role is not so direct as the other three, providing a more of a support role?  Whether intended or not, Laverne failed to make an impression.

Closing

I see good things in the future for this show.  Its line-up is impressive and its production company is famous for producing punchy satirical shows.  It contained too many elements, with too little time spent on each, but I suspect this was a deliberate attempt to see what works and what doesn’t, meaning they are able to make the first broadcast episode as lean as possible.  Brooker, Carr and Mitchell all seem to have their roles clearly identified and working well.  Laverne, however, seems unable to make traction and may be seen as dead-weight (or worse, window dressing) when it comes time to air.  Still, for a first pilot things are looking good.

Is Intelligence and Rationalism Only Compatible With Atheism?

Santa Claus with a little girl

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One thing that particularly seems to annoy theists is the argument that the only intelligent position for someone to have is to be an atheist.  The argument is simple, I think, as it merely asks that if you recognise that there is a requirement that people be able to prove with evidence the things they claim (whether it is about science, the weather or football results) then why not have the same requirement for claims about God?  Once one sees that there is no empirical proof for the existence of God then ones only position is atheism.  That is reasonable.

The Problem

Alas, some people disregard this.  Some sample arguments are:

  • A belief in God is just that – “belief” – and that the whole point is that there is no empirical proof for God;
  • Atheists are arrogant wankers for calling all theists stupid;
  • There is proof (cue Intelligent Design “evidence”).

This goes on.  Alas, a lot of theists rarely consider their position.  When they feel “under attack” from atheists, rather than examine their beliefs they often reinforce them.  Rather than philosophically analyse what it is they are arguing for, they often become brutish and irrational.

This is why I am so surprised to see Victoria Coren, a woman I admire for being fiercely intelligent and an excellent poker player, not only “come out” as a theist but also attempt to defend it in an Observer column.  Indeed, the subject of her article is the

new, false distinction between “believers” and “rationalists”. The trickle-down Dawkins effect [that] has got millions of people thinking that faith is ignorant and childish, with atheism the smart and logical position.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/dec/05/victoria-coren-belief-in-god

The problem I have with the article is that it is so poorly reasoned.  I try to be sympathetic to amicable theists who try to defend their position or belief in God, but often this is difficult as their arguments are so poor.  I fear that Coren has fallen into that trap and I am going to discuss it now.

An Answer For Everything

There is often an argument made by theists that you must have an answer for everything if you are an atheist.  In other words, for theists “God did it” is an acceptable explanation for anything that you cannot understand.

“Why did uncle Fred die?”
“God did it.”

“Why are these giant bones in the ground?”
“God did it.”

“How was the universe created?”
“God did it.”

Of course, for scientists this isn’t an acceptable explanation because, in fact, it does not explain anything at all.  It is the exact opposite of an explanation.  It’s the answer that adults give to children when they can’t think of answer and don’t want to appear weak.

“Why do I have to go to bed at 8pm?”
“Because.” or “Because I said so.”

One of the reasons why science has become so good at discovering facts and suggesting provable hypotheses is the simple motto that they “take no one’s word for it” – that people search for the answers themselves using a method that is open to everyone, challengeable and reproducible.  In other words, if you make a claim about something you need to back that up with evidence – evidence that other people can get for themselves by doing the same experiment as you.

Science often says “I don’t know” when it comes to some questions and theists often jump on this as good reason not to be an atheist.  If scientists can’t explain how the first self-replicating gene came into existence or how the universe came into existence then this is good reason to see that they are wrong about everything and that you should believe in God.  However, they should know that science has a high burden of proof and won’t accept anything that doesn’t pass muster.  “I don’t know” is acceptable simply because it’s the truth.  If you don’t know something it’s more truthful to say so, rather than pontificate.

“Ask Them To Explain How An iPad Works.”

It’s worrying, then, to see someone like Victoria Coren remark:

I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.

“It’s scary to say you’re pro-God,” she said. “Those clever atheists are terrifying.”

“Oh, nonsense,” I said. “Let them tell you it’s stupid to believe in something you can’t explain. Then ask them how an iPad works.”

Atheism itself is fine; good luck if that’s what you sincerely (don’t) believe. But the proselytising, fundamentalist new atheist movement sets itself up as more “logical” than faith, which is ridiculous. Given the incomprehensible scale of the creator we’d be talking about, the only “logical” position is agnosticism.

Here she clearly insinuates that if you’re an atheist that doesn’t know how a complex thing works then you are committing some sort of intellectual contradiction, i.e.: “how can you say that God, an incredibly complex thing, doesn’t exist when you can’t even fathom how he works?”

The argument is, God is so irreducibly complex that saying that He doesn’t exist is impossible and that the only two positions available are:

  1. He does exist.
  2. You can’t know if He doesn’t.

The comparison the iPad, she feels, is apt.  How can one use a complex thing like a computer, “believing that it works”, without actually knowing how it does?  The thing is that it doesn’t matter if you know how it works or not, simply that it does, it is provable that it does.  The workings of a computer are provable through scientific investigation and that there are, in fact, people who do know how it works (they built it) and that this knowledge is built on years of scientific evidence.  The existence of God isn’t.

Agnostic Atheists

Further, agnosticism isn’t dichotomously opposed to atheism.  In fact, the position of the atheists is built upon agnosticism.  Agnosticism is the belief that it is unknowable that God exists or not, and atheism is the belief that there is no God.  Thus, as Wikipedia points out,

Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.

Atheists that are agnostic state that they do not know one way or the other that God exists, merely that the burden of proof (reliable empirical evidence) has not been satisfied.  This burden of proof is the same that is applied to any supernatural phenomena that is purported to exist: unicorns, alien visitations, Santa Claus and Russell’s famous China Teapot.

Theists often like to argue that atheists “cannot prove that God doesn’t exist.”  This is true.  It is also true of unicorns, alien visitations, Santa Claus etc.  Who can prove that unicorns have never existed?  The reason why you cannot is simply because it is impossible to set up an experiment to prove an empirical negative on such a large scale.

Some atheists like to argue that it is impossible to prove any negative.  This isn’t strictly true.  If we consider DNA testing to be reliable, which we do, you can prove that someone isn’t related to someone else.  Of course, this relies on the scientific theories of genes, how they are passed onto descendants and that the testing procedure is correct.  However, since these are supported by a lot of evidence you can say with a very high level of certainty that someone is or isn’t related to someone else.  Depending on your position on absolute certainty, i.e. mathematical certainty, this is enough.

I don’t think you’ll ever find an atheist who claims that they can prove that God doesn’t exist.  Even Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins don’t argue for this.  They both leave the door open for a deity.  However, Hawking merely says that the universe doesn’t require (i.e. it is conceivable otherwise) the existence of God for it to exist; and Dawkins says that Deism is the least objectionable form of theism.  What both of them have in common is that they both say that there is no evidence for God, whether it is a Deistic God or Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and this is good reason not to believe in God.  This is crucial in understanding the atheistic lack of belief in God.

The Power Of Faith And Religion

Unfortunately for Coren, her reasoning descends further.  She then begins to discuss the recent debates had between atheists and theists in Canada, namely where Christopher Hitchins and Tony Blair debated over whether religion was a force for good in the world.

So why do the proselytisers fight so hard to be right? In place of the comfort which faith can provide in the face of death, grief or loneliness, they offer… nothing. They are suspiciously eager to snatch away the consolations of their fellow men.

Why? Because they think religion causes violence? Human nature contains a streak of fear, greed, selfishness and territorialism that must result in a mean level of dissent and bloodshed, with or without the excuse of religious difference. Without religion, human life is no longer sacred – nothing is – so it’s not “logical” to believe we’d be gentler if it disappeared. All we’d have to replace it is a trust in altruism, which is certainly no less naive than believing in God.

So what would that leave, as a moral framework? The law? Do google “Twitter joke trial” before you throw our future behind that.

Or is it because some religious arguments are misogynistic or homophobic? Believers can still argue back.

I don’t think atheists argue against the fact that faith can allay fears of death or anxiety.  Personally, as an atheist, I think this is a redeeming feature of faith.  However, the downside of faith is it’s organisational element – religion.

Religion is separate to faith.  Faith is personal, religion is not.  Religion is an organisation, an institution, and people who have faith are sometimes part of a religion and sometimes they are not.  It’s not uncommon for people to believe in God but to have ‘lapsed’ from their religious heritage or simply to believe, one day, that they believe in “a higher power” but not follow the teachings of any specific religion.  This to me is far less objectionable, but still bad reasoning.

Atheist “proselytisers”, as she calls them, rally so hard against religion simply because of its history and current status.  Religion is a force for evil because of the commands and requirements it has that seem to run against what so much of the secular community consider to be rights that are applicable to all.  Things like:

  • Marrying someone you are in love with, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race or religion;
  • Letting someone pursue their own life fulfilment and not being forced into a traditional role, such as raising or children or doing housework;
  • Forcing a set of beliefs upon someone and then threatening them with violence, death or sanctions if they do not.

The list is endless.  Some try to accuse atheists of the third point, of trying to convert people to atheism.  There is a grain of truth in this but there is no violence and atheism isn’t an irrational belief system, like religion.  Secular humanism is about being allowed to believe in whatever you want to believe but at the same time not forcing your beliefs on anybody else and not expecting the government to support your discrimination.  This is why so many people are against state-funded religious schools.

Atheists And Amorality

This is something that she tries to make out as a real possibility – that without religion people would do bad things.  Religion is the only acceptable moral framework.  As an atheist I find this sort of argument

  1. Deeply troubling;
  2. A little offensive.

Firstly, I want to ask these religious people why they don’t do bad things.  They don’t do bad things, they might say, simply because it would upset their God, which would then result in punishment from God – perhaps in the form of not getting into heaven.  It is troubling because that is a really lousy way of conducting morality.  As an atheist I don’t do bad things because it would hurt other people.  As a community all of our lives are enriched when we cooperate: when do nice things for each other and work together on things we are more successful and our lives are more enjoyable.  The theists suggest that without a divine sense of punishment there is no reason not to do bad things.  I suggest that our lives improve when we don’t.  It troubles me that a theist can’t see anything wrong with killing someone other than “it might upset God.”

Secondly, I am a little offended simply because they seem to suggest that I operate amorally – that I am incapable of seeing right from wrong.  Clearly this is not the case.  I have never done anything too seriously wrong.  I haven’t raped anyone, I haven’t killed anyone, I haven’t stolen anything of significant value.  Having studied both philosophy and ethics in depth I can say that non-theistic ethics is based upon a theory of fairness and equality.

Individuals are to be treated as such within the community that they help build.  A community is not located to a locale, as there may be significant benefits from helping those you are close to, for instance, but also to all members of the human race.  Some even go as far as to suggest that fairness should be extended to all sentient beings.  I don’t agree with them but I can see and understand their argument.  Something is good for the community if it is also good for the individuals that comprise it.

Furthermore, enquiry into the origins of morality will not only yield clues to be found in our animal ancestors (which are also found in other animals alive today) but also clues that such that religion is not the alpha and omega of morality.  The so-called “Golden Rule” (do unto others as you would do unto them) predates organised religion.  The earliest form of it in organised religion, the Old Testament, dealt not with ethical reciprocation but in retribution.  “An eye for an eye” is a violent principle of when to punish someone, not how to be kind to someone.  Violence and a system of punishments is no foundation for a proper ethical system.  It is, unfortunately, a part of our modern systems of laws.  Arguably, it is necessary but it should not be the basis.

Conclusion

A belief in God, I have argued, is incompatible with “intelligent” and “rational”.  If you live of your life asking questions, looking for evidence and building your knowledge on what you can empirically verify then the existence of God should not be excluded from this.  The basis for excluding it was simply that God is too complex to know either way.  However, if that is true then God’s existence should be treated much like the existence of unicorns or celestial teapots orbiting the Sun.  When one makes an incredulous claim one must ask “how do you know that?” or, perhaps better, “how can I know that?”  Asking for proof is the basis of the scientific movement and the world we live in today.  It is not up to the atheists to prove that God doesn’t exist, but rather up to the theists to prove that He does.

X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Sycophants

Simon Cowell at the National Television Awards...

Image via Wikipedia

I must admit to something. I have been watching some “talent” shows on TV, namely X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. ‘Why ever?’ you ask. To be honest I’m not really sure. It has something to do with watching it because others in my house are and partly because sometimes, just sometimes, genuine talent creeps in. It’s enjoyable watching Kara Tointon do the Argentinian tango to a professional standard or closing your eyes and listening to Rebecca Ferguson sound eerily like Aretha Franklin (a comparison that, unfortunately, has since lost its sparkle due to it being mentioned at least once every week).

The Problem

The problem, however, is not in the standard of karaoke performance that most of the performers limbo under. It is the post-performance comments and the Colosseum-esque reaction from the fans whose role seems not to simply enjoy the spectacle and performances but to judge the judges on their performance. This usually takes the form of hooping and hollering at a positive comment, regardless of how truthful that comment is, and baying for blood at a critical comment, again regardless of whether that comment is true or constructive.

Simon Cowell was the archetypal “evil bastard” as it were – he used to criticise everybody for everything. He couldn’t have got more cartoonishly evil if he strapped a woman to some train tracks and played maniacal piano music over the top. Recently, however, it seems that he has mellowed out. He now seems to relish earning millions of pounds, gaining notoriety and winning awards. Craig Revel Horwood, comparatively new on the TV judging circuit, has since filled Cowell’s boots as a tell-it-like-it-is, hard to please bastard and occupies a slot on the panel on Strictly.

What’s weird about these shows is that when a judge gives criticism, unless it is sparse and peppered with compliments, the crowd goes nuts. Boos, hissing and calling out (and all the other things you were told not to do at school) flood out. It’s like telling someone “how dare you, as an expert, criticise an amateur’s performance?” or “how dare you offer advice to someone who’s trying hard to learn a new skill?” It’s preposterous.

Sycophancy
There’s an episode of You Have Been Watching, a Charlie Brooker vehicle, where something happens (forgive my memory gap) and the audience laugh, perhaps too politely, and Brooker quickly condemns his audience as sycophants. Almost ironically the audience laughs again – ‘ha, ha, ha – he called us sycophants, he’s so funny’. Regardless of what Brooker thought the audience were being sycophantic – they loved the celebrities, they loved Brooker and they loved being in on the jokes. Certainly, sometimes the adulation is warranted – who doesn’t like being reduced to tears in laughter or watching a spirited performance by a talented singer or dancer? The problem is that this adulation is often unconditional; regardless of what the celebrity or performer does, the crowd reacts positively as if they were proud parents watching their child in a school play.

Sycophancy can be relatively benign. Who wouldn’t want to meet their heroes, shower them with praise, get a photo and then go on their merry way? Better yet, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with this person and have a genuine conversation with them? In fact, why not use the internet to stalk them, track them down in person and devote their life following them? Okay, it’s going a bit far. The first suggestion I can agree is relatively innocent, and even the second is as well, but the third suggestion is psychotic. It would be a serious sign of detachment from reality to treat someone like prey to be hunted, and praising them for things that do not deserve it, simply to please them, is wrong. If you believe the praise honestly then you are psychotic and if you do it for their sake then you are encouraging it.

Praise and Criticism
I honestly believe that praise and criticism should be delivered appropriately and tactfully. There is an insidious meme spreading amongst people that always speaking one’s mind is a good thing – something to be proud of. Since when was tact such a bad thing? There’s a classic rule for delivering criticism and that is to “sandwich” it between two pieces of praise and you do see it sometimes on talent shows. For instance, a judge might say “I really love the band and the production, it looks great but I thought there were moments of your performance when you didn’t quite hit the right notes but otherwise you look great and you look like a popstar!” Yes, there are a lot of conjunctions in that sentence. That’s the point. The point is to get the criticism out in such a way that it is quick and hard to detect. The problem with this is that the very nature of criticising someone constructively is that they are made aware of their mistakes and that they are able to learn from them. Hiding criticism does them no good.

An interesting thing is that when you notice a judge trying to do this but fails and the mob (audience) notice. There’s this weird effect where the fickleness of the audience can’t quite keep up. First there are these whooping cheers for the first bit of praise, then the criticism comes and they suddenly have to switch to booing, and then they’re caught out when the second slice of praise comes.

One thing that annoys me about the comments from judges, despite their ostensive untruthfulness, is that they are often of a very poor quality. This tends to apply more to X-Factor than Strictly but often judges will come out and say something like, ‘I loved that song choice tonight! [Hollering] And I just want to say that you are getting better and better every week! [Hooping] The production looks great and this new look you have is really working, you seem more like a popstar every time we see you! [Hooping and hollering]’ That’s not praising the performer for what they’ve done. The first bit of praise was simply an expression of preference. The second is a platitude. The third simply praises the production staff, choreographer, music arranger and the stylists. The performers on X-Factor do not write their own lyrics or music, arrange any of the instrumentals, play any of the instruments (except the odd guitar) and they probably have little to no input over their appearance, the stage appearance or the backup dancers and singers. At most these performers are a totem and at the least they are a mere artefact, the product of consumerism created to satiate the baying masses’ desire for mediocrity and sanitation.

The Solution?
Constructive criticism and advice from an expert is an incredibly valuable tool to have. Having just started a new job I met with the person who did my job before me (but now works on a contract basis on other projects) and we spent an hour going through everything I needed to know about how to do the job. He said he had seen my work, my CV and read this blog. He praised me for the skills I displayed and my enthusiasm for the role. He told me how to be successful, how to play the games of the people I would be dealing with, how to improve my writing. If I were so inclined I could have taken this advice negatively; I could have construed it as a personal attack – but I didn’t.

The problem seems to be some people’s inability to take criticism, to understand the vital role it plays in improvement. A tired truism nowadays is to say that it is considered wrong to criticise children – that we praise, inappropriately, achievement when there is none. We give out “participation medals” and praise those who “take part” even if they didn’t win. I know it’s nice to be kind to people but let’s face it – the world doesn’t work like that. Competition in the real world only recognises the winners. When I was told that over 300 people applied for the job that I now have I felt incredibly good about myself. Certainly, if I were to meet one of these people, I would levy them with platitudes about how they did their best and wish them luck, but we’d both know that I was the “winner” – I was the one who was considered to be the best prospect for the job. This is a harsh truth (and you may consider me arrogant for even mentioning it) but it is still the truth. It is still the case that I was the one hired to do the job and that so many others were not.

Those who are good at things are worthy of praise and they should be allowed to hear it. Those who are not should be criticised, if appropriate, as it will help their performance. When kids are young they should find things they are good at and encouraged so that they might flourish and taste the sweetness of success. Teaching children then it does not matter if they perform well or not, or that they should pursue talents that they have no hope in improving in, is a disservice. If you are too afraid to criticise then you should at least encourage them to do something else.

Some singers simply won’t get any better, no matter how much praise or criticise you heap on them. Ann Widdecombe will never be a good dancer and Wagner will never be able to stay in tune and for them, criticising them makes no sense. But for others, those who aspire to improve and get better, they must receive criticism when they have done something bad and they must receive praise for when they have done good. The judges should know this and the audience should know this. The capriciousness of the audience is a good reason for fame-obsessed celebrities not to do anything the mob won’t like but they need to be stronger. For the sake of the children.

Muslim Extremists do the craziest things.

Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice Day protest” screams the headline on this Daily Telegraph article to be found here, stoking the fires of hatred as they do so.

It’s arguable that whenever there is a protest of significance the press ought to cover it.  It makes sure that people throughout the locality, region, nation or world here about it and that there can be no argument about suppression.  Sometimes, however, I think there should be exceptions.

Vicious Cycle

The protesters identified themselves as being from a group called “Muslims Against Crusades”, an organisation believed to be a splinter group from Islam4UK.  Islam4UK is notorious Islamic extremist group that was proscribed recently, i.e. banned from existing.  Before this, however, they were a group that believed in a very fundamentalist interpretation of Islam believing in Sharia Law, for instance.

What’s funny about their organisation is the way they conducted themselves in public.  They were massive PR whores, feeding off the hatred that they stoked in a seemingly symbiotic relationship with the media.  The now famous Wootten Bassett non-incident is worth finding out about, especially if you look at how satirist Charlie Brooker reported on it (see the Newswipe with Charlie Brooker episode for this).

In short, they announced that they were going to stage a protest at a place where people publicly mourn the deaths of servicemen and women who have died on public duty.  Naturally, this caused public outrage with the usual vitriol of “it’s disgusting” and “it’s an outrage” spurting from whatever vox pop reporters could find on the streets.

After a media frenzy lasting only a week, Islam4UK called it off.  The police said that they never even received an application from them to hold a protest there.  The whole thing was a hoax.  Of course, this didn’t stop a 400,000 strong anti-Islam4UK Facebook group from being created and anti-Muslim sentiments being poured out across the nation in newspapers and the internet.

The media loved it.  It was controversial.  It riled up everybody.  It sold copy.  For them, this was a good news story as it meant that people would want to read their paper and people would be spending time talking about.  Fantastic.

The problem with this, of course, is that this is exactly what Islam4UK wanted.  It was a PR stunt.  Imagine T-Mobile shooting kittens on live TV or Simon Cowell literally flinging his turds at an X-Factor contestant.  This stuff would be all over the news.  AND EVERYBODY WOULD BE TALKING ABOUT IT.  Of course, for Cowell and T-Mobile it would damage their careers but for Islam4UK, who have no reputation, this was a gold mine.

Furthermore, Islam4UK are a group of Islamic extremists.  What they want is animosity towards Muslims.  There are many, many moderate Muslims in the world – ordinary people who are religious but are happy to live in the society that they do, enjoying their faith and letting others do the same.  What extremists want are people to join their side and the only way they can do this is by polarising people, by getting these moderate Muslims on their side.  Of course, the moderates aren’t going to be convinced that they should commit extreme acts without a good reason and the best reason of all seems to be “because non-Muslims hate you”.

By getting non-Muslims to attack Muslims it will make moderate Muslims feel threatened, make them feel that they don’t belong to the community as a whole and, instead, can only trust their Muslim brothers and sisters.  Such a move would galvanise all Muslims against anti-Muslim sentiments, thus creating the army that Islam4UK needs to seriously challenge the established laws and practices of the UK.

Thus, we find ourselves in an odd position.  The more extreme things Islam4UK do, the more the press reports it.  The more the press reports it, the more people make stupid generalised comments about Muslims.  The more Muslims feel threatened the more likely they are to join extremist organisations.  The more members extremist organisations have the more likely they are to do extremist activities.  The more they do these extremist activities the more likely they are to feature in the press.  Do you see the circle?

The Press Is Not Helping

The press want to sell copy.  People buying their paper is good for them and the way to get people to buy it is to either to make them angry or scare the shit out of them.  Extremist Muslims tick both of those boxes.  Good for them and the press, bad for us.

The weird thing about this story in particular is that they use the headline “Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice Day protest” rather than using the term “Islamists” (usually used to denote the political side of Islam, i.e. those who believe in the establishment of Sharia Law) or “Muslim Extremists” (Muslims that typically hold ‘fundamental’ or otherwise unorthodox views about Islam).

Both of these terms seem far more accurate.  Andy Bloxham, the author of the article, probably didn’t write the headline (they seldom do) but he uses the phrase “Islamic protesters” in the first sentence of the article, thus clearly stating their views on Islam.  The headline writer, however, either didn’t see that bit or, and this is far more likely, believed that the generalised term “Muslims” would sell more copy than the more accurate alternatives.

And So?

Personally, I think the press coverage that these groups get in the press should be stopped.  One of my friends said to me that all protests should be covered by the press.  They have a right to protest and the world has a right to know that they did so.  But with groups like these, ones much like the ‘proscribed’ groups, the benefit of reporting their protest is surely greatly shadowed by the damage this does to Muslims and our society.

If the urge to cover these protests is too much then coverage should be short, concise and matter-of-fact.  There was a protest by some Islamist group, 35 people turned up and that’s it.  Headlines that seem to say “Muslims hate fallen soldiers” are no help to anybody and are merely inflammatory.  Those sorts of remarks exist simply to create controversy where it does not reside and create debate on topics that aren’t even worth debating.  There are people with strange and evil views but they don’t make the paper, why report this?  Because it sells copy.

On a side note, I am aware of the irony of this post.  I’m arguing that the press shouldn’t report on it because it brings it to people’s attention and yet here I am writing about it myself, thus joining it.  Perhaps, but if the Telegraph hadn’t done it in the first place I wouldn’t be writing about it now.  I’d be asleep, not worrying about what stupid thing the media was going to do next.

Are you religious? Are you really?

First Humanist Society of New York

Image via Wikipedia

The Problem

I don’t just follow commands from an institution that thinks it is better than me, the church (or should that be the British Humanist Association?)

– ‘jfe261’

And I want the British Humanist Association to stop telling me how to fill out my census form.

– ‘Benulek’

I think the BHA needs to be more realistic about the situation: you can’t tell people what constitutes “true” faith or observance.

– Porthos

All of the above quotes are from an article on the Guardian website about the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) latest plea – that lapsed religious folk and non-believers actually tick the most appropriate box on the 2011 census form: no religion.  Some people, however, seem to take this as an affront on all religious folk and people of faith.

What’s Going On?

The BHA aren’t asking people to lie on their census, or to convert to atheism for the sake of the census.  Instead, they want people to be honest about their religious status because it is important to how the country is run and, on a more personal level, how children are educated.

Faith schools in the UK constitute a large proportion of primary and secondary schools.  Many are publicly funded and yet are able to discriminate against children based on their supposed religion or the religion of their parents.  Since there are numerous areas in the UK where school choice is prohibitive or non-existent, many parents lie about their religious status in order to get their child into the school of their choice.

Just to emphasise that point: the UK government supports and subsidises with public money the discrimination of children based on their religion.

Why Don’t They Stop It?

Plainly, the government believes it has a lot of support from the general public.  In the 2001 census 37.3m people put Christianity, or a Christian denomination, as their religion.  By extrapolation this equates to half the population.  Even without the figures for other religions it would seem that there are a lot of religious people living in the UK.  However, church attendance figures tell a different story.

In 2008, the average weekly attendance figures to church show that approximately only 1.145 million people attended church.  Assuming the number of Christians (as reported on the census) stayed steady, this means that in 2008 only 3.07% of Christians went to church.  It simply does not follow to suggest that there truly are 37.3m Christians in the UK when so few of them go to church.

Affront On Religion?

What the above criticisms seem to be suggesting is that the BHA is attacking religion through the census forms or that they are trying to tell Christians how to observe their faith.  This does not seem to be a fair characterisation.

What the BHA are trying to do is to get people to “fess up” and state whether or not they are religious.  “Religiousness” has not been defined in their press release, so we’ll have to try and work out what they mean.

Being religious means observing the rites of a particular religion and imbuing yourself with them.  To use it in a sentence, we may frequently hear people saying “I’m not a religious person but I believe in God.”  There, in that sentence, is a separation between faith (here defined as believing in a God) and religion (following a specific order, reading scripture etc).

What The BHA Is Really About

The BHA wants people to make that separation.  They want people to be honest with themselves.  People should ask themselves “am I a religious person?” and “do I observe the practices of a particular religion?”  Sure, you may have been baptised or raised in a religious household but what about now?  Do you go to church?  Do you read the bible?  Do you say prayers?  The BHA does not think it unfair to ask these questions of people when they should be asking them about themselves.

The criticisms have said things like “don’t tell me how to practice my religion” and the like.  Well, if you feel that strongly about it then you probably are a religious person.  Religion in some people is deeply entrenched and when someone questions your religion you see that as them questioning you.  If that’s the case then you should probably write “Christianity”.

But to those who don’t go to church, read the bible or pray – you need to ask yourself whether you really consider yourself religious.  Sure, you might have faith – you might even believe in the Christian God.  But are you religious?

The government judges its position on faith schools partly on the public’s opinion.  If it sees that 37.3m are in favour of state funded faith schools then it’ll press ahead.  If it sees those numbers dipping, like the church attendance ones are, then it may change its position.  People have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to make their true position heard and they should take it.

Conclusion

Whenever people question the role of religion in our society we must try and steer away from knee-jerk hyperbole.  We must be calm and listen to what they say.  If, afterwards, you think they are wrong then fine.  But if you walk away or stand there with deaf hears, choosing only to react to what you think they are saying then your actions may have unfortunate consequences.

The institutionalised discrimination may continue in our schools.  Throughout the country children and teenagers may not be able to go to the school that they want.  Parents everywhere may end up lying, simply to accommodate their children.  Children may become indoctrinated in a religion that they never truly believe but must follow simply because they have no other alternative.

Personally, I don’t agree with organised religion and I especially don’t agree with faith schools, whether they are publicly or privately funded.  We are fortunate to have such liberal rights in our country where parents are free to bring up their children in a way that they see fit, where a government-endorsed religion isn’t forced upon them.  I don’t agree with thrusting a religion on a child but I agree with the human right that allows it.  However, we simply cannot allow the indoctrination of children to be state-funded, and part of the fight against that starts with adults being honest about their religious beliefs in next year’s census.

This campaign isn’t an affront on religion, it’s an affront on dishonesty and its awful effects.