Atheists are as big a threat as climate change deniers

As the comedian said to the Archbishop...

Frank Skinner has claimed that atheists are as big a threat to humanity as climate change deniers.

In a conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury last night, the Catholic comedian said: ‘Atheists we might see as people like those who deny global warming. You might celebrate their right, and defend their freedom of speech, to deny global warming – but if they're wrong, and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible, terrible disaster for a lot of people.’

Later in the event at Canterbury Cathedral, Skinner added that the world’s religions should unite to combat the threat, saying the beliefs they have in common are far greater than their differences.

‘At a time when secularism is a threat to the salvation of millions, believers should get together, find what we have in common, and sell that,’ he said.

Skinner said that it was no longer fashionable to have faith. ‘On the comedy circuit, it’s incredibly cool to be an atheist.

‘I’ve just been to the Edinburgh Fringe and even if it was nothing to do with anything else they were saying, most comics would take three or four minutes to explain they were atheists, just to tick the box of “cool comic”. You have to have tight jeans, you have to have hair that looks like a chrysanthemum and you have to be an atheist if you want to be a cool modern comic.’

Turning to Dr Rowan Williams, he added: ‘Now, you need to sort that out. It’s very bad that being an atheist has got to be a cool position, because that could be very serious as an end result.’

Skinner added that atheists took an aloof intellectual standpoint and ‘looked down at’ the wisdom of believers.

‘It really gets on my nerves that atheists is all about sitting on leather chairs in gentlemen’s clubs with Dawkins and Bertrand Russell while I sit reading novels with Cliff Richard. I think we’re stuck with that.’

He added that his friend and former flatmate David Baddiel could never understand his faith, and would ask: ‘Doesn’t it ever worry you that everyone else who believes in what you believe is an idiot.’

Skinner said his response was to ask: ‘Doesn’t that bother you at Chelsea games?’

The comedian said he had doubts about his own belief, but said that was the definition of faith.

‘I have lots of arguments about religion,’ he said. ‘Most of my conversations are with atheists who want to know how can anyone with any kind of brain believe in a God in the 21st Century.

‘The thing is, I’m not sure. I see myself as a man of doubt. Doubt is at the centre of being human. I wonder about fundamentalists who don’t have doubt – or atheists who don’t have doubt… There are days when I think I’m wrong. I think it’s OK to think that.’

Dr Williams agreed, saying: ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt but certitude.’

Skinner said he read the God Delusion as it was important to hear all the arguments. ‘When I held it in my hands I worried that once I read it I might not believe in God any more,’ he said, before admitting: ‘There were a couple of moments when I thought, “that’s a good point”.’ But his faith remained intact.Frank Skinner

He told the Archbishop religious people had given up too much ground to the rationalists. He said: ‘There’s too much apologising – and I’m afraid the English Anglicans are bad at this – for the magic in religion, making concessions on the virgin birth or the resurrection. Don’t give in to them!

To applause from the audience, he said: ‘If you believe in God all bets are off. The Red Sea can part. There’s a temptation to give a bit of ground to rationality. But if you believe in God, why shouldn’t there be angels?’

He said he didn’t see his personal faith as simply a comfort, but a challenge that made him a better person. ‘If it’s like a big woolly jumper, it can’t be that important, can it? I don’t want religion to be a handrail, I want it to be a precarious walk with no handrail.’

Skinner also urged priests and vicars to improve their sermons, which he said were too often uninspiring, and their delivery. Admitting he could be a ‘tough crowd’ when in church, he said he wished more could use oratorial skills and stick to one point rather than superficially touching on many. And, perhaps echoing the training of any comedian, he wished congregations would give feedback to help the preachers become better public speakers.

He said: ‘People come to church out of a sense of duty, so maybe preachers don’t have to try hard enough.’

Skinner was brought up Catholic, but he also spoke of how he left the church in teenage rebellion at the age of 17, frustrated by the dogma, tradition and authoritarianism he thought had nothing to do with belief. He returned after about 11 years ‘in the wilderness’ with a renewed sense of faith.

He also insisted his profane stage act was not incompatible with his beliefs. ‘I’ve always thought that Jesus and his disciples were 13 blokes hanging around together, travelling, getting food wherever they could – there must have been lots of swearing and ribald conversation.’

‘What I’m looking for here is a vindication of my entire life,’ he joked.

However, Skinner admitted there was not much humour in the Bible: ‘There’s not one example of what I would call a good gag from Jesus. I think that would have brought more people in, made him more human.’

Dr Williams agreed that ‘laugher is not obviously around in the Bible’, adding: ‘Jesus has an extraordinary gift for words, but it’s not thigh-slapping. It’s wit, it’s satire sometimes, and sometimes there’s an undermining of what you would have expected, so it’s shocking in a way.’

Skinner added: ‘I can think of only one laugh in the Bible. When Sarah, I think it is, is old and told she’s going to gave a baby she does this sort of bitter laugh. And God takes exception to it.

Later in the 90-minute conversation, he compared the plurality of world’s religions to football, where fans all loved the game but blindly followed their team. ‘They all gave some sort of allegiance to his great game, but it’s compartmentalised by tribalism,’ he said. ‘In the Eighties people would be clubbing each other because they had different colours on, but it’s all about this brilliant game.’

In a lighter moment predicting the apocalyptic end of the world, Skinner called the ITV1 game show Red Or Black? the beginning of the end. ‘Red or black, that’s Lucifer’s colours,’ he said. ‘I’m wondering if Ant is short for antichrist and Dec for December, the dark end of days. In one round they had to decide on red or black by pulling feathers from an angel. How much symbolism do you need?’

Report by Steve Bennett in Canterbury

Published: 17 Sep 2011

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