TAM London video 2: Ariane Sherine

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2009 8:00 am

Last week I posted a video interview I did with George Hrab at TAM London, but I was able to snag a couple more with other interesting and cool people.

Ariane Sherine qualifies for both. She is a warm, funny, self-effacing woman, yet organized the famous atheist bus campaign in England, as well as edited the book An Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (to which I contributed an essay on the Star of Bethlehem). I talked with her as things were getting cleaned up after the meeting, so there’s some background noise, but I think you can make out what she’s saying in this brief video interview.

I like her point a lot; atheists tend to be reviled in the U.S., but are just as misunderstood as Christians and Jews and Muslims are to each other, and vice-versa and every which way you want to permute those combinations.

I still have one more TAM London interview to post, and that’ll go up Wednesday morning. Stay tuned!


Comments (32)

  1. Sc00ter

    Will you perhaps mention the JREF or Randi.org in the next video? Seems like you should be plugging them consider that TAM is a JREF event and you’re the president.

  2. Spacing them out are we? I’ll have to wait until I get homw to view this though. It is true that we (atheists) are reviled and misunderstood. I think it’s the misunderstanding that gets to me the most though. The arguments that atheism is a religion, or that it takes faith to be an atheist, or that we have no morals, or all the other (frankly) STUPID arguments people make… Enought to make you scream…

    Not to get too off topic, but I was parusing some astronomy stuff, and would love to hear your thoughts on these two items:

    Heliosphere “ribbon”: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/15oct_ibex.htm?list185832

    Europa Oxygen: http://www.physorg.com/news174918239.html#top (Especially considering how reactive oxygen is, and what would be required to keep a fresh supply going.)

    A tip o’ anything would please me a great deal! :)

  3. Mapnut

    I’d like to try a little logic on the issue of whether it takes faith to be an atheist. Just a caveat: it depends on your definition of atheist. You skeptics are extremely fond of saying you can’t prove a negative. If atheism is the conviction that God does not exist, you concede it can’t be proven. How then do you justify having that conviction? You can say that there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that God exists, and I would agree. What then allows atheism to have the strength of a conviction? Do you believe it because you want to believe it? And would that be faith?

    I’ve heard atheists accuse agnostics of being too cowardly to have convictions. But really, if you’re a skeptic, it has to work in more than one direction.

    You’re welcome, of course, to show the flaw in my logic. That might help with the misunderstanding issue.

  4. Mapnut: most atheists (myself included) do not assert that there is no god. We merely do not believe there is a god. Non-belief does not equate to belief in a negative. There is no conviction, no belief, no faith.

    However, you will find that many of us (myself included again) say that there PROBABLY isn’t a god (Ariane Sherine even put it on the side of a bus). This is because when there is no evidence for the existence of a thing, there is no need to account for that thing in everything from rigorous scientific theories to every day life. We then say that such a thing does not exist as a shorthand for saying it probably does not exist.

    If something can not be observed or measured in any way, there is no need to consider the question of its existence. Otherwise, we’d waste a lot of energy saying “probably” all the time.

  5. holastefan

    @Mapnut #3 – To answer your question, just do this experiment at home yourself: Justify your conviction for the non-existence of leprechauns. Then you’ll know atheists’ stand on invisible space ghosts.

    To quote Stephen Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” Ask yourself if you have “faith” that Vishnu does not exist.

    Google “QualiaSoup” for his youtube video “Putting faith in its place” for a longer discussion of your point.

  6. Carl Buell

    Mapnut, would you please define what you think god (God) is for me? Give me a definition and then we’ll talk.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ Mapnut:

    You skeptics are extremely fond of saying you can’t prove a negative.

    I don’t even know what that means. I suspect it alludes to the difficulty to show absence from a set, say “there are no black swans”. There certainly isn’t any references that can tell you – or at least to my recollection I have never been able to find any.

    What little I can find IIRC indicate that it is a theological cum philosophical idea that has been adopted by agnostics. That is, it has nothing to do with reality. And it is more telling of theology and agnostics than anything else.

    And fact is that science indeed tests for negative characteristics or set exclusions regularly by way of theories that by their nature excludes unnatural exceptions – things don’t fall up, there are no ice in volcanoes, and there is even a “no cloning theorem” in quantum mechanics. It’s just harder in most cases.

    How then do you justify having that conviction?

    This is more philosophy – “knowledge is justified belief”. Well, turns out that is wrong too. It is, I think, a sentiment from the days when science was proposed to “be inductive”, to “try to go for perfection”. Such ladders of descent is again a theological idea, or at least has been popular with theologists because inductivism doesn’t work by it’s own measure.

    Scientific knowledge OTOH rests on testing, which is exclusion of observation and theories that “can’t be”, that which is wrong. In sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal words, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

    Or rather, fact. Truths are such contingent and puny things, dependent on your axiomatic system of choice. Facts OTOH can be tested “beyond reasonable doubt”, against statistical limits that scientists have agreed on purely for convenience, and may be very robust – things don’t fall up, remember?

    So I reject your characterization of empirical knowledge as “justified beliefs” and substitute “tested fact and theory”. This, gaining knowledge, is in no way a matter of faith, it is not a “conviction”. It works, we know it by testing (see, it is consistent as opposed to “inductivism”), and we know why we know it.

    As I noted above, to test for predictions of a theory that excludes processes, objects or properties, can be harder than inclusion. But to test for no dualism/supernaturalism OTOH seems to be surprisingly easy.

    Just make a binomial test on the null hypothesis that “all observations are predicted by natural theories” vs the hypothesis that “some aren’t”. I estimate that 5 years of todays scientific output has tested this to 3 sigma (need ~ 250 000 successfully predicted data sets at max error).

    3 sigma means here “tested beyond reasonable doubt”, since it’s a theory on nature. That means that the idea that “there PROBABLY isn’t a god” can be quantified, and if the same rules is applied as elsewhere they can be excluded from further consideration by empirical observation.

    Falsification would come from for example such religious claims that supernatural beings observes and acts on wishes/prayers. Prayer studies have been made, and lo and behold, no one was listening or acting. But there are plenty of others, like christian zombies (“zombie Jesus”), et cetera.

    Testing kills in one fell swoop all gods, since the non-interacting ones are a subset of theological claims and isn’t included in the parsimony set of natural processes. Wasn’t there some german who said that humans first created all gods and then destroyed them all? Well, seems he was right.

  8. GregB


    >If atheism is the conviction that God does not exist

    False premise/straw man.

    Read Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” and become familiar with his 7 levels of faith. The vast majority of atheist are level 6 which says “The probability of god existing is a very small number approaching zero and I live my life as it god does not exist.”

    Level 7 is “God does not exist. I don’t need proof, I just know”. It is extremely rare to find an atheist who thinks this way. Christians, however, seem to think this is the default belief for atheist. Level 6 is vastly more intellectually honest than level 7 because we admit that we can’t know for sure, but every bit of evidence so far points to religion being nothing more than a bunch of myths and we choose not to believe in those myths.

    Level 1 is “God exist. I don’t need proof, I just know”. There are far more people at level 1 than level 7 and Level 1 is just as intellectually dishonest as level 7. But you can find quite a few (if not most) religious people who are at level 1.

    You should also research Russell’s teapot
    which describes why not being able to prove the existance of something does not make that thing more worth of belief, but less. (which should seem obvious to anyone who’s thinking is not muddy from religion).

    It’s also important to note that there are religiouis claims which ARE testable. The concept that “prayer works” is testable and when tested it always fails. Faith healing fails. In fact, if any evidence of any supernatural event was to appear the JREF would gladly pay out the million dollar challenge. But it hasn’t appeared.

  9. I am nice and generous just to cover my rear.

  10. Mapnut

    Sorry Carl, what would be the use of defining the God I don’t believe in? It’s probably different from the God you don’t believe in, in fact the god you don’t believe in probably isn’t even capitalized. The one Holastefan doesn’t believe in is an “invisible space ghost”. The contempt implied by that characterization makes me think that atheists who use it are emotionally invested in their disbelief, perhaps for the feeling of superiority it gives them.

    I’m just being, well, whatever is the opposite of Devil’s Advocate. To roughly quote Joseph Heller, the God I don’t believe in is a good, kind, loving God, not the mean and stupid one you don’t believe in.

  11. Woody Tanaka

    ‘The contempt implied by that characterization makes me think that atheists who use it are emotionally invested in their disbelief, perhaps for the feeling of superiority it gives them.”

    I don’t think that it is necessarily so. While it could, it has been my experience that such things are little more than gentle ribbing to break the religious person from their default position by which religion and objects of religious veneration are treated with respect, and are expected to treated that way, even by people who don’t subscribe to that religion or any religion at all. To the atheist, however, it is profoundly silly, and treated as such.

    Cf., the Christian who mocks another culture’s creation story as being primative and obviously false, when his own can be described as the story of a man made from dirt, a woman made from a rib, a talking snake and a tree growing magic fruit. When seen in that light, what the religious may take as profound can be seen as being, itself, primative and obviously false.

  12. DaveS

    Geez, all you’se guys arguing over what “atheist” means, and nobody even mentioned that Ms. Sherine is *seriously* cute.

  13. JB of Brisbane

    While I agree with Torbjorn Larsson OM, I do wish he and everybody else would stop alluding to that black swan analogy. Black swans (Cygnus atratus) can be found all over Australia in most places where water is in abundance. In fact, the white ones had to be introduced here.

  14. Really, there’s a pretty lady there and all y’all can do is worry about beliefs/non-beliefs. I believe I’d ask her out if possible. I also believe I’d be shot down.

  15. Damon

    “Athiest” is just another label. It implies a belief, which is where these misconceptions come from. The truth is, there is no term, label, or “belief structure” for someone who chooses not to arbitrarily believe in some omnipotent sky pixie simply because their parents and society tell them they are supposed to. In a way, everyone is born an Athiest. It isn’t until they have it beaten into them (or make a life choice in a moment of weakness) that the Faith infection takes root.

    When people find out that I don’t believe, they often appear to feel sorry for me for some reason. As if trotting around like a putz wearing my faith on my sleeve is the ideal lifestyle. I’m not sure where they get this from. I have more important things to do with my time than channel everything I perceive into a tight little worldview based on my strict doctrine for how reality should behave. Thanks but no thanks.

  16. …aaaannnddd now for the debate on “Who’s going to start up the Ariane Sherine hotness club?”

    I vote me for President, DaveS (#12) for Treasurer and ultraholland (#14) for Social Secretary.

    Motion carried? The vote is unanimous, we want to see more of Ariane discussing atheism.

  17. Strider

    I want to be Shadow Minister in charge of fetching Ariane Sherine’s drinkies!

    I’m curious; this was on CNN’s website:
    Is this news? I thought we’d already discovered exoplanets!

    Mapnut, what are you trying to get at?

  18. Just me

    Can someone please outline the “7 levels of faith”, according to Dawkins? I haven’t read TGD, so I’m not familiar with them. I’m curious to know where I rate on the spectrum.

    And I’d like to join the “Ariane Sherine Hotness Club”. 😀

  19. scottb

    Mapnut sez: “The contempt implied by that characterization makes me think that atheists who use it are emotionally invested in their disbelief, perhaps for the feeling of superiority it gives them.”

    Holy cow, project much?

  20. Just me

    @ 15 Damon

    A couple of things you say in your first paragraph demonstrate why perhaps some religious folks have issues with atheists: First of all, beliefs aren’t “arbitrary”. People have religious beliefs for all kinds of reasons. Even within a religion, the specifics vary significantly. The “omnipotent sky pixie” is just one of literally millions or perhaps billions of religious concepts that exist among the people of the world.
    Very few people have religion “beaten into them” either literally or figuratively. And while it’s true that some people come to faith through a “moment of weakness” or because of a significant, life-altering experience, that is also not a universal experience.

    In your second paragraph, you express your displeasure at religious people who make assumptions about who you are or how you function in the world because you don’t believe what they do. Don’t be like them by making assumptions about the reasons why religious people believe what they do.

    As for me, if you’re happy with your life, then I am happy for you. I would encourage you to live your life in the best way you know how, and to rise above the ignorant judgments made by people who choose a narrow view of the world.

    In general, the phenomenon of religion is much more interesting and complex than the simple notion that religious people are too dumb to know any better. Or worse, that it’s an insidious plot to brainwash & control the population. If the phenomenon of religion was approached with the same genuine curiosity that drives most scientific endeavors, I think we’d gain a lot more insight into who we are as a species. Granted, deconstructing religion is a much more difficult undertaking than, say, searching for the Higgs boson, because you have to pry into the minds and “souls” of people who may not be too thrilled at idea being intellectually/anthropologically/theologically poked & prodded or of having their faith deconstructed & analyzed.

  21. stan9fos
  22. Kyle

    OK am I just seeing things or does Phil have a stud in his chin or is that just a really really think patch of hair? Looks like a stud….studs, tattoos…..what is next one wonders?

    Or maybe I just need to get bifocals, I am 40 now.

  23. Rolan le Gargéac

    Calling a woman “unprepossessing” is an insult in the British Isles, does it mean something else in the US ?

  24. #4 Carey, #8 GregB: You’re absolutely correct. Despite what Christian apologists claim about him, Richard Dawkins places himself in Level 6 on his scale, not Level 7. One of the introductory chapters of The God Delusion is entitled “Why There Almost Certainly is no God”. He has always said that, if anyone was ever able to prove that God exists, then he would have to admit that he was wrong – but of course, he considers that such an event is extremely unlikely.

  25. Markle

    @Strider Isn’t the Shadow Cabinet the opposition?

  26. Mapnut

    Scottb says: “Holy cow, project much?”

    Not really, in fact this is the only place I come where anti-non-atheism annoys me. Everywhere else, religiosity annoys me.

  27. Rolan (#23): Oh my. You’re right. I have always heard the term “unprepossesing” to mean simply modest. I looked it up after you mentioned it, and it means “unremarkable”, which certainly does NOT fit Ariane. I edited the text, and thanks for pointing out my mistake.

  28. Also, again with the comments on how a woman looks? We’ve been down this road before, and I’d prefer to stay off of it.

  29. Rolan le Gargéac

    Well you started it with the “unprepossessing” !

    Sorry, couldn’t resist…

  30. mike burkhart

    Phill for your information even thro I am Ctaholic I do understand what Jews ,Muslams and all other religons beleve because I have studyed ther beleves the question I have is do Atheists try to understand what religous people beleve or do they even care I think if we make a effort to understand each other then maybe Atheists and religous can get along with eace other In fact I would encouge Atheists to study what religons beleve not to convert but to understand and I would encouge religous people not to force Athests to beleve if they don’t want to beleve in God that is there right no one should be forced to beleve something that they don’t I call on both sides to respect each other and show tolerence we don’t have to agree but we do have to live on the same planet so lets get along with each other

  31. scottb

    mike –

    I think you’ll find that the majority of atheists and agnostics were raised in a religious environment and know religion very well. In fact, I’ve found that some of the strongest (on the scale mentioned above) are often former fundamentalists.

  32. Phil Plait: Also, again with the comments on how a woman looks?

    Sorry, Phil, it’s just the Fark in me 😛


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