Some of you may have heard of Speaker’s Corner, in Londonbox – an area of Hyde Park where, for over 100 years, people have turned up (generally on Sundays) to speak their brains about whatever they feel is important. The majority of this consists of religious nutbarness, as you might expect, but with a smattering of political, social and ecological viewpoints.
You’re not protected by law, as many people seem to think – but police do tend to steer clear, so as long as you don’t try to wash the colour off a black man or anything similarly importunate you’re probably ok.
I visited briefly a few weeks ago, and noticed that most speakers ignored dissent. Hardly surprising, but there was something distressing about watching a guy on a stepladder spouting nonsense whilst onlookers literally tugged at his sleeves in an attempt to elicit acknowledgement.
I told a friend about this, and he told his friend, and because his friend is all about freedom of speech we decided to redress the balance somewhat. The practical upshot is that I ended up at Speaker’s Corner last Sunday, with a sign, querulously demanding enquiry and questioning on the principle that no-one else would invite such a thing. And bits of it got filmed. And we’re going to edit it into a proper thing.
It was a slightly stressful and entirely awesome experience. I got many dozens of people crowded round, maybe up to a 100 or more, and non-stop questioning for maybe 3 hours. All the old chestnuts came up, along with some new ones that forced me to answer more carefully – it’s certainly not as if I instantly refuted everything, although that was the trend. Sadly, without a formalised debate system, I got overwhelmed from time to time – maybe half a dozen believers all firing questions and not allowing me to respond. But it was all rigorous stuff, and the kind of thing that’s useful to submit yourself to. I’ve debated many people online and a couple in person, but never thrown open my intellectual legs in such a manner before.
The best conversations came from people who partially agreed (My sign read “I’m atheist. There’s no proof for God. And I don’t dodge questions. Go on, ask”). Fundamentalists weren’t interested in arguments, so I had a lady saying she took the bible literally despite the contradictions. A few good eggs took my side entirely, which is fun but somewhat unsatisfying. But a lot of people saw my point but also couldn’t see how the complexity of life existed without God, for example, and those discussions were the best.
Even better, literally seconds after I’d set up a group of people arrived bearing a sign saying “Ask an atheist”. Good people. They had cakes. I didn’t have any, but cake was there, and that’s all that matters.
And the most common question . . . “Can you prove God doesn’t exist?” You can only imagine the fun I had with that.
If all goes well, I’ll have a video made of the day pretty soon. I wasn’t confident about my performance initially, but from the outside I apparently handled myself well. Can’t wait to see how it comes out.