It might seem odd to conduct an interview with someone who has publicly revealed only his first name, but this anonymity hasn't prevented some prominent atheists, such as Ricky Gervais, Sam Harris, and Douglas Murray from appearing on his weekly podcast, which never fails to make for enlightening listening. I first met Stephen -- the author of Godless Spellchecker's Blogand host of the #GSPodcast -- in October (virtually) after he published several instances of plagiarism by a now discredited hack that had been discovered by philosophy professor Peter Boghossian.
Stephen was kind enough to agree to an email exchange in which we discussed his blog, religious fanaticism and their enablers, and other faith-based topics.
MICHAEL LUCIANO: Tell me about Godless Spellchecker's Blog -- how it began, why it's called that, and why you choose to remain anonymous.
GODLESS SPELLCHECKER: Well, the blog came a little after my Twitter account. I was always fascinated with the God vs. Atheism debate and I'd noticed a lot of discussion around it on Twitter. Just out of sheer curiosity one day I typed in the misspelling of 'athiests' on Twitter and was greeted with a never-ending plethora of hateful anti-atheist bigotry. Hilarious and terrifying in equal measure. The idea of setting up a Twitter account to challenge some of this amused me, and so 'Godless Spellchecker' was born.
I decided before my very first tweet that I'd never swear or be abusive towards anyone I interacted with – I'd have to settle for mocking and pithy. So I'd make a routine of quoting the absurd or hateful comments of others made at the expense of atheists, then include my snarky rebuttal. Others started noticing this and my follower count grew. Then Ricky Gervais noticed it and my follower count grew. I set up the blog a little later to have more space to expand my ideas and as a means to improve my writing ability (still working on it), and subsequently provide a home for my podcast.
As for staying anonymous; a couple of reasons. Firstly, I felt my account would be more effective if those taking shots at it only had my words to aim at, and secondly because people close to me aren't entirely comfortable with fundamentalists knowing my identity. I have to say I understand their concerns. I'm not completely against revealing my identity, but I don't want it to be for the cheap attention seeking reason of “look at me!” And of course, if Tweeting and podcasting was my sole occupation it would make the decision less complicated.
If an irresistible or important opportunity presented itself that would require me having a face though, I'd take it in an instant, but I've no desire to be a Twitter celebrity.
LUCIANO: You've interviewed some pretty famous atheists for your podcast: Gervais, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray. Who am I forgetting? And is it difficult to book guests as a person with an anonymous online persona?
SPELLCHECKER: There’s also Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer and Maryam Namazie, not that I like to name-drop of course! I try to find a healthy mix of known public figures and people without the public profile that have equally interesting and important things to say. Some of my favorite discussions have been with people who have no profile or reach, yet have these amazing experiences to share. Ex-Muslims, Ex-Mormons, former Preachers, ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses etc. I think it’s my job to amplify these voices and ideas where I can find them.
Good question about anonymity and guests though. Early on I’d sign off my email show invites with ‘GS’, and it never really occurred to me that this was putting me at a disadvantage until a potential guest responded by saying they were uncomfortable coming on a show with some "anonymous guy." This struck me as a fair point, so I told them who I was and what I was about, which alleviated their fears straight away and we did the show. After that I decided to sign off all my emails with my real name -- Stephen -- and I’ve not had any problems since.
I’ve no prior expertise in interviewing, producing a podcast etc – so I’m pretty much learning as I go by trial and error. I feel like I’m getting better at it as I accrue more experience – but I have a new found respect for really competent speakers and Interviewers as a result.
LUCIANO: Going back to your first response. When you say you're not comfortable with "fundamentalists" knowing your identity, what types of people are you talking about specifically, if any?
SPELLCHECKER: Well, firstly there’s the idiots who simply may not take kindly to having their stupidity mocked and attempt to seek out revenge. Secondly, we have a fraudulent and malicious clown in the U.K. named Mo Ansar who invented his CV and subsequently a career as a public commentator for all things Islam. Happily, work has dried up for him since being exposed as a charlatan, but he has a habit of responding to Twitter-based criticism by contacting the employers of those responsible and demanding their sacking – sometimes successfully. As someone who likes their day job and has a fondness for being able to pay the mortgage, I could do without that kind of thing. Were I to earn my living through my blogging/podcasting however, I’d probably have a different outlook.
And of course, we should mention Islamofascism. We have a very real problem where one particular ideology and criticism of it is concerned. It’s now impossible to know where the line sits between safe criticism and a fatwa. I think too few people are willing to admit that this type of fear is justified and instead opt for the safe haven of Islamic apologism in their writing.
LUCIANO: The kind of harassment critics of Islam have to put up with is incredible -- absurd accusations of racism, bigotry, "Islamophobia" -- for merely critiquing a book with a myriad of principles that are fundamentally anathema to modern values. And for these accusers, no amount of caveats and qualifications are enough to make clear that there's a difference between critiquing a belief that someone holds and attacking someone because they hold a belief.
What really strikes me is the number of loud non-Muslim defenders of Islam, who, by virtue of not being Muslims, implicitly think the doctrine is hogwash. Otherwise, they'd be Muslims. So here they are staunchly defending something they think is at the very least based on a false premise. What's the psychology behind this?
SPELLCHECKER: Well, I think there’s probably a couple of reasons. Firstly, those who have no idea what it’s like to truly believe that waging jihad guarantees you a spot in paradise make the assumption that no-one else truly believes it either, so assume there must be other, more integral motivations.
Secondly, many liberal idealists seem unable to separate ideology from people, and often view Muslims as an ethnicity or minority group that need to be wrapped in cotton wool and spared "offense." Ironically, it’s almost like a version of "racism of low expectations," so whenever they perceive an "attack" on Islam from its critics, they in turn perceive an attack on all Muslims as people and appoint themselves chief defender of the faith. They think this is quite virtuous, as if they are rooting for a helpless underdog, when they’re simply providing shade for brutal theocrats whose chief victims are actually Muslims. I find this quite obnoxious and patronizing. It also denies the agency of Muslims who speak out against Islamism and extremism too -- often at great risk to themselves.
If there’s one thing I am forced to expect in this entire discussion it’s this: It does not matter how clear and objective your language and criticism of Islam as an ideology is, some non-Muslims will definitely accuse you of bigotry towards people. It’s far easier to caricature someone as a bigot than it is to engage with arguments that may cause some discomfort to easy sensibilities. It’s funny, if I speak up against violence, enslavement of women and the suppression of free speech I’m a bleeding heart liberal. If I do the exact same thing in the context of Islam, I’m a right-wing imperialist. There’s a great eBook by Douglas Murray called Islamophilia, which hilariously documents the willingness of non-Muslim public figures not only to defend Islam, but heap gushing praise upon it too. It’s a remarkable phenomenon.
LUCIANO: It is. If you were to strip the religious references from the Quran to the point where it was simply a book on how to live, these same "liberal idealists" would reject it as a moral travesty, as rightly they should. Whatever good moral advice there is in the Quran, the bad advice is simply too grievous and repulsive to redeem it. Yet once these seventh century values are cloaked in the shroud of a religion that dominates countries once under the colonial and imperial boot of Western powers, the book that contains them is magically absolved of its wicked principles. Frankly, I wouldn't mind it as much if these same liberals were as protective of the Bible, but by and large they'll gleefully jump at any chance they get to attack and make fun of it. I guess for them, some Abrahamic religions are more equal than others.
Speaking of the Bible, the 2016 presidential race is about to heat up. I'd like to get your take as a Brit -- specifically the role that religion plays in our national politics, especially on the Republican side. There was a Pew poll conducted last year that said 53% of Americans would be less likely to vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president. Does the abnormally high level of religiosity in our politics (for a Western nation) alarm you at all, even all the way across the pond?
SPELLCHECKER: Well, personally I find The USA's love affair with God fascinating and try not to pass up an opportunity to question my American podcast guests about it. A belief in the Christian God is so infused with American patriotism -- that to be ungodly, is to be un-American. Unlike us Brits, you have a secular Constitution, yet are a de facto Christian nation in terms of politics. We Brits have a Monarchy where our ruler and Queen is also the Head Of The Church Of England, not to mention we have mandatory daily Christian worship in our state schools and 26 unelected Bishops sitting in The House Of Lords. Yet despite all this, polls show our attitudes are predominantly secular. It seems it's a requirement to profess belief in a deity in order to run for any political role in the states, yet in the U.K. a politician vocalizing their supernatural convictions too loudly would find themselves counting sniggers rather than votes.
Our current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has shown more zeal in this regard unfortunately when he recently claimed Britain was a Christian Country. This resulted in an open letter of disagreement featuring 50 of our well known scientists, academics, entertainers etc. I find it hard to imagine American personalities putting their careers on the line in the same way – knowing they'd face a backlash from the influential Christian right. But yes, it is a concern that some Christian demagogue could be handed the keys to The White House. The fact that someone like Sarah Palin could come so close is a reality that is as absurd as it is alarming. I think the best chance for progress in this area is educating people on the secular foundation of the nation and somehow dispelling the myth that one can only have morals by having religion. Good luck.
LUCIANO: I've always found this religious dichotomy between the U.S. and the U.K. fascinating. Despite the secular Constitution of the U.S., conservative Christians are constantly trying to foist their beliefs on everyone else using government as an intermediary -- prayer in schools, creationism in schools, nativity scenes on government property, and so on. Meanwhile despite a far more secular population in the U.K., you have a state church, and yet there seems to be no serious push to divorce the two, to use a word that seems quite apt from a historical perspective.
What do you think explains that? Is it because religion isn't a major theme in U.K. politics like it is here? Or is it something else?
SPELLCHECKER: It’s a good question. I think perhaps one reason is because it’s no longer a societal advantage in England to identify as a believer, or a Christian for the most part. “I’m a person of faith” doesn’t have the same currency as it does in the states. So, running for office as a representative of god’s word would be viewed as divisive or gimmicky, rather than commendable. I can only speak for my northern, working-class upbringing, but religion seems very much a "please keep it to yourself" topic in the U.K.
Unfortunately, we do still have the same problems with wealthy Christian lobby groups hoping to influence legislation on abortion, gay marriage, science, the workplace etc. And we have a huge problem with our "free" and "faith" schooling system in this country, which far from being in decline, is actually expanding and taking more ground. That aside, we also have a huge problem in our state schools too, as the recent "Trojan Horse Islamist Takeover Plot" demonstrated.
The scary thing about that whole affair is that it could still have occurred were there no faith or free schools at all. We sincerely need to reevaluate how religion is taught in our schools. A clear line needs to be drawn between education in religion, and indoctrination into a religion.
But Christianity in our monarchy and other institutions seems more of a tradition than anything. We are a culturally Christian society from a historical viewpoint, and on some level I think people think that by preserving this, they are preserving "Britishness" which some view as under threat from immigration and Islam. I know some people who identify as Christian on the British census who have never read a bible or have been to church in their life, but do so because they view it as a push-back to the increase in Islam, which in their view is "un-British." They do this without realizing they're simply engaging in a battle for whose stupid ideas should survive.
Even though church attendance is constantly declining, these census stats are then used to justify faith-based initiatives. We’d do well to lose this 'little Englander' mentality and have a serious discussion about what ‘British Values’ means, and which are worth preserving.
LUCIANO: If you could bring back from the dead any atheist for an interview, whom would you choose?
SPELLCHECKER: It would be without doubt Christopher Hitchens. I'm not sure it'd be an interview as such, but more of a "listen" on my part.
Such an eloquent speaker with an inhuman capacity for recalling history, literature and facts. It didn't even matter if you agreed with what he was saying, you'd always learn something and be entertained in the process. It's an odd feeling to grieve for and miss a person you've never even met, but his persona just commanded that power. Whenever some religious atrocity, or political scandal hits the news I always selfishly wish that Hitch was still here to teach me something and put the apologists and demagogues in their place. You could hear a sigh of relief from theocracy when Hitchens bowed out. I often hear from people who are just discovering his work for the first time. This always makes me smile.
LUCIANO: Finally, you've clearly devoted substantial amounts of your free time to your blog, podcast, and to the freethought cause in general. Many are thankful you do, myself included. (I'm assuming you're not paid). Why do you do it?
SPELLCHECKER: Well, it’s important to note that since around May 2014 I created a Patreon page for the podcast, which allows listeners to support the show financially, albeit voluntarily -- the show remains free to listen and download. It’s a great way to support content creators. I’ve been very fortunate to see that kind of support grow, and as a result I now harbor delusions of one day quitting my day job and blogging/podcasting full-time! Current Patreon support trends suggest I should be good to go around 2020.
In regards to the why -- seeing some of Ricky Gervais’s stand-up about religion not only opened my eyes to the idea that there is humor to be found in critiquing religion, but how important a tool like humor can be in defeating bad, yet well established ideas in a civil society. I always say it’s like pulling down the big bully’s trousers in front of everyone. The bully will never quite command that same level of power again. People say you shouldn’t mock a person’s religious beliefs – I say it’s absolutely essential that you do. Nothing is above ridicule. I primarily think of myself as a joker who’s just found this comedic goldmine of material with religion, so the entertainment value just for myself has never waned.
Secondly, and most importantly, as you enter early adulthood you begin to notice just how much influence and privilege these bad ideas possess in terms of society, politics, equality, education, healthcare etc. I think as you leave your teens most people begin to see outward a bit more and develop empathy to a greater extent, so you become more interested in the goings on of places that aren’t located in your own little world. I did anyway, and I was horrified to notice how much oppression and suffering was taking place as a direct result of Iron Age nonsense. Utterly pointless and unjust. So, I decided I wanted to be a part of some of the push-back to these bad ideas, however small. If I can use my Twitter, Podcast or Blog to amplify a good or alternate idea to someone who may not have been introduced to it yet, then that makes me happy.