Richard Herring is an English comedian and writer who began his career as part of the double act Lee and Herring. His stand up, including his award-winning show ‘Christ on a Bike’, often focuses on the rational and in 2010 he was made a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.
I’ve got a lot of respect for the morality of Christianity.
On becoming interested in science
I’ve always been interested in questioning stuff, I think. I think, just, as a kid I was always interested in logic and, I think, almost my first interest was in, sort of, supernatural stuff and religion and questioning that so that was probably the first thing when I started looking at history and facts and things so that might be where it started by being a bit obsessed with the Bible and then saying, ‘Hold on, this doesn’t make sense’.
And I think my scientific hero is probably, boringly enough, Charles Darwin, who I studied at university, but I think just in terms of the impact of his ideas and thoughts and then the import of them makes him pretty astonishing.
On the joy of science
The joy of science is that it’s academic and dull. Ah, no, I think, you know, the world itself, and everything about how it works is more amazing than anything we can make up and imagine so, you know, just looking at space for example, through a telescope, is pretty extraordinary, then looking at the minutiae of the world and how it, and how animals interact with each other and the kind of crazy stuff that goes on with that. I do find evolution sort of just, completely fascinating and terrifying and mind blowing and it’s sort of, you know, the fact that it probably doesn’t have any instigator and it just happened sort of makes it much more mind blowing and marvellous than if there was some man creating it in the sky. I think the magic of science and the reality of the universe is much more exciting and beautiful than anything we could’ve made up. The randomness and the impossibility of any of us being here on every level. That we’re just on a planet that would be able to sustain life or that the universe would explode in such a way that that would become a possibility. Or even, once that’s there, the idea that your sperm got through to the egg and so did your parents sperm and their parents sperm and right back through history.
I talk [on stage] about how people think it’s romantic that everything’s fated and you’ve got soul mates and spirit guides being together which to me is not romantic. If anything, it being written out in advance doesn’t feel romantic, what feels romantic to me is that thirteen billion years ago we were in a super dense concentrated piece of matter that exploded and was inert and everything and therefore incapable of feeling and thought and yet somehow in thirteen billion years those atoms have come together very temporarily to me and my wife and we’ve met at the right time and we’ve existed at the right time and we’re at the right point of our life to fall in love, whether that’s real or not. You know, to be affected by the chemicals that make us feel that. All that is kind of incredibly magical and impossible, so for me the random nature of reality is much more exciting and beautiful and amazing and just ridiculous. We’ve all won the lottery. I call it, we’ve all won the sperm marathon – which was one of Mars’ less successful chocolate bars – but, ah, people play the lottery every week but you’ve already won the lottery because your sperm got through and when you take it all the way back through history and every single happenstance that would’ve had to happen to create you it is literally impossible if you start in that direction, because that’s how statistics work. Something that’s a billion to one will happen one in a billion times.
On the science of love
I did a show about love and I thought I’d buy some books and it’d explain what love is and what happens and actually there isn’t a properly good scientific explanation for what love is. There’s ideas about what happens and why it happens but there’s not really any scientific explanation of the feeling of love, which is so central to humanity and life and, you know, I partly wanted to do the show because it came out of my show about religion and I thought love and religion were very similar and they possibly originate in the same part of the brain, I guess. You know, this devotion and stuff, but there’s no real proper scientific explanation for love or making people love each other, I guess. There’s no kind of potion for what love should be able to do. We should be able to turn lead into gold but we haven’t done that, and make people love each other.
On the rising popularity of science
Are we saying that, that it’s like a pop band? If lots of people like it, it’s not as good anymore?! I think it’s fantastic. I think knowledge spreading is a brilliant thing and people being curious and questioning stuff is really, really important so I think a world where people aren’t interested in science and the way which things actually work is a much more frightening world than a world where everyone kind of thinks about stuff a bit more carefully and realises that they don’t have to blow each other up over some interpretation of something that doesn’t happen.
But, you know, I think people are always going to attack something, if, if you’ve got a deeply held belief, and rational people do this as well as religious people, and I’m not saying that all religious people aren’t rational, but people like, if you’ve got a strongly held belief in something it’s very, ah, you’ve invested a lot in it so therefore you’re going to, ah, if anything seems to attack it or question it you’ll, the natural instinct is to push against it. So I think as science becomes more popular, then I think the reason religious people are becoming more vociferous and angry and that, you know, it’s weird to see Christian people in this country acting in a way that a very small minority of them are acting because that is not what Christianity is about. I’ve got a lot of respect for the morality of Christianity but that’s an inevitable reaction I think to the progress of a more thoughtful understanding of the world.
On the reality of existence
I think if people don’t understand something, or can’t comprehend it themselves, again, it’s tempting to dismiss it or think it’s not important, um, I think if anything, kind of, those advances, the fact that everyone has this kind of amazing phone now that can do all these incredible things, that’s got to make people more interested and, you know, ultimately science can do all the, you know, even the mundane things are pretty exciting but it’s created a world where we can fly to Australia in a day and we can do all sorts of, we can possibly go into space in our lifetime. These things are pretty exciting as it is. I think people mainly see the positive side of it. Hopefully. I mean the fact that aeroplanes actually fly in the sky is pretty good evidence that science is working. Whereas no religious person, I’ve never seen any religious person, despite some of the stories they have done, been able to fly. Religion hasn’t made anyone be able to fly.
You can see the evidence for science, and it’s effectiveness, every day. You know, we’ve got an amazing camera that can film this and so I think science has kind of done pretty well in proving itself but it doesn’t mean that it’s, or what it says is right, but I don’t think scientists make any claims that they have all the answers to everything. So if they don’t know, they’ll say ‘We don’t know’, or ‘This is what we think might be the case’, rather than, ‘I think it’s this because this sounds right’, which is what a faith is kind of about I suppose. But for some people they need the security. It’s very much like being a child, you know, you tell children stories to help them through life because they can’t understand very simple things like why things are dark at night time and stuff so you make up stories to help them through. You make up little monsters to stop them running off into the woods at night so they’ll be scared of doing that so that will protect them whatever actual dangers might be there. So you make up these stories that are kind of nicer than real life but are actually helpful and that’s kind of what a lot of these faith based things are. People going, ‘Oh well, I don’t like the idea that when I die that will be the end of it so I refuse to believe that. I’m going to believe that something beautiful and amazing happens even though there’s no evidence for it’, and even if there was life after death there’s no guarantee that you’d go somewhere better than where we are. I don’t see that there’s any reason you’d go to a paradise. That they’d be holding that off and then they go, ‘Here you go. Well done’. There’s every chance that if you lived on that it’d be even worse, that place that you go to even if you’ve been a good person while you’ve been here. So you know I think some people need, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
I sort of think that whatever gets you through life, and if you can’t cope with reality and you want to believe, and, that was what my love show was a little bit about, I think we all have coping mechanisms and things. The actual blunt truth of existence is pretty bleak, and probably of human relationships too if we’re quite honest about it, aren’t that nice. So we all have coping mechanisms. Believing and being altruistic and being nice and being a moral person, in a way, is a kind of construct. Life isn’t fair and unfair and any moral system, any political system, is created, and you’d be prepared to die for democracy possibly and yet it’s a construct. It’s not a real thing. It may be a good system, it may work as a system, but it’s not an actual thing, there’s no fairness, there’s no right or wrong. If there’s no God, there is no right or wrong, you have to make up your own moral system so we all live under delusional circumstances and it just depends on how much reality you’re willing to let into your life and how much that will, and, you know, if it starts to debilitate you, the actual truth of existence then it’s probably better to believe there’s a God. If you’re able to cope, I kind of prefer the idea that I will die and that will be the end of it because to me the idea of living for eternity is quite a burden especially when I don’t have my body. I’d quite like my body. If I’m just a sort of spirit and I don’t have any food or sex or ability to touch stuff, well, that’s gonna be quite a boring infinity. So the idea of it ending for me, is quite a relief.
On the importance of being interested
I think curiosity and questioning stuff is, I mean, as a comedian, that’s what my whole job is about, even questioning things you believe in and seeing if they’re right. I think, just for people to look at the world a bit more logically and to, you know, I think if you can start to have an understanding of science and the process of science it can help you to understand things that aren’t scientific as well. It can help you to logically look at something terrible that happens and not blame specifically someone for it or, you know, when you see the logic that some people, they see something bad happen and the logic that some people have and who they decide to blame in a quite illogical and knee jerk kind of way, I think if you have that scientific method and you’re a bit more open to saying, ‘Let’s get all the evidence in before we make a decision about what’s happened’, hopefully those kind of things can help people.