In Conversation: Alex J. O’Connor, Cosmic Skeptic

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Alex J. O’Connor is the founder of the Cosmic Skeptic YouTube channel, podcast and blog, and his work is dedicated to the open discussion of philosophy and religion. He is an experienced public speaker, debater, and interviewer, and has over 300,000 YouTube subscribers. He also finds time to study at the University of Oxford.

You are known for your informative and detailed videos on religion, atheism, and philosophy, but your recent videos supporting veganism have evoked some negative responses from the online atheist community. What has this reaction to your veganism taught you, and has it changed the way you approach online criticism, especially within a community that you are part of?

It has taught me that there is a genuine unwillingness among people who otherwise champion rational analysis and criticism of the status quo to apply their scepticism to their reliance on the exploitation of animals. Many of my friends, and I regret to say some former friends (some people have really not appreciated my pointing this out), who have built careers out of identifying and exposing logical fallacies in the arguments of the religious, are parading the very same fallacies to justify their consumption of cows, chickens, and pigs.

I can understand and encourage disagreeing with my arguments, but the anger I have experienced in response to my defence of animal rights is genuinely bemusing. On Twitter I am constantly accused of being a liar, a preachy evangelical, and an absolutist. (Not to say that this seriously bothers me; it takes a lot to make me cry.) I cite any and every factual claim I make on request, and have never prevented anybody from clicking the seemingly elusive ‘unfollow’ button (which some of my followers are apparently yet to be introduced to—I am only as ‘preachy’ as people are willing to listen).

One accusation I do not shy away from, however, is the last I have listed. If there is such thing as an absolutist vegan, you can count me among their number (I am absolutely against the unnecessary infliction of suffering on the innocent). In my previous works, I have also been an ‘absolutist’ in my opposition to, for instance, homophobia and racism, yet I have never received a complaint about that.

What inspired your conversion to veganism, and why do you think it aligns with a secular ideology?

The case for veganism is an extraordinarily easy one to make, and even years before I gave up animal products I knew that I was participating in something morally indefensible. I can only now look back with embarrassment on that time in my life before I allowed my ethical principles to guide actually my actions.

The ethical principle underlying all my behaviour is that unnecessary suffering should be avoided, and that it is inexcusable to harm the innocent without good reason. Eating and wearing animal products is far from a necessity; the American and British Dietetic Associations have both confirmed that veganism is healthy at all stages of life, including pregnancy, and therefore the only justification we have left for our maltreatment of animals in factory farms (from which 95% of our meat comes) is taste and convenience. My revolutionary realisation was that I do not have the right to torture an animal because I like the taste of its secretions in my coffee. It makes a parody of everything we ostensibly believe in as a nation of animal lovers to attempt to justify what happens to those animals we have become addicted to eating.

I urgently advise anybody who doubts the severity of the moral emergency at hand to watch the documentary Land of Hope and Glory on YouTube. It was produced by my friend Ed Winters, and details the industry-standard practices of factory farms in the UK. To fully explain the horrors of the industry requires more space than I could hope to be permitted here, and is far more effective when a person can see the conditions of the animals for themselves.

Secularism is the belief that religion should not influence the workings of government, and should not be discriminated against or granted special privileges in society. In the UK it is a legal requirement to stun cows before they are slaughtered, and though this often fails and is hardly painless, an exemption is made for this rule if the cow is being religiously slaughtered for halal or kosher meat. That is to say, if you wish to turn a fully a conscious animal upside down and slash its throat to bleed out in a scene of truly unimaginable cruelty, you are allowed to, provided your motives are religious. It is not just the human species that benefits from the advent of secular government.

Many people first encounter atheism through the works of Richard Dawkins, a figure you recently interviewed on your YouTube channel. For people who are intrigued by the concept of atheism, but who want to dive deeper into atheist literature, what would you suggest they read next?

Dawkins’ scientific writings are unparalleled in lucidity and intelligibility, yet it is easy to find his theological reflections wanting. It would be criminal not to mention Christopher Hitchens as a polemical alternative, whose writings on the subject are some of the finest available in the English language, but for further investigation, it is truly invaluable to spend some time with Bertrand Russell, J.L. Mackie, Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, and Ibn Warraq, among others; there are really far too many authors to list. It is also always mandatory for clear thinking to read those writers representing the ‘other side’: William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, William Paley, and Alvin Plantinga, or perhaps Oxford’s own John Lennox or Alister McGrath.

As well as Richard Dawkins, you have interviewed so many fascinating guests on your YouTube channel. Which guest has had the most instrumental effect on you?

Almost certainly Peter Singer, whose Animal Liberation was the principal catalyst for my move away from the exploitation of animals. Without him it is doubtful whether I would have ever come to fully understand what I was participating in, and it was a genuine pleasure to speak to him about the meta-ethical foundations of animal rights. When asked for a recommended starting point in vegan philosophy, I invariably point to him.

Some of the people you have interviewed have also been controversial. For example, you recently interviewed Douglas Murray, who is known for his conservative views on Brexit, feminism and racial politics. There is a perception of modern atheism as being increasingly male-dominated. Are you aware of secular women and other voices being dismissed by the online atheist community and, if so, why do you think that is?

I would dispute the accusation of ‘racial politics’ as applied to Douglas. He certainly cares deeply about cultural politics, but perhaps I have missed something.

As writers and speakers expressing our views online, myself and all of my colleagues have experienced vitriol, dismissal, and abuse from anonymous sources online, but my female friends experience a whole other dimension of patronisation, sexual objectification, and difficulty in being taken seriously. I am glad to report that they are simultaneously experts at overcoming this, only further demonstrating the baselessness of the attitudes directed towards them.

Outside of YouTube, the most famous ‘new atheists’ of modern times, the ‘Four Horsemen’, as they are affectionately known after they met in 2007 in Washington D.C. to film a DVD discussion with that title, are all male. This is a tragic accident, as this already impressive lineup was originally supposed to benefit from the inclusion of the indomitable Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but logistical issues prevented her from doing so.

A Somali-born heroine of women’s and ex-Muslim rights, Ayaan’s memoir Infidel and her later Heretic, which calls for an Islamic reformation, demonstrate within her a courage, vigour, and argumentative prowess more formidable than in most of her male colleagues combined. It would certainly be entertaining to see anybody, online or otherwise, attempt to dismiss her voice.

Much of the online space in general (with a few exceptions) tends to be male-dominated, so it is difficult to tell if any disproportion in this regard is a problem inherent to atheism (a strange claim, since atheism is not an activity or belief but a rejection of both). I believe that the apparent inability of some members of our species to take the opinion of a woman seriously is a problem that extends beyond atheism, and is in fact a reverberation of the attitudes propped up for so long by the very religious doctrines that we attempt to combat.

While you had a relaxed childhood theism, many others in the atheist community have had troubling, painful experiences regarding their own relationships with religion. What have you learnt from engaging with many other YouTubers around the world about their freedom from religious upbringings and how has social media been effective in transforming people’s lives?

The most striking and unignorable consequence of developing relationships with such people has been the recognition I have developed of how lucky I am, and of the duty I feel I have to exercise my freedom of expression on the behalf of those who have not been granted the same privileges as I have. If my Iranian friends can risk their freedom to fight for the secularisation of their country, and my American friends can risk excommunication from their families to discuss religious philosophy, and my friends who left the cults of their upbringing can not only stabilise entirely new lives but also dedicate them to preventing others from experiencing their trauma, I have no excuse not to take advantage of my total freedom to throw my weight behind their causes, too.

Social media has allowed not just for worldwide reach, but also anonymity, and thus we, along with thousands of others, are able to hear from those who otherwise would not be able to so much as breathe a word against religion without their family or government exiling or killing them. I can hardly imagine myself taking the risks that so many of my friends do, and will forever be in awe at their willingness to participate in the cause of reason.

Have you become aware of a specific British attitude to atheism and religion after collaborating with and talking to people who have experienced religious persecution around the world?

Certainly so. In the UK, atheist campaigning (if there can be such a thing; perhaps secular campaigning is a better description) is principally aimed at the separation of church and state. Our government funds schools with religious affiliations, reserves seats in its upper parliamentary house for Anglican bishops, and suffers from the lingering influence of religious attitudes regarding issues like assisted dying. These are uniquely British problems, which are crucial to tackle, but worlds apart from the activism, for example, of atheists in Tehran risking arrest by walking in public without a headscarf.

How do you think the atheist community has changed since you first started uploading videos on YouTube about atheism in 2016? How do you think you have changed?

The atheist community, at least in its YouTube variety, seems to have expanded exponentially in the past few years. Not only have an impressive number of channels appeared and briskly acquired tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers, but there has been a development towards creating real-world events and conferences, where atheists struggling to find acceptance at home can go to meet and network with each other.

Undoubtedly my own biggest change is in focus. Last year I committed myself to the cause of animal liberation, and have since began attempting to contribute to the animal rights and vegan communities, many of whom have been actively saving lives since before I had even considered giving up meat. I am continually inspired by such individuals, some of whom seem to me promising candidates for a vegan equivalent to the Four Horsemen and new atheism, as the world begins to take an interest in the interests of animals.

Having never much enjoyed editing or production, I have also been more active as a public speaker and debater than when I began making my voice heard, which is something I much prefer to sitting in front of a camera. Doing so also allows me to travel the world and experience the thrill of having in-person audiences of intelligent, disagreeable people to contend with in person, as well as bring the message of animal rights to a variety of countries and cultures, and experience life as a vegan within them.

What has the response been to your YouTube channel at Oxford University? Has it been what you expected?

Sometimes somebody will have seen something I have said or written, and want to discuss it with me. I didn’t expect people to approach me in this manner, but it has been an amazing experience. I have agreed to go for coffee with almost everybody who has met me in person and expressed an interest in animal rights, and made quite a few friends at events related to philosophy or veganism. An even greater privilege, I have been asked to take part in some of these events, too, or to suggest speakers from those I have gotten to know over the past few years.

As for those I know closely, however, I am mostly ribbed for it.

Image Credit: Alex O’Connor