Jonathan Self: Gossip, atheists, and the cheating husband caught on his own CCTV cameras

Heard it on the grapevine? Then you're simply making use of one of your great evolutionary advantages, says Jonathan Self.

According to my late mother, an avid reader and an insomniac with a sweet tooth, a good host always leaves a selection of well-chosen books and a couple of bars of chocolate on a guest’s bedside table. I couldn’t fault the lavish hospitality provided by some very dear friends this week, but I remain puzzled as to why the only book in my room was Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment: The English & Scottish Experience. Possibly they thought that it would act as a soporific, thus obviating the need to supply me with confectionery.

I know a single, well-worn atheist joke (What do a glass of water and an atheist have in common? Jesus can make them both wine), but otherwise have no particular interest in the subject and was, therefore, surprised to find that the book, if not exactly a page turner, was at least engaging. Never mind the Enlightenment, I had ignorantly assumed that the growth of atheism was more or less a 20th-century phenomenon and was amazed to discover that as long ago as 1617 the Spanish ambassador had estimated that one-quarter of the English comprised non-believers.

In 1607, John Derpier, of Buttermere in Wiltshire, appeared before an ecclesiastical court after being overheard saying that there was: ‘Noe god and noe resurrection and that men died like beastes.’ In 1631, Margaret Gimlett of Old Cleeve in Somerset was in trouble for expressing the opinion that she: ‘Did despise god and all his works and did spit at it.’ In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, a student at Edinburgh University, was actually executed for blasphemy after condemning theology as ‘a rapsidie of feigned and ill-invented nonsense’.

“We all spend an hour a day talking about absent third parties. History, literature, even poetry, are, to an extent, different forms of gossip”

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As I read about these and other examples of anti-Christian outbursts, it occurred to me that gossip must have played a major role in the downfall of many a doubter. How much better off they would have been if they had understood that loose talk can, quite literally, cost lives. Ever since the invention of language, humans have repeated and analysed what others have told them. Clearly, there is an evolutionary advantage to learning about and discussing the behaviour of family, friends, neighbours and associates. It is through such an exchange of information that one discovers who can and can’t be relied upon. In a nutshell, those who gossip, thanks to their greater social intelligence, are better able to predict and influence the actions of others.

Gossips enjoy other advantages. Who among us has not felt a frisson of excitement upon learning some really juicy snippet of news? Sharing gossip with someone you trust is a bonding experience, too. Little wonder that, on average, we all spend an hour a day talking about absent third parties. History, literature, even poetry, are, to an extent, different forms of gossip. Some of the most popular song lyrics (‘I heard it through the grapevine’, ‘You’ve been talking in your sleep’, ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me’) have gossip as their theme.

The shame some people feel about gossiping presumably stems from the fact that the best gossip tends to be negative. I am embarrassed to admit that, recently, I was delighted to discover that an agent, who speaks and acts as if she was to the manor born, is from a council estate and that a neighbour I have never really liked had been caught in flagrante by his wife on their security cameras, which he had installed (ironically) in order to spy on her. As it says in the Bible: ‘The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels.’

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