Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Six)

Today will be my last day at Soul Survivor. Having witnessed the main meetings at this festival, with their cheering, praying and orgies of guitar-led worship, I’ve decided I don’t need to see tonight’s – and perhaps I’d enjoy the Where’s Wally-themed party if I’d come with friends, but as it is I’d likely end up a wallflower. My train is booked to leave in late afternoon, but not before I’ve heard one and a half more seminars.

At half past two I file into the first one, rucksack and all. The half hour process of emptying my tent and packing it with its contents into a backpack has somehow been cathartic, and I listen with refreshed attention; the speaker is Andrew Smith, an evangelical but also founder of a Christian-Muslim interfaith group, The Feast. He mentions in the course of the talk that he was previously a Christian youth worker in schools, and there are certain oneliners that seem overly rehearsed and might be read as condescending, but from the off I like the guy. Some other speakers here have an air of polish, but Andrew seems genuine and unassuming, so when he invites us at the start to tweet him our comments, I decide I will.

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Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Five)

The tallest building in Germany, the Fernsehturm or TV tower, stands next to Alexanderplatz in the centre of Berlin. It’s impossible to miss, having been built by East Germany’s secular government to tower above the capital’s churches, a feat it still accomplishes today. Unfortunately for them, and to the churches’ great delight, the spherical structure half way up the tower which now houses a bar and restaurant was assembled using small, flat metal plates – meaning that, when the sphere’s extremities catch the sun, an enormous shining cross forms above the city. (Berliners traditionally call this Rache des Papstes – the Pope’s revenge.) It’s late afternoon, and as I lie inside my tent I see the hot sun distorted by two layers of canvas mesh, its glow abstracted into a similar cross; a vaguer version, perhaps, off the bright white projection of one from the worship meetings. I realise now that I’m beginning to crack. A week ago, this image would never have occurred to me – I likely wouldn’t even have glanced at the bright spot in the fabric – but today it jumped out, seemingly obvious and meaningful. Were I not a skeptic by nature and occasional trade, it seems possible this could form part of a “religious experience”, the basis of a Soul Survivor conversion narrative. Continue reading.

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Four)

As the festival’s third day starts, I’m better rested than the previous morning – the boys camped next door seem to have quietened somewhat – and decide for the sake of my blogs to catch the end of the morning meeting. I walk in as the last half hour commences, and am greeted by another twenty minute stream of guitar-led praising. “I will follow you to the ends of the earth”, the singer exclaims. Not for the first time, I’m struck that there are healthier relationships than the one some of these people want with Jesus.

The service ends with Mike thanking God for “surprising us” during the meeting; not having been there, I can’t say what surprises he means, but for Soul Survivor nothing seems out of the ordinary. “We don’t want knowledge,” he says, “if it’s not knowledge of you. We don’t want experience if it’s not experiences with you.” Some people are still being prayed for, and their companions are instructed not to “get too huggy”, in case this gets in the Lord’s way. Cuddling, it turns out, is kryptonite to Jesus.

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Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Three)

My first night’s sleep at camp is less than adequate. After witnessing conversion en masse at the evening’s meeting and falling back to my tent to blog, I pull my sleeping bag around me, now regretting that I didn’t bring a mat as heat is sucked out of my body; for late July, it’s a surprisingly cold night. The camp is expected to be quiet by midnight, but the group of adolescent boys camped next to me natter on for several hours. Amongst the banter, various comments make me uneasy. I hear several boisterous references to men sharing tents, some of which refer disgustedly to being “buggered” and paint men who like men as sexual predators. (Earlier, I’d heard both them and the teenagers opposite use “gay” as a word for for “crap”.) I think about reporting them to someone, but the site rules never mention homophobia.

In the end, I get what must be three or four hours’ sleep. While I’d planned to attend a seminar this morning on how to read Leviticus, followed by a morning meeting like last night’s, I decide to stay away from both and catch up on some sleep. The day begins to warm, and by half past eleven I feel more or less rested, so buy lunch and work for a while on a book review I’m writing. As I head toward the buildings in search of food, I’m glad to be missing the main meeting. This isn’t just for the reasons you’d expect; it also tells me something new about Soul Survivor. In the run-up to this series, people who’d gone before often told me guests “hung out”, avoiding the central sessions. This isn’t my experience. Strolling around with my teeth in a pastry, the place is quiet. Apart from a couple of teenagers playing swingball and some people charging phones inside, it seems obvious most of the 3000 delegates are worshipping.

My iPhone died last night at the end of the meeting, and my iPad – I’m an Apple fan, okay? – is almost out of battery, so I head into the “office”, an assembly of aged desktop computers, and pay for some internet time while I plug in my devices to the sound of more Christian rock. With any luck, this means I’ll be able to live-tweet throughout the day as I did in last night’s gathering. Today there are two more seminars, and these I won’t miss. The first, given by Mike, Andy and a third speaker named Esther Davenport, is titled “Soul man meets soul sista: sex”.

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Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Two)

Right now I’m lying in my tent. It’s shortly after nine; I’ve just returned from the very first “main meeting” of Soul Survivor, which lasted two hours. These take place twice every day, and all other venues are shut while they’re in session. (“We don’t want there to be any other distractions”, the programme reads, “because we know that Jesus is worthy of our full attention.”)

Remember how I ended my last post by saying I could be wrong to worry about emotional appeals and beliefs disguised as people? Turns out, I might just have been onto something.

Two hours ago I enter the meeting hall, brushing crumbs off my hands from an overpriced burger. The room is large enough for thousands, dark apart from the brightly lit stage. Pumping techno music fills the space from all directions, controlled presumably by an onstage DJ whom due either to staging or myopia I can’t see. The atmosphere in general is reminiscent of an urban nightclub, but with alcohol noticeably absent due to site rules, and totally devoid of sexuality. (Another rule, as stated in the programme: “no boys and girls sleeping in the same space unless married”.) When I saw this assembly on YouTube, it reminded me of certain extremist rallies. Now, as I search awkwardly for a place to sit, another image comes to mind. This scene has all the jarring glamour and sexlessness of a school disco.

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Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day One)

This time tomorrow, I will be wearing a wristband: not a brightly coloured rubber one with a slogan on it, like the kind which were fashionable during my GCSEs, but a thin paper one with an adhesive end – the sort you might be given at a theme park or a music festival. It’s not Reading or Leeds where I’m going, though. It’s Soul Survivor, the annual evangelical summer camp which aims, in its own words, to help young people meet Jesus.

At the start of this year, I crowdsourced the cost of the ticket on my blog, with the promise I’d write daily posts if I went. A lot of people worried I’d be thrown out, which remains a possibility – but I doubt it, because while the organisers might not choose this phrase, I genuinely think it’s a conversion drive. I’ve been told that at similar festivals which followed Soul Survivor, guests sometimes sign pledges reading “I will now follow Jesus” and the like; while I don’t know if that occurs at Soul Survivor, it does claim attendees will learn how to “live [their] whole lives for him”.

Another concern was that these efforts might work.

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Karma chameleon: the many voices of Alom Shaha

Alom Shaha is everywhere. His hardback The Young Atheist’s Handbook launched several weeks prior to the time of writing, and it’s been heralded with press attention, TV interviews and talks – as he puts it – ‘for every Skeptics in the Pub group in the country’. When we meet in the café at the National Theatre, he’s just spoken at Wrexham Science Festival and had ‘quite a weird interview’ on the radio. Intrigued, I spend our first few minutes letting him vent.

‘The interviewer hadn’t read the book,’ he tells me, ‘and was doing that whole BBC “balance” thing. He said to me, “I’m going to try and attack you, just so that it doesn’t look like we’re favouring you.” He had no clue what the book was about or what I was saying, and was just clutching at random things that might annoy an atheist.’

To be fair, I understand the impulse to provoke. This man is an up-and-coming writer who’s making waves, a professional physics teacher and a public speaker; he’s telegenic, the star of various science videos on YouTube, and worked previously in politics as well as production at the BBC. In his spare time, he’s a magician. (A good one, I’m told.) This background suggests a scripted, media-savvy performer, the kind about whom more can be revealed with a bit of sparring. I’ve considered an opener like ‘So, Alom… your book’s a vehicle isn’t it?’

The moment we meet, I know this would be wrong. Alom is quiet, unassuming and – not to say shy – self-deprecating, not an inch the urbane smooth talker I’d expected. This isn’t a bad thing. People who are calm and winning on TV can be smug in real life, and his diffidence gives him an air of approachability. ‘I’m not sure I’m as articulate or eloquent as I ought to be for some things I do’, he says, though he concedes ‘I can be very good [on] things I know about.’

That certainly explains why he’s most at home in the classroom. (In a chapter about science called ‘Let There Be Light’, he states ‘I have never felt so good about myself as I do when I am teaching.’) Laconically, it also shows why the book’s best parts are biographical: ‘I’m not going out there pretending I’m an expert on [religious] matters’, he tells me, ‘but what I am an expert on is my personal journey.’

I’m an English student and a science fan, and Alom’s a physics teacher with a love of books – ‘They have shaped me and they have saved me’, reads the third chapter of the Handbook – so inevitably, our discussion turns literary. That chapter, ‘Escape to Narnia’, relates his childhood love of C.S. Lewis and his later recognition of the Narnia series as Christian allegory. ‘I didn’t particularly like Aslan’, it reads tellingly.

I’ve often thought those books are best when they zoom in on human characters, abandoning grand metaphor – when they tell us how the Pevensies know not to shut themselves in wardrobes, or that the best way to fall asleep is to stop trying, rather than how we ought live. I engage with Narnia most when it’s personal, and Lewis doesn’t hammer the God point home. When Alom agrees, I suggest the same could be said of his own book.

Most chapters start with experiences from his youth, and shift half way through into abstract discussions. His section on religion and morality, for example, begins by telling us as follows how he was beaten brutally for shoplifting: ‘As soon as I came in the door, my father grabbed me by the hair and started whipping me with his belt. He continued to thrash me as I lay on the floor, in the foetal position, trying to protect myself’. The kind and patient Bangladeshi man then staying with his family, who had brought him home, was the one Alom would name as an ethical role model. ‘Ironically, he was the only one who wasn’t Muslim.’

When later in the chapter, he briefly tackles theodicy (reference is made to the Ten Commandments and the problem of evil), it feels academic in more sense than one. The point’s been made, implicitly and powerfully, that religion on its own won’t make you moral, and my sense is that the average reader won’t require much more persuading. This doesn’t stop the Handbook being readable, of course. If it suffers structurally in places, the author’s prose is fluent and engaging. I’m struck, in fact, that Alom writes more elegantly than he realises.

‘One of the difficulties writing the book’, he says, ‘was dreading having written a book that I myself wouldn’t like to have read. I read the book now and see sentences and paragraphs I would rewrite.’ It’s true that many artists are their own worst enemies, but Alom’s writing shows more confidence by far than his attitude toward it. ‘With my favourite writers, I feel that the way they use words is really sophisticated and powerful. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of that – there’s a lot more work for me to do for every word and every sentence in my book to count, and I don’t think I’ve begun to get there yet.’

I disagree. Perhaps he holds himself to such high standards because of his affinity for reading? It appears to be his greatest love. (‘I’ll be honest’, he tells me. ‘If you asked me to choose between science and literature, I would pick literature.’) So when his self-doubt leads him to drop a certain bombshell, I can’t say I’m surprised.

Alom continues, ‘I secretly always wanted to write a book, because it would be an amazing thing to do, but I never actively pursued it because I didn’t feel I could. There was a fear that if I attempted it I’d fail, realise it was rubbish and realise I wasn’t capable of writing a book. I feel that I’ve cheated: I haven’t used my imagination at all. I’ve written about myself. I haven’t created a character [or] a world. I haven’t done that thing I secretly wanted to do, which is to write a novel.’ The fog of his soul-searching lifts, and suddenly he’s self-aware. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘I’ve just confessed to you that I want to write a novel.’

We’ve discussed our mutual appreciation of His Dark Materials, and I’d certainly like atheist fiction to become a genre. The Handbook also deals at length with the idea of Bangladeshi atheists as ‘coconut[s]: brown on the outside, but white on the inside’. For a writer so concerned with unbelief and ethnicity, his ambition seems appropriate – in the Harlem Renaissance, I note, atheist novels were a major challenge to the power of the black church. Anyway, I think he’s wrong about having cheated.

Creative non-fiction, I say, is a recognised category; some of the best memoirs read like they’re novels. In telling us about upbringing, Alom has created a world of characters: his brother Shalim, whose fragile mental health meant he believed himself a superhero, prepared to battle his caring relatives in hospital visits; the teenage colleague who first dared him to eat bacon, and was taken aback when he did; caring Mr. Grimmett, the headteacher young Alom was loath to disappoint. The versions of these people in the Handbook are likely semi-fictional, based on an adult’s memory decades later and simplified to fit within 200 pages. This isn’t a bad thing: it lends the Handbook a compelling narrative, at times a deeply moving one.

This isn’t to say the book is flawless. Far from it: certain chapters feel comparatively spare and risk falling into vagueness, particularly those on love and science, and the direct commentary on world religions tends to paint them with a carelessly broad brush. (We’re told for example that ‘Islam is inflexible in its claim that the Qur’an is of divine origin’, and that ‘only a tiny minority of theists would claim to have direct contact with a god’, both questionable assertions at best.) The final chapter, ‘Kafir’, admits this weakness, saying that if we’ve noticed ‘confusion, contradictions, flawed logic, or misinterpreted ideas, well, they’re there because I am a flawed individual’, but this doesn’t mean the lack of nuance isn’t an issue. These are minor quibbles, though: the biggest problem with the Handbook is it doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be.

When Alom shifts from telling his own story to discussing abstract concepts, his implied reader abruptly seems to change; the straightforward storytelling which is the book’s best feature puts me at ease, but with sentences like ‘This is known as the Euthyphro dilemma’, it’s as if he’s addressing a class in their mid-teens. Where this teacherish tone creeps in, it’s hard not to feel at least slightly patronised. There are moments, too, when the writer’s voice turns polemic – for example when he says ‘I sincerely believe that, for billions of people around the world, superstition and religion are shackles, things that prevent them from being all they can be’. There’s nothing wrong with this, and he does it well, but it might be more at home in the comment section of the Guardian than here.

Alom agrees with this assessment when I put it to him: ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head, and that’s what I think is almost problematic about the book.’ From a review-writing perspective, it certainly makes it difficult to rate. On what terms do you judge a book with such clear multiple personalities? As a personal memoir, it effortlessly gets five stars; as a secular polemic, three and a half; as a pedagogic guide to belief and nonbelief, rather fewer. But this is one book rather than three, so as enjoyable as it is, the question of how far it achieves its aims is hard to answer.

My feeling is that each of Alom’s voices has its place, and each if he separated them more – into narrative book-writing, public commentating and science communication – would be stronger. Versatility isn’t, of course, a flaw. On the contrary, and as I say in our discussion, he strikes me as a patchwork man by nature.

Alom’s accent, to be heard on innumerable YouTube clips and podcasts, is by turns Bangladeshi, estuarine and public school. (Alleyn’s, where he gained an assisted place for seven years, plays a prominent part in his story.) He’s the child from an estate who grew up with the rich, the rationalist who in memory of his mother kisses books if he steps over them; the physics teacher who’d give up science for novels; the confident, stylish writer who thinks his own sentences poorly chosen; the camera-friendly media pro who’s quiet on first meeting an interviewer.

Even his atheist rhetoric is chameleonic. In his introduction, Alom states his admission to eating pork ‘may be the most controversial thing I write in this book’. He later goes on to say ‘It’s one thing to be complicit in the unnecessary suffering of animals; it’s another thing entirely to suffer from sexual repression because you’ve been brought up to believe that God disapproves of masturbation, or to live as a second-class citizen because you’re a woman, or to live in fear for your life because you’re a homosexual. Yet this is the reality that is imposed on millions, if not billions, of people around the world because they live in communities or countries that base their morality and laws on religious beliefs founded ancient books and stories.’ A few pages later, he states ‘I wouldn’t necessarily agree that religion is morally wrong’.

One moment it’s a firebrand we’re reading; the next, a diplomat. This division’s artificial, of course, but the question stands – why the inconsistency? It’s sometimes better, Alom tells me, to appear harmless before moments of secular rage. I’m only semi-appeased, but he submits ‘My opinion’s always changing and evolving. I hope that I’ll be better able to express some of my ideas a few years down the line, and I suspect I will have changed my mind about a few things.’

In the final analysis, it seems to me that the Handbook’s precise contents – its shifting intentions and tone, and the precise ideas its author advances – are less important than the person we meet reading it. Rather than memoir, polemic or informative guide, it might be best rest as an introduction to Alom, an atheist of many colours who at present hasn’t found his niche. The public voices he presents are various, but each is confident and wishes to be heard. Despite its faults, I’ll recommend friends read his book – not just because it’s a compelling read, but because whatever he does next is going to make waves, and they likely ought to know about him.

Though I don’t regret withholding it, I think my sparring opener might have been right: The Young Atheist’s Handbook is a vehicle for Alom Shaha, a heretic who wants to be heard. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Creationism at the Keswick Convention

Update: the 2013 edition!

Every year in July, the Keswick Convention takes place in my hometown. It’s a meeting of Christian evangelicals known around the world, and regularly floods the town with visitors. My Christian stepdad, who attends events each year, estimated around 12,000 people are there this year.

This afternoon, out for a walk, I noticed one church building held a banner which read CHRISTIAN RESOURCES EXHIBITION. Then I saw this sign in front of me.

 

Given I had my iPhone on me, I decided to check it out. Things only got better when I saw this on my way in.

Creation Ministries International had mounted a stall…

…and as promised, there was a scale model of Noah’s ark, complete with details of its structure.

In case you had any doubts – yes, they think the world flood in Genesis actually happened.

In case you were wondering, ‘How could Noah fit all the animals on the ark?’ – they even provided some information. (The original article is here.)

What’s more, they don’t think this happened very long ago. ‘Geological time is imaginary’, according to them, and this planet’s not really billions of years old, like all those geologists seem to agree. (And physicists. And geneticists. And astronomers.)

They threw in a handy Psalm to explain how it formed.

They said how fossils were creatures killed by God’s flood. Fish, for example.

Oh, and about human variation – Adam and Eve had lighter- and darker-skinned children. (Then they all had an argument, presumably, and went to live on separate continents for thousands of years according to skin tone.)

 

To summarise: in the midst of the internationally known convention for which my town is famous – one of very few famous things about it – a group has an audience of many thousands who think that:

(a) Adam and Eve actually existed;
(b) Noah and his ark actually existed, and the flood actually took place;
(c) the earth isn’t actually four to five billion years old;
(d) was, on the contrary, created in six days by God, and
(e) evolution by natural selection doesn’t actually occur.

I’m not a scientist. (If you are, please share your thoughts on the images above in the comments section – or alternatively, contact the designer of this material, who was present and kind enough to give me his address.) But I am embarrassed that this is happening where I live, and angry that these claims are still being peddled.

Update: on contacting Keswick Congregational Church, who invited CMI to use their chapel, I was informed the group are ‘not an official part of the Keswick Convention’, but that the church invites various organisations to do this kind of outreach during its run. I’d like to know how those who organise the convention feel about this.

Foes of Dorothy: queerphobia, bigotry and The Wizard of Oz

In LGBT culture, The Wizard of Oz is practically scripture. From celebrating gay men as “friends of Dorothy” to idolising Judy Garland, from associating pride flags with “Over the Rainbow” to referencing the dialogue in modern works – Alexander’s “Fly, my pretties!” in Queer as Folk is a personal favourite – the reverence we show it at times seems almost religious. So it’s with some trepidation that I’m about to commit blasphemy, and criticise the bigotry and repression I see in this film.

It’s important to say that I understand why The Wizard means what it does to so many people; aspects of it bear tremendous queer resonance. If you’ve spent any significant time closeted, dividing time between straight roleplaying and your “real” self, you can’t fail to appreciate the duality of the characters’ lives. As a country boy, I identify too with the desperate urge to escape Aunt Em’s ranch and go over the rainbow to somewhere freer.

It’s certainly true that Dorothy’s lonely, authoritarian and heteronormative home in Kansas, where Toto is her only companion and her guardians dismiss her concern for him, is symbolised perfectly by monochrome film – and that the rainbow appearance of Technicolor Oz, where she escapes oppressive norms, performs song-and-dance numbers and encounters fantastic creatures, stands for excitement, transgression and positive difference. It’s obvious why closeted viewers might see Oz as an anarchic queer playground, much like a thriving metropolitan gaybourhood – both are distant, fantasised places where no one will stop you breaking normal rules, and both are symbolised by rainbows.

But here’s the thing: the moral of The Wizard is that colourful, rulebreaking Oz is horrifically dangerous. As soon as she gets there, Dorothy starts trying to get home; besides the famous “lions and tigers and bears”, she faces narcotic poppies – surely a drug reference? – and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Especially in the case of the green-skinned Witch, the colour which stands for rebellious, permissive Oz also stands for terror. Recall the scene in which Aunt Em appears in a crystal ball to comfort Dorothy, still in orderly, Kansan black and white, only to be replaced by the Witch’s unnaturally-coloured face – it’s the moment in the film which frightened me most as a child, and the message is clear: go over the rainbow, away from Mum and Dad’s watchful eyes, and you’ll end up terrorised by freakish deviants. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” says Dorothy, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard.” Needless to say the film reverts to monochrome for its “happy” ending.

The land of Oz and its inhabitants are shown as distorted parodies of their Kansas counterparts: visually in the case of the Witch and physically in the case of the half-human flying monkeys and the Munchkins. Obviously I’m not saying the actors who played the Munchkins are distorted versions of average-height people, but that the film implies that – and that seven years after Freaks, a singing, dancing chorus of people three to four feet tall has questionable associations. I’d argue, too, that some characters in Oz, especially the Witch, distort Kansan norms of sexuality and gender.

Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, one prominent queer journey back to Oz (and like The Wizard, more iconic than the book which inspired it) dares to ask what’s so evil about the Witch. Pursuing the ruby slippers makes her an antagonist, but only because we’re on Dorothy’s side; she’s willing to use spells against her enemies, but so is Glinda; she has no qualms about killing, but judging by her response to both witches’ deaths, neither does Dorothy. Exactly why is this woman described as wicked?

In fairytales, witches are the only independent women; their powers are innate, not gained by being a king’s daughter or by marrying a prince. Hence witches are traditionally ugly spinsters – if you don’t have to survive by being heteronormative, why bother looking pretty?

As shown in The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch embodies this tradition. The film’s producers cast Margaret Hamilton, an actor with a history of spinster roles, when their first choice Gale Sondergaard refused to play an ugly green-skinned witch. Unlike in the original book, the Wicked Witch of the East became the villain’s sister, another nod to the classic spinster-witch, and despite owning half the county according to Aunt Em, her Kansan alter ego is the clearly husbandless Miss Gulch.

While good witch Glinda is also unmarried as far as we know, her face is beautified and her attire positively bridal. The Wicked Witch’s crime is that she’s unfuckable – and still more threateningly, that this doesn’t hold her back.

At the height of the sexually McCarthyite Hays Code, which explicitly banned Hollywood from “any inference of sex perversion”, could the Witch’s pointed spinsterhood emblematise an even worse trait? With her ungroomed appearance and plain mode of dress, her now-immortal “My pretty” can be read both as predatory sexual leering and jealousy of Dorothy’s more femme appearance – is the Wicked Witch, as Wicked once again hints, a caricatured lesbian? “It’s so kind of you”, she says, “to want to visit me in my loneliness.”

Certainly, the cowardly lion’s admission he’s “a sissy” has queer connotations – the same term, as detailed in Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, identified the comic archetype of the effeminate male in 1920s film. If the word’s appearance in The Wizard marks a tacit homophobia it’s unsurprising, since reactionary politics in thirties Hollywood had stigmatised these characters and forced many gay actors into retirement. (This would makeThe Wizard of Oz, supposedly a gay classic, part of the heterosexist backlash which triggered some of the first U.S. gay activism pre-Stonewall.)

If the land of Oz still means transgression and queer liberation, then the Witch, not Dorothy, should be our blessed lady. And if the LGBT community wants to cling on to this film, it needs to answer some serious charges.

To Paula Kirby: on ‘The Sisterhood of the Oppressed’

Paula Kirby’s open letter from a couple of weeks ago, ‘The Sisterhood of the Oppressed’, has generated various responses (googling it will bring these up), some of them fairly snarky – and while I know that sarcasm is a staple of atheist writing, Paula’s and mine included, I want to be as calm and clear as possible about what I think of her argument. Because it feels awkward discussing someone in the third person who I know and generally respect to a high degree, I also want to be direct from this point on. Paula: I know that, as I think your letter hints, feminist skeptics including at FreethoughtBlogs have disagreed with you before and may have been barbed. But I’d like to point out those comments were always qualified: PZ said FtB was criticised ‘by no less a person than Paula Kirby’; Rebecca Watson referred to ‘the esteemed Paula Kirby’; Ophelia, on the idea FtB was totalitarian, said ‘the sad thing is that it’s Paula Kirby calling us that’. I typically make a point of not speaking for others, but I don’t think anyone on this side of the dispute likes being at odds with you – certainly not how we to like scrap with, say, creationists. In an ideal world, I wish we never had to argue. I think that, as a writer and an activist, you’re one of the best things this movement has going for it, and in terms of atheists I admire you’re up there with some of my favourite FtBloggers. So writing this post hasn’t been at all easy – I’ve procrastinated, edited and considered scrapping it, because I don’t want any bad feeling between us in future. But it strikes me that, ultimately, the one thing worse than having this out is not having it out, so with all possible cool rationality I want to go through the points in your letter with which I take issue. (NB: despite being an aspiring member of the Approved Male Chorus, I’ll dispense for obvious reasons with ‘oppressed sisters’ and refer to Team FtB as ‘feminist skeptics’. I hope this term isn’t contentious: I realise from your writing that you see yourself as both, but it seems the best description of skeptics whose activism – Boobquake, for example – has a feminist as well as rationalist bent, and who see feminism as more than incidental to skepticism.) To begin with: totalitarian comparisons. Nazis and Stasi and bears Toward the beginning of your letter, you say you didn’t use words like ‘feminazi’ and ‘femistasi’ to imply that feminist skeptics would actually have sympathised with those groups, but to suggest they operate similarly: i.e. by ‘the intolerance and suppression of dissent’, ‘hysterical, bullying overreaction’ to it and ‘utter conviction that their own ideology is absolutely right and just and that no questioning of it can therefore ever be permitted’, whereby ‘anyone who dares to hold non-approved attitudes is automatically persona non grata and to be treated as an enemy of the people.’ The parallel you wanted to draw referred to supposed methods, not actual stances. I think we all got that. After that debacle with the Pope and PZ’s response, I doubt any established skeptic would seriously attempt – not least before an audience of their peers – to compare other freethinkers’ ideals with the Third Reich’s. As for Stasi, I’d struggle (with a couple of exceptions) to characterise FtB as seriously leftist. As far as I can see, people understood you meant behaviour and not beliefs. It’s just still a bad comparison. Or, if it isn’t, could you be a tad more specific? I don’t claim to know all the full history of feminist skeptics. It’s certainly possible I’ve missed out on scandalous conduct, and I’d change my mind if better informed. So… …who’s been intolerant, about what, and when? …who’s suppressed whose dissent? (Yours doesn’t look suppressed to me. It’s got its own hashtag.) …who’s been bullied, or treated as persona non grata? It isn’t bullying to criticise someone you think is out of order, or to stay away from a conference if you personally don’t feel safe there. It isn’t bullying, even if over the top, to stop endorsing someone who trivialises an experience you found distressing, or to suggest someone leave your blogging network if their stances no longer seem at home there. It isn’t bullying to block someone on Twitter whose comments you don’t want to read. As far as I’m aware, no one’s been silenced. ‘Go elsewhere if you want to say that’ isn’t silencing or suppression, and as far as I’m personally aware, that’s as censorious as anyone’s been. If I’m wrong about that, I’m happy to be shown so. Next… What the movement’s supposed to be about Elsewhere on this site, Hayley has a post called ‘The Mythical Skeptical Community’. (She also wrote a clarification of it.) Her point, as I took it, was that it’s problematic imposing homogenous identity on broad social movements. Your final comments call for ‘a renewed focus on what the movement is actually supposed to be about’, i.e. ‘the very purposes that brought [it] together in the first place’. You imply that feminist skeptics have ‘diverted their focus from their goals’ by discussing secular misogyny, and you seem to suggest they ‘go back to focusing fully on the promotion of skepticism, or secularism, or atheism, or pure science’. What I want to ask is, what movement? As I pointed out in support of FtB, secular freethought and criticism of religion is much older than the current ‘New Atheist’ movement. A quote:

‘Theism, which is the theory of speculation, is being replaced by atheism, the science of demonstration.’

Who said that? Not Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Michael Shermer; Emma Goldman, feminist and anarchist, a century ago. The paper it’s from, ‘The Philosophy of Atheism’, contains a hundred statements which would be at home today on an atheist blog. Another of her essays, ‘The Failure of Christianity’, reminds me positively of your columns. Not much later, during the Harlem Renaissance, black writers and social justice advocates said all kinds of similar things, which today would be hard to imagine in African American populations: essay were written on the title, ‘Is Christianity a menace to the negro?’, in a magazine whose masthead read ‘Our aim is to appeal to reason… prayer is not one of our remedies’. Whole novels, like Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, were written as salvos against the black church. Meanwhile in Weimar Germany, the Deutscher Freidenker-Verband – run by communist Max Sievers – had over half a million members by the time the Nazis banned it. (By comparison, the British Humanist Association had somewhere between thirty and forty thousand the last I heard, and claims to be Britain’s biggest nonreligious organisation.) When you say that feminist skeptics, at FtB and elsewhere, aren’t doing ‘what the movement is supposed to be about’, you imply that these traditions of freethinking writing – intersectional and intensely concerned with social justice – can play no part in the atheist community now. Why not? Skeptical activism is far too broad a church for its aims and means to be set by a single faction, person or body. The point of freethought, to me, is that it’s atheism plus. [Note: 'Atheism Plus, capitalised, didn't exist when this post was written - the phrase is purely descriptive.] If bigotry exists which is often transmitted by superstitious thinking, why shouldn’t the people who fight it write skeptical blogs? ‘A feature of life in general’ Your letter suggests several times that if problems feminist skeptics describe are real, our community’s still no worse than most other ones: that ‘sexualised’ behaviour at conferences (more on this below) is ‘just life’, ‘lack of prominent women is a theme in almost all walks of life’ and situations broadly which concern feminists are ‘a feature of life in general’. I’d say two things here. First: is anyone saying we’re worse than average? Second: our movement should be better than ‘life in general’. At FreethoughtBlogs and elsewhere, I’ve read a lot of feminist skeptics’ complaints – about being hit on, male-dominated events and various other things. I don’t recall anyone saying we’re worse than average. Of course women are marginalised in other areas, and it seems plausible we’re better than many groups, including of course religious ones. No one knows this better than feminist skeptics. The point is that in this movement, women’s experience need not be worse than average to be troubling. It might be better than average, but still fall miles short of what it ought to be. You’ve criticised religion before for treating women poorly. If that’s a bad thing, doesn’t it follow that atheists should avoid it – not just as much as is usual, but as much as possible? This community prides itself on being exceptional – more questioning, reasonable and rational than the wider world – so the benchmark we aim to meet isn’t any kind of average. We value evidence, so we demand it not just as much as anyone else does, but as much as we can. We value logic, so we aim not just to be typically logical, but optimally. To be no worse than other walks of life isn’t good enough: if we value inclusion of women, or general opposition to misogyny, we have to pursue these goals more than the rest of the world. But now I want to be more specific. Sexualised atmospheres Let’s talk about sexual goings-on at conferences. Here’s what you say:

‘The first [thing relevant bloggers complain about] seems to be their feeling that there is a sexualized atmosphere at skeptical conferences. … There’s a sexualized atmosphere at all conferences involving an overnight stay. … I am talking about normal, non-violent situations in which no assault takes place.’

That sexual things happen at events isn’t really the issue. Lots of people concerned by the recent drama, on FtB and elsewhere, have been emphatic they have no problem with mutually consensual hookups. Dave Silverman even said ‘I want people to have sex at our conferences’, when he introduced AA’s harassment policy. If in your words people find that fun, no one’s stopping them. But flirting ebulliently with someone in the bar is different from continuing to hit on her when she says no; from standing uncomfortably close to her and breathing down her neck; from following her around the bar, or out of it; from continuing to harass her the next day, or taking pictures of her (of any kind) against her wishes. Notice, none of this behaviour is violent, or would obviously be categorized as an assault. Should we prevent it, or establish ways of dealing with it, if we can? I would say yes, and I’d also say that mutually desired, consensual sex isn’t threatened by that. There’s another aspect to this. The scene you paint is an evening one, where guests are drinking together at or after dinner, during what the social portion of a conference. You’re right: a certain amount of friskiness will always happen in that context, which is fine. But there are contexts in which sexualised comments aren’t okay: like saying a popular vlogger aids atheism because she’s ‘a pretty blonde Romanian’; like hitting on Greta Christina or Rebecca Watson as soon as they’ve finished giving talks; like a seemingly middle aged man on the internet, telling 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist to add her photo to a page called ‘Sexy Atheists’; like a steward at an atheist event I once saw staring at a woman’s chest as soon as she arrived, making no attempt to hide it. When occasionally I go to give a talk somewhere, as I know you more often do, I don’t have to deal with that treatment. Where people have occasionally found me attractive, they’ve told me that privately, tactfully or otherwise in a more appropriate situation than what was effectively my workplace at the time. I’d expect that to be the norm, but I couldn’t count the complaints I’ve heard from female speakers who were treated like their job was to provide eye candy. I think those complaints are valid. And speaking of women speakers… Whoever said there was a conspiracy? Your letter frequently implies that feminist skeptics see a sexist male conspiracy behind each door, cooking up nefarious schemes to keep godless women down.

‘You have the poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women being urged to rise up against the evil conspiracy of those men, women-haters, sister-shamers and gender-traitors who are responsible for all their woes.’

You contrast this with your experience of seeking female speakers, where you found very few were willing to give public talks. ‘Who,’ you ask, ‘was holding these women back?’ ‘There was something in their own heads that was stopping them.’ I’d suggest this creates a false dichotomy. Either atheist women are actively ‘being prevented’ from making up proportionate numbers of speakers – at conferences, local groups, etc. – or there’s nothing to blame but their own mentality.   As your reference to WiS acknowledges, many skeptical and atheistic women have gained prominence and are regular speakers on the conference scene. This is very different from your struggle to find female speakers: we know as a matter of fact that many skeptical ones exist, and accept invitations to speak when they get them – but conferences still frequently suffer from gender-imbalance. At worryingly many, no women give talks at all. Why is this, when it’s obviously not that women are unwilling? Because they can’t accept invitations they don’t get. You’ve told us your experiences; here are mine. Thoughtlessness The first time we met was at the atheist student group I used to run, when you did a talk for us (an excellent one) on moral problems with Christianity. Yours was the last talk of the term, during which, if memory serves, half a dozen or so other guests had spoken. They were all male. The same was more or less true of the next term, and at the week of events when you came back and spoke again there were twice as many men as women giving talks. Had I and the dozen or so other organisers conspired, in twilit rooms at witching hour, to keep women out? Of course not. But it was still our fault, and in hindsight – forgive the pun – a serious cock-up. At events promoting godlessness and skeptical thinking, I believe we should show how diverse our community is. Is there something wrong with male speakers? Clearly not – no more than with, say, physicists giving talks. But if all or two thirds of a conference’s speakers were physicists, that wouldn’t reflect the breadth of the skeptical movement. The people onstage should, I think, be as varied as the people in the room – or as varied, as the case may be, as the people we’d like to have in the room. So why are they so often not? Because when groups of men like the one I was in are running events, they don’t always think about this. I didn’t. It doesn’t help that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: that when lots more of the speakers we knew about were men, lots more of the ones we invited and therefore hosted were men. We threw out the names of all the interesting people we wanted to invite in our very first meeting, brainstorming at lightning speed – and of course, we ended up with a shortlist that was as unbalanced as our long list. I’m not suggesting we bar potential speakers because they’re male, or become draconian. But I am suggesting guys in organising groups put time into specifically researching female atheists, to the point of being able to write an A4-length list of speakers they’d like to host who aren’t white men. (Try it, other readers. I can do it.) Because when we have to think of interesting godless people and our minds run toward those groups by instant default, we propagate the existing imbalances. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s thoughtlessness. Re:becca Watson I want to be fair at this point. I know that, judging by what you write, you’ve had uncomfortable experiences with folk from Skepchick, FreethoughtBlogs and other sites, and feminist skeptics in general. (I head this title up with Rebecca Watson’s name because she’s emblematic of that community, not because I only mean her.) You mentioned ‘torrents of abuse’ and people who’ve been ‘picked on by the speaker from the platform’, and I also know others who’ve had run-ins with feminist skeptics that left them feeling hurt. So let me just say: I don’t know the details of these encounters, so I don’t have the evidence to pass judgement either way. But since people on this side have been accused of being dogmatic, I want to make clear that I don’t endorse everything feminist skeptics have ever done. Not everything Rebecca Watson’s ever done, not everything PZ has ever done, not everything that was ever said on FtB. I certainly wouldn’t want to treat people I think are wrong, but who are calm and reasonable about it, with contempt or vitriol. With specific respect to Rebecca Watson: yes, it’s true that sometimes she’s shorter-tempered than I might be; that she’s sometimes less tolerant, less polite or less sensitive than I might be. There are times when I would probably have been less spiky or pointed in her situation. But here’s the thing: I’m not in her situation. Rebecca Watson gets told regularly, in graphic detail, including by atheists and skeptics, how she’ll be raped and/or murdered. (She’s not alone in this, and it’s not by any means extraordinary: the same happens outside skepticism to women writers as diverse as Christina Odone, Laurie Penny and Louise Mensch.) When she and other people talk about harassment at conferences, they get called irresponsible. Is she, or are her colleagues, occasionally a bit ruder or snappier than needs be – particularly when, for example, male skeptics accuse them of sexism? Possibly. I haven’t experienced that myself, but it’s not wildly implausible, and I won’t deify any more than demonise them. There’s almost no one in skepticism I support on every issue, all of the time, and I’m not in the business of putting others on pedestals. The question is, can I understand whatever outrage they express? Yes, I can. If I’d put massive amounts of time and money into bringing TAM more women, and was the accused of driving them away; if I blogged, campaigned and lived as an feminist skeptic while in receipt of constant, vivid threats of violence only to be told there were no issues for godless women; if I spent my life, in general, combating misogyny inside and outside this movement, and then was told I was a sexist: you know what? I’d be mad too. And maybe sometimes, I’d take that anger out in non-optimal ways. I don’t think I’d have any right to scold Rebecca Watson (or anyone in that kind of position) for her approach, even if that interested me. I’ve no idea how it feels to be on the business end of that treatment, and I’d be pretentious at best to wag my finger from non-existent moral high ground when I’ve no idea how short-tempered it would make me. What interests me is the actual problem, and how to solve it – but I see that, perhaps, we’re not on quite the same page about whether one exists. The crux of the issue For certain religious believers, one gets the sense that truth is unimportant. This is odd, because in many cases the ethics of their behaviour demand on whether their beliefs are right: if it’s true that skepticism will send me to Hell, I’m glad to have been told; if it’s true that condoms would worsen the AIDS crisis, the Vatican’s right to prohibit them; if it’s true that Indians are born into poverty as punishment for misdeeds in past lives, the caste system might be okay. The fact these beliefs are baseless is the issue. I’m struck that you see widespread sexism in our community as a similarly baseless claim. You describe complaints about this as ‘hysterical and unjustified’, ‘ludicrously exaggerated’ and ‘distorted’, and you state that you don’t see the people making them as ‘mainstream’. I disagree, and I think the entire issue comes down to this. If it’s true that D.J. Grothe received reports of harassment at TAM, it’s fair to call him out on saying there were none. If it’s true that significantly many women reported harassment to no avail, it’s reasonable that others be deterred. If it’s true that feminist skeptics get torrents of misogynous hatemail, divisions aren’t provoked when people say there isn’t a problem. (They just became visible.) If it’s true that male sexual violence against women is commonplace, we can and should discuss the way men often see women. If it’s true that there’s sexism in this movement, it’s okay to talk about it. At this point, I find it hard to see how these things can be doubted. You still think we don’t have a problem? Sexual assault may not happen to all women, or a majority, but that doesn’t make it rare. At the end of last year, a U.S. government survey said one woman in five had been assaulted; according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, it’s one in six. Of course, as with anything, different studies say different things and are open to different criticisms – but I don’t know of a single reasonably conducted investigation into the rate of sexual violence against women which suggests it’s anything like as uncommon as it would need to be, for conference organisers to ignore the issue. While almost all the evidence suggests it’s far more common, imagine only one in fifty women face sexual assault: 660 attended TAM last year. Doing the math, I think those numbers mean organisers should take harassment reports seriously. ‘It has not always been easy’, you say, ‘to pin down what, exactly, our Allegedly Oppressed Sisters are actually complaining about.’ Well, here are some specific things: 1. Elyse Anders of Skepchick gave a keynote speech at a conference, and was given this (NSFW) sex card by two strangers immediately afterward. 2. At Women in Secularism, Jen McCreight accidentally started a discussion with others about particular, non-named male skeptics making ‘unwanted and aggressive sexual advances toward young pretty women’. 3. On Godless Bitches, women from the Atheist Community of Austin discuss various harassment incidents in the organisation’s past and how they were dealt with. 4. 14.4 percent of women answering this year’s American Secular Census – i.e. more than one in ten – say they’ve ‘felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed’ in secularism. 5. Two commenters report harassment at a previous TAM, including a man who it could reasonably be suspected was taking upskirt photos. 6. Rebecca Watson, directly after indicating in a talk that she disliked being propositioned at conferences, is propositioned by a conference attendee, alone in a lift at 4am. (Update: Stephanie Zvan on how the details of that meant it wasn’t ‘zero bad’.) 7. A friend of mine described being unable to attend her atheist student group without being hit on, non-stop, by male attendees. 8. When a 15-year-old posted a picture of herself holding a Carl Sagan book on r/atheism, an entire thread of leering, sexualising comments resulted. Some of them were brutal, graphically violent fantasies of rape. 9. T.J. Kincaid, atheist vlogger AKA TheAmazingAtheist, who describes himself as ‘anti-feminist’, graphically and abusively told a rape survivor on reddit that he would personally rape her and ridiculed what happened to her, also announcing his hope that it would happen again. At the time of writing, he still has 296,821 subscribers who regularly watch his videos. 10. The details of her TAM-related e-mail not withstanding, an atheist blogger who apparently posts regularly has an entire category entitled ‘Kicking Ophelia Benson in the cunt’. (That’s closer to my understanding of ‘bullying’ than anything she writes.) This post is long enough already, so I’m leaving the list there, but it seems to me that each of these things (a) is legitimate as a target of complaint for feminist skeptics, and (b) occurred as one piece in a misogynistic jigsaw – not specific to skepticism, but nonetheless present there. If I read that list with no foreknowledge, as an atheist ‘beginner’, I’d be convinced that feminist skeptics were onto something. Yes, some of this is anecdotal, but it’s just as anecdotal to say ‘Well, I’ve never encountered sexism’ in counterargument. And feminist skeptics aren’t claiming these are everyone’s experiences; just that they’ve happened, and they shouldn’t have. So my sincere, non-rhetorical question is – if after all this, you still don’t think we have a problem, what would convince you? That misogyny happens in skepticism might not be a claim you believe, but it’s not extraordinary. It’s not supernatural, like claims involving gods or devils. So you should be able to imagine a scenario where you’d be convinced Team FtB have a point. What would it be? Just what – what more, at this point – would it take?