A secular state is important, but (for me) it’s not enough

Sunday’s post on humanism has gained lots of attention, including the National Secular Society’s, who shared it on their homepage. (Thanks to them for the readers that sent the blog.)

One issue I mentioned half way through that post, and that I’ve brought up a lot elsewhere recently, is that I want to focus my activities on skepticism – and in particular, atheism – not just on separating church and state. I differ in this sense from many humanists, but also from the NSS, which works “exclusively” toward a secular state.

Their president Terry Sanderson, who I’m told liked the humanism post, said two years ago “We will leave humanism for the humanist groups, atheism to the atheist groups and fix our sights uniquely on secularism.” A secular charter, illustrating their campaign aims, was announced at the same time.

Don’t read this post as a criticism of the NSS – I share their aims, support their work and am fine with that being their focus. This post is just about why, personally, mine is different.

The issues strict secularists address legitimately matter. It matters that Anglican Bishops sit as of right in Britain’s parliament, for example; that “broadly Christian worship” is required in our state schools; that parallel court systems exist for minority religions; that oaths to God are taken by our national rulers; that faith groups get exemptions a priori from a host of laws; that they effectively have automatic charity status; that religious bodies run at least a third of maintained schools here; that public money funds chaplaincies in hospitals, the armed forces and education, and that we still have an established church. These are just some of the issues the UK has – elsewhere, things are sometimes far worse – so I’m glad there are people on the case.

But in terms of religion’s impact on the world, and on this country, it’s not just these church-and-state issues that matter to me. In fact, if I had to list all my concerns, they would only constitute a small fraction.

It also matters to me…

  • …that according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, only 48 percent of British people believe in evolution, and that in a 2009 survey by ComRes, 32 percent said it was probably or definitely true “that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years”, and that 51 percent said intelligent design was probably or definitely true. It matters that many children are presumably taught this by their parents and not just in school, that entire churches of typically-educated adults believe something so clearly absurd, and that students at well-respected universities boycott lectures on Darwin.
  • …that in churches and living rooms everywhere, people are taught that God created humans as two separate genders, whose function was to “cleave unto” one another, and that this is used to justify misogyny, transphobia and bigotry toward queer people in general. These beliefs manifest themselves as dirty looks in the street, heteronormative language and other entirely legal microaggressions.
  • …that people in enjoyable, consensual relationships put huge amounts of effort into not having the sex each of them wants, because they think it will make baby Jesus cry – because they think creating the universe gives someone else authority over their sex life.
  • …that people give up sometimes-huge quantities of money to their churches or religious organisations, many of which spend that money on egregious or dishonest things, when they could use it to help loved ones, vulnerable people or good causes.
  • …that people die when they stop taking their medicine, because they believe prayer will cure them of serious illness. Advertising regulations will not stop this happening, because these beliefs are often acquired in pews, over coffee with friends or family members, from reading holy books or from prayer itself.
  • …that people with serious mental health issues are taken, or go willingly, to ask pastors, priests and other religious leaders for advice, who it’s presumed on no evidential basis have access to ultimate knowledge but who frequently have no medical or psychiatric training whatsoever. It matters when totally unqualified believers and religious leaders go out of their way – entirely legally, most of the time – to tell people they have depression or other MH issues because they lack humility before God, rather than because they’ve got an illness.
  • …that parents tell their children they’re possessed by demons, and sometimes perform vivid, traumatising rituals to drive them out.
  • …that the same parents and other adults terrify children with vivid, traumatising statements about Hell.
  • …that children are threatened with Hell for not believing, and that adults are too. Not rarely. Not even occasionally. Like, all the fucking time.
  • …that children are indoctrinated with unfair, unbalanced presentations of beliefs as obvious facts.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel a sudden need to “do God” on becoming parents, and lie to their children about what they believe. It matters that children grow up believing sometimes-absurd things because their parents were dishonest.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel they need to have religious weddings, child-naming ceremonies or funerals. Particularly at funerals, this can be enormously alienating for some attendees.
  • …that when some atheists die, believers insist they have religious funerals which don’t represent their lives and which they wouldn’t have wanted. For some attendees, this makes bereavement even more heartbreaking than it is already.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of other religions spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about one another, including when the religions at stake are in many respects highly similar from an outsider’s perspective.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of atheists spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about us – and that educated believers do that who ought to know better.
  • …that when I stood at a secular stand on a busy Oxford street with slogans like “Not religious?” and “Living without religion”, a passer-by with several children shook his head, in slow revulsion, as if witnessing a fascist parade.
  • …that while representing an atheist student group at a freshers’ fair, I had to explain to a fellow student – at Oxford University – what an atheist was, something I learned aged 11.
  • …that some believers, including relatively educated ones with very large audiences, claim that “our laws, customs, traditions, language, music, architecture, diet, everything you care to name, [.] are all based upon Christianity“.
  • …that some believers, including ones I’ve met, say the genocides of the Old Testament were justified explicitly because God (rather than people) ordered them.
  • …that some people, including some atheists, think sinking a sharp knife into the genitals of an eight-day-old baby and cutting them apart without anaesthesia is okay, if done for religious reasons, and should be legal. (I’m not even talking about people doing it. It concerns me simply that some people think it’s okay, which they still would if it were banned – which it should be.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities are failing to enforce the existing laws against female genital mutilation, perhaps in fear of appearing racist or religiously intolerant. (Imagine the results if, instead of Muslim immigrants’ daughters, white girls in Britain had their clitorises cut off.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities refrain from using existing laws against churches and religious bodies which for decades have deliberately, knowingly concealed sexual abuse of children.
  • …that when it’s suggested these churches not be trusted with children, some believers and atheists react as if something indescribably intolerant, bigoted or aggressive has been said.

None of these issues will be addressed just by separating church from state. If no clergy sat in parliament, all state schools were wholly unreligious, no church had undue exemptions from any laws, and so on – anything above could still be happening. Each results from people’s actual beliefs about the universe, and not necessarily from public funds going to religion. In most cases, we can’t and shouldn’t tackle them with changes to the law, infringing on people’s freedom to believe whatever they want; but by fostering a climate of skepticism where people choose their beliefs carefully, subjecting religious claims to appropriate scrutiny, we might.

I’m glad there’s someone taking the “secularism-only” approach – specifically the NSS – and not focusing on criticising superstitious modes of thought. As Maryam Namazie puts it, “Secularism is a precondition for basic rights and freedoms. It’s inclusive unlike religion”; separating church and state can be desirable to believers, and secularist campaigners need as many foot soldiers as they can get, so it makes sense that they don’t religion-bash.

Some of us want to focus on secularism, and some want to help persuade people out of irrational beliefs. It’s entirely up to the individual which to emphasise, and there are very good reasons to keep those efforts separate. Personally, I want to be one of the latter.

Across society and around the world, a conversation is taking place about whether and why religious beliefs hold water or not. I want to be part of that conversation, and there are several reasons I think this is what I should be doing:

  • I’m not a lobbyist. As I said in my “humanism” post, secularist work – not always, but often – involves meeting with politicians or national and local authorities, examining legal frameworks and legislation, preparing long term strategies and choosing pragmatic goals – that isn’t me. I don’t have the patience or diplomacy for that kind of work, and I don’t have access to Westminster.
  • I’m good at responding to evangelism, and I like doing it. I couldn’t put together summaries of Britain’s complex laws or give speeches to the UN about the Vatican’s history of child abuse, as some of the NSS’s people have – but I do feel at home giving point-by-point responses to arguments the Gospels are reliable. That kind of thing is important too.
  • I used to be religious, so I have an understanding of belief – and Christianity in particular – some atheists don’t have. I get what it’s like to belong to a church, and I’m happy to dig into Bible quotes. I understand the differences between different churches. This makes me better informed than some atheists are, and I find specifically that many pure secularists have been raised in atheist households, and don’t always fully appreciate things like deconversion.
  • I’m angry – about the things religious leaders do, the things done to atheists in the name of belief, the things done to believers in the name of other beliefs, and generally the harmful ways religion affects the world. Spreading skepticism and organising explicitly in atheist terms, rather than working for secularism in non-confrontational ways, satisfies me; I want to be confrontational. (That doesn’t mean I want to be rude, unfriendly, aggressive or generally a dick – it means I want to have the argument, as part of a broad social movement if not in person.) If I focused on separating church and state, I wouldn’t feel as fulfilled, and that means I wouldn’t be as good at it as I am at atheism-centric work.

You could offer me a job with the NSS, or a similar group, starting tomorrow, and convince me totally that in five years I’d have made a huge difference – but if it meant I had to shut up about religion and not have the “beliefs” conversation, the cost to me personally would be too high.

I know that, since secularism is important, not everyone can take that stance – and happily, not everyone does. I’m glad there are people most fulfilled by church-and-state activism. (Tessa Kendall, who formerly worked for the NSS and to whom this post is in part a response, is one of them.) Sadly, and as I suggested in Sunday’s post, my happiness to part ways isn’t always returned.

If U.S. atheists are reading this, I know this may seem strange, but I’ve heard it said by pure secularists, and especially by humanists, that the kind of activism I and lots of other atheists pursue – the kind which involves persuading people out of their religions, making them look critically at their beliefs, encouraging atheists to come out in religious communities and talking about harm caused by irrational beliefs – gets in secularism’s way. The implication is that by criticising religion, we put believers off supporting a secular state.

I want to ask: what’s the point in secularism, if it means we all have to be nice about religion? Isn’t that enormously object-defeating? I’m a secularist because I think bashing beliefs should be allowed, and I’m as happy for people to bash mine as I am to bash theirs.

But I’m going to take a moment and say just what else I think is wrong-headed about that, because I think that activism promoting skepticism and combating irrational beliefs is of great use to secularism.

If more people are skeptics and atheists…

  • …it’s very likely more will be secularists. How many people join the NSS due to getting involved in atheism – at least in part, say, because they read The God Delusion or went to a Tim Minchin concert? Quite a lot, I bet. We can talk, legitimately, about why religious people should be secularists, but the fact is that an emphatic atheist is likely to want bishops out of parliament far more than, say, an Anglican – in fact, if you meet someone at their local atheist group, you can be almost certain they want that. Whatever extra members those groups get, the more potential memberships fees, donations or volunteers the NSS might get.
  • …fewer will be in religious groups, for church leaders or theocrats in general to use against secularists. We know that the Catholic church, for example, takes every opportunity to rally its schools and congregation against marriage reform, something the NSS supports, and we’ve seen Evan Harris lose his parliamentary seat, due at least in part to the organised smearing by Christian pro-life groups. Let be clear, cold-blooded and Machiavellian: when it comes to achieving secularist political goals, the fewer people the churches have, the better.
  • …religion’s privileged status, and Christianity’s in particular, will be further questioned. The 2001 census, which misleadingly suggested 71 percent of Britons were Christians, has been waved like a flag by Christian theocrats and evangelicals (also known as The Daily Telegraph). The suggestion is that since Christians are numerous, we ought for example to retain the Lords Spiritual – even on its own terms, that argument is bad, but the more people in our country tick “No religion”, the more absurdly unrepresentative bishops’ seats will look. Bigotry shown toward emphatic nonbelievers, like the man’s our “Not religious?” slogan disgusted, will presumably be rarer too, since more people’s friends and relatives will be atheists.
  • …more people will see religions just as ideas, like political philosophies or economic schools of thought, which have to earn their keep in the marketplace of ideas. They’ll stop thinking of them as inherent parts of people’s identities, like where their parents come from or their gender identity, and understand that it’s entirely fair – and helpful – to criticise them, just like any other ideas. That helps create an environment where no one’s beliefs get a free ride or an unfair advantage over anyone else’s. Isn’t that what secularism’s about?
  • …fewer theists will be theocrats, and some theocrats will become atheists. One inherent problem with selling secularism to believers is that some feel they know without doubt that their religion is the right one – as far as they’re concerned, it’s simply a fact that Christianity is the truth, and so of course no other worldview should get seats in parliament. To them, treating other religions the same is like treating flat earth-ers and astronomers the same. Atheist activism, if it deconverts these people, can make them secularists; and if it doesn’t, it might at least help them understand that their beliefs aren’t watertight facts.

This can and does work. It’s often said that you can’t reason someone out of religious beliefs – but very clearly, that’s untrue. I was reasoned out of mine. A significant number of people at any atheist gathering you care to attend, I’m willing to bet, have been reasoned out of theirs. Across society and around the world, more and more people are generally leaving religion; and in relatively unreligious societies like Britain, my experience is that fewer and fewer atheists are apathetic.

Atheist-specific activism is a valid option. It works. It isn’t pointless.

‘Problems with the humanist brand’ and why I’m not one

There’s recently been much discussion over A+/atheism plus, and whether or not it’s just humanism. Here’s something James Croft, of the Harvard Humanists, said about it:

Many seem to be responding to the “Atheism+” language more readily to the language of “Humanism” … And that speaks to some problem with the “Humanist” brand which people like me should think about carefully.

I’d like to give a personal slant on that, and talk about what puts me off saying I’m a humanist. Specifically, I want to talk about differences I’ve experienced with humanists – some of which are differences over emphasis or personal goals, which is perfectly fine, and some of which involve them doing things I wish they wouldn’t.

I warn you now: this will be a long post.

Some humanists, for example, talk about “replacing religion”. To me this seems odd. It suggests religion is some kind of vital organ, whose excision causes impairment and thus demand we put something new in its place. On the other hand, I see religion more like a tumour – something nonessential and generally harmful, despite being a product of benign natural processes, without which we’d probably be better and which doesn’t need replacing. But I do see the argument that secular communities should be supportive for their members, as churches often are, and this isn’t usually a stance that threatens my goals, so I’ll happily agree to disagree.

Some humanists, specifically, sing secular hymns. James Croft and Ian Cromwell discussed this previously, and according to its accounts from the most recent year, the British Humanist Association spent £5,518 on music. This includes on the BHA Choir, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in the flesh – but while they, perhaps like many humanist musicians, are extremely impressive, I’m personally not comfortable expressing beliefs by singing in a congregation. Again this seems determined to replace religious identity, but I’m rather glad I lost mine, and I don’t particularly want to feel now how I felt in church. Other people needn’t share my feelings, though, and if people like learning humanist hymns, I’m glad for them.

I do understand those hymns are often written for ceremonies, though, and aren’t just recreational, since some humanists have their own ceremonial rituals ­– weddings, for example, child-naming events or funerals. Compared with many skeptics, I’m not unsympathetic to symbolic ritual, but I don’t desire the former two since I’ve no desire to marry or have children. As for death, I often feel religious funerals exclude non-believers, and I wouldn’t want mine to belong to any particular worldview. In other words, I’d want it to be secular in the “non-religious” sense, but also in the “neutral” sense, so that non-humanists didn’t feel like outsiders. Again that’s just my personal response, and I can see the appeal.

I’m more uneasy when it comes to deifying Darwin, because some humanists put evolution on a pedestal. I’m talking here about using things like the “tree of life” in logos (see below), but more so about celebrating Darwin Day in humanist groups, walking a so called “biological pilgrimage” and specifically composing hymns to natural selection. (I’ve heard at least one of these from the BHA Choir. It was very well sung, but it made me wince a bit.)

I acknowledge the importance of The Origin of Species in scientific and cultural terms, and I’m no less concerned than anyone about the need to teach evolution not design. But it’s not the basis of my non-belief, something I use for ethics or otherwise a part of my ‘worldview’ – I appreciate Darwinism’s significance, but I don’t frame my life around it. That, once again, seems too religion-like. On this issue, I am concerned when other people do it, because it risks reinforcing the idea of evolution as another religion, or that atheists worship Darwin. Ultimately, I think I’m still okay with people doing this who choose to, as long as it’s presented as specific to humanists and not something that describes all nonbelievers.

These are all activities which seek to replicate the atmosphere of a congregation, and some humanists are keen on group dynamics. This was a key element of James and Ian’s discussion on the use of hymns, and it also figured heavily in his disagreements with Stephanie Zvan about humanist temples. (I confess, the phrase itself makes me fidget in my seat.) I get why group social norms can be useful tools, and why someone might desire them. Personally, I’m just not into that: I’m a stander-out by nature, the kid at school who wouldn’t answer the register, preferred stairs to escalators and wore outrageous socks – don’t try to change me. Group-centric settings have much in their favour, and more power to you if you feel at home in them. Like Stephanie, I just don’t.

Some humanists want to preach morals by discussing virtue, “goodness” and writing secular bibles - The Good Book for example, written by A.C. Grayling who seems to like discussing “the good life” and was in line for a time to be the BHA’s ceremonial president. (During the fallout when his private, £18,000-a-year university was announced, this was called off for some reason.) If that’s your goal, I’m all right with that. For me though, it’s about addressing beliefs people have for bad reasons – by no means an amoral aim, because persuading people out of those beliefs often stops them doing heinous things as a result.

Some humanists use “humanism” as a word for all ethics or empathy. This irritates me; it implies if you have any impulse in the format, “[behaviour x] is (un)desirable and should be (removed/)encouraged”, you’re a humanist and have to call yourself one. You don’t.

Some humanists insist morality’s objective and that morals exist the way hydrogen does. I don’t agree. That’s fine. (Incidentally, if believers are reading: I still wouldn’t agree if a god existed.)

But some imply you have no standards if you dispute that ­– i.e. that if you’re unconvinced there are “moral facts”, you can have no objection to acid attacks on little girls. This isn’t a post about that discussion, but please, don’t suggest that.

Some aspire to be “good without God”. If that’s right for them, cool. But some of us are fine being bad without God. I don’t feel a need to gain people’s approval who claim to love the god of the Bible – someone with a fetish for baby-killing, genital mutilation and genocide, to name a few things. If you see me as a bad person and this is your idea of goodness incarnate, I can’t say I’m worried for my image.

Certain humanists are uncritically nice about Jesus, and some humanists are fond of platitudes and abstractions. I generally don’t like aphorisms – the so called golden rule, for example, strikes me as highly overrated. (Why do to others as you’d have them to do you, when not everyone wants to be treated as you do?) And when I hear things like “It is love that makes sex human“, I feel like vomiting. I see why truisms and maxims appeal to some, but in general I like putting things as plainly as I can.

One major gripe for me: some humanists want everything to be about humanism. I’ve heard humanists say non-humanist groups need to change their names (and indeed pressure those groups to that effect), dismiss the work of non-humanist identified groups – the National Secular Society, for example – and generally insist all discussion and action taken be centred around their own worldview. I often get the sense humanism is rather insular, with groups like the BHA, the Humanist Society of Scotland and the International Humanist and Ethical Union sticking mainly to themselves and not interacting much with other bodies – but that’s just my subjective view, and it may be wrong, or specifically a European issue. In any case, humanists don’t get to set the agenda for all sceptical or secular discourse, and consistently I’ve run into ones who feel they should, as if godless activism at large is just a subset of humanism and not the other way around.

As a recent post of Greta’s just pointed out, some humanists have huge diversity problems – more so than atheism at large – and moreover, don’t seem to acknowledge them as problems. The Humanist Society of Scotland’s conference last year, I’m told, was “mainly old white men”; the AHS (‘supported and facilitated’ and non-independent of the BHA financially and logistically, thus a humanist body in terms of this post) has a terrible diversity record at its past conventions and conferences. More than once I’ve brought this up with humanist officials and they’ve ignored it. More than once, I’ve heard other people say that happened with them.

Some humanists are political liberals. This is, I think, more typical of British humanists, and I use the word “liberal” in its European sense, i.e. what tends to be called “libertarian” in the U.S., and certainly nowhere near me on the political spectrum. I personally don’t agree with the BHA line on marriage reform, for example – I think we should scrap the civil register and marriage as a legally defined state institution, something much more easily done in Britain the U.S.A. – and the promotional video of the Campaign for Equal Marriage (vocally supported by the BHA and its leaders), made every queer and left wing part of me wretch. This isn’t the position of all humanists, especially not North Americans ones from what I can tell, and everyone can have their own opinions, but it’s still a negative association which helps stop humanism from attracting me.

Some humanists need everything to be “positive” – for them, it’s vital to discuss what they do value and believe in, rather than what they don’t. (Specifically, religion.) Again, different strokes for different folks: I understand why, but I’m all about addressing bad beliefs, which requires me to say “I’m against [x]“. It’s wholly okay to stick with smiley, happy humanism if that floats your boat. Just don’t tell everybody else, as some humanists will, that they have to do the same. What other people emphasise is their decision.

Some humanists focus on civil secularism, and I’m glad they do. In my eyes, the BHA’s most valuable and important contribution to activism is their work to remove bishops from the House of Lords, oppose state-maintained faith schools and separate church from state in general. In terms of where I put my time and energy, these are not the goals to which I’m personally most drawn: I want to contribute to a reduction of religious belief, help people leave their religions if that’s their choice, build communities of atheists and spread skepticism in general. This is partly because of my personal background, partly because of the skill set I think I have and partly because of other factors – because these are all personal things, I’ve no objection to humanists working differently, and I’m positively happy that they do, at least in this respect.

However: some don’t see different goals as valid, when pursued by other people. I’ve heard Atheism UK, the British branch of AAI whose work involves “challenging religious faith” and supporting “the advancement of atheism”, criticised by a professional humanist because “they take a very anti-theist line”. I think persuading people out of religion, and supporting a reduction in irrationality, is highly desirable in and of itself, and will aid humanists’ and secularists’ causes. We don’t all have to be accommodationists, and we don’t all have to do things the way humanists do.

On the contrary, I don’t think it aids secularism that some humanists want to share religion’s privilege, not abolish it. I’m thinking here of humanist chaplaincies on campus and in local government, funded through tax; of humanism’s status (according, again, to a humanist campaigner who spoke to me) as a “protected belief” under British law; of the humanist, worldview-promoting BHA accepting public money; of its famous, otherwise excellent promotional adverts on buses owned by Transport for London, a local government body; its campaign to “make humanist weddings legal marriages“, rather than removing any legal powers based on worldviews?

None of these seem to me compatible with separating church and state, as I understand it. We shouldn’t want government to treat us how it treats religion. It shouldn’t treat any belief group how it treats religion. If humanist groups (or indeed atheist ones) are taking public money or tax-supported adspace, it makes it easy for people like Joanne Bogle to say – entirely fairly – that in name of neutrality, religions should get the same. If humanist celebrants have legally recognised marital powers and views somehow “protected” by the state, it makes it easy for minority religions to say – entirely fairly – that so should they. I’m just one person on the internet, and not an influential public figure or mass lobby group, but as a secularist I’m categorically against this.

I’m not saying everyone must be a firebrand. I’m happy not everyone is. Some humanists like being non-confrontational and “friendly”, which is perfectly fine. This is, I think, why many identify that way and not as “atheists”.

Like Jen McCreight, I personally want to “keep using the word atheist until it becomes destigmatized“, but that I get that not everyone does. People’s attitudes are different, and there are contexts where avoiding it’s very understandable. Debbie Goddard’s organisation, African Americans for Humanism, is an obvious example: it targets a community known widely for religiosity, which therefore could reasonably be expected not to react well to “atheists”. I like to be direct about my non-belief, and lots of A+ people have said they like that label more than ‘humanist’ because it’s direct. But if “humanist” is a label you prefer, I won’t get in your way.

I’d ask though that you give me the same respect, since some humanists object to others calling themselves atheists before all else. They’ll say it’s “meaningless” because it isn’t an entire worldview or a positive statement of values – which, for me and many others – it doesn’t mean to be, or imply there’s no significant thing such as “atheist activism“, like helping people come out, helping them recover from religious abuse or putting the claims of believers to the test. Humanists, don’t do that. We let you use the labels you want.

Some humanists call all non-believers humanists, or apply their own label to those who don’t self-identify that way. The BHA, for example, claimed at one point that there were “17 million humanists in Britain”, based on answers people gave in a Mori poll about their attitudes.

I imagine that if you asked them, most of those people wouldn’t describe themselves that way – I imagine many wouldn’t even know what a humanist was. In fact, I imagine if you asked 1000 people in central London if they knew what atheists and humanists were, you’d get a “yes” for the former much more often; using “humanists” as shorthand for “secular people” speaks to some humanists’ need, mentioned above, to make humanism far more central and important to non-belief in general than it is or needs to be. And if humanists are going to campaign for things I don’t necessarily agree with, I don’t want to be co-opted by being named a humanist.

Some humanists even tell us we’re humanists too, even if we say otherwise. Let us alone, already. If we don’t want to call ourselves that, we don’t have to.

This has been a long list. (To be fair, I did warn you.) There are two responses I can already predict certain humanists will have. Both make me uneasy, and both make me laugh.

The first is outrage. From my experience of the UK humanist community, I feel sure some people will read this post, or parts of it, and feel I’ve been incredibly rude – some people, I’ve no doubt, will think this is disrespectful, childish, tribalistic or whatever else. I’ve observed that however mild your criticism of groups like the BHA, or however fine you are with other people being humanists even though you’re not, certain people will stop being your friend if you’re not In The Club.

The second is the “no true humanist” argument. Few if any of the things I list here is true of all humanists, and some of it applies to very limited numbers, so I’m sure people will turn to a Humanist Manifesto – hello, James Croft, if you’re reading – and declare “That’s not in accordance with proper humanism.”

To start with, I’m don’t really care. This is about my feelings toward a ‘brand’, and that means everything I associate with the word “humanist” – whether those associations are rationally justified or not. Like it or not, that’s the baggage the term has. For another thing, I don’t want to have that discussion. I’m not interested in arguing doctrine; in disputing how manifestos should be interpreted, or which humanists are “doing it right”. I like the “atheist” label precisely because it’s not a worldview. I don’t have to be concerned with principles and how to apply them, or what the ideal reading of a certain text is. For me, that discussion would be counterproductive – it would distract me from the sceptical activism I want to focus on.

In case you’ve skipped to the last paragraph then, reader, and not read the list: I’m a non-humanist, and I’m fine with other people being humanists. I just wish they always felt the same.

P.E. lessons ruined how I felt about myself

Recently, John Prescott and I disagreed.

The Olympics were nearing a close, and a tweet from Gaby Hinsliff about compulsory PE in schools set us off. His stance was that “we need competitive sport” since “learning how to lose gracefully is just as important as winning”. I was unconvinced, as I was four days previously, when David Cameron demanded, “a revival of competitive sport in primary schools”, saying “we need to end the “all must have prizes” culture”.

I told John Prescott that my experience of competitive sport in P.E. lessons was more about humiliation – gracefully, mind – but I want to say more here than I can on Twitter. I came out aged twelve in the summer of Year 8, and particularly after that, P.E. lessons slowly ruined how I felt about myself.

Like the so called War on Christmas and laws against cross-wearing, Cameron’s “all must have prizes” culture seems little more than an invention of the British right wing press. Certainly, I never encountered it. At primary school I dreaded sports day: uncoordinated, hay fever-afflicted and unable to breathe through my nose, I was universally incompetent. Because participation was mandatory, I usually opted for the hundred-metre sprint – my rationale for this, aged seven or eight, was that it would be over quickly. While this was true, choosing the shortest race also meant unmitigated defeat by the quickest runners, before the entire school and their parents.

It might seem absurd today, but that hurt. I ended up in tears twice, and later faked illness to avoid it – presumably teachers knew I was lying, but took pity on me. Where I excelled at art projects and English, the kids who struggled at that weren’t made to enter contests where large crowds cheered for me and they finished last. I enjoy watching certain competitions now, even ruthlessly dog-eat-dog ones – RuPaul’s Drag Race springs to mind – but I know everyone involved is present by choice. Making anyone, particularly children, compete publicly and against their will in something for which they’ve no skill or enthusiasm seems deeply cruel. (Yes, I have issues, but when I tweeted about this it struck a chord, so perhaps many do.)

My secondary school was a comprehensive, but with its maroon and bottle green uniform, ridiculous Latin motto and expansive playing fields, it would never have admitted it. I got to know and hate those playing fields over several years, each of which involved a games curriculum of traditional team sports doubtless approved of by David Cameron: rugby in the autumn term, football in the spring and either tennis or cricket in the summer. (These were the boys’ sports. Activities were split by gender, with girls getting a mostly different and equally traditional schedule – hockey, rounders and so on.)

During lessons, especially once out, I faced just about all the unpleasantness you could imagine: coming last or next to last, depending on the group, I got called a colourful range of names including literally dozens – I once made a list – of homophobic slurs, from “freak” to “faggot”. In the winter, when rain had muddied the ground, I got pelted with dirt, and it wasn’t unusual for people to spit on me. I still remember how that felt. Then the physical bullying: kickings, in particular, or being hit with sporting implements; the hard edge of a tennis racquet once gave me a black eye. This was a rare occasion when teachers intervened.

I’m not sure if they otherwise didn’t know what was happening, or if fear of acknowledgingthe gay thing meant they didn’t step in. It certainly stopped me from saying anything. Not all my P.E. teachers were conventionally nasty, but some made things more difficult than they already were. My twelve-year-old self once lost control of his breathing and fell to ground, unable to stop panting, after being made to run 1.5km. The teacher who set the task responded to expressions of concern with, “Oh, Alex is just being silly.” She later said, “More effort, next time”.

Though I couldn’t then articulate it, P.E. lessons made me feel that my body belonged to someone else. From mandatory activities I was bad at and which hurt, to the physical punishments some teachers used – forgetting shin pads meant lapping both football fields five times – to having to undress in front of people who hated me, exposing a body I’d started to hate. Then, of course, the fascistic “bleep test”. I wondered, and still do, why authorities needed to know how long I could sprint for before being exhausted. After one test, a boy in the class said I should kill myself. Several times, I tried it.

P.E. apologists often echo the severe Mr. Hume, who once told us, “There are too many unfit kids today.” But who put him in charge of my body, and what gave government the right to deem it inadequate? If P.E. really created fitter kids, wouldn’t decades of increasingly strict requirements have evolved children into Adonises by now? Between my first and last P.E. lessons, no-one’s fitness level seemed to change.

I don’t believe this is really the motivation. If it were, why object, as Cameron does, to “Indian dance, or whatever”? Students who excel at sport should clearly have facilities at school, and primary schools need P.E. to identify them. But why not stress dance, Pilates, or martial arts as much as the public school sports he grew up around? I don’t know how common my experience of P.E. lessons is, but the syllabus did make it harder for me as a gay-identifying teenager: to fail at things so traditionally masculine as playing rugby or throwing heavy objects, especially in single gender classes, is often to encounter explicit homophobia.

For many, including me, this subject is emotive, and those who defend compulsory P.E. – especially post-primary school, and in the shape of traditional competitive sports – often do it powerfully. But to me it never seems to do much good, and can sometimes do unspeakable harm.

Born what way? Why Lady Gaga’s hit is a bad anthem

I’m beautiful in my way

‘Cause God makes no mistakes

I’m on the right track, baby

I was born this way.

Catchy, isn’t it?

As a song and an expression of self-love, “Born This Way” is great, but I’d argue those four lines show the gay community’s worst faults today.

Their line of thought is liberal in religious and political terms: being homosexual is who we are, a part of our nature, and a god responsible for that surely wouldn’t mind, even though America’s Christian right often say he does. This all sounds rather harmless, and could be labelled inoffensive to a fault, but I think it raises problems.

For a start, I don’t believe in God. (Yes, I’m angry about it. No, I don’t eat babies.) That might sound glib, but there are lots of “natural” things for which a god would have to answer: Ugandan babies with HIV, for instance, or South Asian tsunamis claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. If we take on homophobia with the idea God never allows anything bad, we have to apply the same logic to catastrophes like those. If he isn’t making mistakes when they take place, I’m not sure we should listen to him at all.

It’s possible the God who’s namechecked in the song is just a figurative one, personifying natural forces as in Einstein’s “God does not play with dice” or Stephen Hawking’s “the mind of God”. Even so, I don’t think we should argue our case on any church’s terms. When I look around the current LGBT mainstream, I’m often puzzled by its need to cosy up with “tolerant” believers. At my university’s society, for example, I once witnessed officers discuss how members might be actively discouraged from leaving their religions, rather than left to their own decisions, when the fact is that however permissive your own church happens to be, wider faith communities are almost always hard places to be queer, and anyone uncomfortable there shouldn’t be pressured against leaving.

For much of history, religious groups held undue influence in schools, courts and parliament, wielding civil power against sexual minorities, and even today Christianity holds privileged status in our public life. I’m a secularist not because I doubt there’s a god, but because I don’t think anyone’s beliefs – however cuddly and reconstructed – should mean they hold automatic sway over the lives of others.

There’s another problem, though, with calling sexuality the way that nature (or indeed God) made us, joyously declaring we were “born this way”. In my view, it’s wrong.

I’m obviously not denying there’s strong evidence genetic and antenatal factors play a part, as they do in much of our lives – but I imagine that, as with most other things, how much someone’s sexual self was pre-determined at birth varies between individuals. A lot of people like to eat broccoli, including me, and I expect that for many, this has most to do with their nervous system’s predetermined makeup giving broccoli a pleasant taste; for many others, though, it will be down to economic factors, social context or positive memories associated with it.

There are likewise a hundred reasons someone might perform a queer sex act, and not all of them genetic. Show me the fabled “gay gene”, and I’ll show you a straight man who has it, before getting with a guy who doesn’t. There is no state of being a broccoli-eater; that’s something we understand as an action or a preference, and certainly not as “who you are”. In the same way, I don’t think gay is something people are, at least not in a single, invariable sense. “Baby, I was born this way”, pride marchers sing to Gaga’s tune. Frankly my dears, born what way?

Queer theorists joke that gay people were invented in 1886, the year Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis. Before this, reference had rarely been made to “the homosexual” as a kind of person, but to people who did things they weren’t meant to do. (For this reason, it’s problematic asking things like “Was Shakespeare gay?” – the idea of someone being gay is thoroughly modern.) It’s unfortunate that today, this essentialist view of sexuality is most audibly challenged by so-called therapists, who offer unethically to “cure” healthy desires, but I think it’s reductive to gloss queer identity as “just the way we are”.

I’m worried by how often I hear liberals and self-declared straight allies fight homophobia with “It’s not a choice!” I’ll admit I like making bigots uncomfortable, but I’m ultimately somewhat indifferent to the gender of any partner I choose, so I doubt that if I absolutely had to, I’d be incapable of living a straight life. A special ill will is sometimes kept for bisexuals, who could be exclusively heterosexual but choose not to be – where are they left by “Born This Way”, and the idea we should all stop bashing gays since they just can’t help it, rather than because no harm is done? I’ve read, too, in the transgender blogosphere, that well-meaning cissexists now leave comments like “You were born female, so why transition? Accept yourself!”

Ideas of sexuality as inborn erase those of us, like me, whose orientation isn’t simple, and it’s ultimately othering to see queer people as different by nature from their straight counterparts, so I’m struck that the philosophy of “I was born this way” is as counterproductive as the song’s ideas about God. In general, Gaga’s lyrics are well meaning, but they implicitly suggest the wrong alliances – and, worse than that, they strip us of agency.

(Disclaimer: the ideas expressed in this article are mine, but discussions on the subject with Simon Pratt have prompted some of them.)

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

It’s done. I’ve been home from Soul Survivor twenty-four hours, and I’ve now more or less recovered emotionally and physically. I won’t deny that this project’s been hard – a lot more so than I expected on devising it. (My thanks go out, once again, to the readers of my blog who made it possible.) But am I glad I did it? Absolutely. Because being torn out of my skeptical bubble’s taught me a lot, and since it seems appropriate to make some conclusions in my final post, this blog will be a mixture of hope and fear.

To start with, the fear: my first night at Soul Survivor made me re-remember why we need skeptical activism, and how badly we need it. And it made me afraid of what we might end up facing without it.

Continue reading.