Coming Out Atheist: a tribute to godless people

I remember a time that I was in an airport, getting coffee before my flight and chatting with the barista. He asked where I was coming from or going to (as chatty people in airports often ask)—and I hesitated. I was coming home from an atheist conference, and I was tired, and I didn’t know if I felt up to having that conversation. But we’d been talking at the conference all weekend about how important coming out was, and I felt like I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t take this opportunity. So I went ahead. I said that I was coming home from an atheist conference, that I was an atheist writer and speaker and had been giving a talk.

And he got the biggest surprised smile on his face, and said, “Thank you. Thank you for doing that work.”

So writes Greta Christina in Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, And Why, released this spring. You know if you’ve watched her blog in recent months that she spent them writing it. I spent parts of them reading it, too.

I can’t say I’m unbiased. I’m quoted several times, thus unlikely to impede book sales on purpose. I have all kinds of reasons not to enrage the author (like she’d need it). And having had input on two drafts, I’m bound to like the final one – I’d have no right to make noises if I didn’t. There’s no point trying to be detached. If you’re seeking a balanced, neutral review, don’t seek mine. But do buy Greta’s book. It’s great.

Coming Out Atheist is in some ways a sequel to Why Are You Atheists So Angry (2012) – more precisely, a difficult second album. Her earlier book (and first atheist one) shared its title with a Skepticon talk attendees and YouTube viewers loved, itself spawned by a viral blog post. The formula makes sense: only a wilfully self-sabotaging writer could fail to capitalise on such a winning theme. After that, though, where to go? Coming Out Atheist isn’t one speech or article’s clear product, nor deliberately topical. It didn’t write itself the way its predecessor might be said to have. Whyever Greta embarked on this and not a different book, she thought about it. Her thought, I suspect, was to shine a light on other other unbelievers.

‘This book feels very much like a collaboration, even a community effort’, the book’s introduction, since cut, read. Why Are You Atheists So Angry was declaratively and self-consciously its author’s book, written Greta-Christina-style by Greta Christina of Greta Christina’s Blog, on Greta Christina’s thoughts about religion, with Greta Christina in its cover art. The maker, not just the medium, was the message. Coming Out Atheist, by contrast, spotlights dozens of names: ‘Sarah, a former Catholic’; ‘Jesse Daw[,] a 33-year-old gay man living in Fort Worth, Texas’; ‘Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Madison Scaccia (dates of service: August 2011 – present)’. ‘CoolRed38, who was brought up as a Muslim in the Middle East’. ‘CD from TX, a former passionate Christian and worship leader’.

These atheists’ and others’ stories fill the book – over 400, many of them cited there, inspired it, and the finished product pays tribute to them. Reading them changed my thinking on a hotly argued topic.

All kinds of tensions have arisen about paralleling queer and atheist struggles, something new atheism has been prone to do from Elisabeth Cornwell’s (then Richard Dawkins’) OUT Campaign to Bill Maher’s statements on unbelief and gay marriage. Straight atheists’ readiness to poach queer lexis certainly deserves reproach, but it bothers me how much critique has stressed stating one’s atheism simply isn’t like being out-LGBT – like ‘coming out’ in either case means one essential thing and nothing else.

Identities mean infinitely many things. There are people who think ‘gay’ means anyone who isn’t straight, who think it means exclusively same-sex attracted, who feel all manner of attractions but claim it since they only act on same-sex ones; people who think ‘atheist’ means any non-theist; that it means convicted god-denier; that it means confrontationalist. Many describe themselves using any of these terms because they understand them certain ways. Likewise coming out.

There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who struggled internally at length and performed tearful confession-rites to parents. There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who never struggled at all. There are queer people and atheists who took years to formulate a clear identity and those who ‘always knew’, queer people and atheists who attacked, harassed or disowned and those who surfed smoothly out of the ‘closet’, queer people and atheists who reject the notion of the closet or necessity of ‘coming out’ at all.

Taxonomising comings-out is easier to do across belief and gender-sexuality columns than it is to do within them. Queerness and godlessness are both taboos that get brushed under the rug, unspeakable politely over dinner – whatever secular heaven Britain might be thought to be, it’s still the case that calling oneself an atheist feels rude. This is a closet just as much, I think, as the ones we’ve build around sexual and gendered deviance, a constructed stigma that policies expression. We can’t speak any more sweepingly about what realities, in either case, are faced – they vary enough that to do so means homogenising queer people and atheists.

I say this as one of each. So, I’m pretty sure, does Greta. Her book’s not out yet (so to speak), but you should read it when it is.

A study in reset buttons: the trouble with ‘His Last Vow’ and Sherlock series three

Sherlock had a good first series and great second one. The recently aired third helping fell somewhere in between, but its final part, the glossily directed ‘His Last Vow’, was deeply flawed. (Spoilers to follow.)

There was much to like, even to laud, about it. The story’s opening showed more promise than either of its predecessors’, Lindsay Duncan was on form in guest star mode and Lars Mikkelsen, playing Charles Augustus Milverton via Rupert Murdoch, served the icy creepiness his family has cornered. There was far more plot, too, than in either of the prior episodes, and fans seem to have welcomed it. Unfortunately, it falls to bits under the lightest scrutiny.

The denouement came as Magnussen tricked Sherlock, accepting Mycroft’s state-secret-filled laptop in return for showing him his vaults of blackmail material, then revealing they were only in his mind. Mycroft and his snipers thus caught John and Sherlock selling secrets, yes, but they also caught Magnussen buying them. Surely even sans faults, there’s an arrest in that?

‘I don’t have to prove it, I just have to print it’, he says when John points out his lack of hard evidence. If so, why does he need to know these things at all? If things he threatens to print don’t need to be true (or proved to be), why bother memorising endless, unverifiable details? Why not print just anything?

And if he’s only printing libel without proof, why is the secret service (Mycroft’s lot, at any rate) so scared of him? If all he publishes is deniable, why would they even be that worried? Magnussen is meant, of course, to resemble endless press barons – Maxwell, Murdoch, Dacre – raising the awkward point that the gutter press prints unsubstantiated gossip all the time. Harrowing for private individuals, certainly, but nothing for security forces to fear.

Given that Mycroft and his people, who seemed to want rid of him anyway, were apparently the only witnesses besides John to Magnussen’s death, why did shooting him even put Sherlock at risk? Given how shadowy Mycroft’s department seems, having seemingly tortured Moriarty during series two, hadn’t any of them thought of just assassinating Magnussen? And why didn’t Mary, who had, just do so anyway when Sherlock arrived? Sherlock would surely have covered for her, as he has for John – yes, she’d have a witness whose secrecy she relied on, but that’s what happened anyway.

Speaking of Mary… I’ve said it before, but Steven Moffat can’t write women. liked her in Mark Gatiss’ episode as a bread-baking part time nurse and disillusioned Lib Dem. I liked her lying about liking John’s moustache and their interplay in ‘The Sign of Three’ – I liked there being a normal person who took Sherlock’s side, and I liked how likeable Mary was made, a departure from her typical portrayal. I didn’t want another sex-crazed femme fatale – another Irene Adler, River Song or Tasha Lem. You can bet come series four, her gun-toting secret agent background will turn up again and she’ll be just one more of Moffat’s female tr(oll)opes. She was more interesting as she was.

Speaking of women and how Moffat fails at writing them: it wasn’t just Mary’s character that got retconned. Look what happened to Janine, the bridesmaid-on-the-lookout from episode two – here rewritten as a scrounging predator, by turns stupid and unscrupulous, combining sexuality and treachery as Moffat’s women (Song? Adler?) often do. Sherlock even calls her a whore. Then look at Lady Smallwood, the battleaxe and damsel in distress; Sherlock’s mother, ‘monstrous’, oblivious, fawning and a ‘flake’; Mrs Hudson, funny because she used to be a stripper, daft and treated with contempt by everyone around, heroes included. This must have been the most women in any Sherlock episode – and when the best-presented one is Molly Hooper, pathetically in love as ever, things aren’t going well. Yes, there’s a problem.

In the end though, ‘His Last Vow’ was a study in resets – retcons, reversions and suddenly-dropped ideas. Mary became a villain, then wasn’t after all. Sherlock shot up so Magnussen would think he was an addict, then Magnussen didn’t believe him anyway – despite him testing positive. Magnussen seethed and basked in villainy… then arbitrarily got shot. Sherlock was flown to probable Eastern European death, then flown back minutes later. This was a plot that didn’t know what to do or be. And then… that ending.

Look.

I love Moriarty. I love Andrew Scott as Moriarty. I loved his storyline in series two. But part of it was shooting himself in the head.

When Moriarty aimed his gun inside his grinning mouth and pulled the trigger, it wasn’t just a way to write him out, but a character moment – perhaps the ultimate one. This man was so unhinged, so desperate to spite Sherlock, that he’d kill himself to cut off his escape route. Reversing or negating that doesn’t just wind the story back – it undermines a powerfully crucial aspect of who Moriarty is.

That episode of series two, in case you hadn’t noticed? January 2012. Two years ago. Three years at the very least before we tune in for Sherlock series four. It speaks to a stagnating story if two to three years later, we’re still hung up about what happened on Bart’s Hospital roof. Series three’s sole contribution to long-continuity appears to be John’s marriage, and that’s not much sustenance for a one or two year wait till we see Baker Street again. (Compared, at least, with ‘How did Sherlock survive?’) I didn’t want another Moriarty arc – I’d have much preferred a longer, fuller look at Magnussen.

All in all? A muddled episode and rather wasted, if entertaining, third series.

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion

When I wrote on this blog that I was homeless once, response was good – including, to my surprise, from colleagues with affluent backgrounds. What’s not surprising is how many of my colleagues’ backgrounds were affluent. The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance.

Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. A friend sought suggestions last week about how to be more economically inclusive. Here are the ones I made:

1. Remember poor people – some of them are atheists.
2. If your group’s a church alternative… be an alternative.
3. Don’t just meet at the ‘nice’ end of town.
4. Don’t charge prohibitive entry fees.
5. Provide childcare, free of charge.
6. Don’t hold graphic design contests.
7. Don’t just hire graduates.
8. Pay your speakers – well.
9. Pay your interns – money.
10. Remember ‘students’ and ‘young people’ aren’t synonyms.

Read more at Alternet.

99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion

How many of you have ever felt personally victimised by Regina George religion?

Various articles have circulated recently attacking ‘new atheism’ and trotting out familiar ‘don’t be a dick’ arguments: Alom Shaha’s and Ariane Sherine’s at the Rationalist Association, Martin Robbins’ at Vice. Marianne Baker, on her own blog, has weighed in.

I’ve already responded to Alom’s, which appeared in New Humanist some months ago. All kinds of things in articles like these – not just or even necessarily these ones themselves, but the common rhetoric of ‘chill atheists’ at large – tend to grate on me: conflation of opposing religion-qua-religion with a vicious, scathing tone; conflation of it in principle with sexist, racist or otherwise unseemly views, common admittedly in some ‘new atheist’ sectors; dismissal of opposition to religion-qua-religion as a useful goal; dismissal of ‘atheist’ itself as a meaningful identity.

It’s meaningful to me. The last two, and the related claim that religion in Britain isn’t much of a problem, are things I’ve heard a lot from atheists with no strong background in religion, who haven’t in any extensive sense been on its receiving end. As someone who has, it’s hard for me to say how galling I find atheists with no serious religious history telling those of us profoundly affected by our own to pipe down, be nice and stop bashing God already, so ‘positive’ or ‘constructive’ goals can be achieved.

I frequently share Greta Christina’s legendary talk at Skepticon IV, ‘Why are you atheists so angry?’, in arguments like this. Her litany of grievances, on behalf of firebrands like me, is a perfect testament to the things about religion that enrage us, why that rage is valid, and why blaming religion-qua-religion for them is legitimate. But there’s also a problem: Greta had an atheist upbringing too. Apart from a handful, her complaints are of religion’s impact on the wider world and not on her own life personally.

When you’ve been on its business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive.

I’ve often wished to illustrate this with a litany like Greta’s – but unlike hers, one specifically of my own grievances. This is it. Read it, if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou. I’ve 99 problems, but bashing God’s not one.

* * *

1. Being baptised into the Church of England, made a member before I could speak or walk. (A prayer on the certificate reads ‘May he grow up in Thy constant fear’.)

2. Not being able to undo that membership, despite attending a different church for nearly all my time as a believer and being an atheist today. The Church refuses to strike names from its baptismal rolls, since the number of names there is the number of members it’s allowed to claim. That one of them is my name tells you how honest this is.

3. Being taught religious narrative as uncontested fact – not just virgin births or resurrection, but a world created in six days and Noah’s flood. It took till I was eight, browsing an encyclopaedia I’d been given, to realise people disagreed.

4. Being fed the ‘nice’ bits of the Bible - David and Goliath, Jesus and Zacchaeus, the Good Samaritan – but never encouraged to read it like I would another book, and growing up with huge, convenient gaps in my knowledge.

5. Dreaming of Satan aged three or four (or someone I assumed was Satan), and thinking seriously that it meant something; hearing his voice, while awake, tell me to be naughty too.

6. Having birthday parties held with the church, or following attendance in the morning, so children with different backgrounds couldn’t come, even when I wanted to spend time with them.

7. Being made to pray (or pretend to) in assemblies at school – all the way from reception class at four years old to sixth form at seventeen.

8. Being subjected to local clergy’s sermons in some of those assemblies – something like once a week, again all the way through. (All these clergy were Christian. Tax-funded schools in the UK are required to practise ‘broadly Christian worship’, and in my hometown there were no other faiths anyway.)

9. Being taught in class, aged five or six, that Hinduism’s gods were false – unlike Jesus. ‘False gods’ were Mrs Ironmonger’s exact words, in part of the syllabus designed to give a balanced view of another faith.

10. Fearing anything even faintly Asian – yoga, women in saris, the Bollywoodish song on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack (I know) – since Indian religion, Hinduism especially, was Satan’s work. I feel sure that if I’d been at primary school following 9/11, Islam would have filled this role instead.

11. Being read the Chronicles of Narnia – like that wasn’t enough – and told the hideous skeleton-god Tash, antithetical to Aslan and worshipped by the dark skinned, Eastern, polytheistic Calormenes, symbolised Hinduism’s Satanic gods. (Which, to be fair, he largely did.)

12. Wanting to go on a fast, aged six, as a gesture of faithfulness. Church members did this quite often, as I recall, for a weekend or so. We hadn’t much food as it was.

13. Being told Mrs Jones who died of cancer was in Heaven, aged six, by my primary school’s headteacher. She told us this in a specially arranged assembly, and that Margaret (as I’d known her in church) was with God now, smiling down at us. It wasn’t a passing comment, but the main point of her speech.

14. Being told my non-religious relatives were now in Hell, aged six or seven, when I told Mum I thought having no god at all – compared with having a Satanic Eastern one – seemed fair enough. Hell meant to me, and I assume to her, a literal furnace at this point.

15. Being told to participate in ‘faith healing’ on a weekend at a church camp aged six or seven. (Mum, at this point, was going through a charismatic phase, surrounded frequently by fundamentalists. I, and later she, reverted to the more traditional Christianity we’d practised earlier the day I had the chance.)

16. Taking part in Operation Christmas Child at teachers’ and church friends’ encouragement aged seven or eight. The scheme, led by a man who supports nuclear action against Muslims (yes, Muslims specifically) and calls Hinduism Satanic (sensing a theme?), distributes shoeboxes of temporary gifts to children in poverty – accompanied with evangelical literature and mandatory Bible study.

17. Being told aged eight or nine that Satan had possessed me. Mum and I argued till our church leader came round at her request to scold me. I refused to apologise, telling him to leave, mouth dry and crushing pains in my chest. Later she said it was the Devil using my voice, and invited to pray in tongues. I never did.

18. Thinking sincerely at that age that my father was a demon. Angels patrolled the Earth – surely the fallen ones did too? If the thought’s more frightening still that his drinking, theft and violence were entirely human traits, I now see what this stopped me from appreciating: that the man almost certainly had some form of mental illness.

19. Spending Hallowe’en terrified each year, even into my teens – chanting, on a whispered loop, ‘Jesus is Lord’ to keep Satan’s forces outside (that is, children in monster masks) at bay.

20. Taking part aged eight or nine in a church march round my town, praying outside shops with Buddha statues in their windows or toy witches – confirming church members’ view it was their right, and thinking it was mine, to dictate what other people find profane.

21. Being terrified into my teens of any kind of horror – particularly, like The Omen or The Exorcist, horror with a religious bent. The one exception was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which for some reason got a free pass despite Mum calling it demonic. Even then, I watched it in secret when she wasn’t in the house.

22. Being told aged nine or ten that I was damned, since I’d sworn something ‘in front of God’ that Mum didn’t believe.

23. Being told by my teacher Mrs Walker that Warhammer was Satanic, due to the use of dark, soul-rending magic in its universe. Not Harry Potter, mind you. Not sure why.

24. Having teachers at my primary school who lost their temper at or punished blasphemy. Mrs Walker in particular, a member of our church like Mrs Jones before her, considered this her job – which, at my church-run school, it was – at least as much as teaching.

25. Having Bibles and Gospel tracts handed out at school, which classmates and I under the age of ten were told to take home and study.

26. Being fed demonising, inaccurate canards about Islam after 9/11 happened. I was ten at the time, and subsequently told that Muslims were Arabs and Arabs were Muslims, female genital mutilation and the killing of non-Muslims were doctrinally central to Islam and that its followers by definition ‘all want to die for Allah’.

27. Hearing my class gasp when Mrs McDonald, a formidable left wing English teacher who also taught us ‘Citizenship’ aged 12 and 13, said she was an atheist.

28. Hearing my mum deny flat-out that Christians would refuse to pay for food, when I relayed to her common stories of guests at my hometown’s evangelical convention leaving gospel tracts rather than money next to restaurant bills – as if Christians acting unethically were somehow implausible. (Keep reading if in doubt.)

29. Being told ‘it says in the Bible “live and let live”’ – it doesn’t – and that Jesus supported public welfare provision (where is the evidence for this?), as if supporting these somehow meant plagiarising Christian morals.

30. Being raised to judge whether people were Christians by their ethics. My father and his female partner couldn’t really be Christians, for instance, since they weren’t good people.

31. Having homophobia preached in my school lessons, aged fourteen or fifteen, by substitute teacher Mr Ingles, who’d once taught RE full time. The right response to a gay friend, he said, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put that part of his anatomy there’, was to love the sinner and ‘hate… hate’ what they did.

32. Wondering what the lesson was when I was spat on, hit, harassed in the street, when things I owned were destroyed – wondering why God had planned this for me, what I was supposed to learn from it, and what I’d done to make him test me in such ways. (This, I stress, was long after Mum’s charismatic phase, when my beliefs were perfectly mainstream, non-fundamentalist Christian ones.)

33. Forgiving the bullies who hit me, spat on me, destroyed the things I owned and harassed me in the street, rather than standing up to them, because loving my enemies and praying for my persecutors was the Christ-like thing to do; because he forgave those who knew not what they did; because the right response to being struck was to turn the other cheek, not to resist; because those who lived by the sword died by the sword.

34. Wanting to die anyway, making more than one attempt, after years of doing the Christ-like thing.

35. Fearing suicide would land me in Hell during my first attempt, as I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers.

36. Lapsing back into religious dependency in the aftermath, feeling guilt over this and needing emotional support, and being told turning the other cheek the way I had was praiseworthy – then lapsing back into that, then suicide again.

37. Being told tearfully by my mum that she prayed for my soul nightly, some time after learning I was an atheist, like I was to blame for what she feared might happen to me, or for her fear itself.

38. Being told ‘I’ll pray for you’ - in that superior, knowing way – by her and other believers when I applied to university and staffed a humanist street table in Oxford, as if to say I know something you couldn’t hope to know.

39. Being told religion cost her nothing, ‘but if you are wrong, you are in serious trouble’, her finger jabbing sharply at my chest as if to spear me through the heart.

40. Hearing her call atheism a reasonable conclusion… while still apparently condoning damnation for it.

41. Reading a clipping on her noticeboard that said to pray for me because I chose ‘another path’ rather than to ‘serve God’, and let God ‘close the deal’ with me to ‘turn [my] stubborn heart around’ – like I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn, disobedient or delinquent, and not because I find it the most coherent answer to religious claims.

42. Hearing her explicitly acknowledge her beliefs as ‘irrational’… while still living by them, making me as a child, and doing everything else listed here.

43. Being patronisingly called a ‘truth seeker’ by her – like caring about what’s true is an optional fucking lifestyle choice. (This doesn’t strike me as an unfair or overblown description of her stance.) Note this contradicts the idea I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn or disobedient… and that numerous other views of hers are likewise incompatible.

44. Being asked ostentatiously if I’m ‘spiritual’ or have ‘an inner life’ by her – like whatever these meant provided an emotional fulfillment atheists, with our empty, hopeless worldview couldn’t hope to have.

45. Getting a dismissive, frustrated ‘Well, okay’ when I said I didn’t know what these things meant – like failing to understand meaningless, vague deepities and wanting clarity made me shallow, unenlightened and mundane… rather than better at communication.

46. Being told I was raised to think critically, skeptically and for myself on more than one occasion. No. I was duped, exploited, fed beliefs as uncontested facts, pressured into evangelism, pressured into faith healing… the list goes on. Denying this happened denies my right to feel how I feel about it.

47. Being told to come back to church ‘just as practice’, because the university I was going to had chapels, and I’d be expected to take part in services there. (I wasn’t, and it would have been a problem if I was.)

48. Going to a university that still had chapels. Not just voluntary services from local groups with adverts in the common room for those who wanted them – functional, religious, Anglican chapels as part of the infrastructure, with chaplains on the college payroll. (I don’t think it helps that most of them, when it came down to it, were really atheists.)

49. Having to stand through a Latin grace at meals when I visited other colleges at Oxford. Mine never practised this ceremony, part of the reason I applied there (Oxford University comprises many separate colleges, as the U.S. does individual states), so I only ever had to endure it twice – but students there sometimes had to regularly.

50. Getting looks of disgust and hostility from strangers when I helped staff a humanist table in the street. Not for doing or saying any one thing: simply for standing at a street stall with ‘Humanist’ and ‘Not religious?’ signs. This was in Oxford – hardly the buckle of the Bible Belt.

51. Getting told not believing in God made me an idiot by other strangers who actually spoke to us.

52. Getting threatened with a literal, fiery Hell by strangers who spoke to us.

53. Getting doorstepped by evangelists at my and relatives’ homes, and forced into conversations about God.

54. Having to do a risk assessment when believers ask to meet me having found my work online – weighing potential benefits against likelihood of being preached at, interrogated, recorded, threatened. The overwhelming majority of meetings like this have been good: it’s how I got involved in what could be called an interfaith project, and how I went for dinner with a (lovely) preacher whose (unlovely) sermons I’d blogged about. But I have had bad experiences – the calculus is necessary.

55. Getting preached at during my evangelical friends’ wedding.

56. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick – not a thought that concerns me often, you’ll have gathered – for sitting silently through the hymns rather than joining in.

57. Being called aggressive or intolerant for wanting secular public space.

58. Being called a cold-hearted atheist grinch for not celebrating Christmas.

59. Being called a hypocrite devaluing Christianity for celebrating Christmas in the past.

60. Being called a hypocrite for eating chocolate eggs at Easter – as if egg rituals in spring, or even the name ‘Easter’, were original to Christianity.

61. Being confronted with picketers and preaching at atheist and skeptical conferences.

62. Receiving death threats as a student – graphic, detailed ones – when I wrote in support of atheist Facebook groups sharing Jesus and Mo cartoons.

63. Being the ‘bad guy’ at family gatherings, particularly Christmas, who doesn’t say grace at dinner, go to church or read bedtime stories about God. (This has been a problem in particular since my niece, now six, arrived.)

64. Having my atheism mentioned in an ominous tone, by family and others – ‘He’s an atheist…’ – like a drug problem or improper sexual fetish.

65. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning I’m an atheist to new people – weighing the likelihood of condemnation, arguments, awkwardness. I never had to do this as a Christian.

66. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning atheism on my CV. This might sound odd, but much of the work I’ve done – group organising, writing, graphic design – is atheist-related. I have to weigh the likelihood of hostility or discrimination from those reading my CV, and I know any number of other atheists who do. This would be unthinkable if our work had been for church groups. Again: not in the Bible Belt. In green-pastured, supposedly atheist-loving England.

67. Being spoken to like I know nothing of Christianity or its texts by believers, including family with seemingly short memories… even when on cut-and-dried questions like reference in the Gospels to damnation, I could demonstrate more knowledge than they did. On a related note:

68. Being spoken to by believers like they personally are sole authorities on their religion, and no reasonable controversy exists – like the time Mum read my coursework for religious studies (my highest-graded subject) on competing Christian soteriologies of faith versus good works and called it ‘incredibly erroneous’, because ‘if Adolf Hitler had been a Christian, he would be in Heaven now’; the time I criticised belief alone as a requirement for salvation, and my sister said ‘No, that’s not true… that was cleared up a long time ago’ (notice their disagreement proves wrong both their assertions of a settled debate); the time a family friend read my coursework on the Irenaean theodicy and responded ‘No, no it’s not thatit’s the Fall’ (proposing Augustine’s alternative) like this was the most obvious thing in the world. I was still a Christian at that time: this kind of intellectual arrogance is something believers inflict frequently on one another, not just atheists.

69. Having to go to church to mourn a nonagenarian Anglican friend, who always sent me sweets at Christmas as a child. Having to sit silently through songs and sermonising, the odd one out, because there was no supplementary, non-religious wake.

70. Being glared at by the priest as I left my friend’s freshly-filled grave for sitting silently through the hymns.

71. Wondering if being queer would cost me his friendship, as a King James reading traditionalist Tory, had we still been in contact by the time he died.

72. Hearing homophobic jokes from the boys in the tent next door when I went to an evangelical youth camp and blogged about it. Not knowing how to report this when the code of conduct involved no rule against it, and parts of some sermons were tacitly or overtly queerphobic.

73. Hearing my parents’ friend discuss the need to ‘keep marriage Christian’ in their kitchen, from the next room. (I think same-sex marriage is a movement that deserves a lot more scrutiny politically than it’s received – but I also think this was hugely homophobic, and that one might as well keep post offices Christian.)

74. Hearing a variety of homophobic things from Mum while I was a young child, which I now suspect (since her views were always muddled) she got from evangelical and charismatic Christian friends.

75. Hearing her grouch to me about one friend’s views today, forgetting conveniently how many of them (see above) she once shared or adopted.

76. Learning one of the church wives told her, when she compared my shy 12-year-old self to Freddie Mercury after I showed unexpected onstage energy, ‘Let’s hope Alex doesn’t have anything else in common with Freddie Mercury’.

77. Learning my dad’s next partner told her, when I was 17, ‘I hope [Alex] gets his sexuality sorted out’. This woman was a regular congregant at the same church as my old Anglican friend, full of homophobes and conservatives; her views on sex and relationships, as long as I’d known her, were always religiously derived.

78. Hearing my brother call queer sexuality ‘an offence against nature and God’ from the next room, at Christmas, while he spoke to Mum and other members of the family.

79. Having to do a risk assessment on this too when I meet religious people, particularly according to their age and denomination.

80. Having preachers in my own town’s marketplace call me an abomination.

81. Being told after blogging about it by my mum that I ‘have a go at Christians’ – as if she was the victim, and it was my fault for pointing it out and not keeping politely stumm when a member of her religion quoted horrible things from its central text.

82. Watching Mum enter emotional lockdown – falling passive-aggressively silent, changing the subject, leaving the room – when faced with anything from measured, polite critique of her stated beliefs to mild amounts of snark about them, holding herself emotionally hostage so that commenting as I would on any other subject makes me into an insensitive, aggressive bully.

83. Being expected to accept this, treading diplomatically around the topic, and respect her right not to be preached at or forced into unwanted discussions. Fair enough – but when as a child was I ever allowed that right?

84. Having to deal with her emotional incontinence even in non-argumentative, non-combative conversations about religion – the time, for example, when she broke down into tears (while driving) attempting to describe what Christmas meant to her – so I have to handle her beliefs with kid gloves instead of treating them like any adult’s views.

85. Hearing her call The Da Vinci Code ‘part of all the Christian-bashing that’s going on’ after its release – like people saying ‘I’m an atheist’, ‘Religions are mistaken’, ‘Religions are silly’ and ‘Religion harms the world.’ I know what actually being bashed is like – and what being spat on, called an abomination, threatened with Hell and threatened with beheading feels like. Christians aren’t persecuted in Britain. Deal with it.

86. Watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail and hearing her say haughtily at the ‘Holy Hand Grenade’ scene that the filmmakers ‘love[d] to deride Christianity’. Yes… and?

87. Listening to her complain of anti-Christian sentiment… while doing all the things mentioned here and more, apparently expecting members of her faith be able to act with impunity, no matter how obscenely. If people in Britain have negative views of Christians, which I’m not sure that they do… don’t lists like this go some way to explaining why?

88. Seeing her treat her father and mine as bellwethers of ‘aggressive atheism’, dismissing any critical comment I make on grounds of having ‘heard it all before’… without taking time to compare my views with theirs. There are a hundred angry atheists – more – who don’t speak for me. Chances are they didn’t. (I don’t treat individual believers like they speak for the rest, after all.)

89. Seeing her give £5 notes to Salvation Army chuggers because we depended on their charity once. The Salvation Army has campaigned extensively against LGBT rights, including for recriminalisation of homosexuality, and denied help to queer couples on the streets.

90. Knowing if I ever needed aid from such a group – if matters were so desperate that I threw myself on the mercy of faith groups – there’s a real possibility I’d be denied it.

91. Knowing we’d have lost a huge amount of social and economic aid, at the lowest ebb of her time as a single mum on benefits, had she lost her faith or left the church – and that atheists and ‘doubters’ the world over stay in their pews because of this.

92. Having a nightmare recently about demonic forces stalking me, my first for years, and waking in a cold sweat. I can’t be sure, of course, that I wouldn’t have anyway without the upbringing I had… but I’m sure that made it harder to shake off than a different nightmare would have been.

93. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick’ for publishing this list, another angry, ‘awful’ atheist taking unproductive potshots at religion – and fearing this particularly from other atheists. Speaking to the things faith’s done to me is productive as far as I’m concerned. (I still consider this a form of victimisation by religion, because I think it stems from religious beliefs’ characteristic insulation against criticism, and the way attacking them like other ideas is ‘rude’, ‘aggressive’ and unacceptable in polite – sometimes even atheist – society.)

94. Being savaged mercilessly when I am an impolite dick now and again. I wake up angry about some things on this list: it’s a struggle not to hulk out constantly, and I can’t win that struggle all the time. Treating me as the bad guy the one percent of the time I lose my temper is unreasonable and unfair – it ignores the context of enormous harm from which my temper stems. Forgive me if I can’t contain it at all times. The 99 percent of the time I do, it takes hard work.

95. Fearing Mum will read this list and feel attackedagain! – instead of called to account. Sometimes, someone else is the victim.

96. Fearing a chorus of ‘Yes, but-’ when I hit ‘Publish’. ‘Yes, but your experiences are a drop in the ocean’. ‘Yes, but some believers are persecuted’. ‘Yes, but you still shouldn’t bully or harass believers.’ This post isn’t about how representative I am, oppression of religious groups or anything any atheist does being okay. It’s an evocation of the harm religion’s done me, and why I’m motivated by it to be confrontational. Please don’t derail it.

97. Being told I ‘just got a bad version’ of religion – that a fundamentalist or extremist fringe was what trod on me, whose members are a few bad apples in the cart. Fundamentalist beliefs did tread on me – but the version of Christianity that almost cost me my life, like the versions of religion that caused most of the harms mentioned on this list, was perfectly mainstream and non-fundamentalist.

98. Having my feelings on religion dismissed because I’m bitter. I am. And I’m right.

99. Writing this post casually in a few hours – and knowing I could go on.

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The right propelled last year’s ‘segregated seats’ debate – and yes, it matters

‘I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly Islamophobic taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.

So writes Shaheen Hashmat (alias @TartanTantrum), one of my favourite bloggers, in a post a few days ago. Shaheen is an apostate of Islam, survivor of ‘honour’ violence and a writer on mental health, sex, Scotland and more; she speaks here of difficulty voicing rage at her family’s religion knowing anti-Muslim axe-grinders will hijack it.

I have Shaheen to thank for prompting this post. You have her to blame for it. I’d planned to write it and wavered, resolved then deliberated, recommitted and then shelved it. It won’t be fun writing or defending it – I don’t enjoy being dogpiled by those I respect, as I’ve been the last few days and am sure I will be now. But I’m also sure it’s worth it. This matters. Thanks for the push, Shaheen.

Saturday’s post was a timeline of efforts made last year against gender-segregated seats at universities – mainly at Islamic Society talks, often for guest speakers like Hamza Tzortzis. (See the timeline for exemplary events.) It was written largely to clarify the roles of distinct political camps in opposing it, and especially to illustrate the right’s involvement.

Yes, the right propelled the segregation debate

Priyamvada Gopal was accused of inventing ‘conservative newspapers and politicians’ at the Rationalist Association, criticising how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called “muscular liberals” (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices’. Laurie Penny was accused (by Nick Cohen specifically) of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’ in a similar piece at the Guardian.

It’s true both articles gave short shrift to the anti-segregation work of Muslim and ex-Muslim women – Shaheen, Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims, Yasmin Alibhai Brown and British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Sara Khan, Lejla Kurić, Ahlam Akram, Mari Nazmar – as well as that of women and the left at large. (Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel and Southall Black Sisters, Polly Toynbee, Ophelia Benson, Kate Smurthwaite; any number more.) This work needs visibility: it’s often underfunded, unrecognised and, as Khan writes at the Independent, unaccommodated by existing politics.

It’s also true, however, that Gopal and Penny didn’t invent the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the Week, the Sun, the Standard, the Spectator – papers which dominate 2013′s press coverage of segregated seating. Nor did they invent, as Cohen says, ‘bogeymen’ like Toby Young, Charles Crawford, Graeme Archer, Matthew d’Ancona, Martin Samuel, Brendan O’Neill, Richard Littlejohn, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, David Cameron – nor Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens, who since the timeline’s end have jumped aboard – to name only white and male and right wing ghouls. It’s not just about mentions per side: the latter voices speak overwhelmingly from bigger platforms too.

It’s a long post – eleven thousand words – that documents this. I thought I’d leave interpreting it, that in mind, to readers. After the response, it seems important to draw out some key points.

First, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss put this issue on the map. That segregation happens at ISocs’ and other groups’ events came as no surprise last year to Maryam Namazie, prominent campaigners Student Rights (more on them shortly), me or many who’ve followed campus Islamism. Ask about and you’ll hear of it. What made the ‘debate’ at UCL on March 9 the case that caused a national stir, not one of the many prior cases? ‘Had it not been for the furious tweeting of Richard Dawkins’, David Aaronovitch wrote five days later in a column for the Times, ‘I doubt whether I would have heard of this event.’ Dawkins himself (873,067 followers today) tweeted it only because Krauss (63,369) did first.

This matters since their commentary set the tone. Dawkins, in the tweets Aaronovitch describes, accused UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, exclaiming ‘Who do these Muslims think they are?’ ‘I don’t think think Muslims should segregate sexes’, he added, ‘Oh NO, how very ISLAMOPHOBIC of me. How RACIST of me’, and closed a post on it at RDFRS later cited in the Daily Mail by asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’ Speaking to the Telegraph in an article headlined ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam’ (largely regurgitated by The Week as ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims’), Krauss said segregationists ‘feel their cultural norms are not being met’, attacked the notion ‘these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open’ and called it their obligation ‘to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’

This is the ‘clash of civilisations’ standpoint’s racist rhetoric. I’ve chastised Dawkins since for using it. It describes Islam with the language of invasion (compare Dawkins’ ‘cowardly capitulation’ with the EDL’s ‘never surrender’), homogenises Muslims and chides Islamists not with puritanism, polluting a secular public sphere or violating essential rights but with failing to cohere with ill-defined standards of Britishness or ‘Western values’. We see it again as time goes on in the anti-segregation commentary of Anne Marie Waters, Toby Young, Louisa Peacock, James Bloodworth, Chuka Umunna, Richard Littlejohn, Jennifer Selway, Graeme Archer and the Daily Telegraph‘s December 4 editorial, as well as to various implicit extents elsewhere. I don’t think it’s by chance it’s used most by commentators who were never Muslims. The myth of two dichotomised ‘cultures’ at loggerheads, Islam versus the West (or Britain specifically) is the engine of Islamism; it’s what gets ex-Muslims shunned at times as race traitors, pariahs, ‘coconuts’.

Second: Student Rights, as vigorously denied by Nick Cohen and others following Gopal’s post, was instrumental to the anti-segregation push. Between publications, news stories and citations in the press, they’re the ones most often mentioned on the timeline by a comfortably wide berth, twice as much or so as the nearest runners up. ‘Unequal Opportunity’, their May 13 report on segregated events at universities, made headlines across the British press within days of its release and was cited frequently thereafter, particularly following Universities UK’s release of guidance on November 22 condoning side-to-side segregation of men and women. Student Rights (specifically, researcher Rupert Sutton) provided breaking coverage of various segregated events, as it regularly does, including at Queen Mary’s and Northampton Universities, were initial signatories of Maryam Namazie’s petition for UUK to withdraw its guidance, covered the organisation’s response to opposition and covered the December 10 rally outside its headquarters supportively.

Unlike Priyamvada Gopal, I don’t in practice consider Student Rights a right wing group; certainly, I don’t think their work for the most part (the odd Islamist lambasted as ‘anti-British’ notwithstanding) is innately rightist. It is, however, funded and supervised by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, whose Associate Director Douglas Murray calls the EDL – whose ex-leader greatly admires him – an ‘extraordinary phenomenon’ and ideal ‘grassroots response by non-Muslims to Islam’ (see the Youtube comments), having infamously said in 2006 that ‘Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition’. Like Shaheen’s righteous rage or the anti-segregation cause in general, Student Rights’ work and Sutton’s personally isn’t discredited by the forces seeking to exploit it, but the latter are concerning. As Chris Moos of LSE’s atheist society, who oddly denied the prominence of Student Rights’ campaign work, wrote at the Huffington Post in May, ‘It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.

Third: the loose, broadly left group behind the December 10 anti-segregation rally, many of whose members took credit for UUK’s eventual withdrawal of its advice, were amplified largely by right-leaning media. Their rally in particular gained noticeably greater coverage than similar ones held previously by One Law for All and its associates – I’m doubtful this would have been the case, or that UUK would even have weighed in on segregation, had reports of the UCL event with Krauss and subsequently Student Rights’ report not raised awareness earlier. Apart from the Independent, publications covering UUK’s release tended initially strongly toward the right – objections on the left from people like Namazie, John Sargeant and Rosie Bell were confined to smaller blogs, if very worthy ones. The exception is Polly Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, seemingly the paper’s only coverage till December 12, by which time the Telegraph alone had published eight separate pieces on the issue. Once the dispute had been put on the radar, a number of ‘progressive’ or more neutral outlets followed suit, reporting on the December 10 demonstration – Channel 4, the BBC, politics.co.uk, Huffpost – but it remains true that beyond the blogosphere, the right set the agenda.

Fourth, last and doubtless most incendiary: I am not wholly convinced December 10′s protest made the difference it’s been thought to have.

Ophelia Benson said that for once ‘making a stink worked’. Maryam Namazie said the rally ‘received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation’. Yasmin Alibhai Brown said ‘Result! In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines’. Student Rights called UUK’s retraction ‘a great success for those who have been campaigning on this issue’.

Jim Denham said ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs . . . drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition. It looked as though Universities UK (UUK) would get away with [it]. Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation’.

Rosie Bell said ‘Student Rights picked [UUK's guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect [Benson, Namazie, Bloodworth] produced angry posts’, ‘mainstream media [Cohen, Alibhai Brown] moved in’, ‘there was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ in discussions on Radio 4 Today and ‘politicians – Chuka Umunna, Jack Straw, Michael Gove, David Cameron – spoke out’, ‘So now the UUK has withdrawn gender segregation from its guidance’.

Denham’s and Bell’s accounts seem in some ways tenuous to me. The TimesTimes Higher Education, the Independent and the Telegraph (twice) picked up UUK’s guidance before any of the bloggers mentioned covered it, and there was a great deal of noise in (again, mainly right-leaning) papers long before the demonstration or Umunna’s comments. There’s also cause, I think, to question the notion in Namazie’s post and various reports that Cameron’s intervention via a spokesperson was what prompted the guidance’s withdrawal. On December 12, before Cameron’s comments hit the press, the Equality and Human Rights Commission had announced via the Telegraph it would ‘help re-write’ UUK’s advice, the story there noting ‘A Downing Street spokesman refused to comment’: Huffpost‘s report the next day, where both Cameron’s statements and UUK’s retreat appear first to have surfaced, mentions only in passing its Chief Executive’s comment, ‘We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which trigged this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.’ It seems highly plausible to me then, contrary to what headlines intimated, that Cameron stepped in after UUK retracted its advice and not before.

This blows something of a hole, moreover, in the idea the demonstrators prompted it. Whatever led UUK to seek the EHRC’s involvement, Cameron was still unwilling to comment on December 12, two days after their rally. It’s certainly true it added urgency to the climate of debate, increasing pressure on authorities to act – many media sources used photos of demonstrators or made passing mention of the row having ‘sparked protests’, politics.co.uk referring rather generously to ‘a week of protests’ – but that’s a vexed thing to quantify. We know the Telegraph put pressure on Theresa May for comment on December 4, and that the following day she obliged. We know statements followed from Jack Straw, Chuka Umunna and Michael Gove, and that at some point in this time Vince Cable wrote to Universities UK. This seems more like the kind of thing to me that would put Cameron under gradual pressure than a protest by 100 people.

This isn’t to say it and associated actions weren’t worthwhile. They’ve galvanised crucial alliances, developed awareness of the issue on the left and led to plans for future projects. Nor do I think their organisers wrong to celebrate UUK’s u-turn, whatever the cause. I share their relief, and don’t care to rain on their parade – but I do care about this.

Yes, this bloody well matters

You’re not a good journalist if you don’t know who has the most clout in the room. You shouldn’t be a journalist if you don’t care. Likewise it matters in politics, at least as much as who’s in government, which voices hold most sway.

I’ve been told at every turn that who made the difference here is academic, that it matters only that the argument is won and not who wins it. Would we speak that way of an election outcome – of what put and kept Blair’s governments in power, say? James Bloodworth might. But I see the papers cluttering my timeline and recall headlines like these.

DailyExpress

Telegraph

DailyMail

Times

EveningStandard

Sun

Spectator

If these kinds of press outlets, indeed, these outlets specifically, were instrumental to the anti-segregation pushback – if they were the ones with influence enough to make the difference, for which I find the evidence compelling – do you see why I and others are concerned? It’s all very well not caring who fights the good fight, so long as it gets won, but what happens when the biggest guns turn out to have a fight all of their own, and it isn’t good at all? We cede the debate to kulturkämpfer at our peril.

I am told, additionally, that since I didn’t campaign myself – in other words, blog on the subject – I’m not entitled to complain. I’m flattered on the one hand by the thought my profile’s anything like high enough to’ve made a difference (Penny’s, perhaps), but frankly resent the claim I forfeited my right to comment by not being on the picket line. I’ve taken on any number of ‘Islamism on campus’ fights: Mohammad cartoons at UCL two years ago; at LSE; ‘Islamophobia’ bans there that prohibit criticism; threats of violence at Queen Mary; threats previously at Leeds and other universities; threats I and friends got for writing about those threats;, LSE’s secular group not being allowed ‘ex-Muslim’ in their name; the same group being harassed and threatened at freshers’ fair last year; the measures taken against another group at Reading for calling a pineapple Muhammad; their being banned for it last year. I’m working at present, among other things, on a long, detailed post about segregated seating’s prevalence in British ISocs. But there’s only so much work one feels able to do, and fights are hard. Hang me if I don’t turn up to every last one, every time. Sitting one out now and again doesn’t make me a hypocrite, but even if it did, I’m still not wrong.

Why do we pine perennially at the British left’s reluctance to contend with Islamism, then clutch our pearls tight at the corollary: that the anti-Muslim right, in its absence, holds the floor? Those prepared to make alliances with it, thinking perhaps to take advantage of its firepower, may find their shots at segregation ricochet. You underestimate my boredom if you doubt I can duel both at once till then.