Belief and doubt after the Charleston church shootings

There’s a Carole King song I first heard as a child, which tells of a deranged man’s arrest and now makes difficult listening. Smackwater Jack, he bought a shotgun, ‘cause he was in the mood for a little confrontation. He just let it all hang loose, he didn’t think about the noose. He couldn’t take no more abuse, so he shot down the congregation.

You can see why Jon Stewart had nothing. In a kinder and saner world, the Emanuel AME massacre would be a joke: satirists like Stewart would ask, incensed, what racists in the US had to do for their motives not to be whitewashed. Demand apartheid? Mourn the Klan? Shoot black people in church? Even then, they’d maintain, someone like Dylann Roof would be labelled ‘unbalanced’ and ‘disturbed’. Audiences would cheer, knowing the punchline to be true – and now it is. The joke has sprung itself, and nothing about it is funny any more, just forcefully, sickeningly absurd.

Unlike the subject of King’s song, Roof was not just deranged. With Charleston now home to that collision of US anxieties, a racist gun crime in a church, small wonder conservatives are scared to discuss it honestly, but nothing Roof did was random. It’s one thing to attack a church, another to assault a black church in the USA – another still to shoot worshippers at Emanuel AME, known for its role in civil rights struggles. ‘I chose Charleston because it is [the] most historic city in my state,’ writes Roof in a summary of his views, and you can be sure equal thought went into selecting Emanuel.

At its most radical, black Christianity in the US has always seemed to me more drawn to the second coming than the resurrection, songs promising that come the day, the oppressor will have nowhere to hide. If tacitly materialist, it’s a liberation theology, suggesting that until chained or handcuffed bodies are free, the soul’s release is meaningless. Perhaps this helped make pastors so crucial in Ferguson and Baltimore, and perhaps it’s what Clementa Pinckney, murdered this week, preached after Walter Scott was killed – certainly it was this promise of ultimate justice, as well as Emanuel’s congregants, on which Roof opened fire.

The whole thing is a nightmare of belief and doubt. Judging by his statement, Roof believes white people are the real oppressed – otherwise, perhaps he’d have sensed that after the last year, black Americans (Christian or not) didn’t need another shooting for belief in salvation to be challenging. The right refuses to believe racism deserves to be talked about after a neonazi gunned down black people he sees as animals, thinking instead that he must just be the unbalanced sort, while like Jon Stewart, those of watching from far off feel it’s ventured beyond a joke. Charleston presents an unbelievable atrocity, yet I can believe every word.

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My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that

000Something like once a year, I spend a night wanting nothing but to curl up and die. It’s not that I think of killing myself, though way back it did come to that – just that those nights, under what feels like the crushing weight of conscious thought, I long not to exist. Some hungry pit in my chest drains all colour from the world, refusing to swallow the rest of me, and being awake hurts. Social contact becomes like prodding a cracked rib, everyday tasks an uphill slog: I sit for what feels like an age trying to find the will to tie my shoes, fall apart making tea. These are, I’m acutely aware, insane things to find hard – because I am insane.

At twenty-four, the dark spells come and go quickly. When the worst hit, I fight the urge to smash myself to bits – to skin my knuckles on the wall, claw at my forearms, beat my head against the window pane till either cracks – but nowadays those fits of self-loathing happen years apart. (The last, in April, was my first since university.) Most days I’m fine, and it feels like yesterday the urge to self-destruct lasted months rather than hours. I was ten when I first wanted to die, fourteen when I decided how, fifteen on first attempting it. Nine years and counting without incident, it seems to me, is a good run.

For the short time I took them on the quiet, antidepressants only did so much, but atheism has helped me no end. You might expect me to report that as a churchgoer, being called a sinner in a hopeless world did my head in; actually, hope was the problem. As a believer in the risen Christ, it can be hard not to feel ashamed of existential gloom, as if the grace of salvation has bypassed you through some fault of your own. There must, I felt, be some turmoil in my soul if being saved didn’t make me feel any less wretched, some failure in my faith that warranted further self-punishment. As an atheist, I feel differently. [Read more…]

Who is the seven kingdoms’ worst fanatic? Religion and atheism in Game of Thrones

If like the Internet you’re a Game of Thrones fan, last week’s episode may be weighing on you. (I’m about to discuss it with spoilers. If you’re not up to date, stop reading now.) About two thirds of the way in, Stannis Baratheon, now with an evil beard, makes a burnt offering of daughter Shireen, desperate to improve his army’s odds somehow. Elsewhere during the hour, Myrcella Lannister avoids being killed and Arya Stark comes close to a man who preys on the underage. Juxtaposed with these plots, Shireen’s death proves one character to have been right last year: everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.

000With Stannis all but silent throughout, it’s noticeable how, amid his faceless mob of troops, the sequence shows religious cruelty from three female viewpoints: the girl Shireen’s, ambushed by the reality of martyrdom; mistress Melisandre’s, lighting the pyre with strange lyricism, and wife Selyse’s, caught between the two. As Shireen’s mother, until now more of a believer than her husband, comes to her senses all too late, emitting a low, guttural scream, her character appears partly redeemed, delusion vapourised in contact with a flame. It is she more than poor, deceived Shireen who undergoes a baptism of fire – and, indeed, blood.

The scene, a deviation from the source novels, feels lifted from the Book of Judges, where Jephthah, also a would-be ruler, trades in his daughter’s life for victory. (We can but guess whether she, like Shireen, changes her mind on the way to the stake.) Game of Thrones’ fifth season has scrutinised religion more than any before, and the princess’s death puts me in mind of how the series treats belief. Before acting, Stannis gets rid of Ser Davos Seaworth, who thinks ‘mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night’ – a tactic that seems to have backfired in at least one case.

Seaworth’s philosophy is the unbelief of an everyman: when Stannis sends him from the camp refusing to argue, he banishes a voice likely to erode the belief that proves both cause and consolation for infanticide. Beside Ser Davos, I can think of just one character to claim atheism outright. In season three, Petyr Baelish memorably declares the gods an illusion, rubbishing all ideas of a natural order. A classic Machiavellian, he is the mirror image of Davos – both are well worn atheist tropes, and while Littlefinger is the more negative cliché, I have a lot of time for him, as I did for the nymphomaniac bisexual Oberyn Martell.

The real secular viewpoint in Westeros is George R. R. Martin’s. Asked his religious stance, the author calls himself an atheist or agnostic, and like his Catholic past, it shows. None of the series’ many believers, even the worst, are cardboard characters – there is a kind of social realism in how Martin shows religion, as there is in his choice (unlike Tolkien) to show it at all. At the same time, none of this world’s many faiths appears truer than the rest. Competing religions seem equally able to perform miracles, perhaps implying some shared power source in the natural world, and each is shown as a product of its society more than vice versa. [Read more…]

Support the Burning Bridges Blog Network

If you’ve hung around on this network long enough, you’ve probably bumped into certain regulars.

  • Sally Strange is a feminist, environmentalist and journalist in the original sense.
  • Alex and Ania write about (among other things) skepticism, ethnicity and disability.
  • Dori Mooneyham’s blog is about gender, pop culture and being a trans lesbian.
  • Dirty Nerdy has depression and writes about it, as well as being queer.
  • Angie Jackson is an antitheist raised in a cult who live-tweeted her abortion in 2010.

You may also know Sunflower Punk, who’s a homeless single parent ‘from NYC by way of Puerto Rico’, and Kassiane, who tackles ableism and neurodivergence.

These are seven formidable members of our community, who – by and large, like this community – combine a take-no-prisoners atheism with fierce, compassionate social advocacy, an approach we don’t see enough. Now they’re doing something exciting, and setting up their own site. Writes Sally:

This past winter was rough for me and many of my friends. I was fired from my last job essentially in retaliation for whistleblowing, though I was not in fact the whistleblower. I was commiserating with my friends, many of whom also experience poverty on a regular basis, thanks to being laid off, single parenthood, escaping abusive relationships, disabilities and chronic illness, mental health issues, and societal bigotries such as racism, trans-antagonism, and misogyny. We all write regularly and have many other talents and skills, and we were wishing that we could translate our regular output on social media and our private blogs into regular revenue which, if not sufficient to pay the rent, would at least help tide us over during the rough times. And so the idea of Burning Bridges was formed.

The name comes from the idea of lighting your way with the bridges you burn, rather than fearing the flames. And maybe next time using a better, less flammable design, if a bridge is really what [you] want. We want Burning Bridges, the blog and the publishing company, to further the trend of marginalized people gaining a voice through the horizontal structure of the Internet.

I want to see this project succeed. The Indiegogo campaign is at just under $500 (15 percent of the way to its goal) with three more days to go: while they’ve already raised the minimum needed to launch the site, there’s still a way to go. Thankfully, crowdfunders like this often get a late surge just before the deadline – so if you can, chip in or spread the word.

We need more secular writing with a social context. Let’s help make it happen.

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Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

It’s not the case that where there’s smoke there’s fire – nonetheless, the two correlate strongly. The more people smell smoke, the wiser it is to investigate; the more you spot, the likelier you are to find something alight, and anyone so fire-agnostic they refuse to make enquiries till presented with a room in flames can reasonably be suspected of anything from ambivalence on fire safety to being a furtive arsonist.

Misogyny has been the great fire of atheism. 2012 saw a pitched fight for smoke detectors to be used at cons, in which, as thick plumes billowed from every window, DJ Grothe said TAM was totally fire-free, no one having caught so much as a whiff of smoke, and women shouldn’t assume too much from the sky high column of it over the building. Later, Reinhardt et al decided piles of soot and ash wherever some male skeptics went didn’t conclusively prove fire damage, and so there was no reason at all to check for any.

People who defend sexism tend to think there are only two ways to handle complaints: either with absolute credulity, treating women’s claims as infallible, or with absolute agnosticism, throwing out anything short of airtight legal proof. Women who file reports are said to want their word taken as law, but complaints are supposed to prompt investigations, not foreclose them. In the first instance, all most plaintiffs want is for their claims to be looked into – something an all-or-nothing epistemology prevents.

The agnostic response to bigotry says we can never know enough to act. If we don’t have all the facts, we have none; if not everything has been proved, nothing can be, and if the curtains haven’t yet caught fire, no amount of smoke is cause for action. Claims with mountains of evidence are dismissed before any can be sought, responsible parties painting requests for them to find things out as demands for unquestioning belief.

I bring this up because of late, I’ve seen Ophelia say similar things. [Read more…]

Support Taslima Nasrin and atheist bloggers facing death

In case you haven’t seen it in the press, a string of public atheists have recently been killed in Bangladesh. Two years ago, Ahmed Rajib Haider’s body was found outside his house; last November, AKM Shafiul Islam was murdered on his way home. Avijit Roy was stabbed in the head with a machete in February, while the following month, Washiqur Rahman’s murderers were found with meat cleavers. Ananta Bijoy Das, the most recent victim, was hacked to death three weeks ago. Failed attempts on others’ lives have hospitalised them, some sustaining permanent injury, and barely a month now passes without new reports. Islamist groups responsible have by now grown so bold that there exists a Wikipedia page – from which the above information comes – called ‘Attacks on secularists in Bangladesh’. It is a morbid lottery whose name the next update will be.

These ambushes are not random: before their deaths, several victims appeared on a hit list of eighty-four names. One of the biggest, Taslima Nasrin, writes on this blog network; two days ago, she was informed she would be next. Fortunately, several weeks of work between Ed Brayton and CFI to extract her from India were already in place: yesterday Taslima left Delhi for the USA, where she’s now staying out of harm’s way with CFI staff. While in the scheme of things, this is a huge relief, it leaves her facing the same kind of fix anyone does who has to leave their home without warning. In that her work remains unaffected for the most part, Taslima benefits from being an author, but she now has no transport, health plan or permanent abode.

To help with this and meet living costs while she finds her feet, the CFI has established a fund. From their statement:

If we raise more than is needed for Taslima, we will use the remainder to establish an emergency fund to help assist other dissidents in similarly perilous situations. Without going into detail, CFI has already been contacted by other writers on the subcontinent who have received threats against their lives and who have requested assistance. We are withholding their names for their own safety.

Thank you.

Please give generously – or get someone else to if you can’t.

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“I feel obliged to never talk about my atheism”: Natalie Reed on science, postmodernism and the left

Someone on Twitter accused me a couple of months back of ‘ridiculous pomo ramblings’. (Given there are days when I’m not ridiculous, this felt unfair.) Because they’re part of the don’t-call-us-TERFs brigade and I’m a troll, a bit of shade proved irresistible.

Natalie Reed, formerly of this blog network, tweeted me back, and we got to talking – on science, philosophy, atheists and the left. In light of recent arguments, our conversation’s been back on my mind, so I’ve transcribed it, lightly edited, below. I’m reminded why Natalie, having been driven out, is such a loss to the secular scene.

* * *

NR: People certainly use it as one. Mostly people who have absolutely no idea what postmodernism actually is or means. I think they think of it as just, like, hyperrelativism and Damien Hirst aesthetics.

AG: It strikes me as a tad ironic how the most radical quotes from people like Irigaray and Harding, totally decontextualised, are used by dudebros to go ‘Stupid mad women! Science! Yurrrr!’

That’s another really odd thing – how ‘postmodern’ has gradually come to be a sort of dog whistle for ‘feminine’ or female intellectual achievement, or the invalidation or belittling thereof – ‘women’s thought’ being dismissed as ‘just pomo’ and so on. And then that gets into how femininity and women and postmodern thought alike are both contextualised as weak, artificial, overly fussy, impractical, unrealistic – in contrast to the ‘natural’ and ‘pragmatic’ and ‘realist’ and ‘scientific’ hard-choices-that-have-to-be-made [image] of men, masculinity and not-pomo.

PZ Myers was booked to speak somewhere and there were comments saying ‘He believes in postmodernist concepts like patriarchy!’

Hahaha – that is epic. Also also: the idea the entirety of the humanities and social sciences are ‘postmodern’. The humanities and social sciences are contextualised as ‘women’s fields’ or feminine courses of study, not as ‘robust’ and ‘strong’ and ‘hard’ and ‘rigorous’ and – well, you see my point – as the hard sciences: the rock hard, thrusting, throbbing sciences, penetrating the dark, moist recesses of empirical truth. And of course the fact that the demographics in the humanities really do have stronger representation of women.

000You’re sailing perilously close to CALLING NEWTON’S PRINCIPIA A RAPE MANUAL!

WESTERN SCIENCE RAPED THE FEMININE DIVINE OF OTHER WAYS OF KNOWING!

Haha.

The thing that really bothers me is how many people think the proper response to the chauvinistic invalidation of that which isn’t ‘hard science’ is to do the whole western-thought-versus-other-ways-of-knowing [shtick], which is just further playing on the same intellectual field – further contextualising women, people of colour, queers and so on as apart from reason and science – and continues contextualising science and reason and thought and truth as the domain of white cishet men. And I’m like, no – fuck that. Human brains are human brains, we all have those same potentials for reason, intuition etc. [Read more…]

Another response to Kris Nelson – guest post by Amber Adamson

000Every so often an article so Lovecraftian wanders across my path that I am inspired to engage. At Everyday Feminism, usually a site I enjoy, blogger Kris Nelson discusses ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’. I’d like to note upfront here that I emailed Kris about their piece and what I saw as its problems, or at least a few of them. I was actually rather tame. I refrained from even questioning what is arguably the worst aspect of their piece – its deference to pseudo-science – and stuck to questioning its rather absurd binary of the western Christian church versus all other religions – united, one presumes, in some kind of care bear struggle against evil, with the western Christian church the root of it all.

I’m not going to repost my email here, but over-gentle as I tried to be, Kris’s reaction was juvenile in the extreme – I suppose I was too optimistic in thinking they might reconsider some of their stranger assumptions. I am going to mention some quotes from their email, because it shows how narrow and warped their perspective is. Honestly, a part of me can’t help but feel I’m being a bully here – when an author is this clueless, isn’t it a bit unfair to even scrutinize them? But this post has 3.3 thousand shares on Facebook. And it’s typical of a very seedy, apolitical ecumenicalism, which has infested leftist discourse and which I’m sick of. My writing against Kris is also my writing against everything writers like Kris represent. [Read more…]

Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

There’s a passage from Marx’s critique of Hegel that antitheists like to quote and defenders of faith like to quotemine. In a piece titled ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’, Kris Nelson notes Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world as well as the opium of the people, claiming to ‘open up . . . the full quote, and not just the snapshot used to pick at those who dare let their god(s) lead them’.

In fact, Nelson – ‘a queer trans witch [who] runs an online store . . . where they sell handcrafted wirework jewellery, crystal pendants, handsewn tarot bags and pendulums’ – is the one peddling a misrepresentation. The actually-full quote (translation mine) reads:

The discontent of religion is at once an expression of and protestation against true discontent. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world and soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To overthrow the bogus happiness they find in it is to demand they be allowed true happiness; to demand disillusionment with a condition built on delusion is to demand its end. And so to criticise religion is, in embryo, to criticise the vale of tears of which it is but an apparition.

Such critique has not shredded the imaginary flowers on people’s chains so as to leave them chained without solace or fantasy, but so that they might cast away their chains and gather real flowers. It disillusions people so that they might think, act and shape their own reality, as does anyone brought to their senses – so that their lives might revolve around them, people being their own true suns. Religion is no more than an illusory sun, revolving around people whose lives do not revolve around them.

The point missed on all sides isn’t that religion is either a bad habit or a source of hope – nor is Marx saying it’s one in spite of being the other. The meaning of ‘Opium des Volkes’, a metaphor Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw would later recycle, is that faith is comforting and delusional, easing the pain by clouding the senses: Marx labels it the courage of a heartless world as part of his attack.

There’s a lot I could say about those lines, which never fail to move me. Unlike new atheism’s figureheads, I’ve been a believer – I could say I remember not having enough to eat, going to church with a single mother and meeting other oppressed creatures; remember the cost of the church’s help, belief spinning out of control, abuse and mental illness taking hold; remember the bogus happiness, then finding poetry in the real world.

000I could say that as an apostate on the left, my skepticism serves an instinct that, in Chomsky’s words, ‘the burden of proof for anyone with a position of power and authority lies on them’ – that my atheism will never be separate from the fight for a just society – and that my antitheism will never, ever be divorced from compassion for those on the margins. I could even accept, though I think his argument survives it, that there’s room to criticise Marx – either in that his presumption to dismantle strangers’ beliefs rings paternalistic, or inasmuch as leftists can and do repurpose God for their own ends.

For now though, Nelson’s post.

Calling oneself a person of faith feels like setting light fingers on ‘person of colour’ – a move less tasteful still when apostates whose former religions have a marked ethnic dimension are among the most stigmatised, frequently smeared as race traitors. Mentioning one’s spirituality – ‘We’ve all got one!’ – likewise resembles the language of sexuality. While it’s perfectly true certain religious groups are ostracised, constructing believers in general as an oppressed class is putrescent – if Nelson finds religion a fraught topic on the left, it’s because of its role as oppressor, and it’s hard to see how conflating the ‘struggle’ of Baptists and Anglicans with those of Jews and Muslims in the west does any good. [Read more…]

Introducing Ashley F Miller (and their blog’s new look)

Two things you might not know about Ashley Miller: first, they’re an extraordinary painter; second, they have an ‘F’, absent till recently from the blogroll. (No, I don’t know what it’s for.)

Ashley came to me late last year requesting a new blog banner. This week, I finally finished work on it – or rather, on all six versions. (Only elite #FTBullies have multiple banners.)

AFM18

AFM16

AFM11

AFM8

AFM9

AFM7

Ashley also asked for a squarer logo suitable for business cards and other things. After a drawn-out struggle visualising ‘AFM’, I seem to have come back to geometry again.

AFM4AFM3AFM5AFM6

 

Making-of post coming soon, and yes, you can hire me.

Mean time, start remembering the ‘F’.

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