Paris/Baghdad/Beirut, November 2015

When guns go off, people fall silent. Some fall silently.

Silence takes many forms. There is the silence of the dead, that of the living who see death, and in between, that silent half-second when gunshots are first heard.

There is the numbness that comes after shock, the turning-off of news and silencing of radios. There is being at a loss for words, the silence of all speech sounding too loud.

There is the silence of commemoration and the silence of censure; sometimes these are the same. There is the silence that falls over streets where demonstrations have been banned.

There are the enforced silences of a war on terror, unspoken thoughts and words that render them unspeakable: heroes, hatred, extremist, PATRIOT. There is the indescribable nausea of a new one.

There is that silent, tired thirst in me for no more gods, governments or guns. There is the silence of knowing now is no time for certainties. There is my silent longing for them back.

There is the silence I wish for with every new atrocity mentioned, the relative silence of media about those further from my door, my silence on the ones I couldn’t stand to hear of. There is the silent shame of realising that was a choice, the silent listening I should have done.

More guns are going to go off. I hope by then, I will know what to say.

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Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongers and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

[Read more…]

The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

I used to think I understood rape jokes—then I moved in with someone who laughed at his own. F was young, white and angry at the world, and I met him after he advertised a room. The two of us talked for an hour or two, during which time he spoke more than I did, with the eagerness of a child desperate to make friends but unsure how. Like me F was addicted to TV: the fourth season of Game of Thrones had been the best, I said, except one character being raped despite her pleas and attempts to break free. ‘Come on,’ he said, all jocular. ‘She deserves it.’

It didn’t take my flatmate’s views long to become clear. His favourite authors included Charles Bukowski, who he told me ‘treated women like shit’ (there was no ‘but’), and I once spied Russell Brand’s Booky Wook on his table. My last landlady, he declared, had been a ‘nasty fucking dry old cunt’, and our female flatmate (a ‘silly little girl’) was acting ‘like a total bitch’ when they fell out. He hadn’t had a problem coming onto her—‘I only let girls move in because I want to fuck them,’ F told me once. He was a misogynist, he agreed, but felt he treated his women well.

I took the room looking on the bright side. The flat was comfy, the location neat, the prospect of searching elsewhere uninviting, and F’s response hadn’t been bad when I mentioned I blogged on a feminist site. Living with him wouldn’t, I thought, be the end of the world, and for me it wasn’t. Still, there were doubts. F laughed about his excitement when women online had rape fantasies, not quite sounding as if he knew where fantasy ended. Was rape so bad, he asked another time, quickly assuring me he was kidding. I’m not certain he’d have said so had I shaken my head.

I don’t know if I lived with a rapist, or someone who’d have liked to be. None of these incidents proves anything, but what if that was the idea? Was F, I wonder now, scoping me out the way queer kids scope out their mum and dad, as I’d scoped him out with mention of feminists? Did he laugh about rape because it amused him, or because what might be a joke is always plausibly deniable, like a sexual advance veiled as an invitation for coffee? One’s instinct is to award the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that’s the point.

[Read more…]

Food was my grandmother’s favourite form of abuse

Since the god I believed in died, it’s my mum’s stories I’ve turned to. Her grandmother, one of the last Victorians, schooled her in Roma tradition while she was a child, and although Mum had swapped card readings for hymnbooks by the time I arrived, her touch for oral history remained. Numerous relatives, having wed and bred later than usual, died before I was born, but I met them all in bedtime stories: her father Bill, whose hair turned white when he abandoned ship in the North Sea and swam ashore; my other grandfather Silvestras, who lost a homeland to Stalin and countless shirt buttons to British beef; and my great grandmother herself, whose real name must have been Catherine but whom Mum always called Kitty. Lately, I’m remembering meals with my own grandmothers.

To understand my gran, you have to understand how she used food. Like many children born after the war, Mum spent her first holidays in the north, including in Blackpool. In my twenties, I heard about the aftermath of one such trip: on coming home, her mother approached a small boy who lived across the road, offering him a stick of Blackpool rock with a smile. On unwrapping the gift, the boy found only a long and thin stone disguised with left over wrappers, and so began to cry. Loath as she was to acknowledge her older sister’s birth in a vardo, Gran was a storyteller too: even in her nineties, fifty or sixty years later, serving the greedy boy over the street his just dessert was a favourite of hers. ‘That boy,’ Mum once replied with laser eyes, ‘was four years old.’


I wrote about my family at Medium. This is how the post starts. Read the whole thing.

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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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