66 of this blog’s biggest posts from the last year

I’m currently asking readers of this blog to support my work by donating to it. Whenever I occasionally do this, I list a few recent posts to illustrate the writing this makes possible – it’s satisfying, because it tells me how much, lethargy notwithstanding, I’ve managed to get done.

For some time, largely as a guide for new readers, I’d wanted to compile a list of favourite posts to display in the sidebar on the left, and scrolling through posts yesterday prompted me finally to do it. (Greta has something similar.) There are 66 of them in total, and most likely I’ll be adding more in future.

This is fairly timely too, since in a fortnight I’ll mark a year writing at Freethought Blogs. In the sidebar, the posts I picked out for emphasis are listed alphabetically, so I thought I’d also leave them here in chronological order for that anniversary.

* * *

Karma chameleon: the many voices of Alom Shaha
‘Versatility isn’t, of course, a flaw. On the contrary, and as I say in our discussion, he strikes me as a patchwork man by nature.’

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

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

Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out
‘What Jodie Foster models is a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.’

A queer atheist’s survival guide: thoughts from my friends’ church wedding
‘Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.’

Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly
‘Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it.’

Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist
‘There are better ways we can discuss Islam. There are better ways we can critique Islam. Please, Richard Dawkins. Stop.’

On Stephen Fry’s letter and Russia: the oppression Olympics
‘Fry’s implicit geopolitics boasts a curious landscape: “the civilised world” of Britain and Utah is juxtaposed with the “barbaric, fascist” axis of Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia.’

In defence of Quantum of Solace
‘No, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.’

You want sex? So stop asking for coffee
‘When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.’

Bonding with history: Skyfall‘s postmodern 007
Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry.’

Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people
‘I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet.’

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion
‘Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.’

Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth
‘Gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for David Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?’

How not to write about bisexuality
‘Erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all.’

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal (guest post by Hiba Krisht)
‘After I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.’

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation
‘When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the “earlier era” argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.’

Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day
‘Would a less predominant interest in men, if “bisexual” denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass? I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery.’

‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism
‘The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.’

Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad
‘The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.’

Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair
‘Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.’

Pragna Patel: the right to blaspheme is ‘a matter of life and death’
‘Patel, of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, is one of my favourite secularists.’

Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence
‘Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems. Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.’

Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade
‘I was recently linked to your “How gay is Islam?” video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me. The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.’

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick
28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.’

On Honeygate
‘We laugh because your notion customs might,
Kafir, favour you simply for your face
Isn’t far wrong. That onlookers make light
Now of your trouble’s just, if jibe-filled. Honey,
Say what you like – the world’ll say it’s funny.’

First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hated it.’

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars
‘The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.’

In defence of the War on Christmas
‘I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.’

Bisi Alimi: Anglicanism spurred Africa’s homophobic clampdowns
‘The continent-wide wave of clampdowns based on existing laws only gained momentum, according to Alimi, once tensions arose in the Anglican church over homosexuality. Before that, he reports, an understanding existed in many countries simply to turn a blind eye to it.’

No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV
‘We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t.’

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about
‘The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out.’

99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion
‘When you’ve been on religion’s 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. Read this list if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou.’

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion
‘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.’

Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich
Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.’

Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough
‘Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be.’

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s
‘In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it.’

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000
‘At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. “While you were here,” he said once papers were filled out, “you used BitTorrent?”’

A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them
‘Reformists and minorities as much as a free society are casualties of this love for religious censors. If minor faiths, still mysteries in the public eye, need representatives, far better ones exist: a media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them.’

Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know
‘You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong.’

Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation
Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics.’

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014
‘Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.’

No, Tom Daley didn’t just call himself a gay man
‘Nor did he ever use the word bisexual, for that matter – but it’s obvious which one the press prefers.’

Bisexuality’s supposed ease: another letter to Dan Savage
‘Yes, gay men sometimes call themselves bi – but systematically, at least as many bi people call themselves gay. Per Savage’s logic, it would be totally valid for us to treat gays, teenage and otherwise, as bisexuals in disguise; to feel a pressing, overpowering need to question the identity or truthfulness of those we meet, telling them ‘So were we, at that age’; ‘This is classic bridge-building’; ‘We know, because we did it too.’

4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP
‘UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular. There are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists.’

Why you won’t catch me mocking ‘think-pieces’
‘It’s a sad thing if in the BuzzFeed list’s era, thoughtfulness isn’t worth aspiring to, but I’d prefer to think other writers feel trying is good, that ambition should be made of sterner stuff than traffic-chasing and that it’s easy to be cynical—but best to be sincere. It’s better fundamentally to fail at thinking than succeed at being banal.’

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance
‘I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.’

No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying
‘Media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.’

Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion
‘Like Mohammad Sidique Khan, who set off a bomb on the London Underground nine years ago, Elliot Rodger was young, educated and outwardly respectable. Like Khan, he killed seven people including himself. My guess based on his demographics is that Roger was probably an atheist – but otherwise, the two were in many ways twin souls.’

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk
‘Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.’

I’m proud to be ‘ideological’
‘When others frequently have to explain to you the value of philosophy and social science, the best understandings of sex and race, the basics of consent or empire’s actual relevance to how religions are discussed, you are un-ideological to a fault.’

Engaging Andrew Sullivan’s transphobia
‘Andrew Sullivan, godfather of the GGGG movement, has decided it’s time to start “Engaging the T”. In his column at the Dish, he doesn’t so much engage with trans activists as engage them like Nelson engaged Spain.’

A memoir in a month (a coming out story you’ve never heard before)
‘If you want the wholesome version of this, there isn’t one. This isn’t a coming out story like on TV, where the fragile boy fights tears to admit what he is, helped by new friends and straight acceptance; mainly it’s about enemies, and it won’t make allies feel pleased with themselves.’

Yasmin Nair: challenging gay marriage’s false history ‘is not simply the celebration of outsider status’
‘Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people – and President Obama – gays will gain marriage rights in all fifty states, and they will then be as good and productive as everyone else.’

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.’

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you
‘If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.’

Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi
‘Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. She lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.’

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque
‘Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as JT Eberhard and others have suggested.’

Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators
‘Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.’

25 comments from this blogger’s school reports
‘I recently dug out thirteen years’ worth of school reports. There are some gems in there, many of which make me think my teachers knew me better than I realised.’

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her
‘Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon.’

I’m not sorry atheists are divided
‘I’m sorry we need to be.’

Review: the Slymepit’s newest photoshop of me is stylish, but fails to convince
‘To recap, then, the personal weaknesses of mine the pitters think discredit me are: being thin; being queer; wearing bright clothes; having had red hair; the shape of my nose. What can I say? My sins have found me out.’

Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful
‘This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.’

The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic
‘There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm. I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.’

Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts
‘Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do. But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been.’

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

At Patheos, JT Eberhard writes of a young British couple jailed for a year for harmlessly pranking mosque members with ‘easily removable’ bacon, whose small child will suffer in foster care while the parents ‘rot in jail’ ‘because this building and the people who own it are special’ – a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for what was only strictly speaking vandalism.

There’s another story about three hooded white supremacists who trespassed on private religious property to intimidate Muslims, harassed the only man inside as he tried to pray, threw objects around and desecrated the area to cause occupants distress, humiliate them and make them feel unsafe. I find this one more plausible.

According to reports from yesterday and earlier today, three people were just convicted of a ‘racially motivated attack’ at Edinburgh Central Mosque on January 31 2013.

  • Chelsea Lambie (18) received a twelve month prison sentence sentence in a young offenders’ institute after denying involvement despite CCTV footage.
  • Douglas Cruikshank (39) received nine months in prison, having pled guilty and received nine months.
  • Wayne Stilwel (25) also pled guilty and received ten months’ imprisonment.

Quite a few secularists I know have described this story in terms similar to Eberhard’s, calling these ridiculous punishments for hanging bacon on doorknobs and causing ‘religious offence’.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the sentencing specifically – partly because that would become an abstract discussion of the prisons system, ‘hate crimes’ and the use of authoritarian penalties against them, and partly because there’s lots of information I don’t have. I haven’t read Sheriff Alistair Noble’s judgement, so don’t know if details influenced him that haven’t made the news; I don’t know what previous convictions Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel had, if any; I don’t know how their prison terms compare to those for similar harassment in non-religious contexts, assuming that comparison is useful here. Edit: Lambie is reported in the Daily Record as having been fined shortly prior to this incident for verbally abusing and harassing a Pakistani shopkeeper; Stilwel was breaching conditions of bail for a previous misdemeanour.] (Helen Dale, a lawyer operating in Scotland, also tells me ‘all custodial sentences in Scotland are automatically reduced by half as long as you don’t do something like try to set a prison guard on fire’.) 

But the view that nine to twelve month sentences were obviously, categorically ridiculous, and that the right response to what they did (as Eberhard put it) would be to ‘fine them £20 and make them polish the door handle’, relies on seeing it how he does as a trivial and harmless prank by innocent-enough young vandals. Reports suggest to me that this is extremely inaccurate.

From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence Lambie and Cruikshank were a ‘UK couple’. Reports refer to them as a ‘pair’, which doesn’t imply a relationship, and the BBC, the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scotsman all describe the former being arrested at ‘her boyfriend’s’ home: if this was Cruickshank, presumably he’d have been referred to by name and the two would both have been arrested there. While Lambie is noted to have a ‘very young child’, Eberhard’s emphasis on this and her perceived relationship with Cruikshank suggests the sympathetic tableau of a nuclear family broken up by injustice.

This doesn’t sync up with reality. Lambie was by all accounts part of the far-right Scottish Defence League, as according to the Edinburgh Reporter and the Scotsman were both Cruikshank and Stilwel. The SDL is a regional offshoot of the English Defence League, whose own ex-leader describes it as having been dominated by violent neo-Nazis and which has been linked to numerous arson attacks on mosques. (‘Religion is so persecuted’, Eberhard writes mockingly. While that may not be true in general, UK Muslims are targeted systematically as a religious group by the racist far-right.) Ties have also been found between the SDL and white supremacist British National Party, whose current leader started out in the National Front.

When Lambie’s mobile phone was examined by authorities, sent messages reveal her having bragged of ‘Going to invade a mosque, because we can go where we want.’ She and her accomplices hoped to intimidate worshippers by telling them they’d entered it unbidden – orders of magnitude more disturbing, fairly obviously, than an immature couple’s misjudged practical joke. According to the Scotsman, ‘a man who was inside the mosque praying [described by EEN as the only person in the building] . . . heard something hitting the prayer room window’, and judging by EEN’s reference to a ‘glass partition’, this was an interior window. Whoever threw uncooked bacon at it, which had been bought a few hours beforehand, did indeed invade the premises.

The Edinburgh Reporter adds that the man had already ‘noticed the trio at the door appearing to wave at him and (assuming they were coming in to pray) returned to his worship’. Rather than ‘hanging bacon on door knobs and tossing a few strings inside’, Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel – all of whom were hiding their faces under hoods – threw an object at the window of the room where they knew he was. I can’t speak for JT, but if three hooded strangers walked into my private building, found me alone and started hurling things in my direction, I’d feel attacked.

He states momentously that the slices of meat, which stuck to the window and door handles, would have been simple to remove. If someone were to break into his house and smear doorknobs and walls with faeces, cleaning it up would be equally simple; it would also be humiliating and distressing. As a vegetarian, having to handle raw meat would cause me the same kind of disgust. As an atheist, of course I don’t think Islamic pork taboos are sensible or philosophically sound, but mosques have every right to abide by them. Invading someone’s private building to strew the area in it and force them to handle it against their will, knowing it will cause them humiliation and distress, is still an act of harassment.

I’ve written plenty in opposition to public censorship on grounds of ‘religious offence’. A religious ban on bacon from shared secular space would have me up in arms. But one doesn’t have to accept religious doctrine to see desecrating private houses of worship as an intimidation tactic; look at how the Nazis went about it. (I remind you, before I’m accused of Godwinning, that the perpetrators belonged to a group with clear neo-Nazi ties.) This, on top of invading the building to make those there feel unsafe, throwing objects around and harassing someone alone there.

Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as Eberhard and others have suggested.

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Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi

Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. As a homophobic sexist racist anti-abortion anti-science climate change denier nonetheless considered a national treasure, her existence is almost as hard to accept as the god’s she credits for her politics. Like another fascist, she admittedly shows admirable concern for animals, but as with him it makes her look worse overall: lacking any sense of compassion seems more forgivable than having such a twisted one.

Savaging Widdecombe’s fun and I doubt she minds – reactionaries’ sense of being picked on by leftists, atheists and deviants is what sells columns like hers in the Express. There and in her occasional films, she’s fond of arguing Christians (puritans and hardcore evangelicals especially) are marginalised and persecuted, including to date by laws against banning gay couples from B&Bs and comedy sketches involving chutney.

In a recent radio interview, reports of which I’ve only just discovered, she managed to one-up even her own outrageousness. Audio is no longer online – if anyone has it, please contact me – but the Independent says the following.

Ann Widdecombe has claimed it was easier to be a Nazi or a Communist in post-war Britain than being a Christian today because ‘quite militant secularism’ discourages people from expressing their faith. The ex-MP for Maidstone said it was very difficult to be an active Christian in modern Britain because of some aspects of equality legislation that made people hesitant about being open with their faith in everyday life. [She] said concerns over ‘political correctness” meant people were reluctant to express their faith to others because “they think strong belief offends them’.

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say “God bless you”, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves. So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.’

Christians also faced a ‘sort of atheism’ that ‘wouldn’t once have been said’. There used to be a view that ‘we’ve all got freedom of conscience, we’ve all got freedom of expression’, she said.

In the 1950s when plenty of people had lost lives and limbs and loved ones to the Nazis, it was still possible to be a Nazi in this country. When we were engaged in the height of the Cold War, when there were all those weapons lined up on the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries pointing straight at us, you could still, in this country, proclaim yourself as a Communist, you could still stand for Parliament for that matter as a Communist. You wouldn’t get in but you could stand. You could sell the Morning Star on street corners.

We have always respected, no matter how strongly we felt as a nation at the time, we’ve always respected the right of people to their own views and I do feel nowadays as a combination of political correctness and equality law and all the rest of it, we’ve started suppressing the expression of conscience.’

Ah, the olden days – when it was easy being a Nazi. You’d know, Ann.

As I’ve written before, there are only so many times believers can say in national media, from positions of power that their faith is being swept aside. To say nothing of Britain’s established church, its stranglehold on our state schools and its leaders’ ludicrously inflated media presence – beside all Christianity’s other strange privileges in public life – Widdecombe is an ex-minister with an enviable platform, probably the country’s best known Roman Catholic and once tipped as a potential Vatican ambassador. Her complaints are reminiscent of statements by David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, praising religion and promising it further undue prominence while simultaneously claiming the establishment to oppose it.

The parliament where all these people have gained seats isn’t just one to which Christians are frequently elected, including ones with strongly religious politics, where I’d guess nonbelievers – half the general populace – are underrepresented. It’s one where the standard oath taken by members invokes ‘almighty God’. If Nazism got this kind of treatment in postwar Britain, I’m concerned. (As it happens, Londoners did elect two Communist MPs in 1945 after their party fought for the opening of tube stations during the Blitz.)

I’ve also written before about the number of believers who feel oppressed by the very existence of atheists. Widdecombe is one of them, and seems genuinely to experience straightforward statements of religious skepticism as a personal attack. The only other kinds of ‘suppression’ she can cite are fictitious: cases of discrimination against cross-wearers in Britain are mythical, and I’ve yet to hear of blessings or prayer offerings being banned, though that doesn’t mean they’re not presumptuous or disrespectful when unwanted.

Ann Widdecombe lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.

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Chapter 4: Dress-up

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

My secondary school was a comprehensive, but would never have admitted it. Built on a slope, its playing fields spread down to front gates that displayed its Latin motto and emblem. The first was ‘Levavi oculos’, as in the statement from the Book of Psalms, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ (in modern English, it might also mean ‘Aim higher’); the second, a shield bearing Saint Kentigern’s symbols, which as children we’d learnt to recite in rhyme: the bird that never flew, the tree that never grew, the bell that never rang, the fish that never swam. These were the school’s main values: aspiration and failure.

Their greatest clash remains my sixth form’s common room, beside whose door a plaque read VIth Form Centre, a tiny ‘th’ on the Roman numeral. Mr Chapman, who insisted on being called ‘headmaster’ rather than ‘headteacher’, loved the sheen of privilege as much as he despised political correctness – if he failed to ape the style of England’s public schools, it was never because he didn’t try. Fond of appearances, the man took great pride in his pupils’ bottle green and maroon uniform, devoting countless hours to the doing up of top buttons, tucking in of shirttails, lengthening of skirts and taming of hairstyles. (If he knew what focusing on this caused him to miss, he must simply have cared about it less.) Just as prized were his army of prefects and Victorian style games syllabus – hockey and rounders for girls, rugby and soccer for boys. A core feature in the latter case was violence against anyone deemed queer, especially if they didn’t deny it.

I’d love to say Keswick School’s homophobia was confined to the student body. It wasn’t. About half way through my career there, I was told Mr Chapman had complained to his PSHE class of a letter from the government asking him to support gay pupils; in one I attended, he remarked of prejudice, ‘it can be [about] gender orientation… I don’t want to get into the gay thing.’ Mrs Swainson, head of that subject presumably because after so many years of teaching French she was owed a department, shut questions down in an assembly about STIs, declaring ‘We didn’t come here to talk about gay sex’, and noted on a different occasion that although people weren’t to be judged by how they spoke, ‘gay people do seem to have higher voices’.

In Year 8, Mrs McDonald (English) told a boy whose shirt was hanging out, ‘Don’t be such a gayboy.’ In Years 10 and 11, Mr Simpson (Chemistry) made fun of male students by saying they liked other boys. Mr Ingles, the cuddly and kind supply teacher whose stories people loved, told my History class he ‘abhor[red] homosexuality’, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put part of his anatomy there’ and prompting Aaron Bailey to express approval; he told my RE class that he and his wife loved their friend ‘but we hate – hate – what he did.’ Even those staff who didn’t do these things turned a deaf ear to slurs and blind eye to explicit homophobic bullying. They were fine with ‘gay’ being another word for ‘shit’, and in fact punished that term far more severely, which while it may not have hurt anyone fell leagues short of the middle class manners expected.

These were my experiences – others could list more. In adulthood, or in some cases during our last years there, some of the queer kids like me who sat through this have found each other: Jack, Liam, Adam, Chris and Mark from the years below me, Daniel and Nick from the years above and the girl from mine. (If the list seems male-dominated, it’s because we’ve often made contact on Grindr.) Only a few of us were out in our school years, and even we weren’t out enough to challenge those in charge. How could we, in a place where you were walloped for defending blonde highlights or heels higher than an inch?

Instead we kept our heads down and muddled through, clad in the uniform of presumed straightness. If ever we looked to the hills for help, none came.

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

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Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

Around the start of junior school, teachers expressed concern about my hearing. It turned out after testing, sessions with a specialist and an hour of electrodes being stuck to my scalp that nothing was wrong with my ears; what I had, and the reason I often asked people to repeat themselves, was a form of epilepsy.

In films all epileptics have severe symptoms, convulsing violently during seizures. Mine were extremely mild. Childhood absence epilepsy, sometimes called petit mal, involves interruptions of conscious thought that last approximately five to twenty seconds – sometimes accompanied by subtle motor twitches, sometimes (as in my case) by stillness and a blank stare. A few times a day, sometimes mid conversation, I’d black out for a few moments like a television blinking, asleep with my eyes open. This never lasted long enough for me to notice time had passed; the only reason I found out about it, or that anything was wrong, was from other people. I preferred the word ‘condition’ to ‘illness’, since although my brain glitched here or there, I felt perfectly well.

Nonetheless, treatment was arranged. At the nearest full-size hospital, twenty miles from where we lived, a doctor whose name was John Storr prescribed a course of twice-daily tablets – first sodium valproate, then when it didn’t stop the black-outs, lamotrigine. The latter was a powerful drug which had to be introduced gradually (one of few fond memories I retain of it involves Mum trying to halve tiny pills with a bread knife), and which caused the skin on my forearms to peel. When at point I missed a weekend’s doses, the whole regime of daily pills had to begin from scratch: had my intake resumed as normal, my kidneys could apparently have ruptured.

But my recollection isn’t mainly of the physical effects. Although lamotrigine has been used to treat some forms of depression, taking it was the first time I experienced the lasting feelings I’d later associate with that disorder – demotivation, numbness, helplessness. It wasn’t the tablets themselves that did this, but taking them morning and night for several years. It filled me with the sense that someone else, inside that grey-green seventies hospital with its stench of detergent, called the shots on my body and my life. I hadn’t minded absence seizures, but I minded dry rashes burning my wrists, the fear of forgetting my meds and the obligation in itself to keep someone happy by necking them.

One of British healthcare’s few downsides, I think, is that doctors can feel more public officials than advisors – as I remember, we did what ours said and that was that. I don’t recall Mum ever being part of a decisionmaking process, or having it discussed whether I needed medicating. (My epilepsy, whose symptoms treatment had only held back, cleared up by itself by itself by the time I turned twelve as CAE usually does.) My seizures were undramatic and infrequent even by petit mal‘s standards, and had never stopped me being top of the class. They may have posed risks in some scenarios – swimming, for instance, or crossing the road – but the consequences of missed tablets seem in hindsight to have posed at least as much danger.

I find myself wondering if lifestyle changes to minimise risk – not swimming or crossing in heavy traffic while alone – might have been a more constructive response. As it was, I developed difficulties swallowing my pills: they sat on my tongue partially dissolved, refusing to be caught up in copious mouthfuls of water until the bitter, powdery remains slipped down my throat. I’d retch at the taste and the sense of violation – of humiliation – this always prompted, and developed a formidable gag reflex. For many years once off lamotrigine, I simply refused to take tablets at all, going to bed with headaches instead, and even as an adult, doing so makes me feel as if I’m about to vomit.

I don’t doubt John Storr was a caring doctor who did what seemed best, but he was also the first authority figure whom I resented.

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

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Intern full-time at the Sunday Assembly – for £20 a week

In January, I wrote an article at AlterNet advising secular groups on how to be less economically exclusive: how to remain accessible to hard-up nonbelievers, improve outreach and stop godlessness being a movement for the wealthy. The same week, Sanderson Jones – cofounder and newly appointed CEO of the Sunday Assembly – asked me to meet with him and offer the SA advice. I did, although he spoke (somewhat defensively) at least as much as he listened to me.

In the article, I wrote:

Pay your interns – money.

If I could stamp one practice out in atheism, unpaid internships would be it.

[These] positions are prestigious. They help enormously when seeking an activist career. Shutting people out who can’t work for nothing, or who might even lose welfare checks if they do, keeps atheism dominated by the rich. And labour has value. Not paying for it is theft.

You wouldn’t accept pay in “experience,” so don’t expect your interns to. And don’t just pay a stipend to subsist on. Pay the minimum wage where you are; if you possibly can, a living wage. If you can’t at present, fundraise. If you’re on a high-up’s pay, take a cut – that sounds like ethical leadership to me. If you really, really can’t afford paid interns, don’t take on unpaid ones. Better you don’t help anybody up the ladder than that you only help the rich.

You’d think a group that cared about this as much as Jones claimed the SA did would get the message – it was, after all, the message most stressed in the piece that made him contact me.

Today, he posted on the organisation’s site:

We are very pleased to announce the Sunday Assembly Community Building Summer Programme. We are offering 10 volunteer internships for a six week programme, to help people all over the world start their own Assemblies.

In short, we’re after fun and friendly people that want to get experience volunteering for a grassroots community organisation that’s changing the world. In return you’ll get a super fun environment, training in various aspects of the organisation, and the chance make a real difference to the expansion of Sunday Assembly globally.

Now, we can only offer lunch money (and lots of appreciation) for this, because we have very little money ourselves. However, what we do have is some amazing volunteers and, with their help, we are putting together 6 half day training sessions, so that you not only get experience building community but you also learn cutting edge grassroots and leadership skills from amazing people.

Purpose of the Community Organiser

You’ll be acting as guides to organisers of new assemblies that are setting up around the world. Community Organisers will help support new Assemblies to put together a local organising team and get things up and running, as well as being a friendly point of contact to help them troubleshoot problems as they arise.

By the end of your internship you will have helped create new communities across the world.

Projects May Include

  • Making contact with our organising teams and leaders from around the world

  • Being their ‘Guide’ through the process of starting up a new local Sunday Assembly

  • Making sure new Assemblies have all the documents and toolkits they need to get going

  • Responding to queries as and when they arise (during office hours)

  • Finding other potential organisers in the local areas you’re working with to help form a local organising team

Commitment

6 weeks (ideally full time) from the week commencing Tuesday 28th May (some flexibility on start date if still finishing exams etc).

Hours by agreement between 10-6pm Monday to Friday at our offices in Central London (near to Tottenham Court Road)

Support and Benefits

  • Expenses covered up to £20 a week

  • Weekly half day training workshops on different elements of our organisation from a sparkly array of speakers (see above)

  • The chance to make a real difference to the expansion of an exciting, young, international grassroots organisation

  • A glowing reference upon successful completion of the programme

  • The warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’re helping to change the world for the better

What to do next

If you’re interested in coming on board for the summer, drop us a line ASAP and by Wed 21st May at the latest, at info@sundayassembly.com telling us the following (in 250 words or less) :-

  • why you think Sunday Assembly is great

  • why you are great

  • and finally how you think your greatness can make Sunday Assembly even more great

Please pop “I want to make Sunday Assembly even more great” in the subject line of your email so we can find your email quickly. We can’t wait to meet you.

According to Simon Clare, who recently left the Brighton SA over tensions with the London leadership, Jones ‘has already secured £50,000 worth of grants and donations, which will in part pay for his future wages.’ For your reference, six weeks of National Minimum Wage for ten interns working 40 hours a week – unless my Google’s maths is wrong – is £15,144. Even counting expenses payments as remuneration (rather than something extra), £20 weekly is fifty pence per hour.

These sound to me very much like employment-level positions, but in any case, filling them with full-time unpaid workers means no one can do them who can’t afford six weeks with no income in central London. If there’s one surefire way to make certain your organisation remains the preserve of the privileged for years to come, this is it. I’m skeptical of how much the SA really cares about this if they’re ignoring it – especially when it was one of the first things they heard from me.

Sanderson, colour me unimpressed.

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John Paul II was a reactionary pope

Reaping the gains of his own time in office, John Paul II – who during his pontificate named more saints than the previous five centuries’ worth of popes – was canonised ten days ago. Recalling him fondly, especially for Catholics, is easy after eight years of Pope Benedict, so personally unpleasant and unpopular that he became the first man since the 1400s to give up the post. (Health fears, his official motivation, had not deterred any pontiff since then, John Paul included.)

Lesser evil though he may have been, we shouldn’t rewrite history to lionise the Polish pope, under whom the regress on so-called sexual morality began which has made the Church a bête noire; there can be little doubt, additionally, that Benedict’s witch-hunt as a cardinal for liberation theologians played out with his approval, since John Paul, well known as an opponent of the movement, packed South America with conservative bishops.

A better candidate for tribute is ex-Catholic writer Barbara Smoker, now in her tenth decade, president from 1971 to 1996 of the National Secular Society. With the publishers’ permission, I’m reprinting here an article of hers from the Freethinker of August 1998. Beyond her indictment of JP2, what’s striking is how wrong her predictions – shared, at the time, by many – turned out to be. A fundamentalist like Benedict wasn’t the expected replacement: without John Paul’s, his papacy could never have been a reality. 

While the Anglican churches were openly debating outmoded sexual restrictions at their international convention in Canterbury in July, and its host archbishop was making a fool of himself on the same subject in the pages of The Times, the Pope must have preened himself on having been able to get in first with his recent ‘apostolic letter’, Ad tuendam fidem (‘In Defence of the Faith’) – without any need for public consultation, agenda papers or proposals put to the vote.

The Guardian front-paged the document on July 2 under the headline ‘Pope turns on liberal Catholics’, and it is certainly designed to gag some of the more progressive theologians on these issues. But whether it will make much practical difference is another matter, since not only does the claim of papal infallibility ring increasingly hollow, but the Church no longer has the power to burn dissidents at the stake, and there can be few who regard excommunication as a fate worse than death.

Not that the document states anything new – quite the contrary.

It is really no more than a technical device to enshrine in canon law the traditional Vatican stand on such issues as artificial contraception, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, the medical and experimental use of foetal tissue and embryos, priestly celibacy, ‘family values’ and women priests – a stand which the Pope had already reiterated less formally in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (‘The Gospel of Life’), published in 1995.

In January 1989, a theological crisis was precipitated by the dissident document known as the Declaration of Cologne, signed by 163 North European (German, Austrian, Dutch and Swiss) theologians and later supported by many more. It demanded, inter alia, a modification of the total ban on contraception, and the 1995 encyclical was partly a put-down of that demand.

Then fifty-thousand women converged on Beijing, for the fourth United Nations Conference on women. As expected, the greatest controversy was on the worldwide campaign for greater access to contraception and for legal abortion, predictably opposed by delegates both from Catholic countries and from a number of conservative Muslim countries – in temporary alliance, as they had been on the same issue at the Earth Summit in Cairo. On abortion, they were also supported by a few fundamentalist Protestants, including two British delegates from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. But they were severely trounced by the liberal camp, spearheaded by Platform for Action and backed by a large majority of the delegates, including those of the European Union, with a more responsible attitude towards the world’s population explosion.

The Vatican itself sent a large delegation to Beijing – surprisingly headed by an American woman law professor, Mary Ann Glendon. She loudly proclaimed equal rights for women, while aiming to deny them rights over their own bodies.

Homosexuals in almost every Christian sect are made to feel guilty about their own nature, and homosexual Catholic priests particularly so. The next pope might well be less intransigent on this issue than the present one. In particular, the use of condoms by gays, included in the Vatican’s blanket ban on condoms – except for the perforated ones used in obtaining semen from husbands for IVF – is obviously crucial in preventing the spread of HIV; but the Pope will not compromise his insistence on total gay celibacy.

How long can the Vatican stand out against the tide of social history? The present pope will never change; but he can live for only a few more years. Younger members of the College of Cardinals, though chosen finally by the pope, are inevitably less reactionary on sexual matters than those too old to have a vote, and are ready for a change of policy; so the next pope is likely to be comparatively permissive.

The 800-year-old rule of clerical celibacy will almost certainly be made voluntary, if only because Catholic bishops are desperate about the multitude of priests leaving the priesthood. In the USA they are said to number 42 percent, of whom 90 per cent blame the celibacy mandate for their leaving. Besides, all the recent publicity given to the widespread sexual malpractices of priests, both with women and with vulnerable boys, points to the advisability of making celibacy voluntary. During the pontificate of Paul VI (1963-78), the requests of priests for laicisation so as to marry were received sympathetically, but the present Pope put a stop to this laxity and made it much more difficult for a priest to leave the priesthood without being excommunicated – apparently failing to predict that this would inevitably mean a rise in incidence of priestly ‘affairs’, not to mention child-abuse.

Acceptance of women to the priesthood will not be far behind a relaxation on celibacy for priests, if not for gays. There are several reasons for this – including the shortage of priests, political correctness on sex equality, and the desire for expansion through rapprochement with the Anglican communion.

The acceptance of artificial contraception – at least by certain methods – is also likely to follow closely on the election of the next pope, but the prohibition on abortion, widely disobeyed though it is, will almost certainly persist.

Sexuality has always loomed large in the problems that beset Mother Church – from the neurotic hang-ups of St. Paul, through the sexual scandals of the medieval papal court and of supposedly celibate clergy and monastics, through the Anglican schism triggered by Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn, to the insidious rebellion of millions of Catholic women against the Vatican’s continued ban on artificial contraception.

Comparatively flexible as the Anglican Communion is, the divergences exposed in the Lambeth Conference last month are making it difficult to hold together the Sea of Faith theologians at the one extreme and some of the fundamentalist African bishops at the other. There was a time when WASPs could afford to ignore African opinion, but now it represents their only strong growth area – as, coincidentally, it also does for the Church of Rome – and most of the African Christian converts, of both denominations, are as reactionary on sexual politics as the Pope himself.

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Anne Marie Waters resigns from the NSS

After writing yesterday of the anti-secular UK Independence Party, expressing concern its newly announced candidate for Basildon Anne Marie Waters sat on the National Secular Society’s board of directors, I received this statement minutes ago from the NSS:

On 30 April 2014 Anne Marie Waters resigned from the NSS council of management upon becoming a prospective parliamentary candidate. She had made clear that this was her intention at the start of her tenure. The NSS council thanks Anne Marie for her efforts on behalf of the organisation, her energy and enthusiasm will be missed.

When first elected to the board three years ago, Waters was seeking candidacy with Labour (her defection to UKIP came last year); whyever she chose to quit, my criticism was at most a stimulus the choice was made years in advance – it seems to have happened today coincidentally. In any case, an obvious conflict of interests seems to be resolved.

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4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP

Britain’s European elections are in three weeks, with the right-wing UK Independence Party predicted first place.

This blog’s core readers aren’t likely to vote for them, but the party has startling support in parts of UK secularism. Anne Marie Waters, who serves on the National Secular Society’s board of directors, was this month announced as UKIP’s 2015 candidate for Basildon, joining supporters like Pat Condell. (Her site now voices rather sudden fears about ‘erosion of British democracy and identity as a result of our membership of the European Union’.)

Given UKIP’s policies, I have questions for Waters and secularists tempted to vote for them.

1. What will secularists do without human rights laws?

The European Convention on Human Rights was a key part of recent years’ court success against homophobic B&B owners, and was cited initially in the NSS’s 2012 case against council prayers. UKIP want Britain to withdraw from it.

The Human Rights Act 1998, modelled on it and passed by Labour to make filing human rights cases easier, is cited frequently – not least by Waters – as demanding abolition of the UK’s 80-plus sharia courts; it’s also referenced by critics of state-maintained ‘faith’ schools. UKIP want to repeal it. (In a likely case of far-right influencing so-called centre-right, the Conservatives have now pledged to do so if reelected.)

Britain, unlike the US, is not constitutionally secular. Without an establishment clause dividing religion and state, these laws are the most powerful we have prohibiting religious privilege and abuse. This renders them essential to work like the NSS’s: scapping them as UKIP propose would make campaigns like those above inordinately harder if not impossible.

2. With Ofsted gone, what will stop fundamentalist schools?

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) does exactly what its name implies, inspecting schools on everything from teaching to pastoral care – a remit which includes maintaining satisfactory science lessons, sex education and social diversity, areas mounting fundamentalism threatens.

While different schools have varying degrees of exemption from Ofsted’s rules, religious ones among them, and there’s evidence it’s granted some extremists far too much leeway, its watchdog role keeps many in check. According to a recent Guardian report, the current government’s ‘free schools’ – often religious, startable by anyone and with no requirement for qualified teachers – fail inspections at three times the average rate; the Office is currently investigating Islamists’ leaked plot in Birmigham to gain control of city schools.

The logical need from a secularist viewpoint is for more robust deployment of Ofsted’s powers. UKIP’s latest manifesto, meanwhile, promised ‘Ofsted will be abolished’, opening potential floodgates to a tidal wave of religious malpractice. (Perhaps on science teaching specifically, we shouldn’t have expected much: it also boasts the party, which ‘look[s] favourably on home education’, is the first ‘to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.)

3. What do UKIP votes mean for a secular state?

The 2010 manifesto further states UKIP ‘oppose disestablishment of the Church of England’; around the same time, their website added ‘and believe the Monarch should remain Defender of the Faith – faith being the Church of England.’

The web page in question is now empty, and leader Nigel Farage has publicly distanced himself from the manifesto, arguing that since he wasn’t in office in May 2010, its doesn’t reflect UKIP under him. (He fails to mention that he was, in fact, leader from 2006 to 2009.) Current events suggest, however, that change is unlikely.

When David Cameron, amid cabinet praise for the Church of England, used his Easter message to declare ‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’, Farage replied on behalf of his party:

We have been saying for years that we should be more muscular in our defence of Judaeo-Christian culture, and after all, we have a Christian constitution. The Church of England is the established church of this country. What Cameron is doing, once again, was really mimicking what UKIP have been saying.

What happens, as such a party gains support, to prospects for a secular state?

4. What’s UKIP’s record on religious sexism and homophobia?

The NSS has long made equality and human rights a keystone of its work. Many self-declared secularists supporting UKIP and other far-right groups, in fact, do so ostensibly out of commitment to these goals – in particular, to ‘save’ women and gay people from invading Muslims. Beside opposing key laws that safeguard them against religious abuse, then, what’s UKIP’s record on LGBT and women’s rights?

In 2012 David Coburn, spokesperson for the party’s National Executive Committee, described government same-sex marriage support as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’. In 2013, all but one of UKIP’s MEPs voted to halt progress on a motion in the European Parliament for increased provision of reproductive rights and women’s sexual health information. (The NSS lobbied for the bill; religious groups opposed it.) The exception was deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who appears not to have been present. Nuttall himself belongs to the mainly religious Society for the Protection Unborn Children and has spoken at their meetings. SPUC calls for a ban on all abortions, as well as numerous forms of birth control.

UKIP’s candidates, councillors and MEPs have furthermore called female audience members sluts whose place was cleaning fridges, called feminists ‘shrill, bored, middle class women of a certain physical genre’ and denied ‘the impossibility of the creationist theory’, called bisexual and transgender people part-time homosexuals, blamed floods on gay marriage and promised to scrap ‘politically correct laws’ that ‘made it possible for lifestyle choices to be placed above religious faith’. These may be individual views rather than policies, but is a party that attracts such people in large numbers good for secularists?

UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular by nature; there are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists. Their mission is in zero-sum conflict with those of groups like the NSS, in whose place I’d be concerned to have their members on my council of management.

Update 30/04/14: Waters has now resigned.

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