The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion. [Read more…]

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, warmongsters 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…]

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.



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 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.




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…]

“We find them everywhere” – fundamentalisms and BBC One’s Big Questions

Is The Big Questions a good or bad thing? Maybe.

In February, ComRes polled British Muslims for the BBC. Predictably, the more dramatic data points were sensationalised; amid the headlines, two interesting questions got ignored. How many respondents, they asked, sympathised with people who fought ‘against western interests’ – and how many knew other Muslims who sympathised with Al-Qaeda or IS soldiers? Results came in respectively at 11 (compared with 85) and 8 (compared with 89) percent, figures within each other’s margins of error. This might not seem much on the face of it, but depending on what further research turns up, it could tell us something about the human geography of jihad.

Polls have long shown support for groups like Al-Qaeda is low in the UK, but to my knowledge, no measure has been taken of how diffuse it is. To give an example of the difference, something like eight percent of people plan to vote Lib Dem, but that group is spread out enough that most of us still know someone who will; conversely, only slightly fewer intend to vote Green, but they’re less evenly dotted around. The ComRes poll suggests Muslims who sympathise with the Islamic State are more like Green Party voters, a tight-knit clique known mostly to each other rather than a fringe across Muslim communities.

Why do I bring this up? At Leaving Fundamentalism, Jonny Scaramanga writes about appearing on The Big Questions, BBC One’s Sunday morning show where religious and secular guests debate ‘ethics’. (I was invited on two years ago, only for the message to sit in my undiscovered ‘Other’ folder. Thanks, Facebook.) The format, to an infamous degree, is what broadcasters tend to call ‘robust’, never less so than in the political rows that, as Jonny attests, predominate. Perhaps because priests and imams aren’t the best people to consult on climate change, more blood is sometimes shed than light, such that it’s tempting to suggest the series be renamed The Short Answers. What about the guests, though? [Read more…]