On Stephen Fry’s letter and Russia: the oppression Olympics

There’s much to admire and enjoy in Stephen Fry. I respect his public openness about mental illness and HIV-AIDS awareness-raising; his articulate promotion of secular humanist aesthetics; his brightness and wit on QI. I respected, admired and enjoyed less his open letter to David Cameron, calling recently for ‘an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics’ held next year.

‘Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like’, writes Fry. ‘At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world. He is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.

‘… I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.’

Utah – yes, that hotbed of queer liberation where a third of LGBT teens are assaulted and two thirds harassed. 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, a contrast that underpins his argument. That the letter’s whole first paragraph, and the author’s extended treatise, focus solely on Nazi anti-Semitism as cautionary tale at first seemed odd – surely gay people’s own treatment in the Third Reich strikes a better analogue to contemporary Russia? – but by making Putin Hitler, Fry invites Cameron to play Churchill, boycotting Russia’s Olympics as Churchill fought Hitler’s fascism.

The comparison demands criteria by which fascist Germany in 1939 was categorically worse than England: while anti-Semitism ran rife in thirties and forties Britain, it never became explicit state practice, as was the police violence, imprisonment and forced labour which persisted under Churchill’s premiership. (Under his post-war government, convictions for homosexuality – in actual terms, levels of police harassment and violence toward queer men – rose four and a half times.) Fry’s recourse to anti-Nazism enlists Cameron in helping ‘save’ sexual minorities in Russia, as Britain loves to remember it saved European Jews, replaying on memorial loop its empire’s one moment of apparent heroism; an appeal to that moment requires a parallel of queer Russians today with a group the British state, and not Hitler’s Reich, accommodated at the time – true of Jews, at least on paper, but not LGBTs.

No wonder the letter’s language, ‘civilised’ rather than ‘barbaric’, evokes our colonial past’s kindlier and more benign pretensions, so wholly embodied by Fry’s tweedy, avuncular and hugely loveable persona. All reference to homophobia as uncivilised feels contextless: has anything, except perhaps religion, transmitted it more ably than the cause of ‘civilising’ dark-skinned nations? Our Prime Minister’s much-praised attack on multiculturalism two years ago advanced, as do the arguments of neocons like Douglas Murray, the notion migrants’ violence or queerphobia stems from a lack of Britishness; that they contradict nebulous ideas of our national identity, despite Britain’s exporting both worldwide for centuries. The binary division of the world simplistically into enlightened and fascistic regimes as deployed by Fry, then, doesn’t quite work – and it’s hard to avoid the thought much of the push for a 2014 Olympic boycott, as with the public outrage which followed Pussy Riot’s conviction, has more to do with posturing national one-upmanship than actual solidarity.

When three of the troupe’s members received two-year prison sentences last summer, condemnation swept Britain’s media – despite the fact British protester Charlie Gilmour had received an equally outrageous 16 month sentence in 2010 for swinging from the Whitehall Cenotaph, and anti-cuts activist Omar Ibrahim, charged with violent disorder in March 2011 after lobbing a joke-shop smoke bomb in Topshop’s direction, 18 months. (In the aftermath of the ‘England riots’ months later, Nicolas Robinson received six months for ‘looting’ a £3.50 pack of bottled water from a branch of Lidl.) Our right-wing commentariat blanched at Pussy Riot’s treatment, filled with that-sort-of-thing-wouldn’t-happen-here bravado – overlooking, conveniently, that it had happened and does.

Fry and the boycott lobby, similarly, have drawn much-paraded feelings of superiority from the UK’s establishment of same-sex marriage, claiming moral high ground over Putin’s Russia; they ignore that the same Act criminalises transitioning without your spouse’s say-so, that transgender and HIV-positive Britons are criminalised for having sex, that sex workers are harassed by police; that ‘cruising grounds’, the only space many people have for sexual activity, are continually surveilled and shut down and internet pornography, the only sexual resource or outlet for most queer youth, is soon to be blanket-blocked from British homes; that that it was only a decade back that Section 28, forbidding discussion of queer topics in schools just as Putin forbids it with young people, was on the books. That some gay couples can now marry here is no basis for sanctimony toward Russia, especially on the Cameron camp’s part.

Perhaps most interesting about the boycott demands is their overlooking Russian LGBT wishes. Two weeks ago, the Russian LGBT Network stated ‘the Olympic Games are a unique and powerful occasion for individuals, organizations, diplomatic missions, and governments to come together and voice, in tune with the Olympic ideals, the ideas of human rights, freedoms, equality and justice – regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. … The Olympics in Sochi should … demonstrate to everyone who is watching that the greatest athletes stand strong with their LGBT competitors and partners, out or closeted, and that together they stand strong with LGBT people and allies everywhere.’ Fry states that because he once visited St. Petersburg he knows whereof he speaks; why then does he ignore the statements of activists like Nikolay Alexeyev (a lawyer and journalist, by no means a fringe insurrectionary), who’ve called publicly for marches during the Games ‘to attract the maximum attention to the rights violations’?

Their argument makes sense. If Sochi hosts the games, it will find itself – as will the Russian government – scrutinised around the globe. Attempt to halt marches with police lines or arrests, and they’ll be condemned; allow them, and they’ll be pushed toward consistency in future. On the other hand, what will happen if the Olympics pass over Russia, as every Olympiad has since 1980 – and what will queer and trans* Russians have gained? Along with their victimisation, they’ll be erased from multinational attention just as Putin’s regime seeks to erase them from public space, and pro-boycott arguments including Fry’s exclude them from the conversation.

In 2007, African LGBTI leaders issued Peter Tatchell, much-loved celebrity activist, with an open letter. ‘Stay out of African LGBTI issues,’ it read, accusing him of distorting facts there to pose as the continent’s white saviour. ‘You have betrayed our trust over and over again. This is neo-colonialism and it has no place in our struggle or in Africa.’ Two years down the line, a book entitled Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality (at the time, a highly innovative text in British theory) went out of print on its publisher’s unreserved apology to Tatchell for a chapter titled ‘Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the “War on Terror”’; the chapter’s authors, Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, had criticised Tatchell’s record, apparently with consequences. It’s hard not to see similar self-heroising manoeuvres in Fry’s open letter and the gay press’s praise for it, their language equally colonial, their apparent motives, once again, more rooted in showboating than solidarity. If we’re really on the side of queer and trans* Russians, we should listen to them, not presume to speak vaingloriously on their behalf.

(Of course, I still love Stephen Fry.)

Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist

[Disclaimer 1: this post isn’t intended as a character assassination – I’m not sure it’s helpful to talk about people (as opposed to actions or statements) as being innately racist, and what I say here refers to the latter.]

[Disclaimer 2: I’m writing from the point of view of a white atheist who isn’t and never was a Muslim; I accept I could be missing something important, and I’m open to being told so.]

Pat Condell is not a pleasant man. If you haven’t seen his YouTube channel, don’t bother looking it up – suffice to say that if someone’s Twitter page claims they ‘make videos criticising religion and political correctness’ (as if the one necessitates the other), I’m not likely to admire them.

In particular, Condell thought the building of Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque, should have been prevented in 2010 – because Muslims as a whole held collective responsibility for 9/11, and simply being a Muslim, to him, means endorsing Al Qaeda. He supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, who feel the need to describe themselves officially as a ‘libertarian, non-racist party’ and who wish to scrap the Human Rights Act, one major piece of legislation secularists have on their side, alongside Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in science and sex education at British schools. (They also promote home schooling, ever the fundamentalist parenting choice, deny the realities of climate change and describe gay marriage as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance’.)

Condell says this of the nationalist, Christian theocratic, anti-immigrant English Defence League: ‘I went to their website and read it quite carefully, looking for racism and fascism of course, because the media keep telling me that they are far right, but, well, I’m a little puzzled because I can find is a healthy regard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Not a whiff of racism or fascism and not a whiff of far right politics of any kind.’ He describes Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who supports the government banning of the Qur’an, the deportation of Muslims and the taxing of women who wear hijabs without a €1000 licence, as a hero. (Wilders is fine, of course, with identical headscarves worn by Christian women.)

These strike me all in all as the statements of a thoroughly despicable man, unpleasant and unadmirable not least from the secularist point of view. Richard Dawkins does admire him, however.

When YouTube pulled a video named ‘Welcome to Saudi Britain’, in which Condell refers to Muslims as corner-shop owners and to Saudi Arabia’s whole population as ‘mentally ill’ and ‘barking mad’, then subsequently republished it, here’s what he said:

‘I congratulate YouTube on an excellent decision. Pat Condell is hard-hitting, but always quietly reasonable in tone. That some people say they are “offended” by something is never a good reason for censoring it. Incitement to violence is. Pat Condell never incites violence against anybody. He always signs off with “Peace” and he means it.’

Previously, his foundation’s website compiled and sold a collection of Condell’s videos on DVD, announced with the following comments.

‘RichardDawkins.net has now compiled the first 35 of Pat Condell’s videos onto this DVD collection, with an exclusive introduction by Pat. Enjoy this newly remastered collection, totalling 3 hours of video.
“Pat Condell is unique. Nobody can match his extraordinary blend of suavity and savagery. With his articulate intelligence he runs rings around the religious wingnuts that are the targets of his merciless humour. Thank goodness he is on our side.” ~ Richard Dawkins’

Mehdi Hasan tweeted this morning that Condell’s what he claims is an EDL supporter’s ‘hatchet job’ on him was retweeted both by Dawkins and Steven Yaxley Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson), the EDL’s leader. Dawkins himself had previously written,

Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.

(Fitna, if you’re unaware of it, was a film in which Wilders asserted that since parts of the Qur’an – like just about any ancient religious text – say violent things, all Muslims are by definition supporters of religious violence and deserve the pariah status prescribed by Wilders’ policies.)

A state which halts immigration from so-called Muslim countries, which deports and criminalises citizens specifically for being Muslims, which imposes exceptional limitations on the exercise of Islam, alone among other religions, and assigns all Muslims collective guilt for Islamists’ religious atrocities is not one any secularist should wish to establish. (We want neutrality, not persecution rivaling that of Europe’s anti-Semitic, theocratic past.) And yes, Richard, it’s racist.

Asserting that because Islam is a religion and not a race, one can never discuss it (or treat its followers) in racist ways makes about as much sense as saying that because ballet is an art form not a sexual identity, it’s impossible to say anything homophobic about male ballet dancers. Hip-hop musicians and immigrants aren’t races either, but commentary on both is very often racist – or at least, informed and inflected to a serious degree by racial biases.

KebabI’m an atheist and a secularist. Within the context of a broader critique of religion, I have no problem saying the architecture of public space, as a prerequisite for democracy and human rights, must be secular; that it’s absurd to think violent, inhumane ancient texts provide superior moral guidance to everyone else’s; that if you claim religious morality based on those texts should be enforced in the public sphere, you deserve to have their contents thrown at you; that the God idea is a bad idea; that Islamism is a regressive, oppressive political movement; that non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist, mainstream Islamic beliefs deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as any others; that they can and should be indicted for promoting sexual ethics based on the whims of an imagined being; that Mehdi Hasan deserved evisceration, not praise, for his article on homosexuality; that cutting apart infants’ genitals is violence and abuse; that subjecting animals to drawn-out, agonising slaughter is unspeakably cruel and religion no excuse; that going eighteen hours in July without eating or drinking is more likely to endanger your health than bring spiritual enrichment; that blasphemy is a victimless crime, and public prohibitions of it antediluvian. I am not ‘soft on religion’; I am not softer on Islam than any other.

But there are still ways to say these things that have racist subtexts and ways that don’t. There is nothing inevitable in facing a barrage of indignation from sensible people when you talk about Islam-related things.

There’s nothing racist about critiquing misogyny in popular music, including in hip-hop, a prominent genre. But if you’re singling hip-hop out as the sexist genre, or talking disproportionately about rap lyrics rather than songs outside traditionally black genres by the Beatles, Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift or One Direction – particularly if you’re also essentialising hip-hop as misogynous by definition, ignoring all female and feminist hip-hop – you need to examine your motivations and consider where that bias is coming from.

If you’re singling out Islamic theocracies as countries with repressive laws about sex, you likewise need to think about why. In the civically secular, socially Christian U.S., it was only ten years ago that sodomy laws (used against unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay sex) were struck down in Texas, and it was only in 2005 that the state of Virginia legalised premarital sex. In civically Christian, socially secular Britain, HIV-positive and transgender people are criminalised for having sex; in mainly Christian Uganda, gay sex is illegal. All over the Western world and the planet generally, sex workers face state violence, harassment and imprisonment. What sorts of countries have terrible, oppressive, violent laws about sex? All sorts. Of course we can attack Islamic theocracies, but if you’re not attacking them within a broader context – if you’re not discussing other nations with oppressive laws, and not talking about non-Islamic religious law’s use in policing consensual sexuality – you need to ask yourself why you’re driven to attack the religion especially and disproportionately whose image is most strongly racialised.

‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim schools for stuffing children’s minds with “alien rubbish”‘

Likewise, why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools when discussing creationism in the classroom, to the exclusion of other religions? Which choose Islam in particular as the exemplum of a very much broader problem? The British Humanist Association and other groups campaigned successfully against all (and not religiously specific) creationist teaching last year, such is the level of generalised malpractice in science education at British schools; a physics teacher at my wholly typical, religiously softcore and atheist-dominated comprehensive told my Year 10 class after explaining the formation of the Earth that if anyone had ‘any deeply held religious beliefs, this is just a theory’. In particular, a solitary network of 40 Christian fundamentalist schools (compared with 126 Islamic schools in total) exists in Britain where only a tenth of pupils deem Darwinism true – Jonny Scaramanga, who writes here, attended one and will tell you all you need to know – and according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll only 48 percent of Britain believes in evolution at all. Targeting Muslims seems curiously selective.

If the word ‘alien’ is one you’d use for creationism in Muslim schools, would you use it when discussing schools like Jonny’s – creationist, white-dominated and Christian? Would you, do you think, use a word meaning ‘foreign’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘not from round here’ to describe white-British creationists outside a recent of context of immigration? Likewise, whether or not you consider all Muslims ‘Islamic barbarians’, is a historically imperialist term for foreign people to be ‘civilised’ through conquest one you’d have been as likely to apply if white Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. torched the Library of Congress? As much as describing Nigeria’s Christian fundamentalists as savages or calling opposition to Islamism a crusade, using such a racially inflected word in reference to Islam – whose members in Europe face racism from the assembled far-right forces of figures like Wilders, Condell, Lennon’s EDL, Anders Behring Breivik and Stop Islamisation of Europe – is spectacularly tone-deaf, regardless of intent.

It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal. Hamza Tzortzis, theocrat, Islamic fundamentalist and the organiser of UCL’s notorious gender-segregated debate earlier this year, is on record claiming ‘We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even of freedom’; it seems conceivable he doesn’t speak for all of Earth’s 1.8 billion Muslims, nor all those who’ve existed throughout history, but reactions to the debacle from camp Dawkins suggested the same.

Tzortzis is an individual. He runs one particular organization, and espouses one particular politicised form of Islam. He has a name. Referring to him in lieu of it as just ‘a Muslim’ or ‘some Muslim or other’ suggests he’s as generic a representative of those 1.8 billion people as he claims he is – and referring, moreover, to ‘these Muslims’ (not ‘these Muslim fundamentalists’, ‘these Islamists’ or ‘this organisation’) as juxtaposed with UCL suggests not only that Tzortzis’ group, the IERA, are ambassadors for Muslims everywhere but that Muslims as a homogenous, theocratic and foreign mass are being capitulated to; that ‘they’ are an external threat to ‘us’, and that no one could be both part of UCL’s establishment and a Muslim. We’ve seen this homogenisation again since then, in the statement that no happily Muslim women could possibly exist – that every Muslim woman everywhere is beaten by her husband and whipped for being raped, and by implication that the experiences of Muslim women in Sharia theocracies are representative of others’ elsewhere who practice non-violent, non-fundamentalist Islam. Again, I’m certainly not of the view that just because someone’s religious views aren’t murderous, violent or theocratic, there can be nothing wrong with them – but to erase all Muslims except merciless Salafists hands not only them, but racists, fascists and far-right imperialists the validation they crave.

My argument isn’t necessarily that you have to mean this consciously as and when you make the statements above, but these are your rhetoric’s implications and connotations. Rhetoric matters, and when your job as a writer – especially a globally recognised, influential writer – is saying things clearly, it’s one of your responsibilities to take into account how what you say could reasonably be (mis)interpreted. An analogy might in theory be possible which compares the Qur’an to Mein Kampf without implying Muslims are Nazi-like by definition, but when far-right figures like Condell and the EDL insist with characteristic lack of irony that Muslims have no place next to ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, it’s absurd not to anticipate that reading; it might in theory be reasonable to say someone with a journalist’s critical nous is inconsistent if they believe in literal winged horses, but when Muslims are at heightened risk of falling victim to unemployment, a tweet which could be construed as endorsing discriminatory practice – with Muslims turned away from jobs just the way the EDL’s members would like – almost certainly will be so construed.

Two paragraphs back I mentioned merciless Salafists. Originally, the adjective would have been ‘savage’ or ‘bloodthirsty’, but it struck me that a comparison of Muslims with aggressive, predatory wild animals or reference to them with words traditionally justifying conquests of dark-skinned nations had unhelpful connotations – and connotations matter. If what you’re about to say has the potential to uphold racist or imperialist impulses – if it’s something fascists might end up quoting in their support – say something else or find a better way of saying it. When the leader of the EDL’s retweeting you, it’s time to rethink your rhetoric.

The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.

There are better ways we can discuss Islam.

There are better ways we can critique Islam.

Please, Richard Dawkins.


Why atheists need diversity lists: an FAQ

The other day’s post has done as well as I hoped it would – my thanks go to everyone who’s shared it. If you liked it and you haven’t shared it, consider doing so; not so much just to swell my hit count as to help promote the people on the list and spread the message. (Well, all right: partly for my hit count. I’m only human.)

Alongside being welcomed seemingly by many, it’s provoked a degree of pushback. To an extent, I’m glad of that, since if you’re pissing no one off you’re doing no good. There have been several recurring objections, as well as misconceptions or questions, so rather than address them individually on separate comment threads, I’m collating my responses to the commonest reactions so far.

I introduced the 2013 post by saying why we need diversity. This is about why we need diversity lists.


Why isn’t person X mentioned here?

There’s no particular logic to who did or didn’t make the 2013 list, beyond that I’ve tried to hew more closely to people actively involved in skeptical, secular, atheist, rationalist or humanist discussions – ideally, where possible, more than one of the above – rather than figures who just happen to be atheists. If someone was on last year’s list but isn’t on this year’s, don’t conclude I no longer want to promote them: there’s not necessarily any reason one person reappears and another doesn’t, except who came to mind first while I was writing the new version.

Remember that we have a comments section! 100 is an arbitrary figure, and I could have gone on listing people for a while – plenty of people deserve attention who didn’t get a name check here, including no doubt plenty I haven’t heard of, so if there’s something you think has been overlooked, mention them in the comments beneath the list. Self-promotion is permitted and encouraged!

Why isn’t person X higher up the list?

Numbers on this list are for ease of reference only – it’s alphabetical! (You might think this would be obvious. I did when I wrote it, assuming people would notice surnames ran from Ahadi to Zepf. Apparently not.) There’s no single criterion by which I’d want to rank such a wide range of people, and I don’t want the list to be hierarchical anyway, because some aren’t more important than others. They all matter.

Why isn’t group X better represented?

Good question. The original list in 2012 made efforts to accommodate neglected demographics, in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality and age as well as people whose professions or vocations weren’t (stereo)typical of our community – artists, musicians, comedians. In the end, I think the end product suffered – by trying to include all possible subgroups, I feel like I ended up not giving any of them enough space, so this year concentrated on gender and race.

I realise this approach isn’t problem-free. In particular, I’d like there to have been better representation of queer and trans* people and those with disabilities, and I recognise the absence of those subgroups is a serious issue. If you know of existing lists that highlight secular thinkers with those backgrounds, let me know; or, if there aren’t any, let me know whom you’d mention on one, and perhaps we can create a dedicated, supplementary resource to this one.

Why not make an inclusive list, with all the white men we already know about? Why exclude people for being white men?

I’m not excluding white men. White men, in case you hadn’t noticed, are not broadly absent from the secular community; the groups on this list are. If we want to take steps to include them, we need dedicated lists of relevant people. Why, anyway, would we need a list of names everyone knows?

The people on the list are suggested as additions to the speaking/writing/campaigning circuits, not replacements for the people currently on them. This isn’t a zero sum game where every time we discover or promote a woman of colour, a white man gets excommunicated. This being said, I’d absolutely support all-woman or all-minority-ethic speaker lists at dedicated conferences for those subgroups – and I think that at regular conferences, when there’s only one seat left on a panel to fill, James Randi and PZ Myers can probably cope if organisers want to include someone new or up-and-coming. Stagnation, after all, is not a good thing; if your conferences’ speaker lineups in 2016 are the same as the ones from 2006, with no new blood being injected in between, you have serious cause to worry for your movement.

But this is positive discrimination! Imagine if things were the other way around! Would a list of 100 people who weren’t members of minorities or women be okay?

Things aren’t the other way round. If they were, in a parallel universe where women and people of colour dominated our community and white men were a marginal underrepresented group at conferences, in our media and at our organisations, making a list of ones who merited attention would make sense.

In this universe, that is not the case. Addressing the absence from speaker line-ups and websites of groups that comprise more than half our species is not equivalent to policing that absence. If you want to imagine the list the other way round, imagine its context the other way round.

You’re lowering the bar. Promote people on their merits, not their gender or race!

Why do you think biographies are attached to these names? I am including people on their merits – I detail, in each case, why the person in question deserves attention, what their fields of expertise or interest are and what their contributions might be. If I wanted to list 100 female or minority-ethnic people regardless of merit, I’d have found Facebook groups for atheist women and people of colour and typed up the first 50 members’ names from each. If you think choosing people on merit means only choosing white men, you have some terrible presumptions.

The fact these figures are brown, black or female isn’t why you should know about them – you should know about them because they’re talented, interesting, articulate and relevant – but it’s probably at least part of why you didn’t.

The cream rises to the top! If they’re talented, they’ll make a name for themselves.

Do you honestly think personal quality and talent are all it takes for someone to ‘rise to the top’? (And by implication, that today’s white men possess them to a vastly inordinate degree?)

You almost certainly knew before reading the list of the campaign against Mother Teresa Christopher Hitchens carried out in the mid-nineties; of the book and documentary film through which he advanced it. Did you know that the film was co-written by Tariq Ali, and the book inspired by Aroup Chatterjee’s writing? We remember Hitchens effectively as Mother Teresa’s sole prosecutor, but aren’t they just as worthy of credit for tarring and feathering her as he was? And is it a coincidence, or purely down to his (admittedly far from minor) individual talents, that only the work of Hitchens – white, English, public school and Oxford-educated, perfectly placed as a media-friendly pundit in a still male-dominated press – is widely celebrated, and not Indian Chatterjee’s or Pakistani Ali’s?

We likewise have it on record from Richard Dawkins that U.S. publishers prior to 2006 felt nervous about picking up The God Delusion. Some felt America wasn’t ready for it, or that controversy would ensue, as to some extent it did. Was Dawkins’ manuscript accepted, over all the similar ones no doubt pitched to publishers in prior years, purely on his merits as a writer and thinker? Or were publishers also encouraged by his status as a prominent world academic with a record of successful popular writing, whose book was guaranteed to sell (profitably, if not in the huge numbers it ultimately did)? And did Dawkins’ status as an already widely read academic have nothing to do with his status as a white man from a wealthy family? One record, once again, he’s credited his studying at Oxford with moulding his life’s successes – Oxford, which only a year before his admission had banned women from compromising more than a fifth of the student body, and which he reached largely through attending an all boys’ school that remained so till 1990 and currently charges £163,155 for seven years of day attendance and £204,240 for boarders. (For those unaware, only seven percent of British children – but consistently around half of students at Oxford and Cambridge – attend private schools.)

Hitchens’ background was eminently similar, and in fact they even attended the same Oxford college. Whatever the scope of their talent or efforts, to claim there were no other factors in their success is ridiculous; do you imagine there were no equally hardworking or gifted people who might have become secular leaders, had their gender, race and class not denied them Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ advantages? There certainly were – some of them are on this list. To accuse me of giving them a special ‘leg-up’ on account of their genders and races ignores all the legs-up our white male leaders have often had on account of theirs, for which lists like this only compensate.

But I haven’t heard of these people!

Is that a bad thing? To let you in on a secret, I hadn’t heard of most of them till I did research, and – guess what? – I’m glad I do now. I feel enriched for having discovered Myra Zepf’s columns, Victoria Gugenheim’s body art, Azita Chellappoo’s blog, Michael Brooks’ thoughts about science as a brand (to pick four examples from the crop). As Hemant Mehta said at Friendly Atheist on sharing the list, it’s like finding hidden treasure.

Fame to date, again, isn’t the only measure of merit or skill – and be aware that you’re in danger of furthering a vicious cycle: the reason you haven’t heard of someone may in large part be that others weren’t willing to book or promote an unknown. Everyone, even the superstars we’ve all heard speak a hundred times, was unknown at some point; I know I’m not alone in saying that on leaving a conference, the highlight which sticks in my mind is often someone I didn’t previously know, and the break you give somebody might turn out to be their big break.

It’s true that big names fill seats, but so do catchy titles, interesting topics and fresh perspectives. Moreover, as someone who’s organised these kind of events, the number of seats filled isn’t always most important: would you rather pack a lecture theatre out and have your audience hear a well-known speaker say what they always say, before trundling to the programme’s next event, or fill only half the seats for an event which goes viral on YouTube, raises the profile of your conference through word of mouth or thoroughly informs your community’s future discussions? Only approaching the biggest names can actually hinder you – offered the choice between a conference where the 100 people on the list were speaking, or one where I’d seen all the speakers before plenty of times, I know which I’d rather attend.

100 of Britain and Ireland’s secular thinkers you should know about, who aren’t white men


One of my most prominent blogs in the early part of my writing history was a list of 100 atheists in Britain who weren’t old, white, privileged straight men – atheists, that is to say, who didn’t fit the stereotyped image of atheism. Some months back, I was asked on Twitter to produce an updated version.

The 2013 list has a few key differences. First of all, over two thirds of people on it are new entries, who didn’t appear in last year’s edition, and the list is significantly female-dominated; where last year’s referred just to atheists, this year’s names are ‘secular thinkers’ more widely – atheists, secularists, skeptics, science communicators, humanists, rationalists etc. All of them have something to say, I think, on the kinds of themes we tend to discuss. ‘Britain’ in this context means the British Isles, i.e. the UK and Ireland: My original reason for writing an all-British list was that the names which often appear on lists like these are U.S.-based, and out of travelling range for UK meeting groups, conference organisers and so on – but clearly, this doesn’t apply to Ireland. (My previous reference to Ireland as part of the British Isles ignored that the term is contentious – I wasn’t aware of the objections to it at the time, but have since been informed.) Similarly, one or two people mentioned either reside abroad but within easy travelling distance of Britain or live further afield but are here often enough to be caught during visits. Contact details – Twitter handles, message forms on websites and email addresses – appear by most entries; the latter were all publicly viewable by Google search, and several people’s addresses aren’t listen here but are known to me privately. A few individuals have no contact listings at all, but I’ve a good idea of how to get in touch with them.

Why do we need a list like this? For lots of reasons, but two in particular.

The first is that if the status quo is allowed to persist, we’ll remain as incomplete a movement as I believe we already are. This is true in representational terms as much as anything: if secular discourse (in practical terms, the makeup of speakers at our conferences, writers for our media, figureheads from our organisations) continues to be dominated by figures like AC Grayling, Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins – people with very similar backgrounds and very similar lives – the stereotypes will not go away: our public image will remain a grey-haired, wealthy, white, straight and cismale one. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with being white or male (I should know), but if white men are the representatives of the secular community, it means staying an isolated, largely male, largely monoethnic community where most of humanity is un- or underrepresented. That has serious consequences for our outreach and effectiveness.

It has implications, too, for the theoretical completeness of our discussions. If we want to charge religion with maltreatment of women, we need women to be part of the conversation; if we want to discuss how easy or hard being a UK atheist is, we need not just to consider the lives of middle class, white atheists; if we want to build a politics of church and state that’s thorough and well-conceived, we need to pay attention to secularist issues in Iran, Israel, Pakistan, India, Nigeria. Face it: grasping the topics at hand and building a stronger community which understands them properly requires listening and paying attention to a wider range of people, and that requires not letting our conferences, our magazines, our organisations or our campaigns remain largely the preserve of the same white men. I’ve said this before to friends and colleagues, and seen them shrug off the absence of women or anyone non-white from their proceedings – saying they tried, or that they didn’t know who to consult or invite. That is a single-use excuse. If you’re looking at this page, you’re looking at a list of 100 people who aren’t white men and whom you should read, quote, discuss, consult, recommend or invite to speak to your group. You no longer get to say you couldn’t find any.

The second reason is the more emotional one: individually, everybody on this list deserves your attention. It’s a typical reactionary response to posts like this that making efforts to widen participation means ‘lowering the bar’, letting standards slip to include less qualified individuals for tokenising reasons (because, of course, only white men are ever sufficiently qualified or possessed of real skill). I refuse to accept I’m lowering any standards, because the people listed below all easily meet them: I’m not saying to take notice of them despite them being less interesting or engaging than Grayling or Dawkins – God knows, I think we’ve heard what both of them have to say several dozen times – I’m saying if you haven’t taken notice of them, it’s despite the fact they’re at least as interesting and engaging. This isn’t about ‘special treatment’; it’s about undoing the tunnel vision a movement dominated by the same few recurring pale males creates.

THE LIST (Read the FAQs here.)

1. Mina Ahadi set up the German Council of Ex-Muslims, and now lives under police protection. She’s a campaigner against stoning (with the International Committee Against Executions) and for separation of church and state, given an award by the National Secular Society six years ago. Since then she’s appeared at numerous events and conferences in Britain, especially those organised by One Law For All. [Email her]

2. Tariq Ali is a historian, and writes for the Guardian. He was brought up as an atheist in Pakistan, and his writing should be mandatory for anyone who wants to discuss Islam – either historically or post-9/11, from Obama’s foreign policy to Innocence of Muslims last year. Remember Hell’s Angel too, the Christopher Hitchens documentary on Mother Teresa? Tariq Ali co-wrote it with him, and he put the knife into Benedict XVI for good measure some years later. [Email him]

3. Bisi Alimi was the first person ever to come out on Nigerian television – prompting him to be beaten by police, abandoned by family and made redundant. He now lives in London, where he often speaks publicly (including last autumn at LSE) and writes in various places; last year, he made the Independent’s ‘Pink List’ of influential LGBT figures. While he doesn’t go with the label ‘atheist’, he does support secularism and recorded a non-religious segment for 4thought.tv last month, discussing whether we still need Pride. [Email him] [Tweet him]

4. Jim Al-Khalili, now President of the British Humanist Association, is a physicist and self-proclaimed ‘cuddly atheist’. (I’m perhaps not one myself, but I do appreciate why those people are needed.) See his appearances on The Pod Delusion since being appointed, as well as his interview with Rowan Williams and his Radio Four programme The Life Scientific – or, alternatively, look up his record of anti-creationist campaigning. [Email him] [Message him] [Tweet him]

5. Helen Arney describes herself as a comedian, presenter, songwriter and geek. She’s been on 4thought.tv discussingChristmas, having also performed an ‘animal habits’ love song at the Rationalist Association’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People a year or two back. She’s sold out in the West End and at the Edinburgh Fringe with the science-based comdey show Festival of the Spoken Nerd, and she co-presents the Discovery Channel’s pop science show You Have Been Warned. [Email her] [Tweet her]

6. Gemma Arrowsmith ’tweets about science and science fiction’, and pokes comic fun at woo on YouTube. Along with Arney and several others on this list, she performed at the Central London Humanist Group’s Stand Up For Darwin event. For those interested, she was also in BBC One’s Merlin. (Not a great skeptical or secular achievement, I know – but it’s Merlin, and we’re a geek community, right?)  [Email her] [Tweet her]

7. Clive Aruede is the organiser of London Black Atheists, part of the Central London Humanist Group and a contributing member of the Apostasy Project. He’s written on the Rationalist Association site about his deconversion experience – he trained and served as a Eucharistic minister in the Catholic Church and, challenged by his children, told his entire mailing list about his loss of faith when he stopped believing. [Email London Black Atheists] [Tweet London Black Atheists]

8. Ivana Bacik, Irish Labour Party Senator for Dublin University, prominent abortion rights advocate and feminist – once dubbed ‘Labour’s queen of political correctness’ in her native press – spoke this year at Atheist Ireland’s Empowering Women Through Secularism conference, after laying very publicly into Catholic bishops. As one of their members (the only Irish parliamentarian who is) she was a keynote speaker at the 2011 World Atheist Convention as well as their inaugural meeting, working in her spare time as a barrister and professor of criminal law who teaches feminist theory. Do not mess with this woman. [Email her] [Tweet her]

9. Marianne Baker has a PhD in cancer research; she’s a feminist, and atheist, an intactivist and, according to her Twitter page, other -ists. She’s guest-posted on Martin Robbins’ Lay Scientist blog at the Guardiancontributed to The Pod Delusion and blogs on various skeptical and atheist topics. You’ve heard of Elevatorgate, but have you heard of Liftgate 2013? Her post about it made me think about where boundaries should be set. [Tweet her]

10. Siana Bangura spent time living with the Amish for a Channel 4 series of that name, in which she ended up, in her own words, getting burned and encountering racism from children; she’s written about black atheism, and spoken about leaving religion on 4thought.tv too. On top of that, she’s a hell of a journalist – see her recent interview with Terence Stamp. Beyond secularity, she’s also coordinating No Fly on the Wall, a site for new feminist perspectives – you can find it in my blogroll.  [Tweet her]

11. Adam Barnett is a journalism student, part of the British Council of Ex-Muslims and One Law For All’s Research Coordinator. Earlier this year, he was one of the two men who caused trouble at Hamza Tzortzis’ segregated UCL debate by sitting in the women’s section (Tzortzis’ organisation, the IERA, used private security to enforce the rules). He also routinely battles racists and fascists, having co-authored OLFA’s report Enemies Not Allies: the Far-Right, and blasted Robert Spencer afterward for his response. [Email him] [Tweet him]

12. Alice Bell is a Guardian science blogger. She writes on sciencepolitics and public policy, both there and at the New Left Project, where she’s an Editor. She tweets on atheism and is a research fellow at the University of Sussex; other interests include science online, young people’s relationship with it and children’s literature. (That last theme appears several times on this list – could it, perhaps, make for an interesting secular parents’ panel discussion?) [Email her] [Tweet her]

13. Sian Berry is a Green Party politician, their candidate for the London mayoralty in 2008, a campaigner for environmentally friendly transport in British cities and an atheist Distinguished Supporter of the BHA. She supported the Atheist Bus Campaign and contributed to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas the following year, and signed the letter opposing the Pope’s 2010 state visit the UK after that. [Email her] [Tweet her]

14. Susan Blackmore’s name should be familiar. In the UK she’s another of the BHA’s supporters; stateside, a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Consulting Editor at Skeptical Inquirer. See her incredible talks on YouTube about neurologypsychology and memetics, or read her Guardian columns on science and religion. Intriguingly, she also received plastic surgery on her right from Archibald McIndoe as a child, pioneer of facial reconstruction in the Second World War. [Message her]

15. Michael Brooks, a quantum physicist, has a column there too and published a book last year entitled Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science; some of its ideas on science communication are laid out in his talk at last year’s Learning Without Frontiers conference. He writes regularly for New Statesman and has badgered Britain’s most woo-loving MP, David Tredinnick, really quite admirably. [Message him] [Tweet him]

16. Joanna Bryson works on computer science at the University of Bath. She’s presented talks on ‘The Ethics of Conscious Robots’, both to Bath’s and Cardiff’s branches of Skeptics in the Pub, and similarly asked ‘Can Robots Be Conscious?’ at last year’s Skeptics on the Fringe in Edinburgh. I was busy, at the time, live-blogging from Christian camp; I don’t regret it, but I wish I could have been two places at once. [Email her] [Tweet her]

17. Aroup Chatterjee inspired the Ali-Hitchens Mother Teresa film with his book The Final Verdict: hailing from Kolkata, he and Hitchens were the only hostile witnesses at her beatification. He’s a GP, only too happy to detail the medical and humanitarian shortcomings of the Missionaries of Charity – indeed, he did so on the BBC’s The Big Questions tow years ago. He’s also appeared on 4thought.tv, discussing claims ’faith healing’ can cure cancer. [Email him] [Tweet him]

18. Azita Chellappoo is an Oxford graduate, feminist and atheist, now a Master’s student in biology at UCL. She’s written about the aforementioned segregation fiasco on her blog, which also covers science educationnatural history and animal ethics. (See also her one-shot Guardian piece on race-based access issues at Oxford and Cambridge.) I want to read more from Azita – and apparently we will, once her thesis is done. [Tweet her]

19. Zafar Choudhary, like Clive Aruede, is part of the Apostasy Project – you can read the story of his deconversion from Islam, together with his awe at watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, at the Rationalist Association site. Originally from Pakistan, he has a chemistry degree, is a qualified accountant and appears to divide his time between lahore and London, where he belongs to the Central London Humanist Group. [Tweet him]

20. Clara Connolly of Women Against Fundamentalism is an immigration solicitor, campaigning against human trafficking, labour exploitation and domestic violence and for migrants’ rights generally; she spoke at the 2010 Protest the Pope rally and has organised both against UK Sharia courts with One Law For All and against Christian fundamentalism in Ireland, due to its effects on abortion availability. [Email her]

21. Moheb Costandi’s Neurophilosophy blog is hosted at the Guardian science network. When he isn’t writing it or authoring books like 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Knowhe’s talking science communication for organisations like the Wellcome Trust – and specifically, how ‘brand science’ is killing public engagement with the subject. If ever you’re kicked off your PhD programme, as he once was, this is what to do. [Email him] [Tweet him]

22. Sue Cox runs Survivors’ Voice Europe, an organisation for recovering Catholics and victims of clerical abuse. She’s spoken about her experiences in the Church for 4thought.tv and at the 2012 Rally for Free Expression; in addition, she’s the founder (in 1995) and director of the organisation SMART UK, which works to treat substance misuse and addiction. In 2010, she received an award for this work. [Message Survivors’ Voice Europe] [Tweet her]

23. Helen Dale’s a lawyer, qualified both in England and Australia, who lives in Scotland. Her paper ‘A Plea in Law for Equal Marriage’ – yes, I know – won the Law Society of Scotland’s annual essay prize last year, and in 2013 she spoke on a panel at QEDcon entitled ‘Social Media and the Law’; I didn’t manage to get into it, but I now wish I had. You can find her other writing on the SkepticLawyer blog. [Message her (SkepticLawyer Facebook page)]

24. Sarah Ditum (rhymes with ‘item’) will be known both to readers of New Statesman and New Humanist as a feminist, a lefty and a science nerd. She’s written in the latter on forced marriage, 21st century British witch-hunts and the myths of diets and detoxes, as well as in the Guardian on measles and MMR myths, religious bodies in David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and, er, Strictly Come Dancing. Honestly, why would any self-respecting, talented writer lower themselves to writing about that? [Message her] [Tweet her]

25. Jane Donnelly is Atheist Ireland’s Education Policy Officer, and has spoken widely on the need for secular education. Recently, at Empowering Women Through Secularism, she also gave a presentation on secularism and human rights. You can find her writing and updates on AI’s dedicated Teach Don’t Preach site, which houses their campaign for fairer and non-segregatory teaching. [Email her] [Tweet her]

26. Pippa Evans, described on her website as a comedian, writer and improviser, set up London’s Sunday Assembly (widely dubbed an ‘atheist church’ in the press – she feels, and has written at the Rationalist Association, that this label acts as a double-edged sword) this year with fellow comic Sanderson Jones. See this piece at the Huffington Post for an outline of one of their not-at-all-religious ‘services’. [Tweet her]

27. Kash Farooq contributes regularly to The Pod Delusion - in fact, he was prompted to make new recordings when this list first went out. He co-runs Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub (he’s also, rumour has it, given talks of his own from time to occasional time) and studies astrophysics with the Open University; his shared blog, The Thought Stash, documents ‘science, skepticism, astronomy and whatever else’. [Tweet him]

28. Sally Feldman serves on New Humanist’s editorial board, and she’s a trustee of the Rationalist Association. (She also writes for the Times Higher Education supplement, teaches at the University of Westminster and used to edit Woman’s Hour on Radio Four.) She’s written prolifically for NH for over a decade – try looking up her posts on the enduring popularity of angels, why New College of the Humanities (AC Grayling’s private university) was a misguided, antihumanist idea and what the story of Snow White says about each generation of women – and on top of all that, she’s a certified humanist celebrant. [Email her] [Tweet her]

29. Jane Goldman wrote the screenplay for The Woman in Black. She co-wrote Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class and she’s co-writing X-Men: Days of Future Past. (Surely that’s enough?) Having fronted Jane Goldman Investigates for LivingTV ten years ago, examining a range of paranormal beliefs and practices, she was interviewed in a recent edition of The Skeptic, and hangs out at various haunts (ahem) in the UK skeptical community. [Tweet her]

30. Eliza Goroya is an atheist writer, videographer and photographer; her YouTube ‘self-portrait’, detailing the end of her relationship with God, caught people’s attention last year. She’s also an antifascist campaigner, who’s spoken and written widely on the far right, and as a graduate student in film and  theatre at UCL, belongs to the Central London Humanists. Our community needs more artists; we’re lucky to have her. [Message her] [Tweet her]

31. Wendy M. Grossman started The Skeptic in 1987, and remains on its editorial advisory board, as well as that of the Open Rights Group. She’s written in a hundred publications, often on internet culture and online privacy, including Wired, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. The courageously retro aesthetic of her personal site, while I wouldn’t dare use it myself, is also to be admired. [Email her] [Tweet her]

32. Victoria Gugenheim dubs herself an anti-theist, atheist superhero and public speaker on art and science: her science-inspired body art is internationally recognised – note for example her transformation of a live human hand into the head of a Caribbean Flamingo, of Lawrence Krauss into a Borg drone or of model Jessica Brown into a tribute to breast health, along with the YouTube videos which showcase the rest of her work. Her professional clients have included London Fashion Week, Nokia and the Black Eyed Peas. [Message her] [Tweet her]

33. Stuart Hall, responsible for shaping current thinking in politics, sociology and cultural theory around race and gender, calls himself a child of the Enlightenment in a 2006 New Humanist interview with Laurie Taylor, crediting it with freeing us ‘from superstition, from religion’ while indicting it for historical racism and bemoaning the lack of an Islamic equivalent. Speaking to Taylor again five years later, he dissects David Cameron’s much-debated multiculturalism speech, and interviewed last year by New Statesman, he takes to task ‘Englishness’ in political rhetoric.

34. Rumy Hasan is a lecturer at the University of Sussex and an author on secularism and Muslim identity around the world, including of the book Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths. At openDemocracy he’s written on the conflict of Islamism and Zionism along with Western consciousness and Islam, and he’s worked with both London Black Atheists and the Council of Ex-Muslims in the UK. [Email him]

35. Shaheen Hashmat writes a blog on surviving ‘honour’ abuse, post-9/11 Islamophobia and mental health issues – doing so with style and pathos. She’s also written on sex at Alternet (or rather, why she’s gone without it for two and a half years and what she learned from that), and is working on a novel based on her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim upbringing. Look out for it. I know I will. [Email her] [Tweet her]

36. Ruth Haydock is the secretary of the AHS, and the founder of Recovering From Religion’s St. Andrew’s chapter – the second in the UK, as far as I’m aware, and the only one in Scotland. A student there, she’s written on atheism and secularism for university publications, and as displayed on her Twitter page, she does a formidable line in knitted Flying Spaghetti Monsters. No, really. I want one. Now. [Email her] [Tweet her]

Haynes37. Natalie Haynes, comedian and writer, has performed in the past at the Rationalist Association’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, along with the 2011 BHA conference, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies’ (‘AHS’ – again, I know) 2013 convention and this year’s QEDcon. She moonlights as a Guardian guest writer on television and popular culture, as well as posting elsewhere. [Email her]

38. Vanessa Heggie is a historian of science and medicine at the University of Birmingham. Topics she’s covered at the Guardian include fad diets, the history behind Todd Akin’s concept of ‘legitimate rape’, ‘Cambridge University’s Victorian prison for prostitutes’ and arguing with science deniers. Conveniently, and perhaps not by coincidence, her writing partner at the Guardian is the next entrant on this list… [Email her] [Tweet her]

Higgitt39. Rebekah Higgitt, also a science historian (in her case at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum), discusses things like Jonathan Swift’s satirising of Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson’s love of science, the definition of skepticism and how to debunk astrologers. We sometimes neglect the humanities in skeptical discourse, but both she and Heggie would make fascinating speakers. [Email her] [Tweet her]

Hogge40. Becky Hogge was the Open Rights Group’s first full-time Executive Director, and used to be openDemocracy’s Technology Director. She’s a self-proclaimed ‘freelance optimist’ and keeps a site called The Barefoot Technologist, as well as having written on cyberculture at New Statesman, the Guardian and elsewhere. Nowadays she co-hosts the celebrated Little Atoms podcast on skepticism, atheism, science and other things. [Email her] [Tweet her]

Hoorain41. Sundas Hoorain, another occasional writer here, belongs to the secular student group at LSE which faced student union action for sharing cartoons from Jesus and Mo, and which said union also refused the right – for entirely nonsensical official reasons – to include ‘Ex-Muslim’ in their name. Her segment for 4thought.tv addressed some of this; a human rights lawyer, she’s also campaigned against blasphemy laws in her native Pakistan, and stood in occasionally for Maryam Namazie at speaking engagements. [Tweet her]

Hyde42. Deborah Hyde edits The Skeptic, and has done since Chris French’s tenure ended in 2011. As a lover of both mystical beasts and supernatural horror, she’s aptly named; her personal blog, Jourdemayne, details the mythology of werewolves, vampires and other such things, and her talk on ‘The natural history of the European werewolf’ was well received last year both at QED and Skepticon. Her day job, as a makeup coordinator in the film industry, is equally horrific. [Email her] [Tweet her]

Igwe43. Leo Igwe doesn’t live in the UK, but seems to travel widely and often enough that I include him here. He’s a human rights advocate in Nigeria working with James Randi’s Educational Foundation, with a focus on ending pseudoscience and child abuse based on ‘witchcraft’ allegations, and visited London Black Atheists’ first meeting this March to give a talk entitled ‘Breaking the taboo of atheism in black communities’ (the NSS also invited him to their Secularist of the Year event as a special guest). He was a speaker at TAM 2012 too, and has faced violence and arrest for his past work.

Ilesanmi44. Yemisi Ilesnami – proudly feminist, proudly bisexual, proudly atheist – can be found at FreethoughtBlogs since joining them this May. She’s also Nigerian, now resident in the UK. Beyond her blog Yemmynisting and her book Freedom to Love for All: Homosexuality is Not Un-African, she has a law degree, works occasionally as a plus-size model and has worked in the past for the Nigerian Labour Party and the International Trade Union Congress. Recently she spoke on the ‘Atheism is not enough’ panel at FTBcon, and her YouTube vlog focuses on atheist identity and LGB issues. [Message her] [Tweet her]

Jha45. Alok Jha is a Guardian science correspondent, writing both as a reporter and a commentator on science communication. He presents the Science Weekly podcast there, on which no end of familiar voices – many of them on this list – have been featured, and has authored The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World and How to Live Forever: and 34 Other Really Interesting Uses of Science. (He’s now working on a book about water.) [Email him] [Tweet him]

KamaliDehghan46. Saeed Kamali Dehghan is a correspondent for the Guardian on Iranian affairs and political developments. He’s reported on issues like Iranian LGBT activismcharges of sorcery levelled at Ahmadinejad’s allies, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s trial, theocratic law reformed targeting women and the silencing of musician and political dissident Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, to name a few. [Email him] [Tweet him]

Keane47. Jen Keane works as a scientist and web developer. Her blog deals with Ireland’s abortion record and status as a Catholic nation, science communication and the myths surrounding MMR vaccinationpseudo-science and alternative medicine. Earlier this year she discussed religious education on Irish radio alongside Michael Nugent and others; her open letter to the Always company, rejecting any duty to smell of lemon, verbena, roses or aloe-vera all month long, is another gem. [Email her] [Tweet her]

Kendall48. Tessa Kendall used to be a full-time campaigner with the NSS; now she co-hosts London Skeptics in the Pub, and blogs on science, skepticism and atheist strategy. She’s contributed on many occasions to The Pod Delusion, and she’s guest-posted at The Lay Scientist on Frans de Waal’s book The Bonobo and the Atheist. Moreover, she does quite a commendable line in secular snark. [Tweet her]

Kennedy49. Sinéad Kennedy spoke at Empowering Women Through Secularism on politics and acampaigner; she teaches English and Media Studies at NUI Maynooth, and campaigns for access to abortion with Action on X and Ireland’s Abortion Rights Campaign. She drew some people’s ire bycrediting her secularism and feminism to her Marxism (Justin Vacula, predictably, drew great pleasure from this), but personally I’m glad she did. [Email her] [Tweet her]

Khorsandi50. Peyvand Khorsandi’s written for the Evening Standard on Iranian fundamentalism and political Islam, and for openDemocracy on the Islamism of George Galloway and Lauren Booth, as well as multiculturalism and racism in online dating. In the past he’s also written for the Rationalist Association. He and sister Shappi, who made last year’s list, are children of Iranian satirist Hadi Khorsandi, exiled after the Islamic Revolution. [Tweet him]


51. Tracy King thinks of herself as a ‘rationalist with an imagination’. She’s clearly right to as well, having organised TAM London in 2009 and 2010, and produced the much-admired film version of Tim Minchin’s ‘Storm’ in 2011. She works in gaming and animation, consults in PR and writes for Skepchick (apparently as one of their resident Brits – each network has some) and her own blog on topics like Jewishness and gendered engagement traditions. [Tweet her]


52. Manjit Kumar once worked for Wired, and his popular science book Quantum won popular approval in 2009. He’s penned reviews of other pop science books all over the place – if there’s such a thing as a specifically science-communication-based literary critic, he seems like a contender for the title – and appeared several times on the Little Atoms podcast in addition. [Email him] [Tweet him]


53. Iszi Lawrence has skeptical inclinations, a talent for professional comedy and a YouTube channel which never fails to reduce me to a giggling wreck. She’s talked snappily about her non-belief in angels on 4thought.tv, been on The Pod Delusion here and there and also used to host Oxford Skeptics in the Pub, which is where I first met her. Sartorial. Self-declared sartorial influences include 1920s lesbians and Thundercats – as well as, apparently, manga comics. [Email her] [Tweet her]


54. Valerie Levey is a former Christian fundamentalist, who now co-organises Recovering form Religion’s South East London chapter and acts as RFR’s Group Development Coordinator in the UK. (Since we need more of those groups this side of the Atlantic – the London one was our first ever – I’m hoping she has all possible success in the role.) She speaks about her past in an edition of 4thought.tv from this April. [Email her]


55. Liz Lutgendorff is one half of the editorial team at The Pod Delusion, much-mentioned here and probably the UK’s biggest secular podcast. (Beyond her behind-the-scenes role, you can find her personal contributions here.) She’s an experienced Skeptics in the Pub speaker too, an enthusiast for the history of 19th century secularism and one of Chris Johnson’s interviewees for his project A Better Life. [Tweet her]


56. Brooke Magnanti, the artist formerly known as Belle de Jour, has a PhD in forensic science. Oddly enough, she say, people often forgot this when she was a sex worker. Now Magnanti is a Skeptics in the Pub fixture – her talk ‘The Sex Myth’, based on the book of the same name (her first non-pseudonymous title), was a highlight of this year’s QEDcon. She also writes regularly in the Daily Telegraph and sporadically in the Guardian. [Tweet her]


57. Nahla Mahmoud leads the Sudanese Humanists Group; she’s a human rights activist, a conservationist and an atheist spokesperson for the British Council of Ex-Muslims, who’s written for the Economist on apostasy under Sharia and on Sudanese politics for New Internationalist. She’s been interviewed on 4thought.tv and for A Better Life, and she blogs at the NSS website; recently, she’s faced harassment and threats both in Britain and Sudan – follow this link to find more and show your support. [Tweet her]


58. Kenan Malik writes a blog called Pandaemonium, often addressing race, religion and politics – if you’re looking for someone who knows how these things interact, keep looking at him. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, and he’s appeared on The Big Questionsworked with the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and serves as a BHA Distinguished Supporter. [Email him] [Tweet him]


59. Zoe Margolis is a girl with a one track mind, or so she named her much-noticed sex blog. (The phrase was a pseudonym before her eventual outing.) She’s also a BHA Distinguished Supporter, having spoken at their conference this year, and she’s written on sex education in ‘faith’ schools and sex-negativity in politics as well as contributing to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. Not wholly one-track, then. [Message her] [Tweet her]


60. Christina Martin is a former stand-up comedian, writer for New Humanist and the Guardian. She’s an expert in religion-based parlour entertainment, including most famously God TrumpsTop Six Jesus Sightings and the Which Pope am I? personality test. See also, appropriately, her discussion on 4thought.tv of whether anything is sacred in comedy – no prizes for guessing what her answer is. [Tweet her]


61. Aoife McLysaght is a geneticist at Dublin University. She’s appeared twice on The Infinite Monkey Cage, and given a talk at Tedx Dublin on ideas and where they come from. A friend of Alom Shaha, she’s also spoken at Dublin Atheists in the Pub about his book, creationism at the Giant’s Causeway, how and why we leave religious belief and its relationship with science. [Email her] [Tweet her]


62. Anthea McTeirnan is a feminist and advocate of reproductive rights in Ireland, who spoke at Empowering Women Through Secularism about Irish abortion rights. She’s written on the same subject at the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and possesses a noted dislike of religious fundamentalism – as, you would think, might any major supporter of abortion in the Irish political and social context currently. [Tweet her]


63. Terri Murray teaches A-level philosophy at Hampstead College of Fine Arts and Humanities. An ex-Catholic, she won CFI’s international essay contest on free expression three years ago, had had work appear in Philosophy Now and writes for the Rationalist Association site on veiling in Islam and Ann Widdecombe’s Christian persecution complex – the latter post, with over thirty thousand hits at present, is the RA’s most popular column of the year so far.


64. Maryam Namazie heads the One Law For All campaign, is a spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims, writes at FreethoughtBlogs and campaigns internationally against Islamism and religious law. Look up her contributions from QEDcon 2012, the 2011 World Atheist Convention or Protest the Pope in 2010 – in fact, just keep an eye out for her. She’s everywhere (including on this site) and she deserves to be. [Email her] [Tweet her]


65. Elizabeth O’Casey is an NSS vice-president (she blogs on their website) and human rights lawyer who’s also worked with the Center for Inquiry. She’s discussed child marriage and slavery at the United Nations, and chaired One Law For All’s conference on religion and the law in 2011. Back in 2012, we were also on a panel together on the aims of secular activism – for her, it’s strictly about church-and-state separation.


66. Musa Okwonga is a poet, musician and commentator for the Independent, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. When not writing about female genital mutilation or religious communities’ role during the 2011 riots, his passion is sport – read his interview for New Humanist last year with John Amaechi, first NBA basketball player to come out publicly, and, as it turns out, also an outspoken atheist. [Message him] [Tweet him]


67. Alice Onwordi has written shockingly and extensively on female genital mutilation practices, including their increasing frequency in the UK, at the Rationalist Association; over on the pages of the New Statesman site, she’s also blogged on body culture and British (anti)secularism. Beyond that, she’s worked behind the scenes in television as an assistant producer and in theatre as a playwright.


68. Pragna Patel co-founded Women Against Fundamentalism, on top of being Director of Southall Black Sisters (campaigners for secularism and against forced marriage and domestic violence) and a supporter of the NSS. She spoke at their Secularism2012 conference and that year’s Rally for Free Expression, has written at openDemocracy on ‘honour’ violence and gender equality and worked with One Law For All. [Message Southall Black Sisters]


69. Tannice Pendegrass runs Guildford Skeptics in the Pub and is The Skeptic‘s assistant editor. She spoke on the SitP panel at this year’s QEDcon, giving practical tips for setting up, running and maintaining a local forum, and has given talks at a range of groups on good, bad and ugly treatments currently on offer for autism. Additionally, she’s part of the South East Skeptics umbrella group. [Email her] [Message her] [Tweet her]


70. Fariborz Pooya, head of the Iranian Secular Society, campaigns in exile against blasphemy laws around the world and for the safety of atheist bloggers faced with threats or violence in theocratic states. He’s part of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, has spoken previously on religion and radical Islamism and presided at the 2012 Rally for Free Expression, managing a really quite expansive range of speakers.


71. Aarathi Prasad has a molecular genetics PhD, and writes on the science of sex: beside her book Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning Sex, her Guardian columns have explored what might cause a virgin birth; on Radio Four she presented The Quest for Virgin Birth, and on Channel 4 she fronted the documentary Is It Better to Be Mixed Race?, also appearing in the science series Brave New World and discussing mixed race marriages on 4thought.tv. In Prospect magazine, she’s also written on the history of slavery. [Email her] [Message her]


72. Hassan Radwan was once a teacher at Islamia Primary School in North West London, founded and run by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). While there he witnessed Salafist members of staff dominating the school, banning music and various books and letting out school premises to Mujahideen supporters. Now he’s a member of the Council of Ex-Muslims, who speaks and writes about his deconversion. [Email the Council of Ex-Muslims]


73. Farah Rahman is a socialist, a feminist, and a blogger on secularity and religion at Farahtasia. Her post about the death of her nephew and the media storm which followed the Woolwich attacks is worth looking up, as is her discussion of Amina Tyler and FEMEN‘s nude protest earlier this year. She’s yet to write much more, it’s true – but when she does (and it seems like after being on this list, she will), I want to read it. [Tweet her]


74. Saif Rahman, author of The Islamist Delusion: from Islamist to Cultural Muslim Humanist, identifies as a secular and cultural Muslim. He’s written for the Rationalist Association, and as part of the Apostasy Project, on the issues this raises and why he finds it preferable to ‘ex-Muslim’. He nonetheless belongs to the Council of Ex-Muslims and has founded the Humanist and Cultural Muslim Association. [Email him] [Tweet him]


75. Alice Roberts is Birmingham University’s Professor of Public Engagement in Science, raised Anglican but now an atheist – she’s not dismissive of the possibility of God, but sees no evidence that any exists. Her Guardian columns have involved scientific approaches to childbirth – she and Aarathi Prasad might have an interesting conversation – and she’s a BHA distinguished supporter. [Message her] [Tweet her]


76. Sid Rodrigues was the founder of London Skeptics in the Pub – which is to say, the original SitP group – and continues to run it. Way back in September 2005, he appeared as a panellist on the first ever edition of Little Atoms and has worked on its production team, organises the parodic Ig Nobel awards in London and contributed to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. Bets are being taken currently on what he’ll found next. [Tweet him]


77. Gita Sahgal left Amnesty International acrimoniously in 2010 over its relationship with Moazzam Begg and his Cageprisoners organisation; she’s written about it since for openDemocracy, and about religious demonisation of Bangladeshi bloggers. She’s an atheist and the founding director of the Centre for Secular Space, and has worked previously with the Council of Ex-Muslims. [Email the Centre for Secular Space] [Tweet her]


78. Angela Saini is a science journalist. She’s written for the Rationalist Association about Indian religious consciousness and other topics, and is the author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, which subsequently she turned into a Skeptics in the Pub talk. Nerd culture, it turns out, has gone global at this point – now, wouldn’t that make an interesting discussion? [Email her] [Tweet her]


79. Sarahlicity, considered ‘someone reasonable’ by P.Z. Myers (high praise indeed) is a student at Leeds University and vice-president of their atheist society. She keeps a blog on godlessness, feminism, trans* and other LGBT issues and politics. If you’re not aware of it, see her post on the UK Same-Sex Marriage Act’s treatment of trans* people, as well as her commentaries on cartoon censorshipatheist infighting and the Suzanne Moore/Julie Burchill transphobia debacle earlier this year. [Tweet her]


80. Alom Shaha, when he appeared on last year’s list, was quite a new name to me and probably a fair few others. Since then, helped largely by a whistle-stop tour of just about every Skeptics in the Pub forum in the country, he’s developed a much larger profile after his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook caught popular attention. Now he runs the Apostasy Project, is a trustee of the BHA and has appeared all over the media. [Email him] [Tweet him]


81. Rose Shapiro used to be a health writer for women’s magazines – that’s when she got interested in alternative medicine, later writing Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All. This year, she spoke at more than one event during QEDcon, and got a pretty warm reception judging from the tweets I saw. Listen to her on a recent edition of The Skeptic Zone podcast, or read her guide to quack-spotting from a few years back.


82. Labi Siffre is known for being a musician. You know ‘It Must Be Love’, that hit Madness had, or ‘Something Inside (So Strong)? Labi Siffre wrote those. It turns out he’s also an atheist – a movement atheist, at that. ‘Theism IS extremism: There is no evidence of God’, he writes on his website; ‘With neither my permission nor my understanding’, he told New Humanist in an interview last year, ’I was baptised and confirmed a Catholic.’ But guess which bus campaign he gave £1000? [Tweet him]


83. Vicky Simister is a feminist campaigner, founder of the London Anti-Street Harassment (LASH) campaign (she’s spoken on 4thought.tv about what prompted that) and was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. At the Rationalist Association, she’s written about being kicked out and made homeless, aged 17, for smoking, having premarital sex and ‘rejecting the Lord’, and laid out the emotional background and consequences as part of the Apostasy Project. [Tweet her]


84. Simon Singh fought to reform British libel law after the British Chiropractic Association sued him for writing that they promoted ‘bogus treatments’. They later dropped the case, only for him to be threatened again with legal action on criticising What Doctors Don’t Tell You magazine. He’s the author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, and has given no end of public talks. [Email him] [Message him] [Tweet him]


85. Joan Smith was thrown out of the Brownies aged for being an atheist and a republican. (She refused, when expected to, to swear loyalty to God and the Queen.) Now she’s a columnist at the Independent, an honorary associate of the NSS and a supporter of Republic, the campaign to disestablish the British monarchy; look up her thoughts on genital-cuttingfree expression and shoes, among other things. [Email her] [Tweet her]


86. Kate Smurthwaite packs one hell of an atheist bitchslap – so says the internet, anyway. When not bashing God on The Big Questions (she’s subsequently reappeared there numerous times), she’s a comedian, and political activist; she’s a member of the NSS and the London Feminist Network, and a representative of Abortion Rights UK. See her moving and incisive comments from the Rally for Free Expression last year. [Email her] [Tweet her]


87. Bahram Soroush was a founding member of the UK Council of Ex-Muslims, and is an Iranian-born human rights campaigner. He has directed attention to opposing the existence of the Sharia courts system in Britain, speaking at One Law For All’s 2009 march against Sharia for International Women’s Day in 2009 and its 2010 conference on apostasy, Sharia law and human rights. If you’re looking for ‘grassroots’, he’s a good place to look. [Tweet him]


88. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, as described in outraged tones by the Daily Mail, ‘is a self-proclaimed atheist who claims God had a wife and Eve suffered from sexism’ – and also the BBC’s ‘face of religion’ since 2011, when she fronted the series The Bible’s Buried Secrets. She teaches ancient religion and the Hebrew Bible at Exeter University, and has appeared numerous times on The Big Questions. [Email her] [Tweet her]


89. Samantha Stein directs Camp Quest UK, the freethinking summer camp focusing on critical thinking, philosophy and the scientific method – having set it up in 2009, she’s spoken widely about her experience in skeptical education, including last year at the World Skeptics’ Congress in Berlin, and she also has a master’s in ‘religion and contemporary society’. Beyond that, she writes a food blog in her spare time for fellow coeliacs. [Email her] [Tweet her]

image90. Hayley Stevens is a ghost, apparently – or rather, a skeptical ghosthunter. If you haven’t seen her posts here, listen to the Be Reasonable podcast she co-hosts for the Merseyside Skeptics Society with Michael Marshall, interviewing people with far-out beliefs, or remember the fallout in 2012 when she reported faith healers to the Advertising Standards Authority. She’ll be speaking at this year’s European Skeptics Congress, and she’s appeared before at Denkfest and Centre for Inquiry UK. [Message her] [Tweet her]


91. Lola Tinubu belongs to London Black Atheists and Central London Humanists, and she’s part of the Apostasy Project: read about her leavetaking of Nigerian Christianity and new love of natural science (‘Landscapes, earthquakes, continental drift, all of that – I’m like a little girl in a candy shop’), or listen to her [4]thoughts on the pastoral benefits of ‘atheist churches’ and the Sunday Assembly. [Tweet London Black Atheists]


92. Polly Toynbee’s nothing if not a marmite atheist, with a Guardian column that polarises readers, in particular her claim that atheists are better at politics. She served as the BHA’s president from 2007 through to 2013, spoke at the AHS’s convention this year, helped launch the Atheist Bus Campaign in 2009 and has written previously in objection to ‘faith’ schools and religious belief itself. [Email her] [Tweet her]


93. Salil Tripathi has over two decades of journalism behind him. He’s the author of Offence: the Hindu Case, an exploration of Hindu nationalism’s influence on Indian public life, and a visiting fellow at Harvard. In his columns at Index on Censorship, he’s covered the prosecution of Salman Rushdie’s readers, the blasphemy laws of Pakistan, pressure on the press from Indian religious groups and American shock culture around gay art; elsewhere he’s taken British libel law to task. [Email him][Tweet him]


94. Miss Twist is the cross-dressing ‘poster girl’ of Edinburgh Skeptics, who’s spoken at Skeptics on the Fringe about the purported workings of astrology as well as other matters, and whose blog details religious (and other) attitudes to gendered clothing. Her first name, if by any chance you’d wondered what it was, turns out to be Nanobeans. And there you were guessing at ‘Surprise’ or ‘Olivia’. [Message Edinburgh Skeptics]


95. Anna Vesterinen thinks internationally. She just finished a master’s degree at SOAS in international studies and diplomacy, and it shows in her columns. On the Rationalist Association site, she writes about competing atheist identities, religious censorship and free expression, as well the status of blasphemy around the globe – in countries Greece, Indonesia and Poland, for example. [Email her]


96. Judith Walker is the Rationalist Association’s secretary, but moreover, a cartoonist – both when satirising religion for New Humanist (in addition to her RA post, she’s their magazine’s Business Director) and previously at the magazine Duck Soup (she founded it) as well as the women’s section of The Sun. Her ‘atheist censorship‘ illustration, in particular, is one personal favourite of mine. [Messsage her] [Tweet her]


97. Anne Marie Waters, colleague of Maryam Namazie at the One Law For All campaign, is a human rights lawyer and council member at the NSS, where she blogs regularly. She’s spoken widely (including at Empowering Women Through Secularism and the 2011 World Atheist Convention) on religious practices and human rights, in particular the UK’s Sharia courts, and was physically threatened in 2012 while attempting to do so. [Email her] [Message her] [Tweet her]


98. Elizabeth Wilson teaches cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, and writes for the Rationalist Association; in the 70s, her first published article was for the Gay Liberation Front, and she’s written on feminism and secularity since. Her column on why atheists can embrace the power of Tarot made me think, as did her defence a few years ago of atheist ‘militancy’ and anger. I wonder, on reflection, what she and Greta Christina might say to each other. [Email her]


99. Nira Yuval-Davis is part of Women Against Fundamentalism’s organising group, the director of the Research Centre on Migration, Refugees and Belonging and a professor at the University of East London. She’s joined with a variety of secular figures (including several others on this list) to oppose the use of stoning in Iran, and written for OpenDemocracy, including on religion and women’s rights in Israel and the public rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’. [Email her]


100. Myra Zepf of Northern Ireland is a children’s author, contributor to the Gaelic language magazine An tUltach and writes on secular parenting for the Rationalist Association with talent and style. (Have a look at her atheist survival guides for Christmas and Easter, or find out why she hates the Little Red Hen.) On top of this, her quirky Pinterest page is a delight. [Tweet her]

More creationism at the Keswick Convention

Remember the ‘Scale model of Noah’s ark‘ creationist exhibit, from this time last year in my hometown?

The Keswick Convention is in full swing again, and a friend just linked me to this footage from the local marketplace.

Watch out for more young earth creationism, threats of Hell, the blood of Jesus and salvos against gay sex, unmarried sex and internet porn. (None of these, of course, are any different from lying or stealing.) Richard Dawkins gets a mention, as he always does, and there’s a happier ending than you might expect, even if I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

[Edit: it turns out the preacher here is Dale Mcalpine, who ended up in hot water three years ago over similar events.]

A transcript follows. I’ve done my best to get everything, but there are words I can’t make out; if you catch them, or you spot an error, let me know in the comments.

P.S. I should mention I don’t know if this was official Keswick Convention preaching, or whether (like last year’s exhibit) it was independent evangelism, capitalising on the religious hunting season.

* * *

Audience member #1: How do you manage to live your day to day life without sinning?

Preacher: Sorry?

AM #1: How do you manage to live your day to day life without sinning? I seem to survive.

P: See, this is what happens. When someone is born again, what that means is that someone is changed from someone who loves their sin, their sinful nature, and follows a lifestyle of sin – sin that offends God – to someone who loves God. [Inaudible] …how do I survive?

AM #1: How does the person in sin survive?

P: Well, sinning isn’t a requirement of breathing. [Inaudible] You’ve had your turn.

AM #1: I believe in God!

P: The Devil believes in God, so believing in God is not going to help you on the Day of Judgement. You need your sins forgiven-

AM #1: I know but I’ve got to get by before that…

AM #2: The guy’s right. [Pointing to AM #1.) Why would you have to repent if you didn’t sin in the first place?

P: -and the only way that your sins can be forgiven is if you’re soaked in the blood of Jesus Christ because the Bible says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.

AM #1: …how do I survive until then?

P: What d’you mean ‘survive’? I don’t understand your question.

AM #1: Well how do I live without sinning?

P: You can’t: you can’t do anything but live a sinful life, unless God supernaturally transforms you and makes your spirit that loves to sin – your nature that loves to sin – makes it alive and gives you a new nature. That’s why the Bible says if any man is in Christ, he’s a new creature. So if you’re still… if you’re professing to be a Christian today, and you’re still the same person that you’ve always been, [if] you haven’t been set free from the power and consequence of sin, then you’re not a Christian. You’re not born again, because the Bible says that you should be changed.

AM #1: Nobody [inaudible]

AM #3: You’re really spoiling a lovely day, mate.

P: God saved me-

AM #3: You’re really spoiling a lovely day.

P: God saved me five nine year ago, and he can save anyone out here today. If you’ll humble yourself, and call upon his name.

AM #4: …still say that slavery is okay.

P: …call upon the name of the Lord-


AM #5: Surely there’s a better way of going about it than standing on there and embarrassing Christians? I’m a Christian and I’m slightly embarrassed by the way you are doing this!

P: Okay.

AM #5: I’m a Christian, okay? I’m a Christian… she is my friend… I’m a Christian, okay. There’s a way of going about it-

P: Sure. And the way to go about it is God’s way. If the Bible-

AM #5: I’m not ash-

P: And the Bible says… the Bible says-

AM #5: I’m not ashamed… I’m not ashamed of what I believe in!

P: Well what do you tell people?

AM #5: I do!

P: Do you preach the Gospel-


AM #5: I don’t… [inaudible] God gave us a choice.

P: No, of course not, because you don’t know it. You see you can’t live what you don’t know, and the Bible says there are-


AM #5: So you’re saying I’m not a Christian because I don’t talk… you’re saying I don’t believe that God came down, sent his son down, and he died for my sins? You’re saying that I don’t believe that because I don’t sit there, stand on there, and go ‘Hey everybody! Everybody listen to God’? You’re saying that I’m not a Christian?

P: The Devil believes that God came down and died for people’s sins. The Devil believes that. So you’re still going to Hell on the Day of Judgement. Unless you’re born again you’re not a Christian.

AM #5: So are you…

P: Unless you’re born again you’re not a Christian. Unless you’re changed and set free from the power of your sin, whatever sin that might be, unless you’re changed anew, you live a holy life-

AM #5: Yeah, I do… [inaudible] I live a holy life, and my non-Christian friends around me see me and listen to me, rather than standing on there and being like ‘All Christians are like this!’ Not all of them.

P: But is your nice personality enough to save people from the wrath of God?

AM #6: Is yours… what you’re doing now, are you going to save people by standing up talking?

P: Is your nice personality, the way you live your life, what God says that you must do in order for men and women to be saved? [Continues]

AM #3: …you enjoying it, pal? [Aside]

AM #7: Yeah.

AM #3: I’ve been watching it from the beginning. Here come the police to look after him.

P: -preaching of the Gospel, the preaching of this message, is the power of God.

AM #2: You know you’re not preaching… you’re not opening the Bible once.

P: Well… [Continues]

AM #3: Can you not arrest him for heresy?

AM #7: Yeah.

AM #8: [Inaudible] Do you believe that science and Christianity can coexist?

P: We believe in good science, it’s that evolution and the Big Bang is bad science. Did evolution make a monkey out of you?

AM #8: So the two can’t coexist then? You don’t think that they can just [inaudible] each other and [inaudible] Christian?

P: See, science can’t exist without God. God gave us laws of logic, laws of astronomy, laws of thermodynamics – God set off these laws of science in motion. And when you reject God [inaudible] knowledge. See, because the Bible says the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. See? So without God you can’t know anything!

AM #8: Do you believe that Christians… there are Christians who can believe in evolution and believe the Bible?


P: …God, and they need to read the Bible, because the Bible says… the Bible says that God created the world in six literal days and he created a man and a woman from dust. He didn’t create a man and a woman from a pond life [sic] that evolved over millions of years. That’s not what the Bible says. So these people there, the theistic evolutionists, are wrong, and they need to read the Bible.

AM #5: But how do you not know… how can you not know… you know the Bible, in Genesis it says it as a poem – if you read it in Hebrew, the creation of the world is a poem – that is not then actually seven whole days. That could be millions of years, so God could… the evolution process that we know of could actually be God’s way of actually making animals? We don’t know that. We won’t know if he existed… so if God could actually have planned evolution, and you know, planned that… [inaudible] …like this, like that, and therefore things evolved…

P: Let me stop you there, that’s a fair question: could God have used evolution to create mankind? Well here’s what the Bible says: the Bible says that death came into the world through one man’s sin. Adam’s. Before Adam sinned, there was no death. So things couldn’t have died out to progress. So there’s a contradiction. Either you believe God’s word, that God created us in six literal days, or you can believe [inaudible] who the Bible says the wisdom of this world is foolishness. See Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin, according to God’s word, are fools. And the wisdom of this world is foolish.

AM #8: God has never mentioned Charles Darwin! God never mentioned it. He never mentioned him. What are you talking about? Is Charles Darwin in the Bible? [inaudible] That’s not true…

P: Well, I mean we know it’s true because that’s what the Bible says. And the Bible says that death came into the world through one man’s sin. The wages of sin is death. Sin is…

AM #9: Charles Darwin…

P: …before sin came into the world there wasn’t any death. So there couldn’t have been a process of evolution where things die out and progress. And people who teach that are in error, even if they’re you’re favourite preacher and if they’re nice people they’re in error. The Bible says that you can know the truth, and these things are written so that you may know them and have eternal life. How do you have eternal life? Through the blood of Jesus Christ. There’s no other way to peace with God. There’s no other way that your sins can be forgiven other than by the blood of Jesus Christ. Because the Bible says that without the shedding of blood there’s no forgiveness of sin. Your good personality, your good deeds can’t help you on the Day of Judgement.

AM #10: As a Christian…

P: Being baptised and going to church won’t help you on the Day of Judgement, because your good works [inaudible] If you have any problems with that, any questions about the Gospel message being preached today, I’d be very happy to answer all your questions.

AM #10: D’you not think that Christianity or any other religion is just a way of being, basically, scared of dying? D’you not think death is just a black, [inaudible] nothing? And that this has just been put on us, just ‘cause you’re scared?

P: No, I think that atheists are scared…

AM #10: No no no no no, I’m asking, d’you not think you are scared – you are scared?

P: I’m telling you what I think. I think that atheism is a crutch for people who are scared of Judgement Day, and they… they cling to the… the… the ridiculous lie of evolution in order to silence their conscience that tells them they are guilty before God, and that they know that they’re accountable because they’ve lied, stolen, looked at porn on the internet, when they’ve slept around, sinned outside of marriage. All sex outside of marriage of one man, one woman, is a sin against God. That’s what God says. Now that’s unpopular today. People in churches believe and tell us that homosexuality’s okay, they were just born that way – that’s a lie from the pit of Hell.

AM #10: Oh, really?

P: Yes.

AM #10: Really?

AM #5: Oh don’t even start…

P: [Inaudible] They feel in their heart, they’re not born that way. They’re not helpless. Homosexuality is an abomination-


Unknown sources: Shut up! Disgusting!

P: -sin against God! And Jesus Christ said unless you repent, you will perish, so… [Continues]

AM #11: You don’t have a busker’s licence – I am on the town council, listen to me. I am on the town council, listen to me sir. Please… please sir listen to me, please sir… you do not have a busker’s licence. SIR! You are now [inaudible], you don’t have a busker’s licence, you are not welcome in this town, you are a bigot sir. I am on the town council and I think I’m very right in saying that we do not want bigotry in this town.

AM #3: Hurray to the town council! Hurrah!


“May he grow up in Thy constant fear” – on digging up my certificate of baptism

Until last week, I didn’t know I was an Anglican.

In Britain, the Church of England by and large is an object of humour. We joke about its reputation for tea and cake, leaking roofs and village fêtes, its desperate, undignified attempts to be trendy and current, the notion half its members are private atheists. The latter always seemed a comic overstatement, but unearthing my certificate of baptism has made me question its exaggeration.

As long as I was seriously conscious of religious ideas, or indeed much else, I never considered myself an Anglican. While at one time or another I visited most local churches, it wasn’t the Church of England in which I grew up – I’ve only the vaguest memory of visiting its services at preschool age, after which I never went back. By the time I was sixteen, in any case, I was an atheist. It’s uncanny then, almost archaeological, to have found record of my Anglican baptism while rifling through old results letters and legal papers, a yellowing sliver of card from the first months of my life.

Its centrepiece is a line drawing of the churchyard, a man and woman gendered in 1950s dress outside its gates, arms linked, a boy behind them carrying something – a hymnbook, perhaps? – and two girls skipping in ahead, their angle of approach suggesting a separate family, their parents out of view behind them. The gates have been altered in the years since this was drawn, and I wonder if the artist (their signature only a subtle ‘V.’) is still around: the image speaks of a time when still-young parents brought their children to churches like this, when boys wore blazers and trousers and girls pleated skirts. Even if this was drawn the year of its issue, the artist must have been at least sixty-something – the current age of my parents, till recently some of this church’s youngest members. Asked to think of churchgoers, at least in a parish like this, would anyone born since the war picture such figures?

If you can’t read the text the image contains, the blessing underneath my name and the vicar’s reads as follows:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, whose blessed Son did share at Nazareth the life of an earthly home: Bless, we beseech Thee, the home of this child, and grant wisdom and understanding to all who have the care of him: that he may grow up in Thy constant fear and love: through the same Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The gendered pronouns catch my attention. Did female-assigned babies have separate certificates, worded ‘her’ and ‘she’? Did the blessing’s content change? I can’t see why it would, but nor do I see an existing need for ‘his’ and ‘him’. Perhaps ‘s/he’ just seemed too drily official, but in some ways this is true of the whole document. If only because uncovered among wildlife awards and first aid diplomas, this certificate seems jarringly unprofound next to its subject matter, a collision on bordered card of the ostensibly transcendent with the palpably banal.

What about the hope, then, that I grow up in constant fear? I’m braced for the objection that the full text reads ‘fear and love’, but I’m unsure that’s an improvement: if you live in fear of someone, I worry for you, but I worry much more if you love them as well. It’s certainly revealing though that here, as in this church generally, sinister details lurk in the fine print.

Whatever affectionate fun Eddie Izzard and Rowan Atkinson poke at it, the Church of England does not deserve its mostly harmless image. If its sheen of middle class friendliness has been eroded by its handling of gay marriage and women bishops, its years of misanthropic collaboration through the Anglican Communion have gone largely unnoticed in British media. If Justin Welby cares as much as he claims about gay people’s wellbeing, what does he have to say to the Church of Uganda, supporters by and large of its country’s Homosexuality Bill, smearers of queer men as molesters of infant boys with talk of ‘homosexual disorientation’, excommunicators of pro-gay bishop Christopher Senyonjo, boycotters of the 2011 Primates’ Meeting? Where was he while his predecessor, seemingly comfortable in such churches’ company, spent years appeasing Peter Akinola, former Nigerian archbishop and supporter of criminalising homosexuality – even defending his implied threats toward Muslims?

If this is a church of closet agnostics, it’s also the church of Andrea Williams, George Carey and Lynda Rose; of Nicky Gumbel, John Sentamu and Michael Nazir-Ali. In both confidence and influence, the fundagelical factions are growing – we’re seeing (or almost seeing) ex-gay bus ads and pro-life rallies, watching young Earth creationists gain major politicians’ ears while secular, pro-choice MPs are unseated in smear campaigns, theocrat lobbyists win unjust, unfair legal exemptions for religion. This church’s standards are as hole-filled and unsound as its proverbial roofs, and – thanks to my infant baptism, carried non-consensually out before I could speak, and in terms of figures widely used by the media and government – I’m one of its members.

Time and again the Church of England has brandished favourable statistics, no matter how spurious or unreliable, in attempts to legitimise its privileges.

  • In the decade which followed the 2001 census, we heard over and over that 72 percent of Britons were Christians, despite this resulting from an imprecise leading question and being wildly inflated in comparison with other national surveys.
  • After the 2011 census, despite the figure dropping to 59 percent and ‘no religion’ answers rising from 15 to 25 percent, the Church claimed victory – only for polling to show that out of those who’d declared themselves Christians, half never took part in any religious activity (including church services) and hadn’t read any part of the Bible in the previous three years, with only slightly more saying they explicitly believed in God, almost 40 percent never or almost never prayed, only 35 percent could name the first book of the New Testament and only 10 percent looked most to their religion for moral guidance.
  • This year, perhaps most laughably at all, the Church was roundly mocked for claiming four in five people believed in the power of prayer when most people in an ICM survey answered the question, ‘Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?’ (A fifth, as it turned out, were so wholly unspiritual even when pushed that they failed to answer or said they’d never pray for anything.)

I don’t think my anger at being baptised, then, is trivial or insignificant. When next the Church of England lobbies for further control of state-funded schools, the preservation of schoolchildren’s duty to participate in Christian worship and of its bishops’ automatic parliamentary seats, continued status as the country’s established church or any other theocratic entitlements, you can bet its many millions of supposed members – most of them inducted, like me, sans knowledge or permission – will be hoisted in its support. However the data’s used, anyway, isn’t registering non-consenting people as members of your church just wrong? As so many times before, I feel the spectre of the petty, whining atheist being aimed at me, but once again, aren’t atheists as entitled as believers to autonomy and respect?

So while there’s little I can do to reverse its effects, the Church having refused to discount defectors from its membership, I renounce my baptism. Actually, I denounce it. I denounce a theism I’m incapable of holding to be true, and any theism that imports existential fear, guilt or shame; I denounce a church which preaches that fear to infants, commanding them to love its imagined source, and which harbours and appeases those who’d deny me human rights or dignity. In particular, I denounce a church that takes ownership of children’s minds for granted, and which claims them as its members before they can speak.

Since my first months on this planet, to my recent surprise, I’ve been an Anglican – I was made one without my assent, and most likely will stay one forever, at least on paper, against my will. For that reason if no other, I wish passionately not to be.

Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly

How unjust it is that a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was announced even before its premiere, while Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s 2006 effort, spawned none in the years which followed its release.

The failure of Returns is largely mythical, despite fans’ recollection of it as a flop prompting DC’s reboot, as Ang Lee’s dismal Hulk prompted one several years before. While its grosses were modest rather than spectacular, the film made only slightly less than Batman Begins – viewed now as one of the great comic book films, whose sequels broke box office records and no doubt landed Nolan a production role on Man of Steel. On release, too, Singer’s film impressed most of its critics, and holds very respectable ratings at Metacritic (72%) and Rotten Tomatoes (75%). As it turned out, it was Man of Steel which reminded me of watching Hulk, a feat I’m sure no current production hopes to accomplish.

Plenty of substandard comic book films have passed through over the years, from Hulk to Fantastic Four, Green Lantern to Ghost Rider. These weren’t good films, but neither were they terrible films: if they were bad, it was only by dint of not being very good. 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. You’ll understand, then, that this is going to be a long post. (If it’s any consolation, it’ll still be substantially shorter than the impassioned, 17,000 word all-caps rant at Film Crit Hulk.)

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, many supremely talented people were involved somehow or other in this film’s production – from Nolan to Kevin Costner, Amy Adams to Hans Zimmer, whose score squelches immemorably along for most of the film, though not without its moments of greatness. (Still, I challenge you to hum his main theme ten minutes after you’ve first seen the film.) It’s hard to know, though I’ll try to dissect as best I can, what went so wrong – and harder still to know where to start, for the problems are legion and many.

In no particular order though, let’s consider some of the glaringest plot flaws.

[Major spoilers, I warn you, from here on out.]

Why does the black hole hovering daintily above Metropolis spontaneously vanish at the right time, and not continue swallowing the city? (Black holes, by the way, are formed by collapsing suns. They are usually much, much larger than this.)

Why don’t Zod and his followers, on retrieving their species’ genes, just terraform an uninhabited planet rather than Earth? Why terraform Earth at all, in fact, when its current atmosphere gives them superpowers?

Why do Krypton’s leaders, faced with impending planetary doom, evacuate only their world’s most dangerous criminals, bizarrely staying put themselves? Doesn’t it occur to them the planet’s destruction will free the prisoners?

Why is a working simulation of Jor-El, up to date with Krypton’s collapse and his son’s history, on a scout ship from millennia ago – equipped, no less, with a form-fitting bodysuit perfectly tailored to Kal-El’s adult physique? Why, when this Jor-El takes control of Zod’s ship to free Lois and Kal-El, doesn’t he programme it to self-destruct or fly into the sun? (Lord only knows what HowItShouldHaveEnded will do with this film.)

Speaking of the Kryptonians: given the scope of their terraforming science, why weren’t they able to fix their planet in the first place? And why does Faora, part of a clearly scientifically advanced society, think natural selection favours ruthlessness and individualism? Come on – this was debunked in The Selfish Gene.

Speaking of Lois, apparently a successful professional journalist, why does she leak her story to obscure conspiracy hacks when Perry White refuses to print it, rather than pitch it to another paper? If she wanted plausible deniability of authorship, why try to print it in the Planet at all? And how does she deduce Kal-El’s identity in a matter of onscreen minutes, simply by asking around? Surely Clark, having sacrificed his father’s life for anonymity and wandered off-the-grid around the world in the years since, would have been more careful?

When bodies fall through the air by the dozen in Metropolis, why does Superman only try to save Lois? Why doesn’t he care about everyone else? Actually, why does this Superman demolish building after building full of people, only to flinch when Zod threatens a family of four – and at killing Zod himself? (And why is he strong enough to break Zod’s neck, but not to break his ribs or inflict bruises in the preceding battle? Either their powers cancel each other out, or each is equally invulnerable to the other, but both can’t be true.)

Plot flaws alone don’t kill a film, by any means; while much discussed, for example, those of The Dark Knight Rises didn’t detract from its good reception. But the holes in Man of Steel are so many and so deep, the makers of Prometheus must feel imperilled. (Don’t worry, though. They’re getting a sequel too.)

These incoherencies, moreover, point to the flaws of David S. Goyer’s script, never fully possessed of its characters. Until Zod’s spine is snapped, the Kryptonians appear immune to each other’s attacks, making any battle between them a guarantee of extended devastation: surely, especially after witnessing this in Smallville – infernos, collapsing power plants and all – the first instinct of Colonel Hardy, or anyone(not least Kal-El himself) tasked with protecting the civilian population, would be to avoid the cataclysmic, city-destroying showdown of the film’s third act? Had the military characters had been written at all thoughtfully, they would have demanded Superman lead Zod and his forces away from Metropolis, to battle him in the desert or above the ocean.

Goyer’s charactering of Superman himself, as evidenced by his indifference to tumbling skyscrapers, lacks even internal consistency. He is the supposedly counter-dynastic heir to a heroic father, wearing his family’s emblem on his chest; the anti-militarist figure embodying U.S. individualism and the American way; the nameless pilgrim travelling the world to hide his superhuman powers, who nonetheless uses them at every opportunity; the noble, serene Christ-figure symbolising hope and optimism, who pummels enemies with hurricane force for insulting his mother. As to the latter, a violent Superman has comic book precedents, but one can’t help feeling producers overcompensated for the controversial punchlessness of Superman Returns. In a film which aspires to rugged realism, it’s a trap to make Superman himself a fist-slinger. A gallant, straight-backed hero figure – like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, a moral rudder in a storm – is if anything more welcome in a dog-eat-dog present day setting, as The Avengers so clearly understood with its out-of-his-time Captain America. When buildings fall and cities burn, Superman should care. To quote the Film Crit Hulk review,


And why did Lois Lane, for her part, have nothing to say so much of the time, despite being a professional commentator? As the alien ship descended upon Superman at the army base, I hung on a Whedonesque quip from Amy Adams, but as with the later truck-in-the-living-room scene, no punchline came – and as the daughter of one general, a fact stressed in her dialogue at one point, surely she’d have words for Zod, another? (A waste, too, that they never had a one-on-one face off. How much more interesting would that have been than the incongruously lurid dream sequence where Cavill’s Kal-El is out-presenced by a pile of skulls?) For all the 9/11 imagery in the film’s climax and its pretensions of real-world grit, it never makes good on its potential subtext of militarism and occupation, due largely to a Ms. Lane who fails in spite of herself to articulate anything.

Say what you like about the casting of Kate Bosworth, but the scripting of Lois in Returns was arguably one of the film’s best features. This was a woman whose journalistic thinking was foregrounded, even one who’d snatched a Pulitzer for a column entitled ‘Why the world doesn’t need Superman’ – who, even while authoring a contrary piece by the film’s conclusion, has moved on from him in her romantic life. He, moreover, actually accepts this, making no attempt to steal her back and respecting, by the time the credits roll, her choice of a new partner. In a film with a retro aesthetic, that’s a pretty progressive gender politic. Certainly, it easily beats that of Man of Steel, where Lois, her journalism restricted to reporting what the viewer already knows, kisses Superman for no apparent reason once he saves her life, and where Jor-El’s wife Lara, whose death seems to be her only role in the plot, loses all will to survive when her husband is killed. (Seriously, though: why are women in films overcome with desire for any man who prevents their death? Isn’t this a pretty problematic trope, the logical conclusion of Nice Guy culture, where women dispense love in exchange for benevolence?)

In a film which seems preoccupied via jolting, ever-intrusive flashbacks with the theme of Superman’s humanity, it’s the Kryptonian elements which dominate the story from its first scenes, their swooping alien lizard-birds as derivative of Avatar as the later kamikaze runs and terraforming Genesis device are of Independence Day and Star Trek II. Unfortunately, while front and centre in the plot, these are its least inviting parts – how much do we honestly care about the details of Kryptonian reproduction or what Jor-El did with his civilisation’s codex? (Why does he even preserve it, anyway, after determining Krypton’s society has met its natural end? I’m sorry. This belongs in the list above.) Michael Shannon’s General Zod is sadly no exception, a dull and pedestrian villain, not least when compared with Terence Stamp’s icy BDSM ruler, for whom the phrase ‘imperial leather’ could serve as a byline; it’s one of the Man of Steel’s ironies that as determinedly uncampy as the film sets out to be, Shannon’s character does nothing even faintly as antagonistic, menacing or downright nasty as when Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor attempts to drown Superman in his pool, Kryptonite necklace weighing him down, or Kevin Spacey’s stabs him in the side, tossing him into the ocean below. This Zod is as disjointed as his enemies, stabbing Jor-El with a concealed blade and clear, cold-blooded intent, then later claiming this wholly avoidable, deliberate act haunts him – and his dullness, like so much here, expresses the filmmakers’ misguided aesthetic.

The moment I saw production photographs from Man of Steel, Henry Cavill in costume, my hackles were raised. Superman’s literal depantsing suggested an approach to the source material where elements deemed dated, campy or ridiculous were going to be excised, as they were from the Nolanised Batman. But Superman doesn’t suit this approach, as Batman did. Attempting to apply it was a fool’s errand, because Superman, at root, is dated, campy and at least faintly ridiculous, the spandex superhero of underwear-as-outerwear, laser eyes and shiny-green-rock death. To cut the daft parts leaves almost nothing left – or at least, it leaves the joyless, hollow rehearsal that is Man of Steel, aiming for grit but achieving only grime. The trick is to contextualise the campiness so that it works, as did the Reeve films, and here I include Returns among them. Yes, as a love letter to the mythos it was more romantic than Serious-with-a-capital-‘S’, but on its own self-set terms it mostly works. (I still defy fans not to shiver at its teaser trailer.) Singer’s film has meaning, pace and poise; Snyder’s has none of them, and is a film in which little actually means anything.

As Richard Lawson writes at the Atlantic Wire, the director ‘spends so much time grasping for profundity’ with grandiose imagery and allusion, ‘trying to create a towering mood, that he doesn’t actually tell us a story’. Christian imagery abounds – Clark’s conversation with the priest, Kal-El’s crucifixion-pose above the Earth, his father’s salvific (if false) statement, ‘You can save all of them’ – but what does it actually symbolise? In Superman Returns, there’s a point to the Jesus comparisons: Superman is stabbed in the side, falls to Earth in the shape of a cross and rises from his apparent death because in this, a deeply melancholy film, he’s a hero who suffers for the world he saves – abandoned by Lois, forgotten by humanity, beaten, tortured and left to die by Luthor. The religious tropes make sense because there’s a logic to them largely absent from Man of Steel, and the same is true outside its godly moments.

The point in any adaptation when Clark first dons the cape and tights, stepping into his Superman persona, is a crucial moment of becoming – either as an embrace of his alien heritage, a vow to save humanity as he failed to save his father or the first step in a quest of moral leadership, it ought to mean something. In Man of Steel, as far as I can tell, Clark simply finds an outfit on a hanger and puts it on: there seems no clear reason he then makes his first flight, as there later is in Zod’s case, where levitation comes as a symbol of rapid adaptation to Earth’s atmosphere and soldierly prowess. Taught by his mother to focus his Kryptonian senses, as Zod learns to focus his in order to fly, why isn’t Clark takeoff-capable before he meets Jor-El? What this transformation symptomatises is completely unaddressed, and therefore so is the whole business of being Superman, beyond vague suggestions about hope and freedom. Past films have used Lois, especially Margot Kidder’s incarnation, as a lens through which to ask what Superman really embodies – but because the character is so underused here, the meaning of the Man of Steel persona, as opposed to that of Clark Kent, is equally lost.

Nowhere is this lack of depth more evident than in the Metropolis showdown, as tower blocks come crashing down and satellites are smashed. So much pure spectacle is on show here, and so little soul, that the single room of hostages in The Avengers feels more important than the citywide devastation as Kal-El and Zod duke it out. Beyond Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, conveniently character-shielded, and a single Planet worker trapped under rumble who appeared to have been created for that sole purpose, no one we know or care about is threatened by the Nagasaki-esque destruction; where Joss Whedon showed us the fear-lined faces of the Chitauri’s hostages or the scrambling of the city police, Snyder only shows us the bird’s eye view.

I’m sure that, if I went on, I could write my own 17,000 words on the faults of Man of Steel: it’s a flapping, squawking turkey of a film. Yet as it stands, sequel in the works, the film has already grossed two and a half times what Returns, a far superior film, managed, so it seems we’ll have plenty of time to keep up our complaints and hope the sequel’s an improvement. All this success, frankly, is enough to make me believe a turkey can fly.

Appropriation, erasure and historical revisionism: gay marriage’s hyperconservative origins, and why DOMA’s repeal mustn’t be framed as a secular(ist) victory

Since Wednesday, I’ve watched friends and allies either side of the Atlantic celebrating the Defense of Marriage Act’s partial repeal. On reflection, perhaps tellingly, the ones who’ve celebrated most have been my colleagues in the atheist community, or at least the part of it which keeps an eye on social issues: in the chorus of online cheering I saw Dan Fincke, Greta Christina, Adam Lee, Melody Hensley, Laci Green, Chana Messinger, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan and Ashley Miller, among various others. (These last three, I think of fondly as Miri, Kate and Ashley. Let’s make that a thing.)

There is no one listed here I don’t respect and admire enormously – and for that reason, I’m scared to publish this post: scared what I’m about to write will be misread, or provoke a fiery, personal, heat-of-the-moment reaction; scared that it won’t be taken how I intend, as a constructive contribution rather than a joyless sneer or an attack on the elation friends are currently feeling; scared, ultimately, that it’ll alienate me from people whose opinions I care about, whom I regard tremendously highly.

I’m more scared of their responses and other readers’, actually, than I was of upsetting the friends whose wedding I recounted a week ago. This post is almost as much to do with marriage as that one, because the way DOMA’s semi-dismantling has been framed bothers me; more specifically, it troubles me as a queer atheist how much of the skeptical community (though far from unaccompanied in this) has framed the broader gay marriage narrative primarily as one of (pro-)LGBTQ secularism versus religious conservatism.

Some examples. (Again, these are all people I look up to, whose work and writing I support and will continue to support – I’m exemplifying here for clarity, but I don’t mean anyone to feel personally targeted. I’m resolutely not throwing anyone under the bus, nor hoping to be thrown under myself.)

DOMA was a stupid, reactionary, medieval law. I’m glad the U.S. is rid of it. But the reason we (or rather, Americans) are rid of it is not that it was theocratic. Yes, the ideals encoded about queer relationships’ inferiority and the nature of marriage have been transmitted by religions extensively, and religion’s cultural footprints enabled DOMA as much as actual religious structures and beliefs; but DOMA, despite the extent of its religious support, was never a religious law as such, or in any rigid sense a breach of church-state separation.

Much more importantly, the rhetoric its opposition employed beyond the skeptical community was never primarily secularist: the language of gay marriage campaigns in the last decade is characterised much more by references to love, equality, progress, rights than by outright rejection of God in the public sphere. My region of queer politics, as will be central to this post, is generally averse to any marriages’ state recognition, and some arguments for this have hinged on separating church and state, among them Betsy Brown’s in ‘A Radical Dyke Experiment for the Next Century’. While I don’t wholly subscribe to her argument, I do maintain there’s slippage between secularism and support for contemporary gay marriage campaigns; the twain need not meet, and haven’t in most gay marriage advocacy.

The discourse we build around this issue matters greatly, just as it has for every other queer or trans* issue. Our sexes and genders, our sexual identities, the closets in which we’re placed by parents and teachers, our legal rights and our standing as equal beings or perverted sinners are products of language we use and narratives we spin: the history of queerness is one of representations, and the way we represent recent moves around gay marriage will shape future realities of queer activism, as representations of Stonewall shape today’s. I think the discourse being built here around DOMA and gay marriage risks appropriation, erasure and historical amnesia – actually, while I empathise with all forms of hostility to America’s religious right, I worry it already demonstrates them.

Framing DOMA’s neutering as a secular(ist) triumph invites us to view the prior conflict principally as a secular-religious one, where homophobic religious conviction fuelled U.S. law reform to forbid gay marriage, and LGBT populations pressed for gay marriage as an anti-theocratic project; it suggests religious belief to be the first cause in this progress of events, and gay marriage advocacy to have spawned in reaction. This runs counter mainstream gay marriage rhetoric employed in recent years, as detailed above, and I’d argue moreover that it inverts the historical truth. DOMA was not directly produced by religious belief or tradition in 1996, as religion tends directly to spawn, say, ideas of XX and XY bodies’ superior sexual complementarity. Rather, it was itself a reaction – after the fact – to contemporary shifts in queer politics toward the ideal of gay marriage, which owed little to secularism and much to AIDS.

To narrate the gay marriage project’s history before all else as a tale of secular(ist) LGBT folk battling religious rightists misrepresents the dialectic which gave birth to it, and had precious little to do with religion. Internal queer tensions in the years before DOMA, not theocratic heterosexism, were what first pushed marriage onto the gay agenda. If we want consider ensuing developments in the next two decades clearly, and avoid homogenising LGBTQ communities when we discuss gay marriage, I don’t think we can lose sight of those tensions.

Religious bodies at large prior to the late eighties only passively opposed gay marriage, because gay marriage had yet to become a solidified concept. What currency the idea gained during the nineties can be traced back to Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative who in 1989, two years prior to becoming its editor, authored a column for The New Republic entitled ‘Here Comes the Groom’. His central argument, still instructive reading, proceeds as follows:


Let’s take a moment, in case its sheer vomit-inducing nerve eludes you, to parse this genesis of contemporary gay marriage efforts.

Legalizing gay marriage would offer homosexuals the same deal society now offers heterosexuals: general social approval and specific legal advantages in exchange for a deeper and harder-to-extract- yourself-from commitment to another human being.

‘Including queer people in state marriage would give them everything straight people have – and why would anyone want anything else (or, God forbid, anything more)? – as long as they didn’t do anything socially unacceptable, of course, and earned the right to things like medicine and financial aid by giving up sexual autonomy for the rest of their lives.’

Like straight marriage, it would foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence.

‘Like straight marriage, it would make abusive domestic situations harder to escape and help keep poor people in their place – actually, it’s a really great excuse not to have a functional welfare system.’

Since there’s no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents, it could also help nurture children.

‘There’s no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents – only the married ones, though, obviously.’

And its introduction would not be some sort of radical break with social custom.

‘Far be it from beleaguered minorities to challenge mainstream customs – it’s not like anyone needs wide-ranging social change, is it?’

As it has become more acceptable for gay people to acknowledge their loves publicly, more and more have committed themselves to one another for life in full view of their families and their friends.

‘…what do you mean, “provide the data”? Look, everyone knows more people pledging lifelong monogamy to one another is a good thing – it must be, that’s what straight people have always done (and hey, it always works out for them). Let’s make sure only those people get basic citizenship rights and social support, and throw in some unfair privileges. People who don’t want to “commit” just deserve less.’

A law institutionalizing gay marriage would merely reinforce a healthy social trend.

‘A law institutionalising gay marriage would merely reinforce what I’m claiming is a social trend. Which, again, must be a good thing.’

It would also, in the wake of AIDS, qualify as a genuine public health measure.

‘Well, no one ever gets HIV from a monogamous partner! And married people, naturally, are always totally monogamous.’

Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.

‘It’s one thing being gay, isn’t it – I should know – but actually having more gay sex than strictly necessary or normal?! That’s the secret to solving all this AIDS malarkey, you know. Forget sex education, provision of condoms and clean needles or funding research for new treatments, we just need good, old fashioned sexual morality to stop people fornicating; same kind the Catholics go in for, and it’s never caused them any trouble!’

‘Since AIDS’, Sullivan wrote, ‘to be gay and to be responsible has become a necessity.’ Gay people needed marriage, in his view, as a mass form of prophylaxis: mere use of condoms and clear dialogue, of course, wasn’t an option – and in any case, was much less responsible than lifelong monogamy. These are the hyperconservative roots of queer liberalism’s cause célèbre, and to a great extent the secular community’s. Yes, right wing Puritanism birthed today’s gay marriage movement, but not the theocratic kind; portraying that movement as a secularist one, defending queer citizens from religious homophobia’s fiery breath like St. George and his dragon-afflicted maiden, ignores the fact the bigotry which prompted it began within the queer populace, elite, class-privileged media figures selling sex workers, polyamorous lovers and HIV positive people down the river; it conceals the uncomfortable truth that in this story, damsel and dragon were one and the same.

No doubt Sullivan’s willingness to sell out his own ostensible community earned him the stature he used to that end – at the height of the AIDS crisis, it seems hard to imagine any out journalist but a reactionary one becoming editor of TNR. As it turned out, he cared neither for monogamy nor for condom use; as Richard Goldstein described the debacle twelve years ago in The Village Voice,

Using the screen name RawMuscleGlutes, Sullivan posted on a site for bare backers (the heroic term for gay men who have sex without condoms). He was seeking partners for unsafe anal and oral intercourse. Sullivan revealed that he was HIV-positive and stated his preference for men who are “poz,” but he also indicated an interest in “bi scenes,” groups, parties, orgies, and “gang bangs.” This hardly fit the gay ideal Sullivan had created in his book Virtually Normal. In fact, RawMuscleGlutes is just the sort of “pathological” creature who raises Sullivan’s wrath. Hypocrisy has always been a rationale for outing, and it’s the justification for a group of gay journalists who teamed up with the tabs to expose him.

Some would call this character assassination, though one can’t help feeling it seems more an assisted suicide.

That Sullivan’s case for gay marriage (that is, the original case) was as regressive as it was needn’t mean, of course, that no valid case exists. But the fact the gay marriage project started out so divisively and oppressively has consequences: given its weaponisation so early on against the queer population’s most vulnerable members, it’s impossible to claim it unambiguously for that populace as a whole. Treating pursuit of gay marriage as the central or quintessential queer struggle homogenises us; it suggests it to be an aim equally representative of or accessible to everyone outside the cishet mainstream, when its history has alienated those from day one who lie furthest from it. To gloss the partial repeal of DOMA as a ubiquitous one-size-fits-all gay rights victory ignores that the campaign for it, whatever view we take of the end goal, always fit some of us better than others.

To claim it as a victory by (mostly straight) secularists on behalf of the queer population, to use support for gay marriage as a metric of queer-friendliness, to locate it as the pinnacle or culmination of all past queer activism – risks erasing everybody alienated from or othered by the project’s history, and obscures the sheer sectionality of the last twenty years’ campaigns. It means using figures like Sullivan and those not driven away from gay marriage politics by their influence as a barometer of the queer population’s priorities and desires, and not their victims, or the many marginalised queer people for whom poverty, the closet or the fear of violence will make marriage a pipe dream even post-legalisation.

One cannot legitimately claim the erosion of DOMA, or any ultimate achievement of complete marriage reform, as an equal victory for both these sides. Framing them as secularist, (pro-)LGBTQ victories against religious homophobia, beyond being out of touch with mainstream gay marriage rhetoric past and present, whitewashes over the cracks, painting the queer population as a singular, happy whole and not the fractured hierarchical wreck it really is. Presenting that whole populace as equally happy and liberated means presenting it in the image of the most privileged; the greatest conflict around gay marriage rages not between queer and religious populations, but within the former, as it always has.


None of thus in itself means gay marriage is a bad idea, or that no one should pursue it. But while we’re told scrapping DOMA marks the fulfilment of historical queer activism, with figures like Harvey Milk and events like Stonewall hauled out to suggest a long, hard fight for justice led by ordinary queer people, the truth is that grassroots struggle never occurred – and it shows. What victories are achieved won’t now be equal victories for us all – not for Sullivan’s HIV positive pariahs, not for trans* people told by the HRC to take down their pride flag or LGBTQs made to hide their immigration status; not for polyamorous people deemed ‘irresponsible’ from the very beginning, othered when activists and politicians insist gay marriage won’t lead to polygamy, so there’s no need to worry; likewise not for people interested in their relatives, who we’re  assured won’t gain marriage rights themselves, the disgusting incestuous perverts; not for kink communities expelled from queer spaces and events through bans on nudity; not for those of us unconvinced of the military’s heroism. For thousands of people, the gay marriage project’s ultimate achievements, whatever they are, can now only be mitigated triumphs – celebrated, at best, despite the cost at which they came.

Brendan O’Neill is a homophobe with homophobic intent – one quotes him at one’s peril – but a contrarian stopped clock is right twice a day, and when he says gay marriage campaigns are nothing like the Civil Rights Movement, he has a point (as any such indiscriminate hurler of reactionary silage occasionally will, if only be accident):

In order for gay marriage to become one of the most celebrated issues of our time, embraced by everyone from David Cameron to The Times to Goldman Sachs, nobody had to fight on the streets; nobody had to organise long and bitter boycotts of public institutions; nobody was water-cannoned by the authorities, attacked by police dogs, burnt out of their homes.

When bricks were thrown at Stonewall and San Francisco burned on White Night, gay marriage was not on the agenda; until the nineties, the concept barely registered on anyone’s agenda. Its passage into popular awareness and LGBT political centrality was triggered in the early noughties not by marches, riots, sit-ins or public meetings but by the celebrity lawyer Evan Wolfson’s establishment of Freedom to Marry, an elite lobby group powered by a multimillion dollar endowment. If Sullivan was the architect of contemporary gay marriage politics, Wolfson oversaw its construction; both are now heralded, instructively, as ‘fathers’ of the current gay agenda, and their role in setting it – alongside politicians, NGOs and the liberal media – illustrates perfectly that this has been a top-down project for the most part, fostered and promoted by elite, comparatively privileged LGBT ‘leaders’ and their straight allies, trickling down into everyday queer consciousness and subjectivity as the fortunes of the untaxed rich are claimed to trickle, much more than it was ever advocated from the ground up.

DOMAsolutionNone of this, once again, means it’s a bad idea by definition. But there are those of who think, incidentally, that it is; that inclusion in a legal structure like marriage is regressive and misguided, that assimilation is not liberation, that the state is not the solution – that serious reform and social change are needed, not just a reconfigured status quo. I’m not going to argue for that here and now; my point is, the argument has never really been had. Presenting DOMA’s half-haulage as a development welcomed universally by the queer population – or, moreover, as a secular(ist) LGBT coup against the religious right – obscures and erases the history of gay marriage. There has never, in fact, been a sufficiently serious, grassroots internal dialogue about its value as a goal.

Last year in the secular community, it came to light that numerous prominent women had been harassed at conferences. They shared and compared experiences, considering the available responses and reported what had happened to their readers and our broader community; eventually, this led to a coordinated effort for codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies at skeptical events, and for the most part it was successful: a plurality of well known conferences established clear, considered policies and took other measures to prevent harassment. This is exactly how social movements progress at their best – initiated and steered by the people most strongly affected, self-reflective and thoughtful about which course of action should be taken; it used shared discourse and collaborative dialogue to identify the problems, examine them and reach practical conclusions, which afterward were implemented.

And this is precisely not how gay marriage was popularised, dreamt up by those atop the social food chain and handed down via lobbying efforts, politicians (often straight ones) and the liberal media. There was never an internal consultation period, when queer communities at large reflected on the idea, assessed its pros and cons and declared it, in conclusion, worthy of treatment as the flagship LGBT initiative. If you think there was, when was it?

Yes, DOMA was a response to a smattering of queer attempts at legal marriage in the early nineties – in Hawaii, principally – and to Denmark’s introduction of basic civil unions a few years before; but it was just as much a Republican fortification against the ‘normalising’ rhetoric of high-up figures like Sullivan. Those first civil unions, too, were far more a pragmatic response to the threat of partner death and destitution in the height of the AIDS crisis than a political expression, and certainly not one of secularism. Certainly, after Freedom to Love’s emergence in the early noughties, gay marriage’s grip on queer media narratives slid unencumbered into place, a meme spread with the marketing guile of progressive think tanks, the commentariat and the gay elite – such that supporting it became a presumption. As an adolescent, back when I still identified as gay, I grew up presumptively supporting marriage reform; not because I’d weighed the costs and benefits to reach a prognosis – I hadn’t – but because gay people wanted that, and if I was gay, I must want it too.

I believe today that most straight ‘allies’ support gay marriage because it seems the obvious expression of queer-friendly solidarity they wish to display, and not because they’ve examined the queer arguments for and against it on its own terms. It’s an attempt at allyship, ironically, which erases thousands of queer people, including me, who are skeptical of assimilation and of propping up state marriage, along with significant parts of our history and politics which criticise the gay marriage project from the queer left. It’s by no means absurd to imagine Harvey Milk, if abstracted to the present day, might be more on our side than Sullivan’s and Wolfson’s.

Like most queer people with earnest reservations about it, I think the debate amongst ourselves we never had about gay marriage is one we desperately need to have, and should have had before large-scale legal changes were underway. Again, this post isn’t the time place to stage that debate, but there are those of us who see as empowering conservative agendas on healthcare, welfare and immigration among others (I see this above, in Andrew Sullivan’s original proposal; I see it around me in David Cameron’s marriage rhetoric). There are those of us who find state marriage discriminatory, oppressive and unjust whoever has access to it, and those of us who think the state has no more right to rule on whose relationships (or families) are valid than does religion. Even if we accept government to be legitimately democratic, why ought our relationship choices be up for debate?

You don’t have to agree with any of this, at least straight away. It took me a long period of careful thinking to arrive at the position I now hold, thanks largely to the culture of crappy discourse, mentioned above, in which I grew up. In media and political narratives, queer critiques of structures like marriage to which LGBT activism now aspires are marginalised, ignored and left out of discussion.

We contribute to this whenever we use support for gay marriage as a litmus test for queer-friendliness; when we presuppose all critics of it to be right wing bigots, or especially to be religious; when we devote whole reams of coverage to the same familiar, reactionary right wing arguments against marriage reform but only the scantest reportage (or none at all) to the dissenting queer left’s; most of all, when we allow the marriage debate to be straight-led and straight–dominated.

Again and again, I’ve watched whole public rallies for gay marriage where straight politicians and mostly-straight crowds cheered for progress, love, acceptance, equality – seen current affairs programmes where all-straight panels debated the merits of ‘equal marriage’, read pages and pages of straight journalists’ applause for ‘gay rights’ measures I and many others, as queer people, find deeply worrying. Much of the time the secular community, though far from unique in this, feels the same way. It’s enough to lend new credence to the phrase ‘to the exclusion of all others’ – particularly when the conflict over marriage is framed discreetly and sans nuance as a pitched battle between The Gays and Evil Christian Bigots. Yes, they’re often pretty evil; yes, their bigotry is often religiously fuelled – but why they getting more airtime and acknowledgement than folk like me are?

The queer agenda, on marriage or anything else, needs to be set by us – not by our well-meaning straight ‘allies’, and certainly not by homophobic theocrats – and I believe this culture of erasure is inhibiting that. It’s harming our ability, as a social movement, to be self-critical, to evaluate our goals more carefully, and also to be self-theorising – not just to pursue automatically and reactively whatever it is homophobes want to deny us, letting their bigotry dictate our actions, but to generate ideas, ideals and ideologies of our own for queer liberation, on our own terms, for ourselves and for a better society.

If you’re a gay marriage supporter, then, active in secular or atheist circles or a straight ally, think carefully about the discourse you promote.

You don’t have to be on my side in this issue. Many people aren’t, queer and straight alike, and I appreciate a multitude of voices even though I think they’re wrong. But please, let voices like mine and those I’ll link to beneath this post join in that multitude; in the argument over marriage reform and LGBTQ people’s future, please give us a seat at the table. Our arguments aren’t for everyone, but nor are they trivial. They deserve to be acknowledged and properly considered, and to be part of the mainstream (secular) discourse from which they’re so often excluded.

If you define the current gay marriage wars uncomplicatedly as conflicts between heroic, secular(ist) LGBT couples seeking marriage and villainous religious conservatives, you are homogenising a whole population, and in doing so erasing a great many of its members and much of its political thought from a discourse which badly needs their contributions. You are contributing to a mass culture of that homogenising erasure.

If you represent gay marriage’s critics as by definition religious, including by saying or implying no secular criticisms exist (they do – see below!), you are doing the same – and by representing the conflict as predominantly secularist-theocratic, you are expunging from the record all the oppressive, repressive, regressive actions taken historically by gay marriage advocates against other queer and trans* people, motivated far less by secularism than by deeply puritanical, reactionary conservatism.

DOMAmattachinesIf you’re a straight ally, and you treat support for gay marriage as a component of ally-ship to be taken for granted, you might well similarly be erasing and ignoring thousands of members of the population whose rights you claim to advocate – and you’re in danger of upholding a status quo where the primary movers for and representatives of LGBTQ people are often straight people; where LGBT activism’s goals and queer activism’s context are dictated more by straight people than LGBTQ people. However much you oppose our stances, we’re still part of this, and shouldn’t be expunged from queer history – no more than anarchist feminists like Emma Goldman who opposed women’s votes, or the homophile Mattachine Society, whose members covered the battered Stonewall Inn with pamphlets demanding the riots ceased.

So here’s where I ask you to do something positive.

  • If you haven’t encountered the strands of queer politics and argument I’m discussing here before, especially around marriage reform, read at least a few of the pieces I’m linking below, if not all of them. Whatever your conclusion, think carefully about the arguments raised; use them to inform your broader thinking on LGBTQ issues; be willing to re-examine positions you hold, and relinquish some of your assumptions, before you reach a stance you feel you can solidly justify. (In short, be a good skeptic.)
  • If you find them hard to follow, or you don’t have the time or energy to put into reading them, feel free to talk to me or others about the relevant discussions. (This being said, these topics matter, so particularly if you’re someone with an influential voice – a prominent writer or speaker, a straight ally or activist, or someone who discusses gay marriage a lot – be prepared to invest time and energy in raising your awareness where it needs raising.
  • If you’re a gay marriage supporter, including after considering the queer critiques on offer, stop presenting that support as being a de facto part of (pro-)LGBTQ existence, and acknowledge the internal critiques of gay marriage when you talk about. Criticise the criticisms as much as you like, but remember to make them part of the discussion. This goes doubly if you’re writing a one of the familiar ‘Worst arguments against gay marriage’ articles – instead of just hauling out the typical right wing homophobia, think more critically about the arguments made for gay marriage, plenty of which are just as terrible and equally offensive.
  • And if you see people making bad arguments for it, conflating being (pro-)LGBTQ necessarily with gay marriage support, conflating criticism of it with bigoted religious conservatism or rewriting history, tell them to stop. Or, better still, link them to this.

My name’s Gabriel, and I want to recruit you.

* * *

Queer critiques of gay marriage politics: a reading list (in no particular order)

Bibliographies for further reading:

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.

Both knew me via interfaith exchanges and had wondered, I later learned, how likely my attendance was. Though I’d met them through a project which meant much to me, considered them good friends and was touched to be invited, despite our differences, to an event important to them, those differences remained: they were evangelicals, wed in Oxford’s most evangelical church, where I was an atheist hostile (and happily so) toward religion – moreover, a queer, polyamorous one of anti-marriage politics. It’s hard to imagine anything more contrary to my principles than a church wedding – but nonetheless, my friends’ was meaningful for them, and I was honoured to be invited.

With any luck, you’re beginning to sense cognitive dissonance. I attended this wedding to share in my friends’ happiness, not disparage its origins. Unliksie at my old friend’s funeral, or Christmas services through which atheists sit to please their parents, it wasn’t enough to put up with the ceremony – I wanted actively to enjoy it, and the point of my write-up here is to relate how it felt to attempt this. It’s one thing to let sermons fly over your head in secular passivity, putting aside the impulse to roll one’s eyes; it’s another, as a queer atheist marriagephobe in the pews, to grasp for a slice of the happy couple’s joy.

Without wishing to disappoint the groom, then, who asked that my account hold nothing back, this piece isn’t about what I found objectionable, but about my attempts to negotiate and ignore them while enjoying the proceedings and finding joy in them. I hope if you’re an atheist, or as uncomfortable at wedding services as I am, this post provides some thoughts on experiencing them with positivity, and that if you’re planning one as a serious believer, it helps you relate to your secular guests.

I doubt I’d succeed at either of these goals, though, if I didn’t outline what felt alien or uncomfortable.

To a great extent, all marriage involving the state makes my knuckles itch: to recognise some relationship structures as worthier than others (via the civil register or reference in law), or otherwise assume the state has anything to say about the legitimacy of our sexual and romantic choices, makes me uneasy. This goes for all state marriages (and civil partnerships), whether in churches or not, however secular or ‘progressive’. It’s a broad gripe, and not one overtly bugs me at weddings or stops me enjoying them, but a gripe I think bears mentioning nonetheless.

To a greater extent still, there are tropes and memes embedded in our marital traditions which I find unsettling, and which often appear around wholly secular nuptials. There is sexism, of course: in the idea of the bride’s white dress denoting virginity-therefore-purity (and, before that, wealth-therefore-beauty); in words like ‘husband’ and ‘groom’, suggestive more of an animal-keeper than a lover or partner; in the general heteronormative asymmetry of the bride and groom’s gendered roles; in the clichéd proffering of an engagement ring during proposals, as if to purchase love with shiny items of jewellery; in the possessive notion its presence will discourage unwanted suitors; in the ‘giving away’ of its wearer by her father, and his traditional payment for festivities, the relics of a time when daughters were commodities for trade.

There’s monogamy-worship too – the implicit treatment of lifelong, two-partner exclusivity as the only valid way to live and love – in our customs of congratulating the recently engaged and of applauding their marriage’s pronouncement, as if forming such a relationship were a greater achievement than forming a different kind; in our reference to friends’ wedding days as ‘the happiest of their life’, as if no one ever married more than once; in our statements the couple will be together ‘for the rest of their lives’, when half of marriages end in divorce. Our kidding ourselves about this suggests the dissolution of a marriage is shameful or humiliating, rather than a natural, often faultless development, and contributes to the idea relationships which don’t last till we die are worthless failures.

And it’s true, as well, that the religious elements at this wedding – the references to existential sin and shame, the implicitly homophobic, transphobic descriptions of marital relationships depending on ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, the assertion of divine insistence that wives submit to husbands, and the direct instruction of the bride to speak to hers in a soft voice – made relating to it hard for me. There was the statement no married or loving relationship could succeed without God, the readings from scripture, the hymns involving blood and sacrifice; the question, directed at the congregation, will you pray for and support them in their marriage?

For all but the wateriest non-realists, prayer requires spiritual beliefs, of which I hold none – I wouldn’t be capable of it even if the idea appealed. While I hope my friends’ time together is filled with joy, and to be there for them if ever they should need me, I’m an atheist, and any claim I planned to pray for them would be a lie. I could no more join the collective We will in good conscience than the hymns or actual prayers of the ceremony, for which I remained quietly seated, head unbowed.

My instant urge is to defend myself from accusations of disrespect or spitefulness. I’ve witnessed discussions among atheists on how to conduct oneself in church for loved ones’ funerals or weddings, many of which inspired this post, and some of which involved the instruction to sing along, avoid making a scene and not be a dick. On entering the church, in fact, I sat discreetly in a small pew toward the back corner so as not to draw attention or seem hostile, curmudgeonly or insincere; the ceremony, after all, wasn’t about me.

Still, there are two things I’d ask here.

Firstly: why is atheists’ partial non-participation in rituals like these interpreted as spiteful, aggressive, insensitive and generally typical of negative atheist stereotypes – why did I fear I’d be perceived this way on selecting my seat, and why have I seen this characterisation of it elsewhere – when identical behaviour by non-Christian believers is viewed as peaceful, pious and worthy of respect? If I’d refrained from worshipping Christ because I was a devout Muslim or Jew, I can’t help feeling no one would doubt this showed my principles’ integrity, not disdain for the Christian couple or congregation; as an atheist, I worried I might give the latter impression. I don’t think all beliefs are equally valid (the contradictory ones couldn’t be), or claim to respect ones I think are false (the acid test for respecting beliefs, one can’t help feeling, is adopting them), but why is the conscientious value I attach to secular convictions deemed less legitimate than that which any believer attaches to their faith?

Secondly: given my friends knew on inviting me that I was an unbeliever; given they’ve heard me speak at length about why this is, and how little love I have for Christianity’s claims, surely to stand praisin’ Jesus among the crowd would be an insult? Surely it would ignore the reality of our friendship, which centres around our conflicting beliefs and has grown because of, not in spite of them? Surely the person they invited to witness their marriage was someone they knew to be secular in the ‘aggressive’, tabloid-paper sense – surely they wanted me there, and not a pretence? That ceremony was important to them. While I don’t share their belief in the ceremony’s sacredness, at least in a theistic sense, I can acknowledge it; and to lie to my friends on a day sacrosanct to them, behaving with no integrity, seems like a desecration – a transgression almost akin to blasphemy. (Almost.)

As it turned out, there was much about this wedding which I enjoyed, and which I focused on appreciating. One half of the couple was American, the other South African, and the service mixed national customs intriguingly: the wearing of dinner jackets to weddings, a U.S. habit which continues to mystify me, was dispensed with in favour of traditional morning dress (albeit it outfitted with a large, rather striking white rose instead of a carnation), but the maid-of-honour’s distinctive procession – bobbing recognisably down the aisle before, not after, the bride – remained in place. Brooke Fraser’s ‘Love is Waiting’ was sung, deftly, in place of Mendelssohn or Handel, as novel and interesting a departure from tradition as the playing of James Brown to close the service, and on standing for the entrance of the bride I was aware the church was unusually bright and airy for one of its age.

Of all the spaces I might have been in, this was a good one, and I blocked out the Jesus-songs to concentrate on appreciating that, besides the pleasant music and the happiness of my friends. (While I abstained from all the hymns, some were better than others; I should probably admit a soft spot for ‘Be Thou My Vision’.) Afterward, undulating through buffet tables laden with cakes and appetising, unusually plentiful soft drinks, which spread end to end across a tennis court sized room, I thanked the musicians for performing as well as they had, wished the newlyweds the best of times together and socialised with mutual friends, bumping occasionally into their family members.

To focus on drawing enjoyment from all of the above and not the elements which troubled me, so as to share a portion of my friends’ happiness, took a certain amount of cognitive effort. It was, after all, a situational compromise. When I attend religious events, as I did last summer, it’s usually to provide secular commentary and criticism, and I think in general that preachers who teach existential shame to children (several were present) and advocate poor gender politics deserve to be challenged. But this wasn’t for my presence on Saturday, and would have come between me and what I was there to do – namely, sharing an important moment non-judgementally with people I like. Dwelling on the less comfortable aspects was an intuitive but undesirable temptation, an itch not to be scratched, and devoting concentration to the positives meant assuming a perspective very unfamiliar to me, like squinting or tilting one’s to the side in a museum so as to appreciate a work of art’s hidden details. Squinting mentally for the best part of an hour, especially when bombarded with things you’re used to scrutinising with a burning stare, is difficult: it required a degree of self-awareness and mindset-control rarely asked of me.

And this is why, when the person in the next seat began to evangelise, my temper frayed.

As I waited for things to start, he had asked if the place was free, and we exchanged the usual pleasantries. When my hometown came up, so did his attendance of its annual evangelical convention, and to stem any awkwardness should he assume I was a Christian, I casually volunteered my atheism. Beyond being told he was an atheist but became a Christian, there was little follow-through until after the service, when he asked if I was secular-minded for any particular reason. My response – that in the absence of a God-shaped hole inside me, I simply don’t find religions’ claims convincing – seemed not to satisfy him, and he took to asking which churches in Oxford I’d attended and how many times, before inviting me to the weekly Christianity Explored discussion group. (I shan’t be going. He might be glad of this.)

In other contexts, I wouldn’t mind so much. I’m a believer, on the whole, in defending the beliefs by which we live, and not against arguing about who’s right. In the meetings from which I knew the bride and groom, I was hotseated more often than anyone, and I didn’t resent this – I enjoyed it, in fact. But isn’t there a time and a place for this? My statement I didn’t believe wasn’t an invitation to grill me, but a heads-up, a (perhaps too) subtle message not to engage me in prayer or worship should the time come, an attempt to have my partial non-participation read as an act of sincerity, not spite. If he’d really been desperate to take me to task, I’d have happily supplied my e-mail address or directed him to this blog, but as it was, I attended this wedding to honour my friends, not defend my worldview or interrogate theirs, and the energy it took not to breathe fire on him for doorstepping me this way was energy I needed to focus on mental squinting; on forgetting about worldviews and enjoying my surroundings.

If you should find yourself the believer in this scenario, non-atheist readers, don’t interpret your neighbour’s statement of atheism as summons to interrogate them; it’s likely that at this moment, beliefs are the last thing they want to discuss. Don’t raise the standard of your former non-belief as a smug, I-used-to-be-an-atheist standard – just because you changed your mind doesn’t mean you should have – and don’t imply you therefore understand their perspective while acting in a way that shows you don’t. And don’t assume, without a shade of self-awareness, that your interlocutor was never a believer or knows nothing about your religion, inviting them to come and think about what Bible says.

In any case, I’m glad I attended – whatever the cause, two thoroughly happy friends was a pleasing sight on my last weekend in Oxford. All that remains is to say what I would have said, if asked to offer a secular prayer for the ceremony.

As an atheist, I don’t think love can last forever. As a skeptic, I don’t believe in any ultimate design for our relationships – whether God’s, the fates’ or the aligning planets’ – and I recognise it’s significantly likely any marriage will end in divorce.

I know: you’re glad I didn’t say this there and then. But there’s a serious point to be made about our mysticism around partnering: when people are forthright and realistic about relationships, we deem them unromantic and cold-hearted. This is what the atheist comedian Tim Minchin discusses in his song ‘If I Didn’t Have You’; we imagine that the only proper way to acknowledge love is with grandiose, wildly improbable declarations about destiny or everlasting emotional bonds. I think, conversely, that acknowledging love’s own wild improbability is a promising means by which to celebrate it.

The odds of live on earth in the first place are wicked slim; add to that the challenge of being born, and the startling unlikelihood of matter, memory and experience assembling into you, and individual selfhood for a start is a thing uncanny. It seems at least doubly unlikely, then, to meet another individual so well suited to you that you want to share large portions of your life with them – and yet it happens, again and again.

No, these kinds of partnerships don’t last forever, and most don’t last for life, but meeting partners with whom we want to form them is itself phenomenal. I’ve practiced polyamory in great part because I’m not the best fit for many people, but am a good fit for plenty, and have shared parts of my existence joyously with them. For however long their marriage lasts, and whatever its passage entails, it’s pretty extraordinary that my friends should find one another as complementary as they seem to. This kind of total, permanent monogamy is a comparative erotic neologism – it flies in the face of our species’ history and our brains’ evolution, wired on the whole for something broader and more various. Love like this is always star-crossed, in a sense, ignoring its own improbability in human flesh and an indifferent universe, occurring nonetheless. That, one might say, is almost miraculous. Almost.

Thoughts from QED: in defence of Atheism Plus

In case you weren’t aware of this – and you should be (it trended on Twitter) – QED just happened again. Last year’s convention gave birth to this site, and I’m glad to have gone again; it isn’t often that as Brits, the world is jealous of our skeptical meet-ups and not vice versa.

This said, parts of one panel did irk me slightly.

Yesterday on QED’s second and last day, Carrie Poppy of Oh No, Ross and Carrie! fame (her talk on anecdotes, by the way, was excellent) moderated the ‘God Panel’, a discussion between Mitch Benn, Richard Dawkins, Mike Hall and Lawrence Krauss and the programme’s one specific atheist event. When a question was posed about mistakes our movement had made, the first example given – I think by Mitch Benn, though it might have been Mike Hall – was Atheism Plus, an answer audience members seemed to like and onto which other panellists piled.

Mitch Benn (again, it may have been Mike Hall) said A+ makes atheism into more than non-belief.

Lawrence Krauss said a ‘PC’ ‘orthodoxy’ now clamps down on people who say the wrong things.

Richard Dawkins called A+ an ‘obvious example’ of atheists doing things wrong, and bemoaned the use of the word ‘douchebag’ in reference to people deemed sexist. (It wasn’t the accusations of sexism to which he objected, so far as I could tell, but the word ‘douchebag’ specifically.)

Panel speakers, obviously, are entitled to speak their minds and likely to agree at times, but this is a contentious issue, and I’d have liked to see A+ get some right of reply. I know people from this year’s QED who are pro-A+, and my Twitter responses got a fair amount of support – at any rate, it all felt rather one-sided.

It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a Q&A session afterward; had there been one, I’d like to think some defence of A+ would have been mounted – if not by anyone else, then by me. Since there wasn’t, I’m posting here (in slightly extended form) what I felt like saying at the time.

First of all, I’m not particularly a user of the A+ label. I’ve said why before, and some of that bears saying again here. Certainly, I think there are valid critiques to make of how the project’s taken shape. I’m not sure, for example, that giving the pre-existing ‘social justice’ faction of the atheist community an explicit, solidified name like Atheism Plus or carving out spaces and organisations for it has been entirely beneficial – part of me wonders if the case might be made better by floating, distributed individuals than a unified identity group – and of course, numerous (googleable) issues with the A+ forum have been raised online. So don’t imagine I’m just engaged in partisan parrying here.

But no: Atheism Plus does not make atheism into ‘a thing’, or redefine it as something more than non-theism.

To quote the FAQ on the A+ website:

Atheism Plus does not attempt to conflate atheism with feminism or any other ideology. It does not call for the incorporation of liberal values into the definition of atheism.

There. You see?

To put it another way, see Jen McCreight’s original ‘Atheism+’ blog post.

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

Being an atheist and a feminist, and calling yourself an atheist plus [a feminist] does not redefine atheism as a positive value – no more than being an atheist and a comedian, an atheist and a physicist or an atheist and a science advocate.

If in practice, your comedy is closely related to atheism and religion, as Mitch’s seems to be; if physics plays a strong part in your atheism, as it clearly does in Lawrence’s; if you see atheism as a scientific position, which obviously Richard does – indicating the relationship between the two makes perfect sense.

This doesn’t make atheism a positive value, or define it as something other than non-theism. If you think A+ misunderstands ‘atheism’, you likely misunderstand ‘plus’.

And by the way – in Jen’s words, aren’t we all ‘atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism’? Isn’t that what meetings like QED are about? The God Panel even said, pretty unanimously, that their atheism was consequential to their skepticism and that other people’s ought to be too.

It’s abundantly clear, as far as I’m concerned, that organised atheist culture in its current form has lots of stances other than pure atheism, and that these stances are interrelated.

We’re all, or almost all, atheists plus secularists, atheists plus science supporters and skeptics, atheists plus people who think religion is a bad thing, including when it isn’t traditionally theistic. When you meet someone in an atheist space – a public meet-up, say, or a web group – you can confidently assume they hold these views.

Being an atheist, then, may strictly mean no more than not being a theist, but being a card-carrying atheist – someone who wears the Scarlet A, attends conventions and is generally part of the current ‘movement’ – has all kinds of implications. Atheist culture has its pillars already: the contention of A+ is that social awareness should be one of them.

I have a problem with the idea wanting sexism-free atheist culture is PC orthodoxy. (Insert other social inequities at your leisure, obviously.) For one thing, anti-sexism is not orthodoxy because, as one hopes Laurence Krauss can testify after his recent encounter with IERA, sexism is not radical.

As for being called a douchebag, he and Richard Dawkins are public figures. Public figures say things, and sometimes they get heat for it. Your views being criticised, as most of us wish creationists would realise, is not evidence of a conspiring hegemony – it’s evidence not everyone likes all your views, and not everyone thinks you’re above being told so.

Among some sections of the skeptic-atheist community, I see a tendency to deny culture exists at all; to insist even in the teeth of overwhelming evidence that structures like gender and race are never relevant to anything. The keystone of A+, as I see it, is the radical notion that culture does exist, bringing with it an array of influential social contexts – and that if we want to be effective at getting skeptical or atheistic messages across to all parts of society and not just some, we need to be aware of these.

If we want to be an optimally effective movement, we need not just to be a white movement, and that means not only making white atheists visible.

If we want to be optimally effective, we need to avoid exclusionary imagery and language about minorities in our publicity.

If we want to be optimally effective, we need to make sure everyone can afford to come to our events, including low-waged and unemployed people.

If we want to be effective, we should keep events accessible for wheelchair users, provide signing for deaf audience members or those with limited hearing, and generally accommodate attendees with disabilities.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

This isn’t PC orthodoxy. It’s common fucking sense.