Thoughts on a movemnent: a “shock jock” blogger responds to the Secular Policy Institute

The Global Secular Policy Institute Council declares on its website:

The secular movement has a problem, in that some of our foremost leaders get media attention by causing controversy. While this helps them draw in followers, it causes an atmosphere of infighting in the secular community that hinders us from partnering, takes our eye off the ball of important issues, and makes us look crankypants to outsiders. No wonder the stereotype of a secular person is condescending and angry. . . .

We want to positively partner with anyone who will work with us, including religious organizations. We don’t bash religion and we seek to partner with everyone. . . . we also avoid partnering in some situations. We believe the secular movement should stop rewarding those who cause discord. Why are ‘shock jock’ bloggers invited to lecture at major secular conferences? Freedom of speech is a confusing issue, but it means that each person can speak freely through his or her own channel. It does not mean that angry voices have a right to dominate unmoderated discussions on our own Facebook pages and forums. . . .

Apparently we are not alone in wanting to look more professional as a movemnent to the outside world. This week, SPI coalition member Atheist Ireland publicly dissociated itself from blogger PZ Myers in an open letter. What are your thoughts? Do you feel that strident internal criticism makes us stronger, or that our generosity to be inclusive to all voices is being taken advantage of? Let us know on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

What are my thoughts? Numerous would be a start. [Read more…]

I wouldn’t usually do this, but…

…in light of current events, it strikes me as necessary to quote my own comment policy, aspects of which were modelled on Pharyngula‘s.

I’m a firm believer in culture war and punching up alike: shade-throwing can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Anger is not the same as abuse. Being vicious is not the same as being a bully. Hatred is not the same as bigotry. For me and many readers of this blog, just as it was for countless historical activists, striking a strident tone is part of confronting injustice and overcoming abuse. If you dispute the content of things people here say – if you think they’re being unfair, inaccurate or irresponsible or doing harm – say so, but don’t ever tone-police them just because you don’t like their manners: manners have never been the friend of the downtrodden.

And then there’s this. We good?

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

GiTfollowthisblogonfacebook

Atheist Ireland’s statement on PZ Myers, with added links to actual things he actually said

Michael Nugent doesn’t much like PZ Myers. After writing 32 posts, 350 pages and 75,000 words to that effect since September, he’s now roped in his national org Atheist Ireland, whose ‘executive committee’ (never hitherto mentioned on the group’s website) cosign what reads like blog post 33.

Unlike Nugent’s own posts, the statement doesn’t provide any actual sources, so – for the sake of ethical conduct – I decided I’d add them and let people come to their own judgements. Admittedly, I see why his colleagues might have opposed embedding links. Once you insert them, the whole thing looks like a thicket of more complex points, less dramatic when viewed in context – not to mention a little… obsessive?

[Read more…]

(Almost) live tweets from the leaders’ debate

In case you didn’t know, the UK has an election next month. Just under an hour ago, the first-ever debate between seven of our party leaders finished. (Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party has been called the winner. I don’t disagree, but more on that soon.) Video is below – skip to 4.05 for the debate.

Since our site doesn’t let me live-blog, here are my tweets from during the programme from those who care.

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

GiTfollowthisblogonfacebook

“I didn’t come here to defend myself” – Mads Ananda Lodahl gives the world the queer 101 it needs

I don’t enjoy many gay YouTube videos – most ‘coming out’ clips seem to show vulnerable queer kids tearfully accepting what scraps straight parents throw their way who spew patronising bullshit. I don’t enjoy that many gay TED talks either – Mads Ananda Lodahl’s TEDx talk from Copenhagen two years ago, which I stumbled across the other day, is a refreshing exception.

Some highlights (see a full transcript here):

For the last ten years, I have been writing articles and giving lectures to young people about queer theory and politics. You might think that makes me an expert at being gay, but if anything, it makes me an expert at understanding ‘normal’. ‘Queer’ means a lot of different things, but something that is central to the queer perspective is to turn the focus away from the people who deviate from the straight norm onto the straight norm itself – to stop asking questions like ‘Why do people become gay?’ and ‘Why do gays have to act like that?’ and start asking the big question: how did normal become normal? That is, how did the straight norm become so strong – so integrated into every part of our lives, our societies and our selves – that for us to even begin to understand what the straight world order is… is like asking a fish to describe water?

I don’t want to be normal. I didn’t come here today to defend myself – I didn’t come to defend homosexuals or women or transgender people. I came today to attack. I came to declare a war, today, on the straight world order. I came to strike matches and to throw rocks, and I came with a toothpick for you if you’ve got the straight world order stuck between your teeth, and with a pair of pliers to pull it out of your foot if you’ve stepped on it. I may be at war with the straight world order, but I am at peace with myself – and the first thing I do every morning when I wake up is to thank the universe and the stars that I am a faggot. I am disgusted – not by heterosexuals, but by the straight world order, and I want no part of it. No thank you. The Gay Liberation Front had it right in 1971, when they said ‘We don’t want a piece of that pie. That pie is rotten.’

Be aware of it when you have certain expectations of people’s sex, gender and sexuality – and realise that they might not live up to your expectations, and that that’s not a problem. That is not a threat to you. It is not a mistake or a failure that you need to fix – it’s not something that people do to get your attention or to provoke you. It is the way they live their lives – and you don’t need to ask about it, stare at it, comment on it or try to correct it. What you need to do is, you need to respect it.

At last a queer 101 I can get behind.

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

GiTfollowthisblogonfacebook

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

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

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

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

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

Queer people’s discomfort around religion is not bigotry: my comments to the Rainbow Intersection

I got home from London last night after being on a panel with the Rainbow Intersection, a forum for discussions of queer identity, religion and race. The topic was religion and LGBT people – something I’ve already posted about at length – and the other panellists were Jide Macaulay, who runs the Christian House of Rainbow Fellowship; Surat-Shaan Knan of Twilight People, a project for trans and nonbinary believers, and interfaith minister Razia Aziz. I had a blast – all three are top-tier folk, and I’d be thrilled to appear with any of them again.

Jide founded an LGBT church in Nigeria to stop queer believers facing the threats and harassment apostates face – the fact I don’t buy the theology doesn’t mean I’m not glad of that – and works to stop LGBTs being deported today. (He also took my trolling remarkably well.) Surat-Shaan blogs about being trans and a practising Jew for Jewish News – in some ways his background felt like a mirror image of mine, and he speaks at a borderline-absurd number of events. Razia, who made me think I’d been quite cynical, was the surprise: feelgood interfaith rhetoric can cover a multitude of sins, awkward facts obscured in a haze of abstract nouns – mystery-journey-spirit-calling-truth – but there’s a refreshing core of steely realism to her outlook.

Both the Intersection’s organisers, Bisi Alimi and Ade Adeniji, are worth a follow, and Jumoke Fashola, who works in radio and music, was an exceptional moderator. I’m told the discussion was recorded, and that there are plans to release it in audio form – in the mean time, since all the speakers were restricted to a five minute introduction, I’m publishing my uncut opening remarks below.

* * *

‘Is there a place for sexuality in religion?’

I think we can’t stress enough how triggering overt religiosity can be and is to many LGBT people. If I knew an event was taking place in a church, I would avoid it – I don’t feel safe in churches, I don’t feel comfortable in churches. Churches scare me, they make me uncomfortable and they make me [feel] unsafe. In our desire to let [supportive] religious groups play the ‘we’re not all like that’ game, we’re frequently required to pretend they’re mainstream, rather than exceptions, and that so many of us are somehow not legitimately and severely frightened by overt religiosity. That is not an unreasonable or unfair fear, nor one that isn’t based on experience.

These aren’t my words – they’re from a comment left under a post on my blog last December – I’ll come back to it later, because it captures many of my feelings perfectly.

I come to this discussion as a queer person (a bisexual specifically), an atheist, an apostate, an abuse survivor and an ex-Christian, so the question for me is less about sexuality’s place in religion and more about religion’s place in queer communities. I also come to this as a white atheist and a white Englishman – a cisgender man at that – so it’s fair to say I know something about belonging to a populace (several, in fact) with an uncomfortable track record. Equally, as an atheist blogger today, I often find myself at odds with how my community acts.

I’m sorry so many atheists harass and dehumanise believers. (The recent Chapel Hill killings in North Carolina were a chilling example.) I’m sorry I often see racism from atheists toward religious communities of colour, both African-American and Muslim, and in particular, that there are atheists trying to pit LGBT people against them. (In the former case, atheists like Dan Savage did this in the wake of Proposition 8; in the case of Islam, I now see atheists joining UKIP and the far-right to do the same.) Most recently, I’m sorry about skeptic groups that promote transphobia and atheists who tell people they’re wrong about their gender BECAUSE SCIENCE.

All that being said, I’ve wondered if the religious panellists here are as willing to own up to their communities’ failings.

I grew up moving between several Christian churches and forms of belief, some fundamentalist, some very much not. You might guess I left religion because I was queer, but that wasn’t the case at all – in my teens, I settled into a gentle, traditionalist but liberal Christianity, and I never felt any internal struggle around not being straight, whether religious or otherwise. At the time, I told myself all the things queer believers tend to say about context, (mis)translation, (mis)interpretation and how Jesus preached acceptance.

But I did suffer religious abuse – vivid, nightmarish threats of hell, claims of demonic possession and countless other things. And I encountered homophobia from other believers that made religious communities feel hostile. And when secular homophobia – which is, in fact, widespread – led me to entrust my faith with my mental health, I ended up trying to kill myself. (I don’t think blaming religion for any of these things is unfair – nor do I think placing the blame on ‘fundamentalism’ is enough. The faith that endangered my life was tolerant, mainstream, entirely non-fundamentalist Christianity.)

In hindsight, I find I cringe more over what I believed as a queer-affirming Christian than over my belief in virgin births and resurrections. It seems such motivated reasoning and contrived circle-squaring, a search less for truth than for something affirming to convince myself I believed, and in the end, wanting to be honest about what I thought instead of lying to myself was part of what led me to leave the church.

However much we ‘queer the text’, finding homoeroticism in scripture and talking about interpretation and context, the fact is that if Jesus existed, the religion he founded has spent most of the last two thousand years marginalising, brutalising, criminalising and killing queer people – by now, on every continent on earth except Antarctica. (Apply and adjust as appropriate for other faiths.) I doubt theres a single queer person here who hasn’t faced queerphobia in Christian or other religious contexts, and some of us have been profoundly harmed by it.

If Jesus meant to preach acceptance of LGBT people, he didn’t do a very good job. A god who can’t get his own message across for most of his followers’ history doesn’t seem plausible to me. Given a global platform and with sincere intent, most children could now tell the world to be nice to queer people without prompting millennia of violence – really, those five words would be enough – and I struggle to believe in a god who lacks the communication skills of a ten-year-old.

Yet I’ve often seen religion promoted in queer spaces. I’ve seen LGBT student groups where clergy came to deliver sermons, where religious flyers were handed out on the door and meetings were moved so as not to clash with church. I’ve seen LGBT discussion events held in churches. I’ve been told to pray and about how God created me. I know I’m not alone in this.

As an atheist and an apostate in the queer community, I feel profoundly uncomfortable with this – not least because LGBT believers often seem set on dismissing realities of religious queerphobia, both historically and today. Many queer people, I think, have sat uncomfortably through public events held to stress the compatibility of queerness and faith sensing precisely this, yet feeling that to voice their ambivalence would be an appalling act of rudeness, bigotry or ‘hate’.

A colleague of mine, Heina Dadabhoy – a bisexual, nonbinary ex-Muslim – wrote this about one such incident:

The worst experience I had was at a local conference about mental health and LGBT issues. Fully half the panels were about religion, and every panel had a representative of what was euphemistically referred to as ‘the faith community’. It is bizarre, to say the last, to sit in a room filled with LGBT folks and hear nothing but praise for religion and disdain for criticism of religion. Any mention of the homophobia in Christianity or any other religion was treated as if it were taboo, or at least unnecessarily hostile.

My guess is that many in this room can relate to that – I know I can.

Unequivocally, I support the work (and existence) of queer religious people like the other panellists here, and of everyone working toward positive religious reform. In many religions, being queer has traditionally meant being viewed as an apostate: in many religions, it’s still regularly assumed that if your sexuality and/or gender is incorrect, you’ve abandoned the faith. Putting an end to that can only be a good thing, because being treated like an apostate is hard: it can mean losing your community or family and having to face social stigma and threats, even violence.

But I know this because many of us, and many LGBT people, really are apostates – whether because of religious queerphobia, religious abuse or other bad experiences, because we can’t believe in a god who has our back or simply because religious beliefs don’t make sense to us. Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding-up our communities with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us. To that effect, let me share the comment I started with (by a user called Paul) in full.

I think we can’t stress enough how triggering overt religiosity can be and is to many LGBT people. If I knew an event was taking place in a church, I would avoid it – I don’t feel safe in churches, I don’t feel comfortable in churches. Churches scare me, they make me uncomfortable and they make me [feel] unsafe. In our desire to let [supportive] religious groups play the ‘we’re not all like that’ game, we’re frequently required to pretend they’re mainstream, rather than exceptions, and that so many of us are somehow not legitimately and severely frightened by overt religiosity. That is not an unreasonable or unfair fear, nor one that isn’t based on experience, nor one that isn’t based on experience – yet I am expected to treat it as such. No matter how neutral the event is intended [to be], if it is held in church property it is something that will push me out.

And that ‘we’re not all like that’ game is destructive. For me to even remotely consider that a religious ‘ally’ is an ally, I need to know they realise their faith has a bigotry problem – because at the moment our desire to make religious groups comfortable and play PR for them is giving them a pass for bigotry and denying the scale of it in organised religion. How do we counter that if we’re all pretending it doesn’t exist or is ‘fringe’?

So here’s my take-home message: if you’re a secular queer person and you feel uncomfortable around religion, that is absolutely valid. It is not hatred; it is not bigotry. And if you’re a queer believer, that’s just as valid (even if it doesn’t make sense to me) – but please let’s remember there are times when toning down the God-talk is considerate, and please let’s face facts, because atonement starts with contrition.

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

GiTfollowthisblogonfacebook

How (not) to act in my comment section

I’ve now been writing this blog for just over eighteen months. Because I started it when I joined Freethought Blogs, one of the first things I meant to do was devise a comment policy. I never got round to it, and in some ways that’s to the good – it’s taken me a while to gain a clear sense of how I want comment threads to work. Recently I’ve felt I should finally publish one, and that I know roughly what kind.

I haven’t had to do this previously because most of the time, I’m not a terribly hands-on admin: over the past three years I’ve banned an average of something like one user per month, mostly in bunches when individual posts attracted lots of flies. (My last ban was in January, the last-but-one many months earlier.) Generally this blog’s threads aren’t that lively – most discussions it sparks tend to be on forums like Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit and Twitter – and how I’ve managed comments has varied over time and according to my mood, so the de facto rule has always been don’t piss me off.

That’s not about to change: while some are more absolute than others, the points that follow here are guidelines rather than rules for commenting here. I’m not saying I’ll apply them consistently, or what violating them will bring about, or that they’re an exhaustive list of unwelcome actions – I couldn’t possibly write one, and if I did, creative arseholes would just find exploitable loopholes. The golden rule is still don’t piss me off – but here’s some practical advice on how (not) to do that. [Read more…]

TEF-LON and transmisogyny: about that Terry MacDonald piece in the New Statesman

In case you haven’t paid attention for the last two years, a clique of UK writers connected via skeptic groups and the New Statesman – Suzanne Moore, Sarah Ditum, Gia Milinovich, Helen Lewis, Caroline Criado-Perez, Martin Robbins and Julies Bindel and Burchill – periodically say unhelpful things on trans women’s issues. Some have recent histories of mealy-mouthed transphobia, while others object indignantly to the word ‘cis’, argue ‘TERF’ is a slur, defend trans women’s exclusion from abuse shelters and insistently misgender them. It’s a matter of great sadness to me that this London-based group of trans-exclusionary feminists has yet to form as an official club, partly because it would make keeping up with them easier, but mostly because I like imagining a shadowy collective called TEF-LON.

The newest member is pseudonymous, hitherto unknown columnist Terry MacDonald, whose guest article at the New StatesmanAre you now or have you ever been a TERF?’ has been circulating online this week. Both the title and MacDonald’s use of a pen name seem geared to suggest suppression, a lone voice typing truth to power with the Gestapo of the trans cabal outside the door, so fisking the post’s non-stick arguments seems only game.

[Read more…]

No, a Romany man’s body is not being exhumed to placate Muslims

I ought not to be posting this today. I’m up against a deadline on Sunday, so should still be in blog-hibernation, but it can’t wait.

In case you haven’t read this blog before, which you may not have, some things about me:

Most of the time, the Daily Telegraph is far from keen on any of these things. Most of the time, it likes to have a go at various groups I’m part of (and other vulnerable ones). Every so often though, when a chance comes to pit Romanies, atheists, foreigners, queers or poor people against Muslims, the Telegraph falls in love with us all, deeming us at least marginally less subhuman than it does them. [Read more…]