Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics. Here, in full, is what we said.
I think the first thing to say is that this is probably not going to be at all interviewy, as far as I can see, because I’ve written about your forthcoming book already and I’m not sure how formal or interviewy or detached I could be.
So the first thing to say is, when did you… first of all, tell me about your book.
It’s kind of funny you ask me that, because you know so much about the book. For those who are playing along at home, Alex was very involved in the creation of this book – he did two rounds of very detailed copy editing on it. And so he knows a lot about this book. Probably more than almost anybody, except me and my editor and Ingrid.
The book is called Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. It’s a guidebook for coming out as an atheist, if you’re not already out; for coming out more, if you’re out to a few people and not out to others. And writing it was really interesting, because when I first set out to do the book – when I was first imagining it – I kind of pictured it as a set of directions, a very specific set of directions.
You know what guidebooks are like, right? ‘If A then B, if C then D.’ Like a set of directions on Google Whatever. ‘Turn left at Main St.’ Then when I was starting to collect material for the book, I realised there’s no way to do that. The experiences are so different for different people. The experiences are so… what works for one person isn’t going to work for another person. And some of that’s different circumstances, and some is just different personalities.
So I had to recast, more or less, a lot of the book from being a set of directions to giving people a map and letting them figure out their own directions. Letting people know, ‘Here’s some of the things we’re likely to expect.’ ‘Here’s some of the things that can come up when we come out as a nonbeliever. And you get to decide for yourself how to proceed with that.’
When did you start writing this book? Because your previous book was Why Are You Atheists So Angry?
Right. That came out in 2012. I mean, to some extent I’ve been writing this book… oh sorry, we’re talking over each other aren’t we?
Go ahead. I mean, when was the decision made to write this book?
Honestly, I’ve been thinking about writing this book almost ever since I came out as an atheist myself – that was back in 2005 – and certainly since I started participating in organised atheism: in the atheist communities and in the atheist movement.
It’s been just, you know, really clear to me that we needed this book. Lots of people were talking about it. So many people were talking about [how] ‘Coming out is the most powerful thing we can do!’ ‘It makes our own lives better!’ ‘It makes it easier for other atheists to do what we need to do to be a coherent movement!’ And I was saying the same thing. I was saying, ‘Yeah. Coming out is awesome. So there’s a guidebook, right? There must be some sort of coming out?’ And it didn’t- it wasn’t there. And it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there.
And as I got more involved in the community and the movement, and also just had, you know, more name recognition and got people familiar with my writing, I just realised, ‘Nobody’s going to write this book.’
And it was a hard book to write – you know, I can see. It was a difficult book to write…
…there was a large amount of research, it was a very difficult book to write. So I just decided, ‘You know what? I need to step up. I need to do this, ‘cause nobody else is doing it.
So from that point, you sent out an email I think last October (maybe slightly earlier, maybe slightly later) to me and a variety of other people asking for copy editing, feedback and all of that. And from that point, as you said, I did a lot of copy editing – I think I ultimately read and commented on two drafts of this book, although it was probably more than that suggests, because there were some fairly big cuts that ended up happening in this book as I remember. (One of which I take credit for.)
The amount that we went through could almost be a large fraction of the book again, I think, that it became. So this is, more than an interview with a journalist or whatever, kind of a DVD extra conversation between people who worked behind the scenes on this book before it came out. You could even call it an Easter egg. That’d be topical.
With that in mind, this is very unrehearsed, very unscheduled. The first thing that I think… I wouldn’t say an elephant in the room, but I think a lot of people were actually talking about this on social media, blogs and other platforms while you were writing this book: there was a spate of stories, I think from the US blogosphere, talking about some of the ways that parallels that parallels between LGBTQ and atheist experiences, especially the words ‘coming out’, were something to be criticised.
I think there was a piece on Religion Dispatches about that; I think there was a degree of argument about something that was said by people at American Atheists. I think you’re familiar with this – there’s some tension between people who have different views over the amount of similarity that can be drawn between queer and atheist experience.
Both of us straddle those two communities, as bloggers and otherwise. And I want to ask you: did you have any anxiety about writing a book called Coming Out Atheist?
No, honestly I didn’t. I mean, I’m familiar with [the fact] there are some LGBTQ people who don’t love it that atheists are using the term ‘coming out’ to describe our own process of telling people who we are and what we think. I think there’s a sense of ownership of that phrase. ‘We came up with that phrase!’ ‘That’s ours!’
But the thing is that the phrase ‘coming out’? We don’t own that phrase any more. It’s started to be used to describe so many different ways of revealing or telling people something that they didn’t know about who you are. Especially telling people something about yourself that they didn’t know, that you think they might have a problem with.
People talk about coming out as poly. People talk about coming out as kinky. People talk about coming out as, y’know, Red Socks fans. I don’t know! That phrase has just entered the language at this point. And I don’t think LGBTQ people can own it any more.
Are there differences between coming out LGBTQ and coming out atheist? Absolutely, there are lot of important differences – as well as similarities, of course. And I think the differences are almost as instructive as the similarities. But that’s true with any coming out experience. Coming out poly is different from coming out LGBTQ; coming out kinky is different from coming out LGBTQ.
Almost any different experiences have similarities and differences. It’s like the classic high school term paper: ‘Compare and contrast these two experiences.’ Or, you know, ‘Compare and contrast the works of William Blake with…’
Of course there’s differences as well as similarities, but you know… I’m repeating myself here. I don’t think we own that language. And you know what? I can’t think of any other language that describes it. I understand concerns about it, but I had to just let that go.
I guess that I was actually surprised at points, or even taken aback by the amount of similarity that I saw. Because your book is… we should mention, it’s full of other people’s narratives and their own descriptions of what they went through. Sometimes, page-long-or-more descriptions from people who’ve sent stories in to you.
From a variety of situations: I think some of them were what happened in their workplace, some of them were what happened with their family and so on.
And I remember being struck that it was actually much harder than I thought it was going to be to find a definitive difference between secular coming-out and queer coming-out.
There’s a part of me that has a lot of sympathy with the whole ‘Don’t appropriate our language’ agenda. But I found that the more that I read in this book, the more difficult it was to pin down the way in which atheists did not ‘come out’, or whatever, in the same way that queer people did.
It was almost easier at times to categorise coming-out experiences across those two groups of people than it was to split them into columns in a definitive categorical way.
I do think that there are differences. But yes, the similarities are much more pronounced than the differences. I think I would say that the differences between the two experiences are…
The number one, most important one – and this is one I hammer on about (I hammer on about it in the book as well as, you know, when I’m speaking and almost any time anybody will let me natter) – is that when you’re coming out as LGBTQ, you’re not telling straight that they’re wrong, or cisgendered people, that they’re wrong to be straight or cisgender.
When we come out as atheists, we are telling believers that they’re wrong: that they’re mistaken. We’re not telling them they’re bad people, necessarily, but we’re telling them… you know, there’s no way to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ without entailing ‘If you do believe in God, you’re mistaken.’
When I came out as bisexual, I wasn’t telling people ‘You should also be bisexual. You’re mistaken to be heterosexual or homosexual.’ So that’s, I think, an important difference, and I do think that that creates a tension, a conflict, between atheists and believers that isn’t necessarily there.
Now, there’s a parallel – there’s an instructive parallel – which is that while coming out, LGBTQ people don’t tell straight people they’re wrong to be straight, but we are telling them they’re wrong to be homophobic or biphobic or transphobic. We are telling them ‘You need to change. If you have problems with me, you need to change.’
So there is that parallel. The difference points to another parallel. But I do think that that difference is instructive.
I also think that there’s a difference just in terms of where we are in our history. The LGBTQ community has been very visible, very vocal, activist, organised, mobilised… for decades now. Since, you know… some people pin it at the Stonewall riots in ’69, some people pin it even a little bit earlier than that, ‘cause there’s certain proto-Stonewall stuff that was going on. So we’ve had decades to do this work. We’ve been doing coming out work, organising political activism, social change activism, activism in the media and so on – and just changing people’s minds about us.
We’ve had a long time. And atheists are a little behind the times. A lot behind the times. There’s been organised atheism for decades, but we haven’t really had our super-visible, vocal, mobilised phase. I would say we’re about… maybe ten years into that. So we’re a little behind. We have the Internet, which the early LGBTQ community didn’t have in the seventies. So we have that advantage.
And I think there’s one other difference, which relates to [the fact] when you come out as atheist you’re telling people they’re mistaken to be believers. When you come out LGBTQ, you’re not going to make anybody be gay. Or bi, or trans. You might encourage people to come out who might not otherwise be out, but coming out as atheist actually changes people’s minds about religion. Coming out as atheists is partly why, when we ask atheists ‘Why are you an atheist?’, a lot of the time they say a big part of the process of questioning religion and leaving it was seeing that other atheists exist.
So that’s another difference: that coming out is… we are evangelising, to some degree. I don’t like the word ‘evangelising’, ‘cause it has religious connotations, but the simple act of coming out as a nonbeliever does help try to persuade people out of religion even if that’s not your intent.
Could I ask you – are you able to turn up your microphone?
Oh, I have a microphone. Hang on a second.
Don’t worry if…
I can go get a plug-in microphone, but that would mean stopping again.
I will plug earphones in. Ahh, this is such a podcast. I’m so completely unprofessional. I feel like we should be asking each other what we’re drinking.
Hahahahaha. It’s ten thirty in the morning my time, so I’m drinking coffee.
You’re in San Francisco! Drink something stronger.
Mind you, I live in Berlin now and this is probably the only city in the world where San Franciscans are thought of as a touch straight-laced, I think. I think you’d be considered really a bit restrained in San Francisco. Berlin is much further out.
So I think it’s interesting you talk about the question of invisibility and the question of erasure specifically – the idea that atheists have not really been visible in public discourse, and moreover the fact that because atheism and criticism of religion have not really been something politely voiceable much of the time, there’s been a kind of active, slightly repressive feeling that it’s not something you say. To an extent, anyway.
And I wonder if actually there’s a point about the way that for some people, and some groups under the queer umbrella, there’s a similar experience. Both of us swim in bisexual waters, and actually, it seems worth passing on an anecdote about this:
I have a member of my family, actually one of my parents. While I was growing up, certainly from the age of about eleven and further on, at least once a year there would be an awkward ‘Are you gay?’ moment.
And I don’t think I was ever particularly oblique. I remember at about fourteen or fifteen, I would explicitly say things like ‘Mm, I don’t really have a gender preference.’ Then it got to eighteen, and I was saying things like ‘Mm, I like being with men and I like being with women.’ By the time I was twenty-one, I was still getting this ‘Are you gay?’ thing going on, because bisexuality was just not a concept that registered there.
It reached the point where we had a conversation where they said to me – this is a paraphrase, but – ‘From what I understand, there are heterosexuals and there are homosexuals. And there are some people, though I don’t know very much about them, who like both.’ And that was about as far as the knowledge of bisexuality got.
And I think that there are some people, particularly in more conservative religious communities, for whom being an atheist is a little bit like that. I mean, I’m from godless, secular England, but there have been times when I have actually met– I met people at university, actually, to whom I had to explain what an atheist was.
That was something that I learnt when I was eleven. And I think that it may be the case that for some people who’ve grown up in those very ensconced, very tight-knit religious communities, the idea of being or calling oneself an atheist, having that as a stated identity, is something that has to be explained. Which is why it’s not really viable in the first place, why it’s difficult with family members, colleagues, whatever.
Did you think that’s true to any extent? Do you think there are people under the queer community’s umbrella for whom it’s like that, when there’s this kind of blind spot in people’s awareness, and is that something atheists can relate to?
Absolutely. And certainly I had similar experiences as somebody who identifies as bisexual. It’s funny, I’m actually having a… I don’t know if ‘parallel’ is the right word, but I’m starting to question whether ‘bisexual’ is the right word, because ‘bisexual’ plays into a gender binary that I don’t agree with. The word ‘bisexual’ assumes that I’m attracted to men and women: what about people who don’t identify as male or female? I’m attracted to them too.
And I considered whether I should start using the word ‘pansexual’ instead… except that nobody knows what that means. When you say you’re pansexual you have to have this whole conversation about what it means, and if you don’t want to have that conversation, it’s easier to just say that you’re bi. And at least in the circles that I move in, most people sort of know more or less what that word means, although they might have some assumptions about it that are mistaken.
But yes, absolutely – one of the [themes] in this book is people who didn’t know believe in God, or they were having doubt, and they didn’t start calling themselves an atheist until they saw other people start coming out as atheist because they literally didn’t know it was an option. ‘There are people who don’t believe in God? You can do that?!’
They had either never heard the word, or they’d heard the word but they thought it meant… you know, ‘cause there’s a lot of ridiculous ideas about what it means: that it means you worship Satan, that it means you’re angry at God and so on.
And so for some people, obviously, there was this thing of ‘Well, I think atheists are bad people, and I’m not a bad person, so I can’t be an atheist.’ But there’s even more than that. There’s the ‘I just didn’t know it was an option.’ ‘I just didn’t know that that was a thing.’
So again, it’s about visibility. Some of what we’re doing when we do things about visibility is just letting people know that this is a possibility. And it is one of the things that’s a little bit annoying about being in a marginalised group, and particularly in a marginalised group that’s invisible, that being out or coming out means doing some 101 education. And that’s annoying.
We shouldn’t have to do that, and I think that it’s not necessary to do it if you want to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel like doing bisexuality 101.’ ‘I don’t feel like doing atheism 101. Go look it up on the Internet.’ I think that’s legitimate. But as a collective reality, as a community reality, I think it is unfortunate that being out does mean – at the minimum, it means you’re going to be asked all these ridiculous questions. ‘Do you eat babies?’ and so on.
But there’s a flipside to that, which is that simply by being out we’re doing 101 education. Even if we don’t want to sit down and answer all the irritating questions – and sometimes I’m in a mood for it and sometimes I’m not – but simply by being out, our very lives are doing education. There’s times when I just want to live my damn life, and not be… you know, I don’t know if you have this, but do you ever sort of feel the need to be, you know, a paragon?
No. No, I’ve never been a paragon in my life! Well, not of goodness anyway.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it’s interesting though, because as you say, it’s difficult having to be that person who’ll explain and educate and be compulsorily not-pissed-off about it. But I did that, and here’s something that I wanted actually, ‘cause I find it interesting:
That member of my family who had all that stuff going on for years and years, is I think at the point now of just about getting it. I think it was a year or two ago, and I just had to sort of… I actually don’t know that I was any clearer than I’d ever been before, but I was more empathetic, and just said something to the effect of ‘Look: it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to lots of people whether you’re a man or a woman, or anybody in between or beyond the two.’
That same person, who was giving me the ‘So are you gay?’ talk for years and years – since that point, comparatively recently – has actually expressed queer attractions: attractions to people of the same gender that they never had before.
And so I’m wondering if that idea that just by coming out, you’re not going to convert anybody or anything like that… maybe is there room to be… if not to be critical, then to question some element of that?
We were talking before about erasure, and the fact that what you’re able to identify as and what you’re able to feel that you are kind of depends on what you think is an option. It depends on the concepts and the identities that you know of and that you’ve been exposed to, and that you ‘get’.
So I’m wondering: does the act of coming out and being more visible and doing that education sometimes actually make other people rethink their own identities, in a way that is not exactly the same as just coming out?
Well, I think that it certainly can make people ‘come out to themselves’. It can certainly make people question their own identity and accept things about themselves that they might not have accepted, or consider options – as you say, consider options about themselves that they might not have considered.
I think there probably were, for centuries, for millennia, people who were what we would now call transgender – who because they never had that word, because they never had that concept, would never have called themselves that.
Now when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity I’m reluctant to say, [and] I don’t think, people ‘become’ bisexual or ‘become’ gay or lesbian or ‘become’ transgender because they see that it’s an option. I do think (and it seems to be where the scientific consensus is coming in) that to some extent, either we’re born this way or we’re formed this way very very early on in life.
But certainly, to the extent that you accept it about yourself and are willing to embrace it – and even (we’re starting to get off-theme here, but) is there a degree to which having the word lets you be the thing? Does having the word’ bisexual’, does having the word ‘transgender’, let you be it in a way that if you never had that word, if the word didn’t exist and if the concept didn’t exist, you [wouldn’t]?
What makes me go back on that is, people have been behaving bisexually, people have been behaving homosexually, for centuries. There’s lots of history of that. And that behaviour has existed for a long time. I don’t know as much about the history of transgender people, so I don’t know about that, but my guess would be that it’s the same.
So I don’t know. I’m repeating myself. It’s an interesting question: to what degree does seeing other people as models not only… obviously it helps you come out and be public, but to what degree does it let you not only accept things about yourself that you’re having a hard time accepting, but actually just identity that way at all?
And I don’t know. I think that’s a good question.
Just, perhaps, to notice things about yourself that you haven’t noticed before?
I don’t know if this is a thing that you’ve experienced – I don’t even know if this is a broad bisexual phenomenon – but was there was ever a point for you where you had that moment of thinking ‘Hang on, this is attraction? This counts as attraction? I can say that?’ I don’t know, was that a thing that you had?
‘Cause for a while, I – sorry, I’ll keep talking! – there was a reasonably extensive time when I identified as gay while I was a teenager. But I think there was a point, which was kind of a tipping point, when I actually had that moment and realised that what I felt towards women could be considered attraction.
I hadn’t had that moment before. I never considered what I was experiencing to be sexual attraction, but it was, and that kind of dawned on me. It never actually seemed to ‘count’ before, right? I felt primed to be dismissive of that. And I think a lot of people are wedded to a straight identity in a similar way.
I think there are people who identify as straight because they always have and they’ve been told that that was the default, and will have queer attractions or experiences that don’t really occur to them – they just kind of fly under the radar. It’s a huge thing with straight men, particularly adolescent and twentysomething – the whole ‘male bonding’ thing, falling into something that really should be considered erotic and yet is not.
Well, I think that certainly, when it comes to… I don’t know, there’s not much that’s certain about this. I’ll take back the ‘certainly’ part!
I think that bisexual identity is a little unusual in some ways, in that it’s… I’m not going to say ‘easier’, exactly, because it’s not necessarily emotionally easier, but it’s easier externally to fly under the radar.
Actually, I’ll give you an example here: I found out some years after my mother died (she died when I was very young and when she was 45), [when] my father told me some years later, that when she was in college she had had sexual experiences with other women.
I don’t know how far those experiences went, and of course by the time I found out about it my mother was gone, so I couldn’t ask her about it, but she’d had some sexual experiences with women – but because this was the fifties, and it was horribly homophobic, way worse than we are now, she felt guilty about it, she felt like this was something wrong with her.
But I don’t think her attraction to men was false. I don’t think she was a lesbian. I think that if anything, she probably was bisexual, or would have identified as bisexual if she had lived in another time. And so it’s kind of this thing where, if you’re attracted to both genders (or all genders – let’s get rid of the binary there for a minute), if you’re attracted to people of lots of genders, you can still be reasonably happy with just one.
If I’d been born in the fifties, and just said ‘I don’t want to explore women, ‘cause either I think that’s sick and wrong or I just am afraid of it’ – ‘cause all of us do that, and so on – I could have been happy, being involved with a man. I’ve been involved with men and have been happy. Well, reasonably happy. (It was in my youth when I was, you know, pretty fucked up.) ‘Reasonably happy.’
So that’s kind of an interesting question. I don’t want to make people call themselves what they don’t call themselves – I hate the whole thing of ‘Oh, everybody’s basically bisexual and they have to call themselves that.’ That’s ridiculous. But I do think that more people would probably both identify as bisexual and behave bisexually if bisexuality weren’t stigmatised, both from the straight world and from the gay world.
So I don’t know, does that answer your question?
Yeah. No, I think it does. It was Lady Gaga, and before her and after it’s been a whole lot of other people, but that whole argument from having no choice – ‘We were born gay!’, ‘Stop picking on us, we are the way we are!’, ‘It’s in our DNA!’, all of that stuff: as someone who is a Kinsey… 3 or 5? I always forget which way the scale goes.
6 is totally gay and 0 is totally straight.
Yeah – four and a half, sort of thing? I find that argument is fairly insulting, on some level, because I have the same thing as you: I’ve found heterosexual relationships to be perfectly enjoyable, perfectly fulfilling and all of that stuff.
I don’t want to be in them right now; might want to be in them again at some point; but I kind of am the worst nightmare of the religious right and the tabloids, because for me right now, just being in gay relationships is actually a choice.
If I felt that I wanted to identify as gay, I could without any problems – so I feel sidelined by that whole thing, ‘We don’t have a choice! Leave us alone!’ If it were a choice, it would probably be the best choice in the world.
Haha. No, I know what you mean. I think there’s a couple of problems with ‘Born this way’. One is that it doesn’t have much of a good ethical foundation. I don’t know if you know John Corvino? He’s a gay philosopher, atheist…
I think so. Has he done Skepticon?
He’s done Skepticon, he’s done debates with Maggie Gallagher of the National Organisation for Marriage and so on, and he makes the case he doesn’t like the ‘Born this way’ argument because he thinks that it doesn’t have an ethical foundation. And the analogy he makes is, it’s quite possible that some people are born with a greater tendency to be violent – to be physically violent – than others.
That doesn’t make being physically violent ethical. That’s not what answers the question of whether it’s okay to physically hurt people. If you ask the question, the answer isn’t ‘Well, some people are born with a likelihood to do that, so therefore it’s okay.’
So when you’re looking at the question of ‘Is it ethical to be gay, to be lesbian or bisexual?’ – that’s not the question we should be looking at. The question is… is it ethical? Does it hurt anybody? Does it do harm to society? Is there any way in which it’s unfair? Those are the questions we should be looking at.
And I think for anybody who’s not already committed to the proposition that being gay is bad, the answer is pretty clear that no, there’s nothing ethically wrong with it. And I agree with you that certainly from a political standpoint, focusing on the ‘Born this way’ argument – when the LGBT political movement is focusing on, you know, ‘We’re born this way’, ‘We can’t help it’ – it does throw bisexuals into the gutter.
Because we do have a choice. I’m the same way as you are: I could have been happy in relationships, I could have been happy in relationships with women. I could have been happy in relationships with people who don’t identify on a gender binary. But at a time in my life when I was starting to go ‘Okay, I don’t want to be single any more. I’ve been single for a long time; that was good. I now want to be open to being in a serious relationship’, I was loading the dice towards women.
And that’s not because I’m more sexually attracted to women than I am to men. (I am a little bit, but not enough to have that be the determining factor.) It’s that I like women better. You know, the personality traits that women tend on average, as an overall bell curve kind of thing to have more than men are traits that I like, and that I think are useful and valuable in a relationship and that I cherish in a relationship.
So when I was dating, and dating with an eye toward maybe getting seriously involved, I was definitely mostly dating women, because not as a sexual thing but just as a personal thing, I tend to like women better than men. And when the LGBT movement emphasises ‘Born this way!’, it does kind of cast us into the shade.
And I also do think that it does ignore the degree to which sexual identity, or at least sexual orientation – not necessarily self-proclaimed identity, although that too actually – can change over time.
The scientific consensus does seem to be leaning to some degree toward who we’re just attracted to; you know, who our genitals get throbby for or at least have the potential to be throbby for. That does seem to be set pretty early on in life, but as you say, it kind of ignores that those of us for whom the setting that we got very early on in life is malleability; is something that might change over time.
So yeah, I’m repeating myself here: I do think there’s seems to be some degree of scientific consensus that just the physical lustiness seems to be set. But that ignores the degree to which where we’re set [can be] flexibility or malleability. And also, it’s so complicated. There’s so much more than just who our bits get throbby for. There is all the cultural identity and political identity that’s as much as part of the picture as the throbby bits.
No, that’s my response to ‘Are you born this way or are you not?’ I find that whole question to be a little bit oversimplistic. It’s the same with food, it’s the same with music taste, it’s the same with most things, I would guess. I think genetics is probably very influential, but all of those factory settings are always going to be filtered through the way we think about ourselves, the way we’re taught to think about ourselves, what we’re invited to see as valid, what we’re invited to see as something that doesn’t count…
The idea that it’s as simple and as binary as ‘Either it’s born-that-way, or you just choose that’ – well, I would imagine that most philosophers would be fairly critical of the idea you’re either born with a state, a predisposition or whatever, or it’s completely your choice. That’s a very overneat way of thinking about it.
So yeah, there’s that. To go back to something you said, I have read criticism of the idea the bisexual label invokes a gender binary. I’ve heard the argument that the word was coined to refer to both homosexual and non-homosexual’ relationships. So there’s that argument for the permissibility of it.
‘Pansexual’ does just not work for me. I know this is probably very politically incorrect, but it just sounds pretentious. Sorry – I know I’m going to get lots of people being really angry with me after saying that, but personally, it just wouldn’t really feel intuitive to me to call myself pansexual. Even though the idea is probably actually closer to how I see things, it doesn’t quite sit right.
Is it that you just don’t like the language? Is it that you think it’s awkward neologism? Or it just not how you identify – are you, in fact, attracted to men and women but not to people who aren’t on the gender binary? Because I think there may be people like that, who aren’t attracted to people who aren’t on the gender binary.
There are certainly people who feel an attraction specifically toward nonbinary people, so presumably, perhaps the opposite exists as well. No: men, women and everyone between and beyond is all good as far as I’m concerned, but it just feels a little too… unfamiliar? ‘Pansexual’? It feels a bit too much like a neologism for me.
Everyone can use the language that they prefer – it just doesn’t quite chime with me, for some reason. I think if you asked me, ‘queer’ would be how I identified, because I like its vagueness.
Of course, that was also a strategy that I used to piss people off. And I continue to use it to piss people off. Perhaps it’s ethically questionable, because I don’t like being asked to do the education and the explanations and that kind of thing, but I do deliberately employ an identifier that makes people confused.
I suppose I’m just manipulative. There’s something very welcoming about being able to be nonspecific.
To some extent it’s concept-dependent. I use a whole panoply of words to describe myself. I use the word ‘queer’, and I like the word ‘queer’ for many situations – for no other reason but that it does, in a single syllable, without having to say LGBTQII et cetera, get across the sense of ‘all of us together’: all of us who identify [other than as] heterosexual and cisgender.
And it also gets across that sense of deliberate, self-defined differentness. That’s not true for all LGBTQ people. There’s a lot of LGBTQ people who don’t feel this great sense of differentness because of their sexual or gender orientation. But some of us do, and that’s a reason I use the word.
But there are times when I actually do want to specifically convey that I’m attracted to people of both or all genders. There are times when I want to get that cross, and when you say ‘queer’, that doesn’t do that. People who are totally, 100 percent lesbian still use that word; people who are totally, 100 percent gay still use that word.
And there are times when I call myself a lesbian. I don’t use that often – but I do use that if what I’m trying to get across is that I’m in a same-sex relationship, I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for sixteen years, and I have a cultural identification with the LGBTQ community, but I also have a specific cultural identification with the lesbian community.
And there’s times when I want to be conveying that. And also when I’m trying to get guys to not hit on me. It’s that shorthand. That’s my own sort of dishonest thing, where if I don’t feel like having the whole conversation and saying ‘I’m bisexual – I just want you to piss off’, sometimes saying ‘I’m a lesbian’ stops the conversation. So.
Yeah. I think it’s interesting the extent to which identifying oneself as bisexual often feels a little rude, or a little combative, or as if you’re being difficult.
I don’t know if this is your experience as well, but I think because there’s such a level of erasure about bisexuality, very often the point where you express that about yourself is when someone has asked you if you’re gay. That’s how it was with me; that’s how it was, I think, with a lot of people. And therefore it’s often slightly difficult to identify oneself as bisexual in conversation without telling someone they’re wrong and without sounding slightly irritated.
And I think there can be a feeling that… you’re just ruining everybody’s fun, and why can’t you just be a little more simplistic, and not along and say that you’re gay?
‘Stop making everything so complicated!’ Which is why I think a lot of people have that very flexible thing. I think there are a lot of generally bisexual people, or in broad terms bisexual people, who’ll go with ‘gay’ and nod along when they feel socially pressured or expected to, just because it’s easier, and they don’t feel they have to do the explanations.
Personally I’m much more difficult than that. I have no interest in being polite, and being nice, and making it really easy for the straight people to get everything. I will simultaneously insist that you use the terms, which confuse you, that I want you to use, and insist on not explaining them. That’s how irritating I am.
Hahaha. There is some of this. People keep talking about ‘Oh, the language keeps changing! How do you expect me to keep up with all these new rules?’ Well, actually, you know what? There is a really old rule.
I got this from, of all places, Miss Manners, who I adore – I have some issues with her, but mostly I adore her – and she wasn’t even talking about this, she was talking about something else. But she said ‘It’s polite to address people in the way that they have clearly indicated that they want to be addressed.’
That cuts across a lot of things. How do people of different racial or ethnic identities want to be addressed? How do people of different sexual or gender identities want to be addressed? How do people of different nationalities want to be addressed?
It’s polite to address the way they’ve clearly indicated they want to be addressed – and they don’t owe you an explanation. They don’t need to have the whole history of why the word you just used is an ethnic slur and they’d really rather you used this other word instead. You don’t owe that to people.
I do think that if somebody uses the wrong word by mistake and they just didn’t know, then it’s legitimate to cut them slack – I cut people slack for ignorance. But if it’s the tenth time we’ve had that conversation and you’re still using the wrong word, then that to me speaks of a deliberate, wilful ignorance and a deliberate resistance – not just to that language, but to let go of the privilege of getting to pick the language.
That’s the thing: the power to name ourselves is really important. And I think there are a lot of people from whatever axis of privilege you’re talking about, whether it’s race, or gender orientation, class, whatever, who want to pick the language ‘cause they always have. And being asked to ‘try to remember as best you can what it is that I prefer to be called…’
Being asked to spend five minutes on Wikipedia! Five whole minutes doing your research – it’s just unacceptable.
Yes. Exactly. Yes. And having to remember things?! People tell you things, and you have to remember?! You have to stop and think for a second? It’s like, what’s that about?
There’s actually a point in your book – maybe it was cut – where you talk about the fact you use the word ‘atheist’ and not the word ‘freethinker’, ‘secularist’, ‘skeptic’, whatever. Because secularism – or atheism, or freethought or whatever – has that argument as well: that tension and variety about names.
I don’t know. Do you think that in a way, because it’s seen to be less of a… no, I’ll let you talk. How do you think that those compare – the variety of names in queer identity and atheism?
I think there’s a lot of parallels. I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think that, certainly, again there’s this whole thing of the power to name ourselves, and when people have been marginalised and have been stigmatised – especially when we’re still in those first few years of coalescing as a community and as a movement – that power to name ourselves becomes really important.
But also, because we’re coming together and coalescing as a movement, we’re not just struggling with believers about what to call us, we’re struggling with ourselves and what we should call ourselves. But of course, we all have that issue of wanting to name ourselves, and we don’t want to be called by other nonbelievers what to call ourselves any more than we want to be told by believers. So I tend to try to not get involved in the squabbles. I try to say, ‘Each of us gets to call ourselves what we want, and if you want to call yourself a humanist or a freethinker, ‘nonbeliever’, ‘agnostic’, ‘materialist’, whatever – I don’t really care that much.’
I have a little bit of an issue with ‘agnostic’, ‘cause I want to ask people who call themselves agnostic, ‘Are you just as agnostic about unicorns or leprechauns or whatever as you are about God? And if you’re not, why is God the one thing that you insist on claiming your lack of knowledge about?’ But ultimately, as long as they’re not telling me that I shouldn’t call myself an atheist and that I’m ‘really’, in air-quotes, an agnostic, I don’t want to tell them that they’re ‘really’ (air-quotes) an atheist, ‘cause that power to name myself is to important. And if for them that not-knowing matters, I think for them that’s fine.
And I do suspect that eventually, maybe in a decade or two, we’ll probably coalesce on a word that most of us use. You know, the way we coalesced on ‘LGBT’. It’s not what I would have picked…
…cause it’s too many syllables and it’s awkward and it’s a mouthful, but it’s not a bad term. It includes everybody, and it gets it across and it’s short (short enough, anyway), and it’s kind of how language works: neologisms are awkward until they’re not new any more. To some extent, you can try to advocate for whatever word you like best, but ultimately language develops organically and we’re going to coalesce on whatever word we coalesce on.
Maybe we don’t coalesce on a word, because there are differences between atheists and humanists for instances – just like there’s differences between ‘LGBT’ and ‘queer’. Subtle differences, and again we might use different words in different situations. There are times when I call myself a humanist, because I’m trying to identify more with the assorted positive philosophies and not just with the lack of belief in God.
But really, I don’t care what other people call themselves. It’s an issue when we’re trying to name groups or organisations or whatever. But I don’t want to take away that power-of-naming. It’s too important.
It’s interesting: some of those names can sometimes be more than just interchangeable names. There’s a certain series of associations that I have with the label of ‘humanist’ – there’s a way in which I associate the label ‘humanist’ with the 1960s, and a consequence perhaps with people who were around in the 1960s and are still around… and are still in those organisations, if you know what I’m saying.
It seems to me that ‘atheist’ has caught the vogue in the last ten years (maybe a little more) in the same way that ‘humanist’ did then. There seems to be a vogue for that at the moment.
I agree with you that ‘atheist’ has more of an appeal to younger people – people who are… high school, college, early twenties and so on. And that’s not universally true, but I would also add to that that I think the word ‘atheist’ tends to draw people who are more confrontational, who are more actually-opposition to religion, or just whose manner of activism and being in the world about their nonbelief is more confrontational and less let’s-get-along-to-get-along.
It’s not universally true – I know some people who identify as humanists who are very badass – but that’s another thing about language: it develops organically and it changes organically. When my parents were nonbelievers, and this was in the fifties and sixties, they very adamantly called themselves agnostics, because at the time, the word ‘atheist’ tended to mean somebody who’s absolutely certain that there is no god. And people who had even the tiny, tiny .001 percent of doubt called themselves agnostic.
That’s changed, and I think the language will probably continue to change. I agree with you that ‘humanist’ has different associations; I’m not sure I would necessarily agree that it necessarily means people who are of an older generation, but to some extent it has that association. But again, those associations change.
It’s one of the issues I have with (quote-unquote) ‘dictionary atheists’, who insist atheism only means not believing in God, and we can’t organise or build communities around any other thing. It’s like, no: atheism is beginning to mean both people who don’t believe in God and a set of implications that we draw from that conclusion.
I’ve noticed as well that there’s a certain political gulf, that I have a very vague impression of, between humanists and humanist-identified secularists in the US and Britain as well.
I’ve tended to observe that people who march under the banner of humanism in the states lean somewhat more strongly to the left than humanists in Britain. I’m not sure why that is, but – in my experience, anyway – it’s more of a countercultural identity, [with] more immediate openness to class concerns in politics, feminism and that kind of thing.
I’ve found that humanists in the UK are first of all a little less well defined. You find people under the humanist banner everywhere politically, but as far as major organisations, I think that the British Humanist Association – the people that run it, and I’ve met quite a few of them, I would place more in the political centre than people I know at African Americans for Humanism or the American Humanist Association.
I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting.
That’s a good question. Because this is me, and this is what I do, I’m going to speculate and pull speculative conclusions totally out of my ass – so, therefore, this is a provisional guess – but I think that to some extent [it’s] because being a nonbeliever in Britain is more normal, it’s more ordinary, it’s more common anyway.
Being a nonbeliever in the states is oppositional, and there’s no way around that. It’s a little different if you live in New York City or some place like that, but even then you have to contend with the rest of the country. And so I wonder if because of that, right now at least in the United States, we have a situation where in order to reject religion you have to be willing to question the religious right, for one thing.
Certainly in the United States, religion and conservative politics are very much welded together. One of the reasons why I’m engaged in atheist activism is that I do see it as a crowbar: when people become atheists, they do tend to become more liberal, more progressive. I think that may not always be true. I think that if atheism does become more common in the United States, then in a few decades that tendency of atheists, humanists, just any nonbeliever…
So I don’t think that humanists are more progressive: just ‘nonbelievers’ in the States tend to be more progressive, because the kind of personality that gets you questioning religion is also perhaps the kind of personality that gets you questioning other conventions about politics and society and so on. I think it’s possible that in a few decades that won’t be true.
You hear it a lot from the religious right, that insistence that religious populations tend to be very charitable, very invested in helping the homeless and things like that – and I think that issue has manifested itself sometimes in humanist or atheist groups doing things like running soup kitchens or helping the poor, because things like charity and social help are associated with religious organisations.
Part of me thinks that has been somewhat less the case in Britain in the last fifty or more years, because I think Britain has a slightly more developed set of secular institutions for things like that. We’ve historically had, I think, somewhat better welfare provision.
No argument there, yeah.
Well, it’s changing…
Much, much, much better. It sucks: the social safety net in the United States sucks.
Yeah, but also trade unions and things like that, I think, have been much more enshrined – at least until recently (well, relatively recently) – in Britain than sometimes they have been in the US.
And from that perspective, it’s difficult to be a secularist in the US, at least if you have a very well conceived and thoroughly organised political vision, without wanting public provision to replace what churches have had. It’s hard to want churches to go away, and not think we should have some kind of public or communally provision of things like housing and so on.
Maybe that would account for more self-consciously left-leaning humanism in the US than what I sometimes see in the UK, which I think I would call more ‘liberal’, or ‘progressive’, or somewhere in the middle.
Well certainly. It’s sad, it’s depressing that this should be true, but in the United States, wanting a safety net at all is a liberal position.
Wanting decent public education; wanting there to be some sort of decent public healthcare safety net; wanting, you know, there to not be poor people dying in the streets: that’s a liberal position. It’s pathetic that it should be true, but that’s the case.
And I do think that there’s a couple of things going on. One is that a lot of the safety nets in the US are done through religion. I don’t know how true that is outside the States, but a lot of the safety nets are done through religion, so, therefore when we leave religion we have to recognise, ‘Gosh – if we’re not going to do soup kitchens and daycare centres through churches, how are we going to do them? What else are we going to do, then?’
And so there’s that. There’s also… I don’t know, have you read Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without Faith?
So Phil Zuckerman is a sociologist. He studies atheism and secularism and did this years-long analysis of countries that are more religious and countries that are less religious, and what he found was that countries that are less religious tend to be… they tend to be happier countries. They have more of a safety net, they’re doing better economically, there’s more equality, more egalitarianism, more gender equality, less of a disparity between rich and poor, better education, better healthcare and so on, which is the same as what progressives are advocates for.
Now the question there becomes: what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does leaving religion make people go, ‘Hey, there’s no heaven. There’s no afterlife. If we’re going to make people’s lives better we have to do it now, because this is all we get’? Does questioning religion make people want to build this better society? Or does having the better society more likely to be secular, because they don’t have as much of a need to believe in an afterlife ‘cause this life is okay – and also because they have the time and the security to ask questions like ‘Is there a god?’
So I think the reality does seem to be that more atheist societies do tend to be more progressive societies (at least if you define ‘progressive’ as meaning you don’t want people to die in the streets). But then there’s this question of what’s the cause and what’s the effect, and I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m not sure even how we would answer that.
We might actually have an interesting [situation] in the states, because rates of nonbelief are going up even though there’s no better social safety net, healthcare still sucks, public education still sucks and so on. There’s a huge disparity between rich and poor, and yet rates of atheism are still going up. (As a result of a lot of things, the Internet being probably one reason.)
So it’ll be interesting to see: if rates of secularism continue to rise in the States to the point where a significant minority, or a majority even, of Americans are nonbelievers, does our country become more progressive?
But again, correlation isn’t causation, and so… blah blah blah.
Well that’ll be an interesting thing to note if you get to the point where you’re releasing Coming Out Atheist (Seventeenth Edition).