The Magic Of Reality: What Growing Up Christian Had To Do With Believing In Santa

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If you ever believed in Santa—how did you find out that he wasn’t real?
And how did you feel about it?

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Some childish things I put away early—others I stayed attached to for too long. In my last year of primary school, Mrs Fanshawe asked if I had toys and things at my dad’s, gauging, I now suspect, whether to let him collect me at home time. I remember sensing I ought to nod, doing so even as I wondered who the hell still played with toys aged ten. (At the time, I would have said ‘who on earth’.) I knew by then that there was no Saint Nick, except the real one, who was a disappointment of a saint, but it hadn’t been long since I’d found out. I’m never sure whether I grew up too fast or too late.

The garden where Mum and I built snowmen had been a rubbish tip, and our house was designed equally messily. Five doors opened onto the living room, which must have been twelve square metres at most, and only three led into other rooms. Behind Mum’s storytelling chair, a cupboard with two compartments stretched from floor to ceiling. The top one smelt of truffles when you poked your head inside, and was where passports and grownup letters were stored—and, more importantly, chocolate boxes and booze. One night a year a glass of sherry was left out, next to a mince pie and half a carrot.

I think I was nineish when Mum fessed up. I distinctly recall lying in bed, hugging the wall the way I liked to when she prayed for me. Before lights out, we’d talk a while, then she would sing the end of Numbers 6—‘The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you’. That night, she told me Nicholas had been a patron of children even during his life—so what did I think their parents told them after he died? It strikes me now this was likely a fairy tale too, that all I’d done was graduate from one fiction to another, but at the time my reaction was one of confusion. In the years since, that hasn’t changed.

People attached to telling children Santa Claus is real often complain I don’t get it. I don’t. It’s never been intuitive to me why telling someone things you know are false—not to safeguard their wellbeing or your own, but just to watch them smile on being duped—is cruel and degrading in principle but twee in one specific case. Learning that Father Christmas was a lie didn’t make me cry or act up, but lied to was exactly how I felt. This year my niece turned eight: being required to play along was hard, and I’ve known parents admit to being more conflicted than they let on.

When friends say stories of a man in a red suit—the other one—made Christmas magical, I think they mean that on some level, they knew makebelieve when they saw it, but that the power of ritual swept them up. I sympathise—all stories are enchantments, all words spells. The trouble is, Father Christmas was more than a story to me, more than something I half believed. I knew the tooth fairy was imaginary, that costumed men who gave us Dairy Milk on the last day of term were imposters—there was enough nudging and winking in each case—but as I saw it, the man himself was every bit as real as God.

Mum came to regret that particular literalism. ‘I made it into something it was never meant to be,’ she told me some years back. There are a lot of memes about Father Christmas and God, some better than others, but in my mind, they occupied exactly the same space. I was used to the idea whatever extraordinary things Mum spoke of must be true (and she spoke of far more extraordinary things than Christian children all receiving gifts on the same night)—to the idea holding extraordinary beliefs was itself virtuous, never more so than if hostile nonbelievers surrounded you.

It wasn’t simply that we were Christians: plenty of children raised in Christian homes are functionally able to distinguish makebelieve from sincere belief (supernatural or not) perfectly well. It was that Mum and her then-church practised an evangelicalism that never drew any such line. Magic, makebelieve, ritual, story, play—these were never acknowledged as mere suspensions of disbelief, or as a realm in which belief might constitute something subtly different. All beliefs were literal, and makebelieve itself was a dangerous and demon-haunted thing: thinking Halloween was only a game was how the enemy got you.

Atheists are often stereotyped as Philistines with one-dimensional worldviews and no grasp of aesthetics or ritual. That described my church upbringing more than it describes me. In my experience, letting stories be stories only strengthens their magic. Believing Santa Claus was real caused me to miss the beauty I now see in the leaving-out of a small sherry and a mince pie, and Mum’s prayers worked because of how she sang, not because she believed—because of a cupboard of secret things, a chair in which fantastic tales were told, and the first snowman in the world that never had to melt.

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Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

It’s common to be told that people who make religions look bad aren’t really part of them, and in particular that homophobes aren’t ‘real’ Christians—as well as that their views are a perversion of faith fuelled by denial of their own sexuality. At the moment, I’m working on a much longer piece than usual, so I’m going to do something unusual and post an extract from it about the problem I have with this.

Think about it for a second, and Christian homophobia being fuelled by queer shame is a shitty idea. It means believing not only that an inexplicable swell of queer people are born into Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches, loathing themselves for no particular reason, but that Quakers and Unitarians are progressive because so many more of them are straight, and that our problems would be solved if straight people could just teach queer people not to be so homophobic. Historically and politically, it blames us for our own murder.

It also means thinking that by sheer coincidence, cultures in northern Europe, Africa and India where bisexuality was the norm developed a sudden angst about it, ex nihilo, at the exact moment Christian missionaries arrived. It means thinking that Rome’s upper classes became squicked out by their previously open sex lives the moment Constantine became emperor; that in the generation gap between the first Christians and their parents, condemning same sex acts went from being a wholly religious act to being nothing to do with religion.

Were the church fathers Christian in name only? Was Constantine less than a ‘real’ Christian? Were Paul, Peter and all popes since, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King? Were the missionaries whose schools and hospitals are points of pride? Or is ‘real’ Christianity a drawbridge that goes up and down, alternately admitting and excluding these people, raised and lowered for the comfort of people who denounce some homophobes then venerate others, only denying their membership of the faith when it’s expedient?

I don’t say this as an atheist with an agenda, or somebody opposed to progressive religious tendencies. I say it as a queer person to whom it doesn’t feel progressive to care about homophobia only when it makes being a Christian uncomfortable, or to be more concerned about the threat it poses to your faith’s PR than to my life and the lives of my friends. All Christians are real Christians; all Muslims are real Muslims; all atheists are real atheists. Deal with it.

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Another response to Kris Nelson – guest post by Amber Adamson

000Every so often an article so Lovecraftian wanders across my path that I am inspired to engage. At Everyday Feminism, usually a site I enjoy, blogger Kris Nelson discusses ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’. I’d like to note upfront here that I emailed Kris about their piece and what I saw as its problems, or at least a few of them. I was actually rather tame. I refrained from even questioning what is arguably the worst aspect of their piece – its deference to pseudo-science – and stuck to questioning its rather absurd binary of the western Christian church versus all other religions – united, one presumes, in some kind of care bear struggle against evil, with the western Christian church the root of it all.

I’m not going to repost my email here, but over-gentle as I tried to be, Kris’s reaction was juvenile in the extreme – I suppose I was too optimistic in thinking they might reconsider some of their stranger assumptions. I am going to mention some quotes from their email, because it shows how narrow and warped their perspective is. Honestly, a part of me can’t help but feel I’m being a bully here – when an author is this clueless, isn’t it a bit unfair to even scrutinize them? But this post has 3.3 thousand shares on Facebook. And it’s typical of a very seedy, apolitical ecumenicalism, which has infested leftist discourse and which I’m sick of. My writing against Kris is also my writing against everything writers like Kris represent. [Read more…]

Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

There’s a passage from Marx’s critique of Hegel that antitheists like to quote and defenders of faith like to quotemine. In a piece titled ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’, Kris Nelson notes Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world as well as the opium of the people, claiming to ‘open up . . . the full quote, and not just the snapshot used to pick at those who dare let their god(s) lead them’.

In fact, Nelson – ‘a queer trans witch [who] runs an online store . . . where they sell handcrafted wirework jewellery, crystal pendants, handsewn tarot bags and pendulums’ – is the one peddling a misrepresentation. The actually-full quote (translation mine) reads:

The discontent of religion is at once an expression of and protestation against true discontent. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world and soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To overthrow the bogus happiness they find in it is to demand they be allowed true happiness; to demand disillusionment with a condition built on delusion is to demand its end. And so to criticise religion is, in embryo, to criticise the vale of tears of which it is but an apparition.

Such critique has not shredded the imaginary flowers on people’s chains so as to leave them chained without solace or fantasy, but so that they might cast away their chains and gather real flowers. It disillusions people so that they might think, act and shape their own reality, as does anyone brought to their senses – so that their lives might revolve around them, people being their own true suns. Religion is no more than an illusory sun, revolving around people whose lives do not revolve around them.

The point missed on all sides isn’t that religion is either a bad habit or a source of hope – nor is Marx saying it’s one in spite of being the other. The meaning of ‘Opium des Volkes’, a metaphor Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw would later recycle, is that faith is comforting and delusional, easing the pain by clouding the senses: Marx labels it the courage of a heartless world as part of his attack.

There’s a lot I could say about those lines, which never fail to move me. Unlike new atheism’s figureheads, I’ve been a believer – I could say I remember not having enough to eat, going to church with a single mother and meeting other oppressed creatures; remember the cost of the church’s help, belief spinning out of control, abuse and mental illness taking hold; remember the bogus happiness, then finding poetry in the real world.

000I could say that as an apostate on the left, my skepticism serves an instinct that, in Chomsky’s words, ‘the burden of proof for anyone with a position of power and authority lies on them’ – that my atheism will never be separate from the fight for a just society – and that my antitheism will never, ever be divorced from compassion for those on the margins. I could even accept, though I think his argument survives it, that there’s room to criticise Marx – either in that his presumption to dismantle strangers’ beliefs rings paternalistic, or inasmuch as leftists can and do repurpose God for their own ends.

For now though, Nelson’s post.

Calling oneself a person of faith feels like setting light fingers on ‘person of colour’ – a move less tasteful still when apostates whose former religions have a marked ethnic dimension are among the most stigmatised, frequently smeared as race traitors. Mentioning one’s spirituality – ‘We’ve all got one!’ – likewise resembles the language of sexuality. While it’s perfectly true certain religious groups are ostracised, constructing believers in general as an oppressed class is putrescent – if Nelson finds religion a fraught topic on the left, it’s because of its role as oppressor, and it’s hard to see how conflating the ‘struggle’ of Baptists and Anglicans with those of Jews and Muslims in the west does any good. [Read more…]

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

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

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

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

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

On the difference between Christian queer allyship and exploitation (guest post by Xenologer)

From Sunday’s post:

I see why ‘doing God’ as a community might seem politically expedient. I understand the urge to demonstrate religion need not entail queerphobia. Despite this post, I value religious allies – and I recognise queer believers face all manner of challenges that mean they need inclusion and support. I’m not here to deny them that – queer spaces, most of the time, should welcome those of all beliefs and none – but I will argue the following: overt public religiosity stands in the way of this, and believers (queer or not) in LGBT space should be considerate.

Xenologer, who also has a blog, responds:

Personally, I have appreciated and seen the benefits of Christian orgs offering their basically unearned place of automatic credibility and moral high ground to queer people and queer causes. The phone banks against Indiana’s anti-gay proposed constitutional amendment took place in a church. I’d like to explain the difference – for me – between what this essay is talking about and what progressive people of faith did for us in Indy.

The insistence for many on cramming their gay-friendly Christian theology into LGBT events seems less like ‘we are here to support you’ and more [like] ‘if we are nice to you, will you please keep us from becoming obsolete?’ It’s a demand, not an offer. It’s always on Christian terms and we always have to include them and even center them so that they can reassure themselves they’re not like Those Other Christians.

For contrast, take LifeJourney Church, which let Freedom Indiana use their space to phone bank against HJR-3/6. I never felt like the fact that we were in a church was supposed to matter to us. There was no necessary deference to Christianity required as the price of their assistance. They offered help and then let LGBT people take the reins.

Basically, it’s the same choice available to all allies. Crappy faux-allies will say, ‘You have our support as long as you use it to improve our PR.’ Actual allyship means saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve got available. Is that useful? Cool. Use it. Let us know if you need more stuff to use,’ and not demanding that the help come with those ‘and be sure to tell everyone we did it’ strings.

Christian theology comes from a text full of such diverse and often contradictory content that people can come to the text with whatever they want and walk away from it completely unchanged (but with shiny new scriptural support for whatever they wanted to think). As a result, yes, Christianity can be spun to be queer-friendly. However: supporting LGBT people as a way to show off how modern and cosmopolitan the religion can be so that its frequent backward arsery doesn’t render it obsolete? That’s gross. That’s not allyship, but it is what I see a lot.

I find it really alienating that in so many LGBT circles the drive to assimilate into a Christian-dominant notion of respectability is so important. Not everybody wants to be A Good Christian Just Like You Cis-Het Christians, and not everybody wants to be a prop in someone else’s quest to do that. Furthermore, we shouldn’t have to let Christians use us for their PR. LGBT people are the ones who need help, and treating us like a resource for churches that wanna bedazzle Christianity is hella exploitative.

I can’t wait until LGBT people don’t need help from churches, and honestly? The churches that are our actual allies can’t wait either. They’re the allies who are working to make themselves obsolete. Churches that use us for their PR as a symbol for how modern they are? To show that they are so good at Jesusing that they’ll even *gasp* be nice to TEH QWURZ? They like us right where we are, and never forget it.

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Jesus was not a queer ally: why I can’t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously (and why queer spaces must remain secular)

Introduction

I can’t tell you how long I’ve been trying to write this. Weeks in draft-and-delete mode spawned the post you’re reading, but drafting it at all was half the battle. Having first thought up this piece in February, I’ve spent 2014 with writer’s block – but a block is just the state of not knowing what to say or how, and I’ve felt that way about queer Christianity since leaving the church seven years ago. What I’m about to say’s a long time coming.

I was twelve the first time I came out, sixteen when I lost my faith. In the intervening years I never thought God was against me: mine was the God-loves-the-gays Christianity the gays have since fallen for, and I knew all the scriptural self-defence techniques I needed. No one was without sin; all were one in Christ; homophobic Bible verses had been badly translated; they had to be read in context; Jesus himself made Old Testament ideas redundant; he said nothing at all about gay sex; his was a gospel of love and acceptance.

I’m more embarrassed now of telling myself this than anything I thought about resurrections or virgin births. You’d think perhaps that as an atheist, I’d find all my former beliefs equally odd, but given my upbringing I understand why I thought Christ rose from the dead – within a certain belief set these things make sense. The claim that Jesus was a queer ally seems poor on its own terms, so clear a feat of wishful thinking I don’t know how I convinced myself of it, yet I hear it everywhere. [Read more…]

Finally, lesbian and gay Christians get called out

Occasionally I like something I read by a believer. Shannon TL Kearns at the Anarchist Reverend blog: ‘LGBT Christian Respectability Politics Have Got To Go‘.

The lesbian and gay Christian conversation (with occasional comments about bisexual and transgender folks) seems to finally be hitting its peak. Everywhere you turn these days there are new books and conferences and denominational statements. I’m observing some troubling trends within this LG(BT) Christian movement.

If you begin to follow the conversations online you notice a couple of things: The gay and lesbian people who are held up as the ones to listen to are polite, soft-spoken, center the feelings of allies, and rarely (if ever) get angry. They focus on the ‘clobber passages’ and don’t talk about liberation in broader terms. They are content to stay in their evangelical churches. They don’t unpack how other theology is harmful, not just to queer people but to straight and cis folks as well. Their entire conversation can be boiled down to ‘I’m just like you, only gay.’

Here’s the thing about respectability politics; they don’t work. They are based on a false notion that says if only you behave, if only you play by the rules, if only you are good enough, then the church will love and accept you. But it’s not true. Because even when you tell them you are celibate they still think you are having sex. And even when you quote the Bible at them they still distrust your reading of it. Even when you dress like them and talk like them and marry like them they are still waiting for you to mess up so they can discredit you.

And as you play into respectability politics you are not actually working for liberation. You are saying, ‘I’m not like those other queers. I’m one of the good ones.’ And by saying that you allow straight and cisgender people to say it as well and suddenly the ‘bad queers’ are pushed to the side, or worse, pushed out entirely.

When the people who hate us come for us (and they will) they won’t care that you are celibate. Or that you are married with a picket fence and 2.5 kids. They won’t care that you are white and dress nice and toe the line. They will look at you as if you are just like all of the other queer and trans people, the ones that you have said you aren’t like. They won’t see the differences between us. They will lump us all together. In that moment your respectability will not save you.

I don’t agree with every word, of course, but the whole thing’s worth a read – it’s nice to see the gay and lesbian Christian lobby get the slap in the face it deserves.

More coming soon, in my own words.

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I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse.

Specifically, I’m sorry some of its ideas inspire abuse. To name a few things:

I don’t feel personally responsible for these things – I’m not sorry in the same way as when I step on someone’s foot or guess a Canadian’s from the US – but I’m sorry it’s the case today’s atheist movement has inspired them. Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share, which came to prominence roughly in the last ten years, produced the ideas that inspire this abuse just as particular religions produce their own. [Read more…]