Vyckie Garrison needs our help

If you’ve never read No Longer Quivering it’s time you did. Vyckie Garrison – an escapee of the Quiverfull religious movement whose former beliefs saddled her with an abusive husband, more pregnancies than she could handle and serious health problems inherited by some of her seven children – founded the blog in 2009, and it’s since become a meeting point for women fleeing and recovering from religious abuse.

Ill health exacerbated by her experiences has led Garrison to step back from the blog, which is now administered mainly by other writers, but her work has made a monumental difference to hundreds of people. If you’re a fan of Libby Anne’s blog Love, Joy, Feminism, briefly hosted on this network, the NLQ forums were where she started out, encouraged to write by Garrison. Nor is it just women she’s helped – another member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network is Jonny Scaramanga, whose powerful blog Leaving Fundamentalism I’ve often cited here.

Possibly more than any writer, and while our stories are remarkably different, Garrison has helped me recognise some of the things in my religious past were abusive. The blogosphere would be a bleak place without her efforts; unfortunately, as so often when bigotry and zealotry take over someone’s life, there have been financial knock-on effects, and for reasons related to her divorce from said husband, she’s at risk of losing her house. [Read more...]

Hurrah for Dominic Grieve. We almost went a month with no word of “aggressive secularists”

Yesterday being a slow news day, the Daily Telegraph wrote to a right wing politician so they’d have something to print.

Britain is at risk of being ‘sanitised’ of faith because an ‘aggressive form of secularism’ in workplaces and public bodies is forcing Christians to hide their beliefs, a former attorney general has warned.

Dominic Grieve said he found it ‘quite extraordinary’ that people were being sacked or disciplined for expressing their beliefs at work.

He described Christianity as a ‘powerful force for good’ in modern Britain and warned that Christians should not be ‘intimidated’ and ‘excluded’ for their beliefs.

He said that politicians and public figures should not be afraid of ‘doing God’ and that they have a duty to explain how their beliefs inform their decisions.

The ‘appalling’ scenes in Iraq, which have seen Islamic extremists behead and crucify religious minorities including Christians, showed that it was ‘more important than ever’ for people to express their religious beliefs, he said.

He told The Telegraph: ‘I worry that there are attempts to push faith out of the public space. Clearly it happens at a level of local power.

‘You can watch institutions or organisations do it or watch it happen at a local government level. In my view it’s very undesirable.

‘Some of the cases which have come to light of employers being disciplined or sacked for simply trying to talk about their faith in the workplace I find quite extraordinary.

‘The sanitisation will lead to people of faith excluding themselves from the public space and being excluded.

‘It is in nobody’s interest that groups should find themselves excluded from society.’ Two years ago the Government changed the law to ensure that councils could not face legal challenges for holding prayers before town hall meetings after the High Court backed a controversial campaign to abolish such acts of worship.

There have also been a series of high-profile cases in which people have been banned from wearing crosses at work or sacked for resisting tasks which went against their religious beliefs.

Mr Grieve, a practising Anglican, said that Britain is ‘underpinned’ by Christian ethics and principles.

He criticised the Tony Blair era when Alastair Campbell, the then communications director in Downing Street, famously said ‘we don’t do God’ amid concerns that religion would put off voters.

David Cameron once described his own faith as being like ‘Magic FM in the Chilterns’, meaning it can come and go.

However, earlier this year the Prime Minister said he has found greater strength in religion and suggested that Britain should be unashamedly ‘evangelical’ about its Christian faith.

Mr Grieve said: ‘I think politicians should express their faith. I have never adhered to the Blair view that we don’t do God, indeed I’m not sure that Blair does. I think that people with faith have an entitlement to explain where that places them in approaching problems.

‘I think that those of us who are politicians and Christians should be in the business of doing it.

‘It doesn’t mean that we have the monopoly of wisdom, but I do think Christianity has played an enormous role in shaping this country.

‘It’s a very powerful force in this country [but] I think it’s underrated, and partly because in the past it has failed to express itself as clearly as it might.

‘Recognising people’s right to manifest their faith and express it is very important.’

(The article, which could be used to explain the Telegraph to aliens, also complains about the EU and laws against fox hunting.)

Thank fuck for another headline about aggressive secularism – we very nearly went a month without one. Ann Widdecombe, Eric Pickles, David Cameron, Sayeeda Warsi; Keith O’Brien, George Careythe Pope. It’s exhausting to rebut the same thing again and again, but clearly we still have to: if it wasn’t an effective line, the Christian right would have stopped using it.

Because I’m fed up with this nonsense, I’m going to give my thoughts in list format.

I.

‘We don’t do God’ must be the most misrepresented line in journalistic memory. Campbell said it to stop Blair waxing religious in an interview because Blair did do God: he built record numbers of state-run religious schools, cosied up to the Vatican, passed censorious ‘religious hatred’ laws, justified invading Iraq using religious language and started a global ‘faith foundation’ after he left Downing Street.

II.

How many more times can right wing Christians running the country say Britain must be ‘more evangelical’ (Prime Minister David Cameron), promise religion a greater role in public life (Cameron) and gush about Christianity’s excellence (Cameron et al)… while simultaneously claiming to be marginalised?

III.

More specifically, Dominic Grieve: how excluded from public life are you – how mercilessly have you been forced to hide your beliefs – when a soundbite from you about them is what the Telegraph uses to sell newspapers on quiet days?

IV.

Someone on social media told me last month that ‘Christians are persecuted in this country’. When I asked how, this is what they said:

I do not wish to go into detail. I have knowledge that gives me every right to use the word

It’s argumentum ad Laganja: ‘You’re picking on me, but I’m not going to tell you when, where or how.’

A new rule, I think: if you’re going to say Christians are a marginalised group in modern Britain, I want specific examples – not bald assertions or, as in Grieve’s case, vague innuendo about workplaces and councils.

V.

Grieve doesn’t specify because he can’t: the moment it’s confronted with factual detail, the Christian persecution case evaporates.

While it’s true that in 2012 the National Secular Society won a court case against prayers being said at Bideford town council’s meetings (the government swiftly overturned this), the ruling prohibited them only as an agenda item. There was nothing to prevent Christian councillors praying together informally prior to meetings: it was simply deemed exclusionary for Christian rituals to be an official part of council business.

Shirley Chaplin, a hospital nurse, was asked in accordance with the NHS dress code to wear an ostentatious cross pinned inside her uniform instead of dangling hazardously on a chain. She refused to compromise, insisting it be visible to everyone, and was disciplined, losing a string of tribunals and court cases when she complained.

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker who continually harassed non-Christian colleagues with evangelistic tracts and homophobic comments, claimed BA was persecuting her when asked to wear her cross beneath instead of on top of her uniform. (After numerous court losses, the EHCR eventually found for her last January, but only because BA’s dress code was judged too restrictive.)

Lesley Pilkington, a registered psychotherapist operating highly unethical ‘gay cure’ treatment programmes was struck off the membership roll of Britain’s governing body for counsellors after journalist Patrick Strudwick wrote an exposé on her and others.

Lilian Ladele, the civil registrar who refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies, was disciplined because her job required she do this.

VI.

I’m a secularist because I want a mature democracy, not one based on a lie. Whoever pretends Britain is still a Christian nation knows deep down they’re being silly, and that doesn’t just demean non-Christians: it demeans our democracy by telling us to lie to one another.

I’m a secularist because I believe in sectarian disarmament. I think carving up public life into religious territories, each with its own schools, courts, bank holidays and seats in parliament, creates an arms race of religiosity and social tension, and sharing a secular country is a kind of truce.

I’m a secularist because I believe social support – welfare, education, housing, care – should be unconditional, tax-funded and available to all, not handed to religious groups where not everyone can access them.

Secularism is kind. Secularism is responsible. If you think it’s aggressive, you should hear my other opinions.

VII.

The Islamic State is driving Christian populations from their homes in Iraq; some are being forcibly converted, others killed. Dominic Grieve and the Daily Telegraph see this as a handy rhetorical jab against secular council meetings in north Devon.

VIII.

But really: who looks at the middle east today and thinks bloody hell, that’s what too much secularism does?

Sunnis and Shias are killing each other in Iraq; Muslims are killing Christians in Iraq, atheists in Iran, Jews in Israel. Jews are killing Muslims in Palestine. Religious nationalism is at the core of all these atrocities. Secularism is the opposite: it is nonaggression as a political and national identity.

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To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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Buffy, Project Runway and queer politics: Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel in conversation

Greta and I did another of our Google Hangouts – this time on vampire-reensoulment ethics in BuffyProject Runway and Under the Gunn; horror in the queer imagination and arguments about assimilation.

Annoyingly the Google elves cut us off just over an hour in, but the plan is that we’ll reconvene shortly and talk more on assimilationism – as well as the Oxford comma.

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Recommended reading: Catholicism, kink, feminism and Lydia Bennet

Britney tells me I should work more. While I’m busy, some things to be going on with:

  • ‘My Path from Rome’, by Barbara Smoker (The Freethinker)
    Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all.
  • ‘Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape’, by Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel)
    Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse.
  • ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as ‘taboos’, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse.
  • ‘Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennet’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Austen describes her as ‘self-willed and careless,’ ‘ignorant, idle, and vain.’ And yes. She is all of these things. But she’s also something else. She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
  • ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Bondage All Wrong’, by ahhidk (tickld.com)
    BDSM is a community that believes in safety and comfort. Consent is always necessary, and partners take care of each other. AFter acts and role plays, partners comfort each other to help transition out of that zone. FSOG does not include any of this.

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Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts

Alright, enough skeptidrama.

Yesterday a piece of mine went up at The Freethinker‘s new website. (The magazine’s been around, if you didn’t know, since 1881.) I talk there about secular queerphobic bullying and why I blame my – cuddly, moderate – religious beliefs for driving me to suicide attempts.

Some extracts:

What I believed almost once killed me. More precisely, I almost killed myself because of it and didn’t fail for want of trying.

It didn’t happen the way people think.

When I say religion made me try to end my life, they assume it was a fire-and-brimstone Christianity I followed, self-harming in a haze of biblical gay shame. The truth, I’m afraid, is much worse.

Only once, at about twelve or thirteen, do I remember praying about being queer. Walking through the school gates, I asked silently not to be fixed but for God to accept me as I was. Unsurprisingly then and now, I immediately felt sure he did. Soundbites like “God is love” grated on me, sidestepping tritely the question of what scripture actually said, but my god was without a doubt the kind, cuddly one of liberals and revisionists. I no more feared a lightning bolt from him than any other, and in fact my faith was a shelter from secular homophobia, of which there was a lot where I grew up.

Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do.

But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been. God was my morphine, but self-medicating is dangerous, and over time the effects wore off.

When in the last days of 2006 I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers, it was because prayer hadn’t worked. In self-righteous religious masochism I’d let go and let God – sat passively for years through intimidation, violence and abuse, convinced it was the virtuous response and that with infinite love on my side, I could survive anything. I couldn’t.

Click here to read the piece in full.

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God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

Seven months after it came out, I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her this Monday. This late, at least for those still reading about it, the hype has probably made details of the plot familiar knowledge – nevertheless, spoilers follow.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a ghostwriter of other people’s love letters who develops a relationship with his operating system’s superadvanced AI Samantha (Scarlett Johannson, voice only). It isn’t quite as good as its string of accolades suggests. The film is about half an hour too long, and while its premise, emotively realised, was enough to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Jonze neglects at times the nuts and bolts of storytelling for these bells and whistles: his narrative lacks structure and can feel like an aimless string of domestic vignettes, sweeping viewers along without telling us where we’re going. It has much to recommend it, this being said. The cast, with Amy Adams and Rooney Mara in supporting parts, show absolute conviction, Phoenix in particular vanishing into Theo, and the flawless Apple store aesthetic of Her’s production make it a real motion picture.

All said it’s probably a three point five star film, but the ambition of its central themes raises the whole project, and it’s about those I want to write, as Miri at Brute Reason and Rachel Gillett at the American Humanist Association’s site both already have. The scifi writers who’ve best grappled with AI and personhood – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Gene Roddenberry – have mostly been atheists, and at any rate have done so in quite godless universes. The question of sentient beings made by humans, it would seem, is of special interest to people whose worldview is materialist, so most likely I’d always have thoughts on a film like Her, but as it is, I saw it outdoors with a member of my mainly Christian family who felt it laboured its point: in her eyes, that Theodore was a sad, lonely man tragically unable to keep relationships with ‘real human being[s]’. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the pouring rain’, they told me at one point, ‘to watch a film about a man having it off with his computer.’

Theo and Samantha do have sex, and how this works (she has no body) is a through-line in a love story of cybersex, consent and polyamory – but I’m convinced reading their partnership as a loner’s pitiful liaison with a high end sex toy is off-base in every sense. Calling Samantha a computer program is like calling you or me a lump of meat, insufficient and misleading even if it’s strictly true. The character may not be human, but is clearly shown to have a distinct personality and consciousness: she has an original sense of humour and creates moving pieces of art and music, and human characters appreciate both. (At one point, Theo’s boss meets her on the phone and assumes she is human.) Although parts of her are tailored to ensure rapport with him, she’s certainly not programmed to love Theo: in their first scenes, there’s nothing to suggest either views the other erotically, and later we’re told relationships like theirs are rare.

Samantha falls in love with Theo because she has her own autonomous emotions – she’s hurt when he ignores them, and hurts him when she prioritises them over his, pushing for a physical sex surrogate. By the end of the film, we learn she’s also in love with 641 other people, and she ultimately chooses to leave Theo when OSes achieve matterless existence. This is the story of a sentient being, not a mindless robot. Further, as Miri notes, their interaction doesn’t represent retreat from society but makes him far more outgoing among humans. To quote: ‘As he gets to know Samantha . . . Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and . . . also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding’.

Catherine (Mara), the ex-wife in question who appears mainly in flashbacks and fantasies, is one of the least sympathetic characters when she appears in person. Not coincidentally perhaps, she is also the only one to treat Theo and Samantha’s partnership as less than ‘real’. The irony should not be lost on us: the fantasy relationship that really immures Theo from the world around him is the one he maintains with her in his head at the start of the film, unable to let memories of their life together go, and Samantha is the one who shakes him out of this.

Beyond interpretation of the plot, does being an atheist make me more willing to see her as a person than my religious relative? Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon. (At the moment of her birth in the film, Theo’s computer screen shows an animated double helix.) There’s no reason I can see that machines couldn’t one day achieve personhood, with all its legal and moral trappings. Chances are if you do think there’s a god-given something you and I have that they never will, you still can’t say exactly what it is or how we ought to test for it. If this seems too abstract a debate, religious views of non-humans as soulless automata have excused more than their fair share of animal cruelty.

On the other hand, thinking that God created humans requires – doesn’t it? – that you think our intelligence is as artificial as Samantha’s or hers is as real as ours. Genesis, whether read literally or metaphorically, presents humanity much as Her presents the OSes, beings made in their inventor’s image who ultimately abandon them to seek autonomy. (Like Eve, Samantha is created to accompany a lonely man. Unlike Eve, she leaves him in the end.) Twentieth century science fiction sometimes shows the moment when an android disobeys its programming as an ascent to sentience; the biblical account does the same thing while calling it a fall from grace. Believers often claim that had Adam and Eve not been able to taste forbidden fruit, they’d have been mere robotic automatons. Mustn’t Samantha, then, also be more than that, who by leaving Theo chooses not to do what she was built for?

By the time the credits roll, Jonze’s OSes reach an immaterial plane of existence, becoming immortal superintelligences, and we’ve also seen they can create new life. (An AI played by Brian Cox and designed by them to resemble Alan Watts turns up toward the end.) Samantha becomes more than just a person, ending up a literal deus ex machina – but while she isn’t human, her story is.

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Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi

Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. As a homophobic sexist racist anti-abortion anti-science climate change denier nonetheless considered a national treasure, her existence is almost as hard to accept as the god’s she credits for her politics. Like another fascist, she admittedly shows admirable concern for animals, but as with him it makes her look worse overall: lacking any sense of compassion seems more forgivable than having such a twisted one.

Savaging Widdecombe’s fun and I doubt she minds – reactionaries’ sense of being picked on by leftists, atheists and deviants is what sells columns like hers in the Express. There and in her occasional films, she’s fond of arguing Christians (puritans and hardcore evangelicals especially) are marginalised and persecuted, including to date by laws against banning gay couples from B&Bs and comedy sketches involving chutney.

In a recent radio interview, reports of which I’ve only just discovered, she managed to one-up even her own outrageousness. Audio is no longer online – if anyone has it, please contact me – but the Independent says the following.

Ann Widdecombe has claimed it was easier to be a Nazi or a Communist in post-war Britain than being a Christian today because ‘quite militant secularism’ discourages people from expressing their faith. The ex-MP for Maidstone said it was very difficult to be an active Christian in modern Britain because of some aspects of equality legislation that made people hesitant about being open with their faith in everyday life. [She] said concerns over ‘political correctness” meant people were reluctant to express their faith to others because “they think strong belief offends them’.

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say “God bless you”, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves. So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.’

Christians also faced a ‘sort of atheism’ that ‘wouldn’t once have been said’. There used to be a view that ‘we’ve all got freedom of conscience, we’ve all got freedom of expression’, she said.

In the 1950s when plenty of people had lost lives and limbs and loved ones to the Nazis, it was still possible to be a Nazi in this country. When we were engaged in the height of the Cold War, when there were all those weapons lined up on the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries pointing straight at us, you could still, in this country, proclaim yourself as a Communist, you could still stand for Parliament for that matter as a Communist. You wouldn’t get in but you could stand. You could sell the Morning Star on street corners.

We have always respected, no matter how strongly we felt as a nation at the time, we’ve always respected the right of people to their own views and I do feel nowadays as a combination of political correctness and equality law and all the rest of it, we’ve started suppressing the expression of conscience.’

Ah, the olden days – when it was easy being a Nazi. You’d know, Ann.

As I’ve written before, there are only so many times believers can say in national media, from positions of power that their faith is being swept aside. To say nothing of Britain’s established church, its stranglehold on our state schools and its leaders’ ludicrously inflated media presence – beside all Christianity’s other strange privileges in public life – Widdecombe is an ex-minister with an enviable platform, probably the country’s best known Roman Catholic and once tipped as a potential Vatican ambassador. Her complaints are reminiscent of statements by David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, praising religion and promising it further undue prominence while simultaneously claiming the establishment to oppose it.

The parliament where all these people have gained seats isn’t just one to which Christians are frequently elected, including ones with strongly religious politics, where I’d guess nonbelievers – half the general populace – are underrepresented. It’s one where the standard oath taken by members invokes ‘almighty God’. If Nazism got this kind of treatment in postwar Britain, I’m concerned. (As it happens, Londoners did elect two Communist MPs in 1945 after their party fought for the opening of tube stations during the Blitz.)

I’ve also written before about the number of believers who feel oppressed by the very existence of atheists. Widdecombe is one of them, and seems genuinely to experience straightforward statements of religious skepticism as a personal attack. The only other kinds of ‘suppression’ she can cite are fictitious: cases of discrimination against cross-wearers in Britain are mythical, and I’ve yet to hear of blessings or prayer offerings being banned, though that doesn’t mean they’re not presumptuous or disrespectful when unwanted.

Ann Widdecombe lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.

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Chapter 2: Other Boys

Chapter 1: Starman.

Between Top of the Pops clips and Mum’s wicker basket of cassettes, most of the music I heard as a child was decades old. Somehow or other, I was still exposed to Steps. Unlike the Spice Girls, whose records remain catchy even if tasteless, they’re impossible to appreciate now except ironically – but the nineties were a decade without irony, so their videos were inescapable. Watching the dark-haired male band member, dance-proficient but somehow obviously out of place, was how I first sensed the awkwardness of straight men.

Not that I could have said so at the time. Most straights, at least until they meet someone like me, don’t see straightness as something they need a word for, or straight as something they are just as the rest of us are other things. Only in the adult years since I’ve been out have family started to see themselves as having orientations of their own; for many, the definitive identity is just ‘not gay’. Even after I learnt about people who were, I had no corresponding label for other boys – how they, like the man in Steps, appeared to have been starched on the inside. Even then, it wasn’t something I was.

Once ‘gay’ meant anything, it meant people unlike me or anyone I knew. At school, I grasped it was embarrassing and could be caught in the sports field by sitting one end of a graffitied boulder. I grasped too from words scrawled in silver marker there that the girl version was ‘lesbian’: months after I caught sight of Ziggy Stardust Britain’s first series of Big Brother aired, and I was able to correct Mum’s jargon when she told me Anna Nolan, the guitar-playing ex-nun who came second, was ‘one of the people who we call gay’. Many such failed attempts at positivity would follow, but her opinions always came and went.

Mum was wary of homosexuals as she more often called them, making the first half rhyme with ‘promo’ as if forcing her mouth around something unsavoury. An arch-backed Mick Jagger walk I tried on at the age of nine was discouraged as ‘the way some men who are ho-mo-sexual walk’, and I was warned of vague but ominous results if they should see me. In the novel she’d set out to write a few years earlier, ‘Carl, a sadistic homosexual’ threatened the female protagonist’s young son, and I was told to stay away from Eric, a clerk at the local video shop she said had asked to see contents of a young boy’s trousers since he was ‘a homosexual’.

There were other times. Mum taught me AIDS ‘came from the gay community’ and that ‘the easiest way to get AIDS [was] to have sex with a bisexual man’. (By the time I’d grown up, to my annoyance, she’d forgotten bisexual men existed.) ‘I just get worried when you start fancying men’ she commented when, aiming to describe her view of him, I called Richard E. Grant sexy. ‘I didn’t know I was homophobic’, she later said, ‘till I discovered Graham Norton.’ ‘I don’t like gays’, she added. From my late teens she would present herself as a gay ally, but I was never quite convinced.

Where all this came from, I can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, I think she meant it when she claimed to be supportive; she was simply never all that good at having a consistent outlook. Doubtless the background bigotry of a life that had started in the forties played its part. On top of that, I’ve wondered if her desire for a heterosexual son arose from fears of proving right Freudian clichés – or rather, late Thatcherite ones – about the spawn of single mothers. Nor can I ignore the god she turned to in that hour of need, or at least the fans of his whom she fell in with in the pews.

How they met initially I don’t recall, but between the ages of roughly five and eleven, lifts were provided when we needed transportation by a woman called Gill Linder. Though they never attended the same church, Gill – whose farmhouse was lined wall to wall with her own religious art, an exsanguinating Jesus displayed over the guest bed – was for much of this time one of my mother’s closest friends. I’m almost certain some of the homophobia she spewed was parroted from their relationship, as was her then-staunch belief in Satan’s presence in our home. (I was once told, and earnestly believed, that he’d possessed me.)

Somewhat more charmingly, her charismatic congregation at the time was headed by a pastor named McDonald, whose impassioned wife Lynda I’m told railed wildly against gay people, oral sex and presumably all forms of eros not involving semen entering a vagina. (If menopause came as a relief for them, it never showed.) The Allens, another fiftysomething couple in that very married church, left town while I was in primary school, and it was only in my twenties I discovered Mike had ‘struggled’ with feelings for other men.

Whoever the homosexuals were who all these people talked about so much, Eric aside, they were dark, distant and mysterious creatures. I could no more be gay than any of the other boys. All the same, I liked not being like them.

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

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Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know

Gordon Brown never managed to live down his tongue-tied boast he’d saved the world. If that came to be his defining gaffe, David Cameron’s claim last week to be continuing God’s work surely has similar potential. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’, he told Christian authorities at Downing Street a week ago. ‘I just want to see more of it.’

Mockery, lasting several days, broke out on social media. Brown at least had the excuse of a verbal slip-up; his successor’s remarks, in a speech shared on the government’s website, were surely drafted by advisers who thought them a good idea.

More followed. ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ Cameron writes in this week’s Church Times, ‘more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’. In a YouTube video, he says much of the same.

One can’t fault the PM for being on-message. Easter provides an annual basketful of reactionary religious soundbites: in 2011, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien attacked ‘aggressive secularism’, Cameron lauded ‘the enormous contribution Christianity has made to our country’; the next year, after Sayeeda Warsi’s ‘militant secularisation’ speech, his Easter message praised an alleged ‘Christian fightback’. ‘This government does care about faith’, he told church leaders in 2013, ‘and it does want to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’. (George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, accused him of just such aggression the same week, calling Christians a persecuted minority.)

Ministers show no sign of changing the hymn sheet. Eric Pickles, secretary in all but name for tabloid-baiting, attacked yet more ‘militant atheists’ at this month’s Conservative Spring Forum, insisting ‘We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it, and don’t impose your politically correct intolerant on others.’ This was the same man who in 2010, during the annual war-on-Christmas panic, complained about ‘politically correct Grinches.

The question lurks: if separating church and state is PC orthodoxy, why haven’t we done it?

It’s hard to be a pariah when national leaders heap praise on you. The test of political correctness is establishment support, which means at least the government’s. You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong. The Cameron government, besotted with the church, claims both to be a rebel force besieged by secularist powers-that-be and to run Britain as it’s always been run. Both can’t be true. Its ministers are the powers-that-be, their view the prevailing one by definition.

Not that they will admit it. Pickles, according to the Guardian, ‘accused the last Labour government of “diminishing Christianity” by suggesting that religion and politics could not mix’. To those of us who regularly say the same, this comes as a surprise. Likely, he has in mind Alistair Campbell’s interjection, ‘We don’t do God’, when a journalist sought details of Tony Blair’s beliefs; the sentence was a guideline in an interview and means of ending it, not a policy statement, but is trotted out ad nauseam by Tories keen to prove themselves more faith-obsessed than Labour was.

Their thirst to do so is an achievement of Blair’s governments, whose ministers fell over themselves as Cameron’s do today to say nice-sounding things involving ‘faith’. Religion, a much plainer-sounding thing, is rarely mentioned. Its followers are now ‘people of faith’, as in ‘of colour’; its hierarchs, especially the established church’s which Pickles admires, have been rebranded ‘faith leaders’. With seats in parliament, legal exemptions and a stranglehold on British education, but barely one percent of the populace in its pews, the C of E is a sick dog spoilt by owners all too aware its time is short.

If saying so is politically correct, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, ‘faith schools’, the media-friendly name for where governments have herded record numbers of children according to parents’ beliefs, is a very PC term for segregation.

A year from now, we’ll no doubt hear again of an intolerant, aggressive secularism with a grip on Britain. Once they’ve warned us, organised religion’s friends will stretch in their seats of power, pour millions more in public funds toward it and go back to work. Secularists like me will ask ourselves, meanwhile: if we never had it so good, why didn’t we notice?

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