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

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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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On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014

Fred Phelps, who for decades railed against fags like me, isn’t in Kansas any more. The pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose followers (blood kin or not) knew him as Gramps, was declared dead just over a week ago; no funeral was organised. ‘We do not worship the dead’, his daughter Shirley told the press – fingering absent-mindedly, one can but hope, her crucifix.

Phelps picketed hundreds of burials. Those who planned vengefully to picket his, or dreamt of it (and many did), divided views: the civility police railed against the notion, citing taste, decency and compassion as they had when street parties marked Margaret Thatcher’s death. At Westboro’s first post-mortem demonstration, a counterprotest’s banner read SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS – a sign, perhaps, that moral heroism has won out.

I’m not a hero at the best of times. I’m unlikely to grow into one at times like this.

In the face of the Phelps children’s suffering, I’m not stonehearted. Those who escaped and were cut off, among them now-atheist Nate (who broke the news his father was near death), were allowed no final goodbye; while they mourn a lost parent as best they can, thousands dance on his grave. The thought stays my schadenfreude more than most, but ultimately it seems Fred’s doing too. At such an infamous life’s end, could the world be asked to hold its tongue, even for their sake?

Nate Phelps and I have a few mutual friends. Though we’ve never met or spoken, he’s always seemed his father’s opposite, warm-hearted, soft-spoken and kind, graceful in what Louis Theroux, writing on social media of his brothers in the Church, calls the air of an abusive upbringing. That I feel his pain and check my urge to cheer his father’s death challenges my every vindictive instinct – nor do I feel, though, that in the calculus of how we answer Fred’s last gasps, his feelings or his siblings’ are the only ones that count.

Fred Phelps, though mercifully distant and in nothing like as harrowing a way, was part of my childhood too. Unlike Nate or Louis Theroux, I’m queer: his signs, in whose fluorescent shadow I grew up, referred to me.

This May will mark ten years since I came out, if I’d even call it that. (‘Because you’re gay?’, Stephen Hodgson asked after biology, wondering why I didn’t leer over the girl I was meant to. ‘Yeah’, I shrugged. That was it.) Earlier, a decade ago almost exactly, I’d sat online for hours Googling; one queer teen forum in particular was of great use to me, and was where I first discovered Fred.

Imagery shared and mocked there is still fresh: a squadron of girls no older than ten in ‘God hates fags’ shirts; a Flash-based noughts-and-crosses style game, ‘Fags vs. Kids’, on Westboro’s site, where five sodomites (‘represented by a pink swastika’) and three infants (‘represented by a baby bottle’) had to be placed correctly on a grid; footage from Michael Moore’s programme The Awful Truth, where Moore and a dozen gay men and lesbians confronted Fred across the Bible belt. He was 69 in the segment, but looked like he was pushing 90.

Skeletal, stiff as boards and with skin, appropriately, like an old Bible, it was clear he wasn’t a man in good health. Phelps’ appearance meant, conversely, that he never seemed to age, forever at death’s door without quite dying. His was the kind of twilight state the word ‘undead’ must have been coined to describe – you almost suspected, in fact, that some hideous otherworldly force must be sustaining him.

For that reason, he never seemed weak to me or the forum’s other members. Sickliness in a man of such extraordinary evil meant not frailty, for boys like us, but a horrible invulnerability – the same way that, whereas if you or I turned green we’d be rushed to a hospital, a witch’s green skin shows she’s to be feared. Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.

His death, we assumed, would therefore be spectacular. If no tornado dropped a house on him, or water-based attacks failed to melt his flesh, then earthlier routes must be taken. Friends and I fantasised at length about how Fred Phelps, the monster, might be slain: Chris from Toronto picturing putting gun skills to good use; Matt from New Zealand, prompting cardiac arrest through wandering hands; Logan from Alabama and I, blowing the Westboro compound up with high explosives. (A funeral picket afterward seemed only logical.)

If this seems extreme, consider that the straight boys in our classes played at machine-gunning Nazis – Fred was, for us, a spectre in his own lifetime of the kind the Waffen-SS has become in pop culture. It’s also true, of course, that such vicious thoughts came to provide an outlet for a swell of righteous rage.

Westboro did little that harmed me personally; despicably as the Phelpses behaved, they were loathed for what they signified as much as their actions. Fred gave the fear a face that made me scrub my browser history like an infected wound, was the emblem of the way it felt to me when Robbie, a boy in my 13-year-old art class, drove a pair of compasses into my forearm and drew blood; when Jack and Jonathan, sat behind me in maths, took turns spitting on me; when my brother, in the adjoining room one Christmas, unknowingly called me ‘an offence against nature and God’.

I took most of this and more by staying on what I deemed the moral high road, doing what childhood’s moral heroes told me was the Christian thing: loving my enemies, praying for my persecutors, forgiving them because they knew not what they did; turning the other cheek, rising above and being the better soul. When deaths like Phelps’ occur, we hear this too from preachers of civility.

It’s a sick philosophy, I’ve come to think, that tells victims to prove themselves better than their oppressors. Being wronged by somebody I haven’t wronged makes me better than them. Fred was a man who bludgeoned children with farm tools – no quantity of vitriol or disrespect will make us equals, just as no act of self-defence would have sunk me to my assailants’ level. Had I only been less loving toward them, I’d have invested less in hating him, since part of me did long to return fire: lashing out in lurid, violent fantasies at the thought of him became a form of reprisal-by-proxy.

Kids like me needed a witch our rage could melt. PC civility’s expansive plains, like Aunt Em’s ranch, are grey and lonely for us – abiding by its delicate constraints can feel like living in a world made out of cardboard. Fred’s cruelty made him a fair-enough target, someone as vicious as harassment had made us; his pain, an opportunity for justified sadism; his someday demise, a glorious event. Pickets aside, I longed for a good seat – a chance to savour his death throes’ exquisite spasms, watch his spirit break before his choking flesh. I’ll get you, my pretty, and your brittle god too.

After the fact, I’m unsatisfied. Phelps’ death was, in every sense, pathetic.

Westboro, Nate’s statements and implicitly its own have made clear, burnt bridges with its founder some months earlier. Male congregants (fearing, perhaps, a woman’s assumption of church leadership) pushed daughter Shirley to one side, and Fred – seeking, of all things, a ‘kinder approach’ – was excommunicated. Family, concerned that he might harm himself, moved him seemingly against his will to living quarters where ‘stopped eating and drinking’. Hospice care, at some point, followed. It only ends one way.

Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed. His death reads like a man’s who outright lost the will to live, if not a calculated suicide – Fred would no doubt have spurned that option – then a gradual, half-conscious disintegration. I’ve been through that partially because of views like his; gone further and more knowingly, in fact, down the same path of self-destruction. Try as I might, I can’t gloat over it. What’s there to gloat about?

My queer teenage friends and I thought Fred would go out fighting, defeated finally, crying ‘Oh, what a world’ – a spectacular undoing. Not for a second did we see him fading miserably from life, vulnerable and pitiful. The boom-voiced wizard’s fire-and-brimstone face is gone: behind the curtain fallen to one side, only a shrivelled old man’s form remains, Professor Marvel mangled in his own machinery – a lowly, foolish Kansan crystal-gazer.

It might well be that the end of Phelps’ life came as a mercy. He never inspired mercy in me. What lingers is the sense of being thwarted – shock that the inhumane could die such a manifestly human death; grievance at being robbed of a bête noire. Fred perished like a man beneath contempt, too small and weak to hate, but hating him sustained me. There is no monster now, no slaying to look forward to, and I feel lost without it.

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99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion

How many of you have ever felt personally victimised by Regina George religion?

Various articles have circulated recently attacking ‘new atheism’ and trotting out familiar ‘don’t be a dick’ arguments: Alom Shaha’s and Ariane Sherine’s at the Rationalist Association, Martin Robbins’ at Vice. Marianne Baker, on her own blog, has weighed in.

I’ve already responded to Alom’s, which appeared in New Humanist some months ago. All kinds of things in articles like these – not just or even necessarily these ones themselves, but the common rhetoric of ‘chill atheists’ at large – tend to grate on me: conflation of opposing religion-qua-religion with a vicious, scathing tone; conflation of it in principle with sexist, racist or otherwise unseemly views, common admittedly in some ‘new atheist’ sectors; dismissal of opposition to religion-qua-religion as a useful goal; dismissal of ‘atheist’ itself as a meaningful identity.

It’s meaningful to me. The last two, and the related claim that religion in Britain isn’t much of a problem, are things I’ve heard a lot from atheists with no strong background in religion, who haven’t in any extensive sense been on its receiving end. As someone who has, it’s hard for me to say how galling I find atheists with no serious religious history telling those of us profoundly affected by our own to pipe down, be nice and stop bashing God already, so ‘positive’ or ‘constructive’ goals can be achieved.

I frequently share Greta Christina’s legendary talk at Skepticon IV, ‘Why are you atheists so angry?’, in arguments like this. Her litany of grievances, on behalf of firebrands like me, is a perfect testament to the things about religion that enrage us, why that rage is valid, and why blaming religion-qua-religion for them is legitimate. But there’s also a problem: Greta had an atheist upbringing too. Apart from a handful, her complaints are of religion’s impact on the wider world and not on her own life personally.

When you’ve been on its business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive.

I’ve often wished to illustrate this with a litany like Greta’s – but unlike hers, one specifically of my own grievances. This is it. Read it, if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou. I’ve 99 problems, but bashing God’s not one.

* * *

1. Being baptised into the Church of England, made a member before I could speak or walk. (A prayer on the certificate reads ‘May he grow up in Thy constant fear’.)

2. Not being able to undo that membership, despite attending a different church for nearly all my time as a believer and being an atheist today. The Church refuses to strike names from its baptismal rolls, since the number of names there is the number of members it’s allowed to claim. That one of them is my name tells you how honest this is.

3. Being taught religious narrative as uncontested fact – not just virgin births or resurrection, but a world created in six days and Noah’s flood. It took till I was eight, browsing an encyclopaedia I’d been given, to realise people disagreed.

4. Being fed the ‘nice’ bits of the Bible - David and Goliath, Jesus and Zacchaeus, the Good Samaritan – but never encouraged to read it like I would another book, and growing up with huge, convenient gaps in my knowledge.

5. Dreaming of Satan aged three or four (or someone I assumed was Satan), and thinking seriously that it meant something; hearing his voice, while awake, tell me to be naughty too.

6. Having birthday parties held with the church, or following attendance in the morning, so children with different backgrounds couldn’t come, even when I wanted to spend time with them.

7. Being made to pray (or pretend to) in assemblies at school – all the way from reception class at four years old to sixth form at seventeen.

8. Being subjected to local clergy’s sermons in some of those assemblies – something like once a week, again all the way through. (All these clergy were Christian. Tax-funded schools in the UK are required to practise ‘broadly Christian worship’, and in my hometown there were no other faiths anyway.)

9. Being taught in class, aged five or six, that Hinduism’s gods were false – unlike Jesus. ‘False gods’ were Mrs Ironmonger’s exact words, in part of the syllabus designed to give a balanced view of another faith.

10. Fearing anything even faintly Asian – yoga, women in saris, the Bollywoodish song on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack (I know) – since Indian religion, Hinduism especially, was Satan’s work. I feel sure that if I’d been at primary school following 9/11, Islam would have filled this role instead.

11. Being read the Chronicles of Narnia – like that wasn’t enough – and told the hideous skeleton-god Tash, antithetical to Aslan and worshipped by the dark skinned, Eastern, polytheistic Calormenes, symbolised Hinduism’s Satanic gods. (Which, to be fair, he largely did.)

12. Wanting to go on a fast, aged six, as a gesture of faithfulness. Church members did this quite often, as I recall, for a weekend or so. We hadn’t much food as it was.

13. Being told Mrs Jones who died of cancer was in Heaven, aged six, by my primary school’s headteacher. She told us this in a specially arranged assembly, and that Margaret (as I’d known her in church) was with God now, smiling down at us. It wasn’t a passing comment, but the main point of her speech.

14. Being told my non-religious relatives were now in Hell, aged six or seven, when I told Mum I thought having no god at all – compared with having a Satanic Eastern one – seemed fair enough. Hell meant to me, and I assume to her, a literal furnace at this point.

15. Being told to participate in ‘faith healing’ on a weekend at a church camp aged six or seven. (Mum, at this point, was going through a charismatic phase, surrounded frequently by fundamentalists. I, and later she, reverted to the more traditional Christianity we’d practised earlier the day I had the chance.)

16. Taking part in Operation Christmas Child at teachers’ and church friends’ encouragement aged seven or eight. The scheme, led by a man who supports nuclear action against Muslims (yes, Muslims specifically) and calls Hinduism Satanic (sensing a theme?), distributes shoeboxes of temporary gifts to children in poverty – accompanied with evangelical literature and mandatory Bible study.

17. Being told aged eight or nine that Satan had possessed me. Mum and I argued till our church leader came round at her request to scold me. I refused to apologise, telling him to leave, mouth dry and crushing pains in my chest. Later she said it was the Devil using my voice, and invited to pray in tongues. I never did.

18. Thinking sincerely at that age that my father was a demon. Angels patrolled the Earth – surely the fallen ones did too? If the thought’s more frightening still that his drinking, theft and violence were entirely human traits, I now see what this stopped me from appreciating: that the man almost certainly had some form of mental illness.

19. Spending Hallowe’en terrified each year, even into my teens – chanting, on a whispered loop, ‘Jesus is Lord’ to keep Satan’s forces outside (that is, children in monster masks) at bay.

20. Taking part aged eight or nine in a church march round my town, praying outside shops with Buddha statues in their windows or toy witches – confirming church members’ view it was their right, and thinking it was mine, to dictate what other people find profane.

21. Being terrified into my teens of any kind of horror – particularly, like The Omen or The Exorcist, horror with a religious bent. The one exception was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which for some reason got a free pass despite Mum calling it demonic. Even then, I watched it in secret when she wasn’t in the house.

22. Being told aged nine or ten that I was damned, since I’d sworn something ‘in front of God’ that Mum didn’t believe.

23. Being told by my teacher Mrs Walker that Warhammer was Satanic, due to the use of dark, soul-rending magic in its universe. Not Harry Potter, mind you. Not sure why.

24. Having teachers at my primary school who lost their temper at or punished blasphemy. Mrs Walker in particular, a member of our church like Mrs Jones before her, considered this her job – which, at my church-run school, it was – at least as much as teaching.

25. Having Bibles and Gospel tracts handed out at school, which classmates and I under the age of ten were told to take home and study.

26. Being fed demonising, inaccurate canards about Islam after 9/11 happened. I was ten at the time, and subsequently told that Muslims were Arabs and Arabs were Muslims, female genital mutilation and the killing of non-Muslims were doctrinally central to Islam and that its followers by definition ‘all want to die for Allah’.

27. Hearing my class gasp when Mrs McDonald, a formidable left wing English teacher who also taught us ‘Citizenship’ aged 12 and 13, said she was an atheist.

28. Hearing my mum deny flat-out that Christians would refuse to pay for food, when I relayed to her common stories of guests at my hometown’s evangelical convention leaving gospel tracts rather than money next to restaurant bills – as if Christians acting unethically were somehow implausible. (Keep reading if in doubt.)

29. Being told ‘it says in the Bible “live and let live”’ – it doesn’t – and that Jesus supported public welfare provision (where is the evidence for this?), as if supporting these somehow meant plagiarising Christian morals.

30. Being raised to judge whether people were Christians by their ethics. My father and his female partner couldn’t really be Christians, for instance, since they weren’t good people.

31. Having homophobia preached in my school lessons, aged fourteen or fifteen, by substitute teacher Mr Ingles, who’d once taught RE full time. The right response to a gay friend, he said, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put that part of his anatomy there’, was to love the sinner and ‘hate… hate’ what they did.

32. Wondering what the lesson was when I was spat on, hit, harassed in the street, when things I owned were destroyed – wondering why God had planned this for me, what I was supposed to learn from it, and what I’d done to make him test me in such ways. (This, I stress, was long after Mum’s charismatic phase, when my beliefs were perfectly mainstream, non-fundamentalist Christian ones.)

33. Forgiving the bullies who hit me, spat on me, destroyed the things I owned and harassed me in the street, rather than standing up to them, because loving my enemies and praying for my persecutors was the Christ-like thing to do; because he forgave those who knew not what they did; because the right response to being struck was to turn the other cheek, not to resist; because those who lived by the sword died by the sword.

34. Wanting to die anyway, making more than one attempt, after years of doing the Christ-like thing.

35. Fearing suicide would land me in Hell during my first attempt, as I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers.

36. Lapsing back into religious dependency in the aftermath, feeling guilt over this and needing emotional support, and being told turning the other cheek the way I had was praiseworthy – then lapsing back into that, then suicide again.

37. Being told tearfully by my mum that she prayed for my soul nightly, some time after learning I was an atheist, like I was to blame for what she feared might happen to me, or for her fear itself.

38. Being told ‘I’ll pray for you’ - in that superior, knowing way – by her and other believers when I applied to university and staffed a humanist street table in Oxford, as if to say I know something you couldn’t hope to know.

39. Being told religion cost her nothing, ‘but if you are wrong, you are in serious trouble’, her finger jabbing sharply at my chest as if to spear me through the heart.

40. Hearing her call atheism a reasonable conclusion… while still apparently condoning damnation for it.

41. Reading a clipping on her noticeboard that said to pray for me because I chose ‘another path’ rather than to ‘serve God’, and let God ‘close the deal’ with me to ‘turn [my] stubborn heart around’ – like I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn, disobedient or delinquent, and not because I find it the most coherent answer to religious claims.

42. Hearing her explicitly acknowledge her beliefs as ‘irrational’… while still living by them, making me as a child, and doing everything else listed here.

43. Being patronisingly called a ‘truth seeker’ by her – like caring about what’s true is an optional fucking lifestyle choice. (This doesn’t strike me as an unfair or overblown description of her stance.) Note this contradicts the idea I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn or disobedient… and that numerous other views of hers are likewise incompatible.

44. Being asked ostentatiously if I’m ‘spiritual’ or have ‘an inner life’ by her – like whatever these meant provided an emotional fulfillment atheists, with our empty, hopeless worldview couldn’t hope to have.

45. Getting a dismissive, frustrated ‘Well, okay’ when I said I didn’t know what these things meant – like failing to understand meaningless, vague deepities and wanting clarity made me shallow, unenlightened and mundane… rather than better at communication.

46. Being told I was raised to think critically, skeptically and for myself on more than one occasion. No. I was duped, exploited, fed beliefs as uncontested facts, pressured into evangelism, pressured into faith healing… the list goes on. Denying this happened denies my right to feel how I feel about it.

47. Being told to come back to church ‘just as practice’, because the university I was going to had chapels, and I’d be expected to take part in services there. (I wasn’t, and it would have been a problem if I was.)

48. Going to a university that still had chapels. Not just voluntary services from local groups with adverts in the common room for those who wanted them – functional, religious, Anglican chapels as part of the infrastructure, with chaplains on the college payroll. (I don’t think it helps that most of them, when it came down to it, were really atheists.)

49. Having to stand through a Latin grace at meals when I visited other colleges at Oxford. Mine never practised this ceremony, part of the reason I applied there (Oxford University comprises many separate colleges, as the U.S. does individual states), so I only ever had to endure it twice – but students there sometimes had to regularly.

50. Getting looks of disgust and hostility from strangers when I helped staff a humanist table in the street. Not for doing or saying any one thing: simply for standing at a street stall with ‘Humanist’ and ‘Not religious?’ signs. This was in Oxford – hardly the buckle of the Bible Belt.

51. Getting told not believing in God made me an idiot by other strangers who actually spoke to us.

52. Getting threatened with a literal, fiery Hell by strangers who spoke to us.

53. Getting doorstepped by evangelists at my and relatives’ homes, and forced into conversations about God.

54. Having to do a risk assessment when believers ask to meet me having found my work online – weighing potential benefits against likelihood of being preached at, interrogated, recorded, threatened. The overwhelming majority of meetings like this have been good: it’s how I got involved in what could be called an interfaith project, and how I went for dinner with a (lovely) preacher whose (unlovely) sermons I’d blogged about. But I have had bad experiences – the calculus is necessary.

55. Getting preached at during my evangelical friends’ wedding.

56. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick – not a thought that concerns me often, you’ll have gathered – for sitting silently through the hymns rather than joining in.

57. Being called aggressive or intolerant for wanting secular public space.

58. Being called a cold-hearted atheist grinch for not celebrating Christmas.

59. Being called a hypocrite devaluing Christianity for celebrating Christmas in the past.

60. Being called a hypocrite for eating chocolate eggs at Easter – as if egg rituals in spring, or even the name ‘Easter’, were original to Christianity.

61. Being confronted with picketers and preaching at atheist and skeptical conferences.

62. Receiving death threats as a student – graphic, detailed ones – when I wrote in support of atheist Facebook groups sharing Jesus and Mo cartoons.

63. Being the ‘bad guy’ at family gatherings, particularly Christmas, who doesn’t say grace at dinner, go to church or read bedtime stories about God. (This has been a problem in particular since my niece, now six, arrived.)

64. Having my atheism mentioned in an ominous tone, by family and others – ‘He’s an atheist…’ – like a drug problem or improper sexual fetish.

65. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning I’m an atheist to new people – weighing the likelihood of condemnation, arguments, awkwardness. I never had to do this as a Christian.

66. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning atheism on my CV. This might sound odd, but much of the work I’ve done – group organising, writing, graphic design – is atheist-related. I have to weigh the likelihood of hostility or discrimination from those reading my CV, and I know any number of other atheists who do. This would be unthinkable if our work had been for church groups. Again: not in the Bible Belt. In green-pastured, supposedly atheist-loving England.

67. Being spoken to like I know nothing of Christianity or its texts by believers, including family with seemingly short memories… even when on cut-and-dried questions like reference in the Gospels to damnation, I could demonstrate more knowledge than they did. On a related note:

68. Being spoken to by believers like they personally are sole authorities on their religion, and no reasonable controversy exists – like the time Mum read my coursework for religious studies (my highest-graded subject) on competing Christian soteriologies of faith versus good works and called it ‘incredibly erroneous’, because ‘if Adolf Hitler had been a Christian, he would be in Heaven now’; the time I criticised belief alone as a requirement for salvation, and my sister said ‘No, that’s not true… that was cleared up a long time ago’ (notice their disagreement proves wrong both their assertions of a settled debate); the time a family friend read my coursework on the Irenaean theodicy and responded ‘No, no it’s not thatit’s the Fall’ (proposing Augustine’s alternative) like this was the most obvious thing in the world. I was still a Christian at that time: this kind of intellectual arrogance is something believers inflict frequently on one another, not just atheists.

69. Having to go to church to mourn a nonagenarian Anglican friend, who always sent me sweets at Christmas as a child. Having to sit silently through songs and sermonising, the odd one out, because there was no supplementary, non-religious wake.

70. Being glared at by the priest as I left my friend’s freshly-filled grave for sitting silently through the hymns.

71. Wondering if being queer would cost me his friendship, as a King James reading traditionalist Tory, had we still been in contact by the time he died.

72. Hearing homophobic jokes from the boys in the tent next door when I went to an evangelical youth camp and blogged about it. Not knowing how to report this when the code of conduct involved no rule against it, and parts of some sermons were tacitly or overtly queerphobic.

73. Hearing my parents’ friend discuss the need to ‘keep marriage Christian’ in their kitchen, from the next room. (I think same-sex marriage is a movement that deserves a lot more scrutiny politically than it’s received – but I also think this was hugely homophobic, and that one might as well keep post offices Christian.)

74. Hearing a variety of homophobic things from Mum while I was a young child, which I now suspect (since her views were always muddled) she got from evangelical and charismatic Christian friends.

75. Hearing her grouch to me about one friend’s views today, forgetting conveniently how many of them (see above) she once shared or adopted.

76. Learning one of the church wives told her, when she compared my shy 12-year-old self to Freddie Mercury after I showed unexpected onstage energy, ‘Let’s hope Alex doesn’t have anything else in common with Freddie Mercury’.

77. Learning my dad’s next partner told her, when I was 17, ‘I hope [Alex] gets his sexuality sorted out’. This woman was a regular congregant at the same church as my old Anglican friend, full of homophobes and conservatives; her views on sex and relationships, as long as I’d known her, were always religiously derived.

78. Hearing my brother call queer sexuality ‘an offence against nature and God’ from the next room, at Christmas, while he spoke to Mum and other members of the family.

79. Having to do a risk assessment on this too when I meet religious people, particularly according to their age and denomination.

80. Having preachers in my own town’s marketplace call me an abomination.

81. Being told after blogging about it by my mum that I ‘have a go at Christians’ – as if she was the victim, and it was my fault for pointing it out and not keeping politely stumm when a member of her religion quoted horrible things from its central text.

82. Watching Mum enter emotional lockdown – falling passive-aggressively silent, changing the subject, leaving the room – when faced with anything from measured, polite critique of her stated beliefs to mild amounts of snark about them, holding herself emotionally hostage so that commenting as I would on any other subject makes me into an insensitive, aggressive bully.

83. Being expected to accept this, treading diplomatically around the topic, and respect her right not to be preached at or forced into unwanted discussions. Fair enough – but when as a child was I ever allowed that right?

84. Having to deal with her emotional incontinence even in non-argumentative, non-combative conversations about religion – the time, for example, when she broke down into tears (while driving) attempting to describe what Christmas meant to her – so I have to handle her beliefs with kid gloves instead of treating them like any adult’s views.

85. Hearing her call The Da Vinci Code ‘part of all the Christian-bashing that’s going on’ after its release – like people saying ‘I’m an atheist’, ‘Religions are mistaken’, ‘Religions are silly’ and ‘Religion harms the world.’ I know what actually being bashed is like – and what being spat on, called an abomination, threatened with Hell and threatened with beheading feels like. Christians aren’t persecuted in Britain. Deal with it.

86. Watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail and hearing her say haughtily at the ‘Holy Hand Grenade’ scene that the filmmakers ‘love[d] to deride Christianity’. Yes… and?

87. Listening to her complain of anti-Christian sentiment… while doing all the things mentioned here and more, apparently expecting members of her faith be able to act with impunity, no matter how obscenely. If people in Britain have negative views of Christians, which I’m not sure that they do… don’t lists like this go some way to explaining why?

88. Seeing her treat her father and mine as bellwethers of ‘aggressive atheism’, dismissing any critical comment I make on grounds of having ‘heard it all before’… without taking time to compare my views with theirs. There are a hundred angry atheists – more – who don’t speak for me. Chances are they didn’t. (I don’t treat individual believers like they speak for the rest, after all.)

89. Seeing her give £5 notes to Salvation Army chuggers because we depended on their charity once. The Salvation Army has campaigned extensively against LGBT rights, including for recriminalisation of homosexuality, and denied help to queer couples on the streets.

90. Knowing if I ever needed aid from such a group – if matters were so desperate that I threw myself on the mercy of faith groups – there’s a real possibility I’d be denied it.

91. Knowing we’d have lost a huge amount of social and economic aid, at the lowest ebb of her time as a single mum on benefits, had she lost her faith or left the church – and that atheists and ‘doubters’ the world over stay in their pews because of this.

92. Having a nightmare recently about demonic forces stalking me, my first for years, and waking in a cold sweat. I can’t be sure, of course, that I wouldn’t have anyway without the upbringing I had… but I’m sure that made it harder to shake off than a different nightmare would have been.

93. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick’ for publishing this list, another angry, ‘awful’ atheist taking unproductive potshots at religion – and fearing this particularly from other atheists. Speaking to the things faith’s done to me is productive as far as I’m concerned. (I still consider this a form of victimisation by religion, because I think it stems from religious beliefs’ characteristic insulation against criticism, and the way attacking them like other ideas is ‘rude’, ‘aggressive’ and unacceptable in polite – sometimes even atheist – society.)

94. Being savaged mercilessly when I am an impolite dick now and again. I wake up angry about some things on this list: it’s a struggle not to hulk out constantly, and I can’t win that struggle all the time. Treating me as the bad guy the one percent of the time I lose my temper is unreasonable and unfair – it ignores the context of enormous harm from which my temper stems. Forgive me if I can’t contain it at all times. The 99 percent of the time I do, it takes hard work.

95. Fearing Mum will read this list and feel attackedagain! – instead of called to account. Sometimes, someone else is the victim.

96. Fearing a chorus of ‘Yes, but-’ when I hit ‘Publish’. ‘Yes, but your experiences are a drop in the ocean’. ‘Yes, but some believers are persecuted’. ‘Yes, but you still shouldn’t bully or harass believers.’ This post isn’t about how representative I am, oppression of religious groups or anything any atheist does being okay. It’s an evocation of the harm religion’s done me, and why I’m motivated by it to be confrontational. Please don’t derail it.

97. Being told I ‘just got a bad version’ of religion – that a fundamentalist or extremist fringe was what trod on me, whose members are a few bad apples in the cart. Fundamentalist beliefs did tread on me – but the version of Christianity that almost cost me my life, like the versions of religion that caused most of the harms mentioned on this list, was perfectly mainstream and non-fundamentalist.

98. Having my feelings on religion dismissed because I’m bitter. I am. And I’m right.

99. Writing this post casually in a few hours – and knowing I could go on.

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