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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Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

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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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Foreword: A memoir in a month, and a coming out story you’ve never heard before

If you want the wholesome version of this, there isn’t one. This isn’t a coming out story like on TV, where the fragile boy fights tears to admit what he is, helped by new friends and straight acceptance; mainly it’s about enemies, and it won’t make allies feel pleased with themselves. There are no speeches here about how love is love and God keeps his queer children. (God, where he appears at all, is one of the villains.) There’s sex and violence, as in any half-good story about power, and the rage of years spent unable to tell it – were it filmed, it wouldn’t be PG-13, but I won’t scrub out the unsavoury parts because thirteen year olds exist who need to hear them.

I write about being queer in one way or another every day, but my coming out story – if I can even call it that – is something I’ve never told till now. Replaying a decade of my life I’ve tried to bury plays it part, as does the fact that at the time, I couldn’t tell the truth about most events I describe, but mainly it’s just too complex to reel off in conversation. In fiction adolescent sexuality is neatly self-contained, a storyline detached from life in general, but I can’t talk about mine coherently without writing a memoir.

So that’s what I’m doing. There are twenty-seven chapters currently which will follow this foreword. I’m going to publish them in serial this month, each one its own blog post with links to those before and after. This page, which I’ll pin to the top of the blog, will be updated with a interactive chapter list below as more are added. Since I don’t have the living funds to write an entire book at once, none of them have been drafted yet – writing and uploading them, while I’ll still be posting on other topics, will be my main activity for June 2014.

Almost all those I discuss are still alive. Some of the names have been changed, others haven’t, and while I’ve thought extremely carefully about it, there’s no one guessable pattern. There’s a chance some of the people reading this were around at the time – if that’s you, and if you know the real identities of those involved, I’d like to request you don’t publicly disclose them. This is a story whose time has come, and I’m going to tell it whatever happens, but please respect that I’ve considered at great length whose anonymity to leave intact and whose not to.

To date, around fifty users on Facebook have asked to be notified as each new chapter is published. If you’d like to be added to that list, then let me know by email, on Twitter or in the comments below (I’ll use the email address for your comment to update you). You can also stay up to date by Liking this blog’s page.

Sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Contents

Chapter 1 | Starman
Chapter 2 | Other Boys
Chapter 3 | The Gag Reflex
Chapter 4 | Dress-up
Chapter 5 | Friends with Benefits
Chapter 6 | The Age of Consent
Chapter 7 | Stranger Danger
Chapter 8 | Biology
Chapter 9 | Attention

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Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation

Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics. Here, in full, is what we said.

I think the first thing to say is that this is probably not going to be at all interviewy, as far as I can see, because I’ve written about your forthcoming book already and I’m not sure how formal or interviewy or detached I could be.

Okay!

So the first thing to say is, when did you… first of all, tell me about your book.

It’s kind of funny you ask me that, because you know so much about the book. For those who are playing along at home, Alex was very involved in the creation of this book – he did two rounds of very detailed copy editing on it. And so he knows a lot about this book. Probably more than almost anybody, except me and my editor and Ingrid.

The book is called Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. It’s a guidebook for coming out as an atheist, if you’re not already out; for coming out more, if you’re out to a few people and not out to others. And writing it was really interesting, because when I first set out to do the book – when I was first imagining it – I kind of pictured it as a set of directions, a very specific set of directions.

You know what guidebooks are like, right? ‘If A then B, if C then D.’ Like a set of directions on Google Whatever. ‘Turn left at Main St.’ Then when I was starting to collect material for the book, I realised there’s no way to do that. The experiences are so different for different people. The experiences are so… what works for one person isn’t going to work for another person. And some of that’s different circumstances, and some is just different personalities.

So I had to recast, more or less, a lot of the book from being a set of directions to giving people a map and letting them figure out their own directions. Letting people know, ‘Here’s some of the things we’re likely to expect.’ ‘Here’s some of the things that can come up when we come out as a nonbeliever. And you get to decide for yourself how to proceed with that.’

When did you start writing this book? Because your previous book was Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Right. That came out in 2012. I mean, to some extent I’ve been writing this book… oh sorry, we’re talking over each other aren’t we?

Go ahead. I mean, when was the decision made to write this book?

Honestly, I’ve been thinking about writing this book almost ever since I came out as an atheist myself – that was back in 2005 – and certainly since I started participating in organised atheism: in the atheist communities and in the atheist movement.

It’s been just, you know, really clear to me that we needed this book. Lots of people were talking about it. So many people were talking about [how] ‘Coming out is the most powerful thing we can do!’ ‘It makes our own lives better!’ ‘It makes it easier for other atheists to do what we need to do to be a coherent movement!’ And I was saying the same thing. I was saying, ‘Yeah. Coming out is awesome. So there’s a guidebook, right? There must be some sort of coming out?’ And it didn’t- it wasn’t there. And it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there.

And as I got more involved in the community and the movement, and also just had, you know, more name recognition and got people familiar with my writing, I just realised, ‘Nobody’s going to write this book.’

And it was a hard book to write – you know, I can see. It was a difficult book to write…

I know!

…there was a large amount of research, it was a very difficult book to write. So I just decided, ‘You know what? I need to step up. I need to do this, ‘cause nobody else is doing it.

So from that point, you sent out an email I think last October (maybe slightly earlier, maybe slightly later) to me and a variety of other people asking for copy editing, feedback and all of that. And from that point, as you said, I did a lot of copy editing – I think I ultimately read and commented on two drafts of this book, although it was probably more than that suggests, because there were some fairly big cuts that ended up happening in this book as I remember. (One of which I take credit for.)

Absolutely. Haha.

The amount that we went through could almost be a large fraction of the book again, I think, that it became. So this is, more than an interview with a journalist or whatever, kind of a DVD extra conversation between people who worked behind the scenes on this book before it came out. You could even call it an Easter egg. That’d be topical.

With that in mind, this is very unrehearsed, very unscheduled. The first thing that I think… I wouldn’t say an elephant in the room, but I think a lot of people were actually talking about this on social media, blogs and other platforms while you were writing this book: there was a spate of stories, I think from the US blogosphere, talking about some of the ways that parallels that parallels between LGBTQ and atheist experiences, especially the words ‘coming out’, were something to be criticised.

I think there was a piece on Religion Dispatches about that; I think there was a degree of argument about something that was said by people at American Atheists. I think you’re familiar with this – there’s some tension between people who have different views over the amount of similarity that can be drawn between queer and atheist experience.

Mhmm.

Both of us straddle those two communities, as bloggers and otherwise. And I want to ask you: did you have any anxiety about writing a book called Coming Out Atheist?

No, honestly I didn’t. I mean, I’m familiar with [the fact] there are some LGBTQ people who don’t love it that atheists are using the term ‘coming out’ to describe our own process of telling people who we are and what we think. I think there’s a sense of ownership of that phrase. ‘We came up with that phrase!’ ‘That’s ours!’

But the thing is that the phrase ‘coming out’? We don’t own that phrase any more. It’s started to be used to describe so many different ways of revealing or telling people something that they didn’t know about who you are. Especially telling people something about yourself that they didn’t know, that you think they might have a problem with.

People talk about coming out as poly. People talk about coming out as kinky. People talk about coming out as, y’know, Red Socks fans. I don’t know! That phrase has just entered the language at this point. And I don’t think LGBTQ people can own it any more.

Are there differences between coming out LGBTQ and coming out atheist? Absolutely, there are lot of important differences – as well as similarities, of course. And I think the differences are almost as instructive as the similarities. But that’s true with any coming out experience. Coming out poly is different from coming out LGBTQ; coming out kinky is different from coming out LGBTQ.

Almost any different experiences have similarities and differences. It’s like the classic high school term paper: ‘Compare and contrast these two experiences.’ Or, you know, ‘Compare and contrast the works of William Blake with…’

Of course there’s differences as well as similarities, but you know… I’m repeating myself here. I don’t think we own that language. And you know what? I can’t think of any other language that describes it. I understand concerns about it, but I had to just let that go.

I guess that I was actually surprised at points, or even taken aback by the amount of similarity that I saw. Because your book is… we should mention, it’s full of other people’s narratives and their own descriptions of what they went through. Sometimes, page-long-or-more descriptions from people who’ve sent stories in to you.

Mhmm.

From a variety of situations: I think some of them were what happened in their workplace, some of them were what happened with their family and so on.

Mm.

And I remember being struck that it was actually much harder than I thought it was going to be to find a definitive difference between secular coming-out and queer coming-out.

There’s a part of me that has a lot of sympathy with the whole ‘Don’t appropriate our language’ agenda. But I found that the more that I read in this book, the more difficult it was to pin down the way in which atheists did not ‘come out’, or whatever, in the same way that queer people did.

It was almost easier at times to categorise coming-out experiences across those two groups of people than it was to split them into columns in a definitive categorical way.

I do think that there are differences. But yes, the similarities are much more pronounced than the differences. I think I would say that the differences between the two experiences are…

The number one, most important one – and this is one I hammer on about (I hammer on about it in the book as well as, you know, when I’m speaking and almost any time anybody will let me natter) – is that when you’re coming out as LGBTQ, you’re not telling straight that they’re wrong, or cisgendered people, that they’re wrong to be straight or cisgender.

When we come out as atheists, we are telling believers that they’re wrong: that they’re mistaken. We’re not telling them they’re bad people, necessarily, but we’re telling them… you know, there’s no way to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ without entailing ‘If you do believe in God, you’re mistaken.’

When I came out as bisexual, I wasn’t telling people ‘You should also be bisexual. You’re mistaken to be heterosexual or homosexual.’ So that’s, I think, an important difference, and I do think that that creates a tension, a conflict, between atheists and believers that isn’t necessarily there.

Now, there’s a parallel – there’s an instructive parallel – which is that while coming out, LGBTQ people don’t tell straight people they’re wrong to be straight, but we are telling them they’re wrong to be homophobic or biphobic or transphobic. We are telling them ‘You need to change. If you have problems with me, you need to change.’

So there is that parallel. The difference points to another parallel. But I do think that that difference is instructive.

I also think that there’s a difference just in terms of where we are in our history. The LGBTQ community has been very visible, very vocal, activist, organised, mobilised… for decades now. Since, you know… some people pin it at the Stonewall riots in ’69, some people pin it even a little bit earlier than that, ‘cause there’s certain proto-Stonewall stuff that was going on. So we’ve had decades to do this work. We’ve been doing coming out work, organising political activism, social change activism, activism in the media and so on – and just changing people’s minds about us.

We’ve had a long time. And atheists are a little behind the times. A lot behind the times. There’s been organised atheism for decades, but we haven’t really had our super-visible, vocal, mobilised phase. I would say we’re about… maybe ten years into that. So we’re a little behind. We have the Internet, which the early LGBTQ community didn’t have in the seventies. So we have that advantage.

And I think there’s one other difference, which relates to [the fact] when you come out as atheist you’re telling people they’re mistaken to be believers. When you come out LGBTQ, you’re not going to make anybody be gay. Or bi, or trans. You might encourage people to come out who might not otherwise be out, but coming out as atheist actually changes people’s minds about religion. Coming out as atheists is partly why, when we ask atheists ‘Why are you an atheist?’, a lot of the time they say a big part of the process of questioning religion and leaving it was seeing that other atheists exist.

So that’s another difference: that coming out is… we are evangelising, to some degree. I don’t like the word ‘evangelising’, ‘cause it has religious connotations, but the simple act of coming out as a nonbeliever does help try to persuade people out of religion even if that’s not your intent.

Could I ask you – are you able to turn up your microphone?

Oh, I have a microphone. Hang on a second.

Don’t worry if…

I can go get a plug-in microphone, but that would mean stopping again.

I will plug earphones in. Ahh, this is such a podcast. I’m so completely unprofessional. I feel like we should be asking each other what we’re drinking.

Hahahahaha. It’s ten thirty in the morning my time, so I’m drinking coffee.

You’re in San Francisco! Drink something stronger.

Haha.

Mind you, I live in Berlin now and this is probably the only city in the world where San Franciscans are thought of as a touch straight-laced, I think. I think you’d be considered really a bit restrained in San Francisco. Berlin is much further out.

So I think it’s interesting you talk about the question of invisibility and the question of erasure specifically – the idea that atheists have not really been visible in public discourse, and moreover the fact that because atheism and criticism of religion have not really been something politely voiceable much of the time, there’s been a kind of active, slightly repressive feeling that it’s not something you say. To an extent, anyway.

And I wonder if actually there’s a point about the way that for some people, and some groups under the queer umbrella, there’s a similar experience. Both of us swim in bisexual waters, and actually, it seems worth passing on an anecdote about this:

I have a member of my family, actually one of my parents. While I was growing up, certainly from the age of about eleven and further on, at least once a year there would be an awkward ‘Are you gay?’ moment.

And I don’t think I was ever particularly oblique. I remember at about fourteen or fifteen, I would explicitly say things like ‘Mm, I don’t really have a gender preference.’ Then it got to eighteen, and I was saying things like ‘Mm, I like being with men and I like being with women.’ By the time I was twenty-one, I was still getting this ‘Are you gay?’ thing going on, because bisexuality was just not a concept that registered there.

It reached the point where we had a conversation where they said to me – this is a paraphrase, but – ‘From what I understand, there are heterosexuals and there are homosexuals. And there are some people, though I don’t know very much about them, who like both.’ And that was about as far as the knowledge of bisexuality got.

And I think that there are some people, particularly in more conservative religious communities, for whom being an atheist is a little bit like that. I mean, I’m from godless, secular England, but there have been times when I have actually met– I met people at university, actually, to whom I had to explain what an atheist was.

That was something that I learnt when I was eleven. And I think that it may be the case that for some people who’ve grown up in those very ensconced, very tight-knit religious communities, the idea of being or calling oneself an atheist, having that as a stated identity, is something that has to be explained. Which is why it’s not really viable in the first place, why it’s difficult with family members, colleagues, whatever.

Did you think that’s true to any extent? Do you think there are people under the queer community’s umbrella for whom it’s like that, when there’s this kind of blind spot in people’s awareness, and is that something atheists can relate to?

Absolutely. And certainly I had similar experiences as somebody who identifies as bisexual. It’s funny, I’m actually having a… I don’t know if ‘parallel’ is the right word, but I’m starting to question whether ‘bisexual’ is the right word, because ‘bisexual’ plays into a gender binary that I don’t agree with. The word ‘bisexual’ assumes that I’m attracted to men and women: what about people who don’t identify as male or female? I’m attracted to them too.

And I considered whether I should start using the word ‘pansexual’ instead… except that nobody knows what that means. When you say you’re pansexual you have to have this whole conversation about what it means, and if you don’t want to have that conversation, it’s easier to just say that you’re bi. And at least in the circles that I move in, most people sort of know more or less what that word means, although they might have some assumptions about it that are mistaken.

But yes, absolutely – one of the [themes] in this book is people who didn’t know believe in God, or they were having doubt, and they didn’t start calling themselves an atheist until they saw other people start coming out as atheist because they literally didn’t know it was an option. ‘There are people who don’t believe in God? You can do that?!’

They had either never heard the word, or they’d heard the word but they thought it meant… you know, ‘cause there’s a lot of ridiculous ideas about what it means: that it means you worship Satan, that it means you’re angry at God and so on.

And so for some people, obviously, there was this thing of ‘Well, I think atheists are bad people, and I’m not a bad person, so I can’t be an atheist.’ But there’s even more than that. There’s the ‘I just didn’t know it was an option.’ ‘I just didn’t know that that was a thing.’

So again, it’s about visibility. Some of what we’re doing when we do things about visibility is just letting people know that this is a possibility. And it is one of the things that’s a little bit annoying about being in a marginalised group, and particularly in a marginalised group that’s invisible, that being out or coming out means doing some 101 education. And that’s annoying.

We shouldn’t have to do that, and I think that it’s not necessary to do it if you want to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel like doing bisexuality 101.’ ‘I don’t feel like doing atheism 101. Go look it up on the Internet.’ I think that’s legitimate. But as a collective reality, as a community reality, I think it is unfortunate that being out does mean – at the minimum, it means you’re going to be asked all these ridiculous questions. ‘Do you eat babies?’ and so on.

But there’s a flipside to that, which is that simply by being out we’re doing 101 education. Even if we don’t want to sit down and answer all the irritating questions – and sometimes I’m in a mood for it and sometimes I’m not – but simply by being out, our very lives are doing education. There’s times when I just want to live my damn life, and not be… you know, I don’t know if you have this, but do you ever sort of feel the need to be, you know, a paragon?

No. No, I’ve never been a paragon in my life! Well, not of goodness anyway.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it’s interesting though, because as you say, it’s difficult having to be that person who’ll explain and educate and be compulsorily not-pissed-off about it. But I did that, and here’s something that I wanted actually, ‘cause I find it interesting:

That member of my family who had all that stuff going on for years and years, is I think at the point now of just about getting it. I think it was a year or two ago, and I just had to sort of… I actually don’t know that I was any clearer than I’d ever been before, but I was more empathetic, and just said something to the effect of ‘Look: it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to lots of people whether you’re a man or a woman, or anybody in between or beyond the two.’

That same person, who was giving me the ‘So are you gay?’ talk for years and years – since that point, comparatively recently – has actually expressed queer attractions: attractions to people of the same gender that they never had before.

And so I’m wondering if that idea that just by coming out, you’re not going to convert anybody or anything like that… maybe is there room to be… if not to be critical, then to question some element of that?

We were talking before about erasure, and the fact that what you’re able to identify as and what you’re able to feel that you are kind of depends on what you think is an option. It depends on the concepts and the identities that you know of and that you’ve been exposed to, and that you ‘get’.

So I’m wondering: does the act of coming out and being more visible and doing that education sometimes actually make other people rethink their own identities, in a way that is not exactly the same as just coming out?

Well, I think that it certainly can make people ‘come out to themselves’. It can certainly make people question their own identity and accept things about themselves that they might not have accepted, or consider options – as you say, consider options about themselves that they might not have considered.

I think there probably were, for centuries, for millennia, people who were what we would now call transgender – who because they never had that word, because they never had that concept, would never have called themselves that.

Now when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity I’m reluctant to say, [and] I don’t think, people ‘become’ bisexual or ‘become’ gay or lesbian or ‘become’ transgender because they see that it’s an option. I do think (and it seems to be where the scientific consensus is coming in) that to some extent, either we’re born this way or we’re formed this way very very early on in life.

But certainly, to the extent that you accept it about yourself and are willing to embrace it – and even (we’re starting to get off-theme here, but) is there a degree to which having the word lets you be the thing? Does having the word’ bisexual’, does having the word ‘transgender’, let you be it in a way that if you never had that word, if the word didn’t exist and if the concept didn’t exist, you [wouldn’t]?

What makes me go back on that is, people have been behaving bisexually, people have been behaving homosexually, for centuries. There’s lots of history of that. And that behaviour has existed for a long time. I don’t know as much about the history of transgender people, so I don’t know about that, but my guess would be that it’s the same.

So I don’t know. I’m repeating myself. It’s an interesting question: to what degree does seeing other people as models not only… obviously it helps you come out and be public, but to what degree does it let you not only accept things about yourself that you’re having a hard time accepting, but actually just identity that way at all?

And I don’t know. I think that’s a good question.

Just, perhaps, to notice things about yourself that you haven’t noticed before?

I don’t know if this is a thing that you’ve experienced – I don’t even know if this is a broad bisexual phenomenon – but was there was ever a point for you where you had that moment of thinking ‘Hang on, this is attraction? This counts as attraction? I can say that?’ I don’t know, was that a thing that you had?

‘Cause for a while, I – sorry, I’ll keep talking! – there was a reasonably extensive time when I identified as gay while I was a teenager. But I think there was a point, which was kind of a tipping point, when I actually had that moment and realised that what I felt towards women could be considered attraction.

I hadn’t had that moment before. I never considered what I was experiencing to be sexual attraction, but it was, and that kind of dawned on me. It never actually seemed to ‘count’ before, right? I felt primed to be dismissive of that. And I think a lot of people are wedded to a straight identity in a similar way.

I think there are people who identify as straight because they always have and they’ve been told that that was the default, and will have queer attractions or experiences that don’t really occur to them – they just kind of fly under the radar. It’s a huge thing with straight men, particularly adolescent and twentysomething – the whole ‘male bonding’ thing, falling into something that really should be considered erotic and yet is not.

Well, I think that certainly, when it comes to… I don’t know, there’s not much that’s certain about this. I’ll take back the ‘certainly’ part!

I think that bisexual identity is a little unusual in some ways, in that it’s… I’m not going to say ‘easier’, exactly, because it’s not necessarily emotionally easier, but it’s easier externally to fly under the radar.

Actually, I’ll give you an example here: I found out some years after my mother died (she died when I was very young and when she was 45), [when] my father told me some years later, that when she was in college she had had sexual experiences with other women.

I don’t know how far those experiences went, and of course by the time I found out about it my mother was gone, so I couldn’t ask her about it, but she’d had some sexual experiences with women – but because this was the fifties, and it was horribly homophobic, way worse than we are now, she felt guilty about it, she felt like this was something wrong with her.

But I don’t think her attraction to men was false. I don’t think she was a lesbian. I think that if anything, she probably was bisexual, or would have identified as bisexual if she had lived in another time. And so it’s kind of this thing where, if you’re attracted to both genders (or all genders – let’s get rid of the binary there for a minute), if you’re attracted to people of lots of genders, you can still be reasonably happy with just one.

If I’d been born in the fifties, and just said ‘I don’t want to explore women, ‘cause either I think that’s sick and wrong or I just am afraid of it’ – ‘cause all of us do that, and so on – I could have been happy, being involved with a man. I’ve been involved with men and have been happy. Well, reasonably happy. (It was in my youth when I was, you know, pretty fucked up.) ‘Reasonably happy.’

So that’s kind of an interesting question. I don’t want to make people call themselves what they don’t call themselves – I hate the whole thing of ‘Oh, everybody’s basically bisexual and they have to call themselves that.’ That’s ridiculous. But I do think that more people would probably both identify as bisexual and behave bisexually if bisexuality weren’t stigmatised, both from the straight world and from the gay world.

So I don’t know, does that answer your question?

Yeah. No, I think it does. It was Lady Gaga, and before her and after it’s been a whole lot of other people, but that whole argument from having no choice – ‘We were born gay!’, ‘Stop picking on us, we are the way we are!’, ‘It’s in our DNA!’, all of that stuff: as someone who is a Kinsey… 3 or 5? I always forget which way the scale goes.

6 is totally gay and 0 is totally straight.

Yeah – four and a half, sort of thing? I find that argument is fairly insulting, on some level, because I have the same thing as you: I’ve found heterosexual relationships to be perfectly enjoyable, perfectly fulfilling and all of that stuff.

I don’t want to be in them right now; might want to be in them again at some point; but I kind of am the worst nightmare of the religious right and the tabloids, because for me right now, just being in gay relationships is actually a choice.

If I felt that I wanted to identify as gay, I could without any problems – so I feel sidelined by that whole thing, ‘We don’t have a choice! Leave us alone!’ If it were a choice, it would probably be the best choice in the world.

Haha. No, I know what you mean. I think there’s a couple of problems with ‘Born this way’. One is that it doesn’t have much of a good ethical foundation. I don’t know if you know John Corvino? He’s a gay philosopher, atheist…

I think so. Has he done Skepticon?

He’s done Skepticon, he’s done debates with Maggie Gallagher of the National Organisation for Marriage and so on, and he makes the case he doesn’t like the ‘Born this way’ argument because he thinks that it doesn’t have an ethical foundation. And the analogy he makes is, it’s quite possible that some people are born with a greater tendency to be violent – to be physically violent – than others.

That doesn’t make being physically violent ethical. That’s not what answers the question of whether it’s okay to physically hurt people. If you ask the question, the answer isn’t ‘Well, some people are born with a likelihood to do that, so therefore it’s okay.’

So when you’re looking at the question of ‘Is it ethical to be gay, to be lesbian or bisexual?’ – that’s not the question we should be looking at. The question is… is it ethical? Does it hurt anybody? Does it do harm to society? Is there any way in which it’s unfair? Those are the questions we should be looking at.

And I think for anybody who’s not already committed to the proposition that being gay is bad, the answer is pretty clear that no, there’s nothing ethically wrong with it. And I agree with you that certainly from a political standpoint, focusing on the ‘Born this way’ argument – when the LGBT political movement is focusing on, you know, ‘We’re born this way’, ‘We can’t help it’ – it does throw bisexuals into the gutter.

Because we do have a choice. I’m the same way as you are: I could have been happy in relationships, I could have been happy in relationships with women. I could have been happy in relationships with people who don’t identify on a gender binary. But at a time in my life when I was starting to go ‘Okay, I don’t want to be single any more. I’ve been single for a long time; that was good. I now want to be open to being in a serious relationship’, I was loading the dice towards women.

And that’s not because I’m more sexually attracted to women than I am to men. (I am a little bit, but not enough to have that be the determining factor.) It’s that I like women better. You know, the personality traits that women tend on average, as an overall bell curve kind of thing to have more than men are traits that I like, and that I think are useful and valuable in a relationship and that I cherish in a relationship.

So when I was dating, and dating with an eye toward maybe getting seriously involved, I was definitely mostly dating women, because not as a sexual thing but just as a personal thing, I tend to like women better than men. And when the LGBT movement emphasises ‘Born this way!’, it does kind of cast us into the shade.

And I also do think that it does ignore the degree to which sexual identity, or at least sexual orientation – not necessarily self-proclaimed identity, although that too actually – can change over time.

The scientific consensus does seem to be leaning to some degree toward who we’re just attracted to; you know, who our genitals get throbby for or at least have the potential to be throbby for. That does seem to be set pretty early on in life, but as you say, it kind of ignores that those of us for whom the setting that we got very early on in life is malleability; is something that might change over time.

So yeah, I’m repeating myself here: I do think there’s seems to be some degree of scientific consensus that just the physical lustiness seems to be set. But that ignores the degree to which where we’re set [can be] flexibility or malleability. And also, it’s so complicated. There’s so much more than just who our bits get throbby for. There is all the cultural identity and political identity that’s as much as part of the picture as the throbby bits.

Interesting picture.

No, that’s my response to ‘Are you born this way or are you not?’ I find that whole question to be a little bit oversimplistic. It’s the same with food, it’s the same with music taste, it’s the same with most things, I would guess. I think genetics is probably very influential, but all of those factory settings are always going to be filtered through the way we think about ourselves, the way we’re taught to think about ourselves, what we’re invited to see as valid, what we’re invited to see as something that doesn’t count…

The idea that it’s as simple and as binary as ‘Either it’s born-that-way, or you just choose that’ – well, I would imagine that most philosophers would be fairly critical of the idea you’re either born with a state, a predisposition or whatever, or it’s completely your choice. That’s a very overneat way of thinking about it.

So yeah, there’s that. To go back to something you said, I have read criticism of the idea the bisexual label invokes a gender binary. I’ve heard the argument that the word was coined to refer to both homosexual and non-homosexual’ relationships. So there’s that argument for the permissibility of it.

‘Pansexual’ does just not work for me. I know this is probably very politically incorrect, but it just sounds pretentious. Sorry – I know I’m going to get lots of people being really angry with me after saying that, but personally, it just wouldn’t really feel intuitive to me to call myself pansexual. Even though the idea is probably actually closer to how I see things, it doesn’t quite sit right.

Is it that you just don’t like the language? Is it that you think it’s awkward neologism? Or it just not how you identify – are you, in fact, attracted to men and women but not to people who aren’t on the gender binary? Because I think there may be people like that, who aren’t attracted to people who aren’t on the gender binary.

There are certainly people who feel an attraction specifically toward nonbinary people, so presumably, perhaps the opposite exists as well. No: men, women and everyone between and beyond is all good as far as I’m concerned, but it just feels a little too… unfamiliar? ‘Pansexual’? It feels a bit too much like a neologism for me.

Everyone can use the language that they prefer – it just doesn’t quite chime with me, for some reason. I think if you asked me, ‘queer’ would be how I identified, because I like its vagueness.

Of course, that was also a strategy that I used to piss people off. And I continue to use it to piss people off. Perhaps it’s ethically questionable, because I don’t like being asked to do the education and the explanations and that kind of thing, but I do deliberately employ an identifier that makes people confused.

I suppose I’m just manipulative. There’s something very welcoming about being able to be nonspecific.

To some extent it’s concept-dependent. I use a whole panoply of words to describe myself. I use the word ‘queer’, and I like the word ‘queer’ for many situations – for no other reason but that it does, in a single syllable, without having to say LGBTQII et cetera, get across the sense of ‘all of us together’: all of us who identify [other than as] heterosexual and cisgender.

And it also gets across that sense of deliberate, self-defined differentness. That’s not true for all LGBTQ people. There’s a lot of LGBTQ people who don’t feel this great sense of differentness because of their sexual or gender orientation. But some of us do, and that’s a reason I use the word.

But there are times when I actually do want to specifically convey that I’m attracted to people of both or all genders. There are times when I want to get that cross, and when you say ‘queer’, that doesn’t do that. People who are totally, 100 percent lesbian still use that word; people who are totally, 100 percent gay still use that word.

And there are times when I call myself a lesbian. I don’t use that often – but I do use that if what I’m trying to get across is that I’m in a same-sex relationship, I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for sixteen years, and I have a cultural identification with the LGBTQ community, but I also have a specific cultural identification with the lesbian community.

Mm.

And there’s times when I want to be conveying that. And also when I’m trying to get guys to not hit on me. It’s that shorthand. That’s my own sort of dishonest thing, where if I don’t feel like having the whole conversation and saying ‘I’m bisexual – I just want you to piss off’, sometimes saying ‘I’m a lesbian’ stops the conversation. So.

Yeah. I think it’s interesting the extent to which identifying oneself as bisexual often feels a little rude, or a little combative, or as if you’re being difficult.

I don’t know if this is your experience as well, but I think because there’s such a level of erasure about bisexuality, very often the point where you express that about yourself is when someone has asked you if you’re gay. That’s how it was with me; that’s how it was, I think, with a lot of people. And therefore it’s often slightly difficult to identify oneself as bisexual in conversation without telling someone they’re wrong and without sounding slightly irritated.

And I think there can be a feeling that… you’re just ruining everybody’s fun, and why can’t you just be a little more simplistic, and not along and say that you’re gay?

Hahahaha.

‘Stop making everything so complicated!’ Which is why I think a lot of people have that very flexible thing. I think there are a lot of generally bisexual people, or in broad terms bisexual people, who’ll go with ‘gay’ and nod along when they feel socially pressured or expected to, just because it’s easier, and they don’t feel they have to do the explanations.

Personally I’m much more difficult than that. I have no interest in being polite, and being nice, and making it really easy for the straight people to get everything. I will simultaneously insist that you use the terms, which confuse you, that I want you to use, and insist on not explaining them. That’s how irritating I am.

Hahaha. There is some of this. People keep talking about ‘Oh, the language keeps changing! How do you expect me to keep up with all these new rules?’ Well, actually, you know what? There is a really old rule.

I got this from, of all places, Miss Manners, who I adore – I have some issues with her, but mostly I adore her – and she wasn’t even talking about this, she was talking about something else. But she said ‘It’s polite to address people in the way that they have clearly indicated that they want to be addressed.’

That cuts across a lot of things. How do people of different racial or ethnic identities want to be addressed? How do people of different sexual or gender identities want to be addressed? How do people of different nationalities want to be addressed?

It’s polite to address the way they’ve clearly indicated they want to be addressed – and they don’t owe you an explanation. They don’t need to have the whole history of why the word you just used is an ethnic slur and they’d really rather you used this other word instead. You don’t owe that to people.

I do think that if somebody uses the wrong word by mistake and they just didn’t know, then it’s legitimate to cut them slack – I cut people slack for ignorance. But if it’s the tenth time we’ve had that conversation and you’re still using the wrong word, then that to me speaks of a deliberate, wilful ignorance and a deliberate resistance – not just to that language, but to let go of the privilege of getting to pick the language.

That’s the thing: the power to name ourselves is really important. And I think there are a lot of people from whatever axis of privilege you’re talking about, whether it’s race, or gender orientation, class, whatever, who want to pick the language ‘cause they always have. And being asked to ‘try to remember as best you can what it is that I prefer to be called…’

Being asked to spend five minutes on Wikipedia! Five whole minutes doing your research – it’s just unacceptable.

Yes. Exactly. Yes. And having to remember things?! People tell you things, and you have to remember?! You have to stop and think for a second? It’s like, what’s that about?

There’s actually a point in your book – maybe it was cut – where you talk about the fact you use the word ‘atheist’ and not the word ‘freethinker’, ‘secularist’, ‘skeptic’, whatever. Because secularism – or atheism, or freethought or whatever – has that argument as well: that tension and variety about names.

I don’t know. Do you think that in a way, because it’s seen to be less of a… no, I’ll let you talk. How do you think that those compare – the variety of names in queer identity and atheism?

I think there’s a lot of parallels. I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think that, certainly, again there’s this whole thing of the power to name ourselves, and when people have been marginalised and have been stigmatised – especially when we’re still in those first few years of coalescing as a community and as a movement – that power to name ourselves becomes really important.

But also, because we’re coming together and coalescing as a movement, we’re not just struggling with believers about what to call us, we’re struggling with ourselves and what we should call ourselves. But of course, we all have that issue of wanting to name ourselves, and we don’t want to be called by other nonbelievers what to call ourselves any more than we want to be told by believers. So I tend to try to not get involved in the squabbles. I try to say, ‘Each of us gets to call ourselves what we want, and if you want to call yourself a humanist or a freethinker, ‘nonbeliever’, ‘agnostic’, ‘materialist’, whatever – I don’t really care that much.’

I have a little bit of an issue with ‘agnostic’, ‘cause I want to ask people who call themselves agnostic, ‘Are you just as agnostic about unicorns or leprechauns or whatever as you are about God? And if you’re not, why is God the one thing that you insist on claiming your lack of knowledge about?’ But ultimately, as long as they’re not telling me that I shouldn’t call myself an atheist and that I’m ‘really’, in air-quotes, an agnostic, I don’t want to tell them that they’re ‘really’ (air-quotes) an atheist, ‘cause that power to name myself is to important. And if for them that not-knowing matters, I think for them that’s fine.

And I do suspect that eventually, maybe in a decade or two, we’ll probably coalesce on a word that most of us use. You know, the way we coalesced on ‘LGBT’. It’s not what I would have picked…

Ha!

…cause it’s too many syllables and it’s awkward and it’s a mouthful, but it’s not a bad term. It includes everybody, and it gets it across and it’s short (short enough, anyway), and it’s kind of how language works: neologisms are awkward until they’re not new any more. To some extent, you can try to advocate for whatever word you like best, but ultimately language develops organically and we’re going to coalesce on whatever word we coalesce on.

Maybe we don’t coalesce on a word, because there are differences between atheists and humanists for instances – just like there’s differences between ‘LGBT’ and ‘queer’. Subtle differences, and again we might use different words in different situations. There are times when I call myself a humanist, because I’m trying to identify more with the assorted positive philosophies and not just with the lack of belief in God.

But really, I don’t care what other people call themselves. It’s an issue when we’re trying to name groups or organisations or whatever. But I don’t want to take away that power-of-naming. It’s too important.

It’s interesting: some of those names can sometimes be more than just interchangeable names. There’s a certain series of associations that I have with the label of ‘humanist’ – there’s a way in which I associate the label ‘humanist’ with the 1960s, and a consequence perhaps with people who were around in the 1960s and are still around… and are still in those organisations, if you know what I’m saying.

It seems to me that ‘atheist’ has caught the vogue in the last ten years (maybe a little more) in the same way that ‘humanist’ did then. There seems to be a vogue for that at the moment.

I agree with you that ‘atheist’ has more of an appeal to younger people – people who are… high school, college, early twenties and so on. And that’s not universally true, but I would also add to that that I think the word ‘atheist’ tends to draw people who are more confrontational, who are more actually-opposition to religion, or just whose manner of activism and being in the world about their nonbelief is more confrontational and less let’s-get-along-to-get-along.

It’s not universally true – I know some people who identify as humanists who are very badass – but that’s another thing about language: it develops organically and it changes organically. When my parents were nonbelievers, and this was in the fifties and sixties, they very adamantly called themselves agnostics, because at the time, the word ‘atheist’ tended to mean somebody who’s absolutely certain that there is no god. And people who had even the tiny, tiny .001 percent of doubt called themselves agnostic.

That’s changed, and I think the language will probably continue to change. I agree with you that ‘humanist’ has different associations; I’m not sure I would necessarily agree that it necessarily means people who are of an older generation, but to some extent it has that association. But again, those associations change.

It’s one of the issues I have with (quote-unquote) ‘dictionary atheists’, who insist atheism only means not believing in God, and we can’t organise or build communities around any other thing. It’s like, no: atheism is beginning to mean both people who don’t believe in God and a set of implications that we draw from that conclusion.

I’ve noticed as well that there’s a certain political gulf, that I have a very vague impression of, between humanists and humanist-identified secularists in the US and Britain as well.

I’ve tended to observe that people who march under the banner of humanism in the states lean somewhat more strongly to the left than humanists in Britain. I’m not sure why that is, but – in my experience, anyway – it’s more of a countercultural identity, [with] more immediate openness to class concerns in politics, feminism and that kind of thing.

I’ve found that humanists in the UK are first of all a little less well defined. You find people under the humanist banner everywhere politically, but as far as major organisations, I think that the British Humanist Association – the people that run it, and I’ve met quite a few of them, I would place more in the political centre than people I know at African Americans for Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting.

That’s a good question. Because this is me, and this is what I do, I’m going to speculate and pull speculative conclusions totally out of my ass – so, therefore, this is a provisional guess – but I think that to some extent [it’s] because being a nonbeliever in Britain is more normal, it’s more ordinary, it’s more common anyway.

Being a nonbeliever in the states is oppositional, and there’s no way around that. It’s a little different if you live in New York City or some place like that, but even then you have to contend with the rest of the country. And so I wonder if because of that, right now at least in the United States, we have a situation where in order to reject religion you have to be willing to question the religious right, for one thing.

Certainly in the United States, religion and conservative politics are very much welded together. One of the reasons why I’m engaged in atheist activism is that I do see it as a crowbar: when people become atheists, they do tend to become more liberal, more progressive. I think that may not always be true. I think that if atheism does become more common in the United States, then in a few decades that tendency of atheists, humanists, just any nonbeliever…

So I don’t think that humanists are more progressive: just ‘nonbelievers’ in the States tend to be more progressive, because the kind of personality that gets you questioning religion is also perhaps the kind of personality that gets you questioning other conventions about politics and society and so on. I think it’s possible that in a few decades that won’t be true.

You hear it a lot from the religious right, that insistence that religious populations tend to be very charitable, very invested in helping the homeless and things like that – and I think that issue has manifested itself sometimes in humanist or atheist groups doing things like running soup kitchens or helping the poor, because things like charity and social help are associated with religious organisations.

Part of me thinks that has been somewhat less the case in Britain in the last fifty or more years, because I think Britain has a slightly more developed set of secular institutions for things like that. We’ve historically had, I think, somewhat better welfare provision.

No argument there, yeah.

Well, it’s changing…

Much, much, much better. It sucks: the social safety net in the United States sucks.

Yeah, but also trade unions and things like that, I think, have been much more enshrined – at least until recently (well, relatively recently) – in Britain than sometimes they have been in the US.

And from that perspective, it’s difficult to be a secularist in the US, at least if you have a very well conceived and thoroughly organised political vision, without wanting public provision to replace what churches have had. It’s hard to want churches to go away, and not think we should have some kind of public or communally provision of things like housing and so on.

Maybe that would account for more self-consciously left-leaning humanism in the US than what I sometimes see in the UK, which I think I would call more ‘liberal’, or ‘progressive’, or somewhere in the middle.

Well certainly. It’s sad, it’s depressing that this should be true, but in the United States, wanting a safety net at all is a liberal position.

I know.

Wanting decent public education; wanting there to be some sort of decent public healthcare safety net; wanting, you know, there to not be poor people dying in the streets: that’s a liberal position. It’s pathetic that it should be true, but that’s the case.

And I do think that there’s a couple of things going on. One is that a lot of the safety nets in the US are done through religion. I don’t know how true that is outside the States, but a lot of the safety nets are done through religion, so, therefore when we leave religion we have to recognise, ‘Gosh – if we’re not going to do soup kitchens and daycare centres through churches, how are we going to do them? What else are we going to do, then?’

And so there’s that. There’s also… I don’t know, have you read Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without Faith?

So Phil Zuckerman is a sociologist. He studies atheism and secularism and did this years-long analysis of countries that are more religious and countries that are less religious, and what he found was that countries that are less religious tend to be… they tend to be happier countries. They have more of a safety net, they’re doing better economically, there’s more equality, more egalitarianism, more gender equality, less of a disparity between rich and poor, better education, better healthcare and so on, which is the same as what progressives are advocates for.

Now the question there becomes: what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does leaving religion make people go, ‘Hey, there’s no heaven. There’s no afterlife. If we’re going to make people’s lives better we have to do it now, because this is all we get’? Does questioning religion make people want to build this better society? Or does having the better society more likely to be secular, because they don’t have as much of a need to believe in an afterlife ‘cause this life is okay – and also because they have the time and the security to ask questions like ‘Is there a god?’

So I think the reality does seem to be that more atheist societies do tend to be more progressive societies (at least if you define ‘progressive’ as meaning you don’t want people to die in the streets). But then there’s this question of what’s the cause and what’s the effect, and I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m not sure even how we would answer that.

We might actually have an interesting [situation] in the states, because rates of nonbelief are going up even though there’s no better social safety net, healthcare still sucks, public education still sucks and so on. There’s a huge disparity between rich and poor, and yet rates of atheism are still going up. (As a result of a lot of things, the Internet being probably one reason.)

So it’ll be interesting to see: if rates of secularism continue to rise in the States to the point where a significant minority, or a majority even, of Americans are nonbelievers, does our country become more progressive?

But again, correlation isn’t causation, and so… blah blah blah.

Well that’ll be an interesting thing to note if you get to the point where you’re releasing Coming Out Atheist (Seventeenth Edition).

Ha! Definitely.

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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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Hunger games: food, money and how I grew up feeling fat

Twice in my life, I’ve been a bit rotund. Both times, it was a common enough experience. At eleven I gorged on pizza, chocolate bars and caramel ice creams, more available at secondary school than in our previously welfare-dependent house, and stayed a slightly tubby teenager till added height changed my proportions, though it may be that having never quite eaten enough before, I was only gaining puppy fat I already should have. A decade on, I snacked my way through Oxford finals, spurning regular meals and comfort-eating. I’ve never been what you’d call fat, but nor during these periods was I slim.

My exam weight has now mostly been shed, more through abstinence than effort: since June, I’ve had no student loan to blow on cake. (No one expects a sweet tooth in someone as sour as me. You’d be surprised.) The poverty diet, as I’ve fondly come to call it, reached its logical extreme this week.

In January I moved back to Berlin, the place I started blogging, and managed to lose my debit card in transit – my bank, amusingly, has since located it in the Philippines. After ringing up immediately to cancel it, I had to change my address with them for a replacement to be sent out, and phoned again when this was done to order one. Presumably since I reported losing my card twice, the bank managed to cancel both the old and new ones. The latter’s last days of use ran out this weekend, and until another has arrived on Friday, I can make no withdrawals, either to pay the rent or to buy food.

Crash diets are a bad way to lose weight: the body responds to starvation by stockpiling fat. That said, and while these fasts have always been involuntary for me, I’ve found that I can make some use of them. As I wrote in December, I can go days without meals since as a child I had to now and again, but for this exact reason I’m prone to binges. I crave food for the joy of eating more than the benefit of being full, and forced restraint takes my mind off using it as a diversion. I’d be lying, too, if I said some part of me doesn’t enjoy the thinner-than-usual body in the mirror when food is off the menu. I’ve no doubt this is unhealthy.

‘Now that I have begun to celebrate lost inches,’ Ben Blanchard of the Pathfinders Project writes, ‘I am fearful that I might develop an eating disorder when left to my own devices as a busy academic back in the states. Until then, I am focusing on not focusing on it, and refuse to give my mind footholds to climb on to an obsession.’ Ben documents a weight loss far more dramatic than any I’ve undergone or needed, but the thought still resonates. What if I cared about this too much?

From the time my eleven year old self became conscious of his slight tubbiness, I’ve never felt quite thin enough – while my body’s undeniably changed shape at several points, I’ve yet entirely to throw off the sense of being overweight.

Hindsight and data tell me this instinct is ludicrous. In television footage from 2012, when I was 20 and the thinnest I remember being, I look like a string bean. In the next year, I didn’t just get fatter for exams but had a late and quite unnecessary growth spurt – between that October and last June, I went from 6’2” to 6’4” and developed relative breadth for the first time. (Before that, I’d had shoulders drag queens would kill for.) If you’d hugged me while the relevant footage was being shot, you’d have sustained a paper cut. So why, at the time, did I feel fat?

I go back further, through pictures of me at eighteen and sixteen. None exist between about twelve and fifteen, because I wouldn’t allow them; school photographs were lost on the way home. Even after my height first rocketed, I didn’t think of myself as slim, but seemingly I was. I’d always been tall for my age anyway, particularly in the leg, and like Ben (if for different reasons) struggled to buy trousers – for adequate length, I’ve often had to wear ones for much bigger waists than mine, and wonder now if it affected how I saw myself. I’m more given to blame parents and P.E. teachers in the end.

Losing my finals weight, combined with the broader frame I got concurrently, has given me a body I quite like. I’m no more toned or skinny than I was two years ago – less so, in fact – but the casing seems for the first time to tie up with the software. The issue, I conclude, is interior: the way I felt about my shape had little to do with what it actually was. Perhaps my mind matured just as my body did. It seems a question of framing either way.

Nowadays I prepare most of my own meals, kept slightly on the paunchy side by love of starchy foods (pasta, pizza, potatoes) and baking. This has provoked in me a strange desire to become healthy – to exercise, eat better and get out more. I’m not sure exactly what will happen here, but whatever does will be gradual, done because want to do it rather than feel a need. I never had impulses like this when I felt overweight. They’ve come to me as I’ve found satisfaction with how I look, and I don’t think that’s by chance.

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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Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about

Say this city has ten million souls
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes

* * *

A letter in a too-large envelope came five years ago this week. The paper had shifted in the excess space so the plastic window meant for the address showed its initial lines of text instead. I am pleased on behalf of Wadham College, it began, to offer you a place. Oxford’s 2013 interviewees sit, as I write, in hope of such a letter.

Legends abound about the Oxbridge interview, referred to always with a definite article as in ‘the Eucharist’ – an arcane, unalterable rite shrouded in mystery. Oxford and Cambridge hopefuls have stories thrust on them of rugby balls, bananas and trick questions, and access workers’ first task (I was one once) is to dispel these myths. Interviews in reality amount most of the time to cordial, relaxed if mentally rigorous exchanges – nothing worse. Oxford’s bizarrenesses are many, but kick in for the most part only once successful candidates take up their spots. You might imagine by my fourth year there, I’d have acclimatised, but you’d be wrong: few ever wholly do. Memories of finals, now eight months ago, are among my most surreal.

Oxford’s exam dress – gown, mortarboard and suit or skirt-and-jumper – looks centuries out of date because it is. Amendments made to rules in 2012 eliminated reference to gender, making my year the first whose men could wear ordinary black ties rather than ivory bows, an aesthetic and practical step up that nonetheless resembled funeral garb. (Appropriate, I felt, for long dead academic prospects’ burial.) Tradition, though I’d no time for it, dictates white carnations be worn on top for first exams, pink ones thereafter and red for the final one, a colour scheme it’s always seemed to me suggests loss of virginity. Finalists in most subjects file thus dressed into Examination Schools – venue, incidentally, of next year’s World Humanist Congress – to sit exams between ornate wood-panelled walls, observed by ancient portraits, gazing periodically up at giant clocks that may or may not be as Victorian as they appear. The whole ritual feels close to religious; I can tell you, since he once told me, that Richard Dawkins has nightmares about it.

Being, unlike him, an academic slacker, I never felt much strain during my finals. I didn’t expect a very good degree, nor feel in need of one. (Upper second, as it turned out, English and Modern Languages.) One memory persists, though. Returning to college down Queen’s Lane from a twentieth century English paper (I managed a first there), three stocky, plum-voiced undergrads fell boorishly about ahead of me, red carnations near-invisible through baked beans, flour and confetti. ‘Trashing’, as it’s known, is another Oxford custom, inflicted on students finishing exams. I’m thankful I escaped it. Stumbling on down the road, the boy on the right shook vigorously and then uncorked a bottle of champagne, dousing the middle one in the resulting spray of foam. His accomplice on the left, still guffawing, restrained their target as he tried to flee, and the boy with the bottle upturned it over him, releasing every drop till none remained.

More than half Oxford’s students are state-schooled. Few attended England’s ancient public schools, as alarmingly many did in Britain’s cabinet, and it’s lazy to equate the two: Oxford is no costlier than any major university, and the ten percent of students with parents on less than £16,000 a year pay fees of three thousand instead of nine. It’s true though that an air of privilege pervades. Trashing is harmless fun for students in historically male garb well off enough to dry-clean it. It wouldn’t have been for me. My stomach turns recalling that champagne, but only since it spoke to the whole practice’s louche insensitivity. I saw this often at Oxford – in colleagues who wore designer clothes to bed and insisted a time passed when their parents ‘only’ made £250,000 a year; in those who casually forked hundreds out to replace a blemished croquet set; in the drunken braying outside pubs of boys in tailcoats who thought they owned the place. (Perhaps they did.)

The day I arrived, hauling luggage from a taxi to my first year room, a woman in her fifties with a warm Oxfordshire accent greeted me whose name was June, and whose role my fresher’s pack had told me was to clean my room, make the bed and change the sheets. Her job description, like the figure she earned, should have been longer: when it turned out I’d no duvet of my own, June snuck me a college owned one reserved for conference guests; when I spent my first week bedridden with swine flu, she brought food to my door; when I failed to lock it, she chided me good-naturedly. A surrogate mum a hundred miles from home, I loved June as I’ve read England’s public schoolboys love their domestic matrons – but flinched inwardly at how clearly this seemed the basis of her role. Early on, she referred in passing to wealthy parents funding my degree – the truth, I told her immediately, was that I belonged to that poorest tenth of students, reliant on a student loan and grants. A bedmaker who cleaned my floor felt as embarrassingly alien as meals served in the college hall by staff in black bow ties. (Their supervisor held the telling title of Head Butler.) When possible, I ducked these to eat privately or in the cafeteria.

My appetite – in one sitting, I can polish off whole cakes or quiches – was a subject of fun now and again in my tutorial group. They discovered it as time went on, but never why. I’m able to do this for the same reason I’m able, more or less, to function normally for two or three days without food: I know how it feels to be hungry for years.

It wouldn’t be true to say my mother and I starved at any point, but nor were cupboards ever adequately full. The two of us were homeless before I turned a year old; fleeing her then-husband, a man who broke her heart and numerous other parts of both of us, it took officials the best of two years to house us properly. The benefits on which we spent the next few years allowed, after expenses, a household budget of £70 a week or so, meaning that on my mum’s trips to the shops, counting the pennies wasn’t a metaphor. From the staples of our diet, bread, cheese, pasta and potatoes, she fashioned an uncanny range of meals, many of them my comfort foods today, but supply was limited. I still recall her voice, frustration masking despair, telling me when circumstances bit that there was ‘no food in the house’. Free school lunches, such as they were in the nineties, meant I rarely went without for longer than 24 hours, but if it was a weekend when this happened and no neighbours, church members or friends were forthcoming with help, nothing could be done about it. If I overeat at times, it’s because the concept still feels new.

Mum was 42 when she had me, but lived for the following years as students are imagined to. Our furniture, food itself if still vacuum-packed, came out of skips. Even the fridge in which the latter sat, she got by swapping the inferior original with another single mum’s named Shirley; the washing machine next to it, her first husband bought us. Almost all my clothes were second hand, donated by parents from church or the school gates, though always in good nick. It’s hard to get across just how poor we were, except that it shows in subtler ways too. Some nights, Mum taught keep fit at the local primary school, unpaid monetarily (a stipulation of her benefits) but provided in exchange with household goods – among them, a stereo. CDs from Woolworths being an unthinkable expense, I grew up with her cassette tape collection from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and my childhood’s songs as a consequence were by Dusty Springfield, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross. I was seven before I listened intently to contemporary music (a copy of Cher’s ‘Believe’ bought in a fit of decadence), and half way through my teens before I paid real attention. A gap of fifteen years or so in my musical knowledge, despite attempts to close it, has resulted.

The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out. I felt it at Oxford many times, though never more acutely than then – when a friend schooled for a six figure price complained a degree unfunded by his parents would saddle him with debts; when alumni of such places, 7 percent of Britain’s populace in total, mentioned their attendance as casually as if discussing where to buy socks; when I heard it said my feeling in response, called class hatred by those who’ve never had it, was the last accepted prejudice (a stupid phrase if ever there was one).

Pointing to class in any personal context is considered impolite. Praised by the Daily Mail last year, actor Tom Hiddleston – a product of the prep-school-Eton-Cambridge assembly line – complained the ‘artistic, political or intellectual has to be refracted through [a] prism of class consciousness’. Even a left wing, feminist friend opposed politically to fee-paying education shot me down for saying I wouldn’t date Eddie Redmayne of Les Mis fame since he went to boarding school with Hiddleston. Analogies in these areas are treacherous, but it’s tempting to think class, like gender or race, is something a friendly liberal politics encourages us not to see from day to day – dismissing and disregarding it as academic or off-limits, concerned as we might be in principle for that elusive thing, ‘equality’, in case the marginalised should make the privileged uncomfortable. Doing so prompts frequent accusations of bigotry, spreading the politics of envy and having a chip on one’s shoulder – canards, surely, that feminists and progressives like my alma mater’s ought to recognise.

If this post was unexpected, I know why. With my tweedy prose, unfashionable vowels (the ‘a’ amuses friends and enemies alike) and Latin postnominals, I’m something of a caricature – but ‘caricature’ is the word. Look closely for the giveaways: teeth affluent parents would have set in braces, hair only recently cut by professionals, voice without the real upper crust’s affected twang. I spot signs like these from a mile away: a partner of Hiddleston’s or Redmayne’s ilk, like the boys on Queen’s Lane who used champagne like water, would mean a barrage of emotional slaps in the face, a reminder in Wystan Auden’s words that they lived in mansions while I lived empty-stomached in a hole.

Try telling me I oughtn’t resent that. Try.

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Polyamory: our partners may be countless, but they still count

Remember Craigslist Mom from earlier this summer, who sought a ‘sugar baby’ for her son through an online ad?

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I wanted at the time to write an open letter to her. So much was wrong with her advert that I ultimately struggled.

We need to lose virginity as a concept - having sex doesn’t involve losing anything, or confer, as Craigslist Mom assumes, some magical new status – and what makes her link it with nerdiness anyway? We know it’s a myth women in scant clothing are at greater risk of rape; I wouldn’t be surprised if, following investigation, there turned out to be zero correlation between frequency of sex in teens and traits deemed un-nerdy (sportiness, confidence or popularity, say). Being a nerd, after all, is in Laurie Penny’s words ‘about making things and fixing things and taking things apart to see how they work’ – sex being a case in point. It’s not by chance that all the sex workers, sex writers and sex educators I know are enormous nerds: nerds read Wikipedia articles on positions and anatomy; they learn words for identities, relationship styles and fetishes non-nerds don’t know; they meet other nerds through iPhone apps and Star Trek fan clubs, then have nerdy sex that’s fulfilling and fun.

We need to lose classism and slut-shaming. (God forbid a Harvard student and a woman paid for sex might form a connection or stay together in the long run.) We need to lose, or at least be very careful with, ‘seduction’ culture. (Plenty of people will want sex with you, whoever you are. When someone doesn’t, respect that and move on. Pestering, pressuring or coercing them till they give in isn’t romantic. It’s harassment.) We need to lose parents’ sense of ownership over their children’s bodies. (Even benevolent forms of this – ‘It’s okay with us if you like boys, son’ - can be annoying. I own my body, and need no one’s permission but my partners’. Of course it’s fucking well okay.)

But when I come back to Craigslist Mom’s advertisement, one thing bothers me above all else: how does she know her son hasn’t had sex?

She says he’s never had a girlfriend; what she means is he’s never done the teenage boyfriend-girlfriend mating dance, with steps like meeting the parentsgoing to prom and – on primetime American teen dramas – popping the question. Sex does not just happen in this context. Perhaps he’s had friends with benefits; perhaps he no-strings-attached encounters with online contacts; perhaps he’s fumbled about with girls in the back row at the cinema. (What constitutes ‘sex’ precisely, anyway?)

Perhaps he doesn’t like girls. Perhaps he likes boys, or people of other genders, or any combination of the above, and they’ve done any of that. (Gay teenage partnerships practically never follow the come-for-dinner, meet-the-parents narrative.) Perhaps he isn’t sexually or romantically interested in anyone, or almost anyone, which is entirely fine and does not need fixing. Perhaps he’s been with people before one way or another, but doesn’t want to be again; perhaps he’d like to be in future, but not right now. Perhaps his main sexual pastime is masturbation, reading erotica, writing it, cybering through Skype or online message. Perhaps he’s seeing, or has seen, a range of people non-exclusively, none of whom meet narrow ‘girlfriend’ criteria.

I know there’s a good chance that Craigslist Mom doesn’t exist – that she was an attention-seeking practical joke, designed to rile the Twitterati or, more worryingly, expose women who responded. The ideas and presumptions she represents, though, are wholly real, and should be taken seriously. I’ve seem some of them from my own (altogether very preferable) relatives.

Last year, I said to one that monogamy didn’t interest me. ‘You’re not in a long-term relationship’, they said as if to explain. The reverse was true: I wasn’t in one exclusive partnership because monogamy doesn’t appeal. When you’re poly, many long-term relationships can happen at once – you don’t stop seeing your dentist when you visit your GP – or, at the very least, a single/taken dichotomy begins to crumble. For most people, the mark of a relationship is exclusivity with one other person: having more than one partner or fewer means you’re not in an LTR, and saying when one starts or ends is very simple. Things get much blurrier, by contrast, when monogamy’s not a prerequisite.

Last week, after saying I don’t want kids or marriage, a different relative asked, ‘You don’t want any kind of relationship, then?’ I ended up telling them I’m happily single (by which I really meant ‘with no primary partner‘); what I should have said was that I’ve been in various relationships, often several at once, which never caught my family’s notice. When you’ve multiple partners none of whom fills the role of girlfriend-coming-to-dinner, as might have been the case for Craigslist Son, your relationships can often go unnoticed – but they are relationships. If you don’t know of one person I’m seeing, it could mean I’m seeing more than one, not fewer.

I’m neither gay nor straight; I don’t identify, in general, as bisexual. I live, in other words, under sexual erasure. When because I’ve no visible girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s assumed I’ve no sexual or romantic links, more gets piled on. Heteromonogamy isn’t singledom’s sole cure – nor is it necessary, as Albert Camus put it, to love rarely in order to love much. Embracing the many, for poly people, counts just as much as finding the one: our partners may be countless, but they still count.