Secular synthesis and why we need it – or, Hello Freethought Blogs

You already know that I’m a #FTBully. Of all the letters after my name (admittedly, there aren’t very many), those are the ones I’m proudest of. My feeling is, that tells you all you need know about me. Keep reading though.

I’m 22, secular, British, poly, queer, tall, ex-Christian, “left wing and long-winded”, a nerd, a graduate and a keyboard warrior. What that actually means is fallacious discourses piss me off, and so do faulty ideas they transmit. I’m skeptical, you might say, in that sense.

The backdrop to my joining this network is an organised skepticism more divided than ever, teetering toward civil war. I have no problems with that division. If our blogosphere and the community around it become the dogfight expected right now, things will get worse before they get better – but they will, I think, get better. There are problems in our movement – racism, misogyny, transphobia, harassment, wage theft, corruption – that we need to fix, and any chance we take by addressing them is a chance for self-improvement. Should skepticism implode in the coming weeks or months, there’s no point letting it implode again a year or several down the line: the time for staring down internal conflicts, all of them, is now.

Because of that, there won’t just be posts here on UK atheism – that is, on why our image as a godless paradise is unwarranted, our secular community underdeveloped and our strains of fundamentalism growing. There won’t just be posts on leaving extreme religion – how Hallowe’en once terrified me, how my niece was an evangelical at four years old and how I thought aged eight that Satan had possessed me. There won’t just be posts about mainstream and LGBT culture’s myths of sexuality, about sex and relationships, about the nerdsphere or about far-right religion’s fast-forming grip on UK campuses. There will be all of those, sooner or later, but not just those.

I named this blog Godlessness in Theory because I think we need new secular dialectics. I first encountered things like feminism and social justice largely through the atheist scene – I came of age reading Skepchick, Butterflies and Wheels and Greta Christina’s Blog – and I think it’s valuable, vital in fact, to view our movement through those kinds of frameworks. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s enough to switch between discourses as I’ve found myself doing; to blog on atheism some days and queerness others. The most exciting thoughts I’ve had in skepticism have been listening to Pragna Patel, Sikivu Hutchinson or Natalie Reed, in whose work secularity and social justice collide and complete, coherent modes of thinking germinate which speak to both. I love these writers’ work, because this is more than intersectional action; it’s an innovative, synthetic analysis. Pursuing secular synthesis as they have – bringing godlessness into theory, and vice versa – is my long-term stated aim. That’s what I’m here for, and what I think can repair our movement – even, perhaps, make it stronger than ever.

Wish me luck.

For the moment, an overview: if you haven’t read anything by me before, or you’ve read a post or two and you want to read more, the following ten posts are a good place to start.

I’m looking at archiving the rest of my past writing here; to stay updated in the mean time, go and Like this blog on Facebook. If you feel like you still want more, browse through my writing in the areas linked or see my blogroll here for the people I like reading. You can also drop me a line via email or Twitter, and believe me, I’ll be reading the comments.

Hello if we don’t know each other. Hello again if we already do. And hello Freethought Blogs – you’re the greatest network of them all. I’m thrilled to be here.

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Seven)

It’s done. I’ve been home from Soul Survivor twenty-four hours, and I’ve now more or less recovered emotionally and physically. I won’t deny that this project’s been hard – a lot more so than I expected on devising it. (My thanks go out, once again, to the readers of my blog who made it possible.) But am I glad I did it? Absolutely. Because being torn out of my skeptical bubble’s taught me a lot, and since it seems appropriate to make some conclusions in my final post, this blog will be a mixture of hope and fear.

To start with, the fear: my first night at Soul Survivor made me re-remember why we need skeptical activism, and how badly we need it. And it made me afraid of what we might end up facing without it.

Continue reading.

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Six)

Today will be my last day at Soul Survivor. Having witnessed the main meetings at this festival, with their cheering, praying and orgies of guitar-led worship, I’ve decided I don’t need to see tonight’s – and perhaps I’d enjoy the Where’s Wally-themed party if I’d come with friends, but as it is I’d likely end up a wallflower. My train is booked to leave in late afternoon, but not before I’ve heard one and a half more seminars.

At half past two I file into the first one, rucksack and all. The half hour process of emptying my tent and packing it with its contents into a backpack has somehow been cathartic, and I listen with refreshed attention; the speaker is Andrew Smith, an evangelical but also founder of a Christian-Muslim interfaith group, The Feast. He mentions in the course of the talk that he was previously a Christian youth worker in schools, and there are certain oneliners that seem overly rehearsed and might be read as condescending, but from the off I like the guy. Some other speakers here have an air of polish, but Andrew seems genuine and unassuming, so when he invites us at the start to tweet him our comments, I decide I will.

Continue reading.

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Five)

The tallest building in Germany, the Fernsehturm or TV tower, stands next to Alexanderplatz in the centre of Berlin. It’s impossible to miss, having been built by East Germany’s secular government to tower above the capital’s churches, a feat it still accomplishes today. Unfortunately for them, and to the churches’ great delight, the spherical structure half way up the tower which now houses a bar and restaurant was assembled using small, flat metal plates – meaning that, when the sphere’s extremities catch the sun, an enormous shining cross forms above the city. (Berliners traditionally call this Rache des Papstes – the Pope’s revenge.) It’s late afternoon, and as I lie inside my tent I see the hot sun distorted by two layers of canvas mesh, its glow abstracted into a similar cross; a vaguer version, perhaps, off the bright white projection of one from the worship meetings. I realise now that I’m beginning to crack. A week ago, this image would never have occurred to me – I likely wouldn’t even have glanced at the bright spot in the fabric – but today it jumped out, seemingly obvious and meaningful. Were I not a skeptic by nature and occasional trade, it seems possible this could form part of a “religious experience”, the basis of a Soul Survivor conversion narrative. Continue reading.

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Four)

As the festival’s third day starts, I’m better rested than the previous morning – the boys camped next door seem to have quietened somewhat – and decide for the sake of my blogs to catch the end of the morning meeting. I walk in as the last half hour commences, and am greeted by another twenty minute stream of guitar-led praising. “I will follow you to the ends of the earth”, the singer exclaims. Not for the first time, I’m struck that there are healthier relationships than the one some of these people want with Jesus.

The service ends with Mike thanking God for “surprising us” during the meeting; not having been there, I can’t say what surprises he means, but for Soul Survivor nothing seems out of the ordinary. “We don’t want knowledge,” he says, “if it’s not knowledge of you. We don’t want experience if it’s not experiences with you.” Some people are still being prayed for, and their companions are instructed not to “get too huggy”, in case this gets in the Lord’s way. Cuddling, it turns out, is kryptonite to Jesus.

Continue reading.

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Three)

My first night’s sleep at camp is less than adequate. After witnessing conversion en masse at the evening’s meeting and falling back to my tent to blog, I pull my sleeping bag around me, now regretting that I didn’t bring a mat as heat is sucked out of my body; for late July, it’s a surprisingly cold night. The camp is expected to be quiet by midnight, but the group of adolescent boys camped next to me natter on for several hours. Amongst the banter, various comments make me uneasy. I hear several boisterous references to men sharing tents, some of which refer disgustedly to being “buggered” and paint men who like men as sexual predators. (Earlier, I’d heard both them and the teenagers opposite use “gay” as a word for for “crap”.) I think about reporting them to someone, but the site rules never mention homophobia.

In the end, I get what must be three or four hours’ sleep. While I’d planned to attend a seminar this morning on how to read Leviticus, followed by a morning meeting like last night’s, I decide to stay away from both and catch up on some sleep. The day begins to warm, and by half past eleven I feel more or less rested, so buy lunch and work for a while on a book review I’m writing. As I head toward the buildings in search of food, I’m glad to be missing the main meeting. This isn’t just for the reasons you’d expect; it also tells me something new about Soul Survivor. In the run-up to this series, people who’d gone before often told me guests “hung out”, avoiding the central sessions. This isn’t my experience. Strolling around with my teeth in a pastry, the place is quiet. Apart from a couple of teenagers playing swingball and some people charging phones inside, it seems obvious most of the 3000 delegates are worshipping.

My iPhone died last night at the end of the meeting, and my iPad – I’m an Apple fan, okay? – is almost out of battery, so I head into the “office”, an assembly of aged desktop computers, and pay for some internet time while I plug in my devices to the sound of more Christian rock. With any luck, this means I’ll be able to live-tweet throughout the day as I did in last night’s gathering. Today there are two more seminars, and these I won’t miss. The first, given by Mike, Andy and a third speaker named Esther Davenport, is titled “Soul man meets soul sista: sex”.

Continue reading.

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Two)

Right now I’m lying in my tent. It’s shortly after nine; I’ve just returned from the very first “main meeting” of Soul Survivor, which lasted two hours. These take place twice every day, and all other venues are shut while they’re in session. (“We don’t want there to be any other distractions”, the programme reads, “because we know that Jesus is worthy of our full attention.”)

Remember how I ended my last post by saying I could be wrong to worry about emotional appeals and beliefs disguised as people? Turns out, I might just have been onto something.

Two hours ago I enter the meeting hall, brushing crumbs off my hands from an overpriced burger. The room is large enough for thousands, dark apart from the brightly lit stage. Pumping techno music fills the space from all directions, controlled presumably by an onstage DJ whom due either to staging or myopia I can’t see. The atmosphere in general is reminiscent of an urban nightclub, but with alcohol noticeably absent due to site rules, and totally devoid of sexuality. (Another rule, as stated in the programme: “no boys and girls sleeping in the same space unless married”.) When I saw this assembly on YouTube, it reminded me of certain extremist rallies. Now, as I search awkwardly for a place to sit, another image comes to mind. This scene has all the jarring glamour and sexlessness of a school disco.

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Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day One)

This time tomorrow, I will be wearing a wristband: not a brightly coloured rubber one with a slogan on it, like the kind which were fashionable during my GCSEs, but a thin paper one with an adhesive end – the sort you might be given at a theme park or a music festival. It’s not Reading or Leeds where I’m going, though. It’s Soul Survivor, the annual evangelical summer camp which aims, in its own words, to help young people meet Jesus.

At the start of this year, I crowdsourced the cost of the ticket on my blog, with the promise I’d write daily posts if I went. A lot of people worried I’d be thrown out, which remains a possibility – but I doubt it, because while the organisers might not choose this phrase, I genuinely think it’s a conversion drive. I’ve been told that at similar festivals which followed Soul Survivor, guests sometimes sign pledges reading “I will now follow Jesus” and the like; while I don’t know if that occurs at Soul Survivor, it does claim attendees will learn how to “live [their] whole lives for him”.

Another concern was that these efforts might work.

Continue reading.