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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10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion

When I wrote on this blog that I was homeless once, response was good – including, to my surprise, from colleagues with affluent backgrounds. What’s not surprising is how many of my colleagues’ backgrounds were affluent. The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance.

Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. A friend sought suggestions last week about how to be more economically inclusive. Here are the ones I made:

1. Remember poor people – some of them are atheists.
2. If your group’s a church alternative… be an alternative.
3. Don’t just meet at the ‘nice’ end of town.
4. Don’t charge prohibitive entry fees.
5. Provide childcare, free of charge.
6. Don’t hold graphic design contests.
7. Don’t just hire graduates.
8. Pay your speakers – well.
9. Pay your interns – money.
10. Remember ‘students’ and ‘young people’ aren’t synonyms.

Read more at Alternet.

Godlessness in practice: help workshop KCL atheists’ code of conduct

King’s College London has an atheist society. Technically, an Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society. As is at times the case with student groups as leaders graduate and momentum dissipates, a new committee recently revived it following a dormant period.

While I’ve never attended KCL, I worked peripherally with the group some time ago before activities slow down, and I’m a member of their Facebook page (link above). One of the new guard’s main concerns is making the society more socially conscious and less exclusionary, welcoming a wider range of demographics – the kind of change it’s been said any number of times is needed in secularism. To this end, they’ve introduced a code of conduct, both for Facebook threads and live events.

Joe Stammeijer, the group’s president, has this to say:

It’s not just a comments policy, it’s a behaviour policy. It’s a start on how we want representatives of the society to behave in whatever [KCL]AHS space they find themselves in.

I find this, needless to say, strongly encouraging. The idea that to build an actual movement, we need more than just shared nonbelief – that we need anti-harassment rules and disabled access just as we need fire plans, that just-being-an-atheist shouldn’t be our community’s only requirement, that we can’t and shouldn’t include everyone? This isn’t an idea for which we should still need to argue, and it’s gratifying to see it implemented close to home.

This being said: the code of conduct is at present far from perfect. Its writers know this. Deemed to be necessary and drafted quickly, it borrows heavily from KCL student union’s central ‘safe spaces policy’, and we’ve all of us seen what happens when SUs’ rules are heavy-handed. In atheist groups especially, where certain amounts of controversy are bound to be bred, that documents like this not be over-restrictive is as vital as their presence and effectiveness.

For this reason, society members have decided on a two-week process of review, in which they’ll take suggestions for improving and finalising their rulebook. I’ve offered them this blog as a place to workshop it, and they’ve agreed – in other words, they want your views.

I’m making this an open thread. Below, I’m posting the code of conduct as it stands, with blow-by-blow thoughts on it. In the comments below, please add your own.

Note: this is a discussion about which guidelines should be introduced, not whether any should be. If your view is that secular groups shouldn’t have rules – that codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies and so on aren’t things we should be introducing – or if debating that view interests you, please hold that discussion somewhere else. Constructive thoughts on how this document could be improved are welcome; whether this group needs or benefits from one at all is not up for debate on this page, and comments discussing that will be removed. Take it elsewhere. (I’m happy, for example, to examine that on sites where this is posted.)

Here is the KCL group’s current policy; here it is again, in full, with added comments. (Share yours underneath.)

* * *

KCLAHSS Code of Conduct

By its very nature, an atheist, humanist and secular society will be a centre of controversial debate. We may criticise religions, the arguments for and against them and also the acts of the religious. We may impartially critique those who identify as adhering to a faith, in regards to their religious belief and practice, religions as independent entities or, any ideas for or against religion more broadly. Held within this is the idea that we may criticise a God, gods or prominent figures of any given faith as we consider this to be an idea contained within the religious infrastructure. However, it is important that amidst this challenging debate we hold to strong humanist principles and that we do not slip into prejudice. In order to facilitate this, the following policy has been drawn up with a heavy basis in the KCLSU Safe Space policy, and as always the KCLSU safe space policy applies to any KCLAHSS space. In addition to this, the process for complaints and action to be taken in the event of breach of this policy has also been detailed below. The entirety of this document relates to any KCLAHSS space – online or offline.

  • Regarding the whole document, and especially the multi-clause sections below, the basis of this in student union policy shows through in bureaucratic legalese. This is something of which to be careful: plain English matters, as Orwell writes, but matters particularly in rulemaking, where meaning needs to be as clear as possible. The anti-harassment policies of these secular organisations might make effective style models – it’s important documents like this don’t end up sounding amtlich(My impulse is that the language of ‘safe space’ obfuscates rather than elucidates, and those whose behaviour codes like this serve to address will by and large be inexperienced with it.)
  • To avoid verbosity, one concise phrase to sum up the butt of our critique: ‘religious bodies, beliefs and practices’.

1. Policy

1. As King’s College London Atheist, Humanist and Secular society we assert that no person or persons within the society (or those who come into contact with the society) should suffer (from any member, or, person within a KCLAHSS space) harassment or intimidation due to discrimination related to gender identity, sexual orientation, trans status, marital status, disability, culture, ideology, race, religious belief, age, socio-economic status, maternity/paternity status or any other group with which they identify.

  • Firstly, it’s worth saying harassment and intimidation aren’t things people should suffer at all, even if not on any of these bases.
  • Secondly, we’ve seen at LSE what happens when anti-harassment language is used to censor and silence satire. Clearly not everyone distinguishes reasoned critique and abuse in the same way, so there needs to be some clear illustration of the differences as the atheist group sees them. For instance:
    Criticism etc.: telling others their views are flawed or mistaken; satirising major religious bodies, beliefs or practices; blasphemous imagery; ethical condemnation; blocking on social media or declining to interact in person.
    Harassment etc.: bringing up (including tagging) Facebook page members specifically to insult them; making and distributing derogatory images; threats (violent or otherwise); unwelcome or uninvited physical contact (sexual or otherwise); physically following individuals around; publicising others’ private details (e.g. address, telephone number) without permission. (All of these, I’m afraid to say, are things I’ve encountered in the secular community.)
  • Thirdly: considering many social concerns raised here – gender identity, disability, race, etc. – are ones which don’t affect a large proportion of the atheist group’s current members (hence, in part, this code of conduct’s introduction), how will awareness of relevant issues be improved? Are some areas here ones in which most members lack extensive knowledge, and may not always notice problems? Would it be a good idea, for example, to provide links at the top of online spaces to blogs/video series/organisations dealing with intersections of atheism with these things, which might be used in reference when such topics are discussed or to raise consciousness in general? (This isn’t necessarily an issue for a code of conduct, though it might be. Is it worth, for example, having dedicated, qualified admins to monitor discussions around sexuality/race/disability etc. and act as go-to moderators in disputes?)

2. Criticism of any aspect of any culture, ideology or religious belief should be entirely free from criticism of the individual presenting or promoting the aforementioned culture, ideology or religious belief. Ideas should stand on their own merit, and their critique should not be merged with the critique of their author(s).

  • ‘Culture’: often a thorny, unhelpfully ambiguous word. Perhaps best avoided here. What qualified as a culture anyway? Is there a better, more precise term?
  • ‘Ideas should stand on their own merit’ – a good thought, but can be misleading in practice. Context matters at times; the person saying something, events prompting it and occasion on which it’s said might all affect the subtext, and subtext matters.
  • What I sense this is trying to say is that critique of religious bodies, beliefs or practices should never translate into endorsement of violence, oppression, dehumanisation etc. of individuals based on religious identity. If so, say that instead?

3. The society does not recognise criticism of any culture, ideology or religious belief as carried out per section 1.2 to be equal to intimidation, harassment or discrimination as mentioned in section 1.1.

  • This is where the student unionese gets in the way – similarly to the last point, it seems to be making the important distinction between satire and criticism directed at religion and repression or persecution of religious groups, but this gets lost.

4. Any person or persons are free to present (in any KCLAHSS space) any culture, ideology or religious belief regardless of the opinion or official standpoint of the society, unless by presenting said culture, ideology or religious belief the author(s) are in breach of sections 1.1 or 1.2.

  • Again, the style here makes the real point, which is important, rather obscure.
  • I’d also like to hear some specific examples of viewpoints unwelcome in the society’s spaces. Fundamentalists? The political far-right? Homophobes? Transphobes? How does this apply to speakers, rather than online users/individual members? Are these people no-platformed? (Given the reference to removal of those who promote such attitudes, I assume so.)

5. Offense is not equivalent to intimidation, harassment or discrimination. The society fully expects that by presenting some of its core beliefs (for example, the non-existence of any god or gods and therefore the false nature of any religion) some individuals will take offense. The protection of free speech is a core tenet of the society, and as such the society must prioritise the preservation of free speech over the prevention of offense, unless said speech is in breach of sections 1.1 or 1.2. All cases must be taken on an individual basis as assessed by the committee, and when necessary, KCLSU.

  • It’s a good idea, I’d suggest, to acknowledge the distinction between the ‘offensiveness’ of actions deemed to be harmful (e.g. racist or transphobic abuse, jokes about rape, derogatory language regarding mental health) and the ‘offensiveness’ of violating arbitrary faith-based religious taboos, e.g. drawing prophets, naming pineapples Muhammad, screening Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
  • What would harassment of or discrimination against religious groups look like, as opposed to doing things which might offend believers? What would some forms of it be?

6. The committee reserve the right to adjust this policy at any point if they deem it appropriate. The committee will try to inform all members of any changes, but are not responsible for any issues arising as a result of any member not being aware of the most up to date version of this policy. The most recent policy version can be requested from the committee at any time.

  • How can it be ensured this code of conduct – a better, less officious term than ‘policy’ – remains reasonable, and stays both relevant and open to change? How can members make sure it’s updated when necessary, considering committee members (especially at present) are by and large not from the marginalised social groups who might seek amendments/additions here? Conversely, how can the committee be held to account and prevented down the line from making unreasonable amendments? (Would it for instance be useful to consider suggested amendments at periodically, e.g. at the end of each term? Should only committee members be able to propose these?)

2. Process following a breach of the Policy

1. Discrimination can occur whenever it is not consciously challenged, and while it is the responsibility of any KCLAHSS member to actively avoid and prevent intimidation, harassment and discrimination, the society appreciates that recognising individual acts in a society where discriminatory language is commonplace can be challenging. For this reason, the society engages in an active “call out” policy – if any member sees language or behaviour they believe to be intimidating, harassing or discriminatory, the individual using said language or behaviour can be “called out” and told that their language or behaviour is not acceptable. The called out individual must then apologise, clarify any misunderstood intent and the discussion or event can continue.

  • ‘Recognising individual acts in a society where discriminatory language is commonplace can be challenging’ – in other words, it should be recognised that exclusionary statements or actions aren’t usually maliciously intended. Important, that.
  • While this may be controversial, I’d personally avoid the term ‘call out’ – it has rather combative connotations as opposed to, say, ‘flag up’. (I know this is spin, but in the light of the previous point, I feel there’s a case for setting a more cooperative tone.)
  • I’m not sure that compelling people to apologise seems fair; it seems like it might well prompt less-than-genuine apologies anyway. Perhaps a better suggestion would be that people whose actions have been questioned should acknowledge the objection?
  • Also, and I don’t think is a trivial point: should this response be automatically required as soon as a complaint is made? Isn’t it, in fact, the job of moderators or committee members to mediate/rule on complaints at moments like these, so the policy isn’t abused?

2. Any individual not willing to publicly call someone out for any reason may request that a committee member do so anonymously on their behalf.

3. If the called out individual disagrees with any particular event of being called out then this is irrelevant as far as their immediate actions are concerned. For ease of preserving a safe space and because all individual events cannot be predicted and described in this document, any act of being called out must be followed by action as per section 2.1, and any disagreement can be followed up with committee who will discuss the event with the individual. The committee will decide whether the original call out was appropriate, and any further complaints may be taken up via the official KCLSU complaints procedure.

  • This is at times difficult to read.
  • Similarly to the previous point: how are disruptive individuals to be dealt with who abuse the system by facetiously/hyperactively making complaints – for example, users online who register objection to this code of conduct by ‘calling out’ every other comment? Would it be fair or reasonable to expect everyone else to apologise, as per 2.1?
  • It seems to me that some way of discouraging that sort of exploitation of the system (i.e. obviously frivolous use of the sanctions in place) would be a good idea, although the phrasing of a rule to do that would need to be precise and carefully thought out.
  • More pragmatically, though: decisions about whether a particular complaint/’call-out’ was unfair/facetious/frivolous/unwarranted probably aren’t ones that can or should always be made after the fact by formalised process. It seems a good idea that there moderators/committee members/volunteers be trusted at times to uphold or dismiss complaints. (This is, after all, why they have to be elected.) If they fail to do this responsibly, formal procedures can always be taken to deal with that - this seems preferable to me to taking all complaints equally seriously, then evaluating their validity by official process later on, but I might be wrong.

4. The process for managing complaints has been taken directly from the KCLSU safe space policy. Any member of the KCLAHSS committee may act upon a complaint by:
a. Giving the complainant a platform to express their complaint.
b. Reiterate to speakers and those in attendance of the Safe Space policy and issue them with a warning that they can be asked to leave an event/space.
c. Ask any speakers or students complained against to leave.
d. Work with any security put in place to remove speakers/ attendees.
e. Make KCLSU aware of any complaint or incident that has violated the policy

  • Again, I think committee members/admins probably should be able to dismiss complaints when they judge them to be made in obvious bad faith by trolls, provocateurs etc. In case important, legitimate complaints were dismissed in error – which I wouldn’t expect to be all that common, officers hopefully being sensible and having good judgement – putting in place grievance or complaint procedures against committee members or admins at regular opportunity may be a good solution. (Allowing any of these to be aired and discussed at meetings, say, once per term.)

5. The escalation procedure for managing any breach of policy is as follows:
a. Call out
b. If repeatedly called out or if an individual fails to respond appropriately, or if the committee deems the transgression severe, the committee will contact the individual privately to detail to the individual where they have broken official policy and warn against future offence. This is considered the first and final written warning.
c. If the individual fails to show commitment to changing their behaviour, or if they continue in severe transgression or if the committee deems it the most appropriate step, the individual will be removed from the space, with the aid of KCLSU security if necessary.

  • Should the ‘private, individual contact’ step always be necessary? On Facebook pages, for instance, might not the occasional user be so absolutely, obviously out of line – threatening violence, or using extreme slurs – that immediate expulsion would be warranted? This would, of course, need to be kept in check. My suggestion would be that a specific list of behaviours be drawn up and stuck to which could prompt removal without warning.
  • How does this apply, moreover, at physical events, where private contact can’t always be established?

The committee are ultimately responsible for the upholding of this policy, and any member who feels the committee have failed in their duty is asked to inform them, or KCLSU as soon as possible.

* * *

Your thoughts, readers?

‘Problems with the humanist brand’ and why I’m not one

There’s recently been much discussion over A+/atheism plus, and whether or not it’s just humanism. Here’s something James Croft, of the Harvard Humanists, said about it:

Many seem to be responding to the “Atheism+” language more readily to the language of “Humanism” … And that speaks to some problem with the “Humanist” brand which people like me should think about carefully.

I’d like to give a personal slant on that, and talk about what puts me off saying I’m a humanist. Specifically, I want to talk about differences I’ve experienced with humanists – some of which are differences over emphasis or personal goals, which is perfectly fine, and some of which involve them doing things I wish they wouldn’t.

I warn you now: this will be a long post.

Some humanists, for example, talk about “replacing religion”. To me this seems odd. It suggests religion is some kind of vital organ, whose excision causes impairment and thus demand we put something new in its place. On the other hand, I see religion more like a tumour – something nonessential and generally harmful, despite being a product of benign natural processes, without which we’d probably be better and which doesn’t need replacing. But I do see the argument that secular communities should be supportive for their members, as churches often are, and this isn’t usually a stance that threatens my goals, so I’ll happily agree to disagree.

Some humanists, specifically, sing secular hymns. James Croft and Ian Cromwell discussed this previously, and according to its accounts from the most recent year, the British Humanist Association spent £5,518 on music. This includes on the BHA Choir, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in the flesh – but while they, perhaps like many humanist musicians, are extremely impressive, I’m personally not comfortable expressing beliefs by singing in a congregation. Again this seems determined to replace religious identity, but I’m rather glad I lost mine, and I don’t particularly want to feel now how I felt in church. Other people needn’t share my feelings, though, and if people like learning humanist hymns, I’m glad for them.

I do understand those hymns are often written for ceremonies, though, and aren’t just recreational, since some humanists have their own ceremonial rituals ­– weddings, for example, child-naming events or funerals. Compared with many skeptics, I’m not unsympathetic to symbolic ritual, but I don’t desire the former two since I’ve no desire to marry or have children. As for death, I often feel religious funerals exclude non-believers, and I wouldn’t want mine to belong to any particular worldview. In other words, I’d want it to be secular in the “non-religious” sense, but also in the “neutral” sense, so that non-humanists didn’t feel like outsiders. Again that’s just my personal response, and I can see the appeal.

I’m more uneasy when it comes to deifying Darwin, because some humanists put evolution on a pedestal. I’m talking here about using things like the “tree of life” in logos (see below), but more so about celebrating Darwin Day in humanist groups, walking a so called “biological pilgrimage” and specifically composing hymns to natural selection. (I’ve heard at least one of these from the BHA Choir. It was very well sung, but it made me wince a bit.)

I acknowledge the importance of The Origin of Species in scientific and cultural terms, and I’m no less concerned than anyone about the need to teach evolution not design. But it’s not the basis of my non-belief, something I use for ethics or otherwise a part of my ‘worldview’ – I appreciate Darwinism’s significance, but I don’t frame my life around it. That, once again, seems too religion-like. On this issue, I am concerned when other people do it, because it risks reinforcing the idea of evolution as another religion, or that atheists worship Darwin. Ultimately, I think I’m still okay with people doing this who choose to, as long as it’s presented as specific to humanists and not something that describes all nonbelievers.

These are all activities which seek to replicate the atmosphere of a congregation, and some humanists are keen on group dynamics. This was a key element of James and Ian’s discussion on the use of hymns, and it also figured heavily in his disagreements with Stephanie Zvan about humanist temples. (I confess, the phrase itself makes me fidget in my seat.) I get why group social norms can be useful tools, and why someone might desire them. Personally, I’m just not into that: I’m a stander-out by nature, the kid at school who wouldn’t answer the register, preferred stairs to escalators and wore outrageous socks – don’t try to change me. Group-centric settings have much in their favour, and more power to you if you feel at home in them. Like Stephanie, I just don’t.

Some humanists want to preach morals by discussing virtue, “goodness” and writing secular bibles - The Good Book for example, written by A.C. Grayling who seems to like discussing “the good life” and was in line for a time to be the BHA’s ceremonial president. (During the fallout when his private, £18,000-a-year university was announced, this was called off for some reason.) If that’s your goal, I’m all right with that. For me though, it’s about addressing beliefs people have for bad reasons – by no means an amoral aim, because persuading people out of those beliefs often stops them doing heinous things as a result.

Some humanists use “humanism” as a word for all ethics or empathy. This irritates me; it implies if you have any impulse in the format, “[behaviour x] is (un)desirable and should be (removed/)encouraged”, you’re a humanist and have to call yourself one. You don’t.

Some humanists insist morality’s objective and that morals exist the way hydrogen does. I don’t agree. That’s fine. (Incidentally, if believers are reading: I still wouldn’t agree if a god existed.)

But some imply you have no standards if you dispute that ­– i.e. that if you’re unconvinced there are “moral facts”, you can have no objection to acid attacks on little girls. This isn’t a post about that discussion, but please, don’t suggest that.

Some aspire to be “good without God”. If that’s right for them, cool. But some of us are fine being bad without God. I don’t feel a need to gain people’s approval who claim to love the god of the Bible – someone with a fetish for baby-killing, genital mutilation and genocide, to name a few things. If you see me as a bad person and this is your idea of goodness incarnate, I can’t say I’m worried for my image.

Certain humanists are uncritically nice about Jesus, and some humanists are fond of platitudes and abstractions. I generally don’t like aphorisms – the so called golden rule, for example, strikes me as highly overrated. (Why do to others as you’d have them to do you, when not everyone wants to be treated as you do?) And when I hear things like “It is love that makes sex human“, I feel like vomiting. I see why truisms and maxims appeal to some, but in general I like putting things as plainly as I can.

One major gripe for me: some humanists want everything to be about humanism. I’ve heard humanists say non-humanist groups need to change their names (and indeed pressure those groups to that effect), dismiss the work of non-humanist identified groups – the National Secular Society, for example – and generally insist all discussion and action taken be centred around their own worldview. I often get the sense humanism is rather insular, with groups like the BHA, the Humanist Society of Scotland and the International Humanist and Ethical Union sticking mainly to themselves and not interacting much with other bodies – but that’s just my subjective view, and it may be wrong, or specifically a European issue. In any case, humanists don’t get to set the agenda for all sceptical or secular discourse, and consistently I’ve run into ones who feel they should, as if godless activism at large is just a subset of humanism and not the other way around.

As a recent post of Greta’s just pointed out, some humanists have huge diversity problems – more so than atheism at large – and moreover, don’t seem to acknowledge them as problems. The Humanist Society of Scotland’s conference last year, I’m told, was “mainly old white men”; the AHS (‘supported and facilitated’ and non-independent of the BHA financially and logistically, thus a humanist body in terms of this post) has a terrible diversity record at its past conventions and conferences. More than once I’ve brought this up with humanist officials and they’ve ignored it. More than once, I’ve heard other people say that happened with them.

Some humanists are political liberals. This is, I think, more typical of British humanists, and I use the word “liberal” in its European sense, i.e. what tends to be called “libertarian” in the U.S., and certainly nowhere near me on the political spectrum. I personally don’t agree with the BHA line on marriage reform, for example – I think we should scrap the civil register and marriage as a legally defined state institution, something much more easily done in Britain the U.S.A. – and the promotional video of the Campaign for Equal Marriage (vocally supported by the BHA and its leaders), made every queer and left wing part of me wretch. This isn’t the position of all humanists, especially not North Americans ones from what I can tell, and everyone can have their own opinions, but it’s still a negative association which helps stop humanism from attracting me.

Some humanists need everything to be “positive” – for them, it’s vital to discuss what they do value and believe in, rather than what they don’t. (Specifically, religion.) Again, different strokes for different folks: I understand why, but I’m all about addressing bad beliefs, which requires me to say “I’m against [x]“. It’s wholly okay to stick with smiley, happy humanism if that floats your boat. Just don’t tell everybody else, as some humanists will, that they have to do the same. What other people emphasise is their decision.

Some humanists focus on civil secularism, and I’m glad they do. In my eyes, the BHA’s most valuable and important contribution to activism is their work to remove bishops from the House of Lords, oppose state-maintained faith schools and separate church from state in general. In terms of where I put my time and energy, these are not the goals to which I’m personally most drawn: I want to contribute to a reduction of religious belief, help people leave their religions if that’s their choice, build communities of atheists and spread skepticism in general. This is partly because of my personal background, partly because of the skill set I think I have and partly because of other factors – because these are all personal things, I’ve no objection to humanists working differently, and I’m positively happy that they do, at least in this respect.

However: some don’t see different goals as valid, when pursued by other people. I’ve heard Atheism UK, the British branch of AAI whose work involves “challenging religious faith” and supporting “the advancement of atheism”, criticised by a professional humanist because “they take a very anti-theist line”. I think persuading people out of religion, and supporting a reduction in irrationality, is highly desirable in and of itself, and will aid humanists’ and secularists’ causes. We don’t all have to be accommodationists, and we don’t all have to do things the way humanists do.

On the contrary, I don’t think it aids secularism that some humanists want to share religion’s privilege, not abolish it. I’m thinking here of humanist chaplaincies on campus and in local government, funded through tax; of humanism’s status (according, again, to a humanist campaigner who spoke to me) as a “protected belief” under British law; of the humanist, worldview-promoting BHA accepting public money; of its famous, otherwise excellent promotional adverts on buses owned by Transport for London, a local government body; its campaign to “make humanist weddings legal marriages“, rather than removing any legal powers based on worldviews?

None of these seem to me compatible with separating church and state, as I understand it. We shouldn’t want government to treat us how it treats religion. It shouldn’t treat any belief group how it treats religion. If humanist groups (or indeed atheist ones) are taking public money or tax-supported adspace, it makes it easy for people like Joanne Bogle to say – entirely fairly – that in name of neutrality, religions should get the same. If humanist celebrants have legally recognised marital powers and views somehow “protected” by the state, it makes it easy for minority religions to say – entirely fairly – that so should they. I’m just one person on the internet, and not an influential public figure or mass lobby group, but as a secularist I’m categorically against this.

I’m not saying everyone must be a firebrand. I’m happy not everyone is. Some humanists like being non-confrontational and “friendly”, which is perfectly fine. This is, I think, why many identify that way and not as “atheists”.

Like Jen McCreight, I personally want to “keep using the word atheist until it becomes destigmatized“, but that I get that not everyone does. People’s attitudes are different, and there are contexts where avoiding it’s very understandable. Debbie Goddard’s organisation, African Americans for Humanism, is an obvious example: it targets a community known widely for religiosity, which therefore could reasonably be expected not to react well to “atheists”. I like to be direct about my non-belief, and lots of A+ people have said they like that label more than ‘humanist’ because it’s direct. But if “humanist” is a label you prefer, I won’t get in your way.

I’d ask though that you give me the same respect, since some humanists object to others calling themselves atheists before all else. They’ll say it’s “meaningless” because it isn’t an entire worldview or a positive statement of values – which, for me and many others – it doesn’t mean to be, or imply there’s no significant thing such as “atheist activism“, like helping people come out, helping them recover from religious abuse or putting the claims of believers to the test. Humanists, don’t do that. We let you use the labels you want.

Some humanists call all non-believers humanists, or apply their own label to those who don’t self-identify that way. The BHA, for example, claimed at one point that there were “17 million humanists in Britain”, based on answers people gave in a Mori poll about their attitudes.

I imagine that if you asked them, most of those people wouldn’t describe themselves that way – I imagine many wouldn’t even know what a humanist was. In fact, I imagine if you asked 1000 people in central London if they knew what atheists and humanists were, you’d get a “yes” for the former much more often; using “humanists” as shorthand for “secular people” speaks to some humanists’ need, mentioned above, to make humanism far more central and important to non-belief in general than it is or needs to be. And if humanists are going to campaign for things I don’t necessarily agree with, I don’t want to be co-opted by being named a humanist.

Some humanists even tell us we’re humanists too, even if we say otherwise. Let us alone, already. If we don’t want to call ourselves that, we don’t have to.

This has been a long list. (To be fair, I did warn you.) There are two responses I can already predict certain humanists will have. Both make me uneasy, and both make me laugh.

The first is outrage. From my experience of the UK humanist community, I feel sure some people will read this post, or parts of it, and feel I’ve been incredibly rude – some people, I’ve no doubt, will think this is disrespectful, childish, tribalistic or whatever else. I’ve observed that however mild your criticism of groups like the BHA, or however fine you are with other people being humanists even though you’re not, certain people will stop being your friend if you’re not In The Club.

The second is the “no true humanist” argument. Few if any of the things I list here is true of all humanists, and some of it applies to very limited numbers, so I’m sure people will turn to a Humanist Manifesto – hello, James Croft, if you’re reading – and declare “That’s not in accordance with proper humanism.”

To start with, I’m don’t really care. This is about my feelings toward a ‘brand’, and that means everything I associate with the word “humanist” – whether those associations are rationally justified or not. Like it or not, that’s the baggage the term has. For another thing, I don’t want to have that discussion. I’m not interested in arguing doctrine; in disputing how manifestos should be interpreted, or which humanists are “doing it right”. I like the “atheist” label precisely because it’s not a worldview. I don’t have to be concerned with principles and how to apply them, or what the ideal reading of a certain text is. For me, that discussion would be counterproductive – it would distract me from the sceptical activism I want to focus on.

In case you’ve skipped to the last paragraph then, reader, and not read the list: I’m a non-humanist, and I’m fine with other people being humanists. I just wish they always felt the same.