Chapter 4: Dress-up

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

My secondary school was a comprehensive, but would never have admitted it. Built on a slope, its playing fields spread down to front gates that displayed its Latin motto and emblem. The first was ‘Levavi oculos’, as in the statement from the Book of Psalms, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ (in modern English, it might also mean ‘Aim higher’); the second, a shield bearing Saint Kentigern’s symbols, which as children we’d learnt to recite in rhyme: the bird that never flew, the tree that never grew, the bell that never rang, the fish that never swam. These were the school’s main values: aspiration and failure.

Their greatest clash remains my sixth form’s common room, beside whose door a plaque read VIth Form Centre, a tiny ‘th’ on the Roman numeral. Mr Chapman, who insisted on being called ‘headmaster’ rather than ‘headteacher’, loved the sheen of privilege as much as he despised political correctness – if he failed to ape the style of England’s public schools, it was never because he didn’t try. Fond of appearances, the man took great pride in his pupils’ bottle green and maroon uniform, devoting countless hours to the doing up of top buttons, tucking in of shirttails, lengthening of skirts and taming of hairstyles. (If he knew what focusing on this caused him to miss, he must simply have cared about it less.) Just as prized were his army of prefects and Victorian style games syllabus – hockey and rounders for girls, rugby and soccer for boys. A core feature in the latter case was violence against anyone deemed queer, especially if they didn’t deny it.

I’d love to say Keswick School’s homophobia was confined to the student body. It wasn’t. About half way through my career there, I was told Mr Chapman had complained to his PSHE class of a letter from the government asking him to support gay pupils; in one I attended, he remarked of prejudice, ‘it can be [about] gender orientation… I don’t want to get into the gay thing.’ Mrs Swainson, head of that subject presumably because after so many years of teaching French she was owed a department, shut questions down in an assembly about STIs, declaring ‘We didn’t come here to talk about gay sex’, and noted on a different occasion that although people weren’t to be judged by how they spoke, ‘gay people do seem to have higher voices’.

In Year 8, Mrs McDonald (English) told a boy whose shirt was hanging out, ‘Don’t be such a gayboy.’ In Years 10 and 11, Mr Simpson (Chemistry) made fun of male students by saying they liked other boys. Mr Ingles, the cuddly and kind supply teacher whose stories people loved, told my History class he ‘abhor[red] homosexuality’, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put part of his anatomy there’ and prompting Aaron Bailey to express approval; he told my RE class that he and his wife loved their friend ‘but we hate – hate – what he did.’ Even those staff who didn’t do these things turned a deaf ear to slurs and blind eye to explicit homophobic bullying. They were fine with ‘gay’ being another word for ‘shit’, and in fact punished that term far more severely, which while it may not have hurt anyone fell leagues short of the middle class manners expected.

These were my experiences – others could list more. In adulthood, or in some cases during our last years there, some of the queer kids like me who sat through this have found each other: Jack, Liam, Adam, Chris and Mark from the years below me, Daniel and Nick from the years above and the girl from mine. (If the list seems male-dominated, it’s because we’ve often made contact on Grindr.) Only a few of us were out in our school years, and even we weren’t out enough to challenge those in charge. How could we, in a place where you were walloped for defending blonde highlights or heels higher than an inch?

Instead we kept our heads down and muddled through, clad in the uniform of presumed straightness. If ever we looked to the hills for help, none came.

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

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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.

More creationism at the Keswick Convention

Remember the ‘Scale model of Noah’s ark‘ creationist exhibit, from this time last year in my hometown?

The Keswick Convention is in full swing again, and a friend just linked me to this footage from the local marketplace.

Watch out for more young earth creationism, threats of Hell, the blood of Jesus and salvos against gay sex, unmarried sex and internet porn. (None of these, of course, are any different from lying or stealing.) Richard Dawkins gets a mention, as he always does, and there’s a happier ending than you might expect, even if I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

[Edit: it turns out the preacher here is Dale Mcalpine, who ended up in hot water three years ago over similar events.]

A transcript follows. I’ve done my best to get everything, but there are words I can’t make out; if you catch them, or you spot an error, let me know in the comments.

P.S. I should mention I don’t know if this was official Keswick Convention preaching, or whether (like last year’s exhibit) it was independent evangelism, capitalising on the religious hunting season.

* * *

Audience member #1: How do you manage to live your day to day life without sinning?

Preacher: Sorry?

AM #1: How do you manage to live your day to day life without sinning? I seem to survive.

P: See, this is what happens. When someone is born again, what that means is that someone is changed from someone who loves their sin, their sinful nature, and follows a lifestyle of sin – sin that offends God – to someone who loves God. [Inaudible] …how do I survive?

AM #1: How does the person in sin survive?

P: Well, sinning isn’t a requirement of breathing. [Inaudible] You’ve had your turn.

AM #1: I believe in God!

P: The Devil believes in God, so believing in God is not going to help you on the Day of Judgement. You need your sins forgiven-

AM #1: I know but I’ve got to get by before that…

AM #2: The guy’s right. [Pointing to AM #1.) Why would you have to repent if you didn’t sin in the first place?

P: -and the only way that your sins can be forgiven is if you’re soaked in the blood of Jesus Christ because the Bible says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.

AM #1: …how do I survive until then?

P: What d’you mean ‘survive’? I don’t understand your question.

AM #1: Well how do I live without sinning?

P: You can’t: you can’t do anything but live a sinful life, unless God supernaturally transforms you and makes your spirit that loves to sin – your nature that loves to sin – makes it alive and gives you a new nature. That’s why the Bible says if any man is in Christ, he’s a new creature. So if you’re still… if you’re professing to be a Christian today, and you’re still the same person that you’ve always been, [if] you haven’t been set free from the power and consequence of sin, then you’re not a Christian. You’re not born again, because the Bible says that you should be changed.

AM #1: Nobody [inaudible]

AM #3: You’re really spoiling a lovely day, mate.

P: God saved me-

AM #3: You’re really spoiling a lovely day.

P: God saved me five nine year ago, and he can save anyone out here today. If you’ll humble yourself, and call upon his name.

AM #4: …still say that slavery is okay.

P: …call upon the name of the Lord-

[Inaudible]

AM #5: Surely there’s a better way of going about it than standing on there and embarrassing Christians? I’m a Christian and I’m slightly embarrassed by the way you are doing this!

P: Okay.

AM #5: I’m a Christian, okay? I’m a Christian… she is my friend… I’m a Christian, okay. There’s a way of going about it-

P: Sure. And the way to go about it is God’s way. If the Bible-

AM #5: I’m not ash-

P: And the Bible says… the Bible says-

AM #5: I’m not ashamed… I’m not ashamed of what I believe in!

P: Well what do you tell people?

AM #5: I do!

P: Do you preach the Gospel-

[Inaudible]

AM #5: I don’t… [inaudible] God gave us a choice.

P: No, of course not, because you don’t know it. You see you can’t live what you don’t know, and the Bible says there are-

[inaudible]

AM #5: So you’re saying I’m not a Christian because I don’t talk… you’re saying I don’t believe that God came down, sent his son down, and he died for my sins? You’re saying that I don’t believe that because I don’t sit there, stand on there, and go ‘Hey everybody! Everybody listen to God’? You’re saying that I’m not a Christian?

P: The Devil believes that God came down and died for people’s sins. The Devil believes that. So you’re still going to Hell on the Day of Judgement. Unless you’re born again you’re not a Christian.

AM #5: So are you…

P: Unless you’re born again you’re not a Christian. Unless you’re changed and set free from the power of your sin, whatever sin that might be, unless you’re changed anew, you live a holy life-

AM #5: Yeah, I do… [inaudible] I live a holy life, and my non-Christian friends around me see me and listen to me, rather than standing on there and being like ‘All Christians are like this!’ Not all of them.

P: But is your nice personality enough to save people from the wrath of God?

AM #6: Is yours… what you’re doing now, are you going to save people by standing up talking?

P: Is your nice personality, the way you live your life, what God says that you must do in order for men and women to be saved? [Continues]

AM #3: …you enjoying it, pal? [Aside]

AM #7: Yeah.

AM #3: I’ve been watching it from the beginning. Here come the police to look after him.

P: -preaching of the Gospel, the preaching of this message, is the power of God.

AM #2: You know you’re not preaching… you’re not opening the Bible once.

P: Well… [Continues]

AM #3: Can you not arrest him for heresy?

AM #7: Yeah.

AM #8: [Inaudible] Do you believe that science and Christianity can coexist?

P: We believe in good science, it’s that evolution and the Big Bang is bad science. Did evolution make a monkey out of you?

AM #8: So the two can’t coexist then? You don’t think that they can just [inaudible] each other and [inaudible] Christian?

P: See, science can’t exist without God. God gave us laws of logic, laws of astronomy, laws of thermodynamics – God set off these laws of science in motion. And when you reject God [inaudible] knowledge. See, because the Bible says the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. See? So without God you can’t know anything!

AM #8: Do you believe that Christians… there are Christians who can believe in evolution and believe the Bible?

[inaudible]

P: …God, and they need to read the Bible, because the Bible says… the Bible says that God created the world in six literal days and he created a man and a woman from dust. He didn’t create a man and a woman from a pond life [sic] that evolved over millions of years. That’s not what the Bible says. So these people there, the theistic evolutionists, are wrong, and they need to read the Bible.

AM #5: But how do you not know… how can you not know… you know the Bible, in Genesis it says it as a poem – if you read it in Hebrew, the creation of the world is a poem – that is not then actually seven whole days. That could be millions of years, so God could… the evolution process that we know of could actually be God’s way of actually making animals? We don’t know that. We won’t know if he existed… so if God could actually have planned evolution, and you know, planned that… [inaudible] …like this, like that, and therefore things evolved…

P: Let me stop you there, that’s a fair question: could God have used evolution to create mankind? Well here’s what the Bible says: the Bible says that death came into the world through one man’s sin. Adam’s. Before Adam sinned, there was no death. So things couldn’t have died out to progress. So there’s a contradiction. Either you believe God’s word, that God created us in six literal days, or you can believe [inaudible] who the Bible says the wisdom of this world is foolishness. See Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin, according to God’s word, are fools. And the wisdom of this world is foolish.

AM #8: God has never mentioned Charles Darwin! God never mentioned it. He never mentioned him. What are you talking about? Is Charles Darwin in the Bible? [inaudible] That’s not true…

P: Well, I mean we know it’s true because that’s what the Bible says. And the Bible says that death came into the world through one man’s sin. The wages of sin is death. Sin is…

AM #9: Charles Darwin…

P: …before sin came into the world there wasn’t any death. So there couldn’t have been a process of evolution where things die out and progress. And people who teach that are in error, even if they’re you’re favourite preacher and if they’re nice people they’re in error. The Bible says that you can know the truth, and these things are written so that you may know them and have eternal life. How do you have eternal life? Through the blood of Jesus Christ. There’s no other way to peace with God. There’s no other way that your sins can be forgiven other than by the blood of Jesus Christ. Because the Bible says that without the shedding of blood there’s no forgiveness of sin. Your good personality, your good deeds can’t help you on the Day of Judgement.

AM #10: As a Christian…

P: Being baptised and going to church won’t help you on the Day of Judgement, because your good works [inaudible] If you have any problems with that, any questions about the Gospel message being preached today, I’d be very happy to answer all your questions.

AM #10: D’you not think that Christianity or any other religion is just a way of being, basically, scared of dying? D’you not think death is just a black, [inaudible] nothing? And that this has just been put on us, just ‘cause you’re scared?

P: No, I think that atheists are scared…

AM #10: No no no no no, I’m asking, d’you not think you are scared – you are scared?

P: I’m telling you what I think. I think that atheism is a crutch for people who are scared of Judgement Day, and they… they cling to the… the… the ridiculous lie of evolution in order to silence their conscience that tells them they are guilty before God, and that they know that they’re accountable because they’ve lied, stolen, looked at porn on the internet, when they’ve slept around, sinned outside of marriage. All sex outside of marriage of one man, one woman, is a sin against God. That’s what God says. Now that’s unpopular today. People in churches believe and tell us that homosexuality’s okay, they were just born that way – that’s a lie from the pit of Hell.

AM #10: Oh, really?

P: Yes.

AM #10: Really?

AM #5: Oh don’t even start…

P: [Inaudible] They feel in their heart, they’re not born that way. They’re not helpless. Homosexuality is an abomination-

[Booing]

Unknown sources: Shut up! Disgusting!

P: -sin against God! And Jesus Christ said unless you repent, you will perish, so… [Continues]

AM #11: You don’t have a busker’s licence – I am on the town council, listen to me. I am on the town council, listen to me sir. Please… please sir listen to me, please sir… you do not have a busker’s licence. SIR! You are now [inaudible], you don’t have a busker’s licence, you are not welcome in this town, you are a bigot sir. I am on the town council and I think I’m very right in saying that we do not want bigotry in this town.

AM #3: Hurray to the town council! Hurrah!

[Cheering]

Creationism at the Keswick Convention

Update: the 2013 edition!

Every year in July, the Keswick Convention takes place in my hometown. It’s a meeting of Christian evangelicals known around the world, and regularly floods the town with visitors. My Christian stepdad, who attends events each year, estimated around 12,000 people are there this year.

This afternoon, out for a walk, I noticed one church building held a banner which read CHRISTIAN RESOURCES EXHIBITION. Then I saw this sign in front of me.

 

Given I had my iPhone on me, I decided to check it out. Things only got better when I saw this on my way in.

Creation Ministries International had mounted a stall…

…and as promised, there was a scale model of Noah’s ark, complete with details of its structure.

In case you had any doubts – yes, they think the world flood in Genesis actually happened.

In case you were wondering, ‘How could Noah fit all the animals on the ark?’ – they even provided some information. (The original article is here.)

What’s more, they don’t think this happened very long ago. ‘Geological time is imaginary’, according to them, and this planet’s not really billions of years old, like all those geologists seem to agree. (And physicists. And geneticists. And astronomers.)

They threw in a handy Psalm to explain how it formed.

They said how fossils were creatures killed by God’s flood. Fish, for example.

Oh, and about human variation – Adam and Eve had lighter- and darker-skinned children. (Then they all had an argument, presumably, and went to live on separate continents for thousands of years according to skin tone.)

 

To summarise: in the midst of the internationally known convention for which my town is famous – one of very few famous things about it – a group has an audience of many thousands who think that:

(a) Adam and Eve actually existed;
(b) Noah and his ark actually existed, and the flood actually took place;
(c) the earth isn’t actually four to five billion years old;
(d) was, on the contrary, created in six days by God, and
(e) evolution by natural selection doesn’t actually occur.

I’m not a scientist. (If you are, please share your thoughts on the images above in the comments section – or alternatively, contact the designer of this material, who was present and kind enough to give me his address.) But I am embarrassed that this is happening where I live, and angry that these claims are still being peddled.

Update: on contacting Keswick Congregational Church, who invited CMI to use their chapel, I was informed the group are ‘not an official part of the Keswick Convention’, but that the church invites various organisations to do this kind of outreach during its run. I’d like to know how those who organise the convention feel about this.