Food was my grandmother’s favourite form of abuse

Since the god I believed in died, it’s my mum’s stories I’ve turned to. Her grandmother, one of the last Victorians, schooled her in Roma tradition while she was a child, and although Mum had swapped card readings for hymnbooks by the time I arrived, her touch for oral history remained. Numerous relatives, having wed and bred later than usual, died before I was born, but I met them all in bedtime stories: her father Bill, whose hair turned white when he abandoned ship in the North Sea and swam ashore; my other grandfather Silvestras, who lost a homeland to Stalin and countless shirt buttons to British beef; and my great grandmother herself, whose real name must have been Catherine but whom Mum always called Kitty. Lately, I’m remembering meals with my own grandmothers.

To understand my gran, you have to understand how she used food. Like many children born after the war, Mum spent her first holidays in the north, including in Blackpool. In my twenties, I heard about the aftermath of one such trip: on coming home, her mother approached a small boy who lived across the road, offering him a stick of Blackpool rock with a smile. On unwrapping the gift, the boy found only a long and thin stone disguised with left over wrappers, and so began to cry. Loath as she was to acknowledge her older sister’s birth in a vardo, Gran was a storyteller too: even in her nineties, fifty or sixty years later, serving the greedy boy over the street his just dessert was a favourite of hers. ‘That boy,’ Mum once replied with laser eyes, ‘was four years old.’


I wrote about my family at Medium. This is how the post starts. Read the whole thing.

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This blog has Patreon – support independent content and help it go ad-free

A click or two ago when you opened this page, there’s a good chance my entire blog got shunted to the right, jolted across to make room for an advert on the other side. Depending how long you’ve been reading, you may have known immediately how to get rid of it – or had to faff longer, clicking the wrong ‘Close’ sign and getting a white box instead of a readable post. By the time you nixxed it, or just refreshed, you could have been half way through this intro.

Maybe you were less lucky still and got landed with a pop-up or pop-under advert – or one of the bastards that pops up and then pops under, making you switch windows to defeat it. (Did it have sound? The worst have sound.) It’s only thanks to FTB’s tech guys, who found a way for us to outwit our own ads, that you don’t normally see one of these mid-post:

Look at it – look at its horrendousness, great orange baboonarse sticking obscenely out. Unlike a real anus, there’s no way to avoid seeing it, centred, unclosable, without the text so much as wrapping tastefully around. Normally, through html magic, I can banish it to the end, but even then, it appears in all my old posts from the last two years, flotsam in an absurdly wide text field. Don’t think it doesn’t madden me.

You hate the ads, and so you should. To be honest, we hate them too – in fact we hate them more than anyone, because we are their hostages. Bloggers must eat, and adverts have long been our only hope of doing so off the back of our posts. They are the burly kid at school with trigger-happy fists, the big, obnoxious bully with whom you had no choice but to be friends.

This is why I’ve set up a Patreon. [Read more…]

My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that

000Something like once a year, I spend a night wanting nothing but to curl up and die. It’s not that I think of killing myself, though way back it did come to that – just that those nights, under what feels like the crushing weight of conscious thought, I long not to exist. Some hungry pit in my chest drains all colour from the world, refusing to swallow the rest of me, and being awake hurts. Social contact becomes like prodding a cracked rib, everyday tasks an uphill slog: I sit for what feels like an age trying to find the will to tie my shoes, fall apart making tea. These are, I’m acutely aware, insane things to find hard – because I am insane.

At twenty-four, the dark spells come and go quickly. When the worst hit, I fight the urge to smash myself to bits – to skin my knuckles on the wall, claw at my forearms, beat my head against the window pane till either cracks – but nowadays those fits of self-loathing happen years apart. (The last, in April, was my first since university.) Most days I’m fine, and it feels like yesterday the urge to self-destruct lasted months rather than hours. I was ten when I first wanted to die, fourteen when I decided how, fifteen on first attempting it. Nine years and counting without incident, it seems to me, is a good run.

For the short time I took them on the quiet, antidepressants only did so much, but atheism has helped me no end. You might expect me to report that as a churchgoer, being called a sinner in a hopeless world did my head in; actually, hope was the problem. As a believer in the risen Christ, it can be hard not to feel ashamed of existential gloom, as if the grace of salvation has bypassed you through some fault of your own. There must, I felt, be some turmoil in my soul if being saved didn’t make me feel any less wretched, some failure in my faith that warranted further self-punishment. As an atheist, I feel differently. [Read more…]

Support the Burning Bridges Blog Network

If you’ve hung around on this network long enough, you’ve probably bumped into certain regulars.

  • Sally Strange is a feminist, environmentalist and journalist in the original sense.
  • Alex and Ania write about (among other things) skepticism, ethnicity and disability.
  • Dori Mooneyham’s blog is about gender, pop culture and being a trans lesbian.
  • Dirty Nerdy has depression and writes about it, as well as being queer.
  • Angie Jackson is an antitheist raised in a cult who live-tweeted her abortion in 2010.

You may also know Sunflower Punk, who’s a homeless single parent ‘from NYC by way of Puerto Rico’, and Kassiane, who tackles ableism and neurodivergence.

These are seven formidable members of our community, who – by and large, like this community – combine a take-no-prisoners atheism with fierce, compassionate social advocacy, an approach we don’t see enough. Now they’re doing something exciting, and setting up their own site. Writes Sally:

This past winter was rough for me and many of my friends. I was fired from my last job essentially in retaliation for whistleblowing, though I was not in fact the whistleblower. I was commiserating with my friends, many of whom also experience poverty on a regular basis, thanks to being laid off, single parenthood, escaping abusive relationships, disabilities and chronic illness, mental health issues, and societal bigotries such as racism, trans-antagonism, and misogyny. We all write regularly and have many other talents and skills, and we were wishing that we could translate our regular output on social media and our private blogs into regular revenue which, if not sufficient to pay the rent, would at least help tide us over during the rough times. And so the idea of Burning Bridges was formed.

The name comes from the idea of lighting your way with the bridges you burn, rather than fearing the flames. And maybe next time using a better, less flammable design, if a bridge is really what [you] want. We want Burning Bridges, the blog and the publishing company, to further the trend of marginalized people gaining a voice through the horizontal structure of the Internet.

I want to see this project succeed. The Indiegogo campaign is at just under $500 (15 percent of the way to its goal) with three more days to go: while they’ve already raised the minimum needed to launch the site, there’s still a way to go. Thankfully, crowdfunders like this often get a late surge just before the deadline – so if you can, chip in or spread the word.

We need more secular writing with a social context. Let’s help make it happen.

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Ashley and Dana need your help

Last autumn I was in a fix. This network saw me through, for which I’ll never stop being grateful. Two of our number who lent me a hand could now use one themselves, and I’m not going to let that pass.

A while back you may have seen the banners I made Ashley F. Miller (note the ‘f’). Ashley hired me to create them when I needed work – I took far too long – and is now in a tight spot of their own, having lost their job and been diagnosed with debilitating illness in the last week, meaning they now face ballooning medical bills and loss of income simultaneously. To make their writing, art and other talents pay, Ashley now has a Patreon so readers can send her regular tips. I could tell you why, if you can, you should support their work – could point to the million views their blog just reached, their courageous writing on harassment and how their name has been printed with Gloria Steinem’s and Maya Angelou’s – but if you really want to know why their three years of near-unpaid writing deserve your dime (beyond the available perks), listen to this.

Then there’s Dana Hunter, who writes at En Tequila Es Verdad. Dana is one of this network’s more unsung talents – in the last year, she quit her job to start writing full time and has since released her first book, Really Terrible Bible Stories Volume I, which you can and should buy on Amazon. Unlike Ashley, Dana is seeking one-off donations via PayPal, meaning if you want to help someone out but can’t commit for the long term, her fundraiser might be the best option for you. While her writing career was more or less on track, illness and ejection from her current building have plunged her into dire straits. Getting Dana through this matters especially to me, because when I was in ‘one of those horrible financial dry spells that happens to freelancers’, she was one of the very first people to have my back. I’d like to do the same for her.

Ashley and Dana have given so much to our community. This is where we give back.

(And yes – if you were wondering, I’ll join Patreon soon.)

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Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

There’s a passage from Marx’s critique of Hegel that antitheists like to quote and defenders of faith like to quotemine. In a piece titled ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’, Kris Nelson notes Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world as well as the opium of the people, claiming to ‘open up . . . the full quote, and not just the snapshot used to pick at those who dare let their god(s) lead them’.

In fact, Nelson – ‘a queer trans witch [who] runs an online store . . . where they sell handcrafted wirework jewellery, crystal pendants, handsewn tarot bags and pendulums’ – is the one peddling a misrepresentation. The actually-full quote (translation mine) reads:

The discontent of religion is at once an expression of and protestation against true discontent. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world and soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To overthrow the bogus happiness they find in it is to demand they be allowed true happiness; to demand disillusionment with a condition built on delusion is to demand its end. And so to criticise religion is, in embryo, to criticise the vale of tears of which it is but an apparition.

Such critique has not shredded the imaginary flowers on people’s chains so as to leave them chained without solace or fantasy, but so that they might cast away their chains and gather real flowers. It disillusions people so that they might think, act and shape their own reality, as does anyone brought to their senses – so that their lives might revolve around them, people being their own true suns. Religion is no more than an illusory sun, revolving around people whose lives do not revolve around them.

The point missed on all sides isn’t that religion is either a bad habit or a source of hope – nor is Marx saying it’s one in spite of being the other. The meaning of ‘Opium des Volkes’, a metaphor Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw would later recycle, is that faith is comforting and delusional, easing the pain by clouding the senses: Marx labels it the courage of a heartless world as part of his attack.

There’s a lot I could say about those lines, which never fail to move me. Unlike new atheism’s figureheads, I’ve been a believer – I could say I remember not having enough to eat, going to church with a single mother and meeting other oppressed creatures; remember the cost of the church’s help, belief spinning out of control, abuse and mental illness taking hold; remember the bogus happiness, then finding poetry in the real world.

000I could say that as an apostate on the left, my skepticism serves an instinct that, in Chomsky’s words, ‘the burden of proof for anyone with a position of power and authority lies on them’ – that my atheism will never be separate from the fight for a just society – and that my antitheism will never, ever be divorced from compassion for those on the margins. I could even accept, though I think his argument survives it, that there’s room to criticise Marx – either in that his presumption to dismantle strangers’ beliefs rings paternalistic, or inasmuch as leftists can and do repurpose God for their own ends.

For now though, Nelson’s post.

Calling oneself a person of faith feels like setting light fingers on ‘person of colour’ – a move less tasteful still when apostates whose former religions have a marked ethnic dimension are among the most stigmatised, frequently smeared as race traitors. Mentioning one’s spirituality – ‘We’ve all got one!’ – likewise resembles the language of sexuality. While it’s perfectly true certain religious groups are ostracised, constructing believers in general as an oppressed class is putrescent – if Nelson finds religion a fraught topic on the left, it’s because of its role as oppressor, and it’s hard to see how conflating the ‘struggle’ of Baptists and Anglicans with those of Jews and Muslims in the west does any good. [Read more…]

Out of the blue: what now for the Labour Party?

When the wrong Miliband became leader, Tories rubbed their hands gleefully and named Ed M the heir to Michael Foot. Seeing them vindicated hurts, and yet I don’t regret voting for him in 2010. That Britain glanced at Foot and instantly preferred Thatcher is a fiction – before the SPD split the left vote and the Falklands lionised her, Labour had poll leads nearing twenty points, predicted a landslide, and Miliband’s failure was no more inevitable. The tragedy of Labour’s loss last week is that the coalition years were a unique chance for a leftish platform to succeed: but for his lack of confidence and failure to convince voters, Miliband’s strategy of cornering the anti-Tory vote might well have worked. Ed blew a chance that won’t soon come again.

000His leadership wasn’t without its achievements. Miliband unified a bruised party when internal spats threatened to explode, moved perceptions on from the Blair-Brown era’s most loathed missteps (not least Iraq) and saw strong local election performances. His campaign, albeit futile, put living costs on the agenda and exposed, perhaps unwillingly, the extent of media bias in the UK. Nevertheless, he’ll be recalled as the leader who managed to do worse than Gordon Brown – a fate all the crueller because till the eleventh hour, everyone in the game expected him to be PM. Experts are asking where the polls went wrong, but while left and right fight over what cost him victory, neither has longitudinal data: whereas certain events demonstrably harmed Brown’s support, we have no way to know if Miliband’s numbers were ever accurate.

Labour still needs a strategy, and predicting the next election’s trials will do more good than wondering what went wrong. 2015 shows a fractured electoral map, most of whose distinct battlegrounds broke the wrong way for them – red versus yellow in Scotland, red versus purple in the north, red versus blue in the midlands and capital, blue versus purple in the south, blue versus orange in the west country. Scottish losses weren’t offset by new English seats – even if Labour made extraordinary gains north of the border, where full recovery will now take it a decade or more, all their work would still be ahead of them. To win again, Labour must wrestle traditional votes from Ukip and the SNP, plus swing votes from the Tories in the south, fighting on two contradictory fronts.

The pill is as bitter for me as the rest of the left, but there is no sugaring it – this time around, Labour has to court more right-leaning votes. At the same time, it must shore up and recover grassroots support, broadening its left-leaning base – all on redrawn boundaries that extend the Tory advantage from 99 to some 125 seats. With the road back to power all uphill, how can Labour go the distance? [Read more…]

Welcome Jamila Bey to Freethought Blogs!

In case you hadn’t heard, Jamila Bey is joined Freethought Blogs’ newest bully – read her first post, on atheism and Black History Month, at the Sex Politics and Religion blog, a tie-in with her long-running radio show.

A preview:

February, the shortest and coldest month on this part of the planet, is the time in which schoolchildren learn that Black Americans did far more than just suffer enslavement in these United States.  Children all over learn (just short weeks after MLK’s dream-filled celebrations) that George Washington Carver was a peanut genius, Rosa Parks got tired and wouldn’t give up her bus seat to a white man, and that ​Black people are all God-fearing and without the reverends and churches of the post-WWII era, the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have been a success.

I’m skipping over my (minor) quibbles with the month for this post, as I genuinely wish to make it clear that Atheists really need to support Black History Month for the simple fact that one of our own invented it!

Jamila – as in tequila, not vanilla – is one a small handful of new members we’ll be rolling out in the near future. Some of them you probably know, some you probably don’t, but they all exceptional additions.

In the mean time, go and say hello!

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New posts soon and a thank you

Last week’s fundraiser reached its goal a few days ago – thanks to all who took part. A related reminder: people in London can see me at this event on February 27.

I haven’t posted much of late, and for once there’s a good reason – I’ve been busy these last couple of months working on something you’ll hear about soon. This week it’s all getting wrapped up, so I’ll be more active on this blog from the final third of January on.

See you all soon. Tata, AG.

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Snow in Berlin 26.12.14

It’s very nearly been a year
Since snow fell and I landed here
Citing at yours that night my lack
Of a coat for the journey back.
Next morning I face the outdoors
To lumber home in one of yours,
The mark left by its owner’s face
Proving a challenge to erase
Even as a fresh fall fills in
The trail where my feet’ve been.
Outside my window now the snow
Has come back for another go.
Almost a year on I can tell
This snow’ll bury you as well.

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