About that “green eyed monster” article Dawkins wrote

Every so often I see a 2007 article called ‘Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster‘ reposted from Dawkins.net. (It seems originally to have been a column in the Washington Post‘s ‘on faith’ segment.) Most of the friends who share it say positive things about it, including that challenging compulsory monogamy shows Dawkins still has chops as a social critic. [Read more…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A queer atheist’s survival guide: thoughts from my friends’ church wedding

Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.

Both knew me via interfaith exchanges and had wondered, I later learned, how likely my attendance was. Though I’d met them through a project which meant much to me, considered them good friends and was touched to be invited, despite our differences, to an event important to them, those differences remained: they were evangelicals, wed in Oxford’s most evangelical church, where I was an atheist hostile (and happily so) toward religion – moreover, a queer, polyamorous one of anti-marriage politics. It’s hard to imagine anything more contrary to my principles than a church wedding – but nonetheless, my friends’ was meaningful for them, and I was honoured to be invited.

With any luck, you’re beginning to sense cognitive dissonance. I attended this wedding to share in my friends’ happiness, not disparage its origins. Unliksie at my old friend’s funeral, or Christmas services through which atheists sit to please their parents, it wasn’t enough to put up with the ceremony – I wanted actively to enjoy it, and the point of my write-up here is to relate how it felt to attempt this. It’s one thing to let sermons fly over your head in secular passivity, putting aside the impulse to roll one’s eyes; it’s another, as a queer atheist marriagephobe in the pews, to grasp for a slice of the happy couple’s joy.

Without wishing to disappoint the groom, then, who asked that my account hold nothing back, this piece isn’t about what I found objectionable, but about my attempts to negotiate and ignore them while enjoying the proceedings and finding joy in them. I hope if you’re an atheist, or as uncomfortable at wedding services as I am, this post provides some thoughts on experiencing them with positivity, and that if you’re planning one as a serious believer, it helps you relate to your secular guests.

I doubt I’d succeed at either of these goals, though, if I didn’t outline what felt alien or uncomfortable.

To a great extent, all marriage involving the state makes my knuckles itch: to recognise some relationship structures as worthier than others (via the civil register or reference in law), or otherwise assume the state has anything to say about the legitimacy of our sexual and romantic choices, makes me uneasy. This goes for all state marriages (and civil partnerships), whether in churches or not, however secular or ‘progressive’. It’s a broad gripe, and not one overtly bugs me at weddings or stops me enjoying them, but a gripe I think bears mentioning nonetheless.

To a greater extent still, there are tropes and memes embedded in our marital traditions which I find unsettling, and which often appear around wholly secular nuptials. There is sexism, of course: in the idea of the bride’s white dress denoting virginity-therefore-purity (and, before that, wealth-therefore-beauty); in words like ‘husband’ and ‘groom’, suggestive more of an animal-keeper than a lover or partner; in the general heteronormative asymmetry of the bride and groom’s gendered roles; in the clichéd proffering of an engagement ring during proposals, as if to purchase love with shiny items of jewellery; in the possessive notion its presence will discourage unwanted suitors; in the ‘giving away’ of its wearer by her father, and his traditional payment for festivities, the relics of a time when daughters were commodities for trade.

There’s monogamy-worship too – the implicit treatment of lifelong, two-partner exclusivity as the only valid way to live and love – in our customs of congratulating the recently engaged and of applauding their marriage’s pronouncement, as if forming such a relationship were a greater achievement than forming a different kind; in our reference to friends’ wedding days as ‘the happiest of their life’, as if no one ever married more than once; in our statements the couple will be together ‘for the rest of their lives’, when half of marriages end in divorce. Our kidding ourselves about this suggests the dissolution of a marriage is shameful or humiliating, rather than a natural, often faultless development, and contributes to the idea relationships which don’t last till we die are worthless failures.

And it’s true, as well, that the religious elements at this wedding – the references to existential sin and shame, the implicitly homophobic, transphobic descriptions of marital relationships depending on ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, the assertion of divine insistence that wives submit to husbands, and the direct instruction of the bride to speak to hers in a soft voice – made relating to it hard for me. There was the statement no married or loving relationship could succeed without God, the readings from scripture, the hymns involving blood and sacrifice; the question, directed at the congregation, will you pray for and support them in their marriage?

For all but the wateriest non-realists, prayer requires spiritual beliefs, of which I hold none – I wouldn’t be capable of it even if the idea appealed. While I hope my friends’ time together is filled with joy, and to be there for them if ever they should need me, I’m an atheist, and any claim I planned to pray for them would be a lie. I could no more join the collective We will in good conscience than the hymns or actual prayers of the ceremony, for which I remained quietly seated, head unbowed.

My instant urge is to defend myself from accusations of disrespect or spitefulness. I’ve witnessed discussions among atheists on how to conduct oneself in church for loved ones’ funerals or weddings, many of which inspired this post, and some of which involved the instruction to sing along, avoid making a scene and not be a dick. On entering the church, in fact, I sat discreetly in a small pew toward the back corner so as not to draw attention or seem hostile, curmudgeonly or insincere; the ceremony, after all, wasn’t about me.

Still, there are two things I’d ask here.

Firstly: why is atheists’ partial non-participation in rituals like these interpreted as spiteful, aggressive, insensitive and generally typical of negative atheist stereotypes – why did I fear I’d be perceived this way on selecting my seat, and why have I seen this characterisation of it elsewhere – when identical behaviour by non-Christian believers is viewed as peaceful, pious and worthy of respect? If I’d refrained from worshipping Christ because I was a devout Muslim or Jew, I can’t help feeling no one would doubt this showed my principles’ integrity, not disdain for the Christian couple or congregation; as an atheist, I worried I might give the latter impression. I don’t think all beliefs are equally valid (the contradictory ones couldn’t be), or claim to respect ones I think are false (the acid test for respecting beliefs, one can’t help feeling, is adopting them), but why is the conscientious value I attach to secular convictions deemed less legitimate than that which any believer attaches to their faith?

Secondly: given my friends knew on inviting me that I was an unbeliever; given they’ve heard me speak at length about why this is, and how little love I have for Christianity’s claims, surely to stand praisin’ Jesus among the crowd would be an insult? Surely it would ignore the reality of our friendship, which centres around our conflicting beliefs and has grown because of, not in spite of them? Surely the person they invited to witness their marriage was someone they knew to be secular in the ‘aggressive’, tabloid-paper sense – surely they wanted me there, and not a pretence? That ceremony was important to them. While I don’t share their belief in the ceremony’s sacredness, at least in a theistic sense, I can acknowledge it; and to lie to my friends on a day sacrosanct to them, behaving with no integrity, seems like a desecration – a transgression almost akin to blasphemy. (Almost.)

As it turned out, there was much about this wedding which I enjoyed, and which I focused on appreciating. One half of the couple was American, the other South African, and the service mixed national customs intriguingly: the wearing of dinner jackets to weddings, a U.S. habit which continues to mystify me, was dispensed with in favour of traditional morning dress (albeit it outfitted with a large, rather striking white rose instead of a carnation), but the maid-of-honour’s distinctive procession – bobbing recognisably down the aisle before, not after, the bride – remained in place. Brooke Fraser’s ‘Love is Waiting’ was sung, deftly, in place of Mendelssohn or Handel, as novel and interesting a departure from tradition as the playing of James Brown to close the service, and on standing for the entrance of the bride I was aware the church was unusually bright and airy for one of its age.

Of all the spaces I might have been in, this was a good one, and I blocked out the Jesus-songs to concentrate on appreciating that, besides the pleasant music and the happiness of my friends. (While I abstained from all the hymns, some were better than others; I should probably admit a soft spot for ‘Be Thou My Vision’.) Afterward, undulating through buffet tables laden with cakes and appetising, unusually plentiful soft drinks, which spread end to end across a tennis court sized room, I thanked the musicians for performing as well as they had, wished the newlyweds the best of times together and socialised with mutual friends, bumping occasionally into their family members.

To focus on drawing enjoyment from all of the above and not the elements which troubled me, so as to share a portion of my friends’ happiness, took a certain amount of cognitive effort. It was, after all, a situational compromise. When I attend religious events, as I did last summer, it’s usually to provide secular commentary and criticism, and I think in general that preachers who teach existential shame to children (several were present) and advocate poor gender politics deserve to be challenged. But this wasn’t for my presence on Saturday, and would have come between me and what I was there to do – namely, sharing an important moment non-judgementally with people I like. Dwelling on the less comfortable aspects was an intuitive but undesirable temptation, an itch not to be scratched, and devoting concentration to the positives meant assuming a perspective very unfamiliar to me, like squinting or tilting one’s to the side in a museum so as to appreciate a work of art’s hidden details. Squinting mentally for the best part of an hour, especially when bombarded with things you’re used to scrutinising with a burning stare, is difficult: it required a degree of self-awareness and mindset-control rarely asked of me.

And this is why, when the person in the next seat began to evangelise, my temper frayed.

As I waited for things to start, he had asked if the place was free, and we exchanged the usual pleasantries. When my hometown came up, so did his attendance of its annual evangelical convention, and to stem any awkwardness should he assume I was a Christian, I casually volunteered my atheism. Beyond being told he was an atheist but became a Christian, there was little follow-through until after the service, when he asked if I was secular-minded for any particular reason. My response – that in the absence of a God-shaped hole inside me, I simply don’t find religions’ claims convincing – seemed not to satisfy him, and he took to asking which churches in Oxford I’d attended and how many times, before inviting me to the weekly Christianity Explored discussion group. (I shan’t be going. He might be glad of this.)

In other contexts, I wouldn’t mind so much. I’m a believer, on the whole, in defending the beliefs by which we live, and not against arguing about who’s right. In the meetings from which I knew the bride and groom, I was hotseated more often than anyone, and I didn’t resent this – I enjoyed it, in fact. But isn’t there a time and a place for this? My statement I didn’t believe wasn’t an invitation to grill me, but a heads-up, a (perhaps too) subtle message not to engage me in prayer or worship should the time come, an attempt to have my partial non-participation read as an act of sincerity, not spite. If he’d really been desperate to take me to task, I’d have happily supplied my e-mail address or directed him to this blog, but as it was, I attended this wedding to honour my friends, not defend my worldview or interrogate theirs, and the energy it took not to breathe fire on him for doorstepping me this way was energy I needed to focus on mental squinting; on forgetting about worldviews and enjoying my surroundings.

If you should find yourself the believer in this scenario, non-atheist readers, don’t interpret your neighbour’s statement of atheism as summons to interrogate them; it’s likely that at this moment, beliefs are the last thing they want to discuss. Don’t raise the standard of your former non-belief as a smug, I-used-to-be-an-atheist standard – just because you changed your mind doesn’t mean you should have – and don’t imply you therefore understand their perspective while acting in a way that shows you don’t. And don’t assume, without a shade of self-awareness, that your interlocutor was never a believer or knows nothing about your religion, inviting them to come and think about what Bible says.

In any case, I’m glad I attended – whatever the cause, two thoroughly happy friends was a pleasing sight on my last weekend in Oxford. All that remains is to say what I would have said, if asked to offer a secular prayer for the ceremony.

As an atheist, I don’t think love can last forever. As a skeptic, I don’t believe in any ultimate design for our relationships – whether God’s, the fates’ or the aligning planets’ – and I recognise it’s significantly likely any marriage will end in divorce.

I know: you’re glad I didn’t say this there and then. But there’s a serious point to be made about our mysticism around partnering: when people are forthright and realistic about relationships, we deem them unromantic and cold-hearted. This is what the atheist comedian Tim Minchin discusses in his song ‘If I Didn’t Have You’; we imagine that the only proper way to acknowledge love is with grandiose, wildly improbable declarations about destiny or everlasting emotional bonds. I think, conversely, that acknowledging love’s own wild improbability is a promising means by which to celebrate it.

The odds of live on earth in the first place are wicked slim; add to that the challenge of being born, and the startling unlikelihood of matter, memory and experience assembling into you, and individual selfhood for a start is a thing uncanny. It seems at least doubly unlikely, then, to meet another individual so well suited to you that you want to share large portions of your life with them – and yet it happens, again and again.

No, these kinds of partnerships don’t last forever, and most don’t last for life, but meeting partners with whom we want to form them is itself phenomenal. I’ve practiced polyamory in great part because I’m not the best fit for many people, but am a good fit for plenty, and have shared parts of my existence joyously with them. For however long their marriage lasts, and whatever its passage entails, it’s pretty extraordinary that my friends should find one another as complementary as they seem to. This kind of total, permanent monogamy is a comparative erotic neologism – it flies in the face of our species’ history and our brains’ evolution, wired on the whole for something broader and more various. Love like this is always star-crossed, in a sense, ignoring its own improbability in human flesh and an indifferent universe, occurring nonetheless. That, one might say, is almost miraculous. Almost.