Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism


Richard Dawkins is in the news again. This times it’s the Muslims. In September, Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for making a clock that — mainly due to being next to him — looked too much like a bomb; when Barack Obama asked to meet him, Dawkins speculated Mohamed ‘wanted to be arrested’ for exposure and cash. In the US, where police shoot young black and brown men for breathing too loudly, you’d think posing as a bomber would be high-risk, but perhaps your experience of anti-terror laws isn’t confined to jars of honey on domestic flights.

The last Texan to con his way to the White House had ideas the New Atheists quite liked, and this week Dawkins compared Mohamed to a child filmed beheading a prisoner of ISIL. (That both were Muslims is apparently incidental.) What’s striking about Dawkins and his fans at times like this is their portrayal of critics as fragile, oversensitive flakes in whose world dogma is king and emotion queen, despite flinching at the slightest rebuke. ‘That actually hurts,’ Dawkins told a friend after I called his tweets racist. Some people’s emotions, it seems, just matter more.

[Read more…]

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion. [Read more…]

Paris/Baghdad/Beirut, November 2015

When guns go off, people fall silent. Some fall silently.

Silence takes many forms. There is the silence of the dead, that of the living who see death, and in between, that silent half-second when gunshots are first heard.

There is the numbness that comes after shock, the turning-off of news and silencing of radios. There is being at a loss for words, the silence of all speech sounding too loud.

There is the silence of commemoration and the silence of censure; sometimes these are the same. There is the silence that falls over streets where demonstrations have been banned.

There are the enforced silences of a war on terror, unspoken thoughts and words that render them unspeakable: heroes, hatred, extremist, PATRIOT. There is the indescribable nausea of a new one.

There is that silent, tired thirst in me for no more gods, governments or guns. There is the silence of knowing now is no time for certainties. There is my silent longing for them back.

There is the silence I wish for with every new atrocity mentioned, the relative silence of media about those further from my door, my silence on the ones I couldn’t stand to hear of. There is the silent shame of realising that was a choice, the silent listening I should have done.

More guns are going to go off. I hope by then, I will know what to say.


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Who is the seven kingdoms’ worst fanatic? Religion and atheism in Game of Thrones

If like the Internet you’re a Game of Thrones fan, last week’s episode may be weighing on you. (I’m about to discuss it with spoilers. If you’re not up to date, stop reading now.) About two thirds of the way in, Stannis Baratheon, now with an evil beard, makes a burnt offering of daughter Shireen, desperate to improve his army’s odds somehow. Elsewhere during the hour, Myrcella Lannister avoids being killed and Arya Stark comes close to a man who preys on the underage. Juxtaposed with these plots, Shireen’s death proves one character to have been right last year: everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.

000With Stannis all but silent throughout, it’s noticeable how, amid his faceless mob of troops, the sequence shows religious cruelty from three female viewpoints: the girl Shireen’s, ambushed by the reality of martyrdom; mistress Melisandre’s, lighting the pyre with strange lyricism, and wife Selyse’s, caught between the two. As Shireen’s mother, until now more of a believer than her husband, comes to her senses all too late, emitting a low, guttural scream, her character appears partly redeemed, delusion vapourised in contact with a flame. It is she more than poor, deceived Shireen who undergoes a baptism of fire – and, indeed, blood.

The scene, a deviation from the source novels, feels lifted from the Book of Judges, where Jephthah, also a would-be ruler, trades in his daughter’s life for victory. (We can but guess whether she, like Shireen, changes her mind on the way to the stake.) Game of Thrones’ fifth season has scrutinised religion more than any before, and the princess’s death puts me in mind of how the series treats belief. Before acting, Stannis gets rid of Ser Davos Seaworth, who thinks ‘mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night’ – a tactic that seems to have backfired in at least one case.

Seaworth’s philosophy is the unbelief of an everyman: when Stannis sends him from the camp refusing to argue, he banishes a voice likely to erode the belief that proves both cause and consolation for infanticide. Beside Ser Davos, I can think of just one character to claim atheism outright. In season three, Petyr Baelish memorably declares the gods an illusion, rubbishing all ideas of a natural order. A classic Machiavellian, he is the mirror image of Davos – both are well worn atheist tropes, and while Littlefinger is the more negative cliché, I have a lot of time for him, as I did for the nymphomaniac bisexual Oberyn Martell.

The real secular viewpoint in Westeros is George R. R. Martin’s. Asked his religious stance, the author calls himself an atheist or agnostic, and like his Catholic past, it shows. None of the series’ many believers, even the worst, are cardboard characters – there is a kind of social realism in how Martin shows religion, as there is in his choice (unlike Tolkien) to show it at all. At the same time, none of this world’s many faiths appears truer than the rest. Competing religions seem equally able to perform miracles, perhaps implying some shared power source in the natural world, and each is shown as a product of its society more than vice versa. [Read more…]

Support Taslima Nasrin and atheist bloggers facing death

In case you haven’t seen it in the press, a string of public atheists have recently been killed in Bangladesh. Two years ago, Ahmed Rajib Haider’s body was found outside his house; last November, AKM Shafiul Islam was murdered on his way home. Avijit Roy was stabbed in the head with a machete in February, while the following month, Washiqur Rahman’s murderers were found with meat cleavers. Ananta Bijoy Das, the most recent victim, was hacked to death three weeks ago. Failed attempts on others’ lives have hospitalised them, some sustaining permanent injury, and barely a month now passes without new reports. Islamist groups responsible have by now grown so bold that there exists a Wikipedia page – from which the above information comes – called ‘Attacks on secularists in Bangladesh’. It is a morbid lottery whose name the next update will be.

These ambushes are not random: before their deaths, several victims appeared on a hit list of eighty-four names. One of the biggest, Taslima Nasrin, writes on this blog network; two days ago, she was informed she would be next. Fortunately, several weeks of work between Ed Brayton and CFI to extract her from India were already in place: yesterday Taslima left Delhi for the USA, where she’s now staying out of harm’s way with CFI staff. While in the scheme of things, this is a huge relief, it leaves her facing the same kind of fix anyone does who has to leave their home without warning. In that her work remains unaffected for the most part, Taslima benefits from being an author, but she now has no transport, health plan or permanent abode.

To help with this and meet living costs while she finds her feet, the CFI has established a fund. From their statement:

If we raise more than is needed for Taslima, we will use the remainder to establish an emergency fund to help assist other dissidents in similarly perilous situations. Without going into detail, CFI has already been contacted by other writers on the subcontinent who have received threats against their lives and who have requested assistance. We are withholding their names for their own safety.

Thank you.

Please give generously – or get someone else to if you can’t.




Another response to Kris Nelson – guest post by Amber Adamson

000Every so often an article so Lovecraftian wanders across my path that I am inspired to engage. At Everyday Feminism, usually a site I enjoy, blogger Kris Nelson discusses ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’. I’d like to note upfront here that I emailed Kris about their piece and what I saw as its problems, or at least a few of them. I was actually rather tame. I refrained from even questioning what is arguably the worst aspect of their piece – its deference to pseudo-science – and stuck to questioning its rather absurd binary of the western Christian church versus all other religions – united, one presumes, in some kind of care bear struggle against evil, with the western Christian church the root of it all.

I’m not going to repost my email here, but over-gentle as I tried to be, Kris’s reaction was juvenile in the extreme – I suppose I was too optimistic in thinking they might reconsider some of their stranger assumptions. I am going to mention some quotes from their email, because it shows how narrow and warped their perspective is. Honestly, a part of me can’t help but feel I’m being a bully here – when an author is this clueless, isn’t it a bit unfair to even scrutinize them? But this post has 3.3 thousand shares on Facebook. And it’s typical of a very seedy, apolitical ecumenicalism, which has infested leftist discourse and which I’m sick of. My writing against Kris is also my writing against everything writers like Kris represent. [Read more…]

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…]

“We find them everywhere” – fundamentalisms and BBC One’s Big Questions

Is The Big Questions a good or bad thing? Maybe.

In February, ComRes polled British Muslims for the BBC. Predictably, the more dramatic data points were sensationalised; amid the headlines, two interesting questions got ignored. How many respondents, they asked, sympathised with people who fought ‘against western interests’ – and how many knew other Muslims who sympathised with Al-Qaeda or IS soldiers? Results came in respectively at 11 (compared with 85) and 8 (compared with 89) percent, figures within each other’s margins of error. This might not seem much on the face of it, but depending on what further research turns up, it could tell us something about the human geography of jihad.

Polls have long shown support for groups like Al-Qaeda is low in the UK, but to my knowledge, no measure has been taken of how diffuse it is. To give an example of the difference, something like eight percent of people plan to vote Lib Dem, but that group is spread out enough that most of us still know someone who will; conversely, only slightly fewer intend to vote Green, but they’re less evenly dotted around. The ComRes poll suggests Muslims who sympathise with the Islamic State are more like Green Party voters, a tight-knit clique known mostly to each other rather than a fringe across Muslim communities.

Why do I bring this up? At Leaving Fundamentalism, Jonny Scaramanga writes about appearing on The Big Questions, BBC One’s Sunday morning show where religious and secular guests debate ‘ethics’. (I was invited on two years ago, only for the message to sit in my undiscovered ‘Other’ folder. Thanks, Facebook.) The format, to an infamous degree, is what broadcasters tend to call ‘robust’, never less so than in the political rows that, as Jonny attests, predominate. Perhaps because priests and imams aren’t the best people to consult on climate change, more blood is sometimes shed than light, such that it’s tempting to suggest the series be renamed The Short Answers. What about the guests, though? [Read more…]

Queer people’s discomfort around religion is not bigotry: my comments to the Rainbow Intersection

I got home from London last night after being on a panel with the Rainbow Intersection, a forum for discussions of queer identity, religion and race. The topic was religion and LGBT people – something I’ve already posted about at length – and the other panellists were Jide Macaulay, who runs the Christian House of Rainbow Fellowship; Surat-Shaan Knan of Twilight People, a project for trans and nonbinary believers, and interfaith minister Razia Aziz. I had a blast – all three are top-tier folk, and I’d be thrilled to appear with any of them again.

Jide founded an LGBT church in Nigeria to stop queer believers facing the threats and harassment apostates face – the fact I don’t buy the theology doesn’t mean I’m not glad of that – and works to stop LGBTs being deported today. (He also took my trolling remarkably well.) Surat-Shaan blogs about being trans and a practising Jew for Jewish News – in some ways his background felt like a mirror image of mine, and he speaks at a borderline-absurd number of events. Razia, who made me think I’d been quite cynical, was the surprise: feelgood interfaith rhetoric can cover a multitude of sins, awkward facts obscured in a haze of abstract nouns – mystery-journey-spirit-calling-truth – but there’s a refreshing core of steely realism to her outlook.

Both the Intersection’s organisers, Bisi Alimi and Ade Adeniji, are worth a follow, and Jumoke Fashola, who works in radio and music, was an exceptional moderator. I’m told the discussion was recorded, and that there are plans to release it in audio form – in the mean time, since all the speakers were restricted to a five minute introduction, I’m publishing my uncut opening remarks below.

* * *

‘Is there a place for sexuality in religion?’

I think we can’t stress enough how triggering overt religiosity can be and is to many LGBT people. If I knew an event was taking place in a church, I would avoid it – I don’t feel safe in churches, I don’t feel comfortable in churches. Churches scare me, they make me uncomfortable and they make me [feel] unsafe. In our desire to let [supportive] religious groups play the ‘we’re not all like that’ game, we’re frequently required to pretend they’re mainstream, rather than exceptions, and that so many of us are somehow not legitimately and severely frightened by overt religiosity. That is not an unreasonable or unfair fear, nor one that isn’t based on experience.

These aren’t my words – they’re from a comment left under a post on my blog last December – I’ll come back to it later, because it captures many of my feelings perfectly.

I come to this discussion as a queer person (a bisexual specifically), an atheist, an apostate, an abuse survivor and an ex-Christian, so the question for me is less about sexuality’s place in religion and more about religion’s place in queer communities. I also come to this as a white atheist and a white Englishman – a cisgender man at that – so it’s fair to say I know something about belonging to a populace (several, in fact) with an uncomfortable track record. Equally, as an atheist blogger today, I often find myself at odds with how my community acts.

I’m sorry so many atheists harass and dehumanise believers. (The recent Chapel Hill killings in North Carolina were a chilling example.) I’m sorry I often see racism from atheists toward religious communities of colour, both African-American and Muslim, and in particular, that there are atheists trying to pit LGBT people against them. (In the former case, atheists like Dan Savage did this in the wake of Proposition 8; in the case of Islam, I now see atheists joining UKIP and the far-right to do the same.) Most recently, I’m sorry about skeptic groups that promote transphobia and atheists who tell people they’re wrong about their gender BECAUSE SCIENCE.

All that being said, I’ve wondered if the religious panellists here are as willing to own up to their communities’ failings.

I grew up moving between several Christian churches and forms of belief, some fundamentalist, some very much not. You might guess I left religion because I was queer, but that wasn’t the case at all – in my teens, I settled into a gentle, traditionalist but liberal Christianity, and I never felt any internal struggle around not being straight, whether religious or otherwise. At the time, I told myself all the things queer believers tend to say about context, (mis)translation, (mis)interpretation and how Jesus preached acceptance.

But I did suffer religious abuse – vivid, nightmarish threats of hell, claims of demonic possession and countless other things. And I encountered homophobia from other believers that made religious communities feel hostile. And when secular homophobia – which is, in fact, widespread – led me to entrust my faith with my mental health, I ended up trying to kill myself. (I don’t think blaming religion for any of these things is unfair – nor do I think placing the blame on ‘fundamentalism’ is enough. The faith that endangered my life was tolerant, mainstream, entirely non-fundamentalist Christianity.)

In hindsight, I find I cringe more over what I believed as a queer-affirming Christian than over my belief in virgin births and resurrections. It seems such motivated reasoning and contrived circle-squaring, a search less for truth than for something affirming to convince myself I believed, and in the end, wanting to be honest about what I thought instead of lying to myself was part of what led me to leave the church.

However much we ‘queer the text’, finding homoeroticism in scripture and talking about interpretation and context, the fact is that if Jesus existed, the religion he founded has spent most of the last two thousand years marginalising, brutalising, criminalising and killing queer people – by now, on every continent on earth except Antarctica. (Apply and adjust as appropriate for other faiths.) I doubt theres a single queer person here who hasn’t faced queerphobia in Christian or other religious contexts, and some of us have been profoundly harmed by it.

If Jesus meant to preach acceptance of LGBT people, he didn’t do a very good job. A god who can’t get his own message across for most of his followers’ history doesn’t seem plausible to me. Given a global platform and with sincere intent, most children could now tell the world to be nice to queer people without prompting millennia of violence – really, those five words would be enough – and I struggle to believe in a god who lacks the communication skills of a ten-year-old.

Yet I’ve often seen religion promoted in queer spaces. I’ve seen LGBT student groups where clergy came to deliver sermons, where religious flyers were handed out on the door and meetings were moved so as not to clash with church. I’ve seen LGBT discussion events held in churches. I’ve been told to pray and about how God created me. I know I’m not alone in this.

As an atheist and an apostate in the queer community, I feel profoundly uncomfortable with this – not least because LGBT believers often seem set on dismissing realities of religious queerphobia, both historically and today. Many queer people, I think, have sat uncomfortably through public events held to stress the compatibility of queerness and faith sensing precisely this, yet feeling that to voice their ambivalence would be an appalling act of rudeness, bigotry or ‘hate’.

A colleague of mine, Heina Dadabhoy – a bisexual, nonbinary ex-Muslim – wrote this about one such incident:

The worst experience I had was at a local conference about mental health and LGBT issues. Fully half the panels were about religion, and every panel had a representative of what was euphemistically referred to as ‘the faith community’. It is bizarre, to say the last, to sit in a room filled with LGBT folks and hear nothing but praise for religion and disdain for criticism of religion. Any mention of the homophobia in Christianity or any other religion was treated as if it were taboo, or at least unnecessarily hostile.

My guess is that many in this room can relate to that – I know I can.

Unequivocally, I support the work (and existence) of queer religious people like the other panellists here, and of everyone working toward positive religious reform. In many religions, being queer has traditionally meant being viewed as an apostate: in many religions, it’s still regularly assumed that if your sexuality and/or gender is incorrect, you’ve abandoned the faith. Putting an end to that can only be a good thing, because being treated like an apostate is hard: it can mean losing your community or family and having to face social stigma and threats, even violence.

But I know this because many of us, and many LGBT people, really are apostates – whether because of religious queerphobia, religious abuse or other bad experiences, because we can’t believe in a god who has our back or simply because religious beliefs don’t make sense to us. Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding-up our communities with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us. To that effect, let me share the comment I started with (by a user called Paul) in full.

I think we can’t stress enough how triggering overt religiosity can be and is to many LGBT people. If I knew an event was taking place in a church, I would avoid it – I don’t feel safe in churches, I don’t feel comfortable in churches. Churches scare me, they make me uncomfortable and they make me [feel] unsafe. In our desire to let [supportive] religious groups play the ‘we’re not all like that’ game, we’re frequently required to pretend they’re mainstream, rather than exceptions, and that so many of us are somehow not legitimately and severely frightened by overt religiosity. That is not an unreasonable or unfair fear, nor one that isn’t based on experience, nor one that isn’t based on experience – yet I am expected to treat it as such. No matter how neutral the event is intended [to be], if it is held in church property it is something that will push me out.

And that ‘we’re not all like that’ game is destructive. For me to even remotely consider that a religious ‘ally’ is an ally, I need to know they realise their faith has a bigotry problem – because at the moment our desire to make religious groups comfortable and play PR for them is giving them a pass for bigotry and denying the scale of it in organised religion. How do we counter that if we’re all pretending it doesn’t exist or is ‘fringe’?

So here’s my take-home message: if you’re a secular queer person and you feel uncomfortable around religion, that is absolutely valid. It is not hatred; it is not bigotry. And if you’re a queer believer, that’s just as valid (even if it doesn’t make sense to me) – but please let’s remember there are times when toning down the God-talk is considerate, and please let’s face facts, because atonement starts with contrition.




No, a Romany man’s body is not being exhumed to placate Muslims

I ought not to be posting this today. I’m up against a deadline on Sunday, so should still be in blog-hibernation, but it can’t wait.

In case you haven’t read this blog before, which you may not have, some things about me:

Most of the time, the Daily Telegraph is far from keen on any of these things. Most of the time, it likes to have a go at various groups I’m part of (and other vulnerable ones). Every so often though, when a chance comes to pit Romanies, atheists, foreigners, queers or poor people against Muslims, the Telegraph falls in love with us all, deeming us at least marginally less subhuman than it does them. [Read more…]