The Magic Of Reality: What Growing Up Christian Had To Do With Believing In Santa

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If you ever believed in Santa—how did you find out that he wasn’t real?
And how did you feel about it?

* * *

Some childish things I put away early—others I stayed attached to for too long. In my last year of primary school, Mrs Fanshawe asked if I had toys and things at my dad’s, gauging, I now suspect, whether to let him collect me at home time. I remember sensing I ought to nod, doing so even as I wondered who the hell still played with toys aged ten. (At the time, I would have said ‘who on earth’.) I knew by then that there was no Saint Nick, except the real one, who was a disappointment of a saint, but it hadn’t been long since I’d found out. I’m never sure whether I grew up too fast or too late.

The garden where Mum and I built snowmen had been a rubbish tip, and our house was designed equally messily. Five doors opened onto the living room, which must have been twelve square metres at most, and only three led into other rooms. Behind Mum’s storytelling chair, a cupboard with two compartments stretched from floor to ceiling. The top one smelt of truffles when you poked your head inside, and was where passports and grownup letters were stored—and, more importantly, chocolate boxes and booze. One night a year a glass of sherry was left out, next to a mince pie and half a carrot.

I think I was nineish when Mum fessed up. I distinctly recall lying in bed, hugging the wall the way I liked to when she prayed for me. Before lights out, we’d talk a while, then she would sing the end of Numbers 6—‘The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you’. That night, she told me Nicholas had been a patron of children even during his life—so what did I think their parents told them after he died? It strikes me now this was likely a fairy tale too, that all I’d done was graduate from one fiction to another, but at the time my reaction was one of confusion. In the years since, that hasn’t changed.

People attached to telling children Santa Claus is real often complain I don’t get it. I don’t. It’s never been intuitive to me why telling someone things you know are false—not to safeguard their wellbeing or your own, but just to watch them smile on being duped—is cruel and degrading in principle but twee in one specific case. Learning that Father Christmas was a lie didn’t make me cry or act up, but lied to was exactly how I felt. This year my niece turned eight: being required to play along was hard, and I’ve known parents admit to being more conflicted than they let on.

When friends say stories of a man in a red suit—the other one—made Christmas magical, I think they mean that on some level, they knew makebelieve when they saw it, but that the power of ritual swept them up. I sympathise—all stories are enchantments, all words spells. The trouble is, Father Christmas was more than a story to me, more than something I half believed. I knew the tooth fairy was imaginary, that costumed men who gave us Dairy Milk on the last day of term were imposters—there was enough nudging and winking in each case—but as I saw it, the man himself was every bit as real as God.

Mum came to regret that particular literalism. ‘I made it into something it was never meant to be,’ she told me some years back. There are a lot of memes about Father Christmas and God, some better than others, but in my mind, they occupied exactly the same space. I was used to the idea whatever extraordinary things Mum spoke of must be true (and she spoke of far more extraordinary things than Christian children all receiving gifts on the same night)—to the idea holding extraordinary beliefs was itself virtuous, never more so than if hostile nonbelievers surrounded you.

It wasn’t simply that we were Christians: plenty of children raised in Christian homes are functionally able to distinguish makebelieve from sincere belief (supernatural or not) perfectly well. It was that Mum and her then-church practised an evangelicalism that never drew any such line. Magic, makebelieve, ritual, story, play—these were never acknowledged as mere suspensions of disbelief, or as a realm in which belief might constitute something subtly different. All beliefs were literal, and makebelieve itself was a dangerous and demon-haunted thing: thinking Halloween was only a game was how the enemy got you.

Atheists are often stereotyped as Philistines with one-dimensional worldviews and no grasp of aesthetics or ritual. That described my church upbringing more than it describes me. In my experience, letting stories be stories only strengthens their magic. Believing Santa Claus was real caused me to miss the beauty I now see in the leaving-out of a small sherry and a mince pie, and Mum’s prayers worked because of how she sang, not because she believed—because of a cupboard of secret things, a chair in which fantastic tales were told, and the first snowman in the world that never had to melt.

* * *

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The Magic Of Reality: What Growing Up Christian Had To Do With Believing In Santa
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The Trouble With Ed

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Even before the war they had played hide and seek. Lucy always discovered the best spots, and whenever Ed thought to trail her they sat conversing silently. Then Peter would use his giving-up voice, stricken with pretend grief and sure they must have died, and Lucy would begin to sob, run out and give the game away — Ed’s fingers folded into fists each time. They hadn’t been in London for the Blitz, but came home to its ruins eventually, and even after everything, there was a horrid beauty to it all, old hiding places gone, new ones waiting to be unearthed.

Ed’s shoulders sloped too much for his brother, and he had far too little time for sports and scavenging, too much for Greek heroes in books. Long before they put on fur coats they had been told to get along, but at school their mother wasn’t around. Stronger boys were how Ed learnt to negotiate, sometimes in front of Peter, sometimes not, but every so often the spite leaked out sideways, and Lucy couldn’t hide from that. Even long after the hatchet had been declared buried, Peter’s eyes blazed with indignation. Bastard. Backstabber. Judas.

Of course Peter had made high king, Peter who only ever needed to have been born first. (Lucy didn’t crave power, which was how she commanded it, but Ed and Susan would exchange a glance when Peter mocked her dreams of girls in strange, familiar clothes.) Mostly Ed’s good name took care of itself. When necessary he rode at Peter’s side, squashed or more often defused uprisings — bargaining, he was known to say, was all that justice was. Only now and then would a servant leave the room swearing Ed had quietly cursed. ‘Bloody Peter.’ ‘Bloody heroes.’ ‘That bloody lion.’

The witch had gutted him at Beruna, and that would have been that had Lucy been at all like him. How he’d clung on, Ed didn’t know, except that finding the stone knife where its last owner fell satisfied some queer part of him, and he’d held onto it. None of the others could look at the thing, but Susan seemed to have some sense of why he needed it. While Ed was being whipped on Christmas Day, each of them had received something — her horn and quiver, Lucy’s vial, Peter’s sword. It was said children who were bad never got anything, but in the end, Ed got the knife.

Read more.

* * *

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The Trouble With Ed

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

It’s common to be told that people who make religions look bad aren’t really part of them, and in particular that homophobes aren’t ‘real’ Christians—as well as that their views are a perversion of faith fuelled by denial of their own sexuality. At the moment, I’m working on a much longer piece than usual, so I’m going to do something unusual and post an extract from it about the problem I have with this.

Think about it for a second, and Christian homophobia being fuelled by queer shame is a shitty idea. It means believing not only that an inexplicable swell of queer people are born into Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches, loathing themselves for no particular reason, but that Quakers and Unitarians are progressive because so many more of them are straight, and that our problems would be solved if straight people could just teach queer people not to be so homophobic. Historically and politically, it blames us for our own murder.

It also means thinking that by sheer coincidence, cultures in northern Europe, Africa and India where bisexuality was the norm developed a sudden angst about it, ex nihilo, at the exact moment Christian missionaries arrived. It means thinking that Rome’s upper classes became squicked out by their previously open sex lives the moment Constantine became emperor; that in the generation gap between the first Christians and their parents, condemning same sex acts went from being a wholly religious act to being nothing to do with religion.

Were the church fathers Christian in name only? Was Constantine less than a ‘real’ Christian? Were Paul, Peter and all popes since, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King? Were the missionaries whose schools and hospitals are points of pride? Or is ‘real’ Christianity a drawbridge that goes up and down, alternately admitting and excluding these people, raised and lowered for the comfort of people who denounce some homophobes then venerate others, only denying their membership of the faith when it’s expedient?

I don’t say this as an atheist with an agenda, or somebody opposed to progressive religious tendencies. I say it as a queer person to whom it doesn’t feel progressive to care about homophobia only when it makes being a Christian uncomfortable, or to be more concerned about the threat it poses to your faith’s PR than to my life and the lives of my friends. All Christians are real Christians; all Muslims are real Muslims; all atheists are real atheists. Deal with it.

* * *

I tell stories and write a blog. If you enjoy my work,
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At the moment, I’m also holding a fundraiser.
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Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians

It’s common to be told that people who make religions look bad aren’t really part of them, and in particular that homophobes aren’t ‘real’ Christians—as well as that their views are a perversion of faith fuelled by denial of their own sexuality. At the moment, I’m working on a much longer piece than usual, so I’m going to do something unusual and post an extract from it about the problem I have with this.

Think about it for a second, and Christian homophobia being fuelled by queer shame is a shitty idea. It means believing not only that an inexplicable swell of queer people are born into Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches, loathing themselves for no particular reason, but that Quakers and Unitarians are progressive because so many more of them are straight, and that our problems would be solved if straight people could just teach queer people not to be so homophobic. Historically and politically, it blames us for our own murder.

It also means thinking that by sheer coincidence, cultures in northern Europe, Africa and India where bisexuality was the norm developed a sudden angst about it, ex nihilo, at the exact moment Christian missionaries arrived. It means thinking that Rome’s upper classes became squicked out by their previously open sex lives the moment Constantine became emperor; that in the generation gap between the first Christians and their parents, condemning same sex acts went from being a wholly religious act to being nothing to do with religion.

Were the church fathers Christian in name only? Was Constantine less than a ‘real’ Christian? Were Paul, Peter and all popes since, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King? Were the missionaries whose schools and hospitals are points of pride? Or is ‘real’ Christianity a drawbridge that goes up and down, alternately admitting and excluding these people, raised and lowered for the comfort of people who denounce some homophobes then venerate others, only denying their membership of the faith when it’s expedient?

I don’t say this as an atheist with an agenda, or somebody opposed to progressive religious tendencies. I say it as a queer person to whom it doesn’t feel progressive to care about homophobia only when it makes being a Christian uncomfortable, or to be more concerned about the threat it poses to your faith’s PR than to my life and the lives of my friends. All Christians are real Christians; all Muslims are real Muslims; all atheists are real atheists. Deal with it.

* * *

I tell stories and write a blog. If you enjoy my work,
consider
becoming a patron or leaving a tip.

At the moment, I’m also holding a fundraiser.
You can read more about that here.

Follow my tweets at @AlexGabriel,
keep up with
my writing, or get in touch.

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians

Everything I Wrote In November 2015

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You might have noticed that since June, I’ve been using Patreon to get paid for the writing I do. (Patreon, if you haven’t heard of it, lets readers pay content creators a sum of their choice per post, up to a monthly maximum—for example, $3 per post up to $15 in any given month.) When I first started using it, one of my pledges was to post at least twice a week, or eight times a month. For lots of reasons, including homelessness and a bout of ill mental health, it took me till November to make good on that, and now that I’m being as productive as I want to be, I’d like to do some self-promotion again.

One thing I’ve found with Patreon is that it pushes me to write longer, more serious posts I might not have otherwise: getting even a few dozen dollars per post from a small group of patrons has focused me on content I really care about. I mean to keep going in that vein, and for this blog to continue to grow—November was its biggest month ever, largely due to me getting paid enough to concentrate on it—I need to keep up the momentum, so I’m going to try and get into the habit of advertising. In case you missed any, this post is a recap of everything I wrote last month, and I’m hoping to publish a compendium like it every month, partly as a portfolio, partly to motivate myself. Continue reading “Everything I Wrote In November 2015”

Everything I Wrote In November 2015

Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism

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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.

Continue reading “Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism”

Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism

What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

Greta has a post from last week on social media and the risks of reading-in — how it’s possible to conclude too much from who someone else adds or blocks, or what they like or share; why guessing their motives is a bad idea.

I mostly agree with the thrust of it. On being unfriended, I’ve learnt not to assume the worst — I also have closeted friends whose parents monitor their feeds, and I’ve had my online presence dissected creepily. I doubt I’d go as far as Greta does — I check my mutual friends with strangers who add me, gauge who people on Twitter are by who else they follow, delete contacts who share posts from Breitbart uncritically. (There are things there’s no good reason to Like.) Reading the Facebook leaves is like reading body language — not bunk, but only reliable if you know someone, or when there isn’t room for doubt.

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson complains people made assumptions about her motives on Facebook before she left this site. (‘Greta herself blocked me’, she writes, followed by the words ‘presumably’ and ‘because’.) To quote one preoccupied-sounding commenter,

Alex Gabriel spent an entire blog post of several hundred words to say, basically, ‘I can’t point to anything wrong that Ophelia has said or done, but I really think she’s up to something . . . the entire thing was composed of exactly what [Greta] is now lamenting.

That post — the one post, hitherto, in which I ever criticised Ophelia — seems to provoke similar thoughts in her. It was, she wrote in late August, ‘not a matter of disagreeing with me, [but] of sniffing out my heresy and denouncing it.’

I pointed, it turns out, to a long list of things she did that readers were interpreting — not, I thought, irrationally — as trans-antagonistic. Namely:

  • Treating requests she acknowledge Julie Bindel’s public, well documented, continuing anti-trans history as demands for cultish, unquestioning belief.
  • Writing ‘I’m not all that interested in the exact quantity of transphobia contained in Julie Bindel’ when commenters brought it up.
  • Uncritically citing anti-trans activists ‘quite a lot’.
  • Uncritically sharing an anti-trans author’s attack on the word ‘TERF’.
  • Displaying more hostility to trans commenters than transphobic ones.
  • Displaying no regret on misgendering a trans commenter.
  • Responding to Vanity Fair’s ‘Call me Cait’ story solely by objecting to Caitlyn Jenner being told ‘You look great’ by staff at Jezebel.

Anyway.

Between the post and her comment section Ophelia says this (dashes added for readability):

Greta was vocally and explicitly happy to see the way our colleagues were trashing me on their blogs, partly on the basis of that creepy intrusive secret-police-like trawling through my Facebook. On the back channel — I think I blogged about it shortly before I left the network — Lilandra had the bright idea of starting a thread with my name in the subject line suggesting we all discuss me, so several people jumped at the opportunity to rip me to shreds. Ed said let’s not do this this is a really bad idea, but they ignored him. I said using our blogs to shred each other wasn’t a fabulous idea and I’d assumed we all knew not to do that. That’s when Greta made her brave stand for the importance of using our blogs to shred each other.

I have a few things to say about this. Continue reading “What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs”

What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

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. Continue reading “The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct”

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

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. Continue reading “The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct”

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

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.

Paris/Baghdad/Beirut, November 2015