Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

Finally—I’m going to let Niki speak in her own words.

Audio sources are an interview on Trav Mamone’s Bi Any Means podcast and her talk at Skepticon 8.

Transcript below the fold.

Continue reading “Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016”

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

Remembering Niki Massey

Josiah Mannion/Biblename Photo

‘The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’
—Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’

‘It’s not just unqualified will, as Schopenhauer
would have it, that makes us what we are; nor
is it the will to power, […] but something deeper,
of which the will to power is merely a manifestation.
We want power because we want to matter.’

—Rebecca Goldstein, ‘The Mattering Map’

Most of a year ago, half a dozen of us decided to set up this site. When the time came to discuss who we wanted here, Niki Massey’s name came up immediately. I didn’t know Niki that well, but we’d tweeted, and I was one of the people who spoke to her about blogging with us. If I had any doubts about the need for a network like ours, that conversation changed my mind. Like many of the godless people you don’t hear about, Niki, who had multiple disabilities and was cut off from family, lived without much social support. As she put it: ‘I’m poor, I’m black, I’m an atheist. I exist.’

In her spare time, Niki escorted patients outside abortion clinics, where the religious right did their best to obstruct access. Last November, a man in Colorado killed three people at a Planned Parenthood branch: a day later, Niki went back to work. In a talk at Skepticon the same month, she’d spoken about volunteering and how others could get into it. ‘People say thank you,’ she said at the end. ‘They say “You’re super brave for doing this.” But to me it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like something a decent person does.’

Niki died yesterday. None of us know quite how or why—several conditions she had could have been life-threatening, and her circumstances left her at risk in other ways. What I know is that the friend I last spoke to on Thursday is silent now, and that someone here yesterday is gone today.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote that the art of losing wasn’t hard. Before last night, I never quite got her last line, ‘Write it’ intruding suddenly on the sentence. Today I’m trying to write, and the violent grammar of death is all too real. In her life and her work, Niki fought cruelty in all its guises: without her every fight feels harder, and the art of losing is much too hard.

Next time someone calls atheists small minded Philistines, tell them who Niki Massey was. Niki didn’t expect an afterlife, nor do I think we’ll meet again—to my relief, I realise I don’t wish I did—but I suppose she’d like the thought of resting in power. After the deaths of Jamar Clark and Tamir Rice, she posted about black lives mattering. It’s safe to say part of what cut hers short was that Niki was many things deemed insignificant—not only black, but fat, disabled, queer and proudly, unabashedly unchurched.

If the will to matter is at the centre of what humans do, Niki devoted her own life to making other people’s mean something. She’ll be remembered for that fight, and for the work—write it—she leaves the rest of us.

Bye, Niki. You mattered.

Remembering Niki Massey


You were in a café today,
taller and trying for a beard, eight years
since I looked on from Mum’s passenger seat
as her twelve cylinder roar sent you flying
from the mirror across your parents’ drive.

That more than one of us got out alive
to touch back down again the other side
of puberty comes as no small relief—
a strange thing then that this morning,
all I could manage was to order tea.

Had I said anything,
you might have told me I wasn’t to blame,
but please consider this my way
of asking you to forgive me.


James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes


If you’ve spent time on the Patheos atheist channel, or hang with the same people I do, you might have read Temple of the Future, James Croft’s blog about humanism and ethics. I’ve known James for about as long as I’ve been in the blogosphere myself—we’ve spoken together and write about many of the same things, often disagreeing fiercely—and last autumn he hired me to give his blog a new look. I’ve been worn out over the last ten months, stretched thin between a day job and half a dozen other projects and creatively tired—all credit goes to James for showing me far more patience than I deserved—but this week I at last signed off on it.
Continue reading “James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes”

James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes

Why I’m Ditching My Blog’s Comment Section

You may have seen a recent post at Brute Reason where Miri announced she was dropping her comment section. Here’s something you don’t know: when we were building the Orbit early this year, I talked about wanting to do the same. Since launch I’ve been going back and forth on it—a couple of months away from the blog made it hard to know what I’d be missing—but now the gears are turning again, I’m doing it. My reasons are completely different from Miri’s.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know my comments were never especially busy. Only the occasional post received more than a few, and those posts were the controversial ones. This isn’t to do with pageviews: even pieces that got many thousands of hits never got comments in corresponding numbers. Small posts got individual messages that rarely demanded replies. Big posts sparked arguments that weren’t to do with me. Both meant keeping up with new notifications.

I know a lot of people with active comment sections. Most started blogging before social media arrived, and have maintained the regulars who found them when comment sections were where you reacted to things. I started this blog in 2013. Since then, other platforms—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit—have been where people react to my posts. I’m ditching comments for the same reason as more and more big media sites: I don’t believe comment sections are the future.

My author section below gives my email and social media links for a reason. Like most commentators, I like interacting with interested people. I don’t consider it the function of my blog. For many writers I’m lucky to know, blogging works as a dialogue, with readers’ comments part of the process. Especially as someone who experienced abuse, part of what makes writing therapeutic for me is that my blog isn’t a dialogue—it’s a space devoted to my own voice. Round here, I’m talking.

If you’ve been a commenter here, chances are I wasn’t paying much attention. Having designed posts to stand on their own, the comments never felt as relevant as tweets and emails do. You probably deserve better than that. Over the last week, I’ve received a lot of messages in those places, and they’re where I’m likeliest to respond. I’ll also say what Miri said: if you’re one of my patrons, or you’d like to be, let’s get to know each other more. Unlike my blog, Patreon has comments, and I’ll read them.

That’s all there is to this. I’m not closing comments because of any I’ve received, or because I’m stressed out (not that those aren’t perfectly good reasons). The comment section just isn’t why I’m here. I don’t write because I want to defend my opinions. I don’t write because I want to mediate other people’s arguments. I don’t write because I want to manage comments. I write because I want to write. I’m going to focus on that.

Why I’m Ditching My Blog’s Comment Section


When the council finally housed my mum, she got a place where every room had woodchip wallpaper. I was too young when we moved in to remember it now, but I’m not convinced the building was fit for residence. Scraping together the money and tools to redecorate took her years, but when I was seven Andy from church steamed the stuff off, only to find an inch of yellow mildew underneath, coating the walls like custard coloured phlegm. The two of them spent a weekend ridding the bathroom, living room and downstairs loo of it. Elsewhere, the woodchip stayed.

Mum did the house up anyway, painting over it when necessary. For an amateur armed only with half-empty paint tins from fellow churchgoers’ attics, she worked wonders. The living room became sunshine yellow, with crystals that covered it in rainbows on bright mornings. The toilet was tattooed with trompe l’œil ivy, and upstairs she sponged white paint onto blue to make our bathroom wall look like the sky. My sister’s room was styled after the Arabian Nights, wine coloured walls and wicker rocking chair, glow-in-the-dark stars on a dark ceiling. Then there was my room.

For one reason or another, no one ever photographed my bedroom. Woodchip or not, I wish I could convey how brilliant it was. Knowing full well that Aslan was Jesus, I’d powered through the Narnia series, and Mum covered the walls with scenery from their fictional world, painstakingly recreating the Pauline Baynes illustrations. Next to my bed were a broken stone table and Cair Paravel, and behind the headboard white cliffs sloped into a sea that circled the room, a tiny Dawntreader in the distance. Strangely, of all of it, my most vivid memory is of the texture of a shelf.

There wasn’t much space in that room—clothes went in drawers under the bed, board games into spare crevices in the bookcase, toys into a giant wicker toy chest of my sister’s. Once the walls were painted, Andy from church added a wall shelf a couple of feet above the bed, which Mum and I varnished with only enough oil for one side. Underneath, the wood stayed sandpapery: I still remember its roughness, running my fingers across it at night, and how it grazed my scalp when Mum lifted me off the bed throat first. I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to kill you. Continue reading “Mum”


Atheists: Here’s Another Reason You Need To Book Women At Conferences

As I write this, the Seventh Annual Orange Country Freethought Alliance Conference—so good they named it lots—is underway. I know this because over the last hour, friends have been sharing an image showcasing (if not advertising) the conference’s lineup of speakers. According to the ad, there are twelve people speaking at this year’s OCFAC. In stark contrast with the county itself, all of them appear to be white, while in contrast with planet Earth, eleven appear to be men. I’m not here to crucify OCFAC’s organisers—there is, however, a point I’d like to make.

I’ve written quite a lot about growing up in the church. Unlike California, my town was far from racially diverse, but church taught me a lot about gender and visibility. Since the eighteen hundreds, my town—Keswick—has hosted an evangelical convention, now one of the world’s most prominent and influential, which served as Billy Graham’s road to Damascus and gave birth to the idea of let-go-and-let-God. In 2010, twelve thousand people—two and a half times the local population—attended the Keswick Convention, and its grip is as strong today as when I was a child.

Here is the Keswick Convention’s lineup of speakers this year.

Here is OCFAC’s.

Why do I bring this up? In the churches I belonged to, women did everything. I’ve forgotten most of their names, but remember Margaret who served tea and coffee, Hillary who ran Sunday school and Lynn who ran the crèche, Doreen who sent shoeboxes to orphanages abroad, Gill the receptionist, Donna the keyboard player, Lizzie who made soup for the church café, Lynda who sold visitors sandwiches from the church bus. Sara, who was my headteacher. My sister, a missionary. My mum, who sold conventioners traybakes to make ends meet.

In those churches, women did everything—except speak publicly.

This year, the Keswick Convention has thirty-one speakers, of whom four are women. In parts of the local Christian landscape, even their inclusion provokes outrage, and one church my mum belonged to was part of a worldwide network with a firm line against women preaching. Churches today are divided on female leadership—books on family members’ shelves call it an act of Satanic violence—but even those which now employ female clergy obeyed Saint Paul for centuries, with women omnipresent but unacknowledged, voices unheard and work ignored.

I got out of the church, and while the women in my family stayed, millions of others have got out too. They’re getting out, and they’ll continue to—in greater and greater numbers if current trends continue. I know dozens of women who’ve escaped the church, and work with some; others are writing books about the ‘exodus’ of women from churches in the US. Still others will just be finding their feet, looking for a place to land after letting to go of God—looking for friends, for books about people like them, for new communities and secular conferences to attend.

My town’s evangelical convention has thirty-one speakers, four of whom appear to be women. That’s just under thirteen percent. The Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference has twelve speakers, just one of whom is a woman. That’s eight percent. It’s one thing to spout buzzwords like diversity, but here’s the question I’m burning to ask. When women from churches like my hometown’s break free of faith and, in search of community, glance toward us, what do they see? Are we better than those churches, or just more of the same, even—whisper it—worse?

If secular conferences have fewer women speakers than churches with thousand-year histories of banning women from public speaking, what are we telling female escapees of those churches about the opportunities for participation our community offers them? This isn’t about the sheen of diversity. It’s about what kind of movement we are. Do we want women fleeing churches like mine to know we have their backs—or that, like those churches, we want them there, working silently and behind the scenes, but never acknowledged or listened to, paid or let on the stage?

There are other reasons to invite female speakers, and plenty of women are qualified. There are reasons to care about visibility in its other forms, particularly, in OCFAC’s case, race. Those have been enummerated in other posts by authors better qualified than me, and I expect they’ll continue to be. This post isn’t an exhaustive treatise on why atheists should invite women to speak at cons—but if you’re wondering why you need to, here’s one answer from me: because when I look at this ad, I see the church where my mum never got the chance to preach.

Atheists: Here’s Another Reason You Need To Book Women At Conferences

Four Things The Orbit Is Doing Differently, And Why We Founded It

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably noticed this blog has moved. Until Monday, when this site went live, it was hosted at Freethought Blogs, as were about half the other blogs here. I’ve said my goodbyes to FTB, where I was fortunate enough to spend three years. Now it’s my turn, and my pleasure, to welcome you to the Orbit. If you haven’t already, see our public press release; then read our About page, then watch our video on Kickstarter, where we reached our first goal in just over a day. If you’re still hungry, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

A lot’s been happening these past few days, and we’re still scrambling to catch up. In particular, there have been questions about why some of us left Freethought Blogs to create this site, what our relationship will be and what the differences between us are. Colleagues of mine, Heina and Stephanie among them, have already gone some way to fleshing out the details, and it’s worth noting that ex-FTBers constitute only one part of our membership—but since it’s true that we were the ones who decided to launch our own site, I want to give my own answers to those questions.

To begin with, the Orbit is an independent site. Those of us who’ve moved here from FTB are proud of our work there and want to continue it here, but the association is informal: we’re less a sister site and more of a mutant offspring. As for why we decided to start our own site, the short version is that a few months back, when conversations about updating FTB’s internal structure took place, several of us came to the realisation simultaneously that our ideal network would be easier to build from scratch than to mould by reforming a site with its own history and machinery.

The more we talked about the site we wanted to be, the clearer it was that our best moments were when we didn’t copy FTB, and that it wasn’t the site most writers at Freethought Blogs had signed up to. We didn’t want colleagues to have to choose between leaving a reshaped FTB and staying on a site no longer resembling the one they’d joined, so we made our own plans. If Friendly Atheist readers were wondering, the reason Pharyngula isn’t hosted here is that a network cofounded by PZ Myers already exists: our network isn’t that network, and it works differently.

With that in mind, here are some ways the Orbit differs from other sites. Continue reading “Four Things The Orbit Is Doing Differently, And Why We Founded It”

Four Things The Orbit Is Doing Differently, And Why We Founded It

Let’s Talk About The Other Atheist Movement

Let’s talk about the other atheist movement.

I get it if you’d rather I discussed the brouhahas—the CFI/Dawkins Foundation merge, Richard’s second epistle to the Muslima, that chain of tweets, that disinvitation. I could do that, and maybe make a decent fist of it—could give you another flowchart, another acrostic, some more zingers. Right now, I just don’t care. There are other posts to be read; there will be other times to mock the movement Dawkins inspired, one that often insists it isn’t a movement, which hasn’t moved since 2006, but sits stickily back, wanking to the thought of its own rightness. Progressives spill a great deal of ink over that movement, talk that’s as cheap as it is lucrative. I want to talk about the other one.

Over the last twenty-four hours, with media fixated on Dawkins’ absence from one upcoming convention, atheists have been gathered at another in Houston. The Secular Social Justice conference, sponsored jointly by half a dozen orgs, highlights ‘the lived experiences, cultural context, shared struggle and social history of secular humanist people of color’. Sessions address the humanist history of hip hop, the new atheism’s imperialist mission and the lack of secular scaffolds for communities of colour in the working class US, whether for black single mothers or recently released incarcerees. Perhaps we could talk about this?

‘When African-Americans across the economic spectrum look to social welfare,’ convenor Sikivu Hutchinson writes, ‘they are more often than not tapping into . . . faith-based institutions. . . . Atheists who bash religion but aren’t about the business of building [alternatives] are just making noise.’ ‘There are compelling reasons’, Hutchinson wrote last autumn, ‘for black women to be attracted to atheism. The stigma of public morality, fueled by white supremacy and patriarchy, has always come down more heavily on black women. Religious right policies gutting reproductive health care disproportionately affect poor and working class black women.’

I’d like to talk about that too—and if the editors who put Dawkins in charge now want to milk their monstrous creation, there’s a lot more I want to talk about. Continue reading “Let’s Talk About The Other Atheist Movement”

Let’s Talk About The Other Atheist Movement

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

David Bowie was wonderful. He was also an abuser. How do we handle that?

* * *

I dreamt about David Bowie last night. I forget the details, but I woke up thinking I’d write a post about how he seemed to regenerate rather than age. (The first Bowie was Cockney and a mod, the second was Byronesque, et cetera.) The first thing I saw on starting my computer was a friend’s Facebook post: ‘I don’t think I ever really believed it was possible.’ The headline underneath took me a moment to digest: ‘David Bowie, the Legendary Musician, Has Died at 69.Oh no. Don’t say it’s true.

While there was me, I’d always assumed, there would Bowie. At eight, a clip of Ziggy’s arm round Mick Ronson was a queer wake-up call, and later ‘Life on Mars’ would help keep suicide at bay. Having died three short days after a new album’s release, it seems music sustained him too, and it hurts to have been denied the songs the twelfth or thirteenth Bowie would have made. After ten years away, The Next Day and Blackstar were considered two of his best records, and it would be a fair statement that he meant far more to me than any other singer.

It would also be fair to call him a child rapist. (Details ahead.)

Bowie did bad things alright. In the seventies he fixated on Nazis, calling Hitler one of the first rock stars and himself a believer in fascism—a phase which, to be fair, he grew out of and came to call ghastly. More disturbing are the stories of hotel room threesomes with fourteen year old girls. Former groupie Lori Mattix describes Bowie disrobing and having her wash him in the bath before ‘devirginising’ her. Both Mattix and the friend of hers who joined them later had been plied with drugs.

It’s hard to know what to do with this knowledge except rehearse it. I know the above to be true, according to Mattix’s nostalgic account, and that it deserves to be remembered. I also know without Bowie, my own obit would have been written long ago, and I can’t help but remember that too. How do you find room in one eulogy for both those facts? Just for today, I’ll mourn the hero I saw in Bowie, thankful on behalf of the kid who needed all those songs; tomorrow and the next day I’ll let one more hero go. That’s the best I can manage—sorry if it’s not enough.

It’s the legend more than the man I’m grieving in the end, the performances that have stayed with me. ‘Starman’, aforementioned, on Top of the Pops, a Technicolor explosion in a monochrome world. ‘Footstompin’’ on Dick Cavett’s programme, Bowie’s mic trained on joyous, gyrating Ava Cherry. ‘Under Pressure’, where Annie Lennox stares undiluted lust at him after that last breathy note. ‘Heroes’ live in Berlin, where Bowie’s voice rises over six minutes from a mumble to a shout. And then, of course, this week, the video to ‘Lazarus’.

You wouldn’t call it a live act, but surely that’s the point. How much sense it makes now, that song that was so inscrutable days ago, the deathbed pose, title and lines about release, even the rush to productivity between this album and the last, the decision not to tour or perform. Unmissable as it is in hindsight—how visible the cancer’s impact is, quite suddenly—no one took ‘Lazarus’ literally because no one imagined Bowie could die. How unlike anybody else, how entirely like him, to stage his own death as performance art. Now ain’t that just like me?

Hard to think someone who did that could have much faith in any afterlife. (Bowie, for his part, called himself ‘not quite an atheist’.) I don’t often wish I believed in one, and it’s hard to wish heaven on a man with his history, but at eight I longed to travel to Ziggy’s world. It hurts to know for the first time that where he is, I can’t follow. But I do live in David Bowie’s world—the world where everyone followed his tune, where he was sometimes a hero, sometimes a monster, always singular. I don’t feel good about all of that. All the same, I’m glad it was my world too.

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

* * *

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David Bowie, 1947-2016.