Penance

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.

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

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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

Mum

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”

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.

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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.

‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People

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‘I don’t really understand what biphobia is,’ a partner told me once. It was, he felt, a useless word. ‘If you’re a male bisexual, you’re normal except attracted to guys. The only people who object are homophobes.’ Like so many gay men, he thought the bi label was a way of clinging to a comfortable life, one foot in the straight camp for appearances’ sake. ‘You seriously think it’s harder to come out as bi?’ he asked when I said it had been for me. ‘Then you have no idea what you’re talking about.’ (‘To say it’s worse for bi people,’ he added later on, ‘I just found ignorant.’)

In the US, a quarter more bi men than gay men live in poverty, while fifty percent more abuse alcohol and contemplate suicide. Three times as many bi women as lesbians are raped, a third more abused by partners, two thirds more severely beaten by them. (Their numbers are also far worse than straight women’s.) Bi men are sexually assaulted more than gay men are and abused by their partners fifty percent more. Police attack three times as many bisexuals as monosexuals, and health workers place bi patients at risk of undiagnosed STIs by asking about their activities with one sex and not the other.

I could have offered statistics like those about our comfier, more normal lives. Instead I talked about my own. When the other guy informed people he was gay, how many told him he was lying or in denial? How many other gay men said he was untrustworthy and spread diseases? How many people said he should make up his mind, or wasn’t really gay? That he was misleading partners and making things more difficult for real gay people? How many kept calling him bi, despite him saying he wasn’t? ‘Wait,’ he replied. ‘Your point is that people don’t believe you’re bisexual? Why do they have to?’

If he wanted to understand biphobia, I said, he only had to listen to himself—but he insisted people not understanding something didn’t mean they were bigoted. ‘Instead of blaming them and calling them biphobic, it’s important to educate them. When the reaction is aggressive and defensive, of course people start to form their own weird opinions. You think every time someone makes a stupid comment about gays, I should just freak out? How is that supposed to help? It won’t change their mind. I’d rather stay put and explain. If you don’t have any patience, don’t moan about people not getting it!’

It’s conceivable people who disparage bisexuals should be able to reason for themselves, but cis gay men regularly tell LBTs to pipe down and be more polite, that they didn’t get where they are today with confrontation, anger or entitlement; that we won’t make strides of our own till we accept we owe people an education who demean and degrade us nonstop. Forget Stonewall and who was there, that bi people threw bricks at police while homophiles told them and poor, black, brown, Jewish and trans queers to be quiet: abandoning self-respect was what Pride was all about.

Anger has changed my mind plenty of times, and I know mine has changed other people’s—alienating those you care about, it transpires, is a good incentive to adjust how you act—but when at-risk groups are told we need to school people who treat us badly, it’s always as if there’s no overlap. Bi people need to educate gay and straight people, not to scream at them. Trans people need to educate cis people, not to bully them. Black people need to educate white people, not to frighten them. People with disabilities need to educate people without, not throw a fit. It’s always one or the other.

I told the other bloke what people like me tell people like him, that it isn’t marginalised people’s duty to be teachers—but I think there’s another issue here. Lots of us want to be educators, and we know the difference between being listened to and being talked over, between salient, responsive questions and irrelevant ones—between privileged people who know where their knowledge ends and those who speak like they know more than us. We know the ones who value our input are the ones who know we don’t owe it to them. We know the ones who order us to school them are never the ones who want to learn.

Here’s my experience: when someone I’ve called ignorant demands I educate them, they don’t want me to be patient—they want me to have infinite patience, to listen to them affably, without anger, however they behave, and to treat anything they say as valuable. They want me to teach them what I know, but not to act like I know more than them. They don’t want me to assert any control of the discussion, to set limits on what I’m willing to explain, on where and when and for how long, or to impose any kind of boundaries. When they tell me to educate them, what they mean is ‘Shut up, I’m talking.’

Professional educators—teachers, lecturers, instructors, sports coaches, health experts—are authorities in their field who expect to be listened to, not talked over. Good educators expect students to learn on their own instead of being spoonfed; they reward some contributions more than others and impose boundaries on how their students act. Bad educators display infinite patience; good ones are patient but know where to draw the line, as well as how and when to get angry. Good ones nurture relationships with their students but allow bad attitudes to harm them.

When I request input from someone with a background I don’t share—legal advice, tech help, perspective from a black or trans colleague—that’s the kind of relationship I want. When people ask for my input, I sense it’s what they want as well. When I needed an education in the past, getting kicked round the room for being ignorant was a pretty effective one—but when people who’ve just insulted me tell me I’m obliged to educate them, I don’t think an educator is what they want at all. I think what they want is an enabler and a doormat, and I have better things to do than supply one.

And that partner of mine? We didn’t last.

‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People

The Art Of Being Okay

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Yesterday wasn’t the best day. When I woke up, something was stuck at the back of my mouth, tickling my tongue and making me retch. On peering in, I found my uvula was the size of a wax crayon, pointing forward instead of down. Being December 25, all drop-in centres near me were shut, as was the tube, so getting an anti-inflammatory took four hours’ trudging through rain in shoes with holes in them. My feet are still blistered, and I spent the rest of the day alone in a bedsit with no oven. I could probably be forgiven for being fed up—but strangely enough, I’m doing okay.

There’s a popular view that the word ‘fine’ is meaningless, that being fine, thank you when a friend asks after you is a hollow nicety. I wrote about depression back in June, and I’ve heard other people with it say as much. That isn’t my experience at all. When your two basic emotional states are ‘at risk of self-harm’ and ‘not at risk’, fine is the best you can hope for. Fine is precious. I sometimes find myself saying my symptoms come and go. In fact they only alternate: most days, when depression isn’t making me want to die, it makes me more reliably okay than almost anyone I know.

Friday was a crap day to cap off a shit year—a year of family harassment, homelessness and political hopelessness. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, and one does one’s best: I lost family and friends in the spring, watched the left lose in May, lost a place to live in July, lost money in winter. (Thanks, all who helped.) For once, I haven’t managed to lose faith. At the moment, I feel much better than I did in June. What living with depression means for me is that my emotions aren’t linked to external events, that how okay I am doesn’t depend on what happens to me. I’m rarely happy, but I’m almost always fine. Continue reading “The Art Of Being Okay”

The Art Of Being Okay