If You're Only In Atheism To Tear Others Down

It turns out there’s another atheism I don’t like. (If you’re missing a context here, consult the last post on this blog, about atheist activists who deserve more press than Richard Dawkins.) I wrote last Halloween about why I need this community, how focusing exclusively on the Dawkbros makes life harder for progressives who depend on an atheist movement. There’s only one school of atheist thought I hate more than the angry white male one, and I hate it far more: it’s the approach that slams organised atheism but shows no interest in making it work. I’m taking about faitheists.

Around this time year, when Chapel Hill antitheist Craig Stephen Hicks shot his three Muslim neighbours dead, a slew of posts appeared in part of the atheist blogosphere, claiming their authors had been proven right: new atheism was irretrievably terrible, antireligious movements unsalvageable. The triple murder of Deah Barakat and Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha had everything to do with our community—chillingly, Hicks and I had a number of mutual Facebook friends, and I’ve written plenty about his kind of politics—but it didn’t prove anything about religion being good or bad.

Since today’s atheist movement took off, its ideas have directly brought about human deaths exactly once. Every day, religious ideas kill thousands of people. (Fasting. Denial of medicine. Genital cutting. Suicide. Sectarian violence. Execution.) That doesn’t alter the problem of racism in atheism, or mean Hicks isn’t our reponsibility—but it does highlight the double standard of those who blamed antitheism itself for the shootings. When movement atheism has problems, they are invariably inherent; religions’ problems are all extrinsic, with no import on the value of faith.

More regularly than I’d like, I get mistaken for someone hostile to the atheist movement, a Chris Stedman or CJ Werleman. When I roll my own eyes at the Dawkbros, it’s because I need a godless community—because my atheist movement is about helping survivors of spiritual abuse, giving apostates safe places, fighting the exploitation of children; about secular mental health support, civil rights work and social provision. I take on infighting because it’s necessary, because I’m invested in building the environment without which I and others can’t manage.

The people who used Chapel Hill as one more excuse to tear atheism down? I’ve never seen them doing that work. When I look at any of them, I don’t see people building a better movement—or to build anything. I never see them highlighting the parts of our community that deserve praise, or holding religion’s feet to the fire. I see beneficiaries of exceptionalism, pandering to anti-atheist sentiment, signing book deals with religious presses, appearing on Fox News, chewing the fat with believers about how vile the nasty, movement atheists are while letting religion off every hook.

I don’t know what the faitheists are here for. It’s hard enough building an antitheism that isn’t terrible without being erased—hard enough fighting the Dawkbros, making the case for an atheist movement progressives respect, without having one’s work pissed on—but I don’t know what their investment is in criticising a movement they treat as irredeemable; don’t know why they bother at all, except to cash cheques with the religious. Atheism matters to some of us, and our criticism is constructive. If others have nothing to contribute, I wish they’d just fuck off.

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If You're Only In Atheism To Tear Others Down

Inside Out: Nine Hours Homeless On The Streets Of London

There’s nothing like carrying everything you own to make snails seem nobler. It’s 3am, and having put my life into a rucksack weeks ago, I’m plodding homelessly across London without a place to crash. Pints of coffee are catching up with me, and unlike a snail, I don’t have the option of seeping fluid as I go. There are toilets, I realise, back at Charing Cross, but because I hate u-turns more than being illogical, I decide I’m bound to bump into some. I know I’ll regret it even as I make up my mind, and sure enough, by 4.30, my kidneys are in full revolt.

They’re unexpectedly fraught, public loos. I don’t have cause to think about them much, but toilets are where police target queer men, where trans people are beaten and harassed, where forgetting wheelchair users becomes a conscious choice. Not long ago they were segregated by race and class , and it’s only recently, here and there, that they’ve been gender specific. (Ladies’ rooms, Soraya Chemaly notes, are still designed for men.) Public toilets I learn tonight, are also being hit by austerity.

Over the last decade, half the country’s conveniences have shut, with one in seven of those in service in 2010 gone by 2013, sacrificed by impoverished councils. By the new year, 600 more are expected to have closed. It recently emerged that due to London’s shortage and contracts denying them breaks, drivers for private taxi firm Uber are forced to carry spare bottles. Like them, I’m finding there’s nowhere to stop: signs at Victoria point to an all night loo nearby, only for notices to say the building shut at six. Whatever cut caused this, it must have happened recently.

London’s streets are meant to be paved with filth  –  the reports about Uber even declare the capital awash with piss. What’s striking is, it’s not. This isn’t Paris, whose roads are hosed down every morning, or subsiding Berlin, under siege from its own sewage. For miles, traipsing down empty roads, not so much as a crisp packet blows by. London at this hour is a vacuum, sterile and quiet as the grave, and somewhere in the contours of my spine, this bothers me.

Read more at Novara.

Inside Out: Nine Hours Homeless On The Streets Of London

My Grandmother Used Food As A Weapon

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Since the god I believed in died, it’s my mum’s stories I’ve turned to. Her grandmother, one of the last Victorians, schooled her in Roma tradition while she was a child, and although Mum had swapped card readings for hymnbooks by the time I arrived, her touch for oral history remained. Numerous relatives, having wed and bred later than usual, died before I was born, but I met them all in bedtime stories: her father Bill, whose hair turned white when he abandoned ship in the North Sea and swam ashore; my other grandfather Silvestras, who lost a homeland to Stalin and countless shirt buttons to British beef; and my great grandmother herself, whose real name must have been Catherine but whom Mum always called Kitty. Lately, I’m remembering meals with my own grandmothers.

To understand my gran, you have to understand how she used food. Like many children born after the war, Mum spent her first holidays in the north, including by the sea. In my twenties, I heard about the aftermath of one such trip: on coming home, her mother sent her to a small boy who lived across the road, armed with a stick of rock and a smile. On unwrapping the gift, the boy found only a long and thin stone disguised with left over wrappers, and so began to cry. Loath as she was to acknowledge her older sister’s birth in a vardo, Gran was a storyteller too. Even in her nineties, fifty or sixty years later, serving the greedy boy over the street his just dessert was a favourite of hers. ‘That boy,’ Mum once replied with laser eyes, ‘was four years old.’

I’ve often wondered how Gran knew the boy was a glutton. At any rate, ‘very greedy‘ was the way he was always introduced. Not having lived with him, she could hardly have known how much he ate at mealtimes. Was it a sign of greed that he accepted a gift when she offered one, or that as a young child, he liked sweets? (In the fifties, before or shortly after rationing ended, an entire stick of rock must have been quite a prospect.) I can only think Gran had decided he looked greedy, being perhaps less of a rake than other council house kids on their street, and so needed to be punished. His sobbing done, she would insist ,the boy was given a real stick of rock. But did that make the trick more or less cruel? And if she thought he ate too much sugar in the first place, why give him more?

When Gran got married just after the war, she moved onto the road where Mum grew up, and where the two of us stayed roughly once a year. Even in her old age, Gran saw only so much of her daughter, and what interaction they had was strained. While it was a ten hour round trip, Mum’s stories make me think it was her choice to put three hundred miles between our childhoods. The Lakes, where she raised me, had been the site of other holidays, as well, she said, as her first encounter with God aged five, a happy interval in her upbringing by a man whose anger upturned furniture and a woman who heaped the blame on her. I often glimpsed a violent husband’s legacy in Gran, but nor did she seem to have been a bystander. ‘I will never understand that relationship,’ Mum told me once, voice far away.

For someone who detested greed, food was obligatory with Gran. On our visits, breakfast—tea, toast, fruit juice, butter and Oxford marmalade—was laid out every day, even though she knew very well that when Mum and I bothered with breakfast, we preferred to eat on our feet, cereal bowls in hand, and then be done with it. When Mum travelled to see her during my degree, Gran sweated over complex meals she’d been asked not to make, only to sulk when they went uneaten; when I avoided sandwich crusts aged six, she asked pointedly if I had weak teeth, and struggling with dessert meant scoldings about African children. Yet Gran was always quick to comment if she thought someone was overweight, and I can’t recall a time before Mum thought herself fat.

Gran’s recipes weren’t flash, but got results. I’ve never managed to match her pastry, but it was from her that I learnt how to work tomatoes into a quiche, and that baked spuds should be done in the oven, never microwaved. She cooked with skill, but never emotion: when she made food having been asked not to, you couldn’t say she did it for pleasure. Most goodies in her larder, it followed, came from the shops: cherry Bakewells, Blue Riband biscuits, soft scoop ice cream and assorted cakes. If you sat on her sofa long enough, these would be handed to you wordlessly between crosswords, summoned without proposal or request. I must have been five the first time I reached to take the plate and felt her iron grip on it. ‘I won’t let go,’ Gran announced to the room, ‘until he says thank you.’

Until my early teens, this too was a habit of hers, sporadic enough that I couldn’t preempt it. I never got why I was meant to say thank you before being passed the plate when every adult I’d observed did it just afterward, and it occurs to me in hindsight that since food had never been offered, just thrust at you, taking it at all was polite. Only when thirteen year old me quietly wrenched the china from her grasp did Gran desist, but in some ways the victory was hers. The entire exercise, I think, was about showing you were too rude to be trusted with a moment’s grace, just as the stick of rock had been to prove another boy greedy, and hours cooking unwanted meals were meant to prove her daughter ungrateful. Gran always needed someone to demean.

Because my other grandmother lived in a prefab too, her house was of the exact same design: on the ground floor, you could walk anticlockwise and pass through each room. As a result, my memories of eating with her play out like stage hands have redressed the set from the last scene. Her cooking was similar as well, dating from the heyday of roasts and rice pudding, but I think I preferred the things she made: salty boiled veg, cabbage better than you’d believe, dumplings and buttered potatoes cooked with mint leaves. Though she must have, I don’t recall her ever serving meat, except the only carnivorous meal I still miss, bacon and eggs with cheap English mustard, or, better still, brown sauce—something which, like the cook’s ash trays and unpronounced aitches, you never found at Gran’s.

I was fourteen, perhaps younger, the last time I saw Nan, who lived at the edge of the London sprawl. She’d have been in her mid seventies then. I don’t know whether we spoke on the phone later—only that in the summer of 06 her son, homeless after starting to hit the woman who’d replaced my mum, moved back into her house aged fifty-four. Not seeing him since has been no great despair, but often my thoughts wander to the woman I half knew, guessing whether she might still be around. Gran, ninety-three when I broke off contact, was a solid eight or nine years older, but salted veg, pork pies and fags must have evened the odds. When Nan’s husband died of a heart attack, their son apparently blamed her, and certainly he always made a point of her being fat, a fact that passed me by.

Nan’s maiden name was Ethel Robinson, more like a jazz singer’s than a housewife’s, and though Mum called her by her middle name, it’s stuck, symptom of some impulse to complete her like a half finished book. I don’t know if Nan drunk but guess she did, don’t know how she voted or which paper she read, though something tells me the Mirror; don’t know what she’d have made of having a bisexual grandson, but know she took a Soviet name in the Cold War, conceivably a sign she didn’t care what people thought. No one, however fond, saw Nan as a thinker, and she did seem at times as ignorant of children as of nutrition, but her heart managed to make up for it, and unlike Gran’s, her meals tasted of love. An ice cream cone or glass of pop sometimes meant welcome, sometimes sorry, but never obey.

In one of Mike Leigh’s plays, both of my grandmothers appear, one affected and snide, a bully and an unsuccessful snob, the other as transparently simple as she is kind. I sometimes wonder if like Angela, Nan was ever oblivious half on purpose—whether she really couldn’t see who her son was or overlooked it for the peace of mind. In any case, I’m convinced that deep down she was all right. It’s Mum’s stories of how well she and Gran got on that puzzle me—Gran, with whom nothing sweet was just dessert, who made food into a weapon and declared war at whim. Whatever she may not have known, Nan fed you because she understood children had to grow. Gran needed people she could belittle, and knew that small people were easiest.

They’re dead now, these people, to me if not altogether, and I don’t believe they’ll rise again in some far off place. If they survive, it’s in the convoy of stories that now stretches far back, past my mother and hers, then all those before and beyond, to unknown origins. There’s no reason I’m telling you of them except to keep it going, neither having nor wanting my own kids, and perhaps to serve justice of some kind on each of them: to honour Catherine, Ethel and my mum, whose histories deserve to be consumed; to tell on Bill, my dad and those like them, who fed on other people’s lives; and to bury my gran at long, long last, whose name no one will know and whose cruel trick proved all those years ago that now and then, what appears sweet belongs back in the ground.

My Grandmother Used Food As A Weapon

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.

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‘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.

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