Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism


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

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

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

Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

Continue reading “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

It’s not the case that where there’s smoke there’s fire – nonetheless, the two correlate strongly. The more people smell smoke, the wiser it is to investigate; the more you spot, the likelier you are to find something alight, and anyone so fire-agnostic they refuse to make enquiries till presented with a room in flames can reasonably be suspected of anything from ambivalence on fire safety to being a furtive arsonist.

Misogyny has been the great fire of atheism. 2012 saw a pitched fight for smoke detectors to be used at cons, in which, as thick plumes billowed from every window, DJ Grothe said TAM was totally fire-free, no one having caught so much as a whiff of smoke, and women shouldn’t assume too much from the sky high column of it over the building. Later, Reinhardt et al decided piles of soot and ash wherever some male skeptics went didn’t conclusively prove fire damage, and so there was no reason at all to check for any.

People who defend sexism tend to think there are only two ways to handle complaints: either with absolute credulity, treating women’s claims as infallible, or with absolute agnosticism, throwing out anything short of airtight legal proof. Women who file reports are said to want their word taken as law, but complaints are supposed to prompt investigations, not foreclose them. In the first instance, all most plaintiffs want is for their claims to be looked into – something an all-or-nothing epistemology prevents.

The agnostic response to bigotry says we can never know enough to act. If we don’t have all the facts, we have none; if not everything has been proved, nothing can be, and if the curtains haven’t yet caught fire, no amount of smoke is cause for action. Claims with mountains of evidence are dismissed before any can be sought, responsible parties painting requests for them to find things out as demands for unquestioning belief.

I bring this up because of late, I’ve seen Ophelia say similar things. Continue reading “Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia”

Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

In the first episode of Russell T Davies’ new drama Cucumber, middle aged Lance finds a much younger man in a nightclub who has no money and nowhere to spend the night. ‘You can stay at ours if you want to fuck,’ Lance tells him. ‘No hassle. Just sex with the both of us. And then you can stay the night.’

‘Yeah,’ the younger man replies, ‘that’s cool’ – but it’s clear, including to Lance’s uncomfortable partner Henry, that he’s ‘off his head’ on some substance or other, wide-eyed and slurring out fantastic images of kings and cowboy-men and nodding in and out of consciousness during their taxi ride. At their house, he appears not to register most of what Lance and Henry say; he walks off-balance and seems to have trouble standing up, sitting down at the first opportunity and collapsing half-asleep minutes later onto Lance’s bed. By the time Lance performs out-of-shot what looks and sounds like oral sex, he can no longer speak coherently. Five to ten onscreen minutes later, presumably once Lance has had anal sex with him as he says he means to (‘[He’s] gonna fuck my arse’), Henry brings police officers to the scene. The younger man, now fully naked and seemingly unaware of it, is no more lucid when they confront him, gripped in a haze of drug-induced visions with no idea what’s going on.

The above scenes, if anyone contests this description, can be viewed here.

There are two ways to argue what they show isn’t (at minimum attempted) rape. The first is to say the man Lance has sex with is lucid enough to consent to it – in which case, you’ve the narrative above to explain. The second is to say consent doesn’t require lucidity – in which case, the Sexual Offences Act disagrees, deeming consent impossible if ‘by reason of drink, drugs, sleep, age or mental disability [someone is] unaware of what [is] occurring’. The Crown Prosecution Service further acknowledges meaningful consent to ‘evaporate well before [someone] becomes unconscious‘ if mind-altering substances make them incapable. Continue reading “What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber”

What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse.

Specifically, I’m sorry some of its ideas inspire abuse. To name a few things:

I don’t feel personally responsible for these things – I’m not sorry in the same way as when I step on someone’s foot or guess a Canadian’s from the US – but I’m sorry it’s the case today’s atheist movement has inspired them. Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share, which came to prominence roughly in the last ten years, produced the ideas that inspire this abuse just as particular religions produce their own. Continue reading “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?”

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

‘Grow up and stop spouting such utter crap’: when I told my ‘supportive’ mum she wasn’t a queer ally

Someone I know via social media posted the following update three days ago.

A friend and I went to the gym tonight. After our workout we tried to relax in the hot tub, when a random lady in an American flag bikini approached me.

The lady: ‘What does your tattoo mean?’

Me: ‘Oh, that’s my angry-feminist-bi-pride tattoo.’


‘Angry, feminist, bisexual pride. This is a feminist symbol, and it’s on top of the bisexual pride flag.’

The lady compliments my friend’s nails. An awkward silence.

‘Why are you bisexual?’

‘I don’t know how to answer that. I just am.’

‘But why?’

‘Because I’m attracted to more than one gender.’

‘She’s attracted to all the genders’, my friend adds. We high five.

‘When I was little I was molested. Then I was told I was a lesbian.’

‘Well, that has nothing to do with me. I’m just bisexual.’

Banter ensues between me and my friend about how shitty men are and how glad I am that I never have to date one. The lady says something about how I should learn to tolerate men’s crap, then: ‘Have you heard about your personal lord and saviour, Jesus Christ?’

‘I don’t want to talk about Jesus at the gym.’

The lady continues talking about Jesus.

‘This makes me really uncomfortable. Please stop.’

The lady continues talking about Jesus, mentioning something about hellfire.

‘I don’t appreciate being told I’m going to hell for who I love.’

‘I didn’t say that. I didn’t say you’re going to hell. You’re the one who said that.’ (She tells me this in a ‘Gotcha now, queer! You know you’re gross’ tone.)

‘Don’t lie. You literally just quoted scripture to me about hellfire. Go away now.’

‘I didn’t say that. I’m not your judge. I don’t judge.’

‘Well, I judge – and you’re gross. Go away.’

‘Have you heard’, my friend asks me loudly, ‘about your lord and personal saviour, Satan?!’ We proceed to discuss the the black altar and orgasms. The lady walks away.

We reported her to the front desk for harassing us. They seemed to take the matter very seriously.

When I shared it with my followers, the exchange below happened between me and my Christian mum. (Her comments are in regular text, mine in bold.) It makes me want to write about a multitude of things – ally culture, the realities of queerness and Christianity, the fact I’ve lost offline relationships as a result – but for now I haven’t much left in me to say. Continue reading “‘Grow up and stop spouting such utter crap’: when I told my ‘supportive’ mum she wasn’t a queer ally”

‘Grow up and stop spouting such utter crap’: when I told my ‘supportive’ mum she wasn’t a queer ally

To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014

Fred Phelps, who for decades railed against fags like me, isn’t in Kansas any more. The pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose followers (blood kin or not) knew him as Gramps, was declared dead just over a week ago; no funeral was organised. ‘We do not worship the dead’, his daughter Shirley told the press – fingering absent-mindedly, one can but hope, her crucifix.

Phelps picketed hundreds of burials. Those who planned vengefully to picket his, or dreamt of it (and many did), divided views: the civility police railed against the notion, citing taste, decency and compassion as they had when street parties marked Margaret Thatcher’s death. At Westboro’s first post-mortem demonstration, a counterprotest’s banner read SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS – a sign, perhaps, that moral heroism has won out.

I’m not a hero at the best of times. I’m unlikely to grow into one at times like this.

In the face of the Phelps children’s suffering, I’m not stonehearted. Those who escaped and were cut off, among them now-atheist Nate (who broke the news his father was near death), were allowed no final goodbye; while they mourn a lost parent as best they can, thousands dance on his grave. The thought stays my schadenfreude more than most, but ultimately it seems Fred’s doing too. At such an infamous life’s end, could the world be asked to hold its tongue, even for their sake?

Nate Phelps and I have a few mutual friends. Though we’ve never met or spoken, he’s always seemed his father’s opposite, warm-hearted, soft-spoken and kind, graceful in what Louis Theroux, writing on social media of his brothers in the Church, calls the air of an abusive upbringing. That I feel his pain and check my urge to cheer his father’s death challenges my every vindictive instinct – nor do I feel, though, that in the calculus of how we answer Fred’s last gasps, his feelings or his siblings’ are the only ones that count.

Fred Phelps, though mercifully distant and in nothing like as harrowing a way, was part of my childhood too. Unlike Nate or Louis Theroux, I’m queer: his signs, in whose fluorescent shadow I grew up, referred to me.

This May will mark ten years since I came out, if I’d even call it that. (‘Because you’re gay?’, Stephen Hodgson asked after biology, wondering why I didn’t leer over the girl I was meant to. ‘Yeah’, I shrugged. That was it.) Earlier, a decade ago almost exactly, I’d sat online for hours Googling; one queer teen forum in particular was of great use to me, and was where I first discovered Fred.

Imagery shared and mocked there is still fresh: a squadron of girls no older than ten in ‘God hates fags’ shirts; a Flash-based noughts-and-crosses style game, ‘Fags vs. Kids’, on Westboro’s site, where five sodomites (‘represented by a pink swastika’) and three infants (‘represented by a baby bottle’) had to be placed correctly on a grid; footage from Michael Moore’s programme The Awful Truth, where Moore and a dozen gay men and lesbians confronted Fred across the Bible belt. He was 69 in the segment, but looked like he was pushing 90.

Skeletal, stiff as boards and with skin, appropriately, like an old Bible, it was clear he wasn’t a man in good health. Phelps’ appearance meant, conversely, that he never seemed to age, forever at death’s door without quite dying. His was the kind of twilight state the word ‘undead’ must have been coined to describe – you almost suspected, in fact, that some hideous otherworldly force must be sustaining him.

For that reason, he never seemed weak to me or the forum’s other members. Sickliness in a man of such extraordinary evil meant not frailty, for boys like us, but a horrible invulnerability – the same way that, whereas if you or I turned green we’d be rushed to a hospital, a witch’s green skin shows she’s to be feared. Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.

His death, we assumed, would therefore be spectacular. If no tornado dropped a house on him, or water-based attacks failed to melt his flesh, then earthlier routes must be taken. Friends and I fantasised at length about how Fred Phelps, the monster, might be slain: Chris from Toronto picturing putting gun skills to good use; Matt from New Zealand, prompting cardiac arrest through wandering hands; Logan from Alabama and I, blowing the Westboro compound up with high explosives. (A funeral picket afterward seemed only logical.)

If this seems extreme, consider that the straight boys in our classes played at machine-gunning Nazis – Fred was, for us, a spectre in his own lifetime of the kind the Waffen-SS has become in pop culture. It’s also true, of course, that such vicious thoughts came to provide an outlet for a swell of righteous rage.

Westboro did little that harmed me personally; despicably as the Phelpses behaved, they were loathed for what they signified as much as their actions. Fred gave the fear a face that made me scrub my browser history like an infected wound, was the emblem of the way it felt to me when Robbie, a boy in my 13-year-old art class, drove a pair of compasses into my forearm and drew blood; when Jack and Jonathan, sat behind me in maths, took turns spitting on me; when my brother, in the adjoining room one Christmas, unknowingly called me ‘an offence against nature and God’.

I took most of this and more by staying on what I deemed the moral high road, doing what childhood’s moral heroes told me was the Christian thing: loving my enemies, praying for my persecutors, forgiving them because they knew not what they did; turning the other cheek, rising above and being the better soul. When deaths like Phelps’ occur, we hear this too from preachers of civility.

It’s a sick philosophy, I’ve come to think, that tells victims to prove themselves better than their oppressors. Being wronged by somebody I haven’t wronged makes me better than them. Fred was a man who bludgeoned children with farm tools – no quantity of vitriol or disrespect will make us equals, just as no act of self-defence would have sunk me to my assailants’ level. Had I only been less loving toward them, I’d have invested less in hating him, since part of me did long to return fire: lashing out in lurid, violent fantasies at the thought of him became a form of reprisal-by-proxy.

Kids like me needed a witch our rage could melt. PC civility’s expansive plains, like Aunt Em’s ranch, are grey and lonely for us – abiding by its delicate constraints can feel like living in a world made out of cardboard. Fred’s cruelty made him a fair-enough target, someone as vicious as harassment had made us; his pain, an opportunity for justified sadism; his someday demise, a glorious event. Pickets aside, I longed for a good seat – a chance to savour his death throes’ exquisite spasms, watch his spirit break before his choking flesh. I’ll get you, my pretty, and your brittle god too.

After the fact, I’m unsatisfied. Phelps’ death was, in every sense, pathetic.

Westboro, Nate’s statements and implicitly its own have made clear, burnt bridges with its founder some months earlier. Male congregants (fearing, perhaps, a woman’s assumption of church leadership) pushed daughter Shirley to one side, and Fred – seeking, of all things, a ‘kinder approach’ – was excommunicated. Family, concerned that he might harm himself, moved him seemingly against his will to living quarters where ‘stopped eating and drinking’. Hospice care, at some point, followed. It only ends one way.

Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed. His death reads like a man’s who outright lost the will to live, if not a calculated suicide – Fred would no doubt have spurned that option – then a gradual, half-conscious disintegration. I’ve been through that partially because of views like his; gone further and more knowingly, in fact, down the same path of self-destruction. Try as I might, I can’t gloat over it. What’s there to gloat about?

My queer teenage friends and I thought Fred would go out fighting, defeated finally, crying ‘Oh, what a world’ – a spectacular undoing. Not for a second did we see him fading miserably from life, vulnerable and pitiful. The boom-voiced wizard’s fire-and-brimstone face is gone: behind the curtain fallen to one side, only a shrivelled old man’s form remains, Professor Marvel mangled in his own machinery – a lowly, foolish Kansan crystal-gazer.

It might well be that the end of Phelps’ life came as a mercy. He never inspired mercy in me. What lingers is the sense of being thwarted – shock that the inhumane could die such a manifestly human death; grievance at being robbed of a bête noire. Fred perished like a man beneath contempt, too small and weak to hate, but hating him sustained me. There is no monster now, no slaying to look forward to, and I feel lost without it.

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion

Greta, over on her blog, has a summary of statements made to date against Michael Shermer.

As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

It’s quite a list. I’m prepared to say now that personally, in light of all these accounts and their consistency, contextualised by the compelling rarity of false reports, I find the case against Shermer significantly plausible and not to be dismissed, if ever it justifiably could have been, as baseless gossip. It may not meet criminal standards of proof required in court – not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to that – and certainly doesn’t provide grounds to conclude with no time for new data or room for doubt that he’s guilty of what’s been reported. It does, however, provide grounds in my view for a reasonable person at least to entertain that suspicion, and more than sufficient grounds for investigations to be made.

In terms of our community’s reaction, to comparable situations elsewhere as well as to this one, whether criminal standards of proof have been met is not the sole point of concern. When a serious question mark overhangs an individual’s prior conduct, event planners – conference-holders especially – have to decide whether they want them present. That judgement call, whichever way it goes, means gambling with the potential safety of their attendees. As in Pascal’s scenario, there is no way not to bet.

If as a conference official I received the range of reports above stating someone’s behaviour was abusive, severely unethical or inappropriate, I would not be comfortable inviting them to my event. Could I be certain? No. But I’d have to err on one side or the other. Personally, my choice would be to err on the side of caution, apparent likelihood, and not placing someone among my guests whom a reasonable person could suspect had raped. If it transpired the allegations were all false, falling within a tiny number of such reports (which I don’t deny is possible) – if it turned out those making them conspired at great personal risk to smear someone blameless – then in my opinion it would still, at the time and with the facts at hand, have been the most responsible decision.

What statements we have don’t warrant certainty and may or may not meet legal standards of proof. But they do meet what standards we need to ask ourselves, ‘Should this person attend our conference?’ or ‘Should we invite them to our group?’ – and to answer these questions reasonably, if provisionally. This does not amount to pitchfork-laden mob rule; it does not amount to vigilantism; and the evidence we have, while many no doubt would welcome legal proceedings, should not in my opinion be deemed wholly meaningless in the absence of court action.

The ‘Take it to court or else’ approach – the all-or-nothing suggestion that until and unless a trial is held and a guilty verdict reached, no statement can ever be more than idle gossip or demand concern – is naïve and illogical. We know only a tiny percentage of rapes end in conviction. Refusing to entertain, even hypothetically, the notion someone may at some point have raped because no court has deemed them guilty is likely to mean ignoring almost every instance of rape in the real world. It evokes, too, the ‘Just tell the police’ response to conference harassment.

I wouldn’t want legality to be the sole requirement for conduct at my event, and reporters of harassment don’t always want punitive action anyway (they might just want a sympathetic ear; they might want organisers to look out for them throughout the conference, have a private word with someone who’s bothered them or keep an eye on that person; they might want to be placed with a friendly, reliable group or companion during social hours, so as to feel less stranded). But things like expulsion from conferences do not, in any case, require criminal convictions or the standards of proof those demand. Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.

Last year a guest in my friend’s house raped her. She was paralytically drunk, unable to stand up or speak coherently, when he had sex with her. (It doesn’t matter why she was drunk, whose fault this was or what she’d previously said. When someone is so drunk they can’t talk, sex with them is rape. This isn’t complex.) The following day, when I’d gone with her to file a report, police officers asked if she knew him, if she’d done anything to suggest attraction to him, and whether there’d been friction between them – all of which was irrelevant. She was made to choose, in the space of an hour, between pressing charges or dropping everything; she had no chance to seek legal advice, consult family members or even sleep on it. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that she let it go.

We had, as it happened, fairly incontrovertible evidence both that the man in question had sex with her and that she wasn’t able to consent. A public solicitor would, I’m quite sure, have told her as much, but she wasn’t allowed a professional’s legal view. The all-or-nothing message she got that unless and until taken to court, her report could mean nothing at all – that she had no right to be taken seriously by anyone before that point – was exactly what stopped her pursuing it. (One officer’s worldweary comment that rape was ‘just something that happens‘ didn’t help.) If you’re only willing to treat reports as plausible or act on them, even provisionally, once court procedures are in motion, I sincerely hope no victim ever needs your support: most only come forward, including via legal action, when reasonably sure what they say will be listened to rather than dismissed.

Ignoring plausible reports, refusing to act on them even provisionally since no legal verdict has been reached, has major consequences. When at school, another friend had a sister in the year below her whom, while on a school trip at the aged fourteen, another student raped. Their parents, once informed, told both police and the school, where during breaks and over lunch, my friend’s sister was so visibly distraught that teachers isolated her inside an empty classroom. This prompted a two month withdrawal from attendance and ultimately a change of schools. The student who raped her and denied anything had happened, meanwhile, saw no consequences whatsoever, since the school’s head teacher ruled that while investigations were ongoing, no action would be taken.

No course of action existed which presupposed neither that the victim told the truth nor that she hadn’t – again, authorities had no way not to bet. I presuppose the former here because I trust my friend, but also because again, only a few reports of rape – the clear exception to the rule – are false. Given this and the girl’s obvious terror, beside the prospect of leaving a pupil among the student body who’d raped, wouldn’t suspending or isolating him while investigations continued be a more conscientious choice? Like conference organisers, they had to make a judgement call: it should have been quite clear whose account provisionally to believe. (Teachers, after all, are paid to be judges of character: I don’t accept a 14-year-old girl could feign trauma, with no clear motive, well enough to fool experienced school staff.) If the report did turn out to be false – one of a tiny, exceptional few – it would still, again, have been the best approach to take given the facts they had. A choice between which student to expel certainly wouldn’t be a comfortable one – but nor, in my view, should it be such a hard one ethically.

When I say things like this, I hear responses like ‘Yes, but couldn’t this all just stay behind the scenes? Couldn’t conference organisers communicate, discreetly, amongst themselves? Someone’s reputation is at risk!’

I have three replies.

The first one is, that happened. Since the current wave of allegations broke, corroboration and agreement in most cases have rippled back – sometimes in the format ‘That happened to me too’ and sometimes in the format ‘I’ve heard that too’. (In one particular case, six people I know told me, independently of one another, that they’d witnessed or been told of the individual’s serious misconduct.)

It’s obvious that for the last few years, these discussions have gone on under the radar – in fact, much of last year’s drive for anti-harassment policies was prompted by Jen McCreight’s comments that several female activists swapped anecdotes about certain male skeptics’ behaviour. Given the rapid explosion of public namings which followed Karen Stollznow’s disclosure, it seems to me things may by this point simply have come so far – behind-closed-doors revelations and private statements spread so widely – that accusatory floodgates were bound to open sooner or later. If harassment and assault had, under the surface, grown so prevalent such a deluge could be released, doesn’t that suggest we needed to address them earlier? Might those hushed whispers and private comments, just perhaps, been insufficiently effective? (See also reply number two.)

After Jimmy Savile – a veteran British broadcaster, if you hadn’t heard the name – died in October 2011, reports from people he molested and raped as children poured in by the hundred. He may, it’s now thought, have been one of UK history’s most prolific sex offenders. Why did this happen only after his death? Because while he lived, his reputation was at stake; because victims, no doubt, were afraid to smear a much-admired celebrity; because many feared reprisals, equally doubtless, from a multimillionaire’s legal staff. In view again of the speed at which reports emerged, it seems certain confessions, accusations and intimations made the rounds in private before Savile died, as they did in skepticism till recently. Consider: how many of his crimes might have been prevented, and how many people saved a major trauma, had the kind of scandals broken decades back which are breaking for us now?

My second reply is that frankly, we cannot always rely on institutions to take action. The BBC, we know now, failed for years to act against Savile; the Catholic Church failed for decades to act against child-raping priests; my friend’s school failed to act after her sister’s rape; it seems reasonable to conclude based on statements like Carrie Poppy’s and the apparent extent of this problem that skeptical organisations too have failed to act. If things had never reached the point where we now find ourselves – and in many cases, they wouldn’t have if organisations had trusted and supported victims – that would, agreed, have been quite wonderful. Most people who’ve spoken out of late (prompting a barrage of condemnation, bullying and legal threats) would I’m sure also agree. Unfortunately, things have reached this point. Didn’t something more need to be done? And if not this, what?

My third reply, the one I feel matters more than anything, is the following:

Reputations matter, but no reputation matters more than stopping sexual violence.

Plenty of reputations have been endangered recently, and not just Michael Shermer’s or the other leading skeptics’ accused. Individuals’ reputations – PZ Myers’, Carrie Poppy’s, Karen Stollznow’s – are on the line. Organisations’ reputations – the JREF’s, CFI’s – are on the line. Our entire movement’s reputation, and that of atheists at large, is on the line.

I am convinced none of this matters.

At least, I’m convinced none of it matters more than addressing, for the sake of our community, things like rape, harassment, assault and abuse. Damage to reputations is serious; this is more serious still.

If there’s one common lesson from the Savile affair, the Catholic Church’s history of sex abuse, the rape of my friend, the rape of my other friend’s sister, the allegations currently overrunning skepticism – it’s that sometimes, when fires in a crowded theatre are being lit or a reasonable onlooker might think so, shouting arson is defensible even if that means naming as arsonists the guests of honour in the royal box.

We share a communal stake in our movement’s safety, especially at events and conferences, and when reasonable suspicion (even if not demonstrable certainty) exists that someone’s actions there endanger others; when off-the-record conversations, on-the-record reports and open secrets have failed to prompt resolution, surely there comes a point when public statements are justified – even if making them threatens that person’s public image? Surely in certain circumstances, concern for the public safety of our movement – not based, necessarily, on certainties, but based on reasonable suspicions and reports that seem overwhelmingly unlikely to be lies – can trump individuals’ PR concerns? Isn’t there a case for the principle of public interest here?

I don’t, in the end, believe this debacle will ruin atheism’s image. I accept that, in the short term, religious critics may use it to snipe at us – but what right, anyway, does religion have to take swipes at sex abuse controversies? On the contrary, I smell an opportunity.

If two or three years down the line from now, we’ve taken painful steps to clean up our act; if the scandals breaking today have been seen through to their conclusions, with appropriate investigations made and sufficient measures taken where necessary; if guidelines for the future are established which set out clear, well-defined ethical boundaries of accepted conduct, and we rise to the challenge of fixing our community – then religion will have lost, definitively, a major fortress in the culture war. We will, as an organised community of atheists, have shown we take sexual and social ethics seriously, and done in ten years what the Catholic Church failed to accomplish in two thousand.

Isn’t that a challenge worth embracing?



Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion