We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion

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There’s been a dialogue between atheist writers over the past week, started by Martin Hughes of the blog barrierbreaker. In a post published last Tuesday, Hughes talks about his evolving feelings on religion, declaring himself not an antitheist any more. ‘Recently I’ve been a lot less harsh on religion and much more focused on social justice issues,’ he reports, going on to describe his mother’s ill health and religious faith.

Several responses and critiques were published in the next few days. One, from Stephanie Zvan, notes that social justice includes helping people leave religion; another, from Kaveh Mousavi of On the Margin of Error, replies directly. In a follow-up post, Hughes talks about dealing with stress by praying to a nonexistent god. Stephanie and Kaveh both replied again, writing that comfort found in faith still doesn’t get religion off the hook.

Since publication last Thursday, my contribution has been doing well. It isn’t a direct response to either of Hughes’ posts, or any author’s in particular, but talks about patterns I see when this subject comes up.

When I read posts in the non-antitheism genre, it often strikes me that most of the wordcount is about other issues. I see other writers assert that the death of religion won’t solve all the world’s problems, and that in a world without it, people who currently hurt others in the name of God would just find other excuses. I hear them say deconverting believers isn’t their priority, and that they no longer feel an urge to pick fights with them. I listen to people say they care more about social justice than bashing religion, and that there are some awful atheists, and that they have more in common with plenty of progressive believers, and that they’d rather work with them. I see them point out that being an atheist doesn’t make them more intelligent than believers are, and that religious people don’t deserve to be hated. None of these statements are to do with whether religion is a good thing.

Near the end, in a passage that’s getting a lot of appreciation, I talk about defences of religion I do hear: that private beliefs people draw comfort from are harmless, that the problem is fundamentalism and not religion at large, that not all believers are the ones we see on the news, that harm caused by religion would still happen without it. Each gets dissected individually, but I close by discussing all these ideas collectively.

When I hear people saying why they’re not antitheists — when I read tweets and Facebook statuses and blog posts and op-eds — these are the statements I’m used to hearing. None of them are useful statements. All of them are either irrelevant or wrong. I don’t think anyone who says these things is being insincere, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they became things atheists said because they’re things believers like to hear, or feel like they might be. They’re delicate, diplomatic, sayable and politically correct. They’re not things I’m interested in saying.

I want to talk more about why I wrote that post, where I’d like the discussion to go next, and some of what I have to add to it.

***

Writing at his blog Across Rivers Wide, Galen Broaddus calls himself agnostic about antitheism. ‘Do I think the world would be better or worse if everyone were an atheist? … Alex says that his answer is quick, and that’s fine. The honest answer for me, though, is simply I don’t know.’

I do understand that other people … think that we have enough information to at least tentatively conclude that the world would be better off without religion. I know at least a good number of the arguments [and] I get that the kinds of counterarguments Alex mentions (like the fact that getting rid of religion wouldn’t be a panacea because, well, duh) don’t give him pause. I just disagree on those evaluations. YMMV.

Here’s the thing—I’m basically fine with that. Being an antitheist isn’t something I care much about. I don’t feel a need to change believers’ minds, and I don’t need friends or colleagues to feel the way I do: given a shot at a world without God, I’d take it, but I get why not everyone would. That’s not an argument I need to have, and it wasn’t the point of Thursday’s post. What I do want to pursue is a metadiscussion.

I don’t object to either of Hughes’ posts, and I share the complex feelings he talks about—they’re just not reasons to adopt his stance. I’m reluctant to single him or anyone else out because I find this typical. When people make a show of not being antitheists, the reasons they provide aren’t usually ones like Galen’s: they’re the bad arguments or beside-the-point platitudes I fisked, and I think our community should have a conversation about where they’re coming from.

When I say I want this whole debate to cut to the chase—that the only question that matters is if a world without religion would be better—it’s not because I’m desperate to tell people it would, but because I want to point out what’s going on. When people are so keen to separate themselves from antitheists that they give transparently bad grounds for doing so, it’s hard for me not to feel that it’s performative. When their posts acknowledge handwavily that they’d prefer a less religious world—as if this is somehow a tangent and not the whole point—I get the sense that there’s something more complex going on. These dynamics point to assumptions about how religion gets discussed, and since those affect all nonbelievers, there are good reasons to examine them whichever side you come down on.

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Toward the start of Thursday’s post, I talk about being approached by believers—often Christians, but not only—who tell me why they think God is on queer people’s side and want me to say I’m impressed.

I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue — just to tell [religious people] what they want to hear.

Some of the places I’ve had this problem have been LGBT events about religious faith. These happen often in the queer community, especially at conferences and during outreach weeks, and have become somewhat notorious: I know I’m not the only with this experience both because I’m told so and because when I speak at them, it goes down well. The rest of the time, this is what happens: a handful of speakers, each from a different religion, spend ten minutes telling their life stories and saying why being a queer ‘person of faith’ is perfectly easy; a Q&A session follows where difficult questions are parried or ignored and nonbelievers feel unable to say what they think. There’s a lot of nodding and agreeing, but no one leaves with any sense tensions have been dispelled, because they haven’t been addressed. (If you’re planning one of these—seriously, invite me.)

Too often these events are emotional workhouses: places the audience, and nonbelievers in particular, are asked to make believers feel comfortable, even at the expect of what they want to say. (While some are atheists looking for fights, many have needs that end up being ignored, and queer people whose experiences of religion have been traumatic often feel invisible.) The same thing happens in interfaith work. In the forum I was part of for years, a constant struggle was the way conversations became about mutual affirmation, making it harder to bring up uncomfortable topics. Meetings where believers get told what they want to hear are fine—major religions hold them once a week—but if the point of dialogue is to air tensions and difficult truths, you need to hold it somewhere else.

‘When people say in [blog] posts that they aren’t antitheists,’ I wrote last week, ‘I get the sense what they mean is that they aren’t jerks.’ Here’s my hypothesis: I think that as atheists grow to want good relations with believers, our instincts about what that means can be the same ones that show up in queer and interfaith circles. When I read posts about why people aren’t antitheists, I’m often reminded of those events, and of experiences with religious relatives, when not being a jerk meant always making believers feel comfortable — even with platitudes that weren’t quite true; even when your nuance wasn’t really all that nuanced; even if you had to be indirect. Like I said at the end of the last post — there are better ways to build bridges than dishonest arguments. Atheists need to start talking about how we find them.

We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion
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My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct

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Here’s a problem I have. In various contexts—online, with family, during public events—I keep hearing from believers who take great pains to convince me they don’t hate gay people. Jesus never said anything about it, they tell me, and scripture has been misinterpreted, and the real sinners are homophobes, so for heaven’s sake let that be the end of it. I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue—just to tell Christians what they want to hear.

There are a lot of atheists who don’t like me. To them I represent ‘politically correct atheism’, a movement that includes minorities and cares about more than just feeling smug. But political correctness was never meant to be a byword for progressive goals. Being politically correct is about saying the permissible thing—the delicate, diplomatic, convenient, feasible, strategic, sayable thing—when provocation isn’t an option. Before it was an alt-right dogwhistle, it meant being insincere to avoid starting fights: meant politicians saying ‘There are differences between us’ instead of ‘We are enemies’ and ‘economical with the truth’ instead of ‘lying’; meant telling people what they wanted but not what they needed to hear. When Christians explain their pro-gay theology to me, I sense that what they want isn’t an answer but a string of platitudes. (Not all Christians are the Westboro Baptist Church. There are good and bad people of all religions and none. Yes, I hate Richard Dawkins too.) If anything feels PC, that does.

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Every now and again, someone in my vicinity—often at Patheos, but not just there—publishes a long piece about why they’re not an antitheist. Most recently that’s been Martin Hughes in a post at barrierbreaker; in the past it’s been Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie, and further back it’s been a range of other folk. Those posts spur complicated thoughts in me, and I’ve often felt the urge to response but not had world enough or time, so I want to share some of my misgivings here. (Stephanie Zvan has already done the same at Almost Diamonds.) Carter and Hughes are both bloggers I like, and this post isn’t about them specifically—please don’t read it as a straight reply to either of theirs. What I want to discuss are the patterns I see in these conversations, how they make me feel, and why this branch of the secular community is one I can’t join. I wish my atheism were PC: it’s not.

I don’t market myself as an antitheist, but I feel strongly that I’m not not one. Explaining why is difficult without a certain amount of meta. When I read posts in the non-antitheism genre, it often strikes me that most of the wordcount is about other issues. I see other writers assert that the death of religion won’t solve all the world’s problems, and that in a world without it, people who currently hurt others in the name of God would just find other excuses. I hear them say deconverting believers isn’t their priority, and that they no longer feel an urge to pick fights with them. I listen to people say they care more about social justice than bashing religion, and that there are some awful atheists, and that they have more in common with plenty of progressive believers, and that they’d rather work with them. I see them point out that being an atheist doesn’t make them more intelligent than believers are, and that religious people don’t deserve to be hated.

None of these statements are to do with whether religion is a good thing. I do see people talking about that—in particular, by saying their problem is with fundamentalism, not with religion itself, and by asking what the harm is if people who aren’t out to take over the world believe whatever comforts them—but those discussions are peripheral. In the process of declaring they aren’t antitheists, some authors make concessions that sound nothing but. (Mass belief in a moralising god ‘does more harm than good’, argues Hughes. ‘Would I like to see the human race leave all religion behind…? Absolutely, yes’ adds Carter.) When people say in these posts that they aren’t antitheists, I get the sense what they mean is that they aren’t jerks.

I have a lot of sympathy with that. Like most people whose discarded beliefs shaped their whole lives, I spent years in atheist puberty, a ball of anger, resentment, self-satisfaction and self-righteousness. It took a long time to direct that anger properly—first by acknowledging my childhood in the church was abusive, then by locating it in a broader history of abuse—and I understand not wanting to be that kind of atheist. I don’t view religion in general with the contempt I used to, and I have plenty of reasons to remain on good terms with believers. I come from a religious family, some of whom I’m closer to than ever, and still connect with the aesthetics of my former faith; I speak on panels where it’s my job to get on with religious people, and I spent several years as part of an interfaith group; there’s also a small, dedicated group of churchgoers who like my work. A part of me still wants to be, be like or be liked by religious believers, and I could do well as a faitheist, rehearsing the platitudes from paragraph four—just as I could tell Christians what they want to hear on queer issues.

I’m more interested in saying what I think.

Yes, there are awful atheists; yes, plenty of believers are lovely: I’m intimately acquainted with both those facts, and I don’t spend my life fighting with them over beliefs. Being religious isn’t wicked on its own, and secular people aren’t necessarily better. Ditching faith wouldn’t solve all our problems—I doubt that ditching any one thing would, and there would be better candidates if I had to choose. But I don’t think any of this conflicts with the idea that overall, religious movements do more harm than good. If antitheism is the word we’re using for that, the only question that matters is this: if everyone on earth woke up an atheist, would the world be a better or worse place? For me the answer is better, and it doesn’t take me long to reach it. I don’t know how to say that in a palatable way—I don’t say it to be cruel or unkind—but there it is. It’s what seems true to me.

And I want to talk about things we say because they feel palatable.

I’m not okay with people believing whatever comforts them—not whose beliefs have consequences for other people, at any rate. (I don’t mean anyone on their deathbed.) I grew up with a single mum who’d careened through abusive marriages, who was homeless and penniless as soon as she got away from my dad. My mum became someone who sensed demons in her front room because when she had a breakdown, her only source of comfort was the church—and because every church has one or two people someone like that shouldn’t befriend. Even after her charismatic phase, she was emotionally unstable, and I spent most of my life hostage to her moods. The same was true of her theology: in twenty-three years, I never saw any system to what Mum believed—only that she believed things that felt good, whatever impact they had on my life. Give me a hardened literalist over a Christian like that any day. A fundamentalist’s ideas are always logical on some level, and anything with an inner logic can be controlled; believers whose faith changes shape depending how they feel are the most dangerous, and often the ones looking for comfort.

I’m also not just opposed to fundamentalism. For one thing, that word meant something before it was made synonymous with extremism. (There are Muslims whose beliefs mirror one version of protestantism. That’s not what IS are.) For another, any religion with enough followers is going to have extremists: those people are a feature, not a bug. And extremist styles of religion aren’t the only ones that hurt people. I was suicidal ten years ago, when my faith was an inoffensive, mainstream, traditional one—not because I thought queers went to hell, but because I thought letting people spit on me what was Jesus would do, and because I thought prayer was a good treatment for mental illness. Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth. Only critiquing fundamentalists might make for smoother relations with believers. It’s still a cop out, and an insult to people who went through what I did.

Having grown up inside the church, in a town with a dozen denominations and a family of many, I am in fact aware Christians differ, and that not all of them are Westboro. (Like most LGBT people who leave, I knew perfectly well that there were ‘affirming’ churches.) Here’s what believers don’t want to hear: the Westboro Baptist Church is one of the least pleasant Christian sects, but not one of the more dangerous ones. I’m willing to bet fewer queer youth killed themselves because of Fred Phelps than still do in strait-laced and respectable churches—churches like Leelah Alcorn’s, like Lizzie Lowe’s and like mine. We don’t die when cartoonish people hate on us: we die when churches say they welcome and love us, get us to entrust our wellbeing to them, then tell us to choose Jesus over sin, or that God loves trans people too much to let them be trans. Wie die in churches where queer topics are taboo—not out of vitriol, but out of uptight middle class anxiety. I’d love to critique evangelicals who kill us without being an antitheist, but if I believed in their god, I’d think the same as them.

And I’d love to agree that without religion, people who do harm in its name would act the same with other rationales. It’s just that it’s bullshit. Not everything believers do could be done in any other context—in a world without God, what does a child exorcism look like? We can’t travel to that world to run tests, so nobody who makes this claim has a receipt for it, but even then, this isn’t just counterfactual: it runs against the information we do have. We know that even when other factors are controlled for, religious change across generations prompts social change; we know new religious movements cause historical changes on their own; we know that in electorates worldwide, religion is a strong predictor of how people vote; we know religious conversions change people’s lives, and that when people leave religion, their lifestyles change dramatically. For people who claim it does the world good, religion’s whole value is predicated on its power to change behaviour. Why wouldn’t it be to blame for harmful changes?

When I hear people saying why they’re not antitheists—when I read tweets and Facebook statuses and blog posts and op-eds—these are the statements I’m used to hearing. None of them are useful statements. All of them are either irrelevant or wrong. I don’t think anyone who says these things is being insincere, but it wouldn’t surprise if they became things atheists said because they’re things believers like to hear, or feel like they might be. They’re delicate, diplomatic, sayable and politically correct. They’re not things I’m interested in saying. I understand—and, nowadays, share—desire for dialogue, but when believers decide they like me it’s because I don’t bullshit them. There are better ways to build bridges than dishonest arguments.

My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

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

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

Transcript below the fold.

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

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren’t Real Christians

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Stop Saying Homophobes Aren't Real Christians