How many of you have ever felt personally victimised by
Regina George religion?
Various articles have circulated recently attacking ‘new atheism’ and trotting out familiar ‘don’t be a dick’ arguments: Alom Shaha’s and Ariane Sherine’s at the Rationalist Association, Martin Robbins’ at Vice. Marianne Baker, on her own blog, has weighed in.
I’ve already responded to Alom’s, which appeared in New Humanist some months ago. All kinds of things in articles like these – not just or even necessarily these ones themselves, but the common rhetoric of ‘chill atheists’ at large – tend to grate on me: conflation of opposing religion-qua-religion with a vicious, scathing tone; conflation of it in principle with sexist, racist or otherwise unseemly views, common admittedly in some ‘new atheist’ sectors; dismissal of opposition to religion-qua-religion as a useful goal; dismissal of ‘atheist’ itself as a meaningful identity.
It’s meaningful to me. The last two, and the related claim that religion in Britain isn’t much of a problem, are things I’ve heard a lot from atheists with no strong background in religion, who haven’t in any extensive sense been on its receiving end. As someone who has, it’s hard for me to say how galling I find atheists with no serious religious history telling those of us profoundly affected by our own to pipe down, be nice and stop bashing God already, so ‘positive’ or ‘constructive’ goals can be achieved.
I frequently share Greta Christina’s legendary talk at Skepticon IV, ‘Why are you atheists so angry?’, in arguments like this. Her litany of grievances, on behalf of firebrands like me, is a perfect testament to the things about religion that enrage us, why that rage is valid, and why blaming religion-qua-religion for them is legitimate. But there’s also a problem: Greta had an atheist upbringing too. Apart from a handful, her complaints are of religion’s impact on the wider world and not on her own life personally.
When you’ve been on its business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive.
I’ve often wished to illustrate this with a litany like Greta’s – but unlike hers, one specifically of my own grievances. This is it. Read it, if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou. I’ve 99 problems, but bashing God’s not one.
* * *
1. Being baptised into the Church of England, made a member before I could speak or walk. (A prayer on the certificate reads ‘May he grow up in Thy constant fear’.)
2. Not being able to undo that membership, despite attending a different church for nearly all my time as a believer and being an atheist today. The Church refuses to strike names from its baptismal rolls, since the number of names there is the number of members it’s allowed to claim. That one of them is my name tells you how honest this is.
3. Being taught religious narrative as uncontested fact – not just virgin births or resurrection, but a world created in six days and Noah’s flood. It took till I was eight, browsing an encyclopaedia I’d been given, to realise people disagreed.
4. Being fed the ‘nice’ bits of the Bible – David and Goliath, Jesus and Zacchaeus, the Good Samaritan – but never encouraged to read it like I would another book, and growing up with huge, convenient gaps in my knowledge.
5. Dreaming of Satan aged three or four (or someone I assumed was Satan), and thinking seriously that it meant something; hearing his voice, while awake, tell me to be naughty too.
6. Having birthday parties held with the church, or following attendance in the morning, so children with different backgrounds couldn’t come, even when I wanted to spend time with them.
7. Being made to pray (or pretend to) in assemblies at school – all the way from reception class at four years old to sixth form at seventeen.
8. Being subjected to local clergy’s sermons in some of those assemblies – something like once a week, again all the way through. (All these clergy were Christian. Tax-funded schools in the UK are required to practise ‘broadly Christian worship’, and in my hometown there were no other faiths anyway.)
9. Being taught in class, aged five or six, that Hinduism’s gods were false – unlike Jesus. ‘False gods’ were Mrs Ironmonger’s exact words, in part of the syllabus designed to give a balanced view of another faith.
10. Fearing anything even faintly Asian – yoga, women in saris, the Bollywoodish song on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack (I know) – since Indian religion, Hinduism especially, was Satan’s work. I feel sure that if I’d been at primary school following 9/11, Islam would have filled this role instead.
11. Being read the Chronicles of Narnia – like that wasn’t enough – and told the hideous skeleton-god Tash, antithetical to Aslan and worshipped by the dark skinned, Eastern, polytheistic Calormenes, symbolised Hinduism’s Satanic gods. (Which, to be fair, he largely did.)
12. Wanting to go on a fast, aged six, as a gesture of faithfulness. Church members did this quite often, as I recall, for a weekend or so. We hadn’t much food as it was.
13. Being told Mrs Jones who died of cancer was in Heaven, aged six, by my primary school’s headteacher. She told us this in a specially arranged assembly, and that Margaret (as I’d known her in church) was with God now, smiling down at us. It wasn’t a passing comment, but the main point of her speech.
14. Being told my non-religious relatives were now in Hell, aged six or seven, when I told Mum I thought having no god at all – compared with having a Satanic Eastern one – seemed fair enough. Hell meant to me, and I assume to her, a literal furnace at this point.
15. Being told to participate in ‘faith healing’ on a weekend at a church camp aged six or seven. (Mum, at this point, was going through a charismatic phase, surrounded frequently by fundamentalists. I, and later she, reverted to the more traditional Christianity we’d practised earlier the day I had the chance.)
16. Taking part in Operation Christmas Child at teachers’ and church friends’ encouragement aged seven or eight. The scheme, led by a man who supports nuclear action against Muslims (yes, Muslims specifically) and calls Hinduism Satanic (sensing a theme?), distributes shoeboxes of temporary gifts to children in poverty – accompanied with evangelical literature and mandatory Bible study.
17. Being told aged eight or nine that Satan had possessed me. Mum and I argued till our church leader came round at her request to scold me. I refused to apologise, telling him to leave, mouth dry and crushing pains in my chest. Later she said it was the Devil using my voice, and invited to pray in tongues. I never did.
18. Thinking sincerely at that age that my father was a demon. Angels patrolled the Earth – surely the fallen ones did too? If the thought’s more frightening still that his drinking, theft and violence were entirely human traits, I now see what this stopped me from appreciating: that the man almost certainly had some form of mental illness.
19. Spending Hallowe’en terrified each year, even into my teens – chanting, on a whispered loop, ‘Jesus is Lord’ to keep Satan’s forces outside (that is, children in monster masks) at bay.
20. Taking part aged eight or nine in a church march round my town, praying outside shops with Buddha statues in their windows or toy witches – confirming church members’ view it was their right, and thinking it was mine, to dictate what other people find profane.
21. Being terrified into my teens of any kind of horror – particularly, like The Omen or The Exorcist, horror with a religious bent. The one exception was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which for some reason got a free pass despite Mum calling it demonic. Even then, I watched it in secret when she wasn’t in the house.
22. Being told aged nine or ten that I was damned, since I’d sworn something ‘in front of God’ that Mum didn’t believe.
23. Being told by my teacher Mrs Walker that Warhammer was Satanic, due to the use of dark, soul-rending magic in its universe. Not Harry Potter, mind you. Not sure why.
24. Having teachers at my primary school who lost their temper at or punished blasphemy. Mrs Walker in particular, a member of our church like Mrs Jones before her, considered this her job – which, at my church-run school, it was – at least as much as teaching.
25. Having Bibles and Gospel tracts handed out at school, which classmates and I under the age of ten were told to take home and study.
26. Being fed demonising, inaccurate canards about Islam after 9/11 happened. I was ten at the time, and subsequently told that Muslims were Arabs and Arabs were Muslims, female genital mutilation and the killing of non-Muslims were doctrinally central to Islam and that its followers by definition ‘all want to die for Allah’.
27. Hearing my class gasp when Mrs McDonald, a formidable left wing English teacher who also taught us ‘Citizenship’ aged 12 and 13, said she was an atheist.
28. Hearing my mum deny flat-out that Christians would refuse to pay for food, when I relayed to her common stories of guests at my hometown’s evangelical convention leaving gospel tracts rather than money next to restaurant bills – as if Christians acting unethically were somehow implausible. (Keep reading if in doubt.)
29. Being told ‘it says in the Bible “live and let live”’ – it doesn’t – and that Jesus supported public welfare provision (where is the evidence for this?), as if supporting these somehow meant plagiarising Christian morals.
30. Being raised to judge whether people were Christians by their ethics. My father and his female partner couldn’t really be Christians, for instance, since they weren’t good people.
31. Having homophobia preached in my school lessons, aged fourteen or fifteen, by substitute teacher Mr Ingles, who’d once taught RE full time. The right response to a gay friend, he said, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put that part of his anatomy there’, was to love the sinner and ‘hate… hate’ what they did.
32. Wondering what the lesson was when I was spat on, hit, harassed in the street, when things I owned were destroyed – wondering why God had planned this for me, what I was supposed to learn from it, and what I’d done to make him test me in such ways. (This, I stress, was long after Mum’s charismatic phase, when my beliefs were perfectly mainstream, non-fundamentalist Christian ones.)
33. Forgiving the bullies who hit me, spat on me, destroyed the things I owned and harassed me in the street, rather than standing up to them, because loving my enemies and praying for my persecutors was the Christ-like thing to do; because he forgave those who knew not what they did; because the right response to being struck was to turn the other cheek, not to resist; because those who lived by the sword died by the sword.
34. Wanting to die anyway, making more than one attempt, after years of doing the Christ-like thing.
35. Fearing suicide would land me in Hell during my first attempt, as I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers.
36. Lapsing back into religious dependency in the aftermath, feeling guilt over this and needing emotional support, and being told turning the other cheek the way I had was praiseworthy – then lapsing back into that, then suicide again.
37. Being told tearfully by my mum that she prayed for my soul nightly, some time after learning I was an atheist, like I was to blame for what she feared might happen to me, or for her fear itself.
38. Being told ‘I’ll pray for you’ – in that superior, knowing way – by her and other believers when I applied to university and staffed a humanist street table in Oxford, as if to say I know something you couldn’t hope to know.
39. Being told religion cost her nothing, ‘but if you are wrong, you are in serious trouble’, her finger jabbing sharply at my chest as if to spear me through the heart.
40. Hearing her call atheism a reasonable conclusion… while still apparently condoning damnation for it.
41. Reading a clipping on her noticeboard that said to pray for me because I chose ‘another path’ rather than to ‘serve God’, and let God ‘close the deal’ with me to ‘turn [my] stubborn heart around’ – like I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn, disobedient or delinquent, and not because I find it the most coherent answer to religious claims.
42. Hearing her explicitly acknowledge her beliefs as ‘irrational’… while still living by them, making me as a child, and doing everything else listed here.
43. Being patronisingly called a ‘truth seeker’ by her – like caring about what’s true is an optional fucking lifestyle choice. (This doesn’t strike me as an unfair or overblown description of her stance.) Note this contradicts the idea I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn or disobedient… and that numerous other views of hers are likewise incompatible.
44. Being asked ostentatiously if I’m ‘spiritual’ or have ‘an inner life’ by her – like whatever these meant provided an emotional fulfillment atheists, with our empty, hopeless worldview couldn’t hope to have.
45. Getting a dismissive, frustrated ‘Well, okay’ when I said I didn’t know what these things meant – like failing to understand meaningless, vague deepities and wanting clarity made me shallow, unenlightened and mundane… rather than better at communication.
46. Being told I was raised to think critically, skeptically and for myself on more than one occasion. No. I was duped, exploited, fed beliefs as uncontested facts, pressured into evangelism, pressured into faith healing… the list goes on. Denying this happened denies my right to feel how I feel about it.
47. Being told to come back to church ‘just as practice’, because the university I was going to had chapels, and I’d be expected to take part in services there. (I wasn’t, and it would have been a problem if I was.)
48. Going to a university that still had chapels. Not just voluntary services from local groups with adverts in the common room for those who wanted them – functional, religious, Anglican chapels as part of the infrastructure, with chaplains on the college payroll. (I don’t think it helps that most of them, when it came down to it, were really atheists.)
49. Having to stand through a Latin grace at meals when I visited other colleges at Oxford. Mine never practised this ceremony, part of the reason I applied there (Oxford University comprises many separate colleges, as the U.S. does individual states), so I only ever had to endure it twice – but students there sometimes had to regularly.
50. Getting looks of disgust and hostility from strangers when I helped staff a humanist table in the street. Not for doing or saying any one thing: simply for standing at a street stall with ‘Humanist’ and ‘Not religious?’ signs. This was in Oxford – hardly the buckle of the Bible Belt.
51. Getting told not believing in God made me an idiot by other strangers who actually spoke to us.
52. Getting threatened with a literal, fiery Hell by strangers who spoke to us.
53. Getting doorstepped by evangelists at my and relatives’ homes, and forced into conversations about God.
54. Having to do a risk assessment when believers ask to meet me having found my work online – weighing potential benefits against likelihood of being preached at, interrogated, recorded, threatened. The overwhelming majority of meetings like this have been good: it’s how I got involved in what could be called an interfaith project, and how I went for dinner with a (lovely) preacher whose (unlovely) sermons I’d blogged about. But I have had bad experiences – the calculus is necessary.
55. Getting preached at during my evangelical friends’ wedding.
56. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick’ – not a thought that concerns me often, you’ll have gathered – for sitting silently through the hymns rather than joining in.
57. Being called aggressive or intolerant for wanting secular public space.
58. Being called a cold-hearted atheist grinch for not celebrating Christmas.
59. Being called a hypocrite devaluing Christianity for celebrating Christmas in the past.
60. Being called a hypocrite for eating chocolate eggs at Easter – as if egg rituals in spring, or even the name ‘Easter’, were original to Christianity.
61. Being confronted with picketers and preaching at atheist and skeptical conferences.
62. Receiving death threats as a student – graphic, detailed ones – when I wrote in support of atheist Facebook groups sharing Jesus and Mo cartoons.
63. Being the ‘bad guy’ at family gatherings, particularly Christmas, who doesn’t say grace at dinner, go to church or read bedtime stories about God. (This has been a problem in particular since my niece, now six, arrived.)
64. Having my atheism mentioned in an ominous tone, by family and others – ‘He’s an atheist…’ – like a drug problem or improper sexual fetish.
65. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning I’m an atheist to new people – weighing the likelihood of condemnation, arguments, awkwardness. I never had to do this as a Christian.
66. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning atheism on my CV. This might sound odd, but much of the work I’ve done – group organising, writing, graphic design – is atheist-related. I have to weigh the likelihood of hostility or discrimination from those reading my CV, and I know any number of other atheists who do. This would be unthinkable if our work had been for church groups. Again: not in the Bible Belt. In green-pastured, supposedly atheist-loving England.
67. Being spoken to like I know nothing of Christianity or its texts by believers, including family with seemingly short memories… even when on cut-and-dried questions like reference in the Gospels to damnation, I could demonstrate more knowledge than they did. On a related note:
68. Being spoken to by believers like they personally are sole authorities on their religion, and no reasonable controversy exists – like the time Mum read my coursework for religious studies (my highest-graded subject) on competing Christian soteriologies of faith versus good works and called it ‘incredibly erroneous’, because ‘if Adolf Hitler had been a Christian, he would be in Heaven now’; the time I criticised belief alone as a requirement for salvation, and my sister said ‘No, that’s not true… that was cleared up a long time ago’ (notice their disagreement proves wrong both their assertions of a settled debate); the time a family friend read my coursework on the Irenaean theodicy and responded ‘No, no it’s not that – it’s the Fall’ (proposing Augustine’s alternative) like this was the most obvious thing in the world. I was still a Christian at that time: this kind of intellectual arrogance is something believers inflict frequently on one another, not just atheists.
69. Having to go to church to mourn a nonagenarian Anglican friend, who always sent me sweets at Christmas as a child. Having to sit silently through songs and sermonising, the odd one out, because there was no supplementary, non-religious wake.
70. Being glared at by the priest as I left my friend’s freshly-filled grave for sitting silently through the hymns.
71. Wondering if being queer would cost me his friendship, as a King James reading traditionalist Tory, had we still been in contact by the time he died.
72. Hearing homophobic jokes from the boys in the tent next door when I went to an evangelical youth camp and blogged about it. Not knowing how to report this when the code of conduct involved no rule against it, and parts of some sermons were tacitly or overtly queerphobic.
73. Hearing my parents’ friend discuss the need to ‘keep marriage Christian’ in their kitchen, from the next room. (I think same-sex marriage is a movement that deserves a lot more scrutiny politically than it’s received – but I also think this was hugely homophobic, and that one might as well keep post offices Christian.)
74. Hearing a variety of homophobic things from Mum while I was a young child, which I now suspect (since her views were always muddled) she got from evangelical and charismatic Christian friends.
75. Hearing her grouch to me about one friend’s views today, forgetting conveniently how many of them (see above) she once shared or adopted.
76. Learning one of the church wives told her, when she compared my shy 12-year-old self to Freddie Mercury after I showed unexpected onstage energy, ‘Let’s hope Alex doesn’t have anything else in common with Freddie Mercury’.
77. Learning my dad’s next partner told her, when I was 17, ‘I hope [Alex] gets his sexuality sorted out’. This woman was a regular congregant at the same church as my old Anglican friend, full of homophobes and conservatives; her views on sex and relationships, as long as I’d known her, were always religiously derived.
78. Hearing my brother call queer sexuality ‘an offence against nature and God’ from the next room, at Christmas, while he spoke to Mum and other members of the family.
79. Having to do a risk assessment on this too when I meet religious people, particularly according to their age and denomination.
81. Being told after blogging about it by my mum that I ‘have a go at Christians’ – as if she was the victim, and it was my fault for pointing it out and not keeping politely stumm when a member of her religion quoted horrible things from its central text.
82. Watching Mum enter emotional lockdown – falling passive-aggressively silent, changing the subject, leaving the room – when faced with anything from measured, polite critique of her stated beliefs to mild amounts of snark about them, holding herself emotionally hostage so that commenting as I would on any other subject makes me into an insensitive, aggressive bully.
83. Being expected to accept this, treading diplomatically around the topic, and respect her right not to be preached at or forced into unwanted discussions. Fair enough – but when as a child was I ever allowed that right?
84. Having to deal with her emotional incontinence even in non-argumentative, non-combative conversations about religion – the time, for example, when she broke down into tears (while driving) attempting to describe what Christmas meant to her – so I have to handle her beliefs with kid gloves instead of treating them like any adult’s views.
85. Hearing her call The Da Vinci Code ‘part of all the Christian-bashing that’s going on’ after its release – like people saying ‘I’m an atheist’, ‘Religions are mistaken’, ‘Religions are silly’ and ‘Religion harms the world.’ I know what actually being bashed is like – and what being spat on, called an abomination, threatened with Hell and threatened with beheading feels like. Christians aren’t persecuted in Britain. Deal with it.
86. Watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail and hearing her say haughtily at the ‘Holy Hand Grenade’ scene that the filmmakers ‘love[d] to deride Christianity’. Yes… and?
87. Listening to her complain of anti-Christian sentiment… while doing all the things mentioned here and more, apparently expecting members of her faith be able to act with impunity, no matter how obscenely. If people in Britain have negative views of Christians, which I’m not sure that they do… don’t lists like this go some way to explaining why?
88. Seeing her treat her father and mine as bellwethers of ‘aggressive atheism’, dismissing any critical comment I make on grounds of having ‘heard it all before’… without taking time to compare my views with theirs. There are a hundred angry atheists – more – who don’t speak for me. Chances are they didn’t. (I don’t treat individual believers like they speak for the rest, after all.)
89. Seeing her give £5 notes to Salvation Army chuggers because we depended on their charity once. The Salvation Army has campaigned extensively against LGBT rights, including for recriminalisation of homosexuality, and denied help to queer couples on the streets.
90. Knowing if I ever needed aid from such a group – if matters were so desperate that I threw myself on the mercy of faith groups – there’s a real possibility I’d be denied it.
91. Knowing we’d have lost a huge amount of social and economic aid, at the lowest ebb of her time as a single mum on benefits, had she lost her faith or left the church – and that atheists and ‘doubters’ the world over stay in their pews because of this.
92. Having a nightmare recently about demonic forces stalking me, my first for years, and waking in a cold sweat. I can’t be sure, of course, that I wouldn’t have anyway without the upbringing I had… but I’m sure that made it harder to shake off than a different nightmare would have been.
93. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick’ for publishing this list, another angry, ‘awful’ atheist taking unproductive potshots at religion – and fearing this particularly from other atheists. Speaking to the things faith’s done to me is productive as far as I’m concerned. (I still consider this a form of victimisation by religion, because I think it stems from religious beliefs’ characteristic insulation against criticism, and the way attacking them like other ideas is ‘rude’, ‘aggressive’ and unacceptable in polite – sometimes even atheist – society.)
94. Being savaged mercilessly when I am an impolite dick now and again. I wake up angry about some things on this list: it’s a struggle not to hulk out constantly, and I can’t win that struggle all the time. Treating me as the bad guy the one percent of the time I lose my temper is unreasonable and unfair – it ignores the context of enormous harm from which my temper stems. Forgive me if I can’t contain it at all times. The 99 percent of the time I do, it takes hard work.
95. Fearing Mum will read this list and feel attacked – again! – instead of called to account. Sometimes, someone else is the victim.
96. Fearing a chorus of ‘Yes, but-’ when I hit ‘Publish’. ‘Yes, but your experiences are a drop in the ocean’. ‘Yes, but some believers are persecuted’. ‘Yes, but you still shouldn’t bully or harass believers.’ This post isn’t about how representative I am, oppression of religious groups or anything any atheist does being okay. It’s an evocation of the harm religion’s done me, and why I’m motivated by it to be confrontational. Please don’t derail it.
97. Being told I ‘just got a bad version’ of religion – that a fundamentalist or extremist fringe was what trod on me, whose members are a few bad apples in the cart. Fundamentalist beliefs did tread on me – but the version of Christianity that almost cost me my life, like the versions of religion that caused most of the harms mentioned on this list, was perfectly mainstream and non-fundamentalist.
98. Having my feelings on religion dismissed because I’m bitter. I am. And I’m right.
99. Writing this post casually in a few hours – and knowing I could go on.