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.
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*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.