Atheism and me: a brief history.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write about atheism and me- how I became an atheist, why I am an atheist, what is important to me about atheism, and how I relate as an atheist to those of a more religious mindset. I want to start talking about this today with a history of how I got to where I am today, and will move on to the rest in later posts. I was a kid for whom ‘god’ was as much a part of the world around me as anything else I couldn’t see. As real and unquestioned as distant relatives. While different religions were a thing I took for granted, so was the existence of god. Unlike many ex-religious atheists I don’t think it ever occurred to me to doubt back then. Neither did it occur to me that any of the things I believed were in opposition to evolution, dinosaurs or anything else in the world around me. As a child, I was pretty open about what I would believe. I always wanted to learn more, but the idea of skepticism wasn’t one that came naturally to me. I’m not an atheist because of any bad experiences with religion. I was never badly treated, never abused. I knew some very lovely nuns and priests growing up. Praying with my Nan, and having my forehead coated in liberal quantities of holy water before leaving her house, are memories that still make me smile. As a teenager, things did become a little more fraught. At a particularly persuadable point in my pre-teenage life, I ran out of books at the same time as coming across a massive stack of teen magazines by- and here is where I start getting a little mortified- Focus on the Family. Suddenly I was worrying about sin, about living up to Christian standards and about not ending up in hell. That didn’t last too long, though. We moved countries back to somewhere with many conveniently-located bookshops. I discovered the internet. As teenagerhood really kicked in, I found I had many other things to be worried, enthusiastic, and embarrassed about. I had some slight worries around the time I came out to myself, but reasoned pretty quickly that nothing to patently harmless could possibly be sinful. I did, however, become a lot less Catholic and a lot more vaguely spiritual. I didn’t know what was out there, but I was pretty sure that something. There was ‘something’ out there, it was benevolent, and it was why things would be okay. At least, that’s how I remember how I felt then- I’m aware that memories do change and aren’t always completely accurate. The things that led to my becoming an atheist were, in many ways, the things that led to my becoming an adult. For me these two processes are so entwined as to be interchangeable. I’m not saying, by the way, that only atheists are adults. I’m simply talking about my own experiences and how they have shaped me. I can point to two sets of things which changed my perceptions of the world around me. One was one of the best things that happened in my life, and the others were some of the worst. I went to college, and learned to think critically and to question the world around me. People I cared about died (and lived) in gut-wrenchingly horrible ways, and the world around me gave no fuck. Things just went on. After a while, I noticed that the times when I turned to god were the times when I was deeply unhappy or deeply scared. After a while, I wondered if I did that because we all turn to others when times are hard, or because that was the only time when I could convince myself that any gods existed. For the first time, I began to ask myself why I believed in any gods. Aside from fear and grief, I couldn’t come up with a reason. I still can’t. I spent a few years calling myself an agnostic before admitting, somewhere in my mid-twenties, that I had no belief in anything supernatural. For me, becoming an atheist was part of accepting that I live in the world that is, not the world that I would like to live in. It was part of learning to look at the world sceptically, and to question my own beliefs as much as I question the claims of others. So what do you think? Can you relate? How did you come to your own beliefs or lack of such? Check back here for the next post in this series!

Atheism and me: a brief history.

A Linkspam To The Past

Since I disappeared from the internet for a while, the first few links here are going to be ancient history. Things which are multiple weeks old. Several decades, in internet time.

I still think they’re worth sharing. And want to do so before everything in this post becomes truly paleolithic, so it’s going up today instead of on schedule, next Wednesday. Because it’s my blog, and I can.


Geekery and the Humanities: A defense of the humanities, of subjectivity, and why they’re as much a part of geek culture as the STEM fields. Also, why Sheldon is a dick.

I’m not anti-logic or anti-science; I do think these things are valuable, but they can only be convincing and powerful when they take into account emotion and the humanities (for lack of a better term). None of these things work best on their own. Which brings me to my real argument: the idea that the humanities are less important than STEM is an idea that geeks need to drop, because the humanities are constitutive to geek culture, just as much as science, technology, and math are.

Why Does She Stay With That Jerk? TW for domestic violence. Holly Pervocracy looks at reasons why people she met through her work in the ER stayed in abusive relationships. I’m not going to quote anything specifically, so I can keep the TW at the other side of the link. It’s essential reading, though, if you’ve ever wondered why people stick out relationship abuse. On a similar note is autumn whitefield-madrano’s post over on Feministe,  “I Can Handle It”: On Relationship Violence, Independence, and Capability. This post is a lot more personal- it was a lot more difficult for me to read, because of this. It’s her story of what it felt like for her, from the inside of an abusive relationship.

Cisgender News is the best. If you’ve ever facepalmed at how trans people are discussed in the media, you’ll love it. If you haven’t, then you should probably read it anyway to get a snarky, snarky feel for how messed-up it is. Then you too can facepalm!

Rebekah Wade – a cisgender woman who has now quit as News International chief executive – not only conquered the macho cis world of tabloid journalism to become its queen but did so with astonishing speed. What was behind her rise to power?

Rebekah Brooks – as she started to call herself following a second marriage – courted power but avoided publicity.  She started receiving female hormones via her ovaries during her first puberty, and intends to continue with them.

And now for something a little more current.

I’m an atheist. Is that a problem? Kate Hilpern writes about being an atheist godparent. What does being a godparent really mean? Is it as much a purely religious role as the church would have you believe? Is it okay for atheists to participate in religious baptisms?

some will say I have no integrity. As its name suggests, a spokesperson from the Church of England points out, at the heart of the role is a commitment to support someone in the journey of faith. An atheist can be a wonderful influence in a child’s life, but being a godparent is to be a representative of the religious community and an example of godly living (which is why they should be baptised and preferably confirmed), in addition to supporting them socially.

I’m an atheist. I’m a godparent as well. When I was asked to be a godparent I was still technically a member of the Catholic Church, not having yet registered my apostasy, but was a nonbeliever. The reasons why I happily went into a church, crossed my fingers behind my back and took part in that ceremony? Because I was incredibly honoured to be asked. Because my own relationship with my godparents has always been about love, not doctrine. Because there are very few people who I’ll engage in Catholic ceremonies for- and my godkid’s dad is one of them. Am I entirely happy with that decision? I have no idea.

Finally, today’s Awesome Person Of The Week is Sally. Who has a thing or two to say about being described as a precious pearl. Or a lollipop. And also a few things to say about preventing sexual assault. (Hint: not assaulting people is a good start).


A Linkspam To The Past

Conference musings: Atheists, non-atheists, and the Four Horsemen.

One of the criticisms that’s often levelled at The Atheist Movement(TM) is that we’re composed almost entirely of middle-aged white guys. That our spokespeople are all white guys. That we all blindly hang on every word that comes from Richard Dawkins’ lips. That Dawkins et al are the leaders of our movement.

Nothing could have debased that notion as much as this weekend. Two things this weekend, to be precise.

The first were the hecklers. A group of Islamists* who came to the conference specifically to confront Dawkins. They showed up only for the two panels that Dawkins was included in, and Maryam Namazie’s (amazing!) keynote speech at the end of the conference. The rest of the time they spent at a stall they had put up outside the conference, arguing with anyone who got close enough.

The second was a PZ Myers’ reply to the contention that humans are ‘wired’ for hero-worship. He pointed out that as a professional scientist/academic, he has been trained to criticise and question. That there are people who he admires, and that this admiration is often expressed through questioning and criticism.

By yesterday evening, it was a group of exhilerated, exhausted people who pottered down the road from the hotel to grab a bite to eat in Eddie Rockets. While we talked about an awful lot of things- in that exciteable, giddy, stopping-and-starting way that sleep-deprived people do- Dawkins wasn’t a major topic. Not one who eclipsed all others, anyway.

The atheist community is one of many, many disagreements. As a rule, one of the few things that most of us have in common is that tendency to criticise, to question. While we admire individuals, most of us are rarely inclined to hero-worship. It’s tough to be a skeptic and see anyone as infallible.

It wasn’t the atheists who spent the weekend hanging on to Dawkins’ every word. We were, it seemed, mainly delighted to have him there, delighted to have an opportunity to engage with him, delighted to perhaps thank him for what his work has meant to many of us. But it was the Islamists who showed up specifically for Dawkins, who insisted on speaking to him specifically, who weren’t interested in what the rest of us- excepting Namazie and possibly PZ Myers- had to say.

The atheist movement is not immune from sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, ablism. We are part of a society which suffers from all of these things. But from the inside, the Four Horsemen play a far smaller role than an outsider might see. From the inside, my atheist movement, and my skeptical movement, is the movement of Greta Christina, Maryam Namazie, Hemant Mehta, the Skepchicks, Jen McCreight and countless others. Many of whom are middle-aged white guys. But many of whom are not. And most of whom- no matter how much a lot of us may appreciate and admire their work- aren’t the Four Horsemen.

*Thank you to Maryam Namazie for pointing out, time and time again, the difference between Muslims and Islamists.

Conference musings: Atheists, non-atheists, and the Four Horsemen.

Oh, those smooshy, sappy atheists.

This is the worst. hiatus. ever.

I have a bunch of posts to make about things that people talked about at the World Atheist Conference. I have notes! And hopes to turn the notes into cogent, well-written opinions over the next few days! Right in the middle of Bloggly Hiatus 2011!

However: us atheists have a terrible* reputation for being snarky, arrogant, argumentative types. But I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon sitting with a group of people rhapsodising about the amazingness of the universe, how incredible it is that us bags of chemicals can do such awesome things as everything we do, and how our awareness of our finite lives just plain make us want to appreciate everyone we love all the time, and do what we can to make life better for people.

Those pesky atheists. Sappy gits, the lot of ’em.

*or wonderful, depending on your perspective.

Oh, those smooshy, sappy atheists.

World Atheist Conference Day 1

It appears that this weekend is going to be a hiatus to my hiatus, since I’ve somehow, after a series of fortunate events, managed to find time this weekend to go to the World Atheist Conference. Or Convention. Is it just me, or do the lines get incredibly blurry between those two as soon as you step out of strict academia/geekery?

But yes. As I didn’t have the foresight to bring anything I could scribble notes on, this is all from memory as I fill myself up with delicious pad thai, and is therefore subject to incompleteness, inaccuracy and distraction by noodles. Don’t expect insightful criticism today!

I arrived about a half-hour before the conference began, which seemed like a reasonably sensible compromise between wanting to check things out before the talks started, and having a mild case of nerves about showing up to a Big Social-ish Event by myself. I needn’t have worried, by the way.

The conference was opened by Michael Nugent who was, as usual, both entertaining and to the point. He spoke about how, as atheists, our common identity only has meaning because we live in a society structured on religious grounds. In the absence of this kind of religious structure and dominance, atheism would have no more meaning than not-stamp-collecting. Word for the day, by the way: aphilatelist. I am an aphilatelist. Are you? He also talked about his optimism regarding secularisation of Ireland.

Next was the inimitable Ivana Bacik. She spoke for about three quarters of an hour, about topics as diverse as secularisation in schools, what she would like a secular society to look like, and humanist sources of ethics. I loved her points about a secular society- that she has no problem whatsoever with people being religious, and that her vision of secularisation is of a state which is not religiously biased (as Ireland’s is), and a society that respects people of all religions and none. Nice. Her comments on using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an ethically inspiring text were also interesting- not something that had occurred to me before. I also liked her answer to a question regarding her reasons for ‘coming out’ publicly as an atheist. Turns out that, well, she was just asked about it one day. Sometimes it ain’t about soul-searching and crises, people.

Next was the first panel discussion of the conference (and the only of the day). For this, Lone Frank, DPR Jones and Richard Dawkins discussed Weird Science versus Weird Religion. Or, that was the idea at least- topics weren’t exactly stuck to, as it was a very participatory kind of discussion. It was also a lot more atheist, as opposed to secular, than the previous speakers. Some areas I do remember being discussed, though:

  • *Our innate tendency to see agency where none exists- based on the idea that brains that react as though that strange rustling noise is a predator are far more likely to reproduce than the ones who assume that it’s just the wind. There are theories that this tendency is the basis for a lot of our initial belief in spirits or gods. DPR talked about how he feels that this means that religions would always crop up even in an environment where none exist. Dawkins disagreed, seeing this as just another cognitive bias to be dealt with.
  • *Communicating the differences between Weird Science and Weird Pseudoscience. The difficulty with communicating science is often that of how to make it accessible to the layperson without dumbing it down, as well as how to communicate the evidence for what can seem like preposterous claims in a way that can be reasonably easily understood. As science advances, it becomes more specialised, and more difficult for the layperson to distinguish between genuine scientific findings and pseudoscience dressed up with ‘sciencey’-sounding words and explanations.
  • *And then there was The Inevitable. Someone was bound to come to heckle, and someone did. I can’t remember the man’s name, but he introduced himself as a Muslim* with a question for Dawkins. He referenced someone that Dawkins had spoken about earlier- a Christian young-Earth creationist ex-geologist who had left geology because he felt that all of the evidence for an old Earth conflicted with his faith, and he did not want to give up or change his beliefs. The geologist had said that even if all the evidence in the world pointed towards evolution, he would not change his beliefs. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but this man then asked Dawkins if he would show the same honesty if “all the evidence in the world pointed to creationism as opposed to everything being created by chance”. Dawkins was.. not happy to have evolution mischaracterised as ‘chance’. The man then asked Dawkins if he would explain for him how we have come to exist. I’m not sure exactly what Dawkins answered to this one, but it involved questioning which part of the past several billion years he’d like to start with. Owch. That guy did not end up looking particularly well.

One thing that I would like to mention that I like a lot about the conference plan, though, is that although Dawkins- one of the biggest names in atheism on the planet- is there, he isn’t giving any keynote speeches. Instead, he’s involved in two panel discussions over the course of the weekend. I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but if so I think it’s a fantastic way to get people listening to what other, less well-known names have to say.

Right, I’m out of pad thai, which means that this blog post, along with my delicious tofu, is coming to an end. But there was also a delightfully deadpan speech by Tanya Smith, the new president of the Atheist Alliance International, which it is terrible of me to not do justice to. I’ll try and remember to bring a notebook tomorrow and have a more comprehensive account of Day Two!

*You know, I feel a little strange about identifying this guy’s religion, given, well, not wanting to feed into Islamophobia. I do so mainly because he made a very major point of it himself. I would, however, like to point out very strongly that just because this guy is a Muslim who mischaracterised an entire branch of science and refused to accept that he had done so, doesn’t mean that this is an Islamic kind of thing to do. It’s a fundie thing to do. Any comments claiming that this is a Muslim-in-particular thing are unwelcome here, and anyone found doing so will be summarily dragged to Henry St of a weekend to listen to the rantings of the very-Christian street preacher generally to be found there. And then given a history lesson. But not by me, ’cause I’ve better things to do.

World Atheist Conference Day 1