[Disclaimer 1: this post isn’t intended as a character assassination - I’m not sure it’s helpful to talk about people (as opposed to actions or statements) as being innately racist, and what I say here refers to the latter.]
[Disclaimer 2: I’m writing from the point of view of a white atheist who isn’t and never was a Muslim; I accept I could be missing something important, and I’m open to being told so.]
Pat Condell is not a pleasant man. If you haven’t seen his YouTube channel, don’t bother looking it up – suffice to say that if someone’s Twitter page claims they ‘make videos criticising religion and political correctness’ (as if the one necessitates the other), I’m not likely to admire them.
In particular, Condell thought the building of Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque, should have been prevented in 2010 – because Muslims as a whole held collective responsibility for 9/11, and simply being a Muslim, to him, means endorsing Al Qaeda. He supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, who feel the need to describe themselves officially as a ‘libertarian, non-racist party’ and who wish to scrap the Human Rights Act, one major piece of legislation secularists have on their side, alongside Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in science and sex education at British schools. (They also promote home schooling, ever the fundamentalist parenting choice, deny the realities of climate change and describe gay marriage as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance’.)
Condell says this of the nationalist, Christian theocratic, anti-immigrant English Defence League: ‘I went to their website and read it quite carefully, looking for racism and fascism of course, because the media keep telling me that they are far right, but, well, I’m a little puzzled because I can find is a healthy regard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Not a whiff of racism or fascism and not a whiff of far right politics of any kind.’ He describes Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who supports the government banning of the Qur’an, the deportation of Muslims and the taxing of women who wear hijabs without a €1000 licence, as a hero. (Wilders is fine, of course, with identical headscarves worn by Christian women.)
These strike me all in all as the statements of a thoroughly despicable man, unpleasant and unadmirable not least from the secularist point of view. Richard Dawkins does admire him, however. When YouTube pulled a video named ‘Welcome to Saudi Britain’, in which Condell refers to Muslims as corner-shop owners and to Saudi Arabia’s whole population as ‘mentally ill’ and ‘barking mad’, then subsequently republished it, here’s what he said:
Previously, his foundation’s website compiled and sold a collection of Condell’s videos on DVD, announced with the following comments.
Mehdi Hasan tweeted this morning that
Condell’s what he claims is an EDL supporter’s ‘hatchet job’ on him was retweeted both by Dawkins and Steven Yaxley Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson), the EDL’s leader. Dawkins himself had previously written,
Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.
(Fitna, if you’re unaware of it, was a film in which Wilders asserted that since parts of the Qur’an – like just about any ancient religious text – say violent things, all Muslims are by definition supporters of religious violence and deserve the pariah status prescribed by Wilders’ policies.)
A state which halts immigration from so-called Muslim countries, which deports and criminalises citizens specifically for being Muslims, which imposes exceptional limitations on the exercise of Islam, alone among other religions, and assigns all Muslims collective guilt for Islamists’ religious atrocities is not one any secularist should wish to establish. (We want neutrality, not persecution rivaling that of Europe’s anti-Semitic, theocratic past.) And yes, Richard, it’s racist.
If you think criticising Islam is racist, you must think Islam is a race. And if you think Islam is a race you are a racist. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 4, 2013
Asserting that because Islam is a religion and not a race, one can never discuss it (or treat its followers) in racist ways makes about as much sense as saying that because ballet is an art form not a sexual identity, it’s impossible to say anything homophobic about male ballet dancers. Hip-hop musicians and immigrants aren’t races either, but commentary on both is very often racist – or at least, informed and inflected to a serious degree by racial biases.
I’m an atheist and a secularist. Within the context of a broader critique of religion, I have no problem saying the architecture of public space, as a prerequisite for democracy and human rights, must be secular; that it’s absurd to think violent, inhumane ancient texts provide superior moral guidance to everyone else’s; that if you claim religious morality based on those texts should be enforced in the public sphere, you deserve to have their contents thrown at you; that the God idea is a bad idea; that Islamism is a regressive, oppressive political movement; that non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist, mainstream Islamic beliefs deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as any others; that they can and should be indicted for promoting sexual ethics based on the whims of an imagined being; that Mehdi Hasan deserved evisceration, not praise, for his article on homosexuality; that cutting apart infants’ genitals is violence and abuse; that subjecting animals to drawn-out, agonising slaughter is unspeakably cruel and religion no excuse; that going eighteen hours in July without eating or drinking is more likely to endanger your health than bring spiritual enrichment; that blasphemy is a victimless crime, and public prohibitions of it antediluvian. I am not ‘soft on religion’; I am not softer on Islam than any other.
But there are still ways to say these things that have racist subtexts and ways that don’t. There is nothing inevitable in facing a barrage of indignation from sensible people when you talk about Islam-related things.
There’s nothing racist about critiquing misogyny in popular music, including in hip-hop, a prominent genre. But if you’re singling hip-hop out as the sexist genre, or talking disproportionately about rap lyrics rather than songs outside traditionally black genres by the Beatles, Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift or One Direction – particularly if you’re also essentialising hip-hop as misogynous by definition, ignoring all female and feminist hip-hop – you need to examine your motivations and consider where that bias is coming from.
If you’re singling out Islamic theocracies as countries with repressive laws about sex, you likewise need to think about why. In the civically secular, socially Christian U.S., it was only ten years ago that sodomy laws (used against unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay sex) were struck down in Texas, and it was only in 2005 that the state of Virginia legalised premarital sex. In civically Christian, socially secular Britain, HIV-positive and transgender people are criminalised for having sex; in mainly Christian Uganda, gay sex is illegal. All over the Western world and the planet generally, sex workers face state violence, harassment and imprisonment. What sorts of countries have terrible, oppressive, violent laws about sex? All sorts. Of course we can attack Islamic theocracies, but if you’re not attacking them within a broader context – if you’re not discussing other nations with oppressive laws, and not talking about non-Islamic religious law’s use in policing consensual sexuality – you need to ask yourself why you’re driven to attack the religion especially and disproportionately whose image is most strongly racialised.
Likewise, why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools when discussing creationism in the classroom, to the exclusion of other religions? Which choose Islam in particular as the exemplum of a very much broader problem? The British Humanist Association and other groups campaigned successfully against all (and not religiously specific) creationist teaching last year, such is the level of generalised malpractice in science education at British schools; a physics teacher at my wholly typical, religiously softcore and atheist-dominated comprehensive told my Year 10 class after explaining the formation of the Earth that if anyone had ‘any deeply held religious beliefs, this is just a theory’. In particular, a solitary network of 40 Christian fundamentalist schools (compared with 126 Islamic schools in total) exists in Britain where only a tenth of pupils deem Darwinism true – Jonny Scaramanga, who writes here, attended one and will tell you all you need to know – and according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll only 48 percentof Britain believes in evolution at all. Targeting Muslims seems curiously selective.
If the word ‘alien’ is one you’d use for creationism in Muslim schools, would you use it when discussing schools like Jonny’s – creationist, white-dominated and Christian? Would you, do you think, use a word meaning ‘foreign’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘not from round here’ to describe white-British creationists outside a recent of context of immigration? Likewise, whether or not you consider allMuslims ‘Islamic barbarians’, is a historically imperialist term for foreign people to be ‘civilised’ through conquest one you’d have been as likely to apply if white Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. torched the Library of Congress? As much as describing Nigeria’s Christian fundamentalists as savages or calling opposition to Islamism a crusade, using such a racially inflected word in reference to Islam – whose members in Europe face racism from the assembled far-right forces of figures like Wilders, Condell, Lennon’s EDL, Anders Behring Breivik and Stop Islamisation of Europe – is spectacularly tone-deaf, regardless of intent.
It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal. Hamza Tzortzis, theocrat, Islamic fundamentalist and the organiser of UCL’s notorious gender-segregated debate earlier this year, is on record claiming‘We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even of freedom’; it seems conceivable he doesn’t speak for all of Earth’s 1.8 billion Muslims, nor all those who’ve existed throughout history, but reactions to the debacle from camp Dawkins suggested the same.
Tzortzis is an individual. He runs one particular organization, and espouses one particular politicised form of Islam. He has a name. Referring to him in lieu of it as just ‘a Muslim’ or ‘some Muslim or other’ suggests he’s as generic a representative of those 1.8 billion people as he claims he is – and referring, moreover, to ‘these Muslims’ (not ‘these Muslim fundamentalists’, ‘these Islamists’ or ‘this organisation’) as juxtaposed with UCL suggests not only that Tzortzis’ group, the IERA, are ambassadors for Muslims everywhere but that Muslims as a homogenous, theocratic and foreign mass are being capitulated to; that ‘they’ are an external threat to ‘us’, and that no one could be both part of UCL’s establishment anda Muslim. We’ve seen this homogenisation again since then, in the statement that no happily Muslim women could possibly exist – that every Muslim woman everywhere is beaten by her husband and whipped for being raped, and by implication that the experiences of Muslim women in Sharia theocracies are representative of others’ elsewhere who practice non-violent, non-fundamentalist Islam. Again, I’m certainly not of the view that just because someone’s religious views aren’t murderous, violent or theocratic, there can be nothing wrong with them – but to erase all Muslims except merciless Salafists hands not only them, but racists, fascists and far-right imperialists the validation they crave.
Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur’an. You don’t have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) March 25, 2013
My argument isn’t necessarily that you have to mean this consciously as and when you make the statements above, but these are your rhetoric’s implications and connotations. Rhetoric matters, and when your job as a writer – especially a globally recognised, influential writer – is saying things clearly, it’s one of your responsibilities to take into account how what you say could reasonably be (mis)interpreted. An analogy might in theory be possible which compares the Qur’an to Mein Kampf without implying Muslims are Nazi-like by definition, but when far-right figures like Condell and the EDL insist with characteristic lack of irony that Muslims have no place next to ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, it’s absurd not to anticipate that reading; it might in theory be reasonable to say someone with a journalist’s critical nous is inconsistent if they believe in literal winged horses, but when Muslims are at heightened risk of falling victim to unemployment, a tweet which could be construed as endorsing discriminatory practice – with Muslims turned away from jobs just the way the EDL’s members would like – almost certainly willbe so construed.
Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 21, 2013
A paragraph back, when I mentioned merciless Salafists. Originally, the adjective would have been ‘savage’ or ‘bloodthirsty’, but it struck me that a comparison of Muslims with aggressive, predatory wild animals or reference to them with words traditionally justifying conquests of dark-skinned nations had unhelpful connotations – and connotations matter. If what you’re about to say has the potential to uphold racist or imperialist impulses – if it’s something fascists might end up quoting in their support – say something else or find a better way of saying it. When the leader of the EDL’s retweeting you, it’s time to rethink your rhetoric.
The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.
There are better ways we can discuss Islam.
There are better ways we can critique Islam.
Please, Richard Dawkins.
The other day’s post has done as well as I hoped it would – my thanks go to everyone who’s shared it. If you liked it and you haven’t shared it, consider doing so; not so much just to swell my hit count as to help promote the people on the list and spread the message. (Well, all right: partly for my hit count. I’m only human.)
Alongside being welcomed seemingly by many, it’s provoked a degree of pushback. To an extent, I’m glad of that, since if you’re pissing no one off you’re doing no good. There have been several recurring objections, as well as misconceptions or questions, so rather than address them individually on separate comment threats, I’m collating my responses to the commonest reactions so far.
I introduced the 2013 post by saying why we need diversity. This is about why we need diversity lists.
Why isn’t person X mentioned here?
There’s no particular logic to who did or didn’t make the 2013 list, beyond that I’ve tried to hew more closely to people actively involved in skeptical, secular, atheist, rationalist or humanist discussions – ideally, where possible, more than one of the above – rather than figures who just happen to be atheists. If someone was on last year’s list but isn’t on this year’s, don’t conclude I no longer want to promote them: there’s not necessarily any reason one person reappears and another doesn’t, except who came to mind first while I was writing the new version.
Remember that we have a comments section! 100 is an arbitrary figure, and I could have gone on listing people for a while – plenty of people deserve attention who didn’t get a name check here, including no doubt plenty I haven’t heard of, so if there’s something you think has been overlooked, mention them in the comments beneath the list. Self-promotion is permitted and encouraged!
Why isn’t person X higher up the list?
Numbers on this list are for ease of reference only – it’s alphabetical! (You might think this would be obvious. I did when I wrote it, assuming people would notice surnames ran from Ahadi to Zepf. Apparently not.) There’s no single criterion by which I’d want to rank such a wide range of people, and I don’t want the list to be hierarchical anyway, because some aren’t more important than others. They all matter.
Why isn’t group X better represented?
Good question. The original list in 2012 made efforts to accommodate neglected demographics, in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality and age as well as people whose professions or vocations weren’t (stereo)typical of our community – artists, musicians, comedians. In the end, I think the end product suffered – by trying to include all possible subgroups, I feel like I ended up not giving any of them enough space, so this year concentrated on gender and race.
I realise this approach isn’t problem-free. In particular, I’d like there to have been better representation of queer and trans* people and those with disabilities, and I recognise the absence of those subgroups is a serious issue. If you know of existing lists that highlight secular thinkers with those backgrounds, let me know; or, if there aren’t any, let me know whom you’d mention on one, and perhaps we can create a dedicated, supplementary resource to this one.
Why not make an inclusive list, with all the white men we already know about? Why exclude people for being white men?
I’m not excluding white men. White men, in case you hadn’t noticed, are not broadly absent from the secular community; the groups on this list are. If we want to take steps to include them, we need dedicated lists of relevant people. Why, anyway, would we need a list of names everyone knows? The people on the list are suggested as additions to the speaking/writing/campaigning circuits, not replacements for the people currently on them. This isn’t a zero sum game where every time we discover or promote a woman of colour, a white man gets excommunicated.
This being said, I’d absolutely support all-woman or all-minority-ethic speaker lists at dedicated conferences for those subgroups – and I think that at regular conferences, when there’s only one seat left on a panel to fill, James Randi and PZ Myers can probably cope if organisers want to include someone new or up-and-coming. Stagnation, after all, is not a good thing; if your conferences’ speaker lineups in 2016 are the same as the ones from 2006, with no new blood being injected in between, you have serious cause to worry for your movement.
But this is positive discrimination! Imagine if things were the other way around! Would a list of 100 people who weren’t members of minorities or women be okay?
Things aren’t the other way round. If they were, in a parallel universe where women and people of colour dominated our community and white men were a marginal underrepresented group at conferences, in our media and at our organisations, making a list of ones who merited attention would make sense.
In this universe, that is not the case. Addressing the absence from speaker line-ups and websites of groups that comprise more than half our species is not equivalent to policing that absence. If you want to imagine the list the other way round, imagine its context the other way round.
You’re lowering the bar. Promote people on their merits, not their gender or race!
Why do you think biographies are attached to these names? I am including people on their merits – I detail, in each case, why the person in question deserves attention, what their fields of expertise or interest are and what their contributions might be. If I wanted to list 100 female or minority-ethnic people regardless of merit, I’d have found Facebook groups for atheist women and people of colour and typed up the first 50 members’ names from each. If you think choosing people on merit means only choosing white men, you have some terrible presumptions.
The fact these figures are brown, black or female isn’t why you should know about them – you should know about them because they’re talented, interesting, articulate and relevant – but it’s probably at least part of why you didn’t.
The cream rises to the top! If they’re talented, they’ll make a name for themselves.
Do you honestly think personal quality and talent are all it takes for someone to ‘rise to the top’? (And by implication, that today’s white men possess them to a vastly inordinate degree?)
You almost certainly knew before reading the list of the campaign against Mother Teresa Christopher Hitchens carried out in the mid-nineties; of the book and documentary film through which he advanced it. Did you know that the film was co-written by Tariq Ali, and the book inspired by Aroup Chatterjee’s writing? We remember Hitchens effectively as Mother Teresa’s sole prosecutor, but aren’t they just as worthy of credit for tarring and feathering her as he was? And is it a coincidence, or purely down to his (admittedly far from minor) individual talents, that only the work of Hitchens – white, English, public school and Oxford-educated, perfectly placed as a media-friendly pundit in a still male-dominated press – is widely celebrated, and not Indian Chatterjee’s or Pakistani Ali’s?
We likewise have it on record from Richard Dawkins that U.S. publishers prior to 2006 felt nervous about picking up The God Delusion. Some felt America wasn’t ready for it, or that controversy would ensue, as to some extent it did. Was Dawkins’ manuscript accepted, over all the similar ones no doubt pitched to publishers in prior years, purely on his merits as a writer and thinker? Or were publishers also encouraged by his status as a prominent world academic with a record of successful popular writing, whose book was guaranteed to sell (profitably, if not in the huge numbers it ultimately did)? And did Dawkins’ status as an already widely read academic have nothing to do with his status as a white man from a wealthy family?
One record, once again, he’s credited his studying at Oxford with moulding his life’s successes – Oxford, which only a year before his admission had banned women from compromising more than a fifth of the student body, and which he reached largely through attending an all boys’ school that remained so till 1990 and currently charges £163,155 for seven years of day attendance and £204,240 for boarders. (For those unaware, only seven percent of British children – but consistently around half of students at Oxford and Cambridge – attend private schools.)
Hitchens’ background was eminently similar, and in fact they even attended the same Oxford college. Whatever the scope of their talent or efforts, to claim there were no other factors in their success is ridiculous; do you imagine there were no equally hardworking or gifted people who might have become secular leaders, had their gender, race and class not denied them Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ advantages? There certainly were – some of them are on this list. To accuse me of giving them a special ‘leg-up’ on account of their genders and races ignores all the legs-up our white male leaders have often had on account of theirs, for which lists like this only compensate.
But I haven’t heard of these people!
Is that a bad thing? To let you in on a secret, I hadn’t heard of most of them till I did research, and – guess what? – I’m glad I do now. I feel enriched for having discovered Myra Zepf’s columns, Victoria Gugenheim’s body art, Azita Chellappoo’s blog, Michael Brooks’ thoughts about science as a brand (to pick four examples from the crop). As Hemant Mehta said at Friendly Atheist on sharing the list, it’s like finding hidden treasure.
Fame to date, again, isn’t the only measure of merit or skill – and be aware that you’re in danger of furthering a vicious cycle: the reason you haven’t heard of someone may in large part be that others weren’t willing to book or promote an unknown. Everyone, even the superstars we’ve all heard speak a hundred times, was unknown at some point; I know I’m not alone in saying that on leaving a conference, the highlight which sticks in my mind is often someone I didn’t previously know, and the break you give somebody might turn out to be their big break.
It’s true that big names fill seats, but so do catchy titles, interesting topics and fresh perspectives. Moreover, as someone who’s organised these kind of events, the number of seats filled isn’t always most important: would you rather pack a lecture theatre out and have your audience hear a well-known speaker say what they always say, before trundling to the programme’s next event, or fill only half the seats for an event which goes viral on YouTube, raises the profile of your conference through word of mouth or thoroughly informs your community’s future discussions? Only approaching the biggest names can actually hinder you – offered the choice between a conference where the 100 people on the list were speaking, or one where I’d seen all the speakers before plenty of times, I know which I’d rather attend.
Until last week, I didn’t know I was an Anglican.
In Britain, the Church of England by and large is an object of humour. We joke about its reputation for tea and cake, leaking roofs and village fêtes, its desperate, undignified attempts to be trendy and current, the notion half its members are private atheists. The latter always seemed a comic overstatement, but unearthing my certificate of baptism has made me question its exaggeration.
As long as I was seriously conscious of religious ideas, or indeed much else, I never considered myself an Anglican. While at one time or another I visited most local churches, it wasn’t the Church of England in which I grew up – I’ve only the vaguest memory of visiting its services at preschool age, after which I never went back. By the time I was sixteen, in any case, I was an atheist. It’s uncanny then, almost archaeological, to have found record of my Anglican baptism while rifling through old results letters and legal papers, a yellowing sliver of card from the first months of my life.
Its centrepiece is a line drawing of the churchyard, a man and woman gendered in 1950s dress outside its gates, arms linked, a boy behind them carrying something – a hymnbook, perhaps? – and two girls skipping in ahead, their angle of approach suggesting a separate family, their parents out of view behind them. The gates have been altered in the years since this was drawn, and I wonder if the artist (their signature only a subtle ‘V.’) is still around: the image speaks of a time when still-young parents brought their children to churches like this, when boys wore blazers and trousers and girls pleated skirts. Even if this was drawn the year of its issue, the artist must have been at least sixty-something – the current age of my parents, till recently some of this church’s youngest members. Asked to think of churchgoers, at least in a parish like this, would anyone born since the war picture such figures?
If you can’t read the text the image contains, the blessing underneath my name and the vicar’s reads as follows:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, whose blessed Son did share at Nazareth the life of an earthly home: Bless, we beseech Thee, the home of this child, and grant wisdom and understanding to all who have the care of him: that he may grow up in Thy constant fear and love: through the same Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The gendered pronouns catch my attention. Did female-assigned babies have separate certificates, worded ‘her’ and ‘she’? Did the blessing’s content change? I can’t see why it would, but nor do I see an existing need for ‘his’ and ‘him’. Perhaps ‘s/he’ just seemed too drily official, but in some ways this is true of the whole document. If only because uncovered among wildlife awards and first aid diplomas, this certificate seems jarringly unprofound next to its subject matter, a collision on bordered card of the ostensibly transcendent with the palpably banal.
What about the hope, then, that I grow up in constant fear? I’m braced for the objection that the full text reads ‘fear and love’, but I’m unsure that’s an improvement: if you live in fear of someone, I worry for you, but I worry much more if you love them as well. It’s certainly revealing though that here, as in this church generally, sinister details lurk in the fine print.
Whatever affectionate fun Eddie Izzard and Rowan Atkinson poke at it, the Church of England does not deserve its mostly harmless image. If its sheen of middle class friendliness has been eroded by its handling of gay marriage and women bishops, its years of misanthropic collaboration through the Anglican Communion have gone largely unnoticed in British media. If Justin Welby cares as much as he claims about gay people’s wellbeing, what does he have to say to the Church of Uganda, supporters by and large of its country’s Homosexuality Bill, smearers of queer men as molesters of infant boys with talk of ‘homosexual disorientation’, excommunicators of pro-gay bishop Christopher Senyonjo, boycotters of the 2011 Primates’ Meeting? Where was he while his predecessor, seemingly comfortable in such churches’ company, spent years appeasing Peter Akinola, former Nigerian archbishop and supporter of criminalising homosexuality – even defending his implied threats toward Muslims?
If this is a church of closet agnostics, it’s also the church of Andrea Williams, George Carey and Lynda Rose; of Nicky Gumbel, John Sentamu and Michael Nazir-Ali. In both confidence and influence, the fundagelical factions are growing – we’re seeing (or almost seeing) ex-gay bus ads and pro-life rallies, watching young Earth creationists gain major politicians’ ears while secular, pro-choice MPs are unseated in smear campaigns, theocrat lobbyists win unjust, unfair legal exemptions for religion. This church’s standards are as hole-filled and unsound as its proverbial roofs, and – thanks to my infant baptism, carried non-consensually out before I could speak, and in terms of figures widely usedby the media and government – I’m one of its members.
Time and again the Church of England has brandished favourable statistics, no matter how spurious or unreliable, in attempts to legitimise its privileges.
- In the decade which followed the 2001 census, we heard over and over that 72 percent of Britons were Christians, despite this resulting from an imprecise leading question and being wildly inflated in comparison with other national surveys.
- After the 2011 census, despite the figure dropping to 59 percent and ‘no religion’ answers rising from 15 to 25 percent, the Church claimed victory – only for polling to show that out of those who’d declared themselves Christians, half never took part in any religious activity (including church services) and hadn’t read any part of the Bible in the previous three years, with only slightly more saying they explicitly believed in God, almost 40 percent never or almost never prayed, only 35 percent could name the first book of the New Testament and only 10 percent looked most to their religion for moral guidance.
- This year, perhaps most laughably at all, the Church was roundly mocked for claiming four in five people believed in the power of prayer when most people in an ICM survey answered the question, ‘Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?’ (A fifth, as it turned out, were so wholly unspiritual even when pushed that they failed to answer or said they’d never pray for anything.)
I don’t think my anger at being baptised, then, is trivial or insignificant. When next the Church of England lobbies for further control of state-funded schools, the preservation of schoolchildren’s duty to participate in Christian worship and of its bishops’ automatic parliamentary seats, continued status as the country’s established church or any other theocratic entitlements, you can bet its many millions of supposed members – most of them inducted, like me, sans knowledge or permission – will be hoisted in its support. However the data’s used, anyway, isn’t registering non-consenting people as members of your church just wrong? As so many times before, I feel the spectre of the petty, whining atheist being aimed at me, but once again, aren’t atheists as entitled as believers to autonomy and respect?
So while there’s little I can do to reverse its effects, the Church having refused to discount defectors from its membership, I renounce my baptism. Actually, I denounce it. I denounce a theism I’m incapable of holding to be true, and any theism that imports existential fear, guilt or shame; I denounce a church which preaches that fear to infants, commanding them to love its imagined source, and which harbours and appeases those who’d deny me human rights or dignity. In particular, I denounce a church that takes ownership of children’s minds for granted, and which claims them as its members before they can speak.
Since my first months on this planet, to my recent surprise, I’ve been an Anglican – I was made one without my assent, and most likely will stay one forever, at least on paper, against my will. For that reason if no other, I wish passionately not to be.
Christmas presents, like many aspects of Christmas, have often disappointed me. From time to time, I’ve had excellent ones – skincare sets, Sennheiser earphones and David Almond’s Skellig all stand out – but the tea towel of 2008 remains an all time low. In general, I like giving gifts more than getting them, and given I don’t enthuse over many parts of Christmas, I thought I’d write a post about this year’s choices. (I’m writing it here because, as a queer atheist in a traditional Christian family, my presents always have an agenda.)
This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.
Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’
Remember Leadership is Male, the book I posted about at the start of June? As Christmas Eve approaches, another gem has revealed itself on my relatives’ bookshelf.
What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible is a similar volume by John Piper, and like Leadership is Male has a foreword by Elisabeth Elliot. (Because, of course, nothing endorsed by a woman is misogynous.) Once again, I read the book covered to cover – and, so that you don’t have to, thought I’d share some highlights.
Pleasingly, Friday’s post about the (further) goings on at LSE got lots of attention – it seems like we’ve now got a climate where if British student unions do things like this, word goes out. Whatever else happens, that’s encouraging.
Also encouraging is the ASH society’s response to the union, which went public this morning. Some people seemed worried the ‘Request denied’ message would be the end of this, but they’re fighting it. (And everyone knows I love a good fight.)
Sundas Hoorain, who’s at the London School of Economics and a member of its atheist group, just posted about them requesting an official name change. Rather than just ‘atheist, secularist and humanist’, its members voted to call themselves the Atheist, Secularist, Humanist and Ex-Muslim Society. (It’s overinflated, agreed, but it does spell ‘ASHES’.)
Reasonable stuff, one might have thought. Yet LSE’s student union have just denied the group’s request for this new name.
I am an atheist, and an angry one. An anti-theist, if you like. A firebrand. Not only do I doubt a god exists, I think belief in one, and religion in general, is bad for our planet – inherently. In my writing and my day-to-day life, I’m actively engaged in trying to talk people out of it.
I like to call myself bad without God, and I’m happy to be labelled a reverse evangelist. If you want to say I’m strident, intolerant or shrill, I don’t really mind. I’ve no interest in respecting believers’ views – I hate religion, and want it gone. As such, I have a dark and terrible secret. In my spare time, I am an interfaith worker.