Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Census results - one figure we shouldn't underestimate

The results of the 2011 census were published today, and some of the stats on religion are interesting.

Thanks to a poll commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation (findings outlined here and here) we already knew that the number of people self-identifying as Christians was significantly down on the 2001 figure.  This is encouraging, particularly on a day when supporters of the Church of England are standing up in the Commons to defend its right to define marriage for what it pleases to term our Christian nation.

But a figure that's new to me and by which I think we should be immensely encouraged is the percentage of people now identifying as having "no religion", which has risen to 25% from 15% in 2001.

Superficially, this looks a bit obvious.  The figure for Christianity has gone down significantly while the figures for other religions that have risen have done so only slightly.  So y'know - I mean, duh, where else could all those people have gone?

But there are two things worth noting here, as they have a bearing on the finding.

One; the religion question in the census is heavily loaded to give false positives.  It is not "which, if any, of the following religions do you practice?" or even "which, if any, of the following religions do you identify with?".  Instead, it's "what is your religion?", followed by a list of options.  The options do include "no religion", that's true; but the way the question is phrased is shockingly leading and led the BHA to run this campaign in the run up to the 2011 census.  The fact that the "no religion" figure has risen so steeply is testament to the growing unwillingness among the British population to identify out of habit with the religions with which they were raised - and they've registered that opinion in spite of this heavily loaded question.

Two: the religion question in the census is a voluntary question.  Nobody was obliged to answer it, as with all the other questions. Non-believers were completely free to just ignore the question completely, skip it if they didn't think it mattered or if they have no opinion on religion in policy.

But 25% of the population of England and Wales, as it turns out, are not religious... and felt that position needed to be stated.

I was among them (of course).  I'm not religious myself, but I can't ignore religion as I would like to because it affects too many things in my life and in the lives of others.  I didn't skip the question thinking religion is irrelevant to me; I deliberately identified as non-religious, I stood up to be counted.  So did twenty-five percent of the rest of the country.  I can't say this often enough; twenty-five percent.

A quarter of the population of England and Wales are not only non-religious, but have voluntarily chosen to be identified and represented as such.  That's HUGE. That's EPIC.

That's a start.

Our politicians need to get caught up.  We know that even the majority of people who identify as Christian don't support a lot of what the Church of England and others want to do in their name, using their numbers to back its demands.  And the number of people actively troubling to say they have no religion has risen from 15% to 25% in just ten years.  That's a far bigger chunk of the population than is accounted for by any group except Christianity, but everybody's too busy panicking about offending religious sensibilities to have noticed us.

How big a group of voters must we non-believers show ourselves to be before our politicians start pandering for our approval?  I don't know, but judging by the news coverage it's not enough yet.  People ask me all the time why I'm so vocal against religion.  This is part of the reason; non-religious people are now the second largest group in England and Wales, but nobody seeks our opinions or worries about offending us.  This MUST change.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

I love you guys...

I'm not drunk.  Well, maybe very slightly, but I love you all anyway.

This morning I asked a question on Twitter: "Question for atheists; had you been born before we knew anything about reality (say 500 years ago) do you think you'd have been an atheist?"

I've had a lot more answers than I was expecting, which is always lovely in itself, but what's made me really happy is how honest everyone was willing to be about the extent to which their ability to reason and reject religion has been a product of the time in which they're lucky enough to have been born, and the opportunities they've been lucky enough to receive.

The vast majority of people who answered said they think they'd have been theists or deists if they'd been born before we knew so much about the universe as we do now:

I love this, beautiful tweeps - I don't think one could ask for a better rebuttal to the common claim that atheists are arrogant than the fact that so many of us are willing to state that we'd have been believers too had the fortune of our birth been different.

Even the few people who were prepared to say they think they would have been atheists five hundred years ago were for the most part very hesitant about it; there was a lot of hedging going on:

Again, this is great; even when giving the more controversial answer, everyone was completely happy to say that they were only conjecturing, that they couldn't be sure. Again, how far from arrogance could you get?

For myself, I'm going with "not sure", too.  If I had to place a bet on what my own beliefs would have been five hundred years ago, I think I'd have to go with deism.  I'd realised conventional religions were rubbish by the age of eleven or twelve, before I knew any science to speak of, so I'd like to think I'd have got that far.  Then again, ignorant as I was at that age I still knew that the earth went around the sun, that there had been dinosaurs, and that logic mattered... I don't really think it's possible to answer the question with any conviction.

There was one tweet I got in reply to my question that echoed my own thoughts very accurately:

THIS is the other reason all the answers I got to my question made me so happy. I agree with Adrian; the atheist movement has grown unimaginably even in my own lifetime.  More and more people all over the world are rejecting religious superstition, and we're becoming more vocal and more recognised.  This is what science and modern education allow; not everyone gets over their indoctrination, of course, but the point is that so many people now have the opportunity to do so.  Information is freely available to so many of us, and for some people all it takes is an awareness that there is an alternative to religion to pique their interest and make them seek out that information.

This is why I think we need to be sure we're heard.  We don't need to be rude or cruel, but we need to be sure that everyone we can reach knows that there are people in the world who don't have religion at all, that non-belief IS an option and that there is a whole community of people waiting for them should they decide to make the leap.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Failing at Feminism; A How-To Guide

Right, can we get something straight here, do we think?

No one who insists that a woman should be protected from unpleasant messages, from invitations to coffee, or from criticism because she is a woman is any kind of feminist. If you put your opinions out there in a public forum, those opinions are subject to dissent and mockery – ownership of a vagina doesn't change that. More shockingly, I contend that even people who own [hushed whisper] penises are allowed to disagree with you. No, really. I know that sounds radical.

Rebecca Watson has appeared in Slate this week to bitch some more about how hard it is to be her – an educated, white, middle-class American woman whose rights are protected under law.

She claims she's been “grabbed and groped” at atheist conventions, and if that's true then THAT – I completely acknowledge – is out of order. But guess what? I get groped from time to time in bars and clubs, and on trains too. Do I blame that on the clubbing community? Do I blame it on commuters? Er, no – I blame it on the people who grope me. I'm not sure how that's difficult to understand. And no one's denying such people exist, by the way, even among the atheist community.

As for the rest of Watson's claims, that she receives nasty emails and tweets... well, so fucking what? I stated a few weeks ago in a tweet that I've never received abuse from other atheists. Since posting THAT tweet, I have. And again – so fucking what? What sane reason could I possibly have to think I can say something people won't like in a public space and expect not to get shit for it?! I've been getting sexist comments, sexually graphic messages, even direct threats from religious people for years. Do I blame the religious community for that? Again, no – because the vast majority of religious people don't behave like that.

I think the most galling part of that Slate article is the way Watson's wedged Richard Dawkins in there. I've suspected for some time that she's far more interested in creating a platform for herself than in fighting any kind of social injustice – I mean, the only right she seems to be interested in is her own right to piss and moan about how tough she has it, and she doesn't seem to have noticed that nobody's denying her that. I wish Dawkins hadn't sent that “Dear Muslima” note, not because I think he's wrong but because his doing so has given this shamelessly self-absorbed and deeply manipulative pseudofeminist more exposure than her opinions ever deserved.

Incidentally, she's given herself away dreadfully with her criticism of Dawkins' “Dear Muslima” comment – I'm astonished she didn't realise it before submitting her piece to Slate. She's slammed Dawkins for telling her – legitimately - that Western women haven't got it as bad as women in the Islamic world... ON THE SAME PAGE as telling us about this incident:

so essentially, a message saying “you don't have it that bad, stop moaning” is OK if it comes FROM her... but not if it comes from someone else TO her. She's allowed to shrug off male circumcision on the grounds that it's not so bad as female circumcision, but Richard Dawkins isn't allowed to shrug off an invitation for coffee on the grounds that it's not so bad as getting beaten.

Right then.

(As it happens, I agree with Watson that female circumcision is probably more damaging most of the time than male circumcision – although I'm sure plenty of people disagree with me and I'm quite happy to discuss that. But I also agree with Dawkins that being beaten is worse than being invited for coffee; if Watson wants her point about relative harm to be valid, she has to at least consider the possibility that Dawkins' precisely analogous point might be valid, too.)

I sincerely hope Richard Dawkins will not be tempted to respond, because Watson doesn't deserve his notice. She's not a sceptic and she's certainly not a feminist; she's a self-serving, immature individual who's worked out that throwing the word “misogyny” around can get her exposure in – for example – Slate magazine (for which, by the way, I am disappointed in Slate). The fact that this tactic works is far more of a comment on the community calling itself skeptical than all her stories about nasty emails could ever be.

I don't need the patronising protection of Watson and others of her view, and I resent the implication that she speaks for me because I'm a woman too. I am not a weak, defenceless little creature hiding in the corner from all the nasty men, and I don't need to be rescued and patted on the head by anybody, not even another woman. Seriously; I can look after myself, thank you.

So, men; we all know how Watson thinks you're allowed to act, speak and think. Basically, you're not allowed to – not if Watson is present. I happen to think that's a little unreasonable, so here are some guidelines I set out should you happen to care what I think (unlike Watson, though, I don't make the assumption that you do):

1: Say what you like to me. If you disagree with me, say so. If you want to call me a cunt, go for it. I won't necessarily pay a blind bit of attention to you if the latter is how you choose to approach me, but I won't stop you doing it. Why would I? It's just a word, and as someone opposed to blasphemy laws in all forms it'd be pretty hypocritical for me to then turn around and say “but you have to be polite to me”.

2: (This one goes for women too.) If you would like to ask me for coffee - or even for sex - ask me. Really, it's fine. I'm quite capable of saying “no” should I wish to. Being attracted to someone is not a problem; in fact, some biologists and anthropologists have advanced the opinion that it's normal and even necessary.

3: Just think about it before you touch me. A touch on the arm or a playful nudge probably won't bother me if we're getting on, but a hand on my arse probably will (unless we're really getting on). Use your common sense; read my body language, listen to what I'm saying, put yourself in my place - and if you think physical contact would be unwelcome don't make it. I'm not an alien, I'm just a person. If that's too complicated, then wait to see if I touch you first – fairly or not, being female means I don't have to worry so much about making you feel intimidated (although I will, of course, also refrain from touching you if it seems likely to be unwelcome).

4: The above said, don't touch my breasts or my crotch however well you think we're getting on. If I'm OK with that level of physical contact, you'll know about it and we won't be at a damn convention.

5: This is the most important one, really; 99% of you don't need to worry about these guidelines. You're fine. The vast majority of you are not misogynistic gropers and you already think of women as, y'know, real people. And let's face it; the 1% of men who do think it's OK to grope a woman without her permission basically have no interest in how women would like them to behave, anyway. So carry on as you are, and don't let yourself get suckered into thinking women are feeble little things who'll be scared if you talk to them. THAT is condescending and sexist, and THAT pisses off reasonable women.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Atheism Plus; the Last Rites

Atheism Plus, it seems, has passed away.  Many of us predicted it, although I think we're all pleasantly surprised by just how quickly reason has prevailed among the sceptic community.

Many reputations have taken a hit with it; sorry PZ, you handed people a share of your influence for no better reason than that your fear of being thought a misogynist mattered more to you than whether they were actually worth listening to. Even if you HAD then actively disavowed the illogical and spiteful use to which they put their new power you'd still have looked a fool - and you didn't do that, so you look a coward too.  The name Richard Carrier has become short-hand for the kind of vitriolic with-us-or-against-us mentality that characterised fundamentalist APlusism from the beginning (whatever its sophisticated moderates might have tried to say later), and Jen McCreight has shown herself to be so self-obsessed as to feel no compassion for a homeless man and to think people should ask her permission to masturbate.

Self-obsession, really, is the overwhelming impression Atheism Plus will leave with me.  Well, self-obsession and a devastating want of introspection.

I think the most contemptible thing about Atheism Plus, though, was the fact that it had two purposes; a superficially admirable ostensible goal, and an underhanded, dishonest and rather sinister ulterior motive. In the beginning, A+ was about helping marginalised people within the atheist/sceptic community to feel more included - many of us thought that laudable, as in fact I did myself when I first read about it.  It became clear pretty quickly, though, that its real purpose was to exclude white men above a certain age (unless they demonstrated total and unquestioning faith in the teachings of APlusism), shout about how tough it is to be an educated white middle-class American woman - and to shut us all up if we tried to ask questions or disagree with them.

In case my contempt is not clear on this point; the "feminists" behind Atheism Plus started out trying to tell us they were going to help gay and bi people, transsexual and transgender people, black people, Latino people and other groups underrepresented in the atheist movement. They used that platform to bitch about men trying to make conversation with them in public places.  No one should be more pissed off with them than the people they co-opted, shamelessly exploited, and then ignored.

Once it had stopped pretending to care about gay people, black people and transgender people, Atheism Plus was supposed to be about helping women to feel safe in the atheist community. Not only did many of us feel perfectly safe already, but those of us who've had the temerity to point this out have rather amusingly then found ourselves experiencing abuse and anger from other members of the atheist community for the very first time.  Devising a product then manufacturing the need is a time-honoured method in business - just look at mouthwash.  But A+ don't seem to have grasped the idea terribly well; what they've done is try to sell us a mouthwash to cure dog-breath we don't have, then force-feed us garlic when we didn't want to buy it.  Then wonder why we told them to get the fuck off our property.

If I have one good thing to say about A+, though, it's that it's failed equally in both its goals.  It took a while, but the sceptic community has now almost unanimously rejected the dogmatic tyranny of Atheism Plus.  I think many of us wish the whole embarrassing melodrama had never happened - and I certainly sympathise with that position - but for my part I have to say I find myself reassured about the ability of the atheist movement to make the rational decision as a group.

So Atheism Plus has left me with a pretty bad taste in my mouth.  It was petty, small-minded, vicious, dogmatic, hypocritical, exclusionary, dishonest, irrational, selfish, uncaring and deeply, deeply sexist.  We shall not miss it, but we are wiser for having known it.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Why religious moderates should be THANKING us.

I just had a conversation with a woman on Twitter who professes to hate religion but is a self-identifying Christian. Yah, that just happened.

Anyway, I had a look at her page trying to work out where she was coming from, and saw this:

...and realised that all of us in the atheist, secular, humanist, rationalist movement have been missing something we should be pissed about, and that we should be using in our PR.

Moderate religious people like this woman should be GRATEFUL to us.

When we atheists fight for the rights of women to control our own reproduction, our doing so benefits not only ourselves but religious women too.  When we stand up and tell religious lunatics that they don't have the right to stop gay people marrying, we help religious gay people too. When we campaign to keep creationist drivel out of schools, it is not only our children who benefit from a decent science education but everybody else's children too. When we battle superstitious restrictions on scientific research, that research helps everybody, not just atheists.

We of the "New Atheist" movement take shit from all directions, from religious leaders, from politicians, from faith-heads, even from other non-believers. And most of the time that's fine, we're happy to deal with it because we care about creating a more secular and less superstitious world.

But when "moderate" religious person with no idea of how much they owe to us turns around and demands to know why we care so much about religion when we don't believe in God/s, or even mocks us for caring - that pisses me off.  Do you have ANY IDEA what our society would be like without secularists to fight your battles for you?!  The woman who posted the above tweets is a single mother, a woman who has received an education, who has a say in how her country is governed, who has the right to work, and who is considered an equal member of our society.

Do you think she would be allowed to be or to have or to do ANY of those things if christianity were allowed to govern unopposed?!

If you are a religious person who is in favour of equality and freedom, you are in a difficult position. Your values are being opposed by people who share your faith and in fact use that faith to oppose those values; this means you don't really have a leg to stand on if you want to tell them they're wrong, since you believe the same stuff they do.  We atheists do not have that problem; we're free to tell them their beliefs are utter rubbish without being hypocrites.

We atheists, secularists and rationalists fight a lot of your battles for you, religious moderates, and for the most part we're happy to do so.  Just maybe try not to be totally ungrateful when you're enjoying equalities, justices and freedoms that have been hard-won by other people in the face of the religion you're telling us we shouldn't care about.

Insight into the Atheism Plus mentality; "It's all about MEEEE!"

I should make it completely clear right now that this post is not directly related to Atheism Plus. However, like many others I've been trying to get my head around the mentality of a sect that conflates disagreement with abuse and has given the world "Shroedinger's Rapist", so an insight into the thought processes of the woman who came up with the whole idea seems less than totally irrelevant.

A couple of days ago, McCreight tweeted the following:

Any of us who've had the joy of being poked in the back by some random's boner on the London Underground can probably sympathise.

However, I confess my interest was piqued by a follow-up tweet:

Now, McCreight's Twitter settings prevent me from expanding her tweets to see the responses she's getting, so I can't actually tell you exactly what was said to provoke this response.  However, it struck me as such a strange and hyperbolic thing to say - given that based on the original tweet all that had actually happened was that she walked past him while he was engaged in masturbation - that I replied and this conversation happened:

I never received a reply to my last question.

I'll happily admit that at this point I didn't really know where I stood on what McCreight says she experienced.  On the one hand, yes it's a bit grim to unexpectedly see someone masturbating on your walk to work - and of course what the homeless man was doing was illegal.  On the other hand, I couldn't work out why McCreight seemed to have taken it as such a personal attack on her rights, as in her own words all that had happened was that she'd seen him masturbating while she was "walking by".

The other thing that bothered me was the total lack of concern for the homeless man himself.  Here we have a person who is already living on the streets - with all that that suggests about the chances of his having mental illness and/or drug addictions - and who is now so far removed from the societal inhibitions that usually govern our public behaviour that he is masturbating openly in a public place.  There is a REASON that most people don't do that.

I totally acknowledge that had I been in McCreight's place there probably WOULD have been a moment of "ew, gross" when I saw this homeless man and registered what he was doing.  I'd also probably have got the hell out of there in a hurry.  But I'd like to think of myself that once the initial shock had subsided I'd have felt at least a little concern for this man, for his safety and well-being.  If I witnessed a homeless person shrieking in conversation with himself at the top of his voice, or engaging in self-harm, or doing anything else that most mentally-healthy people do not do in public, I would have felt uncomfortable and probably scared... but I would also have felt compassion.

Why does this not apply because the particular eccentric behaviour this man was displaying happened to be sexual in nature?

Then I saw this tweet:

...and suddenly I got it. The reason McCreight expressed no sympathy or concern for the homeless man is that, in her world, everything anyone does within the scope of her perception is about her.

Seriously, is there any other conclusion we can draw from this?  Never mind everything else that ought to strike us as strange and concerning about what the homeless man was doing; the point so far as McCreight was concerned is that he didn't ask her permission to do it (never mind the question of how he was supposed to know or care who the hell she was OR that she was going to walk past).

Apparently I wasn't the only one struck by the total lack of empathy McCreight showed for this man, because shortly after the above she tweeted this:

When I first saw this one I sincerely thought - hoped! - it was a joke, but I'm forced to the conclusion that she was serious; another example of quite epic self-centredness. Never mind the details of what anybody said, never mind the validity of their points about her total want of compassion (which, you will notice, are not actually refuted in that tweet); the people expressing concern for the homeless man's well-being are uncaring, insincere haters just looking for an excuse to get at McCreight.

Quite apart from all else that's breath-takingly irrational and presumptuous in that statement, who exactly is promoting a "Male-Sexuality-Trumps-Everything agenda"?  What IS a "Male-Sexuality-Trumps-Everything agenda"?  If we take the words at face value, what McCreight is saying here is that anyone who feels concern for homeless people or those with mental illness thinks rape is acceptable.  That's jingoism worthy of Richard Carrier, it's hilarious.

The attitudes of people in the Atheism Plus movement have puzzled me for some time; as I have commented elsewhere, I am neither vain nor self-loathing enough to assume that the only interest a man could feel for me is sexual, for example.  Neither am I sufficiently scared of men that I feel the need to consider them all misogynists - and, these days, potential rapists - until they prove otherwise (if such a thing were actually possible) by my very specific criteria. Nor do I understand a mentality that by default brands all dissent and disagreement (and even questions!) as abuse from either misogynists or sister-punishers.  Most of all, I don't understand how a group that was supposedly set up to support marginalised groups in the atheist "movement" can produce little more than self-righteous whinging from wealthy, educated, middle-class white women living in democracies about how no one understands how hard it is to be them.

Next time you visit the A+ website, keep the words "it's all about meeeee!" in mind. You'll probably find it's all a lot more comprehensible... although if anything even less palatable.

Edit: I am told that some people on Twitter have been mocking Jen McCreight for having said that she is experiencing depression. Not cool, people. You don't make a joke of mental illness, and you don't get to tell her she's lacking in compassion if you then behave like that. Out of order.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Why Jeremy Hunt scares the life out of me.

I write this with a feeling of utter disbelief that I should feel the need to do so.  In the UK, in the year 2012, we are apparently to be dragged back into a fight most of us thought long won - the battle for the rights of women to make our own moral choices.

A few days ago, new Women's Minister Maria Miller stated that the time limit on abortion should be lowered; you can read about that here.  That's right; we have a Minister for Women who wants to limit the reproductive rights of women - her actions, I am delighted to say, resulted in the hashtag #MariaMillerDoesNotSpeakForMe trending on Twitter.  However, Cameron's appointment of an anti-women Women's Minister has been somewhat eclipsed - a remarkable feat in itself - by his appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary.

Jeremy Hunt.  You know, Rupert Murdoch's BFF.  The one with the creative tax returns.  Thinks serious diseases can be treated with drops of magic water.  No education in science or in medicine – you know the one I mean.

And Hunt's wasted no time getting scary; today we learned that based on no evidence whatsoever and against the consensus of the medical profession, he wants to lower the time limit for abortion in the UK to twelve weeks.  Why?  Well according to this Guardian article, it's because "[t]here's an incredibly difficult question about the moment we should deem life to start.  I'm not someone who thinks that abortion should be made illegal. Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when that moment is and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it."

Let's just be clear about something here; this man, who has no medical training at all and quite openly has no value for evidence-based practice, not only believes his subjective opinion should outweigh the consensus of the scientific community in matters of policy BUT DOES NOT EVEN POSSESS THE WIT TO UNDERSTAND WHY HE SHOULDN'T ADMIT TO BELIEVING THAT.  And this man is responsible for our healthcare.

This is terrifying.

I've blogged before about the bizarre notion that women's bodies should be considered somehow public or even government property; the short version is that you don't have the right to stop me making a certain decision about my life just because it's not the same decision you believe you would make in my place.  The time limit on abortion IS a moral grey area, as Hunt himself admits and as I'm happy to concede; in truth I’m somewhat ambivalent about later-term abortions because there’s so much that must be taken into account.  But the salient point here is that my opinion on whether other people should have abortions later in pregnancy doesn’t matter; even if I HAD a strong conviction on the subject, it would not be my place to inflict my personal opinion on others and put women's lives at risk by making it illegal to disagree with me. Neither, I contend, is it Jeremy Hunt’s.

He’s attempting to render a grey area black-and-white by making it illegal to disagree with his own entirely arbitrary opinion, and he doesn’t seem even to realize why that’s at once logically ludicrous, morally revolting AND terrifying.  I’m sick of saying that pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion; being pro-choice simply means being willing to let people make these difficult moral decisions for themselves, not treating grown women as if they’re goddamn children.

Abortion itself is almost a secondary issue here (keep your eye on it, though, because having Hunt publicly shoot for twelve weeks would be a great way to make the people aiming at twenty weeks sound reasonable - exactly analogous to the point I was making in the Akin article linked above); the scary thing about this, really, is that Hunt is now responsible for decisions on medical matters for the entire country... and it already horrifyingly clear that he has no value for logic or for evidence-based reasoning.

It’s been said many times in recent years that we now live in a world in which all opinions are considered inherently valid on their own merits.  This has led, among much else, to homeopathy being funded by our already-stretched NHS, to religious leaders being consulted on matters of public policy, and to people with no scientific education whatever being convinced that their uninformed belief in creationism puts them on an equal platform in debate to real scientists and scholars.  To quote Asimov, too many of us now labour under the foolish and dangerous misapprehension that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.

The appointment of someone like Hunt to such a position as that he now holds is a terrible comment on the anti-intellectual and politically cowardly illogic that pervades our society and shows itself in every parent who elects not to vaccinate, every believer who contends that their fatuous notions should govern the lives of others, and every vicious charlatan who takes people’s money in exchange for “psychic” readings, cleansing of auras or quack medicines.

If people want to run their own lives according to idiotic ideas I can’t stop them, but Hunt and others like him can fuck right off if they think for a moment that they’re going to abuse their power to inflict such rubbish on the rest of us.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Told you a rant was coming...

Here's something I don't understand; why a couple made up of two men or two women is always described as a "gay" couple or a "lesbian" couple, instead of just being called a fucking couple.

I don't know if there's any reason for this or if it's one of those random fluctuations that sometimes just happen, but the last few days my Twitter feed seems to have been overrun with nasty comments about GLBT rights and marriage equality.  I thought about screencapping, but decided on balance that was probably a bit of a bullying move; this is a direct quote from one that particularly annoyed me, though:

"I just seen a Levi commercial that showed 2 gay guys getting married & kissing. WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG W/ THIS WORLD?"

Shit like this pisses me. The fuck. Off.

You know what?  Gay guys are just people. Gay gals are just people. Bisexual people are just people. Asexual people are just people. Transgender people are just people. Transsexual people are just people. Cisgender people are just people. Straight people are just people.

So what did this complete bellend actually see? An advert showing two people kissing and getting married. Big fucking whoop.  We are all. Just. Fucking. People.

How the hell anyone can think they have some sort of right to get all righteously offended by the idea that someone else might enjoy sexual activities they personally don't enjoy, or with partners they personally might not choose, is quite literally beyond my powers of comprehension.  Who the fuck do these people think they are?!

And more than that, how the fuck're they deciding which aspects of everyone else's sex lives they're entitled to object to anyway?!  Of all the criteria by which I choose my sexual partners, why is the type of genitalia they happen to possess the important one?  What if the person I choose is the "correct" gender according to your random arbitrary opinion but you don't approve of our relationship for some other reason, am I allowed to ignore you then?

Who told you your opinion on my sex life is worth a damn anyway?

If you wouldn't consider it your place to legally prevent a person from marrying another person because they were of the "wrong" race, social class, nationality, religion, age, personality type, intelligence, educational level, sense of humour, political ideology, height, weight, size, shape or motherfucking shoe size... why the fuck do you think you get to tell them they can't get married on account of their chosen partner's gender or sex?!

Why the holy hell is THAT the point at which you step in and say "oh now, wait a minute here, I have some sort of trivial pissant half-baked and completely uninvited opinion on this particular aspect of a choice you're making that in no way affects my life, so you'd just better stop that"?!  

And why when you do that do you think we're magically obliged to care what you think?!

If YOU are uncomfortable with the idea of people of the same sex fucking, or if YOU have a problem with transgender people or transsexual people, it is YOUR goddamn problem, not anybody else's.  You don't want to marry someone of your own sex?  Don't marry someone of your own sex.  You don't want to fuck someone of your own sex?  Don't do that either, it makes fuck all difference to any of the rest of us.

And that's kind of the point, really, isn't it?  As long as you're not harming anybody, your sex life and sexual preferences matter not two shits to any of us; why do other people's matter to you?  And why do you think the fact that you have some arbitrary opinion obliges the rest of us to listen to it?

Get back in your fucking box.

Monday, 24 September 2012

A reminder from a courageous man that some of us really do have it easy.

A couple of weeks ago I met a man on Twitter who is an ex-Muslim atheist living in Saudi Arabia.  He and I have talked a little, and at the end of last week I asked him if he'd be willing to write about his experiences for this blog; he very kindly obliged.

I am not going to give my new friend's name, because atheists in Saudi Arabia can find themselves in genuine, mortal danger if they are discovered to be apostates.  I find parts of his account heartbreaking, and others hopeful and inspiring; as with Bethany's story from the other week, though, I was struck by the similarity between my friend's experiences and those of so many others I've spoken to.  It's a strange and in some ways a very moving reflection that however different our cultures and backgrounds may be, we atheists are often so similar in how we think and how we came to reject our indoctrination.

My scepticism and outspokenness are so much parts of me that I struggle even to imagine what it must be like to be required to suppress them for my own safety.  I am glad to have met my new friend, and honoured that he consented to write this for me.  It's a reminder to us in Europe and other places of just how lucky we are to live where we do, and of some of the reasons the fight against religion really is important despite what many of our detractors try to tell us.  But this also fills me with tremendous hope for the future; through modern technology, we are able to speak to people, share experiences and support each other from distances of thousands of miles.  I believe this new ability may in time bring about the start of an enlightenment in parts of the world where religion currently dominates.

My friend submits this with apologies for his English; I will say, though, that those apologies are entirely unnecessary as his own words needed only the most minor of tweaks from me.  I would like to thank him most sincerely for sharing this with me, and for allowing me to share it with you.

"The story of how I became an atheist.

Before you read this I have to say there will be a lot of grammatical mistakes. I am sorry for that; I will try my best.

I am a guy who was born 16 years ago to a Muslim family in Palestine  Like every child who was born in a Muslim family I was raised to think that Islam is the one true religion and every other one is false.  My parents wanted me to become a Hafiz (a person who has memorized the whole of the Quran), so I became one at the age of 12 and got the second place in a competition in my city.

As a child I always had questions about Islam, like why Christians are going to hell even though they believe in God and pray; the answer was that they are just wrong and Islam is right because the Quran says so. When I got a little older I became interested in science (physics and biology mostly); I was still memorizing the Quran so this created huge conflict in me, but I stilled believed in God and thought it was a test to my faith.

When I turned 14 my father died and my family and I moved to Saudi Arabia (my mom works here as a XXXXX).  I joined the school and found that we have 5 subjects about religion (they are mandatory); we have to pray in school; and my sisters have to go to school wearing burqa, even though none of them are over 13.  I also have a little brother.

I started criticizing Saudi Arabia (in my mind of course, not in public) because they are extremists even though that I knew my religion promotes that, so I became an agnostic for quite a while.  Then I got to a point where I said to myself that this religion doesn’t make any sense and neither does any other; the idea of God, heaven, hell… etc. are absurd, and all the fairy tales that were put into my mind when I was child also don’t make any sense to me.  That was the point when I became an atheist.

A few months ago I decided to tell my 4 best friends in Palestine about this. We talked on Skype. The first one took it well and said you have the right to believe whatever you want; we didn’t argue about it. The second and third friends are brothers; when I told them they were a little bit shocked but also said you can believe whatever you want and that my atheism wasn’t  so big a deal as to end a friendship. The fourth friend was my best best friend; we were friends for more than 11 years.  When I told him he argued with me about a lot of things and got really angry; we argued for about 2 hours on Skype, and in the end he told me “man I can’t talk to you anymore. It’s nothing personal, but my religion says so”. Just like that an 11 year friendship was ended; I got a little emotional and maybe cried a little, but I got over it.

A few days after that I decided to tell my mother since I felt such a release when I told my friends.  I told her in private about my honest opinions; she was very shocked (as I had expected). She told me that I am wrong and Islam is the one true religion and all that stuff; I didn’t want to argue because I felt her pain in thinking that her son will be tortured in hell or could get killed in this country.  In the end I told her that I was not really an atheist but that I had a lot of questions about a lot of things. She said that’s OK, that it was just a phase and that God wanted to test my faith. We’ve barely spoken on the subject again; just a few times she’s told me to watch some lectures by “Muslim scholars”, and to pray. Now I pretend to pray and to believe in Islam, as a lot of ex-Muslims do.

So now I never open a conversation about religion. I don’t want any of my Saudi friends to know that I am an atheist, because if the government heard about it I would be killed for apostasy. 

That was the story of how I became an atheist, and some of my experiences. Thank you for reading."

Update: On the advice of a few people, I have edited out a couple of personal details from the above account. Their loss does not affect the point or the tone of what is being said.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Why do I do this?

I had lunch today with a customer (yes, I have a job, just one aspect of the actual life I have beyond arguing about religion and geeking it up on science!) who added me on facebook a while back.  I'd forgotten he could see what I talk about on there - or talked about, anyway, I don't really bother with FB any more - and he asked me why I take time I could be using profitably to talk about religion, why I have such a problem with it.

It's a question I get asked all the time; even my family don't understand in the slightest why I do this, so I thought I'd have a crack at answering it.  I can only give my reasons, of course (and the list will not be exhaustive, by the way, I'd have to write a textbook for that); nobody speaks for all atheists or all antitheists and in fact I know many of both who would probably disagree with much of what I'm about to say.

There's a lot contained within the following which I'll go into in a moment, but for me the issue with religion can be summarised in one sentence:

Religion wants to tell us all - even those of us who don't believe it - how to live; it demands a say in decisions and policies that affect all our lives, and it does so without offering so much as a single shred of evidence that any of what it tries to dictate is based in reality.

One of many things I wish I could make believers understand is just how much you start to notice the influence religion has on all our lives once you stop believing in it yourself.  In fact, there's an idea; if you're reading this and you're a religious person, I have a challenge for you.  Watch the news on TV this evening, and just try to reflect honestly on how much of what you see can be directly linked with religious belief. I think you'll be surprised, and it might help you to understand how it can feel to be an outsider to the whole thing.

I'm lucky enough to live in the UK, which is relatively progressive (although we still lag behind other parts of Europe in some respects).  Yet even here, I am part of a society in which being gay or bisexual is still considered worthy of note, and where doing nothing more objectionable than satisfying sexual desire can still make a woman the subject of mockery, suspicion, contempt, even outright hatred. Sex - when it occurs outside the traditional one-man-one-woman, pair-bonded-and-monogamous-forever paradigm - is still regarded by many as a dirty, shameful thing to do. Do we really think this is unconnected with the concept of "sin" as promulgated by the Church of England for centuries and by the Catholic church before that?

We still live in a society, too, in which religion is accorded respect it simply does not deserve.  I disagree with many religious values on moral grounds, but because I am an atheist - as opposed to a member of another religion or of the same religion but a differing opinion - I am often expected to keep my mouth shut out of "respect". I recently had an argument online with a believer about the right-to-die laws in the UK when they were shown up for the antiquated, wantonly cruel laws they are by the Tony Nicklinson appeal case (outlined here); I think the laws need to be changed, he maintained that they're OK as they are - and his reasoning for this came from his religion.  It is not possible to have a discussion about an ethical issue with someone whose ethics are based on religion if you cannot criticise or question that religion. And that means its very fundamentals, too, not just whatever verse the person happens to have pulled out of their arse this time. After all, what Jahweh says about assisted suicide doesn't matter two shits if Jahweh cannot be proven to be any more real than Severus Snape (although personally, I'd prefer to live in a universe run by the latter than by the former).  It is utter nonsense - madness - lunacy - to accept "I believe deity X exists, therefore everybody else must take into account what I say s/he thinks about Y" as if it were a reasonable premise, yet we all do it all the time.

But I'm very lucky to live in the UK; there are infinitely worse places to live, and it's no coincidence that - with the still baffling exception of the USA, where people with no idea how lucky they are seem determined to think the laws and mores of places like Somalia something to aspire to - an increase in religiosity is strongly correlated with a decline in human rights, freedoms and quality of life (see this map for a simple outline). Many of the poorest, most deprived, most oppressive and most dangerous places to live on our planet are also the most religious, and when one considers what follows when religion is allowed to become powerful this is not surprising.  So I could bitch about being called a slapper for wearing a tight top or about being hit on at a conference or about being met with hostility when I speak my mind on certain subjects - but the fact is that I'm exceptionally lucky.  There are places in the world where I could be killed for some of the things I say and do and think - and the laws that would allow that are almost all religiously based.

My right to free expression is protected under law in the UK, but that's not the case everywhere by a long shot - and again, it's often religion that prevents this. People have died this week because of something someone said about a deranged paedophile who lived 1,400 years ago.  This is not OK, and to try to argue that we should tolerate or even respect it because it's part of "a different culture" is sickening and utterly cowardly.  All that does is label the people who do the killing irretrievable savages and their victims not worth so much as an admonition.

This is not the time to get into the reasons all religions are factually ludicrous; if you're not clear on that, consider how logical you find a religion other than your own and then just try to accept the fact that yours is no different from the outside.  Even deism is no better than a grandly illogical god-of-the-gaps argument, and to then take that fallacious premise and progress with it to try and tell us all what the deity thinks of our sex lives or our diets is just insane. Suffice it to say, if belief in the doctrine of any one religion were as reasonable and based on evidence as proponents like to pretend, we would not have thousands of conflicting religions and an ever-growing number of people with no religion at all.

Religion affects me and the people I love by throwing up barriers to birth control, to abortion, to dignity in death, to medical research, to equality, to gay marriage, to free expression, to open politics, to reasoned debate, to scientific advancement and to education. People all over the globe are murdered, tortured, abused, enslaved, mutilated, oppressed, threatened, violated, debased, even starved and allowed to contract  lethal but preventable diseases... all in the name of religious beliefs.  And to really hammer the point home - religion does all this, and yet never, in the entire course of human history, have we seen one shred of credible, verifiable evidence that what any religion has to tell us is correct.  In fact, we've had endless proofs that it's crap... and yet we are still ordered to respect it while it commits such atrocities.

That is why I get so angry about religion.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Another update on songs for atheism (with apologies for my negligence!)

Dave H. has just reminded me that I failed to follow up on my second post about songs for atheism - which is very bad of me because several people were kind enough to make suggestions. So without further ado, here we go:

Prepagan suggests "Beyond Belief" by Elvis Costello:

And "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" by Brinsley Schwartz (a new one on me!):
Secularokie suggests Grinderman's "Heathen Child":
..."In the Beginning" by Todd Snider (I love this)...
... Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young" (apologies for the ad on this one, if anyone can find a decent one without that please post the link below!)...
... and Hayes Carll "She Left Me for Jesus":
Jeremystyrondotcom suggests Tool's "Eulogy":
"Innocent" by Our Lady Peace:
"Adia" by Sarah McLachlan:
...and "Megalomaniac" by Incubus:
Tyler V submits Pearl Jam's "Unthought Known" (to be fair, that's a shout):
And Dave H. himself suggests "God" by Tori Amos:
... Chris Smither's "Origin of Species":
... a medley by Susan Werner:
...Steve Martin's "First Hymnal for Atheists" (or "Atheist Song", I'm not sure) - I actually heard this ages ago and forgot about it, so thank you Dave!
... and "The Christians and the Pagans" by Dar Williams:
... and I would like to suggest anything by Jonny Berliner; here's an example, but you can also visit his website  here - have a look, he's a great musician and very funny too.