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.

Monday, 17 September 2012

A personal account from an exceptionally brave ex-Mormon

About a week ago, I read a tweet from Bethany Anderson in which she said she was embarrassed to have spent sixteen years as a devout Mormon.  I live in the UK where we don't have Mormons (I don't think - I mean, I daresay there's the odd one but it's not a faith we have to deal with directly), so I messaged her and asked if she'd be willing to share her story.  It's worth noting that although Mormonism can seem more crackpot to us than conventional Christianity, that's really only because it's less familiar to us; caveat notwithstanding, I'm always intrigued to hear stories about loss of faith from other people, particularly when their starting point was one so unfamiliar to me. Given how alien Mormonism seems from such a distant perspective, I was astonished by how much of Bethany's account was almost achingly familiar; it seems many formerly-religious secularists and humanists have experiences in common, something I think we could all do with remembering from time to time.

It also raises a question that is endlessly intriguing to me; so many of us are brought up to be religious in such similar ways, and only a minority ever escape from it. What is it that those of us able to find our way out have in common, and why do we have it?  Why doesn't faith "take" with some of us, when it is so devastatingly successful with the majority of our peers?  I think these are among the most important questions we secularists and atheists (and antitheists like me) can ask.

Bethany, I am in awe of your bravery; I too was an atheist by your age, but I was several years older before I dared to come out and older again before I started educating myself in the sciences.  We can't help how we're raised, but we can decide to overcome it; I don't think you have anything at all to be embarrassed about.

Here is Bethany's account in her own words.

"Religion to Reason: How I Came To My Senses And Left Mormonism Behind

The summer of 2008; I am only 14 years old, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is my whole life. I’m at Girls' Camp, a Mormon all-girls’ camp that takes place every summer. It is Friday night, which is always the most emotional night at camp; the night we bear our testimonies. As people go up and talk about how much they love Christ and have felt him in their lives we are all quickly in tears. I felt then what I perceived as the spirit of God all around me and my friends, and it wasn’t long until I too was overcome with emotion. But I wasn’t sad, I was the happiest I had ever been - up to that point, at least. I knew Jesus was my savior and I knew he loved me.

A few months later our church leaders decided the Young Men and Women were ready to learn more about the church's official stance on Gay Marriage and Proposition 8. I was confused. I had already heard plenty about gay marriage in the controversy surrounding Prop. 8, and I thought it was OK. I had formed my own opinion before the church had told me what it ought to be, and I didn't understand why they conflicted. What was wrong with a man marrying another man? They didn't want to hurt anybody. Why was I the only one who looked around the room with concern on my face, when everybody else was nodding their approval? If we’re all God’s children, why should some children get fewer rights? It made no sense.

I continued to think about the right people and the wrong people.

In the months to come I struggled to fall asleep at night, wondering what would happen to my cousin who lives in New York. She isn't LDS, she is Jewish. And on top of that she is a lesbian! But she is a good person. Why is she going to be punished? What about all of the Jewish people? They don’t deserve to be punished! My mind raced until I finally fell asleep with tear streaks down my cheeks.

On April 18, 2008, the evening before the Day of Silence [see website for details]. I was at a Church youth activity, making conversation with my friends about this and that. I was pretty excited about the Day of Silence, I jumped at the opportunity to put down bullying and support LGBT community. I asked a friend of mine if she was participating. She thought I was joking, scoffing "of course not". I was once again beset by confusion; was she pro-bullying? Others quickly joined her stance. "Why wouldn't anyone want to participate?", I thought - especially people who believed in loving their neighbors.

I began to notice more and more things the church and I disagreed upon, things I must have overlooked before and that I could no longer ignore. I began searching for another religion, one that might share my basic morals and beliefs. I talked to my atheist brother, Michael, one night, as we shared a lot of ideologies. He gave me some of the best books I've ever read; Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris' End of Faith. After reading those I was at peace with my beliefs. Not so much with my still devout father and mother, but one thing at a time, right?

That was around the January of my sixteenth year. Now I'm a secular humanist and I feel great; I had coffee for the first time only a few months ago, and I'm no longer afraid that learning more about science will rob me of my faith.  As a matter of fact, I'm in the process of applying to colleges to get my degree in astrophysics! The future has never been brighter.

If anyone has any questions about my Mormon life and my new atheist experiences, I'd love to hear from you through Twitter, @TheYoungAtheist."

Friday, 14 September 2012

"Islamophobia" - time to end the doublespeak.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that a number of people in the Islamic world are kicking off and killing people about something utterly trivial. Again. If you do need to catch up, though, there's a decent tl;dr here.

However, at this point you could be forgiven for not being terribly interested in what's set the nutters off this time (although you should definitely care about their actions, which have already left many dead. Again.). I mean, you can guess. Someone spoke or wrote or drew (or in this case made a film, as it happens) about their "prophet" Mohammed and so they're screaming blasphemy and demanding retribution. Again. Because they absurdly think their damn silly superstitious rules apply not only to them but to everybody else. Again. And their response has been crazily, loonily, insanely disproportionate.

..... Again.

If there is any good that can come out of this whole depressing mess, it's that the Muslims who're doing it - and I accept they're a minority, by the way - are hurting their own cause when they do this stuff, in the long run at least.


Because they're making Muslims look like lunatics. They're showing Islam up for the oppressive, paranoid, violent ideology it is. They're showing the world that Islam cares more about some obscure film than it does about murder, injustice, torture, abuse, oppression, mutilation, inequity and violence. They're demonstrating again that Islam cares more that we should all feign respect for their "prophet" than it does for innocent human life.

And you don't get away from that, by the way, with "oh but Islam isn't really about that".  Bull. Shit. Christians have been making the NoTrueChristianTM argument for centuries, and it doesn't wash for them either.  If you believe in the "truth" of a given book - and if you consider that belief a virtuous thing - you don't get to object when someone else takes those same lessons from that same book and uses them to justify murdering somebody. Know why? Because they have precisely the same amount of evidence to say that their beliefs are correct as you do to say yours are - that is, none. Nada. Zip. Bupkis. Zilch. (That goes for arguments between religions too, by the way; someone who believes for no rational reason that Book X is magic hasn't a moral or logical leg to stand on when someone else believes the same about Book Y and acts on that - but that's maybe a point for another day.)

I can virtually guarantee that at least some people who read this - Muslim or otherwise - will by now have dismissed me as "Islamophobic", or even racist.  But I have a couple of points to make about those two accusations (because it's not the first time they've been aimed at me).

"Racist", first, because that's the most transparently nonsensical thing to call someone who dislikes Islam. The only way in which an aversion to a religion could be taken to mean an aversion to a "race" of people would be  if one had to belong to a certain race in order to be a Muslim. Not only is that demonstrably not the case, but even if it were true it would make Islam racist, not me.

And "Islamophobic", which brings me back to the title of this entry.

I am sick. To goddamn. Death. Of this mealy-mouthed, snivelling, craven, manipulative, lying little gobshite of a word that's wormed its way into our lexicon.

Look up "phobia" in any decent dictionary. There are lots of variations on a theme, but you'll notice there is a commonality; they all describe a "phobia" as irrational, illogical, disproportionate to the danger, unreasonable. My chest-constricting, panic-inducing, uncontrollable fear of injections is all of those things - it is a phobia.  My fear and dislike of Islam is not irrational, or illogical, or unreasonable - and it certainly is not disproportionate to the danger it poses. Just ask the families of all the people it's killed.

We know what happens when Islam is allowed to rule, we've watched it for centuries; education and reason are set at naught, women become property, people can be murdered at whim in the name of "honour", genocide can be justified by reference to the magic book. And to draw the "prophet" Mohammed becomes the greatest of all wrongs, an insult that can justify murder.  There are factions within Islam that openly wish to destroy Western ideals and take over. One of the most common taunts I hear from Muslims when discussing religion online is along the lines of "watch out Europe, you'll fall to Islam in the next 10/20/50 years".

So yes, you're damn right I'm scared of Islam, as well as considering it ethically loathsome, factually laughable and worthy of no respect whatsoever (that last point is crucial - I am scared of Islam, but I do not respect it. Do not mistake the two). I consider freedom of expression to be the most important right we have, and we in the West have fought hard to get it. I am scared of any ideology that threatens this freedom. Is that irrational, when we know through centuries of bitter experience what happens when we don't have that freedom? I don't think so. I consider that a perfectly rational dread, which by definition means it is not a phobia.  So please can we drop the ridiculous, knee-jerk label? All it does is reinforce the notion that those of us who watch Islam with fear are unreasonable in that fear or in our expression of it. We're not; we're precisely the opposite.

Which is more respectful, honest criticism or a pacifying lie?

Last night I got pulled into a fight about religion and atheism with someone I care for very deeply, and who cares for me. Much was said that probably should not have been, and both of us were guilty of letting anger dictate our handling of the discussion. The main source of the disagreement was my - totally acknowledged - lack of respect for religious beliefs, which I consider no less foolish (and far more dangerous) than belief in astrology, ghosts or the Evil Eye.

The person I argued with is not devoutly religious, but has never entirely shaken off their rather puritan christian upbringing. They've known for many years now that I'm an atheist, but until yesterday our conversations on the subject had been limited to the occasional reproachful remark when I was too openly disdainful of religion in their presence.

The argument was not even about christianity in particular - I actually suspect this person knows specific religions are intellectually indefensible - but about my lack of respect for what people of all religions sincerely believe; this person is concerned for my safety, believing I may be at risk of drawing real-world ire from certain religious factions I have written about, both here and in other places. This person is liberal in most ways and certainly doesn't take their morals from any holy book; I can discuss almost anything with this person calmly and rationally, even if we disagree completely... but when it comes to religion, alone among all other human sillinesses, this person just wants me to shut up.  It became so strange I can only express it by quoting the brilliant and ever-eloquent Douglas Adams: "Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? Because you're not!".

I'm always wary, in the aftermath of an argument in which feelings have been hurt, of the risk of digging in deeper to one's original position to avoid having to think that maybe the criticism was warranted - of rationalising what one said or did after the fact. I don't think I'm guilty of that in this instance, but if you think I am do feel free to tell me so in the comments; the fact is that I'm NOT totally certain how objective I'm being here:

I sincerely don't think the way to show a person respect is to fake respect for their foolish beliefs.  The person with whom I had the argument last night is exceptionally intelligent, and far more educated than I am; for me to decide for them that they couldn't handle what I had to say about one of their beliefs would be breathtakingly condescending, unspeakably arrogant.

Of course, not everybody in the world is comparable in intelligence to my interlocutor from last night (in fact, statistically the vast majority are not), but when did one's right to hear an honest opinion depend on one's intelligence anyway? Where's the cut-off, do we consider you incapable of coping with facts and our honest opinions if your IQ tests at - say - 120 or less?  What about educational level, how many GCSEs and A Levels do you need, which Universities qualify you for honest feedback on your beliefs?

Something I occasionally find irritating about atheists - open ones, I mean - is our tendency (some of us are more guilty of this than others, of course) to consider ourselves more intelligent than believers. Yes, there are a few studies that support this in a very minor way, but even of these the most marked average difference I've ever seen reported is ten or so IQ points. When you're dealing with a species of which some members have IQs of 20 and others have more than ten times that - and when you're dealing with a system of measurement which is itself acknowledged to be an imperfect measure of intelligence - such a minor trend is all but meaningless.  I am an atheist and I score relatively highly on IQ tests - but that does not leave me safe to assume I am more intelligent than any religious believer I encounter, because the statistics simply don't support that.  We'd probably be marginally safer guessing that we're more educated than believers - there is at least a relatively objective measure for that - but again the existence of renowned scientists who're also religious, and of people like my conversant last night, show that we'd be very, very foolish to make any assumptions of that kind.

Here's the heart of the problem for me; I simply do not, cannot, see anything in religious beliefs deserving of anybody's respect.  When a person tells me that I "ought" to show respect for those beliefs, I am put in an impossible position; I can either be honest and disrespect the beliefs, or I can lie and disrespect the person.  When the person in question is someone I already respect deeply, this is troublesome and upsetting - and leads to what happened last night.

This is the first time in my experience that what I say about religion has led to serious disagreement with someone I love - or at least, the first time it's become genuinely acrimonious. Has anything like this happened to anyone else? How do/did you handle it? Is my position on respect reasonable, or am I rationalising? Can relationships be repaired after something like this?  I'd love to have input from other non-believers because this has hurt me considerably, in a way no amount of ranting from religious people (or other atheists, I suppose) over the internet ever has.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

More about a very talented new friend I'm glad to have met.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the great fun I had at the Ancestor's Trail; you can read about that here.  I've said many times that one of my favourite things about such humanist and secular events is the feeling of community and a general air of (often slightly inebriated) bonhomie.  One of several new friends I made that weekend is Victoria Gugenheim, an immensely talented and rather gorgeous artist who travels all over the world turning people's bodies into beautiful and thought-provoking pieces of tantalisingly ephemeral art.  I didn't mention it in my previous post because - annoyingly - I'd failed to get any good pictures of the work she did at the trail, but I have a couple now including this one (model Helena Biggs, photo by Jo Balcombe):

Victoria herself has also very kindly sent me a couple of other examples of her work:

(The above photo by the very talented Mui Tsun, whose work can be seen here).

... but I wholeheartedly recommend you have a look at this page, where you can see many more examples of the extraordinary work Victoria does.

Ahead of the trail, I actually volunteered to be painted by Victoria as "Mitochondrial Eve". In the event that didn't happen, but Victoria has very kindly agreed to paint me on a different theme at some point when we can both find a free day in our schedules, hopefully within the next few weeks.  I don't want to give too much away, but the plan - in outline, at least - is to explore the way understanding affects our perception of beauty in the natural world. Victoria tells me she loves to work on biologically-themed pieces but doesn't get as many opportunities as she would wish for. Her work also explores the - often neglected or even rejected - relationship between science and the arts, the common misconception that artistic talent and rational thinking tend to be mutually exclusive.  I think this is well worth exploring, because even those of us who adore it can occasionally be guilty of thinking science a coldly logical, unromantic subject - and one of the reasons Professor Dawkins' work is so popular is that it shows us how quite the reverse can be true!

Victoria will be writing a piece on this subject for the November issue of the excellent Athience Magazine; I strongly recommend you look out for it, and I'll link it here when it's published of course.

I can't wait to see how Victoria decides to paint me; I know it'll be striking and unexpected, but beyond that I don't know what to anticipate! (I AM quite nervous about being painted and photographed in - essentially - my knickers, but it'll be totally worth it!)

I'll keep you posted, and of course I'll post the photos once I have them!

Big hugs to Victoria and all my lovely new friends. xxx

PS - Victoria's just sent me the photo below, which is of a piece entitled "DNAges of Man". It's - obviously - rather beautiful, and deals with a subject of which Victoria is fond; "man's struggle to understand the world through religion and finally science with the idea of molecules and chemistry at the shoulderblades and in the face", to use her own words.  Eeeeek, I'm so excited about being painted by this extraordinarily talented artist, I can't wait!

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Time to get back to laughing at superstition.

Well, in all the hysteria and ill-feeling surrounding Atheism Plus, I've grown almost nostalgic for the sort of stick I usually only get from religious people.  When you've grown accustomed to "you're a murdering whore and you'll burn in hell", "gender traitor" and "chill girl" (which latter I rather like, actually) can only ward off the cravings for so long... and I'm jonesing for a meaningful argument now.

So, I thought I'd ask everyone - here and my lovely peeps on Twitter - a question.  Well, two, actually, though they're related.

1: What's the single dumbest/silliest/wrongest/funniest/most infuriating argument you hear from believers in defence of their faith, and why? (And if you'd like to explain how it's wrong, please do so of course!)

2: If you could wave a magic wand and make every religious/superstitious person in the world understand just ONE thing, what would it be and why?

I think it'll be interesting to see how many of us hear the same arguments, which ones annoy us most and which are most common.  We all have slightly - in some cases even widely - different reasons for opposing religion, it's always fascinating to hear how other people think about things.

Please let me know what you think!

Friday, 7 September 2012

Urgh, bloody Atheism Plus...

If you've been following the whole Atheism Plus mess, you probably know that Jen McCreight, its creator (or one of them, anyway, she seems to be the most senior of the leaders they keep assuring us they don't have), has - for the time being - stepped back from blogging.  Her reasons can be found here; that link to her own words, by the way, is a courtesy she did not extend to me when she and someone called Veronica chose to assume I was five years old for having the temerity to say something an "old, white man" happened to agree with, seen here.

(This is a tweet posted some time ago by a woman now complaining bitterly that her attempt to make atheism more inclusive has been poorly received.  I wonder at what age she loses the right to an opinion - or does the age qualifier only apply to (white) men?)  I was amused to learn that apparently the way to deal with a woman who disagrees with you is to pat her on the head and explain to her very gently why she might be just a little bit silly to think she doesn't need defending from all the big nasty men out there.  But I digress.

The other day Rebecca Watson posted a Tweet saying... ah.  Oh.  Well, I was going to quote it exactly but I appear to have been blocked by the "fearless" leader of SkepChic (a fact I submit without comment).  If anyone can find the tweet itself please let me know and I'll edit, but essentially it was words to the effect of "Don't feel too smug, misogynists, you may have forced one woman blogger off the internet but I'm going to be twice as gobby now to make up for it!".  Anyway, last night after another tweet (which, of course, I also now can't quote directly) along the lines of "Idiots are having a go at me about A+ but it's nothing to do with me. Must have been a new feature in the Harass Rebecca Daily" I must confess I momentarily lost patience and replied telling her to get over herself.  Within a couple of hours - and again, I report events as they happened without speculation on causal links - I received a tweet from a follower telling me that I've now been screencapped on Watson's blog, too, which you can see here.  (If you haven't come here from Twitter, I'm @Whoozley so I'm the one who said "I'm a woman & an atheist blogger, & never experienced sexist abuse from fellow atheists. Maybe because I don't assume they're misogynists?".)

Now, that tweet that Richard Dawkins RT'd the other week has got me a fair bit of shit, which is a little ridiculous when you bear in mind that all I actually did was effectively to say that I hadn't experienced the problem they were all talking about (still haven't, incidentally) and suggest a possible reason for this perceived disparity in experience.  I wouldn't call the tweets I've been getting "abusive" because that would be pretty demeaning to people who actually are being or have been abused - but some of it's been fairly hysterical and distinctly disproportionate to what I actually said. (N.B.: Please don't read any of this as an attack of the "poor me"s. I said what I said, I stand by it, and if people wish to disagree with it whether rationally or frothingly they have every right to do so. If you don't like taking shit for what you say in a public forum, don't fucking say it.)

On Watson's post, now, I find myself screencapped along with a number of individuals I would be inclined to describe as significantly nastier than I have been.  There's a bit of a contrast between me saying what I said - to the world at large, by the way, it wasn't addressed to anyone in particular - and a person who instructs Watson to kill herself, or expresses hope that she will be raped.

What conclusion can I draw from this?  Well, let's see; I haven't used language anyone might consider objectionable, I haven't called anyone names, I didn't even aim that comment at an individual. So how have I been elevated to the ranks of those who call Watson a cunt and suggest it would do her good to be raped?

As far as I can see, all I have done wrong in the eyes of the feminist bloggers behind Atheism Plus (and Watson's post is itself evidence that she is not uninvolved in it, by the way) has been to disagree with them. Does that truly warrant stacking me up with the genuinely nasty commentators?  I can't stop it happening and wouldn't have the right even if I could, but certainly I think her doing so belies the claim the A+ers have been making ever since Richard Carrier's hilariously jingoistic post (outlined and linked here) that they don't have a "with us or against us" mentality.

There are some points I would like to make to Atheism Plusers, should any happen to read this:

1: A person who objects to the solution you propose is not automatically part of the problem.

2: It is possible do be described as a whiny twat, a brainless cunt or whatever else without having been the victim of misogyny.  Possibly the person saying it is just a dick (oops - is that misandrist?), or possibly - just possibly - you should consider the possibility that you are actually speaking or acting like a whiny twat/brainless cunt. Ownership of a vagina doesn't confer immunity against being a wassock, and it doesn't mean  you can't be a twat any more than ownership of a penis means you can't be a dick.

3: All over the world, right now, millions of women are directly experiencing abuse, oppression, rape, mutilation, even murder. An email telling you to kill yourself is not cool, but it doesn't put you on the same level of victimhood as someone who's been raped or a woman who's had her clitoris hacked off with a stone, either. I'm sort of revolted to find I actually feel an impulse to apologise to you for pointing that out.

4: I don't need protecting, thank you. Nor do lots of other women. I don't feel even slightly threatened by the atheist community, and I'm not going to lie about that just to avoid upsetting you.

5: Our feminist ancestors didn't spend centuries fighting against the constraints of a male-dominated society so that we, their daughters and granddaughters, could be free to conform to the expectations of a group of feminists instead of to those of men. That is not how this works. Furthermore, if you expected me to join your club because I'm a woman too, that doesn't make me the sexist when I refuse.

6: You might be oversensitive. No, really. It is entirely possible for someone to think you're an idiot - or even a twat or a dick - without that opinion being in any way related to your sex.  It is entirely possibly for someone to think you're wrong without it automatically being the case that they think you're wrong because you're a woman. On the plus side, though, this also means it is possible to defend yourself when someone tells you you're wrong by means more sophisticated than calling them a misogynist.  You could actually, you know, explain how their reasoning is at fault instead of making an unfair assumption and making them feel wronged.  As you are now experiencing first-hand, causing someone to feel unjustly maligned does not make them inclined to value your opinion.

7: You can't market yourself as an inclusive movement if you're going to deliberately exclude people, whether that's by directly attacking "old, white men" or more duplicitously by holding yourselves apart from "humanists" (and importantly, if you're going to try to be sneaky about it in that way, don't be dumb enough to actually point out that the two groups have a significant overlap). You also can't claim to speak for gay people, black people, disabled people, transgendered people, Latino people or any other group you describe (rightly or wrongly) as "marginalised" if all the world's going to hear from you is endless bitching because you're a woman and you got called a nasty name.

8: Yes, there are sexist twats out there, both male and female. We know that, they're everywhere, and any person who says they've never experienced sexism hasn't been paying attention.  But just as "nasty email" =/= "rape", so "inadvertently sexist statement" =/= "woman hater".  Intentions matter, and believe me - at this stage, Atheism Plus cannot afford to be disputing that point.

Edit: Snowrunner has very kindly provided me with a link to the Watson tweet I couldn't get for myself - I had the gist right but not the exact words, so if you want to see for yourself it's here. Thanks, Snowrunner!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Clarification on yesterday's circumcision post

Hello again,

Yesterday I gave my opinion on male circumcision, for religious purposes and more generally; that can be found here.  From the comments I've received (more on Twitter than on the post itself, actually), I conclude that there are one or two things I need to clarify because I have expressed myself clumsily.

First thing; there is a difference (to me at least) between regarding an action as an act of mutilation and considering a person to be "mutilated".  I suppose I should have anticipated that my using the term "mutilate" to describe the act of circumcision would cause some men who have been circumcised to feel I am making a comment on their attractiveness or their suitability as a sexual partner - this was not my intention, however. As far as I am concerned, whether an adult male has been circumcised or not makes no difference whatsoever to my... well, let's say "for my purposes" and leave it to the imagination.  I do not consider a circumcised penis to be in any way ugly or undesirable, and I apologise for my clumsiness in having given that impression to some people.

That said, little as it may matter in adulthood once it's done with and healed, I cannot see the unnecessary removal of an infant's foreskin as anything other than an act of gratuitous mutilation. It's a subtle distinction, but it's an important one; in my opinion it is cruel to subject an infant to unnecessary surgery, but it does not follow that - if you have undergone said surgery (of your own volition or otherwise) - I will then consider you unattractive or somehow complicit in what I regard as an act of wrongdoing.  It was not remotely my intention to imply anything of the sort.

The other thing that's been said repeatedly about yesterday's post - and I definitely could not have predicted this one, because it's utterly bizarre - is that because I am opposed to unnecessary circumcision it follows that I must also be an anti-vaxxer. This truly baffles me, it makes less than no sense.  I am against subjecting children to unnecessary risk and pain; in what way this could possibly make me anything other than strongly pro-vaccination I am at a loss to discern.  Vaccinations are necessary, to protect both the child as an individual and the "herd". Reading of outbreaks of preventable diseases resulting from the selfish decision of a few parents not to vaccinate, thereby risking the health of their own child and that of other people makes me sick with anger. Circumcision - in all but a tiny minority of cases - is NOT necessary, and carries risks for nobody but the child.  If the child grows up suffering absolutely no ill-effects from the procedure (assuming for a moment that we could prove such a thing), that's fantastic and I'm happy for him - but why take the risk on his behalf in the first place?

That's it, really, just wanted to explain myself on a couple of points - hope I make more sense now!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Any move to restrict circumcision is a good thing, but I can't help thinking the media's somewhat missed the point again.

The New York Post reports today that a group of two hundred or so orthodox Rabbis in New York have signed a "proclamation" claiming that the Health Department's concerns about the ritual of metzitzah b'peh - in which blood is suctioned from a male baby's circumcision wound by mouth - are "lies", spread "in order to justify their evil decree".  They have also stated that even if the law is changed, they will simply ignore it.

The article I quote can be found here, but as with so many news pieces dealing with religious customs and ceremonies I can't help but feel a point is being missed. Don't misunderstand me; anything that draws attention to the entirely unnecessary dangers of circumcision, anything that might - just maybe - make a parent stop and think "wait, why am I actually allowing this to be done to my child?" is a good thing, particularly in the USA where circumcision is as much a cultural thing as an overtly religion custom and far more common than it is in the UK and much of Europe.

This, specifically, is the aspect that bothers me; all the emphasis in the proposed change to the law seems to be on avoiding the risk of herpes (and other diseases, one would like to assume), which is a danger specific to oral contact with the child's wound.  It is true that babies have been killed and brain-damaged by contraction of the herpes virus during their circumcision, and of course that needs to be prevented from happening again; but by placing all the emphasis on that risk, the law-makers in New York leave their stance on more modern circumcision methods open to interpretation, and it would be very easy to conclude that it is only the oral contact specifically that carries any risk for the baby.  Who knows, though?  Maybe that really is their stance.

When Germany outlawed circumcision for non-medical reasons a few months ago, the decision was met with hysteria and outrage among both Jews and Muslims, with one Rabbi describing it as "perhaps the most serious attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust".  Much was made of Europe's - and particularly Germany's - history of oppressing Jews, but while this past certainly can't and shouldn't be denied, nor should it be allowed to become some sort of carte blanche to do whatever you like without reference to ethical considerations or legality just because you're Jewish.  It's my opinion that Germany's decision was the correct one, even though I'm certain people will find ways to flout the new law; they've considered the moral implications, and taken a stance on the issue. That speaks volumes in its own right.

Circumcision - unless for legitimate medical reasons - is one of those issues we seem perpetually to be debating and I sincerely fail to understand why. I literally don't get it.  I understand that religious people hold deep convictions on this matter; in a strange sort of way, though, the religious people almost aren't the problem. WE are the problem, we who feel the need to honour their grisly traditions, we who allow them to mutilate babies - who cannot possibly have any notion of the belief system into which they are being presumptively inducted - because they believe it should be done.

Ask yourself seriously; if a parent asked a doctor (or anyone else) to cut their baby's ear off, would we consider that person a fit parent?  What if they demanded not only the removal of the ear, but that the procedure be carried out in unsanitary conditions and without anaesthesia?  Now what if you learned not only that people were ritually removing babies' ears in unsafe conditions for religious reasons, but were in fact up in arms at the prospect of being made to ask permission to do so?!

Male circumcision has been associated not only with communicable diseases as already detailed, but also with long-lasting psychological trauma, reduction in sexual response and confidence, and even with increased pain response throughout the body later in life.  I know many men who have been circumcised (not all for religious reasons, as I have already said the practice is very common in the USA even among the non-religious), and almost all of them resent it to varying degrees. Sex is a crucial aspect of being human, one of our most primal drives (arguably the primal drive among males) and an essential part of our individual and cultural well-being. I cannot begin to imagine how violated and angry I would feel if I were forced to spend my life wondering how different - even, torturously, how much better - my enjoyment of sex might have been if someone had not wantonly lopped off an important part of my anatomy when I was too young to defend myself.

Over again we hear the same tired old arguments in favour of circumcision (apart from the religious irrelevancies, I mean); that it reduces risk of infections, that cleanliness is more assured, that it reduces risk of penile cancers, that it's desirable - weirdly - that a male child should "look like his father".  Leaving aside the absurdity of that last one, the rest, I believe, will be shown to be on balance not worth the risk of the procedure.  We are learning, now, to follow where evolution leads us in medicine. In the same way that more pioneering surgeons are now accepting that the best place to attach an ACL graft is almost always where the original ACL was (because evolution has shaped our complex knee joints over millions of years, through epochs in which ACLs attached in a non-optimal position would have been punished far more than they are today) I would not be surprised at all if in twenty or fifty years we learn that it really is best, medically, to leave the foreskin in place.

And aside from all that, of course, there's the issue of how far parents' (or Rabbis') "rights" to practice a religious or cultural custom should outweigh the rights of the child not to be permanently affected by that custom, both physically and psychologically.  I would have no problem - in principle, although I might find myself objecting to excessive parental/cultural pressure - if an adult male, able to weigh up the risks and assess for himself the importance of the decision, were to decide to be circumcised.  If that is what he wishes to do, I struggle to find any arguments that would justify anyone in opposing that decision. But to make a permanent and life-altering decision like that for a child too young to have any opinion on the subject... that, I contend, is deeply wrong and should not be considered acceptable.

We are, all of us, guilty of overlooking grisly and amoral acts committed in the name of religion that we would not even consider allowing for other reasons. I believe the gratuitous and dangerous mutilation of an infant's penis falls into that category, and I would like to see media outlets push past the unspoken taboo of religious custom and address that, rather than trivialising it by focusing on the very worst outcomes imaginable.