Monday, July 29, 2013

Pope on Gay Men: If You Squint, It Almost Looks Like Progress

Seriously, if someone said straights wouldn't be judged so long as they never married, never had sex and never campaigned for rights, would anyone put up with it?
"These twelve hour flights can grow a little dull, so we switched on the speakers in the cockpit to listen in."

I'm fortunate to have secured an e-mail interview with Padre I. A. Roddy, the pilot who flew Pope Francis on the occasion of his unparalleled olive branch to the LGBTQ community.

"I briefly lost control of the aircraft," he continued "but fortunately the advanced training of the Vatican Air Force saved me and those on board. That, and my copilot was listening to DoubtCast at the time so wasn't as badly affected. I don't mean to criticise the Holy Father, but he really should consider the safety of the crew before launching such a wild change of course."

"Sticking to the strictest conceivable definition of progress, I suppose this qualifies." observed an air steward, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He was speaking specifically about priests, so what we can really take from this with certainty is that if you're celibate, stay in the closet and don't lobby for gay people he won't judge you."

"To be fair, at least his cabin baggage was a reasonable size." he added.

The Holy Father did not comment directly on bisexual people, transgender people, or people who identify as queer.

"I think many are underestimating the great message of hope the Bishop of Rome is offering to young, gay Catholics. As long as they're male." Padre Roddy defended. "Before today they would have felt trapped by restrictions that promised only a life without romantic love. A lonely road of self denial under the label of 'fundamentally disordered'. All that has changed. Well, not all, obviously. But the Vicar of Christ has offered a vision of gay men, gay men who live in community with purpose to their lives, gay men who he does not judge."

"Now, naturally, this is not a licence to do anything gay. The Supreme Pastor made it clear in his talk that existing teaching is affirmed. Sex is out. As is marriage. And lobbying for gay rights came in for specific condemnation. Basically think of it like the US military's don't ask, don't tell policy. Only without the 'don't ask' part, because the Vatican will still be investigating to find gay people in its ranks. And on the subject of investigations, these hopeful gay Catholic men should rule out applying for the priesthood, because as of 2005, gay men, celibate or not, are barred from applying."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Where are the Women of New Atheism?

Travel by rail is so civilised. I arrived at Barcelona perhaps 20 minutes before departure and had time for a coffee and croissant before having to board. No weight restrictions. No lengthy security checks. Comfortable armchairs, individual power points and a pleasant view of rolling Spanish countryside will be my home for the next five hours.

The only thing I lack is WiFi. I sit here with a Nexus, foldable Bluetooth keyboard and a vague memory that a friend on Facebook suggested an article to me entitled "Where Are The Women of New Atheism?"

Normally I'd read it. I can't. Still, it's an interesting question and stands on its own merit. I recently ran Twitter statistics on two different (male) atheist bloggers, covering how their followers described themselves, the breakdown of masculine and feminine first names, and the top 200 accounts most popular with said followers. (To illustrate with an example: those who follow @EmbarrassingBodies, a popular TV show, are likely to also follow @DoctorChristian, one of the hosts. I determine this by pulling a list of everyone's followers and counting the common elements, then ranking by popularity.)

I gave the stats to another blogger and will let you know if the material turns out to be strong enough to justify a story. I think the technique is interesting because it lets you judge the following:

How popular is the tweeter's message with women?

David Quinn holds strong opinions on the regulation of uteruses, yet his message seems to resonate most powerfully with men - over 70% of his followers seem to be male. It seems reasonable to conclude that being female is correlated with not welcoming his views on females.

What sort of person follows the tweeter?

I once contrasted the followers of William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist, and Stephen Law, a philosopher and author. Craig's followers were overwhelmingly interested in Christian apologetics, Law's preferred science and philosophy. Neither designation is a negative, obviously, but I found it interesting to be able to gauge followers in this manner.

How likely are the tweeter's followers to follow women?

In other words: does the tweeter attract a bunch of raging misogynists? Being highly unlikely to follow female tweeters may prove indicative. It could also show that the tweeter isn't making much effort to promote female tweeters.

I can congratulate myself on this excellent plan which would allow me to examine all sorts of prominent atheists and bring unique insight to the conversation, but as I gaze out on traditional Catalonian architecture, narrow stone streets, olive trees and windmills while my WiFi signal reads 0 I find it is one I cannot implement.

But let's give the question some thought, shall we?

I'm a white cis male. I have a naked lady fetish. There are no great numbers of folk out there who wish to oppress me, though I do experience a wrinkle of discontent from a small minority of Theists who don't welcome my absence of belief. (Only fair to add context - my interactions with Theists have been almost always positive.) I blogged exclusively about atheism for quite some time, back when I viewed the world's most pressing problems to be Muslim apologists copying Christian apologists, or Creationists lying about science.

I'm still an atheist, I still blog about atheism, and I still view atheism as something which should be talked about and advanced openly. There's quite a lot more I'd like to write on the topic. But right now the rights of my fellow citizens to expect lifesaving medical treatment seems more pressing. The hope that pregnant people might one day enjoy an unconditional right to health is more likely to occupy my mind than the prospect of reading another John Lennox book of apologetics. And while I write pro choice material from an atheist point of view, it's probably fair to say that this is now more of a pro choice blog.

I hear murmurs of discontent from the back. When, they wonder, will Geoff cease this self indulgent piece about the trials of being a straight white male? When will he answer the question posed in the opening paragraph? When will he stop referring to himself in the third person?

Maryam Namazie, atheist, is best known as a human rights activist and a campaigner against Sharia law in the UK. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, also an atheist, campaigns for women's rights, against female genital mutilation and against Sharia law. Her energies are mainly devoted to her political office theses days. Thinking back to the speakers Atheist Ireland has arranged over the years I remember Sinead Redmond, atheist, campaigner for abortion rights in Ireland, Deirdre O'Byrne, atheist, campaigner for trans rights, and Aoife McLysaight, atheist, who focused her talk on the importance of science and on plugging Alom Shaha's (rather good) The Young Atheist's Handbook. I gave a talk. It was on conversations I'd had with street preachers. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide which of us were making the best use of their time, and I can't help but feel that being a straight white guy is the primary reason I had space to consider Hare Krishna cosmology so deserving as a primary area of concern while remaining blithely oblivious to issues facing others.

It's fair to say we need a conversation about making atheism less of a guy thing. And there are questions to be answered on whether Atheist women are being held back by the way things are done now. But I feel that at least part of the answer that should be given to those wondering at the absence of prominent female atheists is this: they're often working on something more important.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: The Young Atheist's Handbook by Alom Shaha

It's rare for me to read books about atheism. Having gone through the effort of transitioning from Catholic to atheist just shy of two decades ago it feels somewhat redundant to reaffirm my absence of faith through the works of others. I do not mean to discourage such reading, of course, I merely say why the genre is but a small part of my library.

Of those authors on atheism that I have read there is something of a theme. Christopher Hitchens described himself as an atheist of the Christian sort. Richard Dawkins is a hymn singing bible reader. Sam Harris holds the Christian faith of his upbringing in higher regard than that of other world religions. Dan Barker is an ex Christian preacher. Stephen Law (a favourite of mine, do read everything he's written) also comes from a Christian heritage. The road from Christian upbringing to atheism is one well plodded, the guidebooks are myriad, the signposts abound. But when we reach this destination we meet others who have travelled less celebrated paths, often covert, alone, and in trepidation more pronounced than that found by their former Christian associates.

Alom Shaha trod such a path. His third birthday was the last he celebrated in Bangladesh. He writes a frank account of being raised in a British Muslim community and the influences on his path to atheism. He speaks with an honesty few authors attain - for instance his description of fleeing an Imam's circumcising blade at age twelve, or his rejection of the concept of a soul illustrated by intimate details of how illness and medication, by affecting the brains of family members, radically changed their personalities.

He shows his skills as a teacher through use of analogies to help us atheists of a Christian sort better understand elements of Muslim culture. Take veiling. I read with a sympathetic cringe Shaha's description of his teenage appearance - long hair, makeup, earrings and a jacket with a stitched in hood standing in some contrast to his current straight laced middle aged physics teacher appearance. But he described it as his attempt to assert his own identity, to push back at authority, and to draw the relevant boundaries necessary as one reaches adulthood. He then recounts meeting former members of his secondary school's Christian union, one of whom spoke of how she found being so public about her faith held much the same benefits in carving out space for an identity as Shaha's dalliance with goth garb. The final step is the often overlooked yet important point - a woman's decision to veil herself (or, for comparison, a man's decision to wear Arab clothing) can be a perfectly valid expression of this desire to demarcate the borders between oneself and one's family and community. He cautions rightly that this is often not a choice - on asking a friend why she had started dressing so conservatively the dismaying response came "my brother has become a strict Muslim".

Personally I oppose those who try to regulate what women wear. I oppose both those who would enforce and those who would ban veiling.

No publisher would go to print on a title of this sort without some arguments for atheism in general, and Shaha makes a good fist of the argument from evil, but if you buy The Young Atheist's Handbook for this sole purpose you're rather missing a trick. (Get Stephen Law's "Humanism - a very brief introduction" instead. Or better still get both.) The real magic in Shaha's work is his ability to take white atheists of the Christian sort into a community that we live beside, but not in, and give us the means to relive a journey that would otherwise be hidden from us. If you'd like to understand the journey of an ex Muslim, buy this book.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Guest Blog on Thoughts of a Lost Girl

I've been trying to find new ways of promoting blogs I think you should read. In the end it seemed simplest if I just write a guest post for them.

I've found a gang of plucky American students who've taken on the mission of saving the Irish from themselves. They enjoy marching across the country and blockading the IFPA. Want to find out more about them? Read here: And while you're there, stick around a while. She's written some interesting stuff!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Empowering Women Through Secularism 2013 - A Review

It's hard to think what I can add to a review of EWTS2013. The fine folk at Atheist Ireland have already managed to upload all talks to YouTube, and while I consider myself a feminist, I do not consider myself a particularly well read or experienced feminist, possessed of unique insight unavailable to others. Do read on if you're interested in how it appeared to a newcomer.

I live tweeted both days, despite several impassioned pleas for me to stop from those who did not quite favour my updates every twenty seconds. Sat a row in front of Aoife (we had not fallen out, she needed to sit closer to a wall socket) I was able to judge her mood. Had the speaker said something agreeable? A soft flurry of taps indicated so. Less welcome statements were greeted with the sort of typing style likely to invalidate most laptop warranties.

It would be remiss of me to progress much further without congratulating Atheist Ireland on their success. This was only their second international conference, and to see so many moving parts come together so splendidly may put those outside their membership to thoughts of divine intervention. The speakers in attendance represented every continent bar those famed for penguins and polar bears. A friend attending referred to it as the first time they'd been at an atheist organised event where no one had described their beliefs in terms of sky fairies. The mood was, in general, quite positive and this would not have come about without much hard work from the organisers. I believe I heard Michael Nugent say he'd had three hours' sleep. Knowing his work rate he was likely referring to the entirety gained over the preceeding week - I for one was a little shocked to learn he slept at all.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The River Of Bile - On Steroids

It's strange the journeys that can follow a single step. I must admit that when lovable rascal Fintan O'Toolbox first approached me to discuss providing a guest post I expected something a little lighthearted - even on the one occasion we met he seems disinclined to break character.

I was pleasantly disappointed to find that, instead of his usual hilarious output, he'd opted for some serious investigative journalism. I feel I've covered vaccine opposition, American influence and superstition prevalent in pro life groups in Ireland, but Fintan breaks fresh ground for this blog by exposing ties to the extreme far right.

Do enjoy, and don't forget to follow him on Twitter.

Hi, my name is Fintan O'Toolbox, some of you may know me as that annoyingly smug git who writes for Donegal Dollop and live-tweets the Bible most evenings. Geoff recently, very kindly, offered me the opportunity to write a guest post for his wonderful blog. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity, however, the original idea for my post ended up taking a few bizarre twists and turns so I hope you can bear with me...

One of my favourite topics for debate (trolling) on Twitter is the concept of morality and where it comes from. In my experience, I've often found Catholics strongly opposed to the idea of moral relativism — the notion that morality evolves in accordance with the shifting sands of social progress and that it reflects the general consensus of the masses when it comes to the concept of right and wrong. Instead, they seem to favour the idea that morality is objective and immutable — remaining the same eternally, regardless of whatever we mere mortals may decide among ourselves as a society. I've always considered this to be a strange position for a Catholic to take given that the Old Testament is action-packed with rape [1-4], genocide [5-8], slavery [9-10], and even abortion [11], and given that the catechism still considers this section of the Bible to be entirely valid and inerrant [12]. Regardless of what side of the morality fence you sit on, the average Irish Catholic is, in my experience, generally quite content not to shove this core belief down your throat (it's certainly never become a bone of contention between me and my Catholic friends). However, there are certain groups on the religious right who argue (often very loudly) that moral relativism poses a grave threat to Irish society and must be opposed at every turn.

If morality is indeed objective and the most favourable path towards this morality is via a Catholic belief system, as these groups appear to claim, then surely the proof would be in the empirical pudding? Surely anyone who follows this kind of belief system (particularly someone who clings to it with zeal and wears these beliefs on their sleeve) will be a decent person who contributes positively to society? Failing that, you would at least assume that such a person couldn't possibly end up being a horrible individual who has nothing to offer but negativity. Well, with this assumption in mind, I always keep an eye out on Twitter for people who appear to be singing loudly from the same hymn sheet as the religious right, just to see what kind of people they are. Anyway, one day I came across a very interesting chap called Michael Quinn (no relation to David, as far as I know). Michael doesn't seem to like Jews or black people very much.