A couple of months ago, my mum told me that a colleague had confided a shocking secret to her: a man they both knew, who was well-known and respected in our community, had sexually abused this woman decades ago when she was a child. Although shocked, my mother had believed this woman’s account straight away, and had never doubted it.
I didn’t say so, but my horror at hearing that this man was a child abuser (thankfully now tried and found guilty) was mixed with my pride in my mum for believing the victim. I wasn’t proud of her just because she believed the woman, but rather because of the reason she gave for believing: “She came across as a very bitter person.” It might sound odd to say that I’m proud of her for that, but it’s because too often, someone’s bitterness is used as a reason to dismiss them out of hand. An example that springs to mind is that of televangelist Lori Bakker insisting earlier this year that most of the women who participated in the Women’s March on Washington had been abused as children: Read More
My fiancé and I had a visit this weekend from my aunt. She stayed for three days, during which we took in a few of London’s finest museums. I rate the Imperial War Museum very highly, but the Natural History Museum has got to be my favourite. We managed to spend a couple of hours there, at the dinosaur exhibition and the human evolution exhibition. For reasons I can neither comprehend nor defend I hadn’t ever seen the human evolution exhibition before. It was wonderful. To me, human evolution has got to be the most enthralling subject in the world. I’m exhilarated by the thought of having a connection to something so similar, yet alien; that mind-blowing sense of recognising oneself in something so physically and cognitively foreign. It is the same reason why, when people get to know about cephalopods, they become fascinated by them. I think it’s also why I love having pets and love learning about animals. And then there’s the great question of why we’re here and the other humans aren’t. How did we survive and thrive so well while they died out?
Three days ago, the centre of my wonderful home city, London, became the scene of a terrorist attack in which four innocent people were murdered and many more were injured. The aim of the attacker was to incite terror, so it was immensely satisfying to visit the centre of town the very next day and see for myself precisely how hard he’d failed. London is a huge and resilient city and, as always, the city centre was jam-packed with shoppers and commuters, tourists and photographers, buskers and dancing Hare Krishnas. Walking the pavements from Regent Street down to Embankment, I didn’t for so much as a moment remember to feel afraid – that is, until I approached Trafalgar Square. A sliver of anxiety ran through me as I saw that dozens of police vans and personnel in high-viz vests had formed a formidable ring around the iconic plaza, where crowds of people had come together to remember the victims. The police kept a protective watch as the crowd observed silence, lit candles, and gave strength to one another.
I’m a fan of watching formal debate. One of my favourites is William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan debating and discussing the question “Is God Necessary for Morality?”. I was struck by how poorly Craig argued his case in comparison to his usual performances, but then the loosey-goosey format didn’t seem to play to his strengths. I’d never heard of Shelly Kagan before but after hearing his passionate defence of animal welfare I’ve decided that I probably love him. Anyway, the discussion made me think about some things: Meaning and morality, the priorities we hold, and the different ways I thought about them both pre- and post-deconversion.
At the outset, I’m content to admit that I either didn’t fully understand Craig’s argument because I need to listen to it again, or because of a divergence of perspective on what constitutes an adequate reason to care about morality that makes our respective understandings of this issue fundamentally irreconcilable. So if what I write appears to be a strawman, it’s unintentional.
After I “came out” as an atheist, I started noticing something about the responses I got from Christians. Here’s the kinds of things people would say:
“How sad that you don’t believe anymore!”
“Doesn’t it make you miserable to think that your life doesn’t have any purpose?”
“Wouldn’t you like to believe that there’s a God who really, really loves you?”
“But Christians are happier than atheists!”
It’s a bit of a paradox: people don’t really change, yet we are capable of huge, life-altering changes in our beliefs. I’ve previously written about the change in my beliefs and moral perspective on abortion. The biggest area of change, though, has been in my beliefs about the supernatural.
For weeks, I walked past the Palace Theatre in London, wishing I was among the lucky few who would get to go inside and see illusionist Derren Brown’s latest show, Miracle. I’m a big fan of Brown’s and I love the way he blurs good old sleight-of-hand with Neurolinguistic Programming, using explanation to simultaneously enlighten and obscure. So I was only too happy to tune into Channel 4 last night to watch the recorded live show of Miracle.
To my surprise, I’d seen it already.
I used to attend an evangelical, Holy-Spirit-seeking church. In Miracle, Derren (an atheist) takes on the mantle of preacher, healer, and miracle-worker, planting his tongue firmly in his cheek and calling on the Lord for divine intervention in his audience’s health problems. Anyone who has ever seen a faith healer in action would admit that his mimicry of their style and actions is note-perfect. He made headlines today, and blew up British Twitter, by both “healing” a woman’s defective eyesight and temporarily taking away a man’s ability to read. For some people, the show was doubtless just an entertaining diversion. But for me, it brought back a lot of memories.
This week, in the UK at least, abortion has been rather prominent in the public consciousness. To kick the week off, Polish women gathered together for Black Monday. They stayed away from work, school, or domestic chores to march against a proposal to further restrictions on abortion, a procedure that is already tightly restricted in their country. At the same time, Irish women are continuing the fight to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, which equates the right to life of an zygote, embryo, or foetus to the life of the woman carrying it. And then last night, Channel 4 screened “Undercover: Britain’s Abortion Extremists”. Me and my partner watched it together. Or rather, I watched it with great interest while he worked on his laptop, glancing up occasionally.
While he and I have a lot in common, we are also very different people. In the mornings, when we’re not running late, we have coffee together, always drinking from the same mugs. He uses his “Pantone” mug and I use my “Scrabble” one. I tend to think that our mugs reflect the major difference between how we process the world: he’s a visual thinker who skim-reads and goes straight for the big picture. On the other hand, I search for details and painstakingly read and re-read things. He watches the news every night to find out where we are, and I read books about history and human evolution to find out where we came from. The differences between us, of course, extend into other areas of life, too. He holds some ideas and opinions that I cannot share, and I believe strongly in causes he doesn’t care too much about.
So when he piped up mid-abortion-documentary with: “Want to know what I think about this? What I really, honestly think?”, I got nervous. I didn’t want him to say anything that might upset or anger me or help to cause a rift between us, and since reproductive rights is something I care deeply about, that was a real possibility. Of course I had a vague idea of where he stood on this issue, since a difference of opinion could potentially have real-world consequences for our relationship someday, but to be honest we had never discussed it in much depth. I couldn’t just say “No, thanks, I don’t want to know”, though. I had to bite the bullet and say “Go on, tell me”. Read More