The importance of actively secular spaces

Over the last 18 months, with Covid driving the shift to online meetings and with thinking about launching this blog, I have been to a larger and wider range of atheist, humanist, and secularist groups than in any time since my student activist days. I’ve been thinking about the different types of spaces which are needed to serve AHS+ communities.

Within movement atheism and wider religion and belief debates, a lot of discourse draws a binary distinction between religious and nonreligious or the sacred and the secular. I think this overlooks the potential of secular or nonreligious spaces as a meeting ground. We could instead see spaces as spread along a spectrum:

Actively religious > passively religious > passively nonreligious > actively nonreligious > passively irreligious > actively irreligious.

We need inclusive communities to fill the space right across this spectrum. However, I believe the space for actively nonreligious communities is poorly served. In our increasingly secularised world, most places are passively nonreligious. Book club, parkrun, community cricket club; for most of us, regardless of beliefs, most of our social interactions are de facto nonreligious.

The religious have no shortage of groups which, even if not focussed on religious goals, are centred around their identity and their needs. If you are nonreligious and you want a group centred around your identify then your choices are more limited and mainly focused on atheism. These groups do important work challenging the toxic manifestations of religion. But they shouldn’t be the only groups serving nonreligious communities. If you’re looking for a space to express your nonreligious identity, then an explicitly atheist or antireligious group may not always be what you need.

Many groups who want to position themselves as being for nonreligious people retreat into a passively nonreligious mentality because it feels ‘safer’ or less ‘controversial’. I’ve seen this happen with various nonreligious charity drives shifting to more generic language of serving everyone – an aimable goal. Nonreligious summer camps or discussion groups reframing themselves as philosophy focused. So called “atheist churches” describing themselves as just social meetups. All of these activities may be great in themselves, but the retreat from openly identifying as nonreligious is potentially problematic.

Without this clear identity, these groups may not be clearly communicating to their main audience or reaching nonreligious people. While this is fine if we just want nonreligious spaces, it isn’t creating spaces for nonreligious people.

Internalised religious privilege also plays a role as we’re told it is intrinsically bad to create explicitly nonreligious spaces. Many nonreligious people feel that that is part of their identity they should be at least slightly embarrassed about and that organising around it is inherently exclusionary. Even in actively irreligious spaces, there is often an assumption that the group should be reaching out and prioritising showing a good face to the religious. Not every space is for everyone, and if we believe that nonreligious people deserve community, then we should create communities which serve and centre them.

Actively nonreligious spaces also give room for atheists and anti-theists to express their nonreligious identities free from, rather than in opposition to, religion. They create room for values which stand apart from both religious and explicitly atheistic belief systems.

This is not just about nonreligious people. Many people of faith, including but not limited to those who may also be humanists or secularists, have particular needs for actively nonreligious spaces. Religion can be very important to someone, and still be something they need to get away from, from time to time. Everyone has nonreligious parts of their identity they can need space to express. Actively nonreligious spaces can provide them with that without unwanted anti-religious proselytization or antagonism.

I think this would also help support the political cause of secularism, by better differentiating between nonreligious and irreligious spaces.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 1

A review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins 15 years after its first publication hardly qualifies as a hot take. However, when I was deciding to launch this blog and considering the small contribution I could make to our AHS+ communities, it made sense to revisit the book which arguably helped launch the modern atheist movement more than any other .

An atheist humanist secularist reading

This series will be an experiment in in-depth critical reviews spaced out over alternate weeks for the benefit of those who wish either to read along or who are more interested in my sociopolitical commentary.

In part one I will review the preface and first two chapters, where Dawkins sets out the form of theism and religion he is arguing against, contrasting it with metaphorical uses of the terms. In two weeks’ time I will respond to chapters three and four, where Dawkins considers the arguments for and his central argument against theism. Part three will look at naturalistic explanations for the roots of religion and morality (chapters five and six). Part four critiques chapters seven and eight, and the moral case against religion. This series will conclude with my review of the final two chapters’ positive case for atheism, and my reflections on the series overall.

To paraphrase Heraclitus, we don’t read the same book twice. The text may not have changed, but we have.

I read the first paperback edition around 14 years ago. What was so energising was not necessarily the text itself but the intellectual and social movements it helped ignite. I’m not even sure if I read all the way to the end, as my copy was borrowed multiple times. Strangers seeing you read it in the park would come up to talk to you about it. Like the Bible, this was a text where the greatest impact, and both the most vociferous criticism and praise, comes not necessarily from the text itself, but peoples’ filtered idea of the text.

I read it for a second time about seven years ago when my personal atheism was transitioning from a firebrand to a more social justice-oriented approach. Perhaps I sought to recapture the burning ferocity of the early ‘new atheism’. I remember being surprised to find the book was far more mellow than I had remembered;. certainly less scathing than most online discourse about politics. It is only the special deference granted to religion that makes a book like The God Delusion seem at all scandalously rude.

Preface

The book was published in the same year that Dawkins presented a Channel Four documentary titled “Root of all evil” and illustrated by “a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the caption ‘Imagine a world without religion.’”. I was surprised by quite how early it is clear that this book was written in the shadow of 9/11, though to a lesser extent than books like Letter to a Christian Nation. Dawkins had wanted to write a book directly tackling religion for some time but was deterred by publishers. The events of 11 September 2001 and other Islamist violence forced concerns over religious fundamentalism into the mainstream and created the space for the so called ‘new atheism’ epitomised by authors like Dawkins.

This also displays the reduction of complex geo-political issues into simplistic explanations of religious extremism that those authors were more or less fairly criticised for.

Dawkins uses the preface to set out his approach including the self admittedly ambitious aim that “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” as well as four secondary aims of ‘consciousness raising’. Seeking to persuade people of the truth of your position is laudable. But this comes across as hopelessly naïve.

Perhaps this is a product of its time and seems stranger to us because the conversation about religion and atheism has moved on. Before the ‘new atheism’ of the early 21st-century began to break this taboo, atheist arguments were excluded from much of the public sphere. Before the internet, people in highly religious communities may never have had access to the writings of others who shared their own inner doubts. It is unsurprising that popularly accessible atheistic writing was able to quickly reach so many already primed recipients.

This claimed aim also invites comparisons to work by Christian apologists, who often profess themselves to be writing to the non-believer, while actually giving greater service to the aim of reinforcing religious faith.

Dawkins sets out four forms of consciousness-raising he wishes to promote through the book. Firstly, that atheism is both an intellectually viable and potentially personally fulfilling option. This is a measure of how far we have come in beginning to break the taboos of atheism, that this aim appears so modest.

Secondly, that the explanatory power of natural selection should prime us to embrace naturalistic and non-agent focused explanations over religious or design focused ones.

Thirdly, noticing the absurdity of labelling children by their parents’ religious beliefs. While the statement that “There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.” is perhaps too simplistic, the lazy assumption that children belong to or are owned by the religious tradition of their background should be challenged.

Fourthly, that being “an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of”. He makes the comparison to LGBT pride and the coming out movement explicit. The comparisons, and differences, between these two deeply entwined movements deserves further commentary.

Pride is a double-edged sword. Most of us still live in societies which – however irreligious – are awash with religious privilege and where being an open atheist is treated as something shameful. Atheists should have the pride necessary to be open about themselves and their beliefs but also be careful of being unnecessarily prideful about figuring out the easy ‘god question’.

Chapter 1. A deeply religious non-believer

“Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.”

The title of the first chapter comes from an Einstein quote and is all very interesting. While setting the scene, it does little to advance Dawkins’ main arguments. He discusses how a “quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists” and how metaphorical use of religious language can cloud our debate. It’s unclear whether Dawkins is criticising scientists for using religious metaphors or theologians and religious quote miners for misrepresenting these as an argument for theism.

During his life it was clear that Einstein was not religious or a believer in anything but a metaphorical god and Dawkins quotes at length some of the brutal and racist attacks against him by Christian theologians because of this. But in death Einstein’s words have been misappropriated by theologians.

“There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like ‘God is subtle but he is not malicious’ or ‘He does not play dice’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic. ‘God does not play dice’ should be translated as ‘Randomness does not lie at the heart of all things.’ ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ means ‘Could the universe have begun in any other way?’ Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. “

Dawkins is very concerned he is not misrepresented as arguing against metaphoric religion or poetic naturalism, and that he be understood as targeting specifically theistic supernaturalist religion.  Like many science communicators, Dawkins frequently uses agency and amorphization in discussions of evolution and other natural processes. Often one of the silliest critiques of atheists and other materialists is to accuse them of ‘scientism’, which puts the atheist into a bind. Either they are accused of not appreciating beauty and wonder, or they talk about beauty and wonder and are accused of making nature into a religion.

Figurative language about religion can be deployed in two ways according to Dawkins. Firstly he addresses how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to give inappropriate credit to religion. Then he turns his attention to how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to shield religion from criticism.

This provides us with an early example of Dawkins moving outside of his field of expertise (science communication) into fields where he is much less artful (social commentary). From Northern Ireland to Iraq and Yugoslavia, Dawkins criticises the use of euphemisms such as community or ethnic conflict when describing conflict between religious groups: “we have a pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions”.

It is true that the media and elites wish to downplay or obfuscate the role of religion and religious identity in such conflicts, but equally they cannot be reduced to matters of religion. Dawkins will return to this theme, and the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in more detail later in the book. So, I’m reluctant to criticise him for his overly simplistic treatment of it here.

Because of religious privilege, an underlying theme in but not actually one of the four issues Dawkins wishes to raise consciousness on, is that religion is often given credit for the good and shielded from criticism for the bad. For example, the work of a Christian charity is credited to Christianity, whereas bigotry by a Christian hate group is not. Dawkins is right to criticise this, but it would be difficult to justify doing the opposite, for example if he were to claim that religion must take no credit for Christian charity, but all blame for Christian hate.

For the rest of the chapter Dawkins goes into examples such as Islamic fundamentalists’ (and their mainstream apologists’) reactions to the 2005/06 Danish Muhammad cartoons episode and public debates over morality to highlight the undue deference given to religious sensibilities.

“It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.”

Chapter 2. The God Hypothesis

Chapter two opens with perhaps the book’s best-known quotation:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

It’s hard to argue with such a characterisation based on any honest reading of the Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly to those who have encountered this quote out of context, Dawkins is not out to “attack such an easy target”. In this chapter Dawkins sets out what he means to and believes can be attacked, namely the hypothesis that a theistic god, (i.e., one possessing agency and with some interest in the affairs of either humanity or the wider universe) exists.

Dawkins believes that this is a scientific hypothesis which can at least theoretically be tested. If the theologian genuinely believes they can demonstrate the existence of a god, either through empirical evidence or rational argument, it is unclear why they would object.

Dawkins takes a rather brief aside to consider polytheism, including the trinitarianism of Christianity. Of course, Christian theologians will argue, nonsensically, that the trinity is mono rather than poly theistic. Critics may argue that this is betraying Dawkins simplistic view of religion, while a supporter could respond that these are not necessary to address the god hypothesis. One need not know every single detail of every single edition and every single school of criticism of the Spiderman comics to discuss whether Spiderman exists.

Dawkins explains that “For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’.” Again, this seems perfectly sensible, Dawkins is free to set out the hypothesis he is arguing against and theologians are free to criticise the argument or hypothesis. Here also Dawkins explains why he will continue with the convention of referring to the agent or theistic god as he, before taking a dig at feminist theologians:

“More sophisticated theologians proclaim the sexlessness of God, while some feminist theologians seek to redress historic injustices by designating her female. But what, after all, is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male? I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might indeed be a less salient attribute than gender.”

I agree with Dawkins that theology is not a serious academic approach to studying religion or belief. Philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, history of religion, psychology of religion et cetera et cetera et cetera are all worthy fields of study, but theology should be kept as far away from this as alchemy is kept away from the chemistry department.

But it seems that Dawkins is intentionally associating theology with feminism, to make it sound silly. Proposing a female god is no sillier than proposing a male god, so why doesn’t he spend as much time making fun out of that? Feminist religious scholars – whether legitimate scholars or theologians – may have good reasons to talk about a female god, including addressing the traditional male supremacy in religion.

Dawkins is happy to make use of feminist thought surrounding consciousness-raising, and then turns round and uses feminism as a punchline. Feminists may label an arbitrary concept of god female, for the same reason that Australian mapmakers may arbitrarily place the southern hemisphere at the top of their maps. Indeed, this second is an example of consciousness-raising that Dawkins later praises.

Also note the use of the gendered language, ‘ditzy’. Toxic parts of the atheist movement frequently use gendered or racialised language to criticise gendered or racialised aspects of religion, and then when called on it claim that they are criticising all religion.

Dawkins seeks to pre-empt the criticism that: “The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.” Dawkins believes this is unfair because that’s not the hypothesis he is attacking, he is attacking the hypothesis of an agent i.e., theistic god. One may also point out that the idea of a god sitting up in the clouds, while laughable today, is not so different to concepts of gods that have been held throughout human history.

Dawkins then spends a little time looking at monotheism and the secularist roots of the United States. This is all fine enough but superficial and I’m not sure why it’s placed in this chapter. He spends a lot of time talking about:

“The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religiose country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least.”

He gives a quite superficial answer which might be called the free-market hypothesis that lack of state religion has encouraged religions to become more aggressively competitive. When Dawkins encounters a difficult question in science, he is excited about all the different possible explanations there could be. But on difficult social questions, he seems content to reach for simplistic answers.

After these asides Dawkins returns to the central argument of this chapter, that the existence of a theistic god is a scientific hypothesis. He begins by defining two types of agnosticism: “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” vs “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle”. First of which Dawkins considers a reasonable open-minded approach and the second a close-minded assertion.

He illustrates this with a seven-point scale from 100% certain theism to 100% certain atheism. Dawkins contends that the “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” should lead us to a strong six, verging on seven on the scale, while the “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle” approach is useless as it would preclude us from taking any position.

We then get a brief rundown of the burden of proof, and why theists are unjustified in placing this on atheists, via the examples of Russell’s cosmic teapot, Camp Quest’s invisible pink unicorn and the Church of the flying spaghetti monster. To summarise:

The great humanist mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell illustrates the problem with theists claiming that atheists should be the ones to prove that God doesn’t exist, by positing the existence of a tiny china teapot orbiting the sun which cannot be revealed or disproved even by the most powerful telescopes, and how absurd it would be to demand that a-teapotists disprove its existence. The invisible pink unicorn and flying spaghetti monster are contemporary examples to illustrate the absurdity of positing undetectable supernatural entities without evidence and then asserting the burden is on others to disprove their claim.

Dawkins spends the remainder of the chapter addressing potential criticisms of his approach to the god hypothesis, in the form of the theory of non-overlapping magisterium (NOMA) proposed by Stephen Jay Gould. NOMA holds that:

“The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”

Dawkins’ critique of this is twofold and it seems to me that an honest theologian who sincerely believes there is evidence for the god hypothesis would join Dawkins in this first critique. Namely, that the two magisterium do comment on each other. Theologians make claims about reality all the time. If there were the slightest suggestion of empirical evidence in favour of the god hypothesis, does anyone imagine theologians would say this doesn’t count, because it is from a different magisterium?

For an example of this, Dawkins considers “the Great Prayer Experiment”, one of several such initiatives funded by the Templeton Foundation which aim to find indirect empirical evidence in support of religion by testing prayer. If the test were to succeed, theologians would claim this as evidence. Religious apologists only retreat to claiming that the utility of prayer is beyond science because such tests fail.

Dawkins’ second critique is to question the basis of the second magisterium, i.e. to question whether theologians really do have a meaningful field of expertise.

“Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science… But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?… theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let’s throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will.”

While Dawkins does agree, perhaps to shield himself from accusations of scientism, that “science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least”, his simplistic treatment of the second magisterium does give succour to the types of atheists who do casually dismiss the contributions of philosophy and the humanities to our understanding of the world.

Finally, Dawkins turns to considering why NOMA is embraced by religious moderates and those nonreligious scientists who he dismisses as the “appeasement lobby”:

“A possible ulterior motive for those scientists who insist on NOMA – the invulnerability to science of the God Hypothesis – is a peculiarly American political agenda, provoked by the threat of populist creationism.”

Ostensibly this is all in aid of defending his claim that the existence of a theistic god should be treated as a scientific hypothesis. I can’t help but feel that had an editor imposed a clearer structure on the book Dawkins could have treated the whole question of religious moderates and appeasing atheists, with more consideration.

Dawkins’ scientific understanding of evolution plays an important role in his atheism. He seems to resent the suggestion that he should hide this in order to make the facts of evolution seem more palatable to the religious. But is Dawkins really being asked to hide his beliefs, or simply to meet religious believers on common ground?

This touches on Dawkins’ fourth consciousness raiser, that of atheist pride. Why in polite society or when cooperating with good and decent religious people, must atheists be expected to not only respect the beliefs of others, but acts if they are faintly embarrassed of their own atheism?

Like Dawkins, I am somewhat bemused at the cognitive dissonance required by sensible religious people to integrate god beliefs into their otherwise reasonable worldviews. But I’m not so prideful that I believe my own worldview is free of any irrationalism or woolly thinking.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Atheism, religion, and the pitfalls of reasoning from first principles

Blunt force reasoning from first principles may work for the narrow question of gods’ (non)existence but the truly difficult questions require deeper engagement with atheistic, humanist and secularist philosophy.

I could construct a perfectly logical, entirely theoretical argument that building more roads would help reduce traffic, or that a minimum wage decreases demand for labour. This argument from first principles could seem entirely sensible but would be empirically indefensible.

I’ve been thinking about the pitfalls of such reasoning from first principles, and why atheists, among others in the AHS+ community, may be particularly vulnerable to them. It is possible, sitting in a room by yourself, with no other people, to figure out the ‘God Question’. Every formal argument for the existence of gods (i.e., for theism), is based on logical fallacies, and every informal argument on well understood cognitive problems we all have.

As empirical evidence has nothing to say, because gods do not actually exist in the real world, the brute force rationalism of a first principles approach is a good fit for the narrow question of gods’ existence. We may even be underestimating the impact that the so called ‘new atheism’ of the early 21st-century has had, in making any sort of positive arguments for theism completely intellectually untenable.

However, many of the problems with the modern atheist movement have come where this sort of blunt first principles approach has been applied to wider questions of religion and society.

To answer questions like “what the relationship between religion and society should be” or “how do I live a good life without religion”, we need to draw on the deep wells of atheistic, humanist and secularist thought which go back centuries, if not millennia, and adjust our beliefs in the light of empirical evidence. And that includes empathy and other tools dismissed by many of the “facts don’t care about your feelings” first principles crowd.

I speak from a position of privilege here, having not suffered childhood indoctrination and having faced relatively few social consequences for my atheism. Many are not so fortunate, but for those who are, this narrow ‘God Question’ is not that difficult. Yet solving it can give some atheists an inflated sense of their own intellects. After all this is supposedly one of the Great Questions, and I am smart enough to figure it out on my own, using just the power of my reason.

From this, some atheists begin to believe that they are free from any logical fallacies or human cognitive errors. Like certain sceptics who have seen through the claims of pseudoscience, they may begin to think they can come afresh to any issue and apply their reason without bias.

Theism is irrational and almost certainly false. But you cannot generalise from this that religion or any other complex belief system which may seem irrational, can be entirely dismissed. None of the problems with religion are based in any sort of simplistic sense on the logical fallacies of theism. Refuting the teleological argument, does not address the complex causes of religious opposition to science. I don’t believe any form of religiously motivated bigotry or discrimination has been affected in any meaningful way by the flaws in the ontological argument.

This sort of blunt force, first principle obsession with logical fallacies has also been applied to social issues, where it simply isn’t relevant. Deep and complex political disagreements are disagreements about our perception of facts and even more so how we weigh certain values with respect to those facts.

One of the best arguments for the utility of first principle reasoning is the John Rawls thought experiment of the ‘veil of ignorance’ which temporarily removes our knowledge of our position in society, so we can reason without that bias. The veil is not intended to remove our knowledge of society, or human emotions.

Many people forget this part, or only remember the first part of the thought experiment, going behind the veil. The second part, the process of reflective equilibrium, where we are supposed to switch back and forth between this ‘original position’ and the real world so we can adjust our theories, is equally important.

So none of this is to say that there aren’t times when pointing out that the emperor has no clothes can’t cut through to the heart of the matter. But often when we try to reason from first principles, or kid ourselves that we can, we ignore the potentially flawed presumptions that we include.

Perhaps I’m less a fan of this first principles approach, because I’m more concerned with the episcopate than epistemology. I’m more concerned with the moral than the intellectual failings of religion. In fact, to the extent that I’m passionate at all about those intellectual failings, it is largely because of the impact on the moral failings of religion.

My atheism may be based on rationality, but that is only a foundation. Far more is needed to build a personally fulfilling and socially just humanism and secularism.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

AHS+ Daily (14 May 2021)

Welcome to your AHS+ Daily briefing on news, views and issues related to atheism, humanism, and secularism in the UK and internationally. Every weekday we highlight ten articles, news stories or other pieces of content we hope you’ll find interesting.

01. Latest episode of Skeptics with a K from Merseyside Skeptics

“This ep, Alice talks about the controversy Orgasmic Meditation, its advocates at OneTaste, and their ongoing trouble with the FBI. Meanwhile, Mike reflects on autism and reframing past events after receiving a diagnosis.”

02. UK: Conversion therapy ban must include harmful religious practices

“Planned Westminster legislation to ban so-called LGBTI+ conversion therapy must include harmful religious practices, Amnesty International said in response to the Government’s commitment to ban the practice but only after a public consultation.”

03. Virtual worship allows people to break away from local congregations to find new communities, say researchers

It would be interesting to see how many freed from social pressure of in person meetings can have a genuinely free choice of a more liberal or no Church, and the impact on secular congregations.

04. New bill proposes to replace compulsory worship with inclusive assemblies

A new bill could pile the pressure on England’s ridiculous requirement for a daily act of Christian worship in schools.

05. How to repair the American mind: solving America’s cognitive crisis

“Vast numbers of people do not know how to think critically and are insufficiently aware of how easy it can be for anyone, regardless of general education or intelligence, to be lured into a bogus belief. This abundance of unprotected minds provides the necessary foundation for our growing crisis. Minus many millions of people in such a vulnerable state, empty claims and ridiculous beliefs could not rage across the land collecting converts with the ease they do now.”

06. Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake – book launch with Ray Argyle

“Jailed for atheism and disowned by his family, George Jacob Holyoake came out of an English prison at the age of 25 determined to bring an end to religion’s disproportionate control over daily life. The story of the rise and success of secularism as a political principle cannot be told without Holyoake, who in fact coined the term ‘secularism’ itself.”

07. Check out this report on religiosity inspections, the case against faith-based reviews of state schools

“Faith based inspections of state schools are an unnecessary drain on public finds, frame widely held values as exclusive, and promote biased religious education.”

08. It’s time for our Catholic president to address the church’s sexual abuse scandal

“For more than 25 years — nearly half of the president’s adult life — the U.S. Catholic Church has been dealing with the horror of widespread clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. Yet U.S. abuse survivors have never received official acknowledgment of their pain by any federal official anywhere.”

09. New Zealand’s Catholic Church investigating claims children were prostituted to Church officials

10. Did you miss last week’s post: “Happy humans and atheist ‘A’s; the symbolism of AHS+”

As an amateur graphic design enthusiast and doodler, I’ve been thinking about common symbols used by different atheist, humanist and secularist groups, what they communicate and why they are or aren’t successful.

From the atomic whirl of 1963 and the happy human of 1965 and more recent symbols, exploring the meaning behind common atheist, humanist and secularist groups’ iconography.

Thanks for reading

AHS+ Daily is a new feature we are adding in addition to our weekly articles (Mondays at 10.00) and we’d love to hear your feedback. You can always contact us with any suggestions of what you’d like to see included.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

AHS+ Daily (13 May 2021)

Welcome to your AHS+ Daily briefing on news, views and issues related to atheism, humanism and secularism in the UK and internationally. Every weekday we highlight ten articles, news stories or other pieces of content we hope you’ll find interesting.

#01. ScathingAtheist 430: Jenner-al Election Edition

It’s Thursday! Which means it’s time for the best written, funniest atheist podcast in my library.

#02. Hindu sect fined for slave labour in New Jersey

The BAPS sect used forced labour to build the largest Hindu temple in the United States. The story raises issues of caste discrimination and links with far-right Hindu Nationalism.

#03. Uyghur imams targeted in China’s Xinjiang crackdown

The Uyghur Human Rights Project have claimed 630 imams and other Muslim religious figures have been detained in China’s crackdown in the Xinjiang region.

#04. Jordan Peterson is wrong: medical error is absolutely not the ‘third leading cause of death’

It is baffling why Peterson is popular in certain parts of the atheist and skeptic community. People like Peterson bring the sort of pseudoscience and magical thinking into a groups founded on rejecting it, by dressing it up in intellectual contrarianism.

#05. Practicing the withdrawal method?

The National Secular Society report on an independent faith school where every pupil has been withdrawn from sex education, seemingly encouraged by the school’s own policy. How can this possibly mean the school “have fulfilled their statutory responsibilities regarding the teaching of relationships, health and sex education”?

#06. Living in faith and love

While it is good to see progressive religious people try to support LGBT rights, until they are willing to honestly face up to religion’s role in and theological roots of homophobia and transphobia, then they risk simply pink washing those institutions.

#07. Latest religious freedom report from the US state department acknowledges non-believers

#08. Debate continues over German Bishops blessing same-sex marriages despite Vatican opposition

Being less bigoted than Pope Francis and the Catholic Church is an extremely low bar.

#09. Bill to allow creationism to be taught in Arkansas fails narrowly

10. Keep on top of secularist issues with the National Secular Society’s daily collection of news and commentary from across the media.

Thanks for reading

AHS+ Daily is a new feature we are adding in addition to our weekly articles (Mondays at 10.00) and we’d love to hear your feedback. You can always contact us with any suggestions of what you’d like to see included.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

AHS+ Daily (12 May 2021)

Welcome to your AHS+ Daily briefing on news, views and issues related to atheism, humanism and secularism in the UK and internationally. Every weekday we highlight ten articles, news stories or other pieces of content we hope you’ll find interesting.

#01. Another Christian claims they are being discriminated against because they can’t be homophobic at work

A former chaplain at a private college in Nottingham is claiming religious persecution after being disciplined for calling same-sex marriage and gay sex is “morally problematic” as part of a wider criticism of the school’s support of LGBT rights.

#02. Bad sociology: religion doesn’t improve charitable giving

The Tippling Philosopher explores the claim that religion makes people more likely to support charity and the mountains of sociological evidence that either counteracts or undermines this.

#03. Could an epidemiology for viral ideas end the culture war?

Should we be ‘treating’ the manifestations of bad beliefs or their causes? A little bit of false equivalency between the alt-right and ‘neo-puritans’, but an interesting read. I have my doubts about how far the epidemiology analogy can be applied, but atheists, skeptics and rationalists of all types should learn that proving a belief false is not always the best way to address a flawed belief system.

#04. Canadian church fined $74k for ignoring Covid restrictions

Another day, another religious institution crying persecution when they don’t get special exemptions from Covid restrictions.

#05. My fifth post

We’ve been continuing our regular weekly articles. The latest explores the 2018 theocratic dystopian novel Vox, written by Christina Dalcher.

#06. Six pseudoscience promoters aiming to be the next mayor of London

This piece is a couple of weeks old, but well worth a read now as we digest the results of last week’s elections. It’s the article I wish I’d written, from The Skeptic, and focuses of six of the pseudoscience promoting and conspiracist also rans in the London Mayoral election. The London Mayoralty is the biggest election in the UK and it sometimes seems that any politician at a loss of what to do next or with dreams of skipping the ranks wants to give it a go.

#07. Exploring the seven types of atheism

Beyond Atheism has fast become one of the best and most enriching atheist podcasts in my library, I’ve just listened to their episode on John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism.

#08. Banning conversion therapy, apart from the religions that actually practice it?

In yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, the government finally committed to banning anti-LGBT conversion therapy. But there are concerns that there could be loopholes for religious groups.

#09. Exploring the early history of secularism in episode forty-nine of the NSS podcast.

This episode of the National Secular Society’s podcast explores the role of freethinkers and atheists in the radical reform movement of the nineteenth century, before and after the founding of the secularist movement.

#10. Finally, dying matters

It is dying matters awareness week. A non-religious humanistic worldview really allows us to demystify and come to terms with death. Humanists UK are encouraging people to discuss their funeral wishes in advance and explore some of the many ways that humanists and non-religious people think about death and dying.

Thanks for reading

AHS+ Daily is a new feature we are adding in addition to our weekly articles (Mondays at 10.00) and we’d love to hear your feedback. You can always contact us with any suggestions of what you’d like to see included.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Silence can be deafening, review of Vox

A review of the atheist, humanist and secularist themes in the 2018 theocratic dystopian novel Vox, written by Christina Dalcher.

Set in an undefined near future in which the USA has become a Christian theocracy, it is clear from the front cover onwards that Vox is startling and high concept. Women have been relegated to second class status, their passports, jobs and bank accounts removed. Most shockingly all women and girls have been fitted with a counter which delivers powerful electric shocks if they go over a permitted 100 words a day.

This symbolism for the religious right’s obsession with controlling female expression is as subtle as a sledgehammer. The sanitised language of ‘modesty’ and ‘purity’ seen in real world theocratic movements is on full display as is the disturbing fashion accessorisation of oppression. Dr Jean McClellan, our viewpoint character, resists attempts by others to sanitise these instruments of control; rebuking her husband describing the electric shockers as bracelets and refusing a pink model for her daughter.

The inciting incident begins when the president’s brother develops a brain aneurysm leaving him unable to speak. Jean’s expertise as a neurologist studying exactly this sort of aneurysm is needed and, though the regime may preach that women are not suited to the workplace, arrangements are made.

An easy criticism of Vox would be that it is derivative. The front cover even carries a promotional quote calling it a “Reimagining of the Handmaid’s Tale”, and I am strongly reminded of Frederic C. Rich’s Christian Nation. But I also own around a dozen paint-by-numbers zombie apocalypse stories so I am clearly not averse to repetitions on a theme. What matters is the execution and what it adds to the genre.

Jean’s interactions with her son Steven, seen contemporaneously and through flashbacks, are the novel’s most unique and stand out contribution to the genre. We see him as a young man (15 during the story’s main events) finding a sense of identity in the right-wing Christianity seeping into society. Jean fights her growing temptation to hate her son, and so do we, as we are left wondering at what point he stops being a victim of and when he starts being a perpetrator of this radicalisation.

Jean’s interactions with her son do a lot of the heavy lifting in the otherwise limited worldbuilding department. Extra-curricular religious lessons start being offered at Steven’s school and while uncomfortable at their overtones of Christian conservatism and toxic masculinity, Jean doesn’t feel able to complain or intervene. Bit by bit this radicalisation becomes more explicit. I know lots of parents in a similar position, fearing looking unreasonable or ‘hysterical’ if they object to some religious intrusion into their supposedly secular school.

Overall, the worldbuilding is high concept rather than detailed. Most of the structures of the state and society in Vox seem familiar, and it is implied that the Christian Nationalists seizing of power has been through at least partially democratic means.

Vox is scathing in its critique of men’s weaknesses; the insecurity which lies at the heart of misogyny and susceptibility to toxic peer pressure. It is a great pity that, outside of the son, the male characters are so two dimensional. Though this is largely a product of the first-person narrative framing.

Other tropes are hit through the novel. I’m really fascinated by how this genre handles what I call the canary character; a character we normally meet through flashback (in the case of Vox, her name is Jackie), often  related to the protagonist or an old college friend. This character is often presented as a slightly loopy activist who warns about the coming theocracy but is dismissed as hysterical – they are the canary in the coal mine of the story.

Particularly through the Ray family, led by Del the mailman (Del-iver-ray), Vox explores the intersection between Christian Nationalism, race and class in a way largely overlooked by similar books in the genre. Working class families and those of colour, alongside other minorities, would suffer most if Christian Nationalist dreams were to come true.

It’s a good debut novel, but Christina Dalcher’s background as a short fiction writer is evident in the novel’s biggest weakness… its pacing. The short chapters are intended to give a sense of constant momentum drawing you in. This effect is enhanced in what I’ve heard of the audio version. Where this works well, it builds the tension in a way which strangely reminded me of the first part of Dracula. The sense of unease and fear builds up and you can imagine each small chapter is being secretly scribbled down by our protagonist when they can.

Elsewhere the pacing falls flat; the momentum seems to peter out and events leap forward based on contrivances. I assumed that the author was aiming for 100 chapters to match the 100 word limit, meaning the ending felt even more rushed.

If you’re genre savvy, you’ll see the twists coming. But that shouldn’t detract from a good story. If you’re looking for an accessible but thought provoking look at theocratic fiction, then I’d recommend giving this a read.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Happy humans and atheist ‘A’s; the symbolism of AHS+

As an amateur graphic design enthusiast and doodler, I’ve been thinking about common symbols used by different atheist, humanist and secularist groups, what they communicate and why they are or aren’t successful.

The happy human

1 diverse humanist symbols

In 1965 the British Humanist Association ran an international competition, with a prize of five guineas, to design an easily recognisable, meaningful symbol for humanism. The winning design by Dennis Barrington became the ‘happy human’ whose history originally inspired this article.

The symbol is reminiscent of the da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which has been used to illustrate the Humanist Manifesto, showing the roots of humanism stretch back far to the renaissance and beyond. A human is a fitting emblem for a worldview which places human agency at its centre. And it is an ‘H’ which works well for the many translations which begin with the same letter.

While the initial and modern trademark are owned by Humanists UK, they have encouraged its adoption and hundreds of humanists organisations around the world have created their own variations of the design.

The happy human was originally known as the happy man, though along with the name change, revisions have lent towards a more inclusive agender version. Interestingly enough a superhuman flying design was apparently suggested in 1965. Happily, this with its sense of smug humanist superiority was rejected and so the happy human, unlike some of those on this list, provides a symbol in which we can see ourselves.

If you would like to learn more, I would recommend this write up in Humanist Life. Some years ago, Conway Hall had an exhibition dedicated to the symbol and it would be interesting to see something like that again.

The atheist A

2 different atheist A

My preferred type of this design is the atheist A spiral designed by Diane Reed for Atheist Alliance International (AAI), though the copyright for this was released by the artist and it is extremely widely used. It is probably the only atheist symbol which is as ubiquitous as the happy humanist. AAI currently use a more stylised capital A in the form of a triangle.

According to user PZ Meyers: “The circle represents the natural universe, the point is the inquiring mind, and the resemblance to the Latin ‘A’ is both a nod to the language of science, and to the necessity of having some easily graspable connection to ‘atheism’.”

It is also reminiscent of the at sign (@), which reflects the important role that online email and social media has played in the modern atheist movement.

Other notable versions of the atheist A include the scarlet script “A” in the Zapfino typeface. This was adopted by the Out Campaign launched by Robin Elisabeth Cornwell at the Richard Dawkins Foundation. The campaign aimed to reappropriate a symbol of stigmatism (more on that later) to encourage closeted atheists to proudly self-identify.

Scientific symbols

3 different atomic atheist symbols

The atomic whirl may sound like a pop band invented by an artificial intelligence. It is actually the symbol of American Atheists. It was selected when the group was formed in 1963, a modern symbol of the atomic age. The use of the symbol associates atheism with science. In the American Atheist design the central orbital is open at one end: “This demonstrates that while atheists rely on the scientific method for learning about the cosmos and increasing our knowledge about nature, we know that not all of the answers are in.”

While the logo itself is copyrighted, the atomic symbol with its association with a scientific worldview and discovery is widely used by atheist groups and individuals, for example the International Association of Atheists.

4 differnt DNA atheist symbols including CFI

Another scientific symbol that I see commonly used for AHS+ identification is the double helix. This associates atheists and other AHS+ groups with science and particularly the science of genetics and evolution, which is often attacked by religious reactionaries. In the logos for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Centre for Inquiry, the double helix is presented like a flame, a torch of rationality lighting up a dark world. I also really like this design by artist Mel Biv. Other notable examples include the Openly Secular campaign which grew out of the Out Campaign referenced above.

5 different infinity atheist symbols including camp quest

The infinity symbol shows up in a lot of AHS+ logos. I think the best example is from Camp Quest, where the different loops are shaped into their initials, CQ. The symbol evokes the infinite possibilities of exploration in the real world, as well as the interconnectedness of community. In some designs it can be seen to subvert the Christian ichthys symbol.

Sometimes, as in the example above, DNA imagery is incorporated into the infinity symbol, likely symbolising the infinite possibilities within humanity.

The Leviathan Cross is also used as a symbol within atheistic or Satanist groups parodying Christianity, though not widely used in other AHS+ circles. The infinity symbol here indicates the infinite possibilities of nature while the double inverted cross symbolises protection and balance between people. Satanism, both as a satirical and metaphorical religion is more likely to appropriate religious symbols than other AHS+ groups. Doing so is itself an act of satirising Christian conspiracy theories about hidden heretics identified by secret marks.

Direct subversion of religious symbol

6 Darwin Fish and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Darwin fish, the Flying Spaghetti Monster and variations on the crucifix are often used within AHS+ iconography to satirise or subvert religious ideas.

7 Ex Muslim org logos

While popular within online AHS+ communities direct subversions of religious symbols are rarely adopted as the symbol of organised groups. Notable exceptions include Ex-Muslim groups, many of which appropriate the Crescent and Star or other Islamic symbols. A common design inverts the crescent (similar to an inverted cross in anti-Christian imagery) and replaces the star with the prefix “EX”. This very symbol is an act of defiance given strong Islamic taboos against blasphemy or innovation. Interestingly many Ex-Muslim groups also make use of green, a colour strongly associated with Islam, or red, its opposite.

I suspect that as denominational specific apostate groups grow in visibility, appropriation and subversion of more diverse religious symbols may be more a popular in their iconography.

Secularism

8 secularist logos

As far as I can see, there isn’t a symbol specifically associated with secularism. If you search for one you tend to get more examples of symbols associated with atheism and humanism. I wonder if this is related to secularism being a more complicated idea that is often misunderstood or seen as part of atheism, rather than its own separate ideology. Common approaches to illustrating secularism include equals signs, scales or balance between different religious symbols and occasionally a capital ‘S’. Of that last type, I particularly like how Pagans for Secularism have incorporated the capital ‘S’ and the pentagram.

Use of religious symbols, often a range of symbols together, or repetitions of symbols to indicate diversity, are more common within secularist groups which are more open to religion or associated with particular religious traditions. British Muslims for Secular Democracy also make use of a traditional Islamic symbol (the Rub el Hizb) in an interesting way. Because the organisation is not anti-religious and includes religious Muslim secularists, the symbol is not subversive. It is more complicated than a traditional Rub el Hizb indicating an open-mindedness to other perspectives, while its use of angles and colours is reminiscent of a union flag, indicating a comfort combining Islam with symbols of a largely secular country.

Perhaps when George Holyoake was inventing the word secularism he should have come up with some symbol to help identify it distinctly from atheism. Speaking of the nineteenth century secularist movement, I was surprised to learn that the pansy was once a widely recognised symbol of freethought. Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, took the flower and its colours for his election campaigning from the late 1860’s. Pansy is derived from the French pensée, meaning thought or reflection, as is pensive. Interestingly, Pansy is first recorded being used as an insult much later, in 1929, with overtones of anti-intellectualism and homophobia. I wonder if this is related to its association with prominent freethinkers and secularists who were pacifists during WW1.

Others

9 Brights celestial body logo

The Brights, an atheistic social movement founded by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, and definitely the topic of a future article, use an interesting symbol. The symbol represents a celestial body viewed from space, so can be placed in any direction. It is intended to bring in the ideas of scientific grandeur, the humbling power of nature and humanity’s place in the cosmos incorporated in other AHS+ symbols. But the imagery, like other aspects of The Brights’ ideas, is in my view both too self-aggrandising and confused in its relation to the people it aims to represent.

10 atheist day green circles

The green circle image used by the Atheist Republic #AtheistDay campaign and other online atheists, often associated with Ex-Muslims, is an interesting symbol which doesn’t fit neatly into any of these other categories. The circle could be seen to represent the natural world and all its possibilities or the Earth itself and the need for global solidarity. It is drawn in paint indicating the importance of artistic and creative expression in challenging religious fundamentalism. The circle indicating a zero or the natural world devoid of gods is itself a common atheistic symbol.

Triangles

11 different Sunday Assembly triangles

Triangles are widely used within AHS+ imagery, because of their association with scientific rationalism and balance. It is also a dynamic shape which can be used to indicate direction. I really like how Sunday Assembly, a movement of secular congregations, use the triangle. Sunday Assembly seek to “reclaim the rituals, language, and symbolism long dominated by religious and political forces” so the triangle, also used in Christian iconography to represent the trinity, can be seen as representing their own secular trinity of principles: Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More, and the idea that these are in some sense different, but co-equal parts of the same idea. The arrangement of the letters in a “non-traditional and puzzling manner” also invites the viewer to delve deeper. The upside down triangle is also reminiscent of the location pin marker, indicating the presence of an assembly in physical space.

12 AHS plus triangle logos

I had a lot of pretentious notes on the logo for the AHS+ blog. The three-sided triangle is designed to show that atheism, humanism and secularism can each serve as an equal foundation. The corners are rounded, to show that the divisions between these concepts are not always clear. The triangle is a bit like some variations of the atheist A, but also looks a little like a house – indicating that AHS+ space should be a home for people. The triangle can also be seen as an empty frame, where you can place yourself. In UK signage, triangles indicate warnings and at the AHS+ blog we are often warning about issues. The colour has deep symbolism, meaning that I like pink.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. My focus was on symbols used widely across different atheist, humanist and secularist groups, rather than specific logos. But if there are any I’ve missed, if you have a favourite logo or symbol used by an AHS+ group, or you have any thoughts on those above, please let me know.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

The transphobia problem in AHS+

Many atheist, humanist and secularist groups loudly and proudly proclaim their trans-inclusivity. But if religious fundamentalists are the major drivers and funders of organised transphobia, why does it remain so prevalent in AHS+ spaces?

Facts don’t care about your feelings

Many of us in the AHS+ community rightly dismiss people’s feelings when they are used as the sole basis for unscientific claims or to defend injustices. We understand that somebody’s “feeling” that there just has to be a higher power somewhere is not an argument for the existence of a god or gods, because they are using these feelings to make a judgement about the external world. However, this should not morph into the idea that feelings are of no value, or people’s feelings can’t tell us something about how they should be treated in a just society.

When a trans woman, or for that matter a cis woman, claims that she is a woman, or describes how she would like to be treated, or her favourite ice cream flavour, she is describing facts about her own internal mind.

Science is on our side

Think of the major sources of public controversy surrounding science where AHS+ people are almost uniformly on the right side. A basic high school understanding of science is generally good enough to engage with these debates. If you’ve completed primary school, you should be able to refute creationism, an A-level in biology qualifies you to debunk any vaccine denying alternative medicine conspiracist.

Most of us amateurs know that experts understand these issues far better than us. But for whatever reason, many of us don’t seem to accept that the science of sex and gender is far more complex, and potentially disagrees with what we learnt in school.

In school I learnt that humans have two chromosomally defined sexes. But while this is broadly accurate, and enough for your Science GCSE, the biology is actually far more complex, and the inner experience of gender even more so.

Good people

It would be far simpler if everyone advocating harmful anti-trans view and practices was a moustache twirling villain. Unfortunately, there are giants of the AHS+ movement, including those with previously strong feminist credentials, those who have been on the unpopular but progressive side of so many social issues, who are on the wrong side of trans rights. I can only imagine what it’s like for trans-friends to see people who should be, and may have been, their heroes take these deeply hurtful and ignorant stances. There is no pope of atheism or prophet of secularism, but we have leaders with platforms and followers, and too many are letting us down.

Demographics

Different AHS+ spaces have very different demographics. A local humanist meeting will usually have an older demographic than a Skeptics in the Pub meetup. Many AHS+ spaces, particularly online, are very male dominated. Trans, and non-binary, people have been with us throughout history, but trans-issues have risen enormously in public visibility over the last decade, and mainstream ideas about appropriate language have evolved rapidly. It could be that the older members of our community are more likely to be out of touch with these changes, or that dynamics of toxic masculinity play a role.

Social justice and prejudice in society

Many AHS+ people feel let down by, and disconnected from, wider social justice movements with their seeming blind spot to religious privilege. I hope we can repair this disconnect, without compromising on AHS+ values, and recover from the stream of anti-woke and anti-social justice sentiment within our community.

Transphobia, and other forms of prejudice pervade society, including internalised within marginalised groups and their allies. AHS+ people and communities are not a special case, freed by the powers of our awesome rationality from the habits of wider society. Sometimes we will be wrong on certain issues or be made aware of prejudices we didn’t even realise we had internalised, and we will need to re-evaluate our positions. We should expect AHS+ communities to be at the forefront of challenging these prejudices – and compared to wider society we are – but expecting them to be entirely eradicated may be a target we can only strive for.

We’re the good guys

It is absolutely no coincidence that the rise of AHS+ movements has coincided in the West with a rapid expansion of LGBTQ rights and equalities. LGBTQ people are significantly overrepresented in nonreligious communities and the leadership of AHS+ groups. Ask many AHS+ people what our movement’s bigger successes have been and the rapid expansion of access to same-sex marriage is likely to be a very popular answer.

Many of us have got so used to seeing ourselves as the ‘good guys’ on gay and lesbian issues, or at least seen religious fundamentalists as so clearly the ‘bad guys’, that we’ve become overconfident in this status and blind to how we’ve fallen short.

There was a time where homophobia was so widespread in society that it didn’t need to hide under the umbrella of religion. For many AHS+ groups, it doesn’t matter how you dress up your homophobia in pseudo-secular terms, we still see that as a problem of religion, or religious -like dogmatism. We need to treat transphobia the same.

Edge lords, contrarians and the ‘intellectual dark web’

Religious privilege and the strong societal taboo against criticising it means AHS+ activism has attracted those more willing (or by virtue of their privilege more able) to transgress. But this willingness to offend and attack societal norms in pursuit of a fairer, more rational world, has mutated. Some AHS+ people like to see themselves as contrarians, bravely questioning anything, unencumbered by the “intellectual weakness” that comes from considering others’ emotions. While we still have a long way to go, the increased normalisation of non-religious views and criticism of religion has led some of these people to seek new ‘edgier’ issues.

Thanks for reading

To my trans and non-binary friends, who may feel worried that there isn’t a space in the AHS+ community for you, where you will be safe, valued and affirmed, I’m so sorry. I will continue to work hard to make sure you are welcome, at least here.

Everyone, please let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to read more. This certainly won’t be my last post on this topic.

Are there trans and trans-supporting activists in the AHS+ community, you’d like me to interview? Would you be interested in an article reaching out to people in our community who buy into anti-trans ideas? Would you prefer an article which was more focussed on possible solutions?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

AHS+ space in the UK

‘AHS+ space’ is a way of thinking about the loose collection of atheist, humanist, secularist, skeptic, freethought, rationalist etc groups that make up our movement. In my experience, a lot of these groups have a crossover of members or followers. But the different groups reflect different approaches, priorities, and styles.

I have compiled a list of such groups in the UK, to serve as a quick introduction and help anyone looking for a group to fit in with.

Atheism

Atheism UK seems to be a smaller group with an offline as well as online presence. I am not aware of any other national groups specifically focussing on atheism. Their website describes them as being formed in 2009 to “challenge religious faith in the United Kingdom. Our ultimate goals are the end of religious faith – the false and irrational belief that God or gods exist – and of religion, the social manifestation of faith.”

Humanism

Probably the largest such group in our AHS+ space is Humanists UK (HUK). They promote humanism as a positive alternative to religion. They are very active on a range of important campaigning issues, provide education about humanism, have regular interesting events and do a lot of services such as ceremonies and pastoral support for nonreligious people. Some people think they are too accommodationist or shy away from controversial issues. On the other hand, they also take on a lot of liberal social and political issues which are less directly related to religion. If that’s not your sort of thing, or you worry about mission drift, then they may not be your organisation of choice. Many local and special interest groups within the AHS+ space are affiliated to HUK and primarily identify as Humanist.

Secularism

The National Secular Society (NSS) campaigns for the separation of religion and government, freedom of and from religion. If you’re primarily concerned about religious privilege issues such as faith schools, religious exemptions to equality law and protecting secular public services, but you’re less interested in (or put off by) atheism or alternatives to religion, then they may be the place for you, given their religious neutrality. The NSS seem to share a lot of local groups with Humanists UK, and similar high-profile supporters. They are more interested in systemic change, than getting a seat at the table for the non-religious.

British Muslims for Secular Democracy was founded in 2006. They are a campaigning and advisory organisation which challenges Islamist fundamentalism and anti-Muslim bigotry.

The Centre for Secular Space was set up to “strengthen secular voices, oppose fundamentalism, and promote universality in human rights.” They were doing interesting work and events a few years ago. But they currently seem to only have an online presence.

Plus

Online skepticism has seen a lot of toxicity in recent years. But the UK skeptic movement is extremely inclusive and focused on using sceptical inquiry to address social problems. Not just unmasking fortune tellers. The Merseyside Skeptics Society are a leading group and run the largest skeptic conference in the world (QED). You can find a Skeptics in the pub group in cities across the country, and they run online events.

Sunday Assembly was started by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in 2013. They’re a type of secular congregation, or ‘atheist church’. There are over 40 Sunday Assemblies around the world of various sizes, including many UK cities. They typically meet once or twice a month to provide community, talks on interesting topics and some fun songs. Their motto is “Live better. Help often. Wonder more.” Not everyone’s cup of tea. They steer well clear of campaigning, but if you’re looking for community then they may be for you. Similar organisations include The Sunday Alternative, a secular community in Reading, and New Unity, an explicitly non-religious church in London similar to Unitarian Universalist congregations in the US.

Camp Quest UK runs nonreligious residential summer camps for kids inspired by the movement in the US, where religious camps are ubiquitous. They aim to 1. provide mental and physical challenge. 2. create a culture of curiosity. 3. build a community of freethinkers. The movement started in the US, where there is a larger summer camp culture but many parents struggle to find a secular option. This may be less of a problem in the UK. However, though they have become more inclusive, Girl Guides and Scouts can still be quite religious.

FiliA, meaning daughter, they put on a large feminist conference that has supported secularist principles and been open about the role of religious fundamentalism in violence against women. But a lot of the people involved have been openly transphobic and are very anti sex worker.

Southall Black Sisters is a secular charity providing support primarily to black, Asian and African-Caribbean women, experiencing violence or other inequalities. Their work has led them to actively challenge religious fundamentalists and highlight the role of religious fundamentalism in perpetuating gender-based violence.

Politics

Most of the major political parties have some sort of AHS+ group: Labour Humanists, Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats, Conservative Humanists. Being a member of a political party is a great way to get involved in social change, make connections and access training. If you are a member of a political party, I would really recommend joining whatever AHS+s group they have.

Ex-religious

Within the AHS+ movement, groups catering to the specific needs and experiences of former members of religious groups play an important role.

The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, produce a lot of research and media on the lives of, and challenges facing, ex-Muslims. They provide a community for many who have lost that support after coming out as non-believers or who are still in the closet.

Ex-JW Support provides a community for ex Jehovah Witness, and expose some of the harm caused by this organisation.

The Faith to faithless project, now managed by Humanists UK, was founded in 2015 to improve public and public service understanding of apostasy, and to support those who have left religion.

Others

The online AHS+ space is a whole other kettle of fish. I may write something in the future looking at the major blogs, podcasts and social media personalities which have a following.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. What you think these organisations do better or worse? Are there any I missed? Would you be interested in a series looking at some of these in more depth? Should I keep this updated? Should I do something on the international groups that operate in the UK?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.