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.

What is AHS Plus?

AHS+ is a catchall term I’ve come to use over more than decade’s involvement in atheist, humanist, secularist, and similar groups, of various nonreligious and irreligious types. It is an attempt to recognise both the overlapping and distinct identities within our movement.

How we define ourselves is a debate many feel passionately about, and others just shrug at. Terms such as secularism and humanism, although they have their own distinct meanings, have at times been put forward as ‘positive’ alternatives to the term atheism.

A 2019 survey gathered the views of nearly 34,000 nonreligious Americans. Among the wealth of findings, those on identities stood out most to me. When asked how they feel about a range of nonreligious identity labels, 79% strongly identified as atheist, 75% as secular and 65% as humanist. When asked to pick a primary identity, 57% chose atheist with humanist a distant second with 14% and no other identity label passing 10%. Many people who do not identify as non-religious may share these labels.

The term AHS+ should help us understand our common interests. It is an attempt to encompass, rather than replace or override. If you primarily identify as an atheist, then that’s great. This blog will very much come from an atheistic perspective. But there are many committed secularists who identify as religious, and humanists who practice their humanism within a faith tradition. Many atheists hold religious cultural identities. All these people should have a place within our movement.

The term is consciously based on the LGBT+ label, which allows people to see themselves as part of a community of shared interests with complementary identities, without compromising on their own primary identity. The term does not imply that every letter in the acronym must apply or apply equally to all within the wider community it covers.

I’ve framed this in terms of identity, but each of the initials in AHS+ also represents an idea. Atheism is a view on a single question, humanism covers a range of worldviews or life stances, and secularism is a political philosophy.

We need more effective approaches to atheism to challenge religious dogmatism, more effective approaches to humanism to bring empathy and reason to solving the crises we face, and secularism to liberate us from controlling religious privilege in the public sphere.

This blog will explore these social, political, philosophical and identity issues, with a particular focus on the UK. It will strive to be a positive voice for change within the wider AHS+ community.

Thanks for reading

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. Please feel free to get in touch with feedback or ideas for future articles.