Loving the Bible, as an atheist

I joined a Woodbrooke project, “Finding the Spirit in the Scriptures”. This is what I wanted to say:

First I should say, as an atheist, what is the God I do not believe in: I do not believe in “God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth”. I believe in that of God in everyone, indeed in all of life- apes, fish, bacteria.

I do not believe in panentheism, God in things, but I know that people are taught in my culture to treat things, and even people, instrumentally- pick them up, use them, put them down, forget them. We deal only in surfaces. I know if you look at things through the eyes of Love, you see them more clearly: the thing in itself, its aesthetic and design beauty, its complexity, its value. You see the deep reality of the world below its surfaces, see the world in a grain of sand, and believing in God in things is a way into this experience.

I was baptised Scottish Episcopalian, taken to church throughout my childhood, and continued worshipping all my life. In 2001 I committed to Quakers and continued worshipping regularly. In 2009 I realised I no longer believed in God. It was a struggle. My partner took a robust line against nontheists- “Why should an atheist want to join a religious society?” A Friend answered that beautifully: “The question is not why we join, but why we stay”. But convincing H of that was a different matter.

In February 2010 I admitted to myself I did not believe in God. I did the Hoffman process, a personal growth workshop designed to split someone open and give them access to the inspiration of their subconscious, and, duly broken open, entered a church as a tourist: and was brought to my knees by the holiness of the place.

Mark: How has your relationship to the Bible changed over your life?

When I was 12 I got a Gideon New Testament with a reading scheme, read the New Testament in a year, in the front. So I did, several times. At University, I started reading the Daily Study Bible by William Barclay, and later read the Old Testament DSB. I also read the NT volumes of the Bible Speaks Today. I also read the Bible through, Jewish Bible and NT, in the Good News Bible and New International Version, and much of the New Revised Standard Version.

It was the moral underpinning of my homophobia. In Romans 1 Paul lists various horrible sins, including “men committed shameful acts with other men”, and, hating myself, desperate to “make a man” of myself and wanting to enforce this restrictive morality on the World, I used it to drive a couple from my church. I am ashamed of that. I would not do it now. Now, I would seek to prevent such a violation.

But it gives me some sympathy for others. The Methodist Church in England agreed to celebrate same sex marriages, and a Christian website covered this as if it was a bad thing. It claimed “traditionalists” feared being driven out of their churches- rather than calling them homophobes opposing the Church’s decision. I sympathise. I thought being a Christian made me a good person, because I believed in God and tried to do the right thing, and it was a shock to hear people thought it meant I had ridiculous beliefs and harmful, wrong views about morality.

I started by believing the anti-gay passages, then arguing with them, seeking out alternative interpretations of the Greek arsenokoitai and malakoi, and finally ignoring them. I feel quite entitled to reject bits of the Bible, including Deuteronomy 22:5.

However, even when I hate a verse, I seek out what good I may find in it. I dislike Nehemiah. The Jews have returned from exile in Babylon, and decide to live with their own ideas, without any tincture from foreigners. Nehemiah 13: 30 Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign. I find this horrible. But- if they had not, the people would have been subsumed in the Persian then the Macedonian empires, and their distinctiveness would have been lost, as the Northern kingdom was subsumed in the Assyrian empire. So we would not be Christian. From that decision both great suffering and great blessing flow.

Mark: The Bible is a conversation we can join in. Some say the book of Jonah, where the King and people of Nineveh repent, is a direct answer to Nehemiah and the drive for purity. It says the Assyrians are God’s children.

Yes. Consider: Psalm 37:25: I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread.

Ecclesiastes 7:15: In my vain life I have seen everything: there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.

Both these verses are in three parts, with close parallels, and it seems to me Ecclesiastes is directly answering the Psalm.

The Bible is terribly misogynistic. Mary Magdalene goes to the grave on the first day of the week, and has a great realisation: “He is not here”. Jesus is in our hearts, in our memories, in how he has changed our lives. He will always be with us. But, how could a weak, irrational and emotional woman come to such a realisation? A man told her. Mark 16:5, “a young man, dressed in a white robe,” whom she does not recognise but who knows her and knows all about it. Luke 24:4, “Two men in dazzling clothes”. Matthew 28:2 uses male pronouns of “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven”.

Or Mary, Jesus’ mother. Luke tells us the archangel Gabriel appeared to her. For me, this woman, barely more than a girl, realises she is pregnant. Not being married, this is terrifying. Her sublime, noble reaction is, “All generations shall call me blessed”. And we do. She got it, all by herself. No angel required.

In the past year I have read John, and loved it. John 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given them”, ie to us, and all Christians. We can be in God as Christ is in God. That of God in me is all my power, all my beauty, and I can live from it all the time. I find this tremendously exciting and spiritually convincing, and have shared it excitedly with anyone who will listen. This is the truth of the Bible, speaking to me.

And I have read about half of Isaiah, dutifully reading the Oxford Bible Commentary paragraphs on each short section; and got fed up with it. This perhaps revolted me the most:

Isaiah 3: 16 The Lord said:
Because the daughters of Zion are haughty
and walk with outstretched necks,
glancing wantonly with their eyes,
mincing along as they go,
tinkling with their feet;
the Lord will afflict with scabs
the heads of the daughters of Zion,
and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.

At best, this is the prophet seeing the parlous state of Jerusalem, fearing for its inhabitants, knowing that rape is a weapon of war. But I can’t help seeing it differently, as the old man seeing young women glorying in being young women. He gets turned on but, knowing they are not sexually available to him, curses them, and gets self-righteous about it.

I want the experience of John, the new insight about the spiritual life that makes sense and speaks to me immediately and delights and inspires me and brings me on. I want to avoid the sense of revulsion I feel at that Isaiah passage. I will go back to the Bible. Perhaps Mark next, or Romans, probably without a commentary at least to start with. I don’t know. Perhaps I cannot find the glory without also seeing the darkness. All human life is here.

I am left with my favourite bits. When I was recovering from my self-hatred, Genesis 1:31 meant a lot to me: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” That included me. Similarly psalm 139:12-13:

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvellously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

In Psalm 137 the Jews are taken off to Babylon as slaves, and feel the rage of the oppressed. They imagine smashing the heads of their oppressors’ babies. Accepting my true self made me aware of huge anger in me, and this psalm reassured me: if such rage was here, it was acceptable to God, and so might my own anger be. And so might I be.

I love the story of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. Abigail meets David, who is living as a bandit chieftain in the borderlands of the Philistines. “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal [her husband], and he died.” Abigail then marries David. It makes a mockery of the American Evangelical concept of “Biblical Womanhood”. And I am always reacting with or against thousands of years of reactions and interpretations of these stories.

My favourite Jesus quote is in Revelation 21:5: Behold, I have made all things new.

I love the desperate angry prayer of Job. He knows he is righteous, and demands of God how dare he treat him this way? 31:35-37:

O that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would bind it on me like a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps;
like a prince I would approach him.

I have prayed in desperation, “Oh God! What are you playing at!?

God states his glory- “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job repents in dust and ashes. But, being a shrewd, active man, he stops contemplating the injustice of the world and the incomprehensibility of God, and gets on with what he does best. That is how he becomes wealthy again, blessed with sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys, and also sons and daughters.

I have had my life changed, and I feel Jesus’ metaphor of being born again is appropriate: it really seems as painful as passing through a birth canal, and as weird as opening my eyes for the first time.

I want new favourite bits, more bits to love. What verses do you love in the Bible?

Misogynist transition

Do teenage girls identify as trans because of misogyny? Does prevalent discrimination against women, sexual violence coercion and assault, make them fear womanhood enough to declare themselves boys?

In a society not prejudiced against gender noncomformity, I don’t believe I would have transitioned. I have made no secret of this. A lot of people, AMAB and AFAB, may decide to transition because their gender nonconformity is not tolerated, and any body dysphoria would arise later because of their understanding of what transition means. But that is not transitioning because of misogyny, because it is discomfort with gender norms enforced on boys and girls alike. Instead, it is prejudice against gender non conformity, commonly known as transphobia.

Do gender stereotypes fit anyone? Not me, or lots of other people with a Y chromosome. I fit feminine better. I did not want anyone to know, and tried to make a man of myself. Many men may appear masculine- I did- and secretly fear their true selves being seen. Do the stereotypes fit anyone? If apparently fitting is no guide, perhaps not. Angry feminists, raised to keep quiet and not cause trouble, think that no woman fits the feminine stereotype. Who benefits? It’s patriarchy, they say. It fits and benefits men.

Not me, I say- or gay men, or darker skinned men. Not working class men. Men may benefit in some ways but not “showing weakness” is a burden. One of the ways the norms are enforced is by language- it is hard to express “abnormal” positively. Naming oppression is a major feminist project. I don’t know positive words for male femininity. It’s hard enough to find words that acknowledge our existence.

Does any woman actually fit femininity? Many seem to. Many say they do. It could be false consciousness but feminism is outspoken, with many platforms. Surely The Guardian would have got through to its feminine readers by now?

So, I consider the people asserting that misogyny makes girls want to transition to male, and hear their revulsion, not only against chest masculinisation but against the very concepts of trans boy, trans man, or non-binary. They hate being told what pronouns they can use. This anger and disgust, the refusal to entertain the idea that trans men may know who they are or what they want (though it is clear misogyny to decide you know better than others what is good for them) is, again, transphobia.

Faced by this pincer movement of transphobia, from feminists as well as social conservatives, we prove ourselves to be Real Trans in the only way we know, by seeking hormones and surgery. The way to freedom is to validate each person’s choices, to allow us to choose our gender presentation and to end discrimination, not to prevent any way of being gender non conforming. If misogyny makes girls transition, trans exclusion makes that worse not better.

Trust, safety, clarity, kindness

Here are today’s thoughts, not at all random, which I am trying to fit together in order to understand the world, my place in it, and myself.

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “Which is to be master- that’s all.”

I was struggling to understand the difference between interest-relative invariantism and contextualism, both concepts in epistemology. IRI is a theory about how knowledge works, contextualism is etymological, about how we use words like “know”. Both say how important something is to me affects what evidence I might need to “know” it. Possibly I know nothing, I merely have reasonable beliefs. It is important that I can change my belief on becoming aware of contradictory evidence, rather than doubling down, but that uncertainty about things which I could reasonably believe should not prevent me from acting. This had me weeping repeatedly and copiously.

I was cycling up a hill, where cars park down one side of the road and there is not room for vehicles to pass each other beside the cars- so they must wait in gaps in the parked cars to let others pass. A lorry was waiting for me. As I struggled past, the driver shouted, “Go on, love, give it some!”

I am told that my greatest strengths are Forgiveness, Bravery, Fairness, Kindness and Creativity. I do not bear grudges, such that I find it hard to imagine that others do: it takes a leap of empathy to see that another might hold a grudge in a particular situation.

A benefits client was walking in a railway station when a man he did not know jumped up on his back and slashed him across the forehead with a knife. His self-confidence entirely evaporated, and he did not want to go out. He got disability benefits, but when they were reconsidered three years later they were withdrawn: arguably he should have got over it. I can’t remember what was the result of our appeal, but think we won. Similarly, a man who lost his forearm in an accident got a high level of disability benefits, but after three years they were cut- probably the decision maker thought he should have got used to doing things one-handed by then. I doubt we won but can’t remember.

Caroline asked, how did you feel about that lorry driver? I think his shout is probably not simple encouragement, but misogynistic. Perhaps he thought I was younger than I am. Certainly he thought I was female, and if he realised I am a trans woman he might have been abusive in a different way.

Why might it be a good thing that there are tensions between people in a Quaker meeting? I feel often we deny them as too frightening. One said, if we can hold the tension it can keep us listening to the Spirit and each other. If we can bear Unknowing, we can learn and grow. It brings us to useful change- which I find painful, hence the crying. Or I am crying at the pain of not being aware of myself.

Possibly it would be best if I were effectively lobotomised by strong antidepressants, and worked shelf-stacking in a local shop, say thirty hours a week, walking home afterwards to watch television. I might then be useful.

When my Friend ministered in Meeting that she felt abandoned by Britain Yearly Meeting because Truth is intensely important to her and BYM was denying the truth, I felt intense sympathy even though I understand the Truth she thinks BYM is denying is that trans women like me are men who should be excluded from women’s spaces. I don’t think that’s true. Possibly it would be in my interest for her to simply lose interest in worshipping with us, feeling betrayed, because then she would leave and the tension I feel worshipping with her would reduce. I see that. And it would not please me: and I see that as a strength in me, a virtue or good thing, rather than weakness or worthlessness. I want her to feel able to remain, and I do not want to abnegate myself to achieve that. I want a result which honours me as well as her. That’s new, that self-respect. It pleases me.

Possibly my former sense of safety, which enabled me to take action in the world, arose from male privilege. I believe I should be capable of effective action because that is the state of white educated males. Women have to be more circumspect, including trans women: something can go wrong at any time, like being slashed across the face with a knife by a random stranger. So epistemological scepticism, claiming we can’t know we are people in a Real World, rather than a brain in a vat, a character in a computer simulation, a spirit tortured by a malevolent sprite, whatever- has the value of showing the world is unpredictable, sometimes we do not know what will happen, and it can be really as bad as a stroke or heart attack or random attack. It can keep philosophers on their toes, and also me, in my Real Life, like a parable forcing awareness of possibilities and uncertainty. But I feel such scepticism is too strong, making too much possible information simply incredible: it washes out degrees of incredibility, which are useful to see.

Things can really be that bad.

I must do what I can.

Trans feminism and the Toronto murders

A murderer drove a van down the street in Toronto. The van killed ten people and injured fifteen. Just before, it appears there was a post on the suspect’s facebook page, praising a murderer who had carried out a mass shooting in Isla Vista, saying the Incel rebellion has already begun. We will overthrow all the Chads and the Stacys. It appears he identified as an “involuntary celibate”, whom I wrote of before.

Men on 4Chan and elsewhere identify as incels, unable to find a partner, creating ridiculous misogynist fantasies about why, and praising murderers like that Isla Vista murderer. Emer O’Toole in the Guardian Opinion section gave a feminist response. The Toronto murderer appears to have been motivated by hatred of women, out of a feeling of entitlement to sex. O’Toole reasonably calls this “violent misogyny”. She complains that others use mental health or childhood trauma to explain away such murders, and so it is necessary for feminists to keep feminist analysis central to the conversation.

Well, the Guardian reported that facebook post in its News section. The NYT used a male journalist to explain what an “incel” is. O’Toole argues that we should not name the Isla Vista murderer, because that gives him the fame he craves, but the NYT article uses a bizarre photo of him in a car so that his face is in sunlight and the background in shade, as if he had a halo.  Who are incels? Incels are misogynists who are deeply suspicious and disparaging of women, whom they blame for denying them their right to sexual intercourse… at their most extreme, incels have advocated rape. With O’Toole, I would mark them down for the photograph, but I would give them a pass mark overall. The takeaway from the article is that misogyny is the likely cause for the murder. The NYT also did an article on how the police officer who arrested the suspect de-escalated the situation, where an American police officer may just have shot him. Their main Opinion piece talked of how Toronto is so peaceful, generally, and how the murderer’s motives are not yet determined, but it was published on 24 April.

The Telegraph, though often offensively right-wing, began its article The Toronto van attack suspect praised [Isla Vista murderer] and referenced a misogynistic online community of angry celibate men in a facebook message. Then it speculated on his mental health- “a social or mental disability”. He was a “loner” said someone who knew him. These are the kinds of things such people always say, and are always quoted. He was a murderer. The feminist point is that he is at one end of a spectrum of violent misogyny, egged on by men who might be too weak to be so violent, even though they were chaotic enough to desire to be.

The link to misogyny is clear, here. Should Emer O’Toole be satisfied? No. For her, the murders are the extreme edge of the Patriarchy, different from cat-calling, slut-shaming and everyday sexism in degree but not in kind. So the Telegraph article, with those commonplaces about the murderer being a “loner”, would not get a pass mark: it makes him a freak, rather than one end of a spectrum.

I see the feminist anger, I see the justification for it, I am on side. I started writing wanting to give an answer, but I am left with a question: what do you think the trans feminist’s response should be? Please comment. Possibly he did have mental health problems, but ascribing the murders to that might be seen by gender critical feminists as evidence we were on the side of Patriarchy, rather than against it. In a cis woman, that would be evidence she needed her consciousness raised; in a trans woman it might be another reason to reject us. So, I can hardly answer, I cannot work out an answer separate from how people might see me. Is patriarchy really all-pervasive? Are the women who say, well, he could hardly be entirely sane and balanced, of course mental health and even being a loner is relevant, wrong? If someone thinks patriarchy is all pervasive, do they think me part of it?

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them, said Margaret Atwood. If not kill, then rape, or strike, or disrespect, or merely see through the distorting lens of patriarchy and act accordingly- always with the threat of escalation even as far as murder if she persists. And my fear of men is different, as I am read as trans- that I will be assaulted or disrespected- or killed- as a weirdo pervert rather than as a sex object.

I feel my position, as a trans feminist contemplating these misogynist murders, is as an ally rather than as one of those affected. As I identify as a woman, it is my fight alongside my sisters’; but not as someone under the same threat. Then I let go of what people will think of me.

Trans-misogyny

Dislike of trans women; discomfort around trans women, believed to be a problem with the trans woman rather than something the misogynist should just deal with. On a facebook Quaker group, someone posted how shocking it was that a Quaker meeting house hosted a talk by “A Woman’s Place”, which campaigns against gender recognition. Other people said the opinions of AWP were perfectly reasonable.

Someone objects to me in the women’s loos, not because of anything objectionable I have done, just because of what I am. Why is that my problem? It is far worse when they object to the mere idea of me. They have never actually seen a trans woman in a woman’s loo, but fear they might, or even it’s that if one is there it’s horrible. If a trans woman uses a loo in an otherwise empty building, are all trans-excluders still outraged?

Most of what she shares is private, but I could not see any evidence that one was a Quaker. She complained that “refusing to accept questionable definitions” does not mean she harbours fear or hate. She knows what the truth is, I am a man, and claims I am forcing everyone to agree with my falsehood, that I am a woman. I don’t care what she thinks about my womanhood. Life is too short. I care if she is rude to me, or attempts to get me excluded from where I want to go. It is as if she thinks there has to be a nationally agreed understanding of what a trans woman is, even though the whole nation agrees on nothing else. Some may think I am a man, some may think I should not be there, and that is fine.

That is why we should not debate with trans-misogynists. We are doing what they most fear and abominate, telling them that their beliefs are wrong. If a trans woman, trying to pluck up courage to transition, needs to believe she is really a woman, I want her to be able to hold to that belief so that she can.

Another woman, who does appear to be Quaker, expressed disquiet about how women might need to get away from men, at times, even certain “men who identify as female”. What can we say? If a loo in a theatre has a queue of, say, thirty women, it is unlikely any of them is trans. I don’t know how many of them will be out with a group of women and able to tolerate the proximity of men in the other seats, but not in the loos; or just have been sexually assaulted, and in need of escape. I hope the trans woman and the man-fearing woman will not come into contact. I don’t know how likely it is.

There they are on social media, expressing their disquiet. The issue of trans comes up, and like a Pavlovian response the disquiet comes out, expressed as concern for Truth or for the Vulnerable. How should we react to this?

Small talk

She had the look of a woman used to being looked at, even as she came into the room, sweeping her long black hair back over her shoulders. She is about sixty, and still striking. We started a conversation.

-What do you do?
-I’m afraid I am yet another academic.

“Oh, no,” I smiled theatrically. “Not another academic.”

Her specialism involves the cultural construction of gender.
-I’m trans. The cultural construction of gender particularly interests me.
-We must discuss it sometime.

I came out with my good line, When someone asks God, “What does ‘feminine’ mean?”  God points at me. She said “Does he? Or she? Or whatever?” I felt put down. It is a good line. You look at me as if you might smile, slightly patronisingly, if a twelve year old said it- if the child had never before shown any sign of intelligence.

I don’t know why I mentioned trolling, or feminism, but I said how reassuring it was in this article to see a reference to how The volume and intensity of harassment is vastly magnified for women of colour and trans women and disabled women in trolling.

-Is it? she said, without assent. I felt this was like a challenge to an undergraduate, to back up her sources. I am not your student- and this is the only one of the three I have imagined any comeback on, even a day later:

-Yes. Trans women are particularly subject to misogyny, I should have said, claiming the word for mine, none of this “transmisogyny” rubbish as if attacks on trans women were in any way different, a word constructed as if to name misogyny from trans folk rather than at us.

“But you don’t like academics” she said sweetly. That still flummoxes me: anyone explaining irony, jocular and friendly though it was, looks a fool.

I felt bruised by this encounter. Conversation, I feel, should not be a joust, testing the other’s capacity. I was reassured walking today in the sunshine by the lake

(where a pair of geese flew round and round overhead, honking, and a drake chased a duck who only ever stayed a little way ahead of him. He got close and reared up in the water, flapping his wings)

by other people saying more than ‘hello’. “It’s coats off weather, isn’t it?” said one. “It’s really slippy here,” said another, smiling ruefully, indicating the steep, muddy slope. I smiled and assented, of course. Conversation is not for jousting but for establishing how we think and feel alike, how we fit together.

I don’t want, particularly, to classify that woman by one impression of her conversation, but might (as I try to imagine other people as real creatures, with different desires and methods) consider other possibilities for small talk. After establishing how we think and feel alike, we may laugh together, or exchange information, or sympathise; these things are more difficult after jousting. Though after a combative conversation, I might be better able to see the other as other.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Frauenkopf (1922)