Why non-belief is gaining ground… even against Islam

As scepticism and materialism replace blind faith, more people than ever worldwide are opting for atheism, argues Conservative Humanists patron Matt Ridley.

Fifty years ago, after the cracking of the genetic code, Francis Crick was so confident religion would fade that he offered a prize for the best future use for Cambridge’s college chapels. Swimming pools, said the winning entry. Today, when terrorists cry ‘God is great’ in both Paris and Bamako as they murder, the joke seems sour. But here’s a thought: that jihadism may be a last spasm — albeit a painful one — of a snake that is being scotched. The humanists are winning, even against Islam.

Quietly, non-belief is on the march. Those who use an extreme form of religion to poison the minds of disaffected young men are furious about the spread of materialist and secularist ideas, which they feel powerless to prevent. In 50 years’ time, we may look back on this period and wonder how we failed to notice that Islam was about to lose market share, not to other religions, but to Humanism.

The fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief. No religion grew nearly as fast over the past century. Whereas virtually nobody identified as a non-believer in 1900, today roughly 15 per cent do, and that number does not include soft Anglicans in Britain, mild Taoists in China, lukewarm Hindus in India or token Buddhists in Japan. Even so, the non-religious category has overtaken paganism, will soon pass Hinduism, may one day equal Islam and is gaining on Christianity. (Of every ten people in the world, roughly three are Christian, two Muslim, two Hindu, 1.5 non-religious and 1.5 something else.)

This is all the more remarkable when you think that, with a few notable exceptions, atheists or humanists don’t preach, let alone pour money into evangelism. Their growth has come almost entirely from voluntary conversion, whereas Islam’s slower growth in market share has largely come from demography: the high birth rates in Muslim countries compared with Christian ones.

And this is about to change. The birth rate in Muslim countries is plummeting at unprecedented speed. A study by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt three years ago found that: ‘Six of the ten largest absolute declines in fertility for a two-decade period recorded in the postwar era have occurred in Muslim-majority countries.’ Iran, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Libya, Albania, Qatar and Kuwait have all seen birth-rate declines of more than 60 per cent in 30 years.

Meanwhile, secularism is on the rise within Muslim majority countries. It is not easy being a humanist in an Islamic society, even outside the Isis hell-holes, so it is hard to know how many there are. But a poll in 2012 found that 5 per cent of Saudis describe themselves as fully atheist and 19 per cent as non-believers — more than in Italy. In Lebanon the proportion is 37 per cent. Remember in many countries they are breaking the law by even thinking like this.

That Arab governments criminalise non-belief shows evidence not of confidence, but of alarm. Last week a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, to death for apostasy. In 2014 the Saudi government brought in a law defining atheism as a terrorist offence. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government in Egypt, though tough on Islamists, has also ordered two ministries to produce a national plan to ‘confront and eliminate’ atheism. They have shut down a café frequented by atheists and dismissed a college librarian who talked about Humanism in a TV programme.

Earlier this month there was yet another murder by Islamists — the fifth such incident — of a Bangladeshi publisher of secularist writing. I recently met one of the astonishingly brave humanist bloggers of Bangladesh, Arif Rahman, who has seen four colleagues hacked to death with machetes in daylight. He told me about Bangladesh’s 2013 blasphemy law, and the increasing indifference or even hostility of the Bangladeshi government towards the plight of non-religious bloggers. For many Muslim-dominated governments, the enemy is not ‘crusader’ Christianity, it is home-grown non-belief.

The jihadists of Isis are probably motivated less by a desire to convert Europe’s disaffected youth to fundamentalist Islam than by a wish to prevent the Muslim diaspora sliding into western secularism. In the Arab world, according to Brian Whitaker, author of Arabs Without God, what tempts people to leave the faith is not disgust at the antics of Islamist terrorists, but the same things that have drained church attendance here: materialism, rationalism and scepticism.

As the academics Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman wrote in an essay eight years ago: ‘Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.’ America is no longer much of an exception. Non-believers there outnumber Mormons, Muslims and Jews combined, and are growing faster than southern Baptists.

Whitaker found that Arab atheists mostly lost their faith gradually, as the unfairness of divine justice, the irrationality of the teaching, or the prejudice against women, gay people or those of other faiths began to bother them. Whatever your origin and however well you have been brainwashed, there is just something about living in a society with restaurants and mobile phones, universities and social media, that makes it hard to go on thinking that morality derives exclusively from superstition.

Not that western humanists are immune from superstitions, of course: from Gaia to Gwyneth Paltrow diets to astrology, there’s plenty of room for cults in the western world, though they are mostly harmless. As is Christianity, these days, on the whole.

I do not mean to sound complacent about the Enlightenment. The adoption of Sharia or its nearest equivalent in no-go areas of European cities will need to be resisted, and vigorously. The jihadists will kill many more people before they are done, and will provoke reactions by governments that will erode civil liberties along the way. I am dismayed by the sheer lack of interest in defending free speech that many young westerners display these days, as more and more political groups play the blasphemy card in imitation of Islam, demanding ‘safety’ from ‘triggering’ instances of offence.

None the less, don’t lose sight of the big picture. If we hold our resolve, stop the killers, root out the hate preachers, encourage the reformers and stem the tide of militant Islamism, then secularism and milder forms of religion will win in the long run.

Matt Ridley is a journalist and Conservative Party peer who is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. This piece originally appeared in The Times newspaper.

Our obfuscation on Islamism misses the mark and stigmatises all Muslims

In the wake of the tragic events in Paris last week, Jacob Kishere appeals for an honest and plain-speaking language when describing the dangers posed by religious fundamentalists.

Jean Jullien's Eiffel tower peace symbol, which went viral on the Internet as a show of solidarity to the victims of the atrocity in Paris.

Jean Jullien’s Eiffel tower peace symbol, which went viral on the Internet as a show of solidarity to the victims of the atrocity in Paris.

Before the bloodshed had even ended in Paris on Friday night fingers were already pointed; it is the perpetual blame game and all too familiar to the one seen 10 months prior in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. Since the spirit of unity was channelled worldwide in the hashtag #jesuischarlie, there has been an inadequacy in our political discourse on both sides which continually fails to address the threats we face.

Given the context of rising anti-Muslim bigotry, many on the left – who anticipate further backlashes – have called for calm, repeating the mantra that the jihadist epidemic has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. Meanwhile, increasingly enraged by the left’s perceived obfuscation on matters relating to Islam, figures on the right have adopted the position that Muslim populations are complicit in these atrocities, and proclaims these terror attacks the bloody result of failed multiculturalism. The consequences of both mutually inflammatory positions have been an increasingly toxic atmosphere in civil society toward Muslims and abject failure to stem the rising tide of radicalisation.

But if we are to do any justice to the victims of these countless ideologically driven attacks, the very least we can do is recognise that there is an ideology at play. That ideology is Islamism. Both left and right must recognise this in order to move forward. Well-intentioned leftists must end their blind defence of all things Islam and recognise that the ideology of Islamism has something to do with Islam. While it may be instinctive to the traditions of academic left to attribute jihadist action to western foreign policy and prevailing conditions of social desperation, neither the data nor our experiences support such reasoning.

As early as the 9/11 attacks we saw the propensity for wealthy, educated individuals to commit atrocities in the name of ideology, with many of the conspirators holding graduate level degrees. Bin Laden himself was the heir to one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia. Far more revealing in his case is that he was tutored by Muhammad Qutb, brother of Sayed Qutb the ‘grandfather of Islamism’. For decades, funded by Saudi oil money and facilitated by Western governments favouring the most reactionary voices within communities as ‘leaders’, Islamist ideology has been directly imported into European communities. At present, Western Europe is reaping the seeds it has allowed to be sown by Islamists for 20 years in its communities through universities and other institutions. If anyone doubted the degree of the crises they need only consider the militants fighting in Syria from France numbering 1,200, from Belgium numbering 440, from Germany numbering between 500–600, and from the UK numbering around 600 (See International centre for the study of radicalisation and political violence, KCL) with many considering these estimates to be conservative.

At the same time, pundits on the political right must recognise that it is not Islam – the faith of billions – which drives jihadism in the west so much Islamism: the fundamentalist desire to impose any form of Islam over society.

It is often stated, and yet not enough, that the first victims of this ideology in any act of jihad are Muslims themselves. This is self-evident throughout the Arab World, and was again demonstrated brutally in the bloody Islamic State attacks in Lebanon which claimed the lives of around 43, just hours before violence erupted in Paris. Reactionaries must recognise that what they are witnessing is not a battle between a vaguely defined ‘West’ and the religion of Islam but a battle within Islam between that religion’s progressive reformers and its militant hardliners. It is only through empowering and working with the progressive reformist voices within communities that they will effectively counter Islamism. In the coming weeks, the straw man of refugees as a causal factor will inevitably be thrown up; but this too is a fiction. Those arriving on the shores of Europe are fleeing the very threat we now face at home.

Growing up in a post-9/11 Britain, I heard many times the repugnant sentiments that ‘not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim’. But as much as the left reviles such casual bigotry, it is very much the unintended consequence of the left’s language of obfuscation. Whole generation of Britons lack the vocabulary – the conceptual tools required — to properly articulate the nature of this threat they so fear. And if we as a society are to come together and address this common threat, we would be far better served in remembering this: not every Islamist is a jihadist, but every jihadist is an Islamist.


Jacob Kishere is a humanist and a student of history. He blogs on Medium at @JacobKishere.

Non-Prophet Week, and why humanist charity matters

All this week, young humanists are raising money for good causes. The BHA’s student section, the AHS, is hosting its annual Non-Prophet Week, and the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation has launched its Better Tomorrow humanist charity drive.

In this article, AHS Secretary Caitlin Greenwood writes about the importance of humanist giving.

Schools in Uganda greatly benefited from last year's Non-Prophet Week

Schools in Uganda greatly benefited from last year’s Non-Prophet Week, as organised by non-religious students at universities across the UK and Ireland

Charity is often considered to be a uniquely Christian virtue, which is a tradition dating back at least to Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas stated that charity was the love between god and man, and between man and his neighbour. The 1822 New Catholic Catechism reaffirmed this, saying ‘Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.’ While some other Christian traditions have defined charity in a more restricted way, better reflecting the modern definition, they are in a somewhat of a minority worldwide.

The origin, then, of ‘Christian charity’ seems to be a conflation of a specific theological term, with a more generally used definition. But what of all those Victorian philanthropists, wasn’t their charity directed by Christian morals? Andrew Carnegie, perhaps the most famous philanthropist, was a member of a Presbyterian church, and surely he stands for so many others, too numerous to name? (Leaving aside, of course, the fact that Carnegie avoided theism for the first half of his life, and joined the church well after beginning his philanthropic efforts.)

Unfortunately, it is not quite so simple as all that. Simply wanting to do good does not mean one automatically does good. Victorian interpretations of Christian teachings often extended to the moral value of the working classes. They were not people simply fallen on hard times, but were worse than their clear moral superiors, the upper and middle classes, whose philanthropic duty was to reform them. In 1868, the Radical MP John Roebuck claimed his lifelong aim was ‘to make the working man as [. . .] civilized a creature as I could make him’. This set the tone for much of the philanthropy that was to follow over the next several decades.

Moreover, this moral superiority was not intended, entirely, to be levelled by charity. The New York Times in 1937 stated: ‘So the education in giving goes on from generation to generation. It is not merely the gift that counts or the help that is given the neediest; it is the acquainting of the families year after year, as children grow into youth and youth into manhood and womanhood, with the conditions about them and the cultivation of the habit of giving.’ Charity was conceived of as a permanent virtue, a sticking plaster to be applied to the topic of inequality. While campaigners throughout the 19th and 20th centuries did fight for – and achieve – a genuine reduction in inequality, it was rarely achieved through any kind of charitable giving.

The situation whereby charities, and charitable giving, actually perpetuate a problem rather than solving it, continues to this day. Consider, for instance the way unqualified people flocked to Haiti in 2010 or Nepal in 2015. These people all wanted to help, and were clearly willing to sacrifice their time and money. Unfortunately, their presence mostly served to slow down the aid efforts, rather than help them. The same could be said for the donated goods, many of which ultimately went to waste. A New York Times article from 2013 calls this ‘Philanthropic Colonialism’, the product of uninformed philanthropists thinking they know best, and actually making things worse. And in these cases, people really did think they were trying to help.


“…it can be easy to say that charity work is our moral responsibility. However, we also emphasise reason and evidence in our thinking to be an effective force for good.”


But what does all this have to do with Humanism? Well, for me, a part of the humanist worldview is an understanding that we have a moral responsibility to our fellow beings and to alleviate suffering and difficulty wherever we find it. As a consequence, it can be easy to say that charity work is our moral responsibility. However, we also emphasise reason and evidence in our thinking. If we want to be an effective force for good in the world it makes sense to start by working out which channels provide the most efficient ways to reduce human suffering. We at the AHS agree with the principles underlying the growing social movement known as effective altruism. Effective altruism is about trying to maximise your positive impact on the world not just through choosing charities that have the highest return in good achieved for resources invested, but through other aspect of your life such as your choice of career.

The AHS (The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular student societies) is the national umbrella organisation for student societies in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Each year, we hold ‘Non-Prophet Week’, in which we encourage our members to raise money for a particular cause. During last year’s Non-Prophet week we raised money for the Ugandan Humanist Schools Trust, an organisation which provides a secular education in a country riven with religious tensions. Our total was £2784.60, and by far the most ‘charitable’ act came from Jess Barnes from Nottingham, who took sponsorship from other students to shave her head, raising £620 and then donated the hair to a charity which provides wigs for cancer patients!

This year, we have chosen to support Give Directly, a charity which simply transfers cash to extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda. A breakdown of their processes can be viewed on their website. Give Directly exemplify transparency in the process of charitable giving. But the really great thing about Give Directly is their evidence base. The approach of offering cash transfers, as opposed to microloans or other forms of aid, seems to be one of the most effective ways of reducing suffering, both in the short and long terms. Cash transfers have been shown to increase children’s nutrition and health in the countries of Malawi, South Africa and Uganda, and more broadly to increase access to education. In the long term, one study found that men’s annual income five years after receiving transfers had increased by 64%–96% of the grant amount. There is also no evidence that cash transfers significantly increase consumption of alcohol or tobacco- which is perhaps what those Victorian philanthropists would have expected. Instead, the money might be invested in the upkeep of a house, in some new equipment, or in sending some members of the household to school. There is also good evidence that many people save at least part of the money as security against future financial difficulty or for later investment.

Give directly are also continuing to collect data to be studied by social scientists, which may, in turn, help further identify ways of reducing inequality permanently, and having a direct impact on people’s lives. You can find out more on their website and at Give Well.

If you fancy supporting Give Directly, and us through Non Prophet Week, you might enjoy hearing about how our President, Richard Acton, will be wearing a colander on his head all week, or how Treasurer Luke Dabin will have his legs waxed in public. If acquisition is more your thing, I’ll be making humanist pants, and I can guarantee you’ll get yours in time for Christmas.

Why parents shouldn’t support ‘Operation Christmas Child’

What could be the harm in sending a Christmas gift to a child in need? At this time of year, schools all across the country are taking part in the Christmas Box appeal, and the task is superficially noble: ask your child to fill a decorated box with toys and essential items and the charity will deliver them to a child who is living in poverty. It’s a tangible, personal way of giving, and it’s immensely popular.

But Operation Christmas Child is run by Samaritan’s Purse, a huge and zealous organisation led by Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham. Not only is the organisation openly homophobic, it seeks to proselytise in a manner that most people, including liberal Christians, find unacceptable. As a humanist, I am naturally disquieted by the idea of people performing evangelical work with the intended purpose of conversion; but I am positively offended when this work is performed at the expense of vulnerable children in desperate situations across the globe.

Several other charitable organisations and reputable businesses, including the Cooperative, have withdrawn their support for Operation Christmas Child.[i]  The charity Save The Children has questioned its effectiveness and expressed concerns about the use of evangelism in the context of people in need. Some leading teachers’ Unions, including the NASUWT,  have pointed out the difficult position that schools are placing themselves in when they support such charities without giving careful thought to their stated mission. But despite all of this, hundreds of schools will still take part in Operation Christmas Child this year, unwittingly supporting the work of a right-wing evangelical organisation, with little or no idea of what it stands for.[ii]


It is clear from the Samaritan’s Purse website and Franklin Graham’s social media pages that the organisation has a homophobic agenda. Recently Graham has been raising funds to support Aaron and Melissa Klein, who not only refused to provide services for a lesbian couple in their bakery in Oregon but even quoted Leviticus at a member of the couple’s family. It gets worse. Following consumer complaints posted online by the couple and leading to intervention by the Oregon Department of Justice, Aaron Klein sought support from others by publishing the discrimination complaint on his Facebook account, including the names and shared address of the complainants. This led to the couple receiving homophobic verbal attacks and death threats; they were even concerned that they might lose their foster children (whom they have since adopted). The couple pushed ahead with legal action and the Kleins were ultimately ordered to pay $135,000 in damages for the emotional suffering that they caused. Franklin Graham’s version of events is that the Kleins are conscientious objectors who have ‘done nothing wrong’. He uses their story to fuel resentment against equality laws and curry favour for the ridiculous notion that US Christians experience ‘persecution’, something which seems to have become something of an obsession for him.

This is just one example of the organisation’s homophobia as it seeks to uphold ‘the Biblical definition’ of marriage.  Samaritan’s Purse has also given considerable financial support to the campaign against marriage equality in the USA and Graham has made his own homophobia abundantly clear both in his words and in his deeds. He’s also got some startlingly ignorant opinions about gender.


Many UK representatives hotly defend Operation Christmas Child and claim to have seen no evidence of evangelism or of the accusation that the boxes are distributed with ‘strings attached’. These people are either disingenuous or incredibly naïve. A cursory glance at the charity’s own website provides a wealth of evidence that the explicit, stated purpose of Operation Christmas Child is to convert the child who receives the gift and to encourage them to convert their families. The mission statement says that ‘every gift-filled shoe box is a powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship – transforming the lives of children around the world through the Good News of Jesus Christ’. As one of the representatives in India puts it in this promotional film, ‘children become the harvesters’ for Jesus.  Religious literature is distributed, often in the children’s own language, and this is the charity’s own description of how it is used:

Some of the evangelical literature sent with shoeboxes to impoverished children

Some of the evangelical literature sent with shoeboxes to impoverished children

‘Through The Greatest Journey discipleship programme, boys and girls can become faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Samaritan’s Purse developed The Greatest Journey as a dynamic, interactive Bible study for use in countries around the world where Operation Christmas Child distributes gift-filled shoeboxes. Wherever possible, children receiving shoeboxes are invited to enrol on The Greatest Journey; 2.8 million children have enrolled on this programme since the curriculum was first developed in 2008.’

Many schools either downplay or indeed appear completely ignorant of this aspect of the charity’s work, and UK representatives of Operation Christmas Child will claim that the spreading of the word extends no further than a small booklet of bible stories that may be handed out with the boxes. This is simply not true, or at least it is not true in all cases. Much of the literature used by Samaritan’s Purse demonstrates a clear and direct attempt to convert the young, and the charity aims to enrol children in their brainwashing programme wherever possible.

Numerous critics have observed that Samaritan’s Purse volunteers overseas are often more interested in conversion than provision. According to the President of Operation USA, an international relief organisation, Samaritan’s Purse organised a religious festival after the hurricane in Nicaragua in 1999 and pressurised local churches into taking thousands of children to a baseball stadium in Managua to hear Graham preach; at a time when resources were scarce and people were in desperate need, the money could have been so much better spent on basic supplies and rebuilding work rather than on proselytising. In 2003 the organisation was criticised in the New York Times for holding prayer meetings before it provided help to the people of El Salvador to build the temporary homes that had been provided by US Government funding; interviews with some of the locals reveal that volunteers had distributed religious literature and asked them to accept Jesus Christ as their saviour. Samaritan’s Purse also funded the distribution of Arabic Bibles in Iraq after the war and sent hundreds of volunteers into the country  with the mission of bringing Muslims to Christ. In 2008 they compromised both government-funded aid and diplomacy by attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity following the tsunami in Banda Aceh. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the organisation was criticised in the liberal press for pouring money into evangelising rather than into aid; Graham claimed that the people of Haiti’s spiritual needs were the most urgent concern for his organisation, and he was supported in his endeavours by the ever-delightful Sarah Palin.

One of the reasons why so many people in the UK are completely oblivious to the extreme agenda of Samaritan’s Purse is that it is deliberately not promoted here, to the extent that many earnest and well-meaning volunteers remain blissfully unaware of its sinister nature. This is an excerpt from one of the organisation’s own statements about their UK-based operation, and it implies that there may well be practices that even those who work for the charity in the UK are completely unaware of:

‘Please be assured that the commitment of Samaritan’s Purse to evangelism is as strong as ever. … However, there is a difference in the way the boxes are processed in the UK for overseas shipment. The UK program removes all religious items … and forwards any Christian literature to our National Leadership Teams working in countries where shoebox gifts are distributed, so the Christian literature can be used with children. … The Gospel is also presented locally as part of the distribution of the gifts, and wherever possible, children are offered a Gospel storybook written in their own language called The Greatest Gift of All. Many children are also invited to enrol in a 10-lesson follow-up Bible study program, and upon completion receive a New Testament as a graduation gift.’

In the USA, where evangelism is broadly accepted and commonplace in many parts of the country, the evangelical message is better understood both by donors and by volunteers. In this country, most volunteers and participants in the scheme cling to the notion that if they haven’t seen it then it doesn’t go on. Do not be fooled – it does.

Suggested alternatives

If your local school is irretrievably wedded to the idea of a Christian shoebox scheme, the BHA advise that Link to Hope don’t distribute any literature with their boxes. The Rotary Club also runs a similar scheme and they at least have a proven track record when it comes to providing worthwhile aid within the developing world.  But most charities with a genuine desire to bring change to the developing world and to lift children out of poverty now reject the Christmas box model; donors may well have the best of intentions, but sending a shoe box full of gifts is ultimately a grossly inefficient and environmentally questionable way to give. If your school would like to back a more effective scheme with tangible outcomes you could suggest that they look at those run by Plan UK, Oxfam, Save the Children, Aquabox or Good Gifts.

[i] The delivery service DHL have withdrawn their support, as have the South Wales Fire service. Oxfam have also made it clear that they do not support this organisation. Even some Christian organisations  and individual Christian volunteers are detaching themselves from Samaritan’s Purse due to concerns about the extreme nature of the message.

[ii] Many websites state that concerns have been raised by the Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACRE). While they offer no national policy on Operation Christmas Child, it has certainly been discussed at local SACREs across the country and some SACREs, for example in Cambridgeshire, have written to their local schools about the concerns. Minutes from the Isle of Wight group describe Operation Christmas Child as “a long-standing issue” yet one that they don’t consider to be their concern, which seems pretty extraordinary. In Surrey, our SACREs have spoken to local representatives of Operation Christmas Child and seem to accept wholesale their reassurances, which they give here. They have not investigated further.

Seven Biblical arguments against homosexuality (and why they’re rubbish)

About a year ago, I found myself in a horribly frustrating debate with an evangelical Christian about equal marriage. Realising that he was never going to be convinced by the liberal view unless I could debate with him on the terms of his choice, I found myself frustrated by my hazy grasp of the scriptures that he held so dear. I was convinced that he could be challenged based upon the Bible, but I was not confident enough in my knowledge and understanding of it to do so. I vowed to remedy the situation, and to arm myself for the future.

Why bother? Well, I care more about supporting the human rights of LGBT people than I do about convincing others of my own emphatically non-religious worldview. The chances of me persuading an evangelical Christian to ‘dump’ God and move on are pretty slim – indeed, I do not consider it my place to attempt a one-to-one de-conversion; but I do consider it my place, my duty even, to defend the human rights of others. My acquaintance was an intelligent and sensitive man, with huge doses of what I would call humanity (but what he would call the love of God), and I have hope that he might have listened to an alternative reading of the scriptures.

People can’t choose the community that they’re born into, and too many LGBT people have been rejected by their own; too many have suffered appalling internal conflict, revolting prejudice and unacceptable treatment.[i] Too many members of these communities have endured or been forced to endure ‘conversion therapy’, including an extraordinary number of the pastors who peddle this kind of hatred. It’s an appalling approach that is campaigning hard to win the argument in some parts of America. It has to stop, and we have to engage.

In this article I examine the key passages from the Bible cited by conservative Christians as the standard ‘killer blows’ for liberals when it comes to equality. Rather appropriately for a collection of Bible passages, there are seven of them. Unless otherwise stated, translations are from the New English Bible, as it’s the one I grew up with and the one on my shelf. This, however, brings me to the most crucial thing to bear in mind when squaring up to a conservative Bible-believer – few of them give any thought to the fact that they are quoting from a translation. This renders their interpretations easily dismissible from the outset, for as we shall see, the translation (and biased mistranslation) of some words in the Bible is absolutely crucial to this discussion.[ii]

Adam and Steve

'Wait, so your name isn't Steve?' (Painting by Hendrick Goltzius)

‘Wait, so your name isn’t Steve?’ (Painting by Hendrick Goltzius)

As gay Christian Matthew Vines points in his emotionally-charged lecture on this topic, God says in Genesis 2.18, ‘it is not good for the man to be alone; I will provide a partner for him.’ But in Genesis 1-2, God creates Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve, as conservative evangelicals seem to find it so pleasing to point out. If your potential adversary is a Bible literalist, then he or she will believe that Adam and Eve actually existed and were created by God in exactly the manner that the Bible describes. However, he or she will still have to accept that this twosome cannot constitute an exemplary paradigm for how modern couples should live – and I’m not just talking about naturism. For example, the only way that Adam and Eve could populate the world is by producing children who would procreate with each other (and/or with them), a necessary side effect of their unique situation. This is just one example of how Bible literalists have no choice but to admit that the prototype couple of Adam and Eve must be taken as symbolic, at least on some levels, and not applied wholesale to modern adult relationships. As soon as they are forced to admit this, almost everything is open to question.

Most Christians see Adam and Eve as a part of a creation myth; they accept that their existence was metaphorical and that they represent the origins of mankind as a species. Prior to the halcyon days of modern science, it is indeed a fact that the world would not have been peopled without the predominance of heterosexual relations. In communities fighting for survival, ‘wasted seed’ no doubt becomes an issue, hence perhaps God’s punishment of Onan in Genesis 38.8-10. Well, really. So what? With the population of the earth now at an estimated 7 billion and predicted to rise to around 11 billion by the end of the century, nobody can possibly argue that peopling the planet is a pressing concern for us now.

The Sin of Sodom

In Genesis 19 we find the widely misunderstood story of Sodom. Two of God’s angels visit the town of Sodom in disguise and are welcomed warmly by an allegedly righteous man named Lot (although I shall say more about his purported moral fibre later on). That night, all the other men from the town surround the house and demand that the visitors be brought out ‘so that we can have intercourse with them.’ When Lot tries to bargain with them, the crowd becomes violent and starts beating the door down. Whoa … hang on. Alarming, isn’t it? The fact that God later punishes Sodom and nearby Gomorrah with fire and brimstone is cited by conservative Christians as concrete evidence that Jehovah disapproves of homosexuality… so let’s explore this bizarre story in more detail.

First and foremost, the term ‘Sodomite’ simply means ‘inhabitant of Sodom,’ though it is the modern, homophobic use of this word that dominates people’s thinking today; any Bible translation (or excitable preacher) using the word ‘Sodomite’ to mean anything other than ‘inhabitant of Sodom’ is biased and frankly ignorant. Many reputable scholars (both Christian and non-Christian) argue that the story of Sodom was actually a traditional lesson in the importance of welcoming strangers,[iii] a motif that can be found throughout the ancient world. The ancient concept of what the Greeks called xenia, the friendship extended between host and guest, was sacred and central to ancient morality, and numerous stories that reflect its importance can be found in Classical mythology.[iv] In the Hebrew tradition, the harsh nomadic existence of the early Jewish people meant that the custom of welcoming travel-weary strangers was essential to their survival, and Genesis 19 is just one of numerous Biblical references to its import.[v]

No one's favourite Bible story: Lot and his daughters (Goltzius)

No one’s favourite Bible story: Lot and his daughters (Goltzius)

The fact that the townsmen of Sodom threaten to gang-rape their male visitors is interpreted by conservative Christians as an example of unbridled homosexual lust; but the threat of violent rape is not about sex and it’s certainly not about sexuality. Indeed, to suggest as much is both offensive and ill-informed. Sexual violence is a weapon of power and control, and male rape is sometimes used in violent homophobic attacks. Research indicates that male rape has actually been used more frequently in some conflicts  than the rape of women; it is used to humiliate and degrade the enemy. The violent threat to Lot’s guests in the story represents a declaration of hostility towards strangers – an interpretation supported by the fact that as the crowd’s threats become more aggressive they turn upon Lot himself, saying ‘this man has come and settled here as an alien, and does he now take it upon himself to judge us?’ The Hebrew here can also be rendered as ‘foreigner’, ‘stranger’ or ‘immigrant,’ and the behaviour of the crowd demonstrates a negative hostility to outsiders. So, exactly as the scholars argue, the primary ‘sin of Sodom’ should be understood to mean threatening and rejecting a visitor as your enemy, rather than welcoming him as your guest.[vi]

Finally, a word about Lot’s behaviour in this undeniably horrid little story. Despite the endless debates between conservative and liberal Christians over this section of the Bible, few of them seem particularly interested in talking about the mention of Lot’s daughters. So let’s complete the delightful tale: while the townsmen were surrounding Lot’s house and threatening his guests with rape, ‘Lot went out … and said, ‘Look: I have two daughters, both virgins; let me bring them out to you and you can do what you like with them; but do not touch these men, because they have come under the shelter of my roof’’. (Genesis 19.6-8). So the ‘righteous’ Lot offers up his daughters to be gang-raped in place of his two guests, and yet conservative Christians cite this passage as a lesson in sexual morality for the modern world.

An abomination?

Next we come to Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible, and the two passages perhaps most often quoted on this topic. Leviticus 18.22 states that ‘you shall not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination.’ In Leviticus 20.13 it also says, ‘if a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, they both commit an abomination. They shall be put to death; their blood shall be on their own heads.’

At first glance, this might seem unequivocal. However, the book of Leviticus is a list of traditional, ritual mores for the time, and the overwhelming majority of its instructions and exhortations are comfortably ignored by modern Christians. While it is true that Leviticus proscribes sex between men, it also forbids the eating of rabbit (11.6), pork (11.7) and shellfish (11.9-12), the wearing of mixed fibres (19.19) and cutting the sides of your hair (19.27). Got a tattoo? Then you’re in big trouble according to Leviticus 19.28, which is bad news for all those hick town dudes who’ve had Leviticus 18.22 tattooed on their butts.

Let us now examine the word ‘abomination’, which conservatives quote with such horrifying relish and which causes such understandable upset.[vii] ‘Abomination’ is a commonly used but rather loaded and potentially misleading translation of the Hebrew word tow’ebah, which had a culturally-specific meaning. It was used of anything that went against the long list of ritually acceptable practices and behaviours described, and was applied to many of the prohibitions mentioned above. According to Leviticus, it is just as much of an ‘abomination’ to eat a bacon sandwich or a shrimp salad as it is to ‘lie with a man as with a woman’, so unless conservative Christians want to start eating kosher, they’d better re-think their stance on this one. This inconvenient fact is ignored by right-wing preachers, who cite this passage over and over, emphasising the English word ‘abomination’. The reality is that the same Hebrew word is used throughout the Old Testament to condemn numerous practices that the majority of Christians, including their preachers, will carry out on a regular basis.

Some conservative readers of the Bible, such as Robert A. Gagnon, acknowledge the wider list of prohibitions but they maintain that sex between men is still presented as a worse kind of ‘abomination’ than some of the others listed above. They use two key arguments for this. Firstly, they point out that sex between men is listed alongside other sex acts that are plainly immoral, such as incest and bestiality. Secondly, they point out that Leviticus 20.13 threatens death as the appropriate punishment for sex between men – presumably suggesting that God felt pretty strongly about it. Well, most of us would probably agree that incest and bestiality are morally wrong. This is a conclusion that one can draw not from reading it in the Bible, but through sound, enlightened, and informed reasoning. For sexual intercourse to be morally acceptable it should be consensual (which bestiality cannot be) and it should not cause harm (which bestiality might and incest does, both in terms of its psychological impact and its potential biological consequences). On the other hand, having sex with your wife at certain times of the month, also prohibited in this section of Leviticus, is not considered to be immoral by most modern Christians; so why therefore should consensual sex between adult partners of the same gender be? Finally, the fact that death is listed as the punishment for intercourse between two men can be easily dismissed; the same punishment is threatened for blaspheming (Leviticus 24.16) and for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31.14), so by my reckoning most of us are in serious trouble, including most Christians.

The New Testament: it’s all Greek to them

As liberal Christians often point out, you will not find any direct prohibitions against homosexuality in the Gospels, so conservative Christians rely on the Letters of Paul for their New Testament ammunition.

In 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10, Paul gives an inventory of ‘unrighteous’ people, who will not ‘inherit the kingdom of God.’ A colourful collection of wrongdoings are catalogued as possible barriers to the promised land, and the New Testament translation here excels itself by listing one of the sins as ‘homosexual perversion.’ Wow! To someone who reads the translation in ignorance of the original text, this kind of language is pretty unambiguous. They might, however, be surprised were they to look at the King James version, an English translation produced some 400 years earlier, which mentions the ‘effeminate’ and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind.’ On the other hand, the New International Version of the Bible, commonly used in America, says ‘men who have sex with men.’ So what on earth is going on? Let’s see.[viii]

The Greek word that the King James version translates as ‘effeminate’ at 1 Corinthians 6.9 is malakos, a term that is used in a wide range of surviving Greek texts. Its original sense was ‘soft’ or ‘pliable’ but when applied to people it was often used to mean something like ‘weak-willed’ or ‘lazy’, not schooled in the ways of righteous or philosophical thinking.[ix] The word was also used in a derogatory fashion to describe men who had been too much exposed to the finer, more decadent things in life, and in this sense it could imply a man who behaved in a less than ‘manly’ fashion according to the ancient ideal. Finally, it was also applied to younger males who cultivated feminine wiles and/or who allowed themselves to be penetrated during sexual activity.  This accusation could be applied in a heterosexual as well as in a homosexual context, and had far more do with the ancient suspicion of all things female than it did with a negative view of attraction between men.[x]

The next word that we need to tackle is the Greek word arsenokoites. Paul uses this word in both passages, and these are its only two appearances in the Bible; unfortunately they are also the first appearances of this word that we have preserved Greek literature, which means that its meaning is somewhat obscure to us. The very fact that Paul uses an unusual and possibly new term here is potentially interesting, as there were numerous Greek words that he could have used to refer to homosexual activity, had he so chosen. However, this may not be significant at all; the problem with ancient texts is that the meaning of any particular word may well have been clear to the author and to his immediate audience, and only seems obscure to us due to our lack of sources. The best thing that we can do therefore is to look more closely at the text itself.[xi]

Arsenokoites is a compound word, a combination of a Greek word for ‘man’ or ‘male’ (arsen) and ‘marital bed’ (koite). Just as in English, this word for ‘bed’ could be used euphemistically in Greek to mean ‘have sex with’ – so does it not simply mean ‘men who have sex with men’, exactly as the New International Version of the Bible translates? Well, quite possibly not. Cannon points out that in Paul’s list of sins in 1 Timothy 1.10, arsenokoites appears in between the words pornos and andrapodistes. The word pornos most commonly meant a male who prostitutes his body. Its female equivalent (porne) meant ‘harlot’ or ‘prostitute’ and the equivalent verb ‘to be or to become a prostitute’. Andrapodistes meant ‘slave-dealer’, ‘kidnapper’ or ‘man-stealer’ – it was used of one who kidnaps others and sells them into slavery, or of one who steals another man’s slaves. Cannon explores in detail the fact that Paul lists his ‘sins’ in groups of closely-related meaning, and he draws the conclusion that by ‘pornos, arsenokoites and andrapodistes’ he meant something like ‘male prostitutes, the males who lie [with them], and the slave dealers [who procure them].’

There are certainly many scholars who argue that Paul’s use of the word arsenokoites refers to people who exploit others in a sexual context.[xii] The exploitative use of younger males (often slaves) for sexual gratification was widespread in the ancient world, and it was quite likely to have been the only kind of sex between males that Paul had even heard of. I would argue that to extrapolate from Paul a prohibition on modern, adult, consensual relationships is to misunderstand the world in which he lived and to misinterpret his experience and probable mindset at the time.


A good old-fashioned orgy

In Romans 1.26-27 Paul discusses the Gentiles’ descent into idolatry and their rejection of God. He says here that, as a result of their behaviour, God abandoned them and let them live without Him. ‘In consequence, I say, God has given them up to shameful passions. Their women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and their men in turn, giving up natural relations with women, burn with lust for one another.’

This is perhaps the most problematic passage of them all. It is also the only time that sexual activity between women is mentioned in the Bible, and it doesn’t sound too positive, does it? Some scholars argue that Paul is talking very simply about what he saw as the heterosexual norm versus a clear disapproval of all homosexual relations. Others, including Matthew Vines, cling to the notion that the problem presented here is of heterosexual people performing homosexual acts, therefore somehow rejecting their ‘true’ nature; Paul does indeed use a Greek term which means something like ‘innate’ or ‘inborn’ to refer to their heterosexual leanings, and Vines argues from this that he is talking not about people who are gay but about people who ‘turn against their own nature’. Cannon even goes so far as to point out that according to this understanding (i.e. the belief that Paul is criticising people who turn against their innate sexual orientation), ‘it would be a sin for a homosexual to engage in heterosexual sex.’ But I’m afraid I don’t buy it. This interpretation is asking us to believe that when Paul talked about people turning ‘against nature’[xiii] he meant no malice towards those who experience same-sex attraction from birth. This is pretty tenuous, and I struggle to accept that this would have been his mindset at the time. Another danger with this approach is that we simply exchange one set of prejudices for another – is someone who has felt predominantly drawn to people of the opposite sex for most of their life then prohibited from experiencing and acting upon any form of same-sex attraction in later life? As liberals, this would put us on very dangerous ground.

So how should Christians reconcile what Paul says here with a modern, liberal stance? Well, a more convincing and less problematic argument is that, as so often where sexual morality is discussed in the Bible, Romans 1.26-27 is actually talking about lust or debauchery. The passage is believed by many to be a reference to orgiastic behaviour, and while the pagan practice of ‘sacred sexual orgies’ perhaps didn’t go on quite as much as some of the early Christian writers would have us believe, there is little doubt that this was certainly the view of pagan ritual as seen from the outside. It is therefore entirely plausible that Paul was writing in a disapproving tone about the general practices that he believed took place among ‘idolaters,’ which would include all forms of uninhibited sexual activity outside of a committed (and yes, in his experience, heterosexual) relationship. It is therefore reasonable for liberal Christians to argue that committed homosexual relationships are acceptable, since they do not actually go against the spirit of the prohibitions issued here by Paul.

Conclusions: love wins?

The passages in the Old Testament are easy to dismiss. The paradigm of Adam and Eve is symbolic, the story of Sodom represents an example of hostility to strangers in the form of threatened sexual assault, and the prohibition in Leviticus is just one of a series of culturally-based proscriptions that modern Christians are happy to ignore. In the New Testament, the only possible mentions of homosexual activity are made in reference to licentious and lustful behaviour and quite possibly to sexual exploitation. They therefore have nothing more to do with homosexual relationships than they do with heterosexual ones.

It is all too easy for those of us who are not emotionally attached to these ancient texts to dismiss them as irrelevant – to us, frankly, they are. But if we are to persuade more Christians to accept and welcome gay members of their community – a situation that is craved and deserved by so many – then we have to engage with the debate on their terms and to support the liberal Christians who are attempting to lead change.

Few Christians will have given this matter anything like as much thought as I have over the last few days of research, and I hope to be able to stand my ground when I next find myself in a corner with someone who uses the Bible to excuse and defend their own prejudices. I hope very much that you will too.



[i] Witness the case of Vicky Beeching, Christian rock star and darling of the conservative Bible belt – until she spoke out about equal marriage and came out in August 2014.

[ii] Here are just some examples of spectacularly ignorant homophobic preaching, based entirely on a so-called ‘analysis’ of the Bible’s words in an English translation: ‘what does the Bible say about homosexuality‘ ‘Homosexuality and the Bible‘ ‘a Christian view of sodomites.’ Please don’t watch them if you think they might upset you – some of the things said are truly horrible.

[iii] For example Peter J. Sorensen, ‘The Lost Commandments: the sacred rites of hospitality.’ This analysis by Suzanne Scholz of how Genesis 19 is dealt with on the internet is a  cautionary reminder of just how much nonsense there is on the web. She doesn’t draw any conclusions about the meaning of the passage, simply explores how many conflicting accounts there are about it on the internet from a scholarly perspective.

[iv] For example the story of Baucis and Philemon told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and as a running theme throughout Homer’s Odyssey.

[v] For example Genesis 18.1-8; Genesis 47.7-12; Leviticus 19.10; Leviticus 19.33-34.

[vi] The very fact that the ‘sins of Sodom’ do not equate to homosexuality but do equate to poor hospitality and lack of charity is confirmed within the Bible itself, both in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 16.49-50) and the New Testament (Luke 10.8-12).

[vii] See here Ian McKellen expressing his emotional outrage at this word. Sir Ian makes it his business to remove the offending passages of Leviticus from every Bible he finds!

[viii] Here are links to the two relevant passages in Greek: 1 Corinthians 6.9-11  and 1 Timothy 1.10.

[ix] For some outstandingly detailed references on this see footnotes 23-25 in this scholarly article by Dale B. Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University.

[x] See the article by Dale B Martin for an examination of this in depth.

[xi] Here Cannon’s article is hugely helpful because he gives the Greek words in their original form and then explores the various ways in which they have been translated in modern times. Even more detailed and enlightening is the article by Dale B Martin.

[xii] Dale B Martin explores a 2nd century Christian treatise by Theophilus of Antioch which seems to support this reading: here a list of sexual sins is followed by a list of economic misdemeanours (thieves, plunderers, robbers) and it is among the latter that arsenokoites appears, suggesting that by the second century at least the word had a very definite link to monetary exploitation rather than to a specific sex act.

[xiii] We need to be careful about terminology here again. Paul uses the Greek phrase para phusin, and the exact meaning of this phrase in late antiquity was one of the central questions of my spectacularly obscure PhD. One easy way to translate it in the context of what Paul is saying here is indeed ‘unnatural’ or ‘against nature’ but it also meant ‘uncustomary’ – as it no doubt does when he uses it to refer to the notion of men wearing their hair long in 1 Corinthians 11.14 (translated extremely poorly as ‘a disgrace’ in the New English Bible). Matthew Vines therefore argues that para phusin is a culturally specific term that relates to custom, not to innate biology. I’m afraid that I can’t agree with him on that, but he’s right that translating the phrase is not straightforward. It can also mean ‘paranormal’ or ‘supernatural’ and is used in a positive sense to describe how God has enabled Jews and Gentiles to cleave together in Romans 11.24.

Did Dolezal do wrong? Lies and social identities

Leila Gracie reflects on the high-profile case of Rachel Dolezal, an American civil rights advocate who lied about her life story in order to live as a black woman.

What makes an acceptable lie?

Rachel Dolezal in a recent TV appearance. Photo: Boston Herald.

Rachel Dolezal in a recent TV appearance. Photo: Boston Herald.

In the light of genuine racial discrimination and injustice, it’s obvious why some have felt offended by Rachael Dolezal. As a rule, we don’t choose our race and have to simply deal with its consequences. Yet we should examine the nature of her lie. For instance, compare it with someone who has an affair, or someone who commits crime; such people would lie because they seek self-gratification at the expense of other. This is, surely, immorality in its most basic form. Was Dolezal truly “getting off” on living life as a mixed-race person? Was she having fun at the expense of others; was there some selfish reward? The argument that she deliberately and strategically built a career on the lie also seems tenuous, especially as she ‘lived’ the black identity in many other aspects of her life.

Furthermore, the lie was just plain odd. Though immoral, other lies, such as infidelity or stealing, still have a place within the spectrum of ‘normality’. Imitating another race does not. It is distinctly abnormal. She had to deal with the fact that no one would ever truly understand the truth. It was surely a source of shame for Dolezal and something that had to remain strictly private.

It appears that Dolezal wished so deeply that she could be someone else that she sought to make it real. Perhaps she hated her white self. Perhaps the thought of being a black person seemed like the only way to truly find happiness. There may have been moments when she was confronted with the ‘whiteness’ of her body and felt frustrated by its inadequacy. So she constructed a story for herself; the unique circumstances that made her, essentially, a black person in a white person’s body.

It would be interesting to discover exactly what Dolezal thinks being white, or being black means. What is it that she wants to escape and what is it she wants to become? She may carry guilt as a member of a racial group that has perpetrated racism. Indeed, we should all appreciate what we have; we should look to help those less well-off; we should be on the lookout for all forms of injustice and immorality and we should heed history’s lessons. But this can all be achieved without also feeling guilty. The cause could also be something more generic; simply the sense of disparity that arises whenever differing cultures meet.

Biologically derived social identifiers

There are certain aspects of our biology, such as race/gender/age, which carry social currency; they inform our social identity. Of course, they tell us something tangible as well. They tell us about our bloodline and its history, and about our place in the process of human procreation. However, the human race seems to universally attach meaning to these biological features.

While I would not agree that these meanings are pure social construction, there is certainly malleability and historical context in the meanings attributed. As individuals, we get no choice about what social identity we are ‘handed’ and must navigate our way through; make the best of our little lot. This means managing external interpretations of social identifiers as well as arriving at our own understandings of them.

Can we change/choose our social identifiers?

Ostensibly, it is possible to change a (biologically derived) social identifier. An obvious example of this is that one can undergo hormonal and surgical procedures to change one’s sex to match one’s gender identity. Of course, those who have changed their biological sex in order to reflect their gender identity should be accepted into society and be free to live with dignity and respect from others. However, empirically and semantically speaking, society does not seem able to cut ties completely with what it originally thought of as a biological certainty. A person who has transitioned to a different gender nevertheless retains the identity of a ‘transgender‘ person even after their sex and gender have been harmonised.

This word does a special job, not just for the trans individual (who may or may not celebrate a distinctively trans identity) but for wider society. It tells a story; it accounts for a history of gender. The fact that this is even necessary could tell us something about society’s views. Do people stumble when it comes to ‘accepting’ that transgender individuals have truly changed gender? If so, why might this be? One might venture that some members of society find this very concept threatening. After all, most people experience their gender identity and biological sex as one and the same. Unpicking this concept, or challenging its certainty, is often not just uncomfortable, but unfathomable.

On this basis, if, one day, it is acceptable to change one’s race, I would suggest that language will adapt, in its usual but imperfect way, so as to articulate that the new identity is real but also tell that another preceded it. The only way round this is secrecy and hoping to ‘pass’ as Dolezal seemingly did.

Who we are to ourselves: the spirit of common humanity

For better or worse, our social identity will always impact our social intercourse but it is down to us how we incorporate it into our personal sense of identity. In fact, I would suggest that to ourselves we can never truly be any of our social identifiers. Without society, to ourselves (i.e. when we have our own space and our own thoughts), it is difficult to ever fully attain the feeling of being a particular race/gender/age. Perhaps it’s terrifying to admit, but surely, ultimately, to ourselves, we are just a complex mix of ‘me’ and trying to make a success of things is the primary focus. The effects of dementia or brain damage reveal the fragility of the processes through which we know who we are.

I am not suggesting we face some kind of existential oblivion. We need something to anchor us in society and need to feel that such things are, to some degree, real. However, I would suggest that we remember our spirit of common humanity and let that be the predominant guide to understanding ourselves. Had we entered this world in different circumstances, we would be managing an entirely different set of connotations of our identity.

Dolezal’s desire to change race reveals our common tendency to try to live and be our social identifiers – to ourselves. It is immaterial that Dolezal interpreted ‘whiteness’ negatively and ‘blackness’ positively. What matters is that she felt utterly defined by her race. I would suggest that if we can, we should concede to the person that we know exists beneath this skin.

Leila Gracie works in the field of behaviour change in London. She also enjoys writing as a means to ponder life’s mysteries, exploring themes such as gender relations, body image or mental health.

The state of cyberbullying in 2015

At HumanistLife, our guest authors explore contemporary issues from a humanist perspective. In this piece, writer Daniel Faris asks: what can be done about the epidemic of cyberbullying? 

Cyberbullying is impacting more and more young people. Photo: Fixers via Flickr

Cyberbullying is impacting more and more young people. Photo: Fixers via Flickr

Earlier this year, Monica Lewinsky – yes; that Monica Lewinsky – gave a TED talk in Vancouver in which she explored cyberbullying – that is, bullying that takes place on the Internet.

When the news of her affair with US President Bill Clinton broke in 1998 – right when the Internet was growing into what it has become today – Lewinsky became the first person, she says, to become a victim of cyberbullying. She went to bed one night completely unknown, and then there she was the next day, the subject of headlines and tabloid fodder all around the globe for the next few months.

As time passed, Lewinsky faded from the national spotlight. But she still had a life to live and now, at 41, she’s reclaiming her narrative by speaking about how cyberbullying is a serious problem in the developed world. During her TED talk, Lewinsky said she decided to get involved in the movement to end cyberbullying after hearing about the death of Tyler Climenti, a student at Rutgers University, who killed himself after being cyberbullied about his homosexuality.

‘Public humiliation as bloodsport has got to stop,’ Lewinsky said. ‘Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.’

Why cyberbullies do it

If we agree with Lewinsky, cyberbullying has been around for about 17 years. Bullying, however, has almost certainly been around as long as human beings. Still, there’s a difference between cyberbullying and the more ‘traditional’ methods.

When a kid says something mean to another kid’s face, the bully gets to see the victim’s reaction with his or her own eyes. Assuming the child isn’t sociopathic, he or she is bound to feel at least a morsel of regret about hurting someone’s feelings.

Now migrate that bullying over to the digital world, and aggressors no longer have to deal with witnessing the negative consequences of their behaviors. With nothing discouraging them from cyberbullying, many bullies’ digital tactics can be even more ferocious.

How prevalent is cyberbullying?

Some groups purport that more than 40 percent of teenagers in the United States have been victims of cyberbullying. But slice that cross-section even further and you’ll find a particularly grotesque statistic: Eight out of every 10 students in the LGBT community are victims of cyberbullying.

On the other hand, those who employ more traditional research methods have concluded that roughly 25 percent of US students have been the victim of cyberbullying, with 16 percent of them admitting that they have been the aggressors.

It doesn’t matter which numbers you choose to agree with; they’re both higher than we’d like them to be. And make no mistake: this issue is hardly exclusive to the United States; a poll of 10,000 youths, conducted by nobullying.com, indicated that 7 in 10 young people worldwide have experienced cyberbullying. They went on to discover that Facebook is home to more online bullying than any other social network; 54% of poll respondents indicated that they had experienced cyberbullying on the site.

Managing the problem

While it’s certainly awful to hear any story that involves a young kid taking his or her own life because of bullying, rather than going on the offensive and trying to eliminate what is a very innate characteristic in children, it’s important for parents to educate their kids and remind them that they’re loved and that words are just words. Yes, people say mean things online. But isn’t that just the nature of the world?

Instead of trying to prevent our children from experiencing life – the ups and the downs, the sadness and the happiness – there’s an emerging tendency to go overboard when it comes to ensuring their safety and well-being. While these parents are certainly well-intentioned, it’s more important to be able to deal with criticisms, failure, and meanness than to act as though such things simply do not exist in the world.

Since we will never completely stop bullying, no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t really make much sense to brand cyberbullying as an ‘epidemic’ simply because the Internet wasn’t ubiquitous 20 years ago. It’s a problem, yes; but the solutions aren’t as simple as we’d like to pretend.

Lessons learned

While many in the media might want everyone to believe that today’s kids can’t walk five feet without getting cyberbullied, kidnapped, or assaulted, the truth of the matter is that kids have learned to deal with the adverse realities of life for millennia. It’s unfortunate that some kids have to be made fun of and picked on, but so long as kids are kids, there are going to be some bad apples in the bunch who are going to push their luck.

But here’s an underreported factoid: young people are increasingly coming to their parents when they’re cyberbullied. Word has gotten out, and people are talking. Bullies have fewer and fewer opportunities to hide behind their devices as they poke fun at their peers, and some who are caught are even facing serious legal troubles.

Cyberbullying is a problem, but so is virtually everything else. Kids watch too much TV. They don’t eat the right foods. They stay up too late. They are too busy. They don’t have enough to do. They have too much homework. The curriculum is not challenging enough. And so it goes.

The remedies for cyberbullying reveal that this is a human issue – not a partisan, religious, or sectarian one. Religion, for example, while purporting to teach us to ‘treat others as we would be treated,’ continues to fail us in real-world issue pertaining to social justice. Humanism, in existing solely in the material world, and concerning itself with objective values, can better speak to the ‘value and agency‘ of human beings – that is, the founding tenets of the humanist movement. In other words: a Christian may tell us that cyberbullying is wrong because God would frown on it. A humanist, meanwhile, will maintain that cyberbullying is wrong because it’s wrong. Objective truths.

Only one of these worldviews is capable of instilling the value of personal responsibility. The other defers to the supernatural as a deterrent.

But here’s another truth: As long as kids are allowed to communicate amongst themselves, they are going to pick on each other. To make sure their children don’t become victims of cyberbullying, parents need to maintain an ongoing and open dialogue with their kids, consistently reminding them to not take things said on the Internet too seriously. Parents should also let them know the kinds of trouble they’ll find themselves in should they decide to harass one of their peers. The more active parents are in their kids’ lives, the less likely we are to hear stories about cyberbullying. It’s as simple as that.

Polls consistently show we’re not a religious country. So why don’t our politicians get it?

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a 'Christian country'? Photo: Chris Combe.

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a ‘Christian country’? Photo: Chris Combe.

Elected officials to this day continue to cite the Census to make the point that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ or a country made up principally of Christians. The Census statistic of 59% is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today, including the widespread handing over of public services and schools to religious control and the place of unelected bishops in our legislature, not to mention the recurrent exceptionalising of Christian contributions to our shared cultural life. But is that statistic true? Is it any good?

The likely answer is no, and any demographer can tell you why. By asking the leading question  ‘What is your religion?’ in the context of a series of questions about ethnicity and cultural background, the Census leads to higher numbers of people identifying themselves with their family or cultural religious background, and for the most part not with that they actually believe, feel they belong to, or practise.

The Census statistic is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today. But is it any good?

Most other rigorous surveys will tell you a different story – the story of a very diverse Britain united for the most part by common values which straddle the ‘religious divide’. The most recent of these surveys was by YouGov this April, and it found that around two thirds of Britons, when asked, would say they are ‘not religious’.

The April poll, commissioned by the Sunday Times, asked the question ‘Would you describe yourself as being a practicing member of a religion?’ and found that 62% of the general public said ‘no’. Christianity polled as the second most popular option, accounting for 33% of the public. And it’s by no means a one-off. Most polls of the last decade have given very similar results.

This majority ‘not religious’ figure has been found repeatedly in recent years. A recent example of this trend is the Survation poll last November, which asked ‘Do you consider yourself religious or not religious?’ and found that 60.5% of Brits are the latter. These figures are in turn consistent with year-on-year polling from the British Social Attitudes Survey, which finds that around or slightly over half of the population is in fact non-religious (and that 42% Brits identify as Christian) when it asked ‘1. Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? 2: If yes: which?’. A YouGov poll in April 2014 also found that 50% of Brits were non-religious, and that three quarters of the population were ‘not religious or not very religious’. Very similar results in 2011 and 2012, and numerous others, overwhelmingly reinforce the pattern.

We can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious

Equally, the one third figure for believing Christians has been found time and time again. A YouGov poll for the Times in February this year found that only 55% of British Christians ‘believed in God,’ bringing the total proportion down from 49% of Britons who say they are Christian to around 23% for ‘Christians who believe in God’.  A 2013 YouGov poll which asked how many people in Britain believed in the central tenet of Christianity – that Jesus of the Nazareth was the son of God – found a figure of 30%. It’s that same figure again – around a third

In most aspects of their jobs, politicians look closely at these sorts of surveys when making policy decisions, or when attempting to win over new voters with popular initiatives. They know, and statisticians can tell you why, that the margin of error on these things is usually around 1-3%. So I feel we can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious (only 4% of ‘nones’, according to the Times/YouGov 2015 poll, ‘believe in a god’) and that beyond that, two thirds are ‘not religious’ – in the sense of not seeing religion as very important or not practising. It’s a widespread trend: only 30% of Brits are believing Christians, and only 6% or fewer Brits go to church on a given Sunday.

Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion

The Census result would suggest that three quarters or more of Brits, cutting across the religious divide, would cite some sort of Christian cultural background, but this is a broad group indeed – both Justin Welby and Professor Richard Dawkins would say they are culturally Christian! Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion – with 92% of Christians agreeing that the law should apply equally regardless of religion.

Politicians trotting out the old Census figure to justify handouts or, engaged in cynical vote-grabbing, should remember that most of us want to be treated equally and want a level playing field – including by opposing ingrained religious privilege, such as by opposing  ‘faith’ schools and bishops in the House of Lords. Of course, politicians are not won over by opinion polls alone, and most are wary of the power of religious institutions, whose views tends to be a bit more traditional than those of their flocks. But change is inevitable, and on the way – the fact that the next generation rising through the ranks is overwhelmingly non-religious could well promise to erode the power of churches over our elected representatives.

The Epicurean revival

Hiram Crespo writes for HumanistLife about the philosophy of Epicureanism, and argues that is has made a resurgence in modern works of positive psychology. 

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

As the annals of history have it, in the sixth century Emperor Justinian had all the schools of philosophy that competed with Christianity finally closed. This was the last we heard of the Epicurean School, whose tradition had remained culturally vibrant for seven centuries. Epicurus had been among the first to propose the atom—2,300 years ago—the social contract as a foundation for the rule of law, and the possibility of an empirical process of pursuit of happiness: a science of happiness. These progressive schools were oases of tranquility, reason and pleasure known as Gardens, where the ideals of civilized friendship flourished and men, women and even slaves engaged in philosophical discourse as equals.

If any set of doctrines can be considered the foundation of the Epicurean philosophy, it would be the Tetrapharmakon: the Four Remedies. For didactic purposes, the teachings were imparted in the form of short, easy to memorize adages. There are, to be fair, many more than four remedies in Epicureanism. However, these are known to be the core of the teaching out of which the rest of the philosophy flows:

Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure

In his Principal Doctrines 11-12, Epicurus argued for the study of science as a way to emancipate ourselves from irrational fears. For naturalists who don’t believe in gods or spirits, the first two negative statements may be translated as ‘Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering’.

Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura, dedicates long portions of the philosophical poem to explaining how natural phenomena such as lightning and the movements of heavenly bodies are not the work of the Gods and that fear of the Gods is inconsistent with civilized life. Since he was unable in those days to produce a fully scientific theory to explain all these phenomena, he provided several possible theories for many of them without officially endorsing one, and humbly acknowledged that future thinkers would prove the main points of his naturalist and scientific cosmology, which they eventually did. And so we can say that his basic attitude was a sound one, and also that he respected our intelligence enough to not exhibit arrogance and certainty where he did not have conclusive theories. He allowed time to prove him right … and sincere.

That the prohibition against fearing the Gods, and against fear-based religion in general, is the first and main taboo in Epicurean philosophy, remains refreshing to this day.

The second remedy is elaborated in a series of teachings and aphorisms which serve as a form of cognitive therapy to deal with the trauma of death. Among them, the most memorable is the purely hedonistic one. It is summed up thusly:

Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not

There is also the symmetry argument, which compares the time after our death to the time before our birth of which we have no memory. Since there is nothing there, why fear it? It is as unintelligent to be needlessly tormented about the afterlife as it is to be tormented about the state prior to birth. I frequently argue that it wasn’t just the teachings, but the manner in which they were imparted –within the context of a loving community of philosopher friends– that served as a consolation and that it is impossible to replicate the peace and conviction that Epicurus gave humanity without this sense of community.

The latter two positive statements in the Tetrapharmakon lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don’t. By this analytic process, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain and which carry little to no pain. It is here that the real fruits of Epicurean insight begin to be reaped. The best things in life are free.

One of the first psychological tasks of every Epicurean is to become mindful of his/her desires and whatever pain or anxiety they may be generating. Another task is to learn to relish and appreciate the simple things when they’re in front of us. The good friends, the good foods and the refreshing beverages, the family, the good music, our proximity to nature, even our view of the sky which (as Carl Sagan advised us) should always humble us.

The good news, according to Epicurus, is that happiness is easily attained if we cultivate philosophy. He cites the need for thankfulness and for robust friendships as fundamental ingredients for the good life, and not only categorizes desires but also discerns between kinetic (active) pleasures that happen when we satisfy a desire, and katastemic (inert) pleasures that happen when we have no desires to satisfy, which he labeled as superior.

Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Dan Gilbert confirms Epicurus’ insights, including how meaningful relations significantly increase the amount of pleasure and of memorable experiences that we gather throughout our lifetime. He uses different verbiage: natural happiness is that attained when we satisfy a desire (kinetic pleasure, in Epicurean parlance) whereas synthetic happiness is that which we enjoy regardless of attaining desires (katastemic pleasure).

Because synthetic happiness requires no externals, it is therefore superior, it is a sign of a liberated being. He argues the case for synthetic happiness by citing the example of the lottery winner and the paraplegic who exhibit similar levels of happiness one year after winning the lottery and losing the lower limbs, respectively. These cases had been studied by happiness researchers Brickman et al.

This, in positive psychology, is being called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation: the habitual happy state that we always return to. Methods are being researched to increase the heights that are normal for each individual.

Gilbert’s theories, as far as I’m concerned, are Epicureanism by another name. One of the elements of Epicurean teaching that philosophers have struggled with the most throughout history is the idea of katastemic pleasure. It is often argued that lack of pain is not a definition of pleasure, but this is the art of happiness that Epicurus taught: that we must learn to be happy regardless of external factors and that it’s possible and desirable to cultivate katastemic pleasures via the philosophical disciplines. In fact, Epicurus argues that the very purpose of philosophy is to ensure an end to suffering and to create a beautiful, happy, pleasant life.

Gilbert’s research upholds katastemic pleasure as a necessary ingredient in human happiness and is beginning to reinvigorate the discourse on the philosophy of happiness that Epicurus had begun, and which was interrupted by Justinian 1,500 years ago. He also adds new concepts to our science of happiness and even proposes that we have a psychological immune system that fights unhappy moods.

Gilbert’s findings, along with research dealing with wellbeing in fields such as neuroscience and diet, point modern Epicureans in the direction of an interdisciplinary, practical reinvention of philosophy, which is just what we need if philosophy is to become once again the revolutionary, emancipatory cultural engine that it once was.

As to the Fourth Remedy, Epicurus reminded us of the temporal nature of bodily pain. We may get a fever, or a stomach ache, but within days our immune system fights it. In the case of more chronic pains, one gets used to them after some time. In nature, no condition lasts forever. The impermanence of all conditions is a consolation when we consider whatever pain they generate. A dismissive attitude towards pain takes discipline but it can be cultivated if we are mindful, disciplined, and develop a resolve to protect our minds.

Then there are mental pains and anxiety. These are systematically worked through via cognitive therapy. The resolution to follow Epicurus is a resolution to protect one’s mind. It’s impossible to be happy if we can’t control our anger and other strong emotions: we will go from one perturbed state to the next and never taste the stability of ataraxia, which translates as imperturbability and is the ultimate maturity that a philosopher can reach.

We live in a dysfunctional consumerist society filled with anxiety and neuroses, where few people analyse their life, most have a short attention span and are usually uninterested in disciplining their minds and curbing mindless desires. If philosophy is understood as the Epicureans understand it, then it becomes evident that people desperately need philosophy today.

Many more things could be said about the consolations of Epicurean philosophy. I leave my readers with an invitation to study Epicurus and engage themselves and others in philosophical discourse. I promise that your life will be enriched.

Hiram Crespo is the founder of societyofepicurus.com and the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014).

Defending morality undermines your values

Sean Spain responds to a recent article on HumanistLife with a novel solution to the ‘is-ought’ problem.

'We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.' Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

‘We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.’ Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

I recently read an article by George Keeling, mounting a defence for humanist morality. The crux of the argument is that morality is the natural expression of advantageous evolutionary activities – ‘[That] moral passions exist to ensure co-operation and ultimately the perpetuation of our genes’.  Social co-operation is the grounding of this morality, and can be seen to be advantageous to species across the animal kingdom. Man, it is argued, is a naturally social animal whose co-operative instinct has flourished into empathy which is unique to higher-functioning cognitive abilities. Thus the humanist morality stems from an inherent drive to treat others as they would be treated, and the humanist acknowledges this drive as his moral compass. Of course we can’t just rely on this drive to steer us all on the course to ethical action; instead we simply acknowledge the roots of our ‘disposition towards compassion, fairness and kindness’ and in doing so affirm the grounds upon which our value judgements stand.

I admire this value-compass for human action. In the reality around here, the humanist finds truth. In the world around her, she finds wonder; in the society around her, she is optimistic; in her intuition, and the knowledge of its emergence, she finds an ethical grounding.

But Ethics demands more from us than this. Co-operation may be advantageous to my survival, but that doesn’t necessarily make it ethically good. I may feel compassion towards the members of my group, but that won’t suffice to justify my command for others to not harm them.  It can’t be good because it is: a statement which outlines what is can’t be used to logically deduce what ought to be. The two are different statements in kind and as such need a mediating principal as justification. Once this mediating principal is introduced (e.g. a utilitarian framework) then the ethical discourse becomes one of choosing X over why; and the mediating principal props up the ought – the is becomes redundant.

Hume realized this:

‘I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.’[1]

Translated, Hume observed that there is a jump in reason when one presents phenomena which is the case (i.e. co-operation, and empathy, are evolutionarily advantageous- and may even perhaps be argued to be the etymological roots of our notions of morality) and then deduces from it that what is the case ought to be. The justification of a moral proscription must be grounded in reasoning beyond just the description of events.

The burden of an ethical framework demands an external justification for the Ought. Plato grounded his idea of the ‘Good’ in a plane of the forms; religion finds good in ‘God’. Even philosophers like Kant, who have attempted to reposition the notion of what is good, systematically ground its value beyond themselves- in something absolute, and metaphysical.  What is often forgotten in these ethical systems is the appeal to a position of value as something which is beyond the world as it is. They do this because they have to. Ethics demands a firm ground for value which must be more than a description of events, or relative in a mechanistic world-view.

But there is an alternative approach.

Wittgenstein realised this problem of value, and the implications which the value problem had for ethics and more fundamentally aesthetics.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein notes:

6.4 ‘All Propositions are of equal value.’[2] ( clarification: Truth propositions)

6.41 ‘…In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value.’[3]

6.42 ‘Hence there can be no ethical propositions.’[4]

A fact, what is, can’t have a value in itself. The values around us are valuable to us, not outside of us. The value of co-operation might be found in the benefits of an improved feeling of safety among each other; a personal satisfaction may be felt when an empathetic urge is fulfilled; we feel relief when our compassion for an individual in danger is rewarded with their safety. The value is a feeling. But ethics demands an external ground for this value to meet the requirements of absolutism. Thus throughout history we have tried to establish this value and in doing so have had to ground it in metaphysical postulations, or religious gods.

The problem is the ethical discourse itself.

The solution? Don’t try to defend morality. It’ll undermine your value system, and the values of your actions. Reject the discussion of ethics because it is misleading. We don’t need to rationally defend what is good. We feel it is good. It shows itself to be good. But the good we make use of isn’t some ethereal absolute – it is a dependent evaluation which is justified by our empathetic intuition and intellectual reasoning.

And the same purposes can be fulfilled. We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.

And if you are asked to defend what someone else deems your morality, you can respond in the infamous words of Wittgenstein:

  1. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.[5]

Sean Spain is an undergraduate student of Easter & Western Philosophy. He is primarily interested in the Philosophy of Language & Value- particularly in their application to ‘real-world’ events



[1] Hume, David ‘Treatise of Human Understanding’, end of section 3.1.1.

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosohicus’, pp. 29-31.

[3] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[4] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[5] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig