Binary Thinking and Dealing with Abuse

“My friends can’t possibly be abusers – they are good people, they couldn’t possibly be sexual predators.”

“That person is an abuser – that means they are completely and utterly bad.”

I have seen both these statements over the last few days, weeks, and months, the first one from those who are defending abusive people, and the second from people who are condemning them.

It’s not just the outrage over the Frosts that gives rise to this binary thinking – it is all instances of abuse and rape.

Look at the judge in the case of Brock Turner – according to that judge, Turner was a “good person” so should not be punished for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Look at the letter that Turner’s mother wrote to try to get him off the hook.

According to the judge in the Steubenville rape case, the perpetrators were “good people” so should not have been imprisoned – but meanwhile, the whistleblower who brought the matter to the attention of the authorities could be given sixteen years imprisonment for the hacking that led to the crime being exposed. (Crimes against property are always more harshly punished than crimes against the person, especially if the person is Black, trans, female, or disabled.)

Look at the people who defended Kenny Klein – he was apparently a “good person” who therefore couldn’t have committed any crime. And those who condemned him rejected absolutely everything he did.

Or look what happened when Jimmy Saville was revealed to have been a serial abuser – any good that he did was immediately wiped out.

People tend to take the view that people are either 100% good, or 100% bad. This is obviously unrealistic, and leads to a very dangerous situation – that people strenuously deny that anyone they know could possibly be a rapist or an abuser, because they are “good people”. And once someone is revealed to have perpetrated abuse or rape, they are immediately cast out into the outer darkness, with no hope of rehabilitation, and people assume that they are 100% bad, and want to obliterate their memory.

Both these facts make it extremely hard to bring abusers to justice or to hold them to account, because the stakes are so high. That is why those who are defending the Frosts feel the need to assert that they did nothing wrong, or to claim that they repudiated their original position. That is why many people who are horrified by what the Frosts wrote about deflowering virgins with a wooden dildo preparatory to making them have sex with coven elders (which is abusive whether or not the virgin is over 18) want to vilify everything about them.

Life is complex

But life is more complex than that. People are a mixture of good and bad impulses and behaviours. That does not mean we should excuse their bad actions; it does mean that it is unhelpful and unrealistic to dismiss everything they did (though their bad actions may call the motives for their good actions into question – did they just do them to cover up their bad behaviour?)

The biggest problem with this binary view of 100% good people & 100% bad people is that people tend to take the view that preventing abuse and rape is simply a matter of getting rid of the “few bad apples in the barrel”. They think that if only we had a perfect means of identifying abusers and preventing them from getting in to the Pagan community, we would be able to fix this problem. If only we could eject abusers from the community once and for all when they were discovered to be abusers, they think. And surely the witchy intuition of coven leaders is good enough to prevent abusers from getting into covens, they claim. Ah, but what if the abuser is a coven leader? Pagan women are strong enough to protect ourselves from abusers, they reckon. (As if the onus should be on us to protect ourselves.) They also think that once we have got rid of these abusers (who obviously have an evil look about them so are very easy to spot), the Pagan community will be safe for everyone.

That is why abuse gets swept under the carpet, because people don’t want to face up to the fact that the “good person” they hang out with is abusing others, and they know that there will be no hope of them ever being rehabilitated once it has been widely accepted that they are abusers.

Sadly, we won’t get rid of abusive behaviour by getting rid of the few bad apples in the barrel. We live in a rape culture (a culture that creates the social conditions where rape is easy to get away with). We live in a society where violation of consent is routinely validated, approved of, and promoted. Where the existence of valid consent is constantly erased and undermined. The view of mainstream culture is that women should not have sexual desire. A woman who does have sexual desire is viewed as deviant and a “slut”. Because she is viewed as an object and not a subject, once she has become sexually available, she is therefore available to all men, and can be raped with impunity. A “pure” woman, on the other hand, has to be cajoled and persuaded into sex. Because she is seen as not wanting sex, she can only consent if she is offered an inducement – the security of marriage, a nice dinner, a few drinks, a compliment. (Obviously this is a caricature of mainstream society’s views, but you can see echoes of this as being the underlying attitude in many conversations and interactions.)

Paganism is a subculture that seeks to regard women as subjects and to validate women’s sexual desires. However, the attitudes of the mainstream can and do find their way into Pagan discourse, because not everyone is perfectly acculturated to the Pagan world-view, and because we are still subject to the influences of mainstream society. This means that it isn’t the bad apples that taint the barrel – it’s the barrel that allows the bad apples to rot.

So, if it is not a matter of finding and ejecting abusers – what is the solution? As with any complex problem, there is no simple and easy quick fix. It is something we are all going to have to work at.

Culture shift

In their chapter in Pagan Consent Culture, Kim and Tracey Dent-Brown present a four-part model, which is summarised below, though I would strongly recommend reading their chapter, as it explains in considerable depth how they arrived at this conclusion.

1) Reducing motivation to abuse — this needs to be done on a societal / communal level (what are the wider societal factors that promote abuse, i.e. rape culture?)

2) Reinforcing internal inhibitions (shame, knowing right from wrong, empathy for others, understanding what valid consent is) — “How can we all develop a state of mind that makes us more likely to take others’ consent very seriously.”

3) Strengthening situational barriers (procedures or systems that protect potential victims) — “This is the area most ripe for action, because it is where communities, groups, covens, organizing committees and so on can have influence.”

4) Reinforcing the individual victim’s own defences (to coercion, physical means etc) — “This is the last level of defence and if the rest of the pagan community does nothing at levels 1-3, this puts the potential victim in the position of being entirely responsible for defending themselves. Hopefully the more active the community has been at earlier levels, the less likely action at this level is to be needed.”

Creating consent culture

This is how I think we need to go about creating consent culture.

(1) promote consent culture within Paganism and wider society, e.g. run workshops about consent, promote conversation about what consent is, what consent culture is, etc.  Embed consent culture within the Pagan world-view by relating it to Pagan theologies and mythologies. (These were some of our aims in continuing and spreading the conversation about consent culture by editing the book, Pagan Consent Culture.)

(2) promote the Pagan & Heathen Symposium Code of Conduct, because what this does is to create a situation where both potential victims and potential perpetrators know that the event staff & organisers take consent and violations of consent seriously, and will act on reports. Obviously the Code of Conduct is not going to fix the issues on its own – it is only one prong of a multi-faceted approach, which includes holding workshops, writing articles, etc.  This approach worked really well in the SFF and IT communities – we didn’t invent it.

(3) educate everyone about consent and what it means, as this will strengthen individuals’ resistance to violations, and discourage potential perpetrators from committing violations.

(4) reduce our tendency to binary thinking, in order to prevent abuse being swept under the carpet. This would also allow those who have committed abuse to be rehabilitated – provided they made a full disclosure and agreed to be accompanied by someone who would keep an eye on them at all times. The possibility of carefully managed rehabilitation would increase the likelihood of abusers being held to account and prevented from continuing with the abuse. If those who protect abusers knew that they would not be regarded as 100% evil once the abuse has been revealed, they would be less likely to try to shield them from justice.

Further reading

Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow (eds), Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy. Asphodel Press, 2016.

Recommended Pagan articles

Creating consent culture

The issues

Recommended general articles





Polarity and Diversity

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept, polarity is the idea that magical energy can be created by bringing together two things which are opposite in nature.

A friend of mine described polarity as the most overused word in Wicca. There are, after all, other ways of making magic. There is resonance, which is the energy created when two similar people come together. It was given the name resonance by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path. Then there is synergy, which is all the energies in the circle coming together.  I think I probably experience synergy in my magical practice more often than polarity.

Polarity is what happens when you work with a magical partner, to be sure, but often everyone in the circle works together to create energy.

In my experience, magical polarity can be created by any pair of opposites. Inner and outer, up and down, spirit and matter, lover and beloved, dark and light, masculine and feminine, camp and butch, air and earth, water and fire, and so on. And each pair of opposites is unique and cannot be mapped to other pairs of opposites.

Polarity exists on a spectrum, too. (It is not the same as duality, where two absolute qualities are seen as opposites.) A person can be more yang than another person, but can be yin in relation to a different person. People become a different polarity in relation to different people.

We need a more complex view of energy than a simple binary. As Linda Haggerstone writes:

Polarity is a natural world phenomenon, and it would take me a while to explain how I experience the world, as it relates to both my physical senses and my spiritual perceptions. Here we go: Polarity is not the same as magnetism. All aspects of the world lie on a spectrum, for which there are poles or extremes, if you like. However, as nature is circular or cyclical, so are its spectra. There is a continuum involved here as well. The Tao. The whorl or wheel of life. Slowing, speeding up, forever spinning but never yet stopping. It would be a wacky world for many humans if they did not attempt to exert control over Chaos via categorisation and ends to the spectra. I think that perhaps those who find beauty, energy, succor in the Chaos or the pan-ness of things do tend to move toward Shamanism, while those who find these in a more concrete binary world might prefer or be instinctively drawn to polarised or oppositional practices. Neither is wrong. Neither is flawed. And neither is immovable or immutable. Not sure this made sense, but there ya go. (By the way, I am not Wiccan but I am a Shaman.)

So polarity is a spectrum, and is not immutable; it can shift and change depending on your mood, on the situation, an on who or what you are interacting with. If you are heterosexual or bisexual, it is a lot easier to make polarity with somebody of the opposite biological sex. That is not to say that it’s impossible for a gay or lesbian person to make polarity with a person of the opposite sex, but it is much easier for them to make polarity with someone of the same sex. Why? Because creating polarity has many components: the erotic, romantic, respect, friendship. So it can be done without any erotic attraction, but the more of these elements are present the easier it is to make a connection.

However, Steve Dee writes,

basing polarity on erotic attraction doesn’t work so well for those of us on some part of the Asexual spectrum. Personally I find myself moved by the mystery and otherness of anyone or thing I work with (plants and animals as well). My own journey away from Wicca and towards other, Queerer forms of magical practice was in part due to my discomfort about what my perceived maleness would mean about who I was and what I would be within the circle.

So why would we restrict people to making polarity with only one of these possibilities (male body + female body) when there are so many other possibilities available, and when so many people just don’t fit into the categories provided?

What if your partner (magical and/or sexual partner) doesn’t feel like an “opposite” for you at all?  Camilla Kutzner says,

For me – femme-loving femme (and increasingly feeling “femme” as my gender identity more than “woman”) – erotic attraction is not based on gender polarity at all. It took me a while to figure out that my notion of generating power and magic works without polarity.

Clearly in this instance, some other magical connection is at work, or perhaps just the simple and beautiful polarity of lover and beloved, constantly interchangeable between the two partners.

Why would people hamstring LGBTQIA participants in ritual by preventing us from using the whole spectrum of polarities, energies, and connections available? And why privilege heterosexual polarity over all other forms of polarity? Why make magic and ritual much easier for heterosexual participants and place a barrier in the way of LGBTQIA participants?

Every time someone says that we must stand boy-girl-boy-girl in the circle, I feel that my bisexual and genderqueer identity is being erased and denied. It must feel even more erasing if you are gay or lesbian. Naomi Jacobs describes her feelings about being asked to stand boy-girl-boy-girl in a circle:

My partner is non-binary gender (that’s sometimes called ‘genderqueer’). Their pronoun is ‘they’ rather than she or he. I feel uncomfortable any time there’s a boy/girl type division in a ritual, thinking of how it would exclude their (extremely sexy!) energies and identity. As someone who is primarily attracted to women, the polarity stuff doesn’t work for me either. I wonder if there are many people it DOES work for.

No one is saying that straight people have to learn new ways of making polarity if they don’t want to, but LGBTQIA people want to be able to make polarity in all the ways available to us. And we would like for our sexuality not to confer second-class citizen status in the circle.

In many spiritual traditions, the goal is to transcend the gender binary and create a new synthesis of energies in the psyche. Kumar Devadasan writes:

The polarity issue in previous pagan and Wiccan paths [is] due to a fertility-based approach and centred around reproduction as generally seen in nature; therefore a male-female polarity. However, if one progresses, one transcends or one follows a path that leads to a transcending stage then the issue of polarity becomes irrelevant. However, I suspect that it will no longer be a magickal path as we know it if at that stage. I am not saying that there will be no magick; but that it will be knowledge and ability as we know the mundane now and so become second nature and no longer sought.

As Lynna Landstreet so brilliantly put it, for her the ultimate polarity is not male and female, but the lightning striking the primordial waters and creating life. For me personally, the ultimate polarity is spirit and matter, which is a similar idea. And the most inclusive way to express the concept of polarity is to talk about the lover and the beloved.

Stephen Fry, burrowing insects, and lions and tigers and bears

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses' skin and infests the horse's intestines.

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses’ skin and infests the horse’s intestines. (Wikipedia)

Recently, Stephen Fry was asked how he would respond if he met God. His response was entirely understandable within the context of Christian theology. If there is an all-powerful supernatural creator god, why does he/she/it allow hideous suffering like parasitic insects burrowing into the eyes of children? As Fry so aptly pointed out, who would worship such a god?

But what he has done is take Christian theology and turned it on its head, as so many atheists do. There is more to life than Christian theology. There is no supernatural creator god (as atheists have very ably demonstrated). That does not mean that the concepts of deity and deities are completely redundant, as a supernatural creator deity is only one possible mythological or theological construct.

Indeed, Fry went on to say that if he turned up at the gates of the afterlife and it turned out to be run by the Greek gods, he would have more respect for them, because they do not claim to be anything other than human in their appetites and capricious in their ways. I think even this is still too close to the idea of a creator (or creators), because the Greeks did not actually believe that the universe was created – and most ancient pagan creation myths actually acknowledged the existence of death and conflict as the very basis of the creative act (the killing of the giant Ymir in Norse myth in order to create the world, or the slaying of the dragon Tiamat by Marduk to make the earth, for example). But he is going along the right lines towards understanding the pagan worldview (both ancient and modern).

Yes, insects that burrow into children’s eyes are horrible, but they are neither evil nor good, they just are. They have their own agenda, like all other beings, and that agenda – finding something soft and squishy to lay their eggs in – happens to be massively in conflict with our agenda.

Right-wing Christians assume that humans are the pinnacle of  “creation” and that the world exists for our benefit. Atheists often turn this on its head and claim that the universe is hostile, but fail to notice that we are just one species among other species. The universe is neither 100% hostile, nor is it 100% benign. There is food that we can eat, and oxygen to breathe, and most of the time, the temperature is about right (until we screw it up by causing unprecedented climate change). But the fact that we exist at all, as oxygen-breathing animals, is at the expense of the organisms that existed on Earth before the atmosphere had oxygen in it – and there was a mass extinction of those non-oxygen-breathing organisms when oxygen entered the atmosphere. One animal’s beneficial environmental feature is another animal’s deeply hostile environmental feature.

The world was not created for our benefit – indeed, it was not created. The sooner humans realise this and stop behaving as if we own it, the better. There are other sentient beings who deserve our consideration – elephants, dolphins, whales – all intelligent and sensitive. And the other (supposedly lesser) animals also deserve our consideration. That doesn’t mean that I would not kill the insect that was trying to lay eggs in a human eye – but I recognise that the insect is not evil, it is just doing what comes naturally to it.

Neither atheists nor Christians seem to consider that we could only have evolved in the environment we are in (and that the the same applies to nasty insects). The environment in which we live is generally quite hospitable, but it also happens to be hospitable to some things that we consider unpleasant. Monty Python nailed it with their wonderful send-up of All Things Bright and Beautiful, aptly entitled All Things Dull and Ugly. (Listen to it on YouTube here.)

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Yep, the universe contains both “all things bright and beautiful”, and “all things sick and cancerous”. This means that any theology worth its salt must deal with this fact somehow. (To be fair to Christian theology, it kind of gets around this by explaining that the Devil put the nasty stuff there, because he’s spiteful – but obviously there is still a flaw because in order for this to happen, the Devil must be just as powerful as God, and then you get Manichaean dualism, which is not allowed in mainstream Christian theology.)

The universe just is, as it is. Not created, not hostile, not especially benevolent, but many diverse beings and species, each with their own imperative to survive and thrive, and some of those in harmony with our imperative to survive and thrive, some of them in conflict. We have to learn how to manage those conflicts, not blame them on an all-powerful supernatural creator (or creators). As Terry Pratchett wrote, “There’s no justice. There’s just us”, implying that we have to create our own justice.

Pagan theology deals with the fact of death and predators and icky parasites by taking the view that there are many beings (including deities and nature spirits), all with their own agendas, their own imperatives for survival, some of which may be in conflict with ours. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and sharks, and horrible insects, all have to eat, but we would rather they did not eat us. So, for the most part, we stay out of their way. Hurricanes emerge from the weather system and wreak havoc in their path, but this is an unfortunate fact of existence. Nature spirits also have their own agenda, and sometimes that aligns with ours, and sometimes it does not. That is why Icelanders take care not to demolish the dwellings of the huldu-folk (elves and trolls), and why British folklore advises against cutting down hawthorn trees, because the Fair Folk live there.

Pagan deities are not seen as all-powerful, but beings on their own journey, who may sometimes walk with us and help us. They are not there for our benefit, and we are not here for their benefit. Just as you make friends and forge alliances with other humans for companionship, or to further some collective goal like campaigning for social justice, the same applies to deities – we make alliances to further a common cause, or we make friends with them.

The universe contains both great beauty and great brutality (as Stephen Fry also acknowledged). You can’t ignore one and focus entirely on the other; they are both part of a complex picture. I recommend anyone who thinks that Nature is all fluffy bunnies and cuddly animals to spend a few hours on the Wikpedia category on parasitic insects. But for anyone who thinks that Nature is entirely hostile, go outside and bask in some warm sunshine, look at some nice trees recycling our exhaled carbon dioxide, and browse the list of edible foods that you can gather in the wild. And gaze up at the stars to be reminded of just how big the Universe is, and be thankful that you can behold such beauty, and reflect that you yourself are formed of atoms forged in the heart of a star.

Je ne suis pas Charlie, because it is more complicated than that

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was absolutely appalling, and no-one should ever be murdered for the opinions they express, the cartoons they draw, or anything else. As one commentator put it, the only excuse for killing someone else is if they are about to kill a large number of people – and even then, it is the least worst option. The murder of 17 people in cold blood is a horrible atrocity.

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attack.

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attack. Photo by Godefroy Troude. Source: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

I am also horrified by all the killing of Palestinians, the murder of black people by cops in the US…. And a lot of the people who posted “je suis Charlie” have not been posting about that.

 Condemning the murderers does not mean you have to endorse everything that the victims did. Criticising the actions of the victims does not mean you endorse the actions of the murderers.

I am disgusted that there have already been reprisals against ordinary Muslims, who have already expressed their condolences and repudiated the extremists. The behaviour of the extremists is NOT the norm for Islam. But why do so many people claim that Islam is a religion of violence, when there are many instances of violence, murder, and torture committed in the name of secular democracy (Fallujah, Abu Ghreib, extraordinary rendition, torture by the CIA), and in the name of Christianity (trying to force children not to be gay, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the bombing of abortion clinics, Anders Breivik) but hardly anyone claims that all Christians, or all supporters of secular democracy, are somehow responsible for these crimes. Thousands of Muslims joined the demonstrations of mourning for the murdered cartoonists. Despite this, many people are still claiming that “not enough” Muslims have repudiated the attacks, and that all Muslims should apologise. As James O’Brien put it, that is a bit like claiming that all Richards should apologise for the shoe-bomber, who was called Richard.

And some of the people claiming that they support free speech are surprising, to say the least.

When a Jewish man assassinated a leading Nazi in the 1930s, the Nazi regime used it as an excuse to launch the horror of Kristallnacht, in which thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were smashed and destroyed. The people harming Muslims or their homes or mosques in revenge for the Charlie Hebdo murders, and for the murder of Lee Rigby in London last year, are no better than the Nazis. The notion of collective responsibility and collective punishment was part of Nazi ideology, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One Muslim died in the Charlie Hebdo shooting (the policeman, Ahmed Merabet), and another Muslim, Lassana Bathily, saved a number of hostages in the siege of the kosher supermarket by hiding them in the walk-in refrigerator. He also helped the police to break the siege by explaining the layout of the building – despite the fact that the police tried to arrest him because they thought he was one of the terrorists.

Meanwhile the media is almost completely ignoring the flogging of blogger Rafi Badawi by the Saudi regime (perhaps because that’s where the West buys most of its oil?)

And where is the mass outbreak of rage, grief, and despair at Boko Haram’s recent murder of 2000 Nigerians? Men, women, and children were slaughtered and their bodies are still scattered through the bush.

The media are also mostly ignoring a very positive Muslim-related story, that Muslim groups have donated $100,000 to end water shut-offs in Detroit (hardly the action of an “inherently violent” religion).

But whilst I am appalled by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff, I did not post “Je suis Charlie” on my Facebook wall. For one thing, I don’t think this is a particularly good way to express solidarity in these situations (we are not each other), and for another, I thought the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were in very poor taste. That still does not provide any excuse for shooting them, of course. However, the Boko Haram cartoon that they produced, with the missing Nigerian girls depicted as “welfare queens” coming to Europe to claim benefits, was in very poor taste. Those girls were sold as sex slaves and raped. Some of their other cartoons were just being deliberately provocative, and could easily provide ammunition for racists to target Muslims. Satire is meant to attack the powerful, not to denigrate marginalised minorities. And Muslims are a marginalised minority in France – most of the Muslim population of France is from an Algerian or Malian background – countries that were colonised by France, and where resistance and dissident movements were brutally crushed. The Muslim population of Paris lives in the run-down suburbs of Paris.

Western media also conveniently forgets that since it was the West that armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan in order to undermine the Soviet Union, and some of those mujahideen went on to form the Taliban, and that jihadism and Muslim fundamentalism is not in fact a return to earlier forms of Islam, but a modern ideology fomented by Western interference in the Muslim world.

Rabbi Michael Lerner writes in the Huffington Post:

“don’t be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media-circus surrounding this particular outrage while the Western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that Western countries have been involved in.”

The relationship between Islam and the West is complex and multi-faceted, and cannot be reduced to a simple binary of us versus them.  There are many Muslims who want democracy and freedom; there are feminist Muslims and queer Muslims; there are millions of Sufis and Shi’ites and Sunnis who just want to live in peace with their neighbours, yet many sections of the media want to lump all these different groups together and claim that they are all the same. There are also many white people pushing a racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic agenda, and behaving little better than the Nazis. And there are deeply irresponsible commentators on Fox News and the like claiming preposterous things like the idea that Birmingham, UK is a “Muslim-only city” (which he has since retracted) and that parts of London, UK, are no-go areas for non-Muslims (also untrue, but he didn’t retract it).

Some people have claimed that if Muslims do not post “je suis Charlie” on social media, then they support the extremists. The idea of making expressions of mourning compulsory rather debases the meaning of freely chosen acts of solidarity and mourning. Others have claimed that freedom of speech is an absolute right and that anyone who doesn’t agree with them should shut up (surely some contradiction there?)

Complexity is a wonderful thing. You can be opposed to anti-Semitism in Europe, yet oppose Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. You can appreciate Jewish culture but be critical of some Jewish men’s attitude towards women. You can be against the Saudi regime’s appalling treatment of bloggers and LGBT people (recognising that it is fuelled by Wahhabi extremism) and the horror of the murders of Charlie Hebdo staff, and yet realise that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceable, kind and charitable folk. You can be vehemently opposed to the Westboro Baptist Church and other right-wing Christianists, but highly supportive of liberal and progressive Christians like John Spong, Gene Robinson, Marcus Borg, etc. You can criticise Christianity’s evangelising and proselytising, but still appreciate its charitable efforts. You can think Dawkins is a pompous windbag, but appreciate the wonders of science, and the intellectual rigour of atheism and the scientific method. You can also be aware that some atheists wouldn’t know what intellectual rigour was if it got up and bit them. And so on.  It’s complicated. Very few things are either this or that.

The media must do better at presenting the complexity of these issues, and the complexities of religion. All too often, adherents of religion are presented as a bunch of extremist and/or homophobic bigots, when the reality is that those people are in a minority (65% of Christians believe that same-sex marriage is a good idea). Many media commentators (especially atheists) also write and speak as if fundamentalism was the “pure and original” form of religions, and more liberal interpretations are new-fangled and modern – whereas in fact, there has always been a liberal contingent in every religion. The Sufis (the liberal and mystical wing of Islam) go right back to the very early days of Islam. You can trace the tug-of-war between liberal mystics and legalistic bigots (and the whole range of people in between) throughout the text of the Bible, if you look at the textual analysis that has been around since the nineteenth century. And look at how the media depicts Pagans – it’s getting better, but there was a time when we only got coverage at Hallowe’en, and they always sought out the weirdest and wackiest members of the community to interview and photograph.

Freedom of speech is a good thing, but let’s use it to promote dialogue, tolerance, and mutual understanding, instead of using it to undermine, belittle, and trivialise.

Further reading