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Sex and Gender; two troublesome words

  • Posted on January 24, 2016 at 2:29 pm

I read an academic article about centring gender identity this week, that was interesting, not least because it assumed a clarity about sex and about gender that in most circles doesn’t exist. And then this morning I continued reading about sex and gender in more feminist circles, on serious blogs, not TERF rants. I always try to understand because I also expect a degree of understanding. We are all human, we all deserve respect.

We all relate more easily our bad experiences than our good, and whenever someone has faced abuse, met a very male-acting trans-asserting person, or simply really opened their eyes to this patriarchal society and culture of ours, they will rightly feel defensive, and the incidents will be key to future expectation. I too feel much safer in women’s spaces, I too feel insecure where there is testoserone around. And whilst I may have been brought up and taught as a boy, I do not feel totally socialised in that way, because so much of it went against the grain. I guess I did mimic it a fair deal to get by, but it was always uncomfortable and I was ready to see the impact of it on women, socially and in the workplace.

This world suffers from patriarchal rule. I mean suffers, not just needs greater equality and fairness, but suffers. Our planet groans more because of it, and we tolerate its destructiveness. There are women who play into it, take advantage of it and imitate it. But it is what it is, and it is bad for us all. And none of this is a basis for debating the rights of humans on grounds of self-identity. Not every culture and language even has ideas of sex and gender in the way English-speaking people do. Yet we get tied up in mutually defensive, and sometimes aggressive, dialogue over sex and gender as if they were something as absolute as mass and energy.

Probably most people have never ‘met’ a trans person, because we just don’t all look, sound or behave obviously so. Which means that most antipathy towards us is based on bad experiences of an unrepresentative few people who stand out for their inauthenticity or bad behaviour.

We have several essential problems that we fail frequently to acknowledge.

The first of these is behaviour

What we expect from people sharing our society is certain forms of behaviour. Some make us uncomfortable: a homeless beggar; someone gesticulating unexpectedly through mental disturbance, brain injury or non-development; drunken loudness; crowd-generated fervour. Some behaviour is distanced, such as influential voices, or merely online trolling, down to simply abusive or ignorant comments on a news article. Discomfort easily becomes fear, and we can distance ourselves, fight back, join a group for mutual shared strength, or face it and deal with it in other ways.

Some behaviours are associated with sex and gender. Some are causal: hormones create drives and emotions, for example. Some are correlated but not causal: group behaviours to belong to the in-crowd, or not to stand out. What we cannot say is: ‘women behave like this’, or ‘men behave like this’, or ‘lesbians behave like this’ – or even ‘trans men (or women) behave like this’.

Because they don’t. There are violent women, effeminate men, femme lesbians, aggressive trans women, asexual non-binary people, quiet introverted pansexuals. Everything you can assume as defining any sex, gender and sexuality, is defied by countless atypical people. Some people are kind and nice to know. Some are lazy and otherwise harmless. Some are psychopaths running global organisations, and some are lurking around a corner to do you harm.

And probably none of these behaviours is defined as being entirely due to sex or gender. Being male can derive philanthropy just as it can (though more frequently perhaps) misogyny. But for goodness’ sake, bad behaviour by some individuals describing themselves as transgender does not make being transgender a bad or threatening thing. It is the behaviour that threatens, not the underlying sex, sexuality or gender identity.

The second thing is expectation

Expectations are cultivated socially. We develop them from experience, which means we can nurture bad expectations from bad experiences. We share and cultivate these, because it feels more safe and comfortable when we have shared experiences and expectations. Then we have group thoughts from which it is harder to escape and disagree. Sometimes we must have a bad experience, develop an expectation for safety, then relocate the expectation in reality so that we can be both safe and open to new and more positive experiences.

Sometimes expectations become assertions, rules, dogmas, doctrines, even laws. And sometimes – may be a lot of the time – this is good. We come to have an agreed floorplan for constructive, safe, mutually supportive living together, and we call it culture. And sometimes that floorplan has mistakes, or cracked tiles, and slippery rugs.

We embody these expectations not just in our legal frameworks, but in other socially-cohesive ones. I am still surprised how much of my readership here pulls out the blogs on the role of religion in LGBT phobias. I have been through the experience here, from dragged-to-church, to skeptical, to thorough-going evangelical, to even more thorough university biblical analysis, to reasoned atheist non-materialist. So I know what it means to live as male, as female, as almost fundamentalist, and atheist. I think I know myself and many things from the inside, rather than hearsay. And just as I assert that there is a fundamental role in testosterone creating the world we live in, so I assert that there is a fundamental role in the religions we have created. Both T and R are imprinted on everything we do and the way we do it, and in my view, we need to be much more aware of this, of its impact, and its consequences, as well as be more wise to moving beyond both as defining our contemporary civilisations.

Without these religious-ethical expectations even our laws would be different in many ways, not least in those relating to sex and gender expectations. Countries in the world where being gay, lesbian, trans, or simply a free woman, are proscribed by law, do so on the basis of some ancient religion. The religion lays down expectations, resists reason, and fossilises attitudes. So much so, that secular cultures like this in the UK, carry an unconscious tradition rooted in christianity with attitudes and expectations, and beliefs about unethical behaviour that focus on specific things. We have a greater antipathy towards anything to do with sex and gender, than we do towards anything to do with power and connivance.

The third thing is language

Just as money began as a means and became a commodity in itself, so language did the same. We talk, write, think, using words for a substantial part of every day of our lives. We rely on words meaning something fixed in order to communicate clearly and efficiently. Languages, sadly, are not like that. They do not translate as easily as we would like, one to another. Sometimes five words in one translate as just one in another, losing vital nuance, or becoming ambiguous. Sometimes the culture behind a language does not share the concept. When one language dominates, so a concept can therefore also dominate. It’s never that my language represents an erroneous or superfluous concept, always that your language is impoverished because your culture is ignorant or less refined.

Sex and gender are conceptual, and not the same in every language, even in Europe. We neglect semantics, because we take language for granted, but worst of all, we assume that the word creates the thing, and that one use for a word makes it definitive. Learning how a word came about does not give it its contemporary meaning in use (gay and queer are two obvious relevant examples), and frequently a word becomes more important because its use becomes too burdened by conceptual disagreement. It isn’t just a heliocentric and evolutionary science that shakes society and religion, but contemporary observation of gendered roles. I recently replied to a friend who asked if there was any test for either sex or gender, with some quick thoughts about this.

I think that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are words given to poorly defined concepts. The initial concept of sex derived from observations about the means of reproduction and was simplistic and basic. It divided those who gave birth from those who did not. Thus many creatures tend to carry natural roles (though sometimes opposite like seahorses) where one stays safe with babies while the other gets food. As societies developed in sophistication, so the roles became formal expectations. Put basically, sex ensured survival and required no nuance.

Roles, however, confer different privileges and empowerments. Hunters also defend and acquire territory, and adopt authority as a result. Thus begins patriarchy. Within this, unfairness, coercion and advantage are noted, and as society becomes more complex, equality rears its head. Society and culture develop as philosophies, which in turn are questioned. Ultimately, sex as a division is no longer satisfactory. Female is not necessarily mother, male not defender/aggressor, but husbander, in agriculture for example.

The words and ideas for this alternative layer to sex are different in different cultures and languages. Thus it is a construct centred around sense of place in culture or society. It is regulated by norms which are informed by established notions of what sex currently means. The words don’t help us in any way. They are misused to discriminate and advantage, perpetuating, for example, patriarchy.

Sex as a concept still tries to distinguish biological capabilities, while gender tries to counter this absolutism and explain how people are dislocated from it. Sex tries to maintain traditional rules, gender to create new ones. Both superimpose contemporary ideas on the simple origin of species perpetuation. What we lose in this is that we are all the same species, developed socially sufficiently to live equally rather than divisively such that child-carrying doesn’t define social place, nor physical strength and drive.

There is no scientific test for gender because there can be no simple definition. Feeling trans has two components: being socially mislabelled and misplaced, and feeling that the child-bearing or physically powerful aspect given by the body doesn’t agree with the inner awareness of how the mind feels that should be. There is no scientific test for sex because it can be indeterminate.

What is important is that it should not be so important to find a definition let alone enforce it, for either sex or gender. Both exist only so long as we keep words for them. My argument is that we are dealing in semantics rather than tangible realities.

I think sex and gender aren’t just ‘physiology versus social construct’, but are two troublesome words in need of care. Talking spectrums isn’t necessarily the let-out we need either. I still find tomatoes in the vegetables section of my supermarket. Fruit and veg aren’t a spectrum, but some are badly misrepresented by what we have become accustomed to. But we like them all the same.

Summary

Behaviour, expectation and language all bias us in all manner of ways towards and away from others. Much of the time it is unconscious bias, but we too easily define our ideas about other people in our own terms, reinforce each other’s biases, and end up disrespecting individuals and thrusting them into unsafe places. It may be a trans woman with no refuge, a trans boy being bullied, a feminine feminist being excluded, or a butch dyke being shoved out of a public women’s lavatory. Or all too often, a trans person being pushed by expectations, to suicide.

We must be careful what we assume from our experiences, or what we have read, or been taught or cultivated into. In protecting our own ideas, however precious they are to us, and however many others share them, we may be making the world a less safe place for someone else. Whether you are a trans blogger, a feminist essayist, a frequent article-commenter, or just sharing on Facebook and tweeting, we must recognise that we are all just using language as a proxy to relate our beliefs and best understanding, biased by our experiences.

Minority report

  • Posted on January 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm

2016 turned around with reviews of what a good year it had been for trans awareness. Films, soaps, celebrities, parliamentary inquiries, public debates all made it seem like a breakthrough in awareness. Most of us would say that hatred and exclusion are the result of ignorance, sometimes wilful. As more is said and seen about what it means to have (what is currently termed) gender dysphoria, surely ignorance will decline?

One can understand that when someone prominent transitions, they are snapped up by the media and made a spokesperson. That gives rise to backlash from more ordinary and struggling trans people, who don’t feel represented by someone more privileged and earlier on in the issues to be faced. So we accept that the celebrities make very public mistakes, which can damage as much as help the rest of us. But when the UK parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee presented its formal report on transgender services and equality to the UK Parliament, informed by 260 witnesses, it was criticised in just the same way as being a waste of resources for responding to such a minority interest.

It seems most people still prefer to regard being transgender as a curable psychological disorder, and that because only one per cent of the population experience it, it should be ignored rather than understood. Certainly, treatment on the NHS should be excluded, because it’s just pandering to a lifestyle choice. Fix my leg, broken by skiiing, but don’t fix this person’s hormones or body. Well, to that I say: you too are in a minority because you can afford to have ski holidays, whereas we are called a ‘lobby group’ with an agenda, though we cannot choose. You are free to join a minority, we just happen to share a minority condition, however non-minority the rest of our lives are. And we can choose to go skiing too, so we can be in the same minority together … so long as only our legs get fixed.

Where ignorance and closed minds lead

I don’t think we are a lot nearer social acceptance just because there is greater awareness. It isn’t about minorities really, it’s about a particular kind of minority. In all this growing awareness, there remains a lot of fear and intolerance. This week, I am as equally sickened by Richard Littlejohn writing in the Daily Mail (whose 2013 writing contributed to the suicide of Lucy Meadows), as by The Archbishop of Canturbury’s crocodile tears over LGBT attitudes among his African prelates. It was Christian missionary colonialism that imported homophobia into Africa in the first place, and protecting those who support or condone imprisonment or execution of people on grounds of sexuality, on the self-defined assertion that it is a sinful lifestyle choice, diminishes this powerful presence in the world to a weak and self-serving institution. I am as sickened by The Channel 4 interview (hardly a debate) between Jack Monroe and Dr Julia Long. It was like placing one scientist representing consensus over anthropogenic climate change against a single prominent denialist, as if the argument were balanced. The view by Dr Julia Long, that every transgender person represents a rape threat to ‘real’ women wherever they go, espoused and promoted repeatedly by Germaine Greer, is also rehearsed in The Conservative Woman (TCW) by Emily Watson, who writes: ‘it opens the door to potential sex offences. By opening single sex facilities up to the opposite sex, women are put at risk. Women have a real fear of being sexually assaulted or raped by men, and the sensible ones avoid places or occasions where they could be in danger. Women feel able to let their guard down with other women.’ She supports her case by a single criminal case of a rapist and an incident in a novel. (TCW is a right-wing conservative, Christian fundamentalist ‘family’ group.)

It is the classic statement: being transgender does not exist; some men like to dress up and pretend, and all of them are predatory. Trans women aren’t women; they are men, because god makes only men and women. We are dangerous. I am dangerous. We threaten civilisation and its norms. We challenge ideas of gender, but by identifying as male or as female, we support the patriarchy. And even acceptance of gender dysphoria is dangerous to children, so stop it!

Are we a million miles from anti-gay laws and condoned homophobia? I sometimes don’t think we’ve moved anywhere at all except in circles, the central anchor-point of which is Judeo-Christian religious.

It’s all about sex

Those of us disadvantaged by a birth condition have become regarded as a dangerous lobby of rapists. It’s all about sex. Innit? Just because a man could, if he wished, put women’s clothes and make-up on, with the sole intent of invading ‘women’s spaces in order to molest or rape, transgender women are all placed under suspicion of being sexual predators. So every woman in a burkha or niqab could similarly be a male rapist in disguise. This all echoes the idiocy in the USA of all those who would almost insist on examining the genitals of anyone ambiguous (child or adult) before entering gendered lavatory facilities. Cis women have been thrown out of female facilities for looking too male, and it escapes attention that bearded and testosterone-fuelled trans men having to enter female facilities would be absurd. (Testosterone-fuelled does not mean potential rapist any more than oestrogen-fuelled trans women, but it does highlight the absurdity.) Especially when everyone goes home to share a common toilet with all genders of their family and friends. And because more sexual violence occurs in familiar domestic circumstances than in public faciltities and venues. And because rape by transgender women is almost unknown.

Being transgender has nothing to do with sex, let alone coercive sex.

Becoming undangerous

There are many things about me that are minority. I play the trumpet. I write poetry. I own a flat. I have three university degrees. None of these places me in the category of lobby group or having an agenda, though each confers certain rights and marks me out as different. But these things are safe. (Well, the decibel rating of a trumpet may not be, and should I be writing politically sensitive poetry in China, that would not be.) They are also personal choices based on innate abilities. None causes me distress, and I am sensitive about the trumpet in the flat. Life is peaceful, you are safe, I am safe.

But any day I can read people online who go out of their way to make untrue assertions against my condition, that may lead others to fear me, disadvantage me or attack me. Living in Brighton, I am lucky. I can choose not to read hate, and I know it will always exist, and I live inconspicuously in a tolerant place. But many others are not so safe. How do we become undangerous, when we are treated as we are, so obviously, in social and broadcast media? When we transition and return from that traumatic passage in life back to ordinariness, we don’t all want to be labelled forever as trans. Only this week one person I know through social media said ‘Now that I am a year post-surgery, I am no longer trans’. Another said ‘I’m fed up with this; I don’t want any labels.’ A government minister came out as gay this week, and the point was raised: ’why does anyone need to come out any more?’ Being trans makes coming out unavoidable, but after that, many of us are done with it. We become able simply to live as we feel right. I have struggled with ‘being out’ in order to be an encouragement, when I feel I’ve said all there is to say, and just want to live inconspicuously. But then I feel hurt to read another person deny my experience, and add a reply to another Guardian comment trail …

One per cent of the population is quite a lot of people, and if we were all completely visible and getting on with our lives, perhaps we would seem less dangerous. But why should we be visible? It isn’t our lives’ mission to educate the world. Against us, is the propensity to cite the extreme, the singular. Whether quoting a celebrity transitioner, or a long-discredited piece of research, a criminal case, or a prominent ‘detransitioner’, the negative (like consumer dissatisfaction) is re-quoted many times more than the positive. I would like to see a headline like this instead:

NHS spends £17m per annum on gender care, including £4.5m on surgery, and saves £80m in social costs of mental health, impact on emergency services, loss of employment productivity and welfare benefits!

(I’m not sure about the £80m, because no-one has measured it, but if half of young people and a third of older trans people are suicidal, the on-costs for all of us must be surely in this order.) But I don’t think one is coming any time soon.

What really will make a difference, is when everyone who knows someone like me actively stands up for us, and refuses to accept the misguided hatred, the subtle discrimination, the careful sidelining, the nudge and the ‘understanding’ wink. If there really are about 650,000 of us in the UK, and we each have fifteen people willing to actively diffuse ignorant comments and jokes, that’s nearly ten million people making our lives safer.

So, dear Anglican Church, dear Pope, dear politicians, academics and experts. Dear journalists, panellists, and public debaters. Dear comedians, writers and critics. Dear family, friends and colleagues. When you hear or read someone declaiming people like me as potential sexual predator, rapist, subversive and moral disaster, speak up, speak out – not to me in my safe spaces, but where it may also cost you that cocked eyebrow, mild shock and surprise. Because every time you play safe and self-protective, you make it harder for us to lively safely and normally.

It’s not about religion

  • Posted on November 14, 2015 at 11:38 pm

It’s not about religion.

The world is shrieking this weekend as so much news of violence suddenly found a focus in the atrocities in Paris. No-one can ignore it, and so many of us want to say something, anything, to make sense of it, to make a difference, to feel something can change to stop it. And so much has been said that is horribly wrong. We all want to blame, maybe to excuse ourselves. It is not Muslims, it is not Islam. In the name of Christ our ancestors pillaged Palestine. They too killed, destroyed and exhibited massive cruelty. Behind many of the world’s conflicts for the whole of recorded time, the excuse has been religion.

A week ago I was in the British Museum, and two things always strike me there. The first is the massive stones, statues and artefacts that came to be there, that belong elsewhere, and arrived in the context of conquest, of European superiority and dominance. That too was in part excused and justified by Europe being the Christian part of the world, with the God-given right to impose one brand of civilisation on the world as they saw fit. And to impose doctrines, rules, values and laws, a way of life, that was held to be the one true way to be, live and organise. Some of that will forever bounce back at us. One that is close personally, is that we exported homophobia, transphobia and similar beliefs, including to the USA, often in religion, where it still results in legalised hatred, social destruction, and all the way to lazy bigotry.

In the British Museum, we might say: ‘thank goodness; these things at least have been saved from the destruction seen under the Taliban (Bamiyan and Afghanistan National Museum), or ISIS (Palmiyra) where such images are seen as idolatrous under a different religious regime.’ But we would be wrong.

The second thought I have, is that when you admire the tiny, meticulous, cuneiform inscriptions on the stelae, and the intricate bas-relief depictions and hieroglyphs, and wonder at civilisations so old, you are staring as much in the face of violent triumphalism, under power endowed by deities, as you are at simply people living a long time ago. Here, in every stone, is domination in the name of some divine power. For many thousands of years, land has been claimed as given by gods to chosen peoples. Leaders, priests, chiefs, pharoahs, kings, emperors all, have claimed their right to rule from supreme, unseen beings, singular and independent, or multiple but ‘beyond’. Some have claimed deity for themselves. Deity cannot be argued with, or debated.

And the other most obvious observation I make, is how few women are among those who drive violence. Yes, we have queens and empresses, the occasional female tyrants, and some female suicide bombers. But they are not just in the minority because we have a mostly patriarchal world.

Put all this together. Humanity has created its divine justifications in many ways, because to claim this gives power. Power to stabilise societies, authority to reduce dissent, ideologies to create cohesion. Identities to distinguish one tribe or nation from another and claim superiority or precedence. There isn’t much of civilisation that has no dependence or back-story in religious thought. Many western philosophers who have helped us to think rationally and logically, spent a deal of time proving the existence of god. Some did not, but few made any effort to address equality in a way that countered current patriarchy. Society in some ways was the way it was because it was ‘meant to be’ that way, which is another way of saying that it wasn’t for humans to design or decide, but was an (unspoken divine) given. So even if there wasn’t a god to intervene, some things were established by nature as if they had been designed.

And so today we have seen people fleeing the same violence, being blamed. We have had quotes from the Qur’an showing how peace is preached, not violence (the word Islam itself comes from the word for peace). We have had calls to pray for various parts of the world. We have had cultures, nations, faiths, bundled together as roots of evil. We have self-defence and violence preached.

And a man at a piano outside the Baclava concert hall where so many died and three ISIS (Daesh) suicide bombers blew themselves up, playing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.

It’s not about religion. It is about a patriarchy, that derives self-endowed power by legitimising itself through creating an authority, that then is said to have elected it to power. Religion does not create itself. Not does it explain anything. Rather, it describes us. Yes, by creating a socially good and supportive ethic, an agreed understanding of what works to the well-being and happiness of all, religion can be a vehicle. But tell me of a religion, a faith, that is based on a mother god, that places women in a position of authority to impose their power violently, that tells men how to live and what they can and cannot do, and that invades any culture that does not share its faith, to destroy it triumphantly.

So is all this global violence about religion?

No. Nor am I saying that women are better, or all good. Clearly they are not. They can be criminals, murderers, frauds, even despots. They can be violent. But rather fewer are. How many wars are fought in the name of a female god? (And historically not all female deities have been good either!) My point is that we must not confuse the actions of men with any objective statement about any god at all. If they act out of a personal belief arising from an interpretation of a particular tradition, that is one thing, but it is not the ‘fault of a religion’, rather a confirmation of why religions have been devised in the first place.

Is the state of the world more about testosterone?

I have to say, from experience, that the removal of testosterone from your body, or the injection of it, changes you powerfully. It gives a particular drive, that can, and sometimes cannot, be contained. It makes men behave the way they do, it gives them their less co-operative characteristics, be that arrogance, strength, sexual drive, a way of thinking, a sense of dominance and right. All of these things can be self-understood, but often they are self-justifying, as if the world should be to their way of thinking. So it is that for some men, an essentialist or a fundamentalist, or an extremist outlook leads to a self-justifiable behaviour, whilst for others a self-critique and self-knowledge tempers that behaviour into a context of alternative views that are more moderate.

So as humans, we do have choices, to be and do what is right and fair. And clearly religion does not always produce what is right and fair to everyone; so should we blame a particular god for that? Or if someone through their faith acts badly, should we blame their religion? No. My argument is quite simply that people seek to gain power, to justify themselves, by creating an authority for their way of thinking. In all our shared thinking, we also know what is good and fair for all. We can work out an ethic that benefits shared living, society and common well-being without recourse to a divine being. It really is within us, and we know that. But to overcome the drives and innate violence, the insistence on being externally justified has to be faced and removed. There is no external justification; there is ourselves and a need to face that and deal with it.

You may think from this that I hate men and blame the state of the world on them. Partly I do. You may think that I am blaming created religions as the vehicle for war and violence. Partly I am. What I really want to say is that whilst it doesn’t give us a quick answer, honest understanding of why we have all our different religions, and then get absolutist about each and every one, should help us drag ourselves out of self-destruction. I do wonder if, left to ourselves, women would have created the same kinds of religions, or whether a protective mother earth leading us to be caring and mutually supportive might have become the norm. Maybe our various goddesses would have looked more alike, or maybe they would end up sisters. This is a male world, captured by the impulses of testosterone, to create religions that justify their dominance, their drive to compete, create and overcome rivals, and to use violence as necessary to do so. That much is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is not deliberate. But since the first inscriptions lying now in the British or Kabul or Syrian museums, we should have learned to see ourselves as we truly are, and how the world just does not need to be this way, to such a degree that extremist views find no nourishment or value, but rather produce infertile seeds that spread and grow nowhere.

So do not pray for Paris, or Beirut, or any place being bombed by extremists or air forces, or drones on any side. There is no-one to hear, no deity to make any side win the day, because we are all wrong in our own ways.

It’s not about religion. It’s not just about testosterone either. It’s about all of us, and being time to wake up to what it means to be fully human.

Rainbow dawn: love wins?

  • Posted on June 28, 2015 at 8:20 pm
#lovewins

#lovewins Friday exploded in an Internet rainbow. Every mainstream media title had its report, and the world cheer that came with it drowned for a while the dissenting voices. Rainbow backgrounds flooded Facebook faces, flags waved and people celebrated. I celebrated, and shared my feelings because after many months of debate, the US Supreme Court by a fairly narrow margin, voted to ensure equal marriage rights to all couples, regardless of gender, in all states. It really did feel like a moment in history, when rainbow fireworks shot into a dark sky to be seen unavoidably worldwide. The message wasn’t…

Idol thoughts

  • Posted on March 7, 2015 at 10:40 pm

This week, bulldozers were running over 3,000 year-old treasured remains of the ancient city of Nimrud. I remember it from my university studies and visits to the British Museum, as containing very powerful symbols of a civilisation that dominated the region that is now Iraq. I always found it quite absorbing imagining the people who actually made the statues, built the temples, walls and gates, used the artifacts in their daily lives but also in their rituals. 3,000 years in one way is relatively recent, but in another is really ancient. The same artifacts that I could recall, then appeared this week being pounded under sledgehammers by men from the so-called Islamic State or ISIL.

It isn’t new though. Throughout history, histories have been obliterated, and religious extremists of all kinds have destroyed things precious in our eyes for secular reasons. In the Reformation in England, iconoclasm, or the removal of religious symbolism, was every bit as destructive. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the 1,700 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan because they were considered idols. In Nimrud, the destruction was again because significance was perceived to exist in objects we might just see as art. The same has now happened in Hatra. So what is an idol, that deserves such treatment?

We don’t have them much around here – do we?

An idol, even in biblical times, was an object invested with power. It doesn’t mean that the stone or wood, once chiselled and shaped, actually had any power, only that it was believed to have such, and therefore influenced people’s behaviours in relation to it. At the extremes, of course, such objects can become fetishes, and through suggestion are seen as being very powerful supernatural objects. Believe in the magic, or power, juju or voodoo, and real things do happen; charms, enchantments and curses really can affect people. But if you or I were innocently to find such an object, it would just be at most a sinister-looking piece of handcraft.

It is peculiar how as humans in societies, we create these things out of nothing, and then fear them, curse and bless with them, and render them dangerous enough to destroy again. And it’s all in the human mind. Religion, in this sense, still intrigues me. How is it that we can construct the edifices of a very wide variety of supernatural and superstitious beliefs, which necessarily must be limited by contemporary awareness and understanding and context, and then invest them with such infallibility that they become immutable doctrines, dogmas, rules, beliefs and faiths?
Essential to this activity is that the ‘knowledge’ has come from beyond, not from within, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That every divine being elucidated in literature has chosen to communicate with mankind through chosen individuals and mysterious beings, ending up being written down and susceptible to mistranslation and misunderstanding, may seem suspicious. (Is there really no better or more certain and secure way?) Even more so when this divine knowledge is expressed in temporally-bound terms. And yet here we are, in a world flooded with religions purporting to free us, whilst drowning us in guilt, self-destruction, rigid principles, and immune to improving knowledge and understanding. Copernicus and Galileo are stark reminders, but have we really moved on?

I had a slightly testy conversation recently over social media, that had been evoked by religious influence in a legal case. A judge had expressed his opinion about same-sex parenting, in court, and had been reprimanded, and a petition had been raised by Christian people to reinstate him. I objected to personal faith in a courtroom, but also to the underlying assumption that I was now unworthy of being a parent simply by virtue of being transsexual and also lesbian. Love, it seems, is not the same thing in a family with me as parent, as it would previously have been. Out trotted the usual mantra: ‘God made man and woman and marriage for the procreation and stable upbringing of children and this is the only natural way.’

Well, I went back with them over the definitions and current state of scientific understanding of the origins and meaning of sex and sexuality, explaining that you can either believe the man/woman binary system in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can see that in fact it isn’t quite as simplistic as that at all. And if the man/woman binary thing is unsafe, and you stop believing in it in the face of the facts, where does that leave you with concepts of marriage and parenting, families and households? The trouble with religions is that you can’t let them out of the bottle. So am I unfairly hitting back at religion, because it is so prevalent in the misunderstanding and bigotry against LGBTQI people? I began with a religious situation destroying the secular, in the belief that it was not secular but idolatrous. And now I am saying that religions easily make their own beliefs iconic and protected from secular understanding. Is it just that religion of any kind gets into a muddle, because it is not based on knowledge, and an understanding what knowledge actually is?

Having ranted and explained, I then came across a vlogger patiently going through some very interesting material on how presupposition affects perception (example: generally, we think male babies are bigger and stronger than female babies, not because of what we observe, but simply because we have been told a particular baby is male or female.) There are many researched examples that demonstrate our perception is skewed easily. Interview a person with your hands round a warm drink, and you will feel better towards them than if you hold a cold drink. Yes, that basic. So if you have a set of strongly-held beliefs or opinions, of course the world is a different place, and you actually think things are different. You have a faith? Then in your hands it has a supernatural power and changes the way the world is, around you. Even if you have an iconoclastic faith, your faith itself is an icon.

But this vlogger was even more interesting, because she vlogs as an atheist, experiencing atheist transphobia (a small percentage of transphobes whose attitudes cannot be attributed to religious cultural conditioning). Her conclusion was that the atheism itself had become a faith, and that the problem of the transphobes is that they have closed their understanding to new knowledge, to learning, and new ways of looking at things.

It all makes you wonder what ‘faith’ is. Is it just the ability to think without thinking about thinking?