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Francesca Stavrakopoulou on vegetarianism and studying theology as an atheist

Francesca Stavrakopoulou on vegetarianism and studying theology as an atheist

Elizabeth Oldfield speaks to Biblical scholar and atheist Francesca Stavrakopoulou 25/05/2022

Francesca is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter, and a patron of Humanists UK. Her latest book is called God: An Anatomy.

She spoke about her vegetarianism, her experience of growing up in a single parent household with not a lot of money and studying theology as an atheist at the University of Oxford.

Read the full transcript here:

Elizabeth 

Hello, and welcome to The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast about our deepest values, the stories that shape us, and how we can grow in empathy and understanding about the people who are not at all like us. I think it’s really important actually to be honest about the way that everyone has allergies. Everyone has political positions, or job titles or genders, or races or names or just associations that when we see them in a list of podcast episodes, we’re just more likely to scroll on by thinking ‘that’s not for me, I don’t particularly want to listen to that person today’. We have people and groups and names and political positions and other types of identities that we feel warm towards naturally. And we think, ‘yeah, I’d like to listen to that person today’. And this is partly because it’s just lovely to listen to someone who says things we already think but says them better is just so affirming. However, we’re mainly using technologies in ways that makes this listening to people we already agree with incredibly easy, and listening to people who are different from us much harder. And these technologies, these changes in information technology are on top of demographic trends known as The Big Sort, which means we’re less likely to encounter people from different backgrounds, races, classes and beliefs in our everyday lives, also. And the less we do it, the less we can tolerate it, the more easily we find ourselves annoyed more easily, we get triggered into a fight or flight response, a threat response, just because someone might believe something different from us, or look different from us or sound different from us. And the more we let that reaction become a habit or an established neural pathway, the easier it is to believe that those kinds of people or them group, a tribe that were not part of, and maybe even that they are not fully human, precious and valuable. And I have problems with these trends theologically, when I find them in myself. I have problems with them sociologically, given the depth of the problems we are facing, globally, nationally as human beings. So this is a podcast about trying to connect with complicated human beings. Yes, it’s an interview is a conversation. I’m just trying to get to know people, but I’m hopefully trying to do it with a broader range of people than you might normally expect. Some of our guests come with strong tribal signifiers or strong opinions, but I want to connect with them not on a level of debate, but on a level of encounter. In this episode, you will hear an interview with Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Francesca is professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the University of Exeter, she got her doctorate from Oxford. And has presented on BBC Television. She’s the author of many academic monographs, and her most recent popular book is God: An Anatomy. She’s also a patron of Humanists UK. We spoke about her vegetarianism, growing up in a single parent household without a lot of money, going to Oxford to study theology as an atheist and some of the abuse she gets as a woman in public life. As usual, there are some reflections for me at the end, and they’re more personal than usual, which I’m a bit nervous about, but I hope you enjoy them. And I hope you enjoy listening. 

Francesca, I am going to start with asking you something that we don’t get asked every day on the bus or, you know, in an interview usually, which is about what is sacred to you, but I want to frame it so it’s very clear that it is not necessarily religious, that it can be a value or a principle that you’ve tried to live by. And I’m very comfortable with people rejecting the premise of the question, taking it in a different direction, really just thinking out loud for me about what bubbled up in response to it. What might be sacred? What is a sacred value for you? 

Francesca   

It’s such an interesting question. Because when I hear the word sacred, given what I do for a living, you know, I spend a lot of my intellectual life in the past, in ancient religions and practices and different cultural contexts, and in that ancient world, where something is sacred, it is something that is set apart, it’s distinct from the ordinary, or the human in some ways. And so when I think, what is it that that’s set apart for me, what is the thing around which I tried to build certain sorts of boundaries and parameters and prize, I have to say, I think, as I’ve got older, particularly in the last sort of 10 years or so, I’ve come to realize that what’s particularly prized and sacred to me is the notion of non–human personhood. So the notion that humans – yes, we are extraordinary in all sorts of ways. But we are not so different from other living things. And, I mean, personally I’m a vegetarian, and it wasn’t a decision, I wasn’t raised as a vegetarian, it’s something that I came to about 20 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I love the taste of meat. I used to really enjoy it. But I just became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals, particularly in this very economically privileged, Western culture that I live in, in which we do have a huge economic, and social choice about what we eat, and how we produce food. And so I think, in that sense, on the one hand, we’ve really just commodified animals extraordinarily, I mean, they are no longer living beings in our society, they are creatures that are born to be killed in order for us to eat. And I have a real problem with that, this mass production and commodification and consumption of other living beings. And I think we tend to overplay our exceptionalism, within the grand scheme of things, and it’s something that people are talking about much more particularly with the climate crisis, and the climate emergency, I think, particularly younger generations are taking that a lot more seriously and recognizing the impacts that we have as individuals as well as whole communities on the planet and on our ecosystems. So for those of us that are privileged enough to live in a society in which we can eat well, and eat relatively inexpensively by not eating animals, but eating other sorts of foods, I think we have a responsibility to do that so that those people who live in context in which there isn’t as much choice about what they eat, it’s almost kind of like time to offset that as much as possible. And so yeah, animal wellbeing, and their personhood is something that I feel very strongly about. 

Elizabeth   

That’s really helpful what you said about building boundaries around and set apartness because I’ve spoken to more than 100 people now, and I’m still sort of refining what I mean by sacred. It came originally for me from an anthropologist called Scott Atran, who talked about sacred values in conflict. And then I kind of backfill by reading Durkheim and the sort of original stuff about the sacred as a kind of a gathering point for communities or kind of, you know, place for collective effervescence. But you’ve given me a sort of adjacent, a new way of thinking about it like, What would I guard? What would I seek to protect? Yeah, that’s beautiful. And I would love to hear more about your childhood, what was the kind of, I guess, the feel of your childhood? That’s a ridiculous thing to try and condense into a sentence. But I’m particularly interested if there any big ideas that were formative, religious, political, philosophical, that you think have helped make you the woman you are today? 

Francesca   

Yeah, the woman I am today, because gender is what it is to be, I cannot be a man, I think was a very, very aware of that, from a very early age, my father wasn’t in my life for a long, long, long, long time, for various complicated reasons. So I grew up in England with my mum, who’s English. When we came back from Greece, we initially lived with her mother in Bexley. And then when I was about 18 months old, we moved, my mom got a job. And with the job came this little flat. And so we lived in this little tiny flat, pretty much on Chiswick roundabout in West London. We had to be re homed by the council, because I mean, it was pretty terrible. And you know, it would rain and the rain would have gone down through the walls. We lived in it without electricity in certain rooms for a long period of time. It wasn’t an economically privileged upbringing, single parent, and we didn’t have any money, basically. But because my mom was a single parent, my mom was going out to work all day every day. Which meant that I spent a lot of time understanding that it was not just difficult being a single parent, but I think I I understood very early on that it was quite hard being a woman in a lot of ways, being a mother, but also being a woman in the workplace. My mom worked for some very big company, starting off temping and secretarial work and then, you know, worked her way up incredibly, this really important sort of events manager and various other things. So she did incredibly well, but I saw how hard she worked. But through that, I also spent a lot of time with my English grandmother. So I was pretty much yeah, brought up by these two very strong women. And I was really aware of the sort of wider dynamics of that, I think not living with a man in the house, I think that has shaped very much my sense of the differences that are enculturated in us in terms of gender and performativity. And the differences, the different ways in which we’re socialized. So I think that coupled with recognizing that we didn’t have the kind of lifestyle that some of the kids that my school has, just because we didn’t have any money. And I think recognizing that also taught me very early on about the inequalities, I suppose in society, I mean, by the time I went to secondary school, and my mom was really very ambitious for me, in the sense that I think she knew that I was quite a bright kid. We spent a lot of time you know, all of our weekends were spent, we’d go to public library every Saturday, we’d drop the washing off at the laundrette, go to the public library, pick up some library books, go back to the laundrette and sit reading our library books while we waited for the for the washing cycle and the drying cycle to finish. And so I think, reading, talking about what we were reading had always been a really important part of my childhood. And so my mom knew I think that I was bright, and was really determined to give me a good education. So I went to a normal state school, primary school, Junior School. And then she put me in for an exam to get into a private school. And I passed the exam. And luckily, won a bursary so that all my fees are paid and stuff. And that was great. But it also brought me into a world in which I was surrounded by people who were from incredibly wealthy backgrounds. And I found that quite hard, not because I was envious, but because I just realized that our lifestyles were completely different, you know, they were all going on skiing holidays, and riding horses and stuff at weekends. And it was just a completely alien to me, I didn’t feel like I was missing out, I was just very aware of that difference, and I think that’s really stayed with me.  

Elizabeth   

I think, as teenagers we are so tender, I don’t think you’d find a teenager who doesn’t in some ways feel like they don’t belong, or they don’t fit in. But you have a kind of particular experience of it. How do you think that has shaped the way you belong or don’t belong or need to belong or don’t need to belong in your life? 

Francesca   

I think it really hit home when I went to university, particularly, I went to Oxford. I applied to a college that was great for my subject area. I did a theology undergraduate degree. And I particularly chose it because it was the only postholder who was a woman. who was the theology tutor there and I liked the sound of her, and she turned out to be absolutely fantastic, spent years getting to know them. But the college itself was, I mean, we’re talking about Oxford, right? And then when I went in the 90s, you know, it wasn’t as diverse as it might appear to be a little more diverse today, but it wasn’t as diverse when I was there. And this college was particularly dominated by public school students. And so then again, it was like this, I was lucky because it was the days before tuition fees. So you know, I got a grant and maintenance grant, and student loans, and all the other sorts of things. But yeah, again, there was a sense in which I could see that people had an awful lot more money. So they were doing things that I just couldn’t afford to do, whether it was going clubbing in London, or Swindon, or whether it was going off on these fancy holidays all together. That’s fine, I can cope with that. But what I really recognized when I was at Oxford was that sense of entitlement that comes with people who have had a very comfortable, not just a very comfortable economic life, but have been socially and culturally just far more privileged. And they come from families that have for generations been far more privileged. And that pissed me off, actually. And I think that’s because I saw how badly they treated people. So the people that would come and empty our rubbish bins in the morning, or would clean the student kitchen, or, you know, the porters on the lodge, they treated them like a different class of people, and I just found that appalling and infuriating. I started to build certain sorts of stereotypes and prejudices about those people. And I recognized that I was quite, almost became like an inverted snob in the sense that, the way that somebody spoke and I’ve often been judged by the way I speak, I don’t sound quite posh enough in some contexts, or like learned enough. But I recognize that I was starting to, if I met somebody and they spoke incredibly well, that particular kind of privileged, wealthy British accent, I thought, I’m not going to like you. And that was wrong of me, that was wrong. But I think it was this kind of recognition that – not just that the world isn’t fair. But actually, with privilege comes this entitlement. And this assumption, and I found that infuriating, and I still do to a certain degree. So you know, look at the government now, for example, is populated with people like that. And I do think that underscores a huge amount of the damage that they’ve done to those who are not just less privileged in our society, but those who are we need to talk about poor people, not just poverty, these are poor people who are relying on food banks and other sorts of measures, because the people that are empowered, they just have no idea, they’re not interested, they don’t recognize that you can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you know, make a better life for yourself when everything is stacked against you in a systemic structural way. And that infuriates me, 

Elizabeth   

Yeah. I’m always interested in the divisions and, it’s such good kind of self–awareness, the sort of the prejudices that feel allowable in us, and how we both challenge our stereotypes of groups, in order to see the like, complicated human being in front of us who might be partial black or gay, or Tory, or communist, or whatever it is, while still retaining the ability to be angry about some things, you know, and though it feels like we slide so quickly from, I guess, just a useful challenge of systems to contempt for groups, or contempt for types, like our temptation to type people feels so insidious to me, but totally endemic. And I think we’re in a phase where that, I feel it in myself, where that anti posh prejudice or something because it’s so close to systems and political things. Anyway, that is a rabbit hole, maybe we’ll come back to it. There was a particular experience that you had at Oxford, I think because of the subject you were studying and coming from a non religious background, but I just want to hear a little bit I guess about how much the Greek part of your heritage did show up in your childhood and in your kind of worldview and your understanding of metaphysics, and then what led you to want to study theology at Oxford, alongside having a great woman at the helm? 

Francesca   

Yeah, I mean, with Greek heritage, even though my dad wasn’t in my town, I absolutely knew who I was in terms of my heritage. My surname is a ridiculously long surname. And people, you know, do struggle with it but you’re made to feel different when you’re little, when you’re a kid, and you’ve got a surname like that you’re made to feel very different, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But so I was always like, in that sense, my identity, even on paper, was very much bound up with my Greekness. But in terms of the cultural stuff, I mean, we, you know, my mother lived a long time in Greece, so our home was filled with all sorts of Greek things, Greek icons in particular, my mom’s not religious. My dad’s not particularly religious, you know, theoretically Greek Orthodox, but he’s much more inclined to believe in Apollo and Poseidon. But yeah, and like Greek heritage was important. I spent a lot of time, like a lot of kids, I was really interested in ancient Greek and Roman myths and legends and gods and goddesses and ancient Egyptian stuff. And that was what I loved. And I spent a lot of time as a kid in museums. My English grandmother moved to Oxford, when I was little, just coincidentally, and so, you know, if I wasn’t at home in London, and going to museums with my mum, I was in Oxford, spending time at the the Ashmolean, or wherever, when I was little, as well. So that was a really important part of my growing up, that was what we did. Because it was free – who knows, which helps. So I was always really interested and I studied, we had to do religious studies at school, which was a good thing. And I think religious studies should be absolutely a crucial part of any secondary school syllabus. But I just got more and more interested in you know, how come this Jesus guy is the only one? How come he was thought to be a god and a man, like, clearly, he was just like my ancient Greek heroes who were like half human, half divine. Why is he different? Why has this particular idea survived into the modern day and become so important, and yet, all my ancient Gods disappeared, and so that’s why I really got interested in it when I was at school. And yeah, I decided that I wanted to study theology, because I wanted to find out about the origins of, Christianity, and Judaism in particular, because I was quite interested in Bible stories. You know, not from a religious point of view at all, but I was, it was as part of our cultural… 

Elizabeth 

They are epic! 

Francesca 

Yeah, exactly. And I just wanted to find out more about that. So I applied to do theology, and then yeah, got to Oxford, and everybody else was on my course was religious and my lecturers and tutors were religious, they were Christian, mostly different flavors of Christianity, I was taught by monks and nuns as well as by CofE people and lay readers and there’s not an issue with that, cool, but there was always an assumption that we were all singing from the same hymn sheet in our personal life. You know, I remember being in one tutorial at Greyfriars College, which is sort of a monastic base and we’re talking about the kind of the philosophical, platonic ideas that had gone into shaping early ideas about the Trinity, how God can be one in three. Yeah, and we’ve been talking all this through and I remember my tutor said, isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that wonderful? And then he said, I think we should pray. And it was me and one other student, and I said, Well, tell you what, you guys can pray, I’m going to nip outside for a cigarette. So I went outside for a cigarette and just let them get on with it. But I think that I remember that as being one of the first times that I actually had the confidence to say, Hang on a minute, it was my way of saying this is not appropriate. Just don’t impose or project this kind of assumption on me. I’ve made it clear before, I would say I’m not a Christian or whatever. But I think that was the first time I said, You know what, I just want to remove myself from this particular situation because I’m not interested in being put into a certain kind of pigeonhole, just because I’m studying this material. You can study this material and these ideas and debate these ideas through sheer intellectual curiosity and because you want to better understand the cultures that we’re in now, but also, where these ideas have come from, and that annoys me, this idea about praying, yeah, and I was told by my tutorial partner, so fellow students, oh, you know, you’re a Christian, you just don’t know it yet. Or you’re very spiritual for an atheist. I mean, what does that mean? You’re very nice is what they mean, I’m a nice person, they kind of expect perhaps the atheist, the role of a Dawkins type mold that I mean,  I think Dawkins’ atheism is not my atheism. And indeed, his understanding of what religion is not my understanding of what religion is, I think he misunderstands it to a huge degree, actually. But yeah, so I had these assumptions put on me, and that annoyed me as well. You know, I was annoyed by the rich people and the religious people.  

Elizabeth   

it sounds like your tutors didn’t navigate the diversity of sort of metaphysical positions particularly well with you, maybe to understate it, you’re now in their position, you’re lecturing, you’re teaching, you have this very, very impressive academic pedigree, and these undergraduates show up in Exeter, presumably from a more diverse range of kind of understandings of God or whatever. They’re there to study Biblical Studies for a wider range of reasons. But I often think when we try and talk about religion in public life, or atheism in public life, or spirituality, or these very deep things, it’s so hard to not come with them being extremely personally loaded. And it just raises the temperature a little bit in any situation, like even preparing, I was like, well, this woman is clearly smart. She’s clearly lovely. I’ve listened to her podcast, I’ve read her stuff. But knowing that your position on my best thing is not you know, that you don’t believe in God and I’m a Christian, I had to give myself a little talking to. I was like, You’re clearly going to like her a lot. Like just that, that such a deep human defensiveness right around these differences, that whether you’re this lone atheist in a room of religious people, or the lone Christian in a room of people who have negative associations with religion, makes it really difficult to navigate. Pastorally, as a kind of educational leader, how do you navigate it? Because presumably, you’ve got people losing their faith and finding faith and changing their minds and fighting and hating each other all over the classroom. What do you do? How do you carry that burden or do you have to just go – I’m literally only responsible for the educational bit and I can’t take on the weight of these young lives. 

Francesca   

Oh my god. And as I said, we’re like halfway through term at the minute, I’m absolutely knackered, it’s been a really hard teaching term. And there are some times when I think, wouldn’t it be amazing if all we did was just the educational side of stuff and didn’t need to worry but you know, we’re human and our students are people are human, and you can’t help if… 

Elizabeth   

You’ve got presumably mental health crisis amongst the staff, amongst the students.  

Francesca   

And yeah, in terms of mental health, there is something peculiar that had been happening again, for the last 10/15 years. I mean, our young people are really hurting, and they’re hurting before they get to us at university, I think young people seem to be really struggling in ways that they weren’t necessarily before. But it’s not just that they’re able to articulate it and to be more open about the struggles that they have with their mental health. But things are not good, things are not healthy in our education sectors at the moment. But yeah, what do I do, the first thing I do is I kind of, I’m very clear with my students, the first thing I do is to give them the context in which we are in my lectures and my classes, these are the contexts in which we’re operating. And we are operating in seeking to understand the ancient societies that gave rise to these texts, that have become incredibly authoritative, not just in a spiritual or theological way, and cultural ways too, you know, I often say the Bible is a cultural icon in the West, whether we believe it or not, it’s important text, it is a cultural icon, and has shaped and continued to shape an awful lot of the ways that we think about things and deal with things and respond to things, even in a seemingly secular society. One of the first things I emphasize is that I’m interested in where these texts came from, the kinds of societies and groups that were producing them, the sorts of things that they did, and that’s, I think, one of the big distinction, that’s quite important. And, you know, we were so accustomed, when we’re talking about religion and faith, whatever religion or faith in the modern day, we’re so used to talking about faith, belief, as if it’s a cognitive thing, as if it’s an intellectual thing. In lots of ways, I don’t think that’s the case in contemporary societies. But in ancient societies that idea of belief wasn’t a live issue, religion is what you do. It’s not what you think or believe, it’s a way of being in the world, you know, certain sorts of debate, again, the ways that people are enculturated, and socialized and how we are social beings, it’s something that you do, it’s not kind of like this internal intellectual or cognitive dialogue with yourself. I think in that sense, when I’m talking to students about these texts, and because to some of my students, these texts are sacred to them, special to them, and for other students, the texts are just further examples of ancient literature. And they’re intrigued and curious and puzzled by them, as we all are, as we should be. These are very difficult texts to wrestle with and to understand. But I think there’s a sense in which I try to emphasize the social dynamics and cultural dynamics that are particular to these texts and the ways in which we shift our understandings of texts when we shift social and cultural context, I think by sort of establishing those sorts of boundaries, so it’s very rare that people ask me, are you Christian, I think that’s an assumption sometimes because I’m teaching this stuff, most people might assume, Oh, she’s Jewish, and then they think, she must be Christian. People got a bit muddled because I think I don’t necessarily fit into a box. But actually, there is much more diversity and in terms of the positions that students come with, depending on faith or non–faith, they’re much more diverse.  

Elizabeth   

So, as I was kind of reading about you and thinking about you, it’s such a privilege this job because I just get to feel my way into someone’s world a bit, it felt like you’re kind of public profile is part…I actually find it quite refreshing because it frustrates me when academics pretend they have no skin in the game at all right? That they have like full academic objectivity, me believe anything? No, I just follow the facts. I think that’s changing. But certainly when I was studying, there was a sense in which like, any I, any me, like any sense of myself in scholarly work was taboo, which I just think sort of suppressed it all. And it was like passive aggressive sides. But you are a scholar of these texts, who is publicly an atheist who is, you know, been involved in the British Humanist Association. The phrase I was reaching for was, like more on the campaigning end. And then I was like, I actually don’t know if that’s true. Like, I might have just assumed that because of the wider humanist stuff or not. But how has that changed in your career? How you think about how those things work together? What is your sort of philosophy of the scholar and, again you can reject the word activist, but I can’t think of a better one right now, your public voice, I guess, and how you position yourself and how much you position yourself in your field? 

Francesca   

I was taught both at school and at university, to take the I out of out of academic work. So you know, even writing an essay,, don’t use the word me, don’t use the word I, so it’s this policy, this kind of fiction, of thinking that you can be completely objective. Of course you can’t. And I didn’t use to talk about my atheism. I rarely spoke about my atheism, in lectures and stuff like that, because it’s not about me, it’s about the text. And it was only when I started doing stuff in the media that, you know, some of the national newspapers had a big hoo–ha, oh, no, the BBC have an atheist to present programs about the Bible, how terrible it is. And that was when people sort of started asking me a bit more about it. And a lot of people, both within my world in the academic world, and outside of it, assumed that I must have been originally religious, and had lost my faith as a result of becoming a specialist, you know, and after a search, discovered that it wasn’t true. And that’s not the case at all. I’ve never been religious. I’ve just always been interested in Christianity and Judaism and those ancient cultural contexts that gave rise to it. It’s impossible now for me to separate out my academic stuff from the stuff I talk about publicly, in terms of the ways in which religion can be incredibly damaging, and I think religion has had this privileged position in lots of our societies that needs reining in. And on the other hand, religion isn’t going anywhere. People worry about the decline of religion, there’s no decline in religion, it’s just that the forums and contexts in which religious practices and ideas are played out are shifting, shifting away from sort of establishment context and the power shift that is going on within those contexts too is interesting to look at as an outsider. But religion isn’t going anywhere. I think there’s something fundamentally about, not just the human condition, because I think there are certain species of animals, highly social groups like elephants and chimps, there seems to be some evidence of them performing what looks to be mourning rituals. I think highly social animals like humans, we have this huge capacity to imagine the otherworldly, but whether we have an ongoing relationship with our gods, or whether it’s imagining that there is a God or whatever it might be. And I think for that reason, I think it’s hardwired into us as highly social animals. We’re always going to have this otherworldly dimension in our lives. So religion isn’t going anywhere. So I think part of what I do isn’t just to talk about my atheism or to talk about what the Bible really says, what the Bible really says when people are using the Bible particularly to hurt and damage and cause violence to others. But it’s also to make the case as well, that a) religion is important and we need to keep talking about it. And even if we are a supposedly secular society, or you know, we adhere to sort of secular values and positions, like, religion isn’t going and we need to be able to talk to each other about it and understand each other, but also, as I said, I am not of the Dawkins mould which I think a) misunderstands religion and b) has been very heavily freighted with gendered and socio economic assumptions and privileges that I find deeply troubling. I don’t like bullies. And I think that some atheists have bullied those who are religious, and I don’t like bullies. So for that reason, I think it’s important also to step in and say, well, actually, that’s not my atheism. And just because I don’t believe in you know, this other worldly being that you believe in doesn’t mean to say that I think that you are somehow stupid or unsophisticated, I don’t think that’s the case at all, there are lots of different ways of being in the world. And as long as you’re not hurting other people, then so what, I don’t care what you think or believe, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, and someone’s not bullying you or hurting you, then yeah, doesn’t matter. It’s important to talk about that. 

Elizabeth   

I was saddened to read that you basically get a lot of…I get a lot of, oh, being a woman in the public eye abuse, and like comments on what you look like. When I just want to say, I’m really sad that you’ve dealt with a lot of toxicity. What are the practices or positions or things in your life that help you build resilience and find places of meaning and belonging, and insert whatever word feels right for you for spirituality, your wellbeing or whatever. That whether you’re dealing with like toxic backlash to something you’ve said in public or just life in general, what do you do? How do you – in my language I talk about like settling my soul. What do you do to like, steady yourself? 

Francesca   

Um, it depends, because some of the really horrible stuff, like a lot of very violent threats and pornography that’s sent to me and all that kind of stuff, that’s quite hard to deal with. And one way I deal with it is I’m completely private on Facebook. So Twitter is my kind of public thing. I don’t mind who I talk to on Twitter, but Facebook, tends to be for my mates, my family, academic colleagues and stuff. So often, I’ll just post on Facebook, because that’s a way of exorcising it. I’ll do a screenshot and say, completely random just emailed this to me or sent this to me or tweeted at me or whatever. And look at this horrible stuff. And then everybody else, my mates on Facebook, get protective and get angry on my behalf. But that’s always become that one of my little coping mechanisms, I guess,  

Elizabeth 

A little pressure valve.  

Francesca 

Yeah. And then that does kind of exorcise it, it takes away that power, because also when someone’s emailing you, I mean, because obviously, as an academic, my email is public, you can look me up on the University website, and there’s my email address. And people have sent me pornographic materials to my workplace. You know, saying various things like that, I’m to burn in hell, I’m a witch and all this kind of stuff and I think there’s a certain kind of power that comes from the people that are doing that, whether they’re sending a private message, as an email or sending you something or tweeting you directly or whatever it is, there’s a power to that because they know they’re getting right to you. And if I don’t tell anybody or keep it to myself, even if I ignore it or whatever, that’s somehow allowing that power to stay, to hold and I’m not willing to do that and so I make it public. So by saying somebody sent me this horrible email today, here’s a screenshot of it. Um, you know, asshole 

Elizabeth   

People say yes, asshole. Yeah. 

Francesca   

Yeah, and you do forget about it, but because I’ve also made it public, I’ve taken away the power from that, to protect the potency of it as being just a one on one communication. And that helps me. And in terms of like the sort of things that I research and study and write about, I’m very interested in the way that certain sorts of practices, certain things that you do actually can alter power dynamics. So actually, that’s probably one of my little kind of rituals, in some ways, when dealing with that kind of horrible stuff. I seem to be this kind of lightning rod, in some ways given what I talk about, because of my specialism in what I teach and research and write about, because of my atheism, because I’m a woman, and it’s almost like, I’m a bit of a lightning rod for certain sorts of misogynistic elements of society within them. Misogyny is very much bound up with certain religious preferences or traditional interpretations of text and so I think that does make it quite difficult. But you know, the kind of abuse I get is nothing compared to reports of abuse of other women get, women of color, for example. So, I think you’ve got to remind yourself that 

Elizabeth   

You do, but also – I can’t apologize on behalf of Christians because that seems ridiculous. I’m like from a tradition where the words of Jesus have been so strongly used in peacebuilding movements and reconciliation movements, and in the ability to have people disagree with others without lashing out, for that to be where that’s all coming from, I’m just really ashamed. And I’m really sorry.  

Francesca   

 But it’s a part of the broader part of this bullying, isn’t it, that we find it in all aspects of – and it feels like it’s worse at the moment, isn’t it? I think about the way that Donald Trump was, you know, when he was president, that’s sort of still the way he behaved. It’s that bullying and intimidation. We see it in a lot of the debates that are going on at the moment in terms of trans rights, and there’s a middle ground, and there’s reasonable debate and discussion about whatever it might be, politics or gender or whatever, but there are always people on either extreme who end up bullying and being aggressive and violent. And I think it’s a part and parcel of that. So it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about this. This human tendency is there to lash out. 

Elizabeth   

Yeah. And to feel very tribal. I think that, you know, someone disagrees with me, they are other, I must fight rather than think Hmm, that’s interesting. I wonder why they think that, let’s go find out. And particularly –I’m doing some work with an organization called Larger Us which is looking at the kind of collective trauma responses of a world that is less safe, and so we all go into this kind of fight or flight defensive, protect my identity against everyone else reaction. I’m always very interested in ways that we choose something different. My question is, if you had to be a religion, religious, of all the ones you’ve studied, like the ancient cults, modern paganism, the cult of Zeus, you know? What would it be really, as a way of sort of testing my thesis about the things that matter to you? And the things that energize you? 

Francesca   

It would absolutely hands down be an ancient polytheistic religion. Absolutely. I think religion is about being, you know, Judaism, Christianity, are post–Biblical religions, Islam, obviously, too. And, and because of the impact of certain sorts of philosophical, primarily Platonic, but not only, but primarily Platonic, philosophical distinctions drawn between the mind and the body, or the soul and the body, or whatever it is. And I think the body has been diminished hugely within those particular traditions. But the fact is, we are our bodies, we’re not dwelling in our body, the bodies are not vessels or containers for some other sense of ourselves, we are our bodies. And it is by means of our bodies that we exist, we socialize and it’s the sociality of the body that’s really always really interested me in terms of religions. What I mean is what we do, what we eat, who we have sex with, who we don’t have sex, all of that stuff. And for that reason, it’s the sociality of religions that most interests me. And one of the big things that Christianity has theologically struggled with is the notion of one God. And yet, this is a divine that is made up of numerous different sorts of persons, as they’re called in theological tradition. And because yeah, you need groups, we are communities, and I really like polytheistic systems, which are very much about households or deities, communities of deities, and they fight and they fall out. Yes, and they have sex but they are much more alive to me than any kind of sense of this immaterial, incorporeal, solitary otherness – it’s really hard to have a relationship with an abstract. And I’d much rather have, if I were to have any kind of religious relationship, I would much rather have relationships with these different collection or host of different deities, who are having relationships with one another as well. I think it’s much more interesting and exciting. 

Elizabeth   

Delightful, thank you for humoring my question and Francesca, thank you so much for speaking to me on The Sacred. 

Francesca   

Thank you for having me. 

Elizabeth   

So, the first thing to say about this interview is that I was really not looking forward to it. And I feel okay saying that here because I said it to Francesca during the interview, so it hopefully won’t be a surprise to her. But I come to every interviewee who I don’t already know, with a bag of assumptions and prejudices basically, in the way I think we all do, just because we need cognitive shortcuts, and we can’t pay attention of the fullness, to the fullness of a human being in public life. And so we just get kind of signifiers ‘oh, you’re this kind of person, you’re that kind of person. You’re my kind of person, you’re not my kind of person’. And it was particularly challenging for me with Francesca because all I really knew of her is that she is a kind of public high profile atheists and I had got her actually in the box of a sort of Dawkins type atheist. So it is helpful for me to hear her say very clearly, that’s not her type of atheism. And also, because her book Her most recent book, God: An Anatomy is very rigorous and well researched book is but it’s very clearly coming from, you know, Jews and Christians have read their, have read the Bible wrong, or have interpreted the Bible wrong. And it really, it really touched a nerve with me in the way that these things always do. When someone clearly disagrees with something that’s very deep in us, it’s very close to our identity. And I found myself feeling quite shirty as I was preparing for this interview. And realising how much cultural programming I have around what you do in those situations, which is you try and win. You try and have, you know, the best arguments and you try and prove someone wrong, and you try and catch them out and have aha moments. And it’s embarrassing to admit, I hope I’m not the only one, I hope you recognise it. But it’s not the first time it’s happened in preparing for an interview. But I felt it most noticeably in this because on lots of other markers we have loads in common. And, you know, as you will hear, I’ve really liked her, and I got on really well. And it was a really lovely conversation in a moment of encounter. But I could tell how that sense of my deep sacred things being transgressed was putting me into not a very open posture, not a very human posture, not a very good posture for listening I actually had to call in some help and ask for some people to pray for me, give myself a talking to. But, it, this is a kind of example of the journey that I have been on with many, many, many of these interviews with going into a conversation with someone with a set of expectations about who they are, and coming out with a very different picture, a much fuller picture, and the discipline of not going in, immediately putting them in an adversarial position by going on the attack. But just sitting with curiosity, it’s just, it’s really powerful. It’s really powerful for people like me, who are have deep and lovely parts of myself and natural judgey tendencies, even to the extent that, this is embarrassing to admit, and I might cut it out. But as I was researching her, I realised Francesca had been to private school. And so I was like, well, you know, of course, part of her atheism is sort of from a privileged intellectual class. And that obviously, story was complexified for me, and revealed to me my own prejudices and just so much of my own nonsense. So that’s my overarching reflection from this conversation. What a lovely woman. What a, what an intelligent, self reflective person and what a joy to meet her, even though on something very deep and important to both of us. We are poles, poles apart, actually, you know, as well as myself talking to and getting some friends to pray for me the thing that really switched it was reading about the abuse she’d received and recognising much, much less serious instances of that kind of thing that I’ve received, like weird comments on my appearance of either caring too much about my appearance or not caring enough about my appearance as a woman in public life, just my appearance being public property in a way that it very much is in the abuse that Francesca receives. But also in that sense of that just shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen to anyone. And, and that really helped me change my really dodgy attitude as I was going into this interview. I think that’s all I want to say. She seems absolutely lovely and I hope we get to hang out more. 

 


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

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Posted 25 May 2022

Atheism, Bible, Bible, Religion, The Sacred

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