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The Holy Mark, reviewed by Diesel Balaam

bookTHE protagonist and authorial voice of The Holy Mark, Joe, is a man marked for the Roman Catholic priesthood – quite literally – by the birthmark on his scalp, which his immigrant Italian-speaking grandmother declares is a “segno sacro” – a sign from God that this particular grandson is destined for the Church.

Thus begins the tragicomic tale of the innocent and plump little gay boy, drawn inexorably towards the priesthood, via an intricate web of family jealousies and rivalries, an uncommon intelligence, and an often thwarted talent for teaching teenaged boys. All of this is subtly directed by the manipulative church hierarchy of the local New Orleans diocese, with the corrupt Bishop Franklin Ratchett firmly in the pocket of Joe’s scheming Uncle Anthony, whose name Joe assumes when he joins the priesthood.

As “Father Tony”, Joe soon becomes a thorn in the side of his uncle, thwarting his uncle’s plan to usurp more than his fair share of the Miggliore family’s fortune by extracting a bogus last will and testament from the aged matriarch, Grandma Miggliore, as she lies on her deathbed hallucinating about the Holy Family. Needless to say, Bishop Ratchett is in on his uncle’s nefarious plan, being a skilled networker among New Orleans’s successful businessmen and lawyers, knowing that the diocese benefits handsomely from their donations, provided he is willing to do their bidding.

Joe loathes his greedy uncle, and also his Aunt Rose, referring to her as “the fish-wife” on account of her conspicuous wealth coming from her successful husband’s fish business. It is she who eventually dupes Joe’s mother into handing over most of her rightful inheritance, leaving Joe’s financial future uncertain and dependent on whatever demeaning employment is meted out by the vengeful Bishop Ratchett and his minions, forever in cahoots with Joe’s grasping uncle.

Joe, or Father Tony, has no illusions about his extended family, indeed his very survival comes to be driven by a seemingly “un-Christian” enjoyment of their misfortunes and his own desire for revenge, as well as a hatred of the Church and the pinched, invariably deformed characters who run it. He delights in his “fish-wife” aunt’s misfortune when the expensive plastic surgery that was supposed to cure her unfortunate resemblance to the hook-nosed Grandma Miggliore, is more than undone by aggressive facial cancer. He is even more delighted when she survives the cancer just long enough to bury her own gay son, Ronnie, who died from AIDS. Although the book’s first-person narrative and deliciously sardonic humour inevitably pushes the reader into siding and identifying with Joe, this isn’t always a comfortable experience.

These themes of disfigurement, disease, and unattractiveness are the warp and weft of The Holy Mark. This starts with Father Tony’s low self-esteem; the self-consciousness from the birthmark on his scalp (which tingles and throbs when he is sexually aroused), his weight and his self-perceived lack of desirability; but this theme also extends to those around him. His nemesis, Bishop Ratchett, has a deformed hand, which is likened to a mace; the sadistic priest, Father Pedeaux, in the seminary where Father Tony prepared for the priesthood, is described as an “anorexic skinflint”, the withered specimen evidently determined to force his own anorexia on the younger priests by affording them only the most meagre of rations in the refectory where he lords it over them. The aged nuns in the care home where Father Tony is forced to work at one point are all in various stages of dribbling, shuffling decrepitude. Eventually, AIDS claims the life of his effeminate bitch-queen cousin, Ronnie.

All of this contrasts markedly with Father Tony’s rhapsodic and forensically detailed descriptions of youthful male beauty and virility. His sexual epiphany begins in early puberty with his athletic cousin, Tony (son of evil Uncle Anthony), behind the levee of the Mississippi. When diving off the roof of an abandoned river tug, safely in the muscular arms of his fearlessly naked older cousin, Joe spontaneously ejaculates. However, he must compete for the attentions of Tony with his queeny, prancing cousin, Ronnie. Nonetheless, Joe remains “pure”, a virgin until his thirties, by which time he is surrounded by the raw beauty of youth at “the Den”, a Catholic residential home for disadvantaged and troubled teenaged boys. Ironically, Bishop Ratchett and his minions intended this post as a punishment for thwarting their attempted death-bed heist, but this first posting brings Father Tony new purpose and fulfilment for the several years he is there during the 1970s.

Though challenging, the dozen boys in his charge come to accept him and even compete for his attention and tactile affections. Here, for the first time, he finds himself answering a personal calling, a sense of doing something useful, turning around young lives for the better.
It is also here that, by chance, he is gently seduced by one of his more troubled charges, Jason, who climbs into Father Tony’s bed, making it clear that he needs to feel loved, expressed through sexual comfort, which after some hesitation, Father Tony supplies. Though technically “child abuse” and certainly an abuse of his “position of trust”, there is nothing here to suggest that Jason is anything other than the willing initiator.

Thus begins Father Tony’s occasional servicing of some of the boys’ sexual needs, albeit with a light touch and exclusively orientated towards their gratification and relief, never his own. In a very Catholic way, he convinces himself his actions are selfless and godly. To his mind, he is “walking in Christ’s footsteps” by taking the supposed sins of the boys upon himself, absolving them of guilt, making them happier, better human beings. Father Tony’s passion is “a passion of sacrifice, not of salaciousness”, one that ultimately leads to his undoing – his symbolic crucifixion.

This is certainly challenging to the received wisdoms of our time, when man–boy love is unerringly taboo, even while man-on-man love is increasingly accepted and officially sanctioned. Through Father Tony’s eyes, at least, there is something pure, noble, and selfless about what he is doing. If we take Father Tony at his word (or the author’s word), then this is something very far removed from dominant narratives of perverts in the depraved Catholic clergy preying on children and ruining lives. On the contrary, in this instance, man–boy love, or priest–boy love, is portrayed as something harmless, consensual, even healing. This very much runs counter to the self-serving stance of hard-nosed secular opportunists – always keen to find a new stick with which to beat the Catholic church – or, indeed, the kind of androphobic feminists who fear and despise male sexuality per se and who would insist that all man–boy love is, by definition, abusive.

authorphoto 1How much of The Holy Mark is simply fiction, and how much is an attempted defence of man–boy love by the author, Greg Alexander, left. only he knows. The rest of us can only guess. The author, like his protagonist, “has experience of teaching in several Catholic schools” and “lives outside New Orleans”. Choice biblical verses are pressed into service to add a sense of divinity to man–boy love, which, parachuted in to this unconventional narrative polemic, they sort of do, albeit with a large helping of wishful reinterpretation. This part of the book deals with that period of American gay history – the 1970s – when man-boy love was a hot political issue and grist to the mill for the religious right of the nascent Reagan era.

The author would have lived through this febrile period of American sexual politics. Of course, one should never confuse the author of a book with the characters he creates, any more than one should confuse an actor with the roles he plays.

Part of the book’s purchase on the reader is the way it challenges and ruptures the received assumptions of our times. Father Tony clearly deplores child sexual abuse – he tries to help a boy whose family has been destroyed by his father sexually abusing his own daughter, causing her to try to take her own life.

Nonetheless, he puts his own sexual encounters with teenaged boys in a more rarefied and spiritually elevated category. The reader can take Father Tony at his word, or, more cynically, may see him as conveniently self-deluding. Sean, the boy whose father abused his own daughter, is also the recipient of Father Tony’s “healing ministrations” during a Catholic summer camp, but soon after, Sean takes his own life. Father Tony puts this down to the legacy of the father’s behaviour and the Church’s unsympathetic response to the discovery of his sexual liaison with Sean (via the boy’s confession), never pausing to reflect whether the liaison itself may have been a factor in the troubled boy’s suicide.

Likewise, his cousin Ronnie is portrayed as a contemptible vacuous queen (he fails as a dancer, so becomes a hairdresser instead, helping Father Tony disguise the birthmark on his scalp). Because he is unashamedly promiscuous and frivolous, participating in “gay carnivals”, Father Tony evidently sees him as somehow deserving of his eventual fate. Of course, the reader is perfectly entitled to think otherwise, that – unlike Father Tony – Ronnie might just have been living his life openly and honestly as a determinedly camp and “out there” gay man, doing his best to get by with the cards he’s been dealt.

The Holy Mark is a brave and very honest book and might easily offend the sensibilities of those wedded to rigid ideologies, whether the reader is right-wing, left-wing, Catholic, atheist, feminist, or gay. The characters are also given free rein to express their ambivalence towards black people, or “negroes” as they are referred to here (the story is set in the deep South of the USA, after all). But none of this should detract from the sheer enjoyment of this book. In fact, it probably adds to it. Written in the first person singular, or, rather, first person desperate, The Holy Mark is, by turns, confessional, witty, despairing, well-observed, and not a little creepy – but always, always gripping. An enjoyable read, with an uncompromisingly clear, charismatic, and painfully honest voice.

The Holy Mark is available here.

From the archives: Happy homosexual Geoffrey Palmer, 92, shares his memories

no apologies no regrets by cornlord d3b66y3THIS is a shortened version of an article entitled 'You Don't Have to be Sad to be Gay' by GEOFFREY PALMER for the winter 2004/5 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Humanist. He died shortly after, aged 92.

If I want to boast a little, I tell people that I was born before the First World War. Well, so I was, in 1912, but the announcement never seems to impress many people, so usually I keep my secret hidden. I don’t remember much about the war itself, except for the Zeppelin that passed over the village, and the flags and balloons that decorated the shops and cottages on Armistice Day. But, above all, I remember my grandmother saying, bitterly, “Why should I have anything to celebrate? I’m the only person in the village to have had two sons killed.” (The Titanic went down in 1912 too.)

When I was five I felt there was something different about me but I couldn’t explain this difference. I was usually in charge of the makeshift costumes that the cops and robbers or, more often, Robin Hood and his merry men wore (because this was Sherwood Forest country), and when I was cast as Maid Marian or a lady cop I willingly accepted the role, principally, I think, because I had to be kissed by one of the winning teams at the end of the game after I had been captured, or released.

No, the difference never came to be important until I reached early adolescence, when I began to see that I was forever eyeing blokes rather than girls, but never in a sexual way. I just accepted the fact that I preferred a kiss from a boy than from a girl and never stopped to wonder why.

At grammar school my allegiances were divided. There were at least three girls I grew very fond of, and one in particular. I travelled to and from school by bus so that I could sit next to her and put my arm round her waist, which she didn’t seem particularly to care about, but put up with. At college in the early 1930s things were different. The good-looking men of my age received a lot of attention from me from a distance (I was shy in those days) and one or two of them reciprocated in a polite way, though without much encouragement.

At the end of the course I was notorious for two things: snogging the local “anybody’s girl” under a bridge in Wollaton Park, and finding out for the first time the real difference between male and female. Pale interest rather than rampant desire was the final outcome of these sessions, and falling in love quite seriously with a lovely girl I was going to propose to until I found out that she was secretly engaged to a man of thirty. I relinquished her with a good deal of heartburning, but it didn’t last when a new roommate swam into my ken and engaged my attentions with a good deal of reciprocal interest; and my first venture into physical pleasure was thus engendered.

Then it was time for the wide world of teaching: a village church school where I lasted for five years. In all that time my main interest, apart from the local dramatic society (alas, no parts where men kissed men!), was the 18-year-old brother of one of my pupils – he, at 14, was far too young for me. Sid, the 18-year-old, would do anything for anybody, including me, now getting less and less shy.

When the war came to an end in 1945 I became a professional actor and joined repertory companies in Sheffield, Wakefield and Nottingham; did a tour of Murder in the Cathedral, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tobias and the Angel.

My real life began in a Bradford theatre bar after a show, when I was having a drink and reading the New Statesman – that was when it was worth reading. I suddenly realised that my hand, under the table, was being sort of caressed in a totally acceptable way by another hand. I glanced round to see who was being so daring and found that he was a young actor who had recently joined the company and was rehearsing the next play. He had fair hair, blue eyes and a half-scared, half-determined expression on his face. I gave his hand a thorough grasp to say, “Carry on, I don’t mind” – and fell hook, line and sinker in love, a real love, not something I’d imagined, or vaguely experienced, or looked forward to over the years, but a love that was to last for 53 years, a feeling that was to take over my life, and that was reciprocated with the same degree of fervour by the owner of the hand that was now clasping mine with an ironlike grip. I discovered that his name was John – though he preferred to be called by his second name, Noel – and that he was 12 years younger than I was.

From 1945 to 1998 Noel and I enjoyed a sweet and loving partnership which, over the 53 years it lasted, gave the lie to every bigoted fundamentalist, from Jehovah’s Witness to Roman Catholic, who expressed horror at the thought of two men living together, loving together and finding all the happiness in each other’s company their natures required. “They can live by Leviticus and die by Leviticus,” I used to say, “but we live by love and, yes, would die for it, if necessary.” And the Old Testament, particularly, became for me a Chamber of Horrors.

Noel and I shared flats together, wrote more than thirty books together, had an enormous amount of fun together and travelled widely.

Noel worked a lot in Northern Ireland for the BBC and the Ulster Group Theatre, and did a long stint at the theatre in Minehead, Somerset – though at every opportunity we would meet at the most unlikely places for a session to find delight in our loving together, to get on with the book we were writing and plan the next one – and I sometimes played small parts in plays during my summer holidays.

For some years we rented a flat exactly opposite the brand-new school in Islington of which I was now the headmaster; and Noel became a sort of unpaid appendage of the school – producing plays, using his car to take unwell children home, taking teams to football and cricket matches – and became as much part of the scene as any paid member of the staff. This went on until 1975, when it was time for me to retire after eighteen years of the headship, and time for Noel to give up work in TV, which he did not enjoy.

So we were free from bricks, children and cameras, and, though continuing to write, we went in for keeping bookshops, in Islington, Eye, and, latterly, Harleston in Norfolk. And in all those years I can remember only one occasion when we had a serious row.

I don’t know now what it was about, but it ended up with one of us throwing the telephone at the other, though for the life of me I can’t remember who did what to whom, and the whole affair took only about ten minutes, finishing up with a good laugh and a stiff drink.

The bookshops did well and we were able to do a lot of travelling; and it was on the aeroplane from Seattle, my favourite American city, that I began to feel unwell, and developed a heart condition that gradually grew more serious and eventually demanded the wearing of a pacemaker. But life continued to be worth living with Noel by my side. We wrote more books, haunted the theatre, entertained friends, and loved each other more with every day that passed – until Noel died suddenly in August 1998, of a heart attack. Then memories were all that remained and living them was what made a happy homosexual able to stay happy.

And, to finish with a boast, I can say that, though hundreds of children and their parents, staff, governors, administrators and political figures passed through my life, never once did I detect a sniff or hear an unkind remark, a comment on my sexuality, a critical glance or doubtful shrug in over fifty years of open and honest gayness. My parents, bless them, were simple village people and did not know a hawk from a handsaw.

“I am what I am” was, and still is, my creed, “and, if you don’t like what I am, then it’s you that’s got the problem, my friend.” No child felt awkward in my presence: he or she was too busy grinning at one of my weak jokes. And the only physical contact that passed between us was a ruffle of the hair or a smack on the bottom – and only then when Mum or Dad was present and we were laughing at something outrageous that the child had done. I haven’t an ounce of paedophilia in me and that has helped me in my relationships. I’ve been a humanist for at least sixty years and I thank God that I don’t believe in him. Strange, though: I always watch the gloriously silly Songs of Praise. It’s a good laugh and the tunes are worth listening to.

Only recently I received a card from a not-long-married great-nephew who had heard from his mother the inside story of my thoroughly debauched life (according to religionists) and his response was, “Good on you, mate. Keep it up.” Which, in the necessarily short time I have left, I intend to do. You don’t have to be sad to be gay!

You can read the full article here.

Allen Ginsberg, my hero

ginsberg 81632cPINK HUMANIST editor BARRY DUKE tells how American poet Allen Ginsberg set him on a lifelong mission to combat censorship

When I’m engaging in conversation with youngsters who are barely older that the boots on my feet I quickly come to realise how little they know about mid-to-late-20th-century landmark events and the individuals who helped shape the culture of this era. This can be extremely irritating, and frequently I am heard to exclaim, “For fuck sake, what did they teach you in school?”

“Why”, some grizzled old grump once asked me, “do you waste time in engaging with no-nothing youngsters?” I replied that I enjoy their company because they energise me, and serve as an antidote to ageing. They impel me to keep fit so that I can carry fashionable clothing as well as they can – sometimes better, I like to think – and can hold my own in any discussion about contemporary culture and music. It’s great to be thought of as being “cool” when you’re knocking on 70.

What’s more, not all kids are ignorant. Earlier this year I was completely taken aback by a young British holidaymaker to Spain who said he was sad to hear of the death of blues legend B B King, who died aged 89 in May, 2015.

“You know King’s music?”, I asked in surprise. Jonathan, aged 19, then rattled off a list of factoids about King, and moved onto other great blues singers. He asked me whether I knew that a biopic about Bessie Smith had premiered in America in May this year to enormous critical acclaim. I didn’t, and vowed there and then to obtain a copy of Bessie as I am a devotee both of Smith and Queen Latifah, who plays her in the movie.

Mention of King and Smith quickly turned into a challenging game, with me throwing out random names that I was sure would mean nothing at all to him. Rosa Parks … Quentin Crisp … Lord Wolfenden … Hendrik Verwoerd … He knew them all.

“Ah, but what about Allen Ginsberg?” I tosseded Ginsberg’s name into this eclectic mix because I read a report in June this year that the controversial American beat poet, who died in 1997, was the subject of a huge row that erupted at a high school in Connecticut.

A student at South Windsor High School brought Ginsberg’s “Please Master” to teacher David Olio’s attention during a class discussion about obscenity. The award-winning teacher (with 19 years under his belt) wasn’t familiar with the erotic gay poem, but he read it aloud.

Two students complained about the reading and a media uproar ensued. “South Windsor Teacher Reads Graphic Poem About Gay Sex to Classroom” read one headline, with the story saying students were “subjected” to the poem. A TV newscast warned viewers the piece was “too graphic to detail in almost any part”, and bizarrely noted that the local police were not involved in the investigation. Olio was forced to resign.

“Ah,” said Jonathan with a grin, “you mean the guy whose poem caused a shitstorm in Connecticut? I memorised it after reading about the incident.” And he promptly rattled off its first 14 lines:

Please master can I touch your cheek

please master can I kneel at your feet

please master can I loosen your blue pants

please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly

please master can I gently take down your shorts

please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes

please master can I take off your clothes below your chair

please master can I kiss your ankles and soul

please master can I touch lips to your muscle hairless thigh

please master can I lay my ear pressed to your stomach

please master can I wrap my arms around your white ass

please master can I lick your groin curled with soft blond fur

please master can I touch my tongue to your rosy asshole

please master may I pass my face to your balls …

Astounding! When I got over the shock of realising that I was chatting to a remarkably knowledgeable young man, I responded by telling him something he did not know: that Ginsberg was the single biggest factor in my decision to begin actively campaigning against the draconian censorship laws that existed in apartheid South Africa, where I lived until 1973.

At the time of his writing “Please Master”, Ginsberg’s work was already banned by the white, Christian puritans appointed to serve on the Publications Control Board. These arrogant Calvinist Afrikaners, with more teeth among them than brain cells, had identified the poet as a dangerous deviant, and added his name to a growing list of writers South Africans were prohibited from reading. Despite this ban, I obtained a copy of “Please Master” from a friend who ran a bookshop in Johannesburg that did a roaring trade in clandestinely selling “objectionable” books, records and even T-shirts – including one that bore the slogan “Black is Beautiful”.

After reading “Please Master” I approached the editorial board of an entertainment magazine, Time Out (named after the London-based publication) and suggested a monthly column, written in a satirical style, listing all that the censors had banned in the previous four weeks.

The aim was to expose the sheer idiocy of the censors, headed by the aged, profoundly deaf, sight-impaired Dr Jannie Kruger, and it proved such a hit that I was asked to do a similar column for the Star newspaper in Johannesburg.

The material for both columns was gleaned from two publications: The Government Gazette and Jacobsen’s Index of Objectionable Literature, a tome that ran to more than 500 pages that listed “all of the items which old white men decided were too objectionable for us to see”.

That quote was extracted from an online article written by a South African signing himself “Dungbeetlemania”, who went on to say that Jacobsen’s Index “includes, but is not limited to: postcards, flyers, pamphlets, stickers, books, magazines, newspapers, movies, sex toys, calendars, music and t-shirts.

“Sometimes, in the case of newspapers and magazines, only single editions were banned, although many were banned outright. Each of the listed objects has the distinction of being so morally repugnant that we could not possibly be exposed to them, in case we were adversely influenced.

“Every bookshop was expected to have a copy to ensure that they did not accidentally order something prohibited by the Publication Act. Included was just about anything about the then-banned ANC, communism, homosexuality, Satanism, (normal) sex, drugs, anything critical of Christianity, anything critical of South Africa, the NP [National Party] or apartheid ... the list goes on and on.”

black beautyOne early edition included South Africa most infamous banned book, Black Beauty, which was proscribed in 1951, but later removed when the censors realised that it was actually about a horse, and not a black sex bomb.

In 1968 “the old white men” banned three Sidney Poitier movies: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir With Love. Other films banned in the same year included The Graduate, Blow Up, Finian’s Rainbow and Bonnie and Clyde – all internationally acclaimed and award-winning productions.

Twelve years on, in 1980, they banned the Pink Floyd song “The Wall”, which featured on the group’s 11th album. The ban of just the one song and not the entire album proved a real headache for record store owners and librarians. For they were required to use a nail or similar sharp object to ruin the grooves of the offending song. Compact discs only exacerbated the “problem”. The reason for the ban was that black kids adopted the song as a protest anthem against inferior education.

Later in the 1980s all of Stevie Wonder’s songs were banned because he had dedicated his Best Original Song Oscar (which he won for “I Just Called to Say I Love You”) to Nelson Mandela, who remained imprisoned at Pollsmoor Prison.

From a sampling of the bans above, you can see how easy it would be to lampoon the censors, who – until I hit on the idea of shining a light on their decisions – had been operating in a quasi-secret manner. Sure, the bans they imposed were published in The Government Gazette and Jacobsen’s Index, but these were publications very few South Africans were ever likely to read.

My columns flushed the censors out into the open, and within weeks Kruger and his band of “old white men” had become national laughing stocks – and I became something of a public enemy in the eyes of the authorities.

Never before had ridicule been heaped on the censors in this manner, and I was not the least bit surprised when the Government outlawed any attempts to mock the PCB’s insane decisions.

But that failed to solve their problem. My columns continued as simple lists of banned material, devoid of snarky editorial commentary.

None was needed. The lists on their own spoke volumes about how desperate Kruger and his cohorts were to prevent South Africans being exposed to things they regarded as objectionable – including American singer, Janis Joplin, whose singing was described by the PCB as “screeching”.

In 1970 the Publications Control Board proudly announced in its annual report that, since its inception in 1963, with old white man Professor Gerrit Dekker, 80, as its head, it had ordered numerous cuts to 1,600 movies, rendering many of them utterly incomprehensible in the process, and had imposed outright bans on 300, including, in 1965, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. The reason given by the PCB in this instance was that “it is offensive to see a ‘Bantu’ female bearing her breasts for a white man.”

Three years later, the PCB’s then head, the doddering old imbecile Jannie Kruger, denied that censorship existed in any form in South Africa, and is quoted as saying “SA has no censorship system of any kind, we merely have a system of publications control”; but in 1982 the Department of Home Affairs announced that “South Africa has the strictest censorship system in the world”.

In 1977 the Government added a clause to the Publications and Entertainments Act that stated: “It is an offence to prejudice, influence or anticipate the decisions of the Publications Directorate.”

Frighteningly, decisions made by the PCB even impacted on people’s right to travel outside of the country to see a film banned by Kruger and his crew. After the censors banned Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris in 1973 it was screened uncut at a casino in neighbouring Swaziland. This prompted the then Information Minister, Dr Connie Mulder, to threaten “serious action” against those who dared to cross the border to view it. It was never clear how he intended punishing miscreants.

When the apartheid system finally collapsed, the PCB was scrapped and the newly-appointed Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, said in Parliament in 1994 that “never again in this country will anyone decide what any rational and intelligent beings may or may not watch, read or hear.”

To those idiots who forced the resignation of David Olio I would say only this: take Buthelezi’s words and write them out on a blackboard 100 times a day until the message finally sinks in that there should never be a place for this sort of censorious behaviour in any serious place of learning.

Meet Björn Ulvaeus, Swedish Humanist

bjorn ulvaeus webben 0

ONE of Sweden’s best-known cultural figures is a member of the Swedish Humanist Association (an IHEU member organisation).

Björn Ulvaeus is universally recognisable as one of the four members of the pop supergroup ABBA. But with the dawning of the 21st century Ulvaeus began attracting attention for his outspoken views about religion. In 2006, in an interview with the Chairman of the Swedish Humanist Association, Christer Sturmark, for the magazine Humanisten, Ulvaeus said:

“I have noticed how religion is becoming a power in politics, and is also competing with the scientific way of thinking. That worries me. I have always been a huge friend of ‘the Enlightenment’ and of science. When I saw irrational, religious conservative values and hostility against science influencing society, I searched for an organisation dealing with these questions.

“I miss those days when people believed in science and common sense, as they did in the fifties and sixties. Now fundamentalism and contempt for science seem to be spreading. I believe that religion should be totally separated from the state. That’s not the way it is today, not even in Sweden.

“For hundreds of years we have struggled to achieve a secular society, and now we seem to be going backwards. I find it quite astonishing that more women don’t stand up to these questions.

“I believe that religious faith schools are highly dubious. I also think that it’s absurd that organisations that have secular aims, for example the Swedish Humanist Association, don’t get the same government grants as organisations that hold services. Perhaps we should start holding gatherings where we pay our respect to Voltaire!”

Ulvaeus, who joined the Swedish Humanist Association in 2005, added: “Contempt for science may have arisen because science hasn’t been able to solve many of our basic problemsI also believe that the atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction show that science can be used in evil ways.”

Addressing the issue of religious fundamentalism, this he said might be due to globalisation, and the fact that many people feel insecure in a rapidly changing world. “In crises of identity people often turn to their religious origins.”

Ulvaeus described himself as “an agnostic, leaning towards atheism. I don’t have, and I think I cannot have, a clear view of God’s existence. I do not believe in the god that is described in the Middle East religions or in any other religions for that matter.”

Asked where he thought the dividing line was between freedom of religion and freedom of speech and human rights, Ulvaeus replied: “I am so incredibly tired of giving respect to a lot of delusions and crazy ideas just because they are regarded as religious. Private faith should, of course, be respected, but it can’t be allowed to influence society or other people. Where do you draw the line between superstition and religion? If you bear in mind that we are living on a small planet in a solar system at the edge of a small galaxy at the edge of the universe, it might be a slight exaggeration to state: ‘We have the answer!’

“All religions claim to be the correct and genuine one. It’s just too much for me. I think it’s important that you should be able to criticise and analyse religions, the same way that you can criticise opinions and values. Religious people must learn to cope with that.”

He added: “The UN declaration on human rights must always take precedence over religious beliefs or cultural differences. It seems to me that this isn’t explicitly stated by our politicians today. Some values must be universal, like human rights and the equal worth of every human being. I believe that politicians in Sweden are too cautious in emphasising this, probably out of fear of being regarded as discriminating against non-democratic cultures.

Ulvaeus explained why he decided to take a stand against religious extremism. “This is our time’s absolute most important issue, a pure issue of survival. The increase of religious extremism is highly dangerous, yet so few dare to question the basis for these ideas – faith. I’ve felt for a long time that I ought to do something, but I’ve held back because of fear of what reactions it would raise if I came out and said something. My family or I could be a target for some madman, but then … I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.”

He continued: “I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon of religion. It includes so many people, the majority on the globe. Religions have such great influence on politics and social progress that they naturally must endure the same criticism, the same scrutiny, the same discussion as all other ideologies or outlooks on life – it goes without saying. I’m extremely tired of how you should feel respect towards a mass of delusions just because they’re called religion!”

What does he think the worst thing is about religion?

“That with religion’s help you can indoctrinate people to believe that they will go to paradise if they carry out suicide attacks against the innocent. And what we’ve seen up to now is presumably nothing compared with what could come.”

ABBA

Describing his own path to humanism, Ulvaeus (above, left, in ABBA's heyday) revealed that he had “a short flirtation with religion in my youth, when I studied the Bible. When I was about 15 I read Dan Andersson’s novel David Ramm’s Heritage, about a young man, David, who was pondering over existential and religious questions. When I read that novel, I thought I would also like to be a brooder and severe. But it was merely a pose. The school and the music started to take over my life and I didn’t have time trying to be severe and pondering.”

In the ABBA song “Thank you for the Music”, originally featured on the group’s fifth studio album ABBA: The Album (1977), one can see a blossoming of Ulvaeus’ humanism. “…Thanks for all the songs, words and tunes, who needs religion?”

Explaining the thinking behind that lyric, Ulvaeus said “I thought we could do what John Lennon did in ‘Imagine’ and sneak in a statement. Lennon wrote ‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too.’ It is sung in churches and nobody objects to the wish for a ‘world without religion’.

“I wrote the Swedish version of ‘Thank you for the Music’ with Niklas Strömstedt, and we were both prepared for the fact that it would cause reactions. But not one single complaint has been made! Not one single letter of complaint!”

In a later interview published in Dagens Nyheter Ulvaeus said “Jesus is just a myth to me and Jesus himself is just a mythical figure.”

“I am interested in the role of religion in a secular society and marvel at how people can have faith in something that no-one has ever been able to prove exists. I just cannot indulge in a belief in ‘something’ or ‘someone’.”

Ulvaeus has not always questioned religion in quite the same way as he does now.

But the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a wake-up call. “It was then, that I realised, that people with subjective experiences and revelations that had no basis in reality wanted to assume power over others in the name of religion.

“We see that religious forces are now penetrating the political arena. Religion should not control people’s lives, whether they be Christians or Muslims.”

Despite his harsh criticism of organised religion Ulvaeus thinks that ceremonies with a religious background have their place.

“Many people cling to religious traditions – even when they do not believe in God.”