Why I Don’t Call Myself an Atheist, Even Though I am One

When I chose to not believe in God, I actually didn’t know what an Atheist was. The first time I heard the word “Atheist” was when I told my dad that night that I didn’t believe in God. I was 14.

“WHAT?!? Are you telling me you’re an ATHEIST?!?”

(sorry Dad, if that’s not how you remember it. That’s how it seemed to 14 year old me)

After that… pleasant… conversation I called myself an Atheist for quite a while. I mean, I did (and still do) disbelieve in the existence of supreme beings.

Honestly, I should give my parents more credit than that. I didn’t have to worry about them disowning me or not loving me anymore. I didn’t have to worry about being kicked out of the house or punished in any way. I was also never one of those… angry Atheists. My rationale was that I had only believed in God because people had told me that God existed – so I decided not to believe until I had another reason. I didn’t know at the time that I would never find a reason to believe, and instead find lots of reasons not to.

But in the past few years I’ve come to think of the label of Atheist as quite narrow. Imagine if you asked someone what color their hair was, and their reply was “NOT BROWN!” That… doesn’t tell you a whole lot, really. Especially since hair dye is a thing. That’s the way I relate to the word Atheist these days. Buddists are atheist for the most part, I’ve met quite a few Wiccans who describe themselves as Atheist. There are so many people who describe themselves as spiritual, not religious. Some of them are probably Atheists, some definitely are not. Most Indian and Chinese religions are atheistic, or not explicitly theistic. Just going around saying you don’t believe in God(s), which is what you’re doing when you say you’re an Atheist, doesn’t say what you do believe – if anything. It doesn’t say how you approach the world or what moral framework you look at reality through.

I guess, functionally, when someone describes themselves as an Atheist they are saying that they are not a believer in one of the major western religions. I’ve found that most Atheists that left a major religion retain most of the moral precepts that went with that religion. In fact, many Atheists I’ve encountered left because they saw too many members of their religion ignore their major teachings. I think for many people it would be more accurate to say that they were Christian, Muslim, or Jewish and are now Atheist. That’s going to tell the listener a lot more about how you view the world. But after years, or decades, of not following any religion, I don’t know if that would be very effective either.

I do think it’s important to have an Atheist community, whether or not some people want to call organized Atheism a religion. When I first discovered that I was an Atheist, I had no one to talk about it with for years. I felt totally alone in my lack of belief, awash in a culture that was predominantly Christian. Finding other Atheists and hearing and reading about their experiences was definitely a comforting experience for me (even if the organized Atheist culture can get going on some strange tangents).

As of now, if it comes up, I refer to myself as not religious. We could argue about whether or not that tells the listener any more than saying “I’m an Atheist” does, but at least the phrase “not religious” isn’t as incindiary for some people as atheism is.

First Impressions of London

Been in London a day, and thought I’d share some differences between the US and the UK that I’ve seen already:

-Even though they drive on the left, they walk on the right. Why is this?!?!?

-They aren’t called bathrooms, they’re called toilets. Which makes a lot more sense, since they don’t have showers or bathtubs. This is how it is for public restrooms anyway.

-If you’re paying in cash, it’s easy to end up with a pocket full of coins that’s worth nearly 10 pounds, since they have both one and two pound coins.

-The internationality of London is truly impressive. Being from the Bay Area I’m used to hearing different languages – but at the rate of about one a day. In London in one day I probably heard 12-15.

-Being in a country that doesn’t have the tipping culture that the US does has been surprisingly stressful. I didn’t realize that I viewed tipping 20% as a moral imperative until I tried to not do it…

-The crosswalks aren’t right at the intersections the way they are in the US. Though the lights aren’t right at the intersections either. In London all the parts of intersections are more spread out than in the US, and I imagine that makes them safer.

-It’s weird that all the news that happened in the US happened while I was sleeping, and most of the day has gone by before the news in the US starts up again.

-I was not prepared for the humidity. It’s humid like Houston or New Orleans here. For some reason I thought the air would be dry.

-An apartment building burned in London, and on the news last night the presenter absolutely grilled the Prime Minister about it. The Prime Minister!

-British Strawberries are surprisingly sour.


Understanding the UK Election that just happened

My friend Nick posted a brief primer on the UK elections since so many of us in the US don’t really know how stuff works over there. I thought it was quite helpful, so I’m sharing it here. Image courtesy of Google:

Nick: A quick primer on UK elections because it’s always neat to hear how other people do things, and because I spent a lot of money on a degree that I don’t use so I’m going to at least do something with it.

Anyway, the most obvious difference between how we do it and how they do it is that there’s only a month of campaigning compared to our 18+ months. This is a result of having no presidential election. Each party has a head, and the head of the party that has 51+% of seats in Parliament becomes Prime Minister. The party head has to have a seat in Parliament, though, so it would be like all the Republicans in our House and Senate choosing a president from amongst themselves. Since the party determines who leads the country, there’s no need for a super long election–all you’re voting on is who represents you in Parliament and letting the Members of Parliament choose who leads the country. Elections are automatically held every 5 years, but the Prime Minister can call an early election if they have 2/3 approval–Early elections, like the one going on today, are a tactical affair. You run them if you think your party is popular enough to gain seats, otherwise you let the clock run out and hope for the best after 5 years.

The more subtle, but far bigger and more important, difference is that in the US you have to live where you’re representing. I live in California’s 19th district, so if I wanted to run for the House I’d have to run here. This leads to a lot of gerrymandering where parties draw borders that are advantageous to them. Each UK party has its own selection process for candidates, but the important part is that theoretically anyone can run anywhere. So if I was a hot shot up and coming Democratic politician living in San Jose, I could run here for the CA19 seat, or I could run for CA50, or I could go nuts and run for AK1. At first blush you might think that this means no gerrymandering, but in reality it means the ENTIRE COUNTRY is gerrymandered. The parties know where their voters are concentrated, so they know which districts are safe and will stand their most important candidates there to guarantee they win. They put hot shot up and comers like me in bad districts to teach me how to run a campaign and to see if I can move the needle at all–steal an extra couple percentage points off the safe candidate. If I perform well, next time there’s a General Election they’ll put me in a better situation.

All of this emphasizes party loyalty among voters. You’re expected to vote for your party no matter what, and, in turn, when elected they will vote the party line in Parliament no matter what. Crossing the aisle to vote against your party is a good way to get shuffled off into a bad district come the next General Election. Historically this has been the opposite of the American political system–we vote for individuals we think will best represent us, and when they get to Congress they’re supposed to represent the interests of their home district. This leads to compromises and bipartisan co-operation. HISTORICALLY. We’ve changed culturally over the last 30 years and party has started to take precidence over the individual. Congress is broken right now because it’s halfway between its old setup of bipartisan government of majority rule with minority rights, and a new system of dictatorial party orthodoxy. Either one works just fine, but needs an appropriate electoral system to support it. So either we need to change how we elect our folks to match the British system, or we need to change how our officials govern to match the old American system.


Evan: Thank you Professor Nick! Now can you tell us what the political/ideological stances are of the parties in England? I don’t know what this election means.

Nick: I don’t know enough about it! But I think it’s something like:
Conservatives: Basically our Republicans/Libertarians. They want to go back to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Labour: Basically our Democrats, but more economically socialist. They want to go back to Bill Clinton, and bring back some discarded/underfunded social welfare programs.

Scottish Nationalists: Minor player (they have, like, 1/10th the seats that the Conservatives have), all I know is that ScotsNats are very pro-EU and pro-Scottish autonomy. They’re the third-largest party with something like 35 seats.

Democratic Unionist Party: Don’t know anything about them except that they’re in northeast Northern Ireland, and according to Helen Zaltsman they’re ideologically aligned with the Conservatives. So presumably they want out of the EU. They have, like, 5 seats.

Plaid Cymru: Welsh Independence Party that I looked up because their name is Plaid Cymru. Don’t know much about them beyond that their goal is independence from the UK, but to remain within the EU. They have, like, 5 seats (GUESS WHERE? DID YOU SAY WALES?)

UK Independence Party: These are the ultra-reactionaries like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that are borderline fascists. They had 2 seats going in, they have 0 seats now. Their party seems to be dead.

Liberal Democrats: I know nothing about them. But I know “Liberal” in the UK refers to capital-L Liberalism, so free trade and working more closely with the EU.

Sin Feinn: Wants Northern Ireland to unite with Ireland. When I was in college they would win seats, but wouldn’t send their MPs to Parliament.

The coalition that forms is going to have such a slim majority that I’m legitimately curious to see what, if anything, Sin Feinn does. Like, maybe they cut a deal with the Conservatives to form a coalition through Brexit, then in return they get to join with Ireland? Probably not! As I said, I don’t know anywhere near enough about them