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

It’s time to put a black dog to sleep

Blogging has opened up a new well of anxiety for me. It’s time I addressed it. I wasn’t originally planning on this blog being personal – but this is what I have to write so I may as well write it.

Let me give you some of the backstory of why this feels the way it does for me.

I have always loved to write. I have been writing my entire life. The sweet spot, as I think of it, of communication in general is when what you’re communicating resonates with the audience and the speaker or writer at the same time – and I love to hit that spot.

During my sophomore year of high school I needed a change. I was really unsatisfied with my high school experience at that point. So when I found the opportunity to take college courses held at Stanford during the summer on things I really cared about (Comparative Politics and Rhetoric, right up my alley), I jumped at the chance.

I loved it. It opened my eyes to a lot, I met a lot of people, and made a life long friend. And, I didn’t do as well on the essays in my courses as I wanted to.

When I came back to school in the fall, I was ready to take on the world. I signed up for Honors English (because I wanted to improve my writing) and AP History. I became an editor for the school paper. I tried out for the school play. I volunteered for student government.

I did well at it all… except Honors English. I could not get good grades on the essays. In fact, I was getting the worst grades of my life. Worst of all, was I didn’t know why. Nothing my teacher said about the grades I was getting made sense to me.

I failed Honors English that first semester, while getting straight A’s in all my other classes. While co-editing the student paper and writing a bunch of articles for it, performing in the school play, and volunteering for the bond campaign to raise money to upgrade the school facilities. I failed the next semester too. I never understood why my teacher gave me the grades he did. I never understood what was missing from my writing.

It was the first time, maybe the only time, that I wanted to improve something about myself and wasn’t able to do it. I had failed plenty of times at plenty of things, but before I had always learned something from the failure. This time I learned nothing. It has haunted me ever since. It didn’t matter that I later had a regular column in the local newspaper, or that I had a handful of poems published each year in the school poetry publication. Or that people told me my whole life that I was a good writer. I always felt that there was something missing. I could never shake the feeling that there was just something that I didn’t get.

Now, whenever I go to write for my blog, I feel this feeling again. Time has not healed this wound. I found myself today in a milieu of emotions. I have so much to write – I’m not even close to writing all the blogs I wanted to write before I started this blog, yet alone the ones I’ve thought of after – yet I found myself questioning stuff I’m very clear I want to say. I found myself doubting my ability to write anything well. I found myself… wanting to give up.

Now you can see what I do when I have a feeling that I can’t resolve myself. This is how I confront it, let it wash over me, and move past it. By writing about it. This is why I must keep writing.

That, and I have a lot to say. Thank you all for reading.

Consent at Work

Consent isn’t just for sex. It’s great that we’re all finally realizing that without consent it isn’t called sex, it’s called rape. But limiting our conversations about consent to just intimate relations really limits the power of the conversation that we are having about consent as a society. I’m going to argue that sex is the third most powerful thing that we can apply consent to. The second most powerful thing is work. The first… well the first thing we’ll get to later.

How do I mean?

-Mandatory overtime is not consent. Telling someone that they have to work extra hours then they planned, even if it’s just a few minutes, with the threat of some sort of consequences if they don’t, violates whatever trust your employees have in you.

-Mandatory holiday work is not consent. It’s one thing if you hire someone specifically to work the holidays. But it’s another to tell your staff that they have to work on holidays or face consequences.

-Suddenly changing job descriptions is not consent. You can certainly get consent about changing a job description, but if you are simply announcing to your employee that their job is now going to be different – you are not getting consent.

-Dictating job performance metrics is not consent.

-Ignoring your employees input is not consent.

-Limiting time off from work is not consent.

-Being told who to hire and who to let go is not consent.

We have a word for performing labor without consent: slavery. I’m not saying that everyone who works is a slave, but I am saying that anyone who works in an environment that does not respect consent experiences a similar level of shame and disempowerment.

I feel like I’m just scratching the surface here. This might become an ongoing series as I flush out the topic. Stay tuned…