The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Why I am an atheist – The first bit

It’s a sin to kiss girls for pleasure.

Or at least, that’s what the Catholic religious studies teacher said to his class of impressionable 13-year-old boys, on an otherwise uneventful day, at an otherwise unremarkable school, in Sydney’s north west. While most of the boys nodded their heads in solemn approval, and a few struggled to stifle their sniggers, one of the boys did neither. For that boy, something about the teacher’s pronouncement just didn’t make sense. So he sat for a moment in ponderous silence, until he was struck by a sudden realisation.

“Oh my god!” he blasphemed internally. “That means it’s OK to kiss them as punishment! And it’s OK to kiss boys for pleasure.”

Needless to say, Thomas went on to become a Catholic priest, and an expert in Canon Law. Funnily enough, I also happened to be in that class, but I was struck by a different thought.

Why else would you kiss girls?
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Now that I am an atheist, it’s easy to look back at events like that and say, in a Wonder Years voice, that that’s when I knew. That was the moment. That was the first, small tug on the thread of my religious belief, that led to the unraveling of my entire Catholic cardigan. It’s also easy to say that it was the reason I didn’t kiss a girl until I was 19, but if I’m being honest, it had little to do with either at the time. The truth is that I was an insufferable little holy child, up to my holy little eyeballs in Jesus. And my teacher’s idiotic pronouncement on kissing, while slightly puzzling when I was 13, didn’t announce itself as completely idiotic until much later.

Until that happy thought dawned on me, however, I had a religion to immerse myself in. So after being born, somewhat ironically, in the City of Churches (now known as Radelaide), I set about Catholic-ing the absolute shït out of it. I prayed. I learned my Catechism. I gave up lollies for Lent (well, sort of). I had my Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation. I went to confession and told a celibate old man that I was a really shït 13-year-old. I had that same celibate old man tell me that if I said three Hail Marys I’d be turned back into a not-quite-as-shït 13-year-old. I asked for, and was given, a missal for my birthday. I went to Mass. I capitalised the word “Mass”. I accepted the absolute, mind-mashing lunacy of transubstantiation. I went to Mass and believed that I was eating a thin, tasteless wafer made of actual Baby Jesus. And when I ate Baby Jesus, I made sure to have the priest put Him straight on my tongue, lest I get some Baby Jesus on my hands, and then put my hand in my pocket, and then put my pants in the washing machine, and end up drowning poor Baby Jesus in warm water and OMO (no, I’m not joking). I wore a scapula. I said the Regina Coeli every midday during Lent, and the Angelus every midday otherwise. I had a guardian angel, who I named Raphael. And when I went to bed, I prayed for my elder brother’s immortal soul – out loud – while he was trying to sleep on the bunk above me (he was very grateful for the help, and didn’t think I was an annoying, pious little shït at all).

You might wonder why I felt the need to pray for my brother’s immortal soul. I mean, let’s face it, Sydney’s North West is a long way from Sodom, even before Hillsong moved in. But chief amongst our Catholic duties was going to Mass every Sunday, so we went to Mass every Sunday, until one day my brother decided not to go to Mass every Sunday. This was, embarrassingly, quite big news at the time. “But… but… we have to go to Mass on Sunday!”, I protested. Now, you might think that, being a child, my protestations were of the “it’s not fair that I have to go and he doesn’t” variety. Looking back now, I wish they were, but the truth is much more naff.

You see, one of the Ten Commandments is to honour the Sabbath. And according to the particular brand of Catholicism that I was exposed to (Opus Dei), that meant going to Mass on Sunday. Not going to Mass on Sunday therefore constituted a mortal sin – a sin considered so heinous that, if left unforgiven, warrants an eternity in Hell. So, essentially, if my brother skipped Mass and then got hit by a bus before going to confession, he’d end up in Hell all because he hadn’t gone and pretended to listen to a celibate old man turn a cracker into a miscreant Jewish tradie. I’d then be sad because I wouldn’t get to see him for all eternity because I was definitely going to heaven on account of my weekly consumption of the aforementioned tradie. This was a problem. So I did what any little brother would do and told one of my teachers. He then suggested the one course of action that was absolutely guaranteed to not accomplish anything – prayer – and I thus found myself annoying the living shït out of my brother, by praying for his soul from the bottom bunk. He of course told me to shut the hell up. And I of course prayed that god would forgive him for telling me to shut the hell up. And if I could wish for anything right now, I would wish that none of this actually happened.

In any event, my prayers had little effect. My brother did not start going to Mass, and he did not start going to confession to confess the fact that he wasn’t going to mass. I, meanwhile, began to wonder why god would send a perfectly nice human to hell for all eternity, for the perfectly understandable crime of not spending an hour listening to a celibate old man turn a wafer into Baby Jebus and then not going to confession to pretend to be sorry about it. The whole thing seemed a little… well… silly. Not to mention mean.

It was at that point that my parents and I decided that perhaps Opus Dei wasn’t the most sensible version of Catholicism, and we thought it might be a good time to throw our luck in with the Jesuits.

So we did.

And that’s when shït got interesting. But you’ll have to wait for Part 2. So there.

Let’s talk about… Quotas

No, not quokkas. That conversation has been had already, and everyone agrees that quokkas are the cutest marsupial-rat-type-thing going. I’m talking about quotas – the idea that equality can be achieved via the implementation of mandatory levels of representation in proportionally under-represented groups. In other words… more chicks, less dïcks. Not that it’s all about chicks and dïcks, but more on that later.

So, why talk about quotas now? Well, there’s a federal election just around the corner. And here in the previously-not-too-bad state of NSW, an election has just been had. I say “election”, but there wasn’t even a democracy sausage at my polling station, so it was more like “standing in line without food”. But it wasn’t just the polling station that was short on sausages – according to the Sydney Morning Herald, only 34% of lower house candidates were women. The statistic was even worse for the incumbent Liberal party, where less than one in four were women. And if we head to Canberra, which everyone loves to do, we can see a similar picture in the hallowed and very manly halls of Federal Parliament, where more than three-quarters of government seats are occupied by the pasty blue-suited bums of Liberal men. In fact, the situation is so bad that one analysis suggests the Liberal Party could soon have more Andrews than women. And if that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.

To everyone’s credit, it seems that both sides of politics recognise that this is a problem. The Labor party has had a quota in place since 1994, when it was set at 30%. Meanwhile, some guy in the government, who’s not even called called Andrew, said that “parliament is better when there is more diversity, and there is a challenge on our side to make that happen”. Good on ya, Daz… change your name to Andrew and you could really go places. But Daz isn’t the only one. Even the current temporary Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, conceded that “we are, I think, under-represented here in our parliamentary ranks”. Sure, given the statistics, his use of the “I think” qualifier is a little bit like saying “we are, I think, on a planet”. But he at least seems to be trying.

So… we can all see that it’s a problem. The issue, then, is what to do about it.

As I said above, the Labor party has already done something about it, by introducing a quota of 30% in 1994, and raising it steadily to a solid 50% as of right now. The Liberal party, on the other hand, has so far held off on an actual quota, preferring to… well… I’ll let ScoMo fill you in.

I am a merit person… Of course I want to see more women in the Federal Parliament. We have not done as well in that area as I would like us to do but the party members are the ones who have to take on that responsibility and they are the ones who have to make those decisions.

I have to admit, there is a certain logic to ScoMo’s reasoning, even if it is self-defeating. But we’ll get to that later. For now, we just need to ask ourselves one question – are quotas a good idea?

Through a purely outcomes-focused lens, we can see that, yes, they are a good idea. That is to say, if your aim is to increase the number of women in parliament, then making everyone increase the number of women in parliament will increase the number of women in parliament. And given that both sides of politics seem to be agreed that representative diversity is a great destination, quotas would be a quick and easy way to get there.

But is it the best way?

To answer that question, we need to look at why we’re having this discussion in the first place. Why are there so fewer women in our parliament, and in the parliaments of just about every other country on the planet?

Let’s go through the possible options.

1 – Chance

If we’re going to include all possible explanations, I guess we need to consider whether women and men are equally likely to be elected, but we just happen to be living in that one universe where a billion leadership coin tosses all came up males.

Thankfully, this explanation is ridiculously easy to dismiss. The plain truth is that for most of human history, if you were to randomly cast your gaze to one of the world’s cold thrones of power, you would almost always have found a couple of balls and a healthy sense of entitlement keeping it warm. And given the history of succession and property inheritance rules; rates of female employment; divorce law; attitudes to contraception, marital rape and abortion; and the need for a long and arduous universal suffrage movement, I think we can all agree that the current situation is less about chance, and more about the fact that kicking a four- or five- thousand-year-old habit can hurt like hell. Especially if you’re kicking it in the dïck.

In conclusion, I think we can safely ignore this one.

2 – Willingness

Given it’s not due to pure chance, another possible explanation is that despite being equally capable as men, women simply don’t want to be elected to parliament, so they don’t put themselves forward as candidates.

Historically, I think it’s difficult to argue otherwise. A woman’s place was in the home, you see. Men were perfectly suited to rule because they love to argue and yell and make laws about other people, and women were not suited because not only were they not even wearing suits but they were too busy looking after the kids and making doilies and being told what to do by men. Who on earth would take them seriously? It’s hardly surprising, then, that for a good long while women were a little reluctant to put themselves forward for public office.

And yet… quite a few of them did, and a story from my own family illustrates this quite nicely.

You may not be aware, but the first woman to be elected to the Federal House of Representatives (and Cabinet) was one Dame Enid Lyons, who was married to Joseph Lyons, the tenth Prime Minister of Australia, and also my great-grandmother on my father’s side. The first thing to note is that this means I’m kind of a big deal. The second thing to note is that, despite women being granted the right to be elected in 1902, Dame Enid’s trailblazing feat wasn’t accomplished until more than 40 years later, in 1943. But that’s not the family story.

In addition to being the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, and doing so while also raising 12 children, and being Commissioner of the ABC (created by her husband’s government), and living to a very respectable 84 years old, she was also kicked in the shins by my brother Daniel when he was three. But that’s not the family story.

The family story is that, when she first arrived at Parliament House, there were no female toilets. Yes, you read that right. Even more remarkable is that it’s not just a family story, it’s an actual fact, and even more amazing than that is that the first female toilet wasn’t installed until 1974. Given what I know about my family, I assume Dame Enid used to just go in Menzies’ filing cabinet, but that’s a story for another time. The main thing to take away is that it took us 50 years to give women the vote, 40 years to actually elect one, and 30 years to give them a toilet. And they still put themselves forward.

So, no, I don’t think a lack of willingness is the problem.

3 – People don’t vote for women

Of course, there’s always the possibility that no matter how many female candidates there are, people just won’t vote for a woman, because reasons.

In response, I would only suggest that if a bunch of 1940s Tasmanians managed to elect a ridiculously-named woman called “Enid”, who was a prolific baby-maker and married a man twice her age, then I don’t think the problem is with the voters.

4 – Ability

So… if it’s not due to chance, and it’s not due to a lack of willingness, and people have shown that they’re perfectly happy to elect a woman named Enid, could it just be that men are simply better at politician-ing than women?

This brings us back to our current temporary Prime Minister, who, as you will recall, is a “merit man”. Apart from having the worst super hero name of all time, Merit Man also has as his super-power the ability to always seek out and employ the best person for any job you care to mention. So when a Liberal party branch is trying their darndest to figure out who they should put forward for election, they just have to get Chief Wiggum to send up the Merit Signal (basically a Cronulla Sharks logo), and Merit Man will be there in a jiffy to pick the absolute bestest candidate for the job.

It’s a fine ideal. Who wouldn’t want to employ the best person for the job? It does, however, create an interesting perspective on the lack of female representation.

Just think about it for a second. You set up a system where you are absolutely determined to pick the best person for every job. But you end up in a situation where around four in five of your positions are filled by men. What could that possibly mean? Merit Man is never wrong… so… that must mean that… wait a minute… OMG! It obviously means that men are better than women! Right?

Well as far as I can tell, no one from either side of politics has tried to claim that men are inherently better at yelling in Parliament or going on taxpayer funded junkets or lying to their constituents or knocking down stadiums or stopping boats, which is apparently what being a politician is all about. So if no one is suggesting that men are actually better politicians than women, what, for the love of all that is holy, is the reason for so few women in parliament?

5 – Something else

We’ve ruled out chance. We’ve ruled out a lack of willingness. We’ve shown that people are perfectly willing to vote for women, even if they’re called Enid. And we’ve shown that no one is even considering the possibility that men are simply better politicians than women.

So, it has to be something else. And there is literally only one option left.

It goes by a few names. Systemic prejudice. Unconscious bias. Rampant misogyny. But at the root of it all, is something so simple and so ingrained in our collective conscious that we are apparently only just realising its full effect and extent. Good old fashioned sexism.

As I said, it’s the only option left.

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So what do we do about it?

To my mind, there are only two options. We can either reverse four or five thousand years of ingrained bias, or we can enact a simple fix that will guarantee the right result.

I think we should go with the latter. Because, as I said, kicking a four- or five-thousand-year-old habit can be tough. Especially when you’re kicking it in the dïck.

– Tim