Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tips are not optional, they are how waiters get paid in America


applebees god receipt

I was a waitress at Applebee's restaurant in Saint Louis. I was fired Wednesday for posting a picture on Reddit.com of a note a customer left on a bill. I posted it on the web as a light-hearted joke.
This didn't even happen at my table. The note was left for another server, who allowed me to take a picture of it at the end of the night.
Someone had scribbled on the receipt, "I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?"
I assumed the customer's signature was illegible, but I quickly started receiving messages containing Facebook profile links and websites, asking me to confirm the identity of the customer. I refused to confirm any of them, and all were incorrect.
I worked with the Reddit moderators to remove any personal information. I wanted to protect the identity of both my fellow server and the customer. I had no intention of starting a witch-hunt or hurting anyone.
Now I've been fired.
The person who wrote the note came across an article about it, called the Applebee's location, and demanded everyone be fired -- me, the server who allowed me to take the picture, the manager on duty at the time, the manager not on duty at the time, everyone. It seems I was fired not because Applebee's was represented poorly, not because I did anything illegal or against company policy, but because I embarrassed this person.
In light of the situation, I would like to make a statement on behalf of wait staff everywhere: We make $3.50 an hour. Most of my paychecks are less than pocket change because I have to pay taxes on the tips I make.
After sharing my tips with hosts, bussers, and bartenders, I make less than $9 an hour on average, before taxes. I am expected to skip bathroom breaks if we are busy. I go hungry all day if I have several busy tables to work. I am expected to work until 1:30am and then come in again at 10:30am to open the restaurant.
I have worked 12-hour double shifts without a chance to even sit down. I am expected to portray a canned personality that has been found to be least offensive to the greatest amount of people. And I am expected to do all of this, every day, and receive change, or even nothing, in return. After all that, I can be fired for "embarrassing" someone, who directly insults his or her server on religious grounds.
In this economy, $3.50 an hour doesn't cut it. I can't pay half my bills. Like many, I would love to see a reasonable, non-tip-dependent wage system for service workers like they have in other countries. But the system being flawed is not an excuse for not paying for services rendered.
I need tips to pay my bills. All waiters do. We spend an hour or more of our time befriending you, making you laugh, getting to know you, and making your dining experience the best it can be. We work hard. We care. We deserve to be paid for that.
I am trying to stand up for all of us who work for just a few dollars an hour at places like Applebee's. Whether a chain steakhouse or a black-tie establishment, tipping is not optional. It is how we get paid.
I posted a picture to make people laugh, but now I want to make a serious point: Things like this happen to servers all the time. People seem to think that the easiest way to save money on a night out is to skip the tip
I can't understand why I was fired over this. I was well liked and respected at Applebee's. My sales were high, my managers had no problems with me, and I was even hoping to move up to management soon. When I posted this, I didn't represent Applebee's in a bad light. In fact, I didn't represent them at all.

I did my best to protect the identity of all parties involved. I didn't break any specific guidelines in the company handbook – I checked. But because this person got embarrassed that their selfishness was made public, Applebee's has made it clear that they would rather lose a dedicated employee than an angry customer. That's a policy I can't understand.
I am equally baffled about how a religious tithe is in any way related to paying for services at a restaurant. I can understand why someone could be upset with an automatic gratuity. However, it's a plainly stated Applebee's policy that a tip is added automatically for parties over eight like the one this customer was part of. I cannot control that kind of tip; it's done by the computer that the orders are put into. I've been stiffed on tips before, but this is the first time I've seen the "Big Man" used as reasoning.
Obviously the person who wrote this note wanted it seen by someone. It's strange that now that the audience is wider than just the server, the person is ashamed.
I have no agenda here. I seek no revenge against the note writer. I have no interest in exposing their identity, and, at this point, I'm not even sure I want my job back. I was just trying to make a joke, but I came home unemployed.
I've been waiting tables to save up some money so I could finally go to college, so I could get an education that would qualify me for a job that doesn't force me to sell my personality for pocket change.
While this story has garnered immense media attention, my story is not uncommon. Bad tips and harsh notes are all part of the job. People get fired to keep customers happy every day.
As this story has gotten popular, I've received inquiries as to where people can send money to support me. As a broke kid trying to get into college, it's certainly appealing, but I'd really rather you make a difference to your next server. I'd rather you keep that money and that generosity for the next time you eat out.

by  Chelsea Welch

I used to get embarrassingly drunk on New Year's Eve. Then I quit drinking


happy new year dogs

I was never the girl who enjoyed ringing in the new year at a club: being short and slender, I always felt anxious and overwhelmed in large crowds. In small groups, I obsessed that I didn’t fit in. And, since New Year’s Eve is also my birthday, the pressure to have the Best Night Ever usually became overwhelming.
So I drank. That’s what you’re supposed to do anyway, right?
Between the drinking and the anxiety, often I was in the bathroom when the clock struck twelve. Once, as the clock struck midnight, I was elbowing people out of my way trying to reach the front door in the midst of a panic attack, hapless boyfriend reluctantly in tow. Another night, I drunk-dialed a random guy I’d met online – and with whom I’d been on one (and only one) disastrous date – inviting him over and begging him to stay the night.
There was a time that I drank to relax and have fun. Then I discovered that the nervousness that crippled me at cocktail parties and the financial pressure I felt knowing I’d spent too much money on holiday gifts dissolved in my in my vodka seltzer (easy on the seltzer). I even found I could ignore the concern for my waistline when I ate that third or fourth canapĂ©, so long as the eggnog was spiked.
When drugs and alcohol were on the scene, I was doing them. People drink to soften the edges, I often told myself – but my edges were too jagged to be smoothed away with one beer and being under the influence only made my anxieties worse. Other areas of my life deteriorated: I gained weight, I went deeper into debt and, worst of all, I made a mess of many of my relationships.
So then I got sober.
But it didn’t fix everything – let alone make for an enjoyable holiday. My first New Year’s Eve after getting sober, I was fighting with my live-in boyfriend at the time and deeply unhappy with my life. In tears, I’d locked myself in the bathroom, and cried because eight months of abstinence from alcohol had done as little to wash away my problems as drinking had.
That was seven years ago. I learned that sobriety is about more than putting down the glass – it’s about addressing the issues that made me feel like I needed the drink in the first place, which I’ve done with some assistance. But the issues still resurface every holiday

.The temptations are everywhere. From endless parties and family gatherings you feel obligated to attend, to the rich foods you regrettably indulge in, and the expensive presents you feel compelled to purchase but can’t afford, it’s a time of year engineered for consumption. For a “more” girl like me, it can be hard to say “no”. And even now, after years of sobriety, I sometimes still feel pressure to explain my history to every stranger who politely and casually offers me a glass of something.
New Year’s Eve raises even more questions: do I go out or feel left out? Do I stay at home alone and just watch the ball drop to avoid temptation? How do I deal with friends who pressure me to ring in the New Year with a glass of champagne? If I’m at a party and not drinking, what’s my excuse? I know I’m going to need one when he asks if he can get me a drink, then asks why not, then asks what it means that I’m not drinking and finally asks whether I never drink or just not tonight?
For now, I resolve all those questions for simply staying in. I celebrate my birthday in the morning with my girlfriends over brunch and, in the evening, I order in and cuddle up with my dog. I don’t go to Times Square. I don’t go to a club. I don’t eat an expensive meal. Instead, during the season of “more”, I practice a little gratitude for what I’ve finally got – namely, the good sense to know when enough is enough.

BY Melissa Petro
THINGS TO KNOW FOR TODAY

1. WHAT'S HINDERING INDONESIA PLANE CRASH RECOVERY
Bad weather is slowing efforts to find victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 - 7 bodies have so far been recovered - and rough seas are sending wreckage drifting away from the crash site.
2. WORLD BEGINS RINGING IN NEW YEAR
Sydney greets 2015 with a dazzling 12-minute fireworks display. Later, more than 1 million people are expected to flock to Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach, and New York will drop its trademark Waterford crystal ball.
3. PALESTINIANS MAY SEEK INT'L CRIMINAL COURT MEMBERSHIP
The Palestinians have long vowed to join the ICC in order to press charges against Israel for alleged war crimes.
4. NINE DEAD, INCLUDING TWO CHILDREN, IN RAMPAGE IN CANADA
Edmonton's police chief blames a domestic dispute for the "senseless mass murder."
5. CHILD ACCIDENTALLY SHOOTS, KILLS MOTHER AT WAL-MART
The little boy reached into Veronica J. Rutledge's purse and her concealed gun fired, according to the Kootenai County, Idaho, sheriff's department.
6. HOW EBOLA OUTBREAK MAY HAVE BEGUN
Researchers tentatively trace the outbreak's origin to a hollow tree where infected bats lived in a small village in Guinea.
7. RED SQUARE RALLY LEADS TO ARRESTS
Demonstrators were protesting the court conviction of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother.
8. WHO MAKES DEBUT AT SAN DIEGO ZOO
A four-day-old baby gorilla, as yet unnamed, is shown to the public as his mother cradles and nurses him.
9. HOW SOUTH KOREAN ACTIVIST PLANS TO SEND `THE INTERVIEW' NORTH
Park Sang-hak says he will launch balloons carrying DVDs of the controversial comedy toward North Korea, where it's banned.
10. RAVENS SECURITY DIRECTOR FACES SEX OFFENSE CHARGE
Darren Sanders is charged with fourth-degree sexual offense, related to an incident that occurred Dec. 14, court records show.

2015 and all that

People watch as confetti falls during the annual "air worthiness" test in preparation for New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square, New York

The last day of the year and all is quiet – but not for long.
Unless the price of oil bounces markedly or Vladimir Putin walks away from Ukraine thereby loosening western sanctions – both unlikely – Russia could be heading for a serious economic fall. Reserves are being burned defending the currency. They are sufficient for now but without hefty tax increases, public spending cuts and/or a higher pension age the outlook for 2016 and beyond is much gloomier.
By then foreign currency reserves and the country’s rainy day funds could be exhausted and if oil keeps dropping that day will be hastened. Even now, with interest rates at a punitive 17 percent, the government is forecasting a deep recession next year coupled with double-digit inflation – i.e. stagflation.
Ordinary Russians are really going to feel this from the new year.
One bank has already been bailed out and the economic slump and unstable rouble could well push others into strife. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s says it may cut Russia’s credit rating into junk territory as soon as mid-January.
How will Putin respond to all this? That’s the 64 billion rouble question. The increase in military spending to 35 percent of Russia’s entire budget next year is something to ponder.
Ukraine will have to get money from the IMF and European Union soon or face an even more dismal position.
Greek elections on Jan. 25 exemplify the big political question for western Europe — will the centre hold? Even if anti-bailout Syriza wins it will need coalition partners which may temper its approach, and given it is intent on staying in the euro zone it will have to negotiate with Berlin and Brussels rather than simply walk away from its debts and austerity commitments.
With a banking union now in place in Europe, most Greek debt held by other euro zone governments and the European Central Bank poised to launch into quantitative easing, there are good reasons to think that Greece can no longer threaten the currency bloc as a whole, no matter what happens.
But all the focus has been on financial contagion. There is also the issue of political contagion with parties from outside the establishment and centre ground burgeoning in any number of EU countries.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras wasted no time this week swapping supportive tweets with the leader of Spain’s surging left-wing Podemos party. The far right is strengthening in France, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. The Irish government is teetering despite a strong recovery there. Then there is the most unpredictable British general election for generations in May. That could bring the prospect of Britain leaving the EU a step closer.
This time next year, one can only guess at what the European political landscape will look like.
Economically, the glass half full brigade say all will be well if the European Central Bank launches unlimited government bond-buying with new money – possibly at its late January meeting.
ECB President Mario Draghi has made it abundantly clear that he will move with a majority behind him so opponents of QE on the Governing Council will not have the numbers to stop it. The question is whether Draghi can marshall his forces to back an unlimited programme or whether the likes of Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann will succeed in limiting its scope. If it is the latter it is unlikely to do the trick in reviving a moribund euro zone economy.
A deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is due to be struck in broad outline by the end of March and against Islamic State, Washington and Tehran are at least fighting on the same side. How closely they are operating together is a matter for debate.
A deal with Iran could help unlock a transition out of war in Syria. The Assad regime is ultimately reliant on the support of Iran. Failure, and regional sectarian splits are likely to widen.
Islamic State may have been curbed by U.S. air strikes helping Iraqi and Kurdish forces but the group still controls swathes of Iraq and Syria and the future for both countries looks fractured. IS also appears to be opening new fronts: in the Sinai peninsula, in Libya, possibly Yemen.
As the death toll nears 8,000, the early months of 2015 will be crucial for efforts to get on top of Ebola. The scientist who helped discover the virus in 1976 predicts it will last through 2015.
A major U.S. military deployment to build treatment centres has helped slow new cases there but the virus continues to spread in Guinea and is doing so intensely in Sierra Leone. Authorities are more attuned to the risks and need for immediate contact tracing, suggesting outbreaks will be better contained.
That brings us back full circle to electoral politics. Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, top oil producer and most populous nation goes to the polls mid-February with an Islamist insurgency that makes any sort of credible election in the northeast impossible. The collapse of oil prices and lacklustre economy after four years of President Goodluck Jonathan means it could be a close race.
Every country will be affected by the price of oil in 2015. Stay low and it will boost spending power and growth but also quite possibly push inflation in the euro zone deeply negative. For oil producers be they Russia, Nigeria or Iraq, the outlook is more straightforwardly bleak. That may shake the global kaleidoscope more than anything else.
Happy new year to you all!

Why Vladimir Putin is a hero to some in Western Europe, too

Russian President Putin is seen on a screen during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow

During the Cold War era, Western communists often looked to Moscow for ideological inspiration, economic help and political support. The Soviet Union, for its part, was more than happy to oblige. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism is long gone, but some European party leaders are once more reviving ties with Russia, for very different reasons.
In an interview this month, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National party, expressed her admiration for Putin. “There is a cold war being waged against him by the European Union at the behest of United States, which is defending its own interests,” she said. Le Pen, whose party catapulted to first place in France in the EU’s parliamentary elections this year, applauded Putin’s brand of nationalism. “He has managed to restore pride and contentment to a great nation,” she said.
Le Pen is one of many European far right-wing leaders who support Putin. Matteo Salvini, the head of the rightist Lega Nord and a rising star in Italian politics, signed a deal this October between his and Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party based on what he called common values. And during the Crimean “referendum” — which legitimized Russia’s fait accompli annexation of the Ukrainian province — at least 12 European right-wing parties accepted the controversial invitation to act as ‘observers.’
So what makes Putin appealing to Europe’s far right?  Many of these movements see Putin as a protector of continental European values. They welcome the Russian leader’s conservative positions on issues like homosexuality, especially as support for gay rights grows in the West. They also share common opponents. Putin is strongly opposed to the European Union — he sees the eastward expansion of the bloc as an encroachment on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. The majority of Europe’s far right, meanwhile, sees the EU as equally hegemonic. They say it has robbed European member states of their sovereignty, and many are advocating breaking away from it.
But it is Putin’s style of leadership which best explains the far right’s attraction to him. Beginning with the years between the two World Wars, the far right has consistently looked for strong leaders to inspire a dedicated mass of followers. Benito Mussolini was the first, though not all subsequent leaders idolized by the extreme right were fascists. Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher, who were renowned for their firm grip on their respective parties and parliaments, were held in high esteem by the far right for their unwavering nationalist and anti-leftist positions. Today, Putin fills that role.
Putin offers just what far right today wants. In Western Europe, the economic downturn and the EU’s austerity policies have contributed to a rise of public anger about everything from liberalism to immigration. Putin, who has built his political career on rebuilding the prestige of Moscow, has created a model for regaining grandeur that they are keen to follow. Similarly, they see the assertive ethno-nationalism in Russia as an answer to Europe’s woes.
All of this sycophancy has benefitted Putin. Moscow is keen to foster links with Europe’s far-right groups as a way to diminish its international isolation. According to some reports, it is directing considerable amounts of money towards these parties, as a way to bolster Russia’s image nationally and internationally. Consider that France’s Front National recently admitted to receiving 9 million euros from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank, which has ties to Putin, to cover their electoral expenses.
You would be forgiven for thinking this all sounds very similar to the days of the Iron Curtain. But where will this all end? The far right may become more closely linked to the political elite in Russia. Increased funds could help their visibility, propaganda, and electoral results.
However, it is far from sure that all of these parties will be benefit from promoting solidarity with Russia’s foreign policies. Some movements have been receiving negative coverage in their own nations for their nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-EU stances – and being pro-Putin can be yet another obstacle to attracting further public support.
Right now, what is clear is that we are seeing a peculiar phase of European politics: the heirs of fascism smile across the Urals at the sons of Soviet communism, while the rest of the continent looks on with some bemusement.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reading the world in 196 books


(Photo: Darren Russell)

(Photo: Darren Russell)

Writer Ann Morgan set herself a challenge – to read a book from every country in the world in one year. She describes the experience and what she learned.
I used to think of myself as a fairly cosmopolitan sort of person, but my bookshelves told a different story. Apart from a few Indian novels and the odd Australian and South African book, my literature collection consisted of British and American titles. Worse still, I hardly ever tackled anything in translation. My reading was confined to stories by English-speaking authors.
So, at the start of 2012, I set myself the challenge of trying to read a book from every country (well, all 195 UN-recognised states plus former UN member Taiwan) in a year to find out what I was missing.
With no idea how to go about this beyond a sneaking suspicion that I was unlikely to find publications from nearly 200 nations on the shelves of my local bookshop, I decided to ask the planet’s readers for help. I created a blog called A Year of Reading the World and put out an appeal for suggestions of titles that I could read in English.
The response was amazing. Before I knew it, people all over the planet were getting in touch with ideas and offers of help. Some posted me books from their home countries. Others did hours of research on my behalf. In addition, several writers, like Turkmenistan’s Ak Welsapar and Panama’s Juan David Morgan, sent me unpublished translations of their novels, giving me a rare opportunity to read works otherwise unavailable to the 62% of Brits who only speak English. Even with such an extraordinary team of bibliophiles behind me, however, sourcing books was no easy task. For a start, with translations making up only around 4.5 per cent of literary works published in the UK and Ireland, getting English versions of stories was tricky.
Small states
This was particularly true for francophone and lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) African countries. There’s precious little on offer for states such as the Comoros, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique – I had to rely on unpublished manuscripts for several of these. And when it came to the tiny island nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I would have been stuck without a team of volunteers in Europe and the US who translated a book of short stories by Santomean writer Olinda Beja just so that I could have something to read.
Then there were places where stories are rarely written down. If you’re after a good yarn in the Marshall Islands, for example, you’re more likely to go and ask the local iroij’s (chief’s) permission to hear one of the local storytellers than you are to pick up a book. Similarly, in Niger, legends have traditionally been the preserve of griots (expert narrators-cum-musicians trained in the nation’s lore from around the age of seven). Written versions of their fascinating performances are few and far between – and can only ever capture a small part of the experience of listening for yourself.
If that wasn’t enough, politics threw me the odd curveball too. The foundation of South Sudan on 9 July 2011 – although a joyful event for its citizens, who had lived through decades of civil war to get there – posed something of a challenge. Lacking roads, hospitals, schools or basic infrastructure, the six-month-old country seemed unlikely to have published any books since its creation. If it hadn’t been for a local contact putting me in touch with writer Julia Duany, who penned me a bespoke short story, I might have had to catch a plane to Juba and try to get someone to tell me a tale face to face.
All in all, tracking down stories like these took as much time as the reading and blogging. It was a tall order to fit it all in around work and many were the nights when I sat bleary-eyed into the small hours to make sure I stuck to my target of reading one book every 1.87 days.
Head space
But the effort was worth it. As I made my way through the planet’s literary landscapes, extraordinary things started to happen. Far from simply armchair travelling, I found I was inhabiting the mental space of the storytellers. In the company of Bhutanese writer Kunzang Choden, I wasn’t simply visiting exotic temples, but seeing them as a local Buddhist would. Transported by the imagination of Galsan Tschinag, I wandered through the preoccupations of a shepherd boy in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains.  With Nu Nu Yi as my guide, I experienced a religious festival in Myanmar from a transgender medium’s perspective. 
In the hands of gifted writers, I discovered, bookpacking offered something a physical traveller could hope to experience only rarely: it took me inside the thoughts of individuals living far away and showed me the world through their eyes. More powerful than a thousand news reports, these stories not only opened my mind to the nuts and bolts of life in other places, but opened my heart to the way people there might feel.
And that in turn changed my thinking. Through reading the stories shared with me by bookish strangers around the globe, I realised I was not an isolated person, but part of a network that stretched all over the planet.
One by one, the country names on the list that had begun as an intellectual exercise at the start of the year transformed into vital, vibrant places filled with laughter, love, anger, hope and fear. Lands that had once seemed exotic and remote became close and familiar to me – places I could identify with. At its best, I learned, fiction makes the world real.

Will religion ever disappear?

(Getty Images)

A growing number of people, millions worldwide, say they believe that life definitively ends at death – that there is no God, no afterlife and no divine plan. And it’s an outlook that could be gaining momentum – despite its lack of cheer. In some countries, openly acknowledged atheism has never been more popular.
“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life. According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% – bringing the world’s estimated proportion of adamant non-believers to 13%.
While atheists certainly are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely?
It’s impossible to predict the future, but examining what we know about religion – including why it evolved in the first place, and why some people chose to believe in it and others abandon it – can hint at how our relationship with the divine might play out in decades or centuries to come. 
Scholars are still trying to tease out the complex factors that drive an individual or a nation toward atheism, but there are a few commonalities. Part of religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief,” Zuckerman says. Capitalism, access to technology and education also seems to correlate with a corrosion of religiosity in some populations, he adds.
Crisis of faith
Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, France and Uruguay (where the majority of citizens have European roots) are all places where religion was important just a century or so ago, but that now report some of the lowest belief rates in the world. These countries feature strong educational and social security systems, low inequality and are all relatively wealthy. “Basically, people are less scared about what might befall them,” says Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Yet decline in belief seems to be occurring across the board, including in places that are still strongly religious, such as Brazil, Jamaica and Ireland. “Very few societies are more religious today than they were 40 or 50 years ago,” Zuckerman says. “The only exception might be Iran, but that’s tricky because secular people might be hiding their beliefs.” 
The US, too, is an outlier in that it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also has high rates of religiosity. (Still, a recent Pew surveyrevealed that, between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of Americans who said they are atheist rose from 1.6% to 2.4%.)
Decline, however, does not mean disappearance, says Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Big Gods. Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis. As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity. “People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning,” Norenzayan says. “For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of.”
This phenomenon constantly plays out in hospital rooms and disaster zones around the world. In 2011, for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly secular society. There was asudden spike of religiosity in the people who experienced that event, but the rest of the country remained as secular as ever. While exceptions to this rule do exist – religion in Japan plummeted following World War II, for instance – for the most part, Zuckerman says, we adhere by the Christchurch model. “If experiencing something terrible caused all people to become atheists, then we’d all be atheists,” he says.  
The mind of god
But even if the world’s troubles were miraculously solved and we all led peaceful lives in equity, religion would probably still be around. This is because a god-shaped hole seems to exist in our species’ neuropsychology, thanks to a quirk of our evolution.
Understanding this requires a delve into “dual process theory”. This psychological staple states that we have two very basic forms of thought: System 1 and System 2. System 2 evolved relatively recently. It’s the voice in our head – the narrator who never seems to shut up – that enables us to plan and think logically.
System 1, on the other hand, is intuitive, instinctual and automatic. These capabilities regularly develop in humans, regardless of where they are born. They are survival mechanisms. System 1 bestows us with an innate revulsion of rotting meat, allows us to speak our native language without thinking about it and gives babies the ability to recognise parents and distinguish between living and nonliving objects. It makes us prone to looking for patterns to better understand our world, and to seek meaning for seemingly random events like natural disasters or the death of loved ones.
In addition to helping us navigate the dangers of the world and find a mate, some scholars think that System 1 also enabled religions to evolve and perpetuate. System 1, for example, makes us instinctually primed to see life forces – a phenomenon called hypersensitive agency detection – everywhere we go, regardless of whether they’re there or not. Millennia ago, that tendency probably helped us avoid concealed danger, such as lions crouched in the grass or venomous snakes concealed in the bush. But it also made us vulnerable to inferring the existence of invisible agents – whether they took the form of a benevolent god watching over us, an unappeased ancestor punishing us with a drought or a monster lurking in the shadows.
Similarly, System 1 encourages us to see things dualistically, meaning we have trouble thinking of the mind and body as a single unit. This tendency emerges quite early: young children, regardless of their cultural background, are inclined to believe that they have an immortal soul – that their essence or personhood existed somewhere prior to their birth, and will always continue to exist. This disposition easily assimilates into many existing religions, or – with a bit of creativity – lends itself to devising original constructs.
A Scandinavian psychologist colleague of mine who is an atheist told me that his three-year-old daughter recently walked up to him and said, ‘God is everywhere all of the time.’ He and his wife couldn’t figure out where she’d gotten that idea from,” says Justin Barrett, director of the Thrive Center for Human Development at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and author of Born Believers. “For his daughter, god was an elderly woman, so you know she didn’t get it from the Lutheran church.”
For all of these reasons, many scholars believe that religion arose as “a byproduct of our cognitive disposition”, says Robert McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. “Religions are cultural arrangements that evolved to engage and exploit these natural capacities in humans.”
Hard habits to break
Atheists must fight against all of that cultural and evolutionary baggage. Human beings naturally want to believe that they are a part of something bigger, that life isn’t completely futile. Our minds crave purpose and explanation. “With education, exposure to science and critical thinking, people might stop trusting their intuitions,” Norenzayan says. “But the intuitions are there.”
On the other hand, science – the system of choice that many atheists and non-believers look to for understanding the natural world – is not an easy cognitive pill to swallow. Science is about correcting System 1 biases, McCauley says. We must accept that the Earth spins, even though we never experience that sensation for ourselves. We must embrace the idea that evolution is utterly indifferent and that there is no ultimate design or purpose to the Universe, even though our intuition tells us differently. We also find it difficult to admit that we are wrong, to resist our own biases and to accept that truth as we understand it is ever changing as new empirical data are gathered and tested – all staples of science. “Science is cognitively unnatural – it’s difficult,” McCauley says. “Religion, on the other hand, is mostly something we don’t even have to learn because we already know it.”
“There’s evidence that religious thought is the path of least resistance,” Barrett adds. “You’d have to fundamentally change something about our humanity to get rid of religion.” This biological sticking point probably explains the fact that, although 20% of Americans are not affiliated with a church, 68% of them say that they still believe in God and 37% describe themselves as spiritual. Even without organised religion, they believe that some greater being or life force guides the world.
Similarly, many around the world who explicitly say they don’t believe in a god still harbour superstitious tendencies, like belief in ghosts, astrology, karma, telepathy or reincarnation. “In Scandinavia, most people say they don’t believe in God, but paranormal and superstitious beliefs tend to be higher than you’d think,” Norenzayan says. Additionally, non-believers often lean on what could be interpreted as religious proxies – sports teams, yoga, professional institutions, Mother Nature and more – to guide their values in life. As a testament to this, witchcraft is gaining popularity in the US, and paganism seems to be the fastest growing religion in the UK.
Religious experiences for non-believers can also manifest in other, more bizarre ways. Anthropologist Ryan Hornbeck, also at the Thrive Center for Human Development, found evidence that the World of Warcraft isassuming spiritual importance for some players in China, for example. “WoW seems to be offering opportunities to develop certain moral traits that regular life in contemporary society doesn’t afford,” Barrett says. “People seem to have this conceptual space for religious thought, which – if it’s not filled by religion – bubbles up in surprising ways.”
The in-group
What’s more, religion promotes group cohesion and cooperation. The threat of an all-powerful God (or gods) watching for anyone who steps out of line likely helped to keep order in ancient societies. “This is the supernatural punishment hypothesis,” Atkinson says. “If everyone believes that the punishment is real, then that can be functional to groups.”
And again, insecurity and suffering in a population may play a role here, by helping to encourage religions with stricter moral codes. In a recent analysis of religious belief systems of nearly 600 traditional societies from around the world, Joseph Bulbulia at the University of Wellington, New Zealand and his colleagues found that those places with harsher weather or that are more prone to natural disasters were more likely to develop moralising gods. Why? Helpful neighbours could mean the difference between life and death. In this context, religion evolved as a valuable public utility.
“When we see something so pervasive, something that emerges so quickly developmentally and remains persistent across cultures, then it makes sense that the leading explanation is that it served a cooperative function,” says Bulbulia.
Finally, there’s also some simple mathematics behind religion’s knack for prevailing. Across cultures, people who are more religious also tend to have more children than people who are not. “There’s very strong evidence for this,” Norenzayan says. “Even among religious people, the more fundamentalist ones usually have higher fertility rates than the more liberal ones.” Add to that the fact that children typically follow their parents’ lead when it comes to whether or not they become religious adults themselves, and a completely secularised world seems ever more unlikely.
Enduring belief
For all of these reasons – psychological, neurological, historical, cultural and logistical – experts guess that religion will probably never go away. Religion, whether it’s maintained through fear or love, is highly successful at perpetuating itself. If not, it would no longer be with us.
And even if we lose sight of the Christian, Muslim and Hindu gods and all the rest, superstitions and spiritualism will almost certainly still prevail. More formal religious systems, meanwhile, would likely only be a natural disaster or two away. “Even the best secular government can’t protect you from everything,” says McCauley. As soon as we found ourselves facing an ecological crisis, a global nuclear war or an impending comet collision, the gods would emerge.
“Humans need comfort in the face of pain and suffering, and many need to think that there’s something more after this life, that they’re loved by an invisible being,” Zuckerman says. “There will always be people who believe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they remain the majority.”

How do you go home for the holidays if you're not sure where you belong?


rebecca carroll christmas

The author’s son, at her parents home; the author as a child, at the town hall. 
Early on in our marriage, during a discussion about which holidays we would spend with whose family, my husband, bewildered by my suggestion that we ditch our families altogether and just celebrate with each other at home, said: “Did you not get the Family Obligation Memo?” 
No, actually, I did not get the memo. Because not every family obliges to easy definitions, expectations and obligations – and the holidays only make all the complicated traditions all the more so. Going home for the holidays can feel impossible when you’re not generic, when your home is not made of gingerbread.
I used to drive home from college or wherever I was living after college, on Christmas Eve. With my older brother and sister having started their own families, the holidays became about my parents and me: My father would set up an elaborate spread of smoked salmon, capers, lemon, cream cheese and water crackers while my mom brought the ornaments down from the attic. The three of us would decorate the tree, eat and imbibe, with the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” blaring in the background. Then, finally, we would give each other one special Christmas Eve gift – just one. In the morning, we would open some more, and eventually my brother and sister would arrive with their families for more presents – with their content lives and ways of being.
By the time I got married, it was easy enough to fit my husband into this tradition – our son, too. We spent Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey, and a month later we drove six hours north on Christmas Eve to my hometown, and we decorated the tree and ate the smoked salmon and listened to the Pogues and we gave out the one special present.
But then my son started to get bigger, and the whiteness of the town where I grew up began to feel like an assault every time. My parents are wonderful people – intellectuals, artists – who gave me and my siblings vast amounts of freedom as children, and encouraged us to follow our own paths, without expectations of or obligations to one another. But they are not paragons of racial consciousness. My brother and sister are also good people – natives and residents of the rural New Hampshire town in which we were raised. They are not comfortable with or particularly interested in discussions of race in America.
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My parents, you see, are white. So are my siblings – my parents’ biological children.
And for an adoptee, which I am, reminders of family life are not so much about being chosen as feeling kept, enveloped, even ensnared in the beautiful torture and chaos of ties that are supposed to bind – to feel known and related to these people whom you may not like all the time, but who you feel comprise the strange, complicated backdrop of your existence.
The alternative – free to show up to the family table, or not, to exist without a backdrop – ties too poignantly with the internalized primal severance most adoptees feel. Free-falling is not a good feeling for adoptees. But my parents didn’t see the individual choices they gave us as free-falling; they saw it as the freedom to be who we were, when we were. Want to disappear into the woods for hours on end? Go for it. Don’t believe in Santa? Totally fine. Want to go meet your birthmother? That should be really interesting.
Which it was.
Soon after reuniting with my biological mother at 11 years old, I felt a tremendous pull to be with her and my two half-brothers during the holidays – during every holiday, because it felt natural, almost normal even ... like everybody else every December. Although I was not immediately welcomed into my birthmother’s life, I pushed hard. I needed her love – it was enveloping in the right way, like an assault at the right time. And in this, my “real” family, expectations and obligation were paramount.
Throughout my childhood, I kept spending holidays with my adoptive family – even if they were not particularly pressed about the ritualistic need for me to be there. But I longed to be with the mother who surrendered me and the half-brothers who adored me – the family that said, increasingly and ironically as the years progressed: This is where you should be spending the holidays. This is where you belong.
There were a few Thanksgivings there that I spent with my birth family, and for several years I would spend the early part of Christmas Eve with them, too. Sometimes, it felt too painful to leave.
But as race became more and more central to my identity – to the family that I was making, biologically and free of other peoples’ expectations – it became easier and easier to leave, to stay away from all the homes in which I grew up, all the homes in which it seemed I never truly lived.
rosa parks christmas tree
 The author’s Christmas tree this year, featuring Rosa Parks. Photograph: Courtesy of Rebecca Carroll
Pulling into the dirt driveway of my parents’ 17th-century colonial farmhouse evoked a combination of anxiety and nostalgia, anger and love. The small white birches and pines in nonconfigured groupings around the driveway are lit with white lights; inside, the house smells of old wood floors, oil paint and pizzelles, of happiness and settlement. But the minute I make a run to the grocery store for eggnog or extra cream cheese to go with the Christmas Eve smoked salmon, everything shifts. The faces are white. The sideward glances feel small-minded. The eyes all around me expect something they do not see. On Christmas Day, when my brother and sister arrive with their white families, and I try to talk about what’s going on in America with regard to race, the conversation falls to an awkward hush, and the gingerbread comes crumbling down.
This year, my husband, son and I are celebrating Christmas Eve at our home in Brooklyn – and Christmas Day, too, here in the home we made, for the first time, together. Maybe we’ll still hand out that one special gift, and, sure, we’ll listen to the Pogues. But there will be no model, and there will be no memo. There will just be us – a family unto itself, celebrating together.

Christmas in jail is worse than you can imagine. Now imagine if you've been wrongfully convicted


holiday visitation rights jail


Holiday visitation rights can be rare. Those rare times I got through on the phone, I was happy to know that family get-togethers were happening, but they were still a faint sound. Photograph: Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters
I spent 16 years in prison, wrongfully convicted at age 17 of murder and rape, despite a negative DNA test. I lost all seven of my appeals, and I was turned down for parole. Finally, at age 32, I was exonerated after further DNA testing that identified the actual perpetrator. Even though I am happy to be spending my ninth straight holiday home free, my thoughts remain with those who are still imprisoned today, for the wrong reasons.
During the holidays, a day in prison was no different for me than every other day: routines, violence, staying alert, verbal abuse by guards, tolerance of abusive guards by their co-workers and the prison administration. For company, I had a variety of other victims of injustice: wrongfully convicted prisoners; non-violent offenders serving an unseemly long sentence; drug users serving life pursuant to still largely unreformed and arcane laws; over-sentenced prisoners whose punishment was grossly disproportionate to the crime; men whose guilt or innocence was unclear but who had not received a fair trial; prisoners whose advanced age and medical condition strongly suggested they should have been released a long time ago; and people who had been denied parole, repeatedly, despite their obvious rehabilitation.
Of course there was no shortage of guilty men in prison on Christmas Day, both the repentant and the non. I hated living around real, cold-blooded prisoners over the holidays, but I had no choice – even though I was innocent, even though I was screaming out so loudly inside my head: I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!!!
It was extremely difficult to get on the prison phone: too many people wanted to use it, too many calls went on for an inconsiderately long time, too many people passed it on to their friends only. There just weren’t enough ways to phone home to your family because, in prison, they want you to be disconnected on Christmas. Those rare times I got through, I was happy to know that family get-togethers were happening, but they were still a faint sound.
Holiday meals in prison were downright terrible: “dinner” often consisted of two cold-cuts slices, one piece of cheese, an old hotdog bun, one packet of mayo and mustard, one-fourth of a slice of peach, a bag of potato chips mostly filled with air, and a “soup” – the ingredients of which had already been on the serving line three or four times earlier that week and had simply been dumped into a large vat of water and heated up. Holiday lunch was not too much better: processed and often overcooked turkey, salty stuffing, instant potatoes.
During the prison’s staff holiday party, while guards were “working” on state time, we would often be locked in our cells. Sometimes I would cry myself to sleep.
I am free this Christmas, but many still suffer the same way. They can never get back the lost time or the missed holidays.
There is William Lopez, whom my organization helped exonerate after 23-and-a-half years in prison for a shotgun murder he did not commit. His wrongful conviction was the result of misidentification by a drug addict who had been up for 24 hours, of prosecutorial misconduct, of an inept attorney that failed to call two alibi witnesses. Bill and I spent his first Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve together, and numerous other firsts after that. But after a mere year and a half of freedom, and just days before the latest development in his federal civil-rights lawsuit, Bill died. All those holidays with family and friends – so much of his life – had been stolen.
There are many more William Lopezes out there. The National Registry of Exonerations lists nearly 1,500 exonerations dating back to 1989. Last year, 89 innocent people in the US were exonerated; even more have been so far this year. There was George Stinney, the man convicted and executed in the Jim Crow south of murder when he was 14 years old ... and exonerated last week – 70 years later. In Cleveland, there’s Kwame Ajamu, exonerated of murder this month after 40 years. And just on Christmas Eve – also in Cleveland – there was Anthony Lemons going free, nearly 20 stolen year later.
But there are still more innocent people spending the holidays behind bars – people who shouldn’t be – than we can even count. Every time a rogue law enforcement officer or forensic scientist gets identified, hundreds if not thousands of cases get affected, and several of those are bound to be innocent. Every time junk science gets admitted as evidence – bite marks, tire marks, footprints, bullet-lead analysis, hair comparisons, the testimony of a dog with “a good nose” – there is the chance an innocent man will spend Christmas in prison. Coerced false confessions, misidentification, informant testimony, bad lawyering, prosecutorial misconduct – all of these lead to wrongful conviction and remain largely unaddressed by state and federal legislation in the US. I believe 15-20% of the American prison population has been wrongfully convicted and remains unexonerated as of this Christmas Day. 
When a Cleveland judge gave Anthony Lemons that Christmas gift of freedom on Tuesday morning, his mother cried. “I got my baby back today,” she said. “I still trust the system, but I didn’t think it would take this long.”
I still don’t trust the system. And until legislation addressing all the root causes of wrongful conviction gets passed, I never will – and nobody else should either. Merry Christmas.

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