atheism, privilege, and the value of truth

An inter­net buddy, Chris Arnade, recently asked what I thought of this piece: “The peo­ple who chal­lenged my athe­ism most were drug addicts and pros­ti­tutes.” My result­ing thoughts turned out to be more than comment-sized, so here we are.

By way of back­ground, Chris has a PhD in physics and worked on Wall Street for a while, but now he spends his time pho­tograph­ing mar­gin­al­ized New York­ers of the Bronx. Basi­cally in the arti­cle,  Chris explains that many of the peo­ple he’s met (the home­less, addicts, pros­ti­tutes, etc) take com­fort in their faith at times when the whole world seems set against them. No par­tic­u­lar sur­prise there. Although Chris him­self is an athe­ist, he finds his opin­ions turn­ing against the arro­gance of the New Athe­ists — as exem­pli­fied by Richard Dawkins — who argue that reli­gious belief is irra­tional and who refuse to tol­er­ant the reli­gious beliefs of oth­ers. Chris writes:

Soon I saw my athe­ism for what it is: An intel­lec­tual belief most acces­si­ble to those who have done well.

And for this, Chris expects me to exco­ri­ate him. I’m not sure that these sub­se­quent com­ments of mine qual­ify as “exco­ri­a­tion,” although I do think Chris’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the sit­u­a­tion is overly sim­pli­fied (in his defense, per­haps nec­es­sar­ily, due to its venue in the pop­u­lar press). I’m per­fectly will­ing to admit that athe­ism is in some respects a man­i­fes­ta­tion of priv­i­lege, by the priv­i­leged. The less you have to worry about just get­ting by, the more emo­tional / finan­cial / cog­ni­tive resources remain for you to engage in truth-seeking… espe­cially in truth-seeking that poten­tially jeop­ar­dizes foun­da­tional beliefs that moti­vate you when the going gets really tough. This is not really a novel obser­va­tion. Poor peo­ple also don’t learn alot of archaic his­tory or poetry, either. It’s just not a priority.

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