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.

In gen­eral, how to help the dis­ad­van­taged is an impor­tant issue, well worth dis­cussing. We should hope that they can, by some means, be ele­vated to a place where the finer plea­sures and pur­suits in life become avail­able to them. But who is call­ing for the aggres­sive athe­ist pros­e­ly­ti­za­tion of the under­priv­i­leged? As far as I can tell, Dawkins’s audi­ence is fairly edu­cated and élite already. New Athe­ists do main­tain appro­pri­ately con­de­scend­ing atti­tudes towards the­ists when they ought to know bet­ter. But I just don’t see much of a trend in the move­ment to think equally as poorly of under-educated and even drug-addled per­sons who cling to reli­gion in times of trouble.

Dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tual virtues befit per­sons of dif­fer­ing sta­tions in life. If you have gone to col­lege and you do knowl­edge work for a liv­ing, the pur­suit of truth ought to be of sig­nif­i­cant (though prob­a­bly never over­rid­ing) impor­tance to you. The­ists of this class are aggra­vat­ing, because they seem to be either will­fully igno­rant of sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy, or capa­ble of with­stand­ing huge amounts of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. More­over, it’s impor­tant that mem­bers of these groups not hold unjus­ti­fi­able reli­gious beliefs upon which they wish to act, because they are peo­ple in posi­tions of power. If anyone’s reli­gious faith is truly benign, it is that of the under­priv­i­leged. They have no poten­tial to coerce oth­ers for reli­gious pur­poses, and they have no plat­forms for thought lead­er­ship either.

Notice that athe­ism is not exactly like spilling the beans about santa or some­thing. As far as I can tell, believ­ers don’t stop believ­ing in response to hear­ing about athe­ism — if any­thing, they dig in harder to their world­views. So the mere exis­tence of out­spo­ken athe­ism in the world doesn’t pre­clude those who really need it from retain­ing their reli­gion. It may not even be accu­rate to say that the underprivileged’s reli­gious beliefs are “irra­tional” — though these beliefs are, in my opin­ion, unjus­ti­fied by the evi­dence, they are some­times very well-supported on pru­den­tial grounds (due to their hope-giving nature). If a per­son were able to acquire or shed reli­gious beliefs totally at will, and she finds that these beliefs are much more use­ful than they are intel­lec­tu­ally trou­bling or dis­rup­tive of her career or what­ever, then it is in her ratio­nal self-interest to retain them, of course. So the “self­ish­ness” tan­gent in Arnade’s piece is kind of a non-starter. There’s no par­tic­u­lar rea­son to think that the athe­ists are the epis­tem­i­cally self­ish ones, or that they are self­ish in any way in which the­ists aren’t.

The search for “mean­ing” in life isn’t straight­foward, whether your life in gen­eral is kind of easy or not. It’s impor­tant to the well-being of the priv­i­leged that they decon­vert when appro­pri­ate (e.g., to make con­sis­tent other pieces of learned knowl­edge), just like it may turn out to be impor­tant to the well-being of the under­priv­i­leged to remain faith­ful. No, the priv­i­leged need not be dicks about it to the poor — but I don’t know any who are, any­ways. The mere fact that Richard Dawkins’s words might be offen­sive to dis­ad­van­taged the­ists does not trou­ble me (it’s not like he’s going to the ghetto, shak­ing peo­ple awake, and call­ing them “stu­pid” to their faces).

A smarmy plea not to “judge those who think dif­fer­ently” just doesn’t illu­mi­nate any­thing in this case. Some­times, “dif­fer­ent” (i.e., inac­cu­rate with prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions) thoughts are quite per­ni­cious (e.g., reli­gious objec­tions to vac­ci­na­tion). Those should be shunned when­ever pos­si­ble. Other times, “dif­fer­ent” beliefs are quite incon­se­quen­tial, even if inac­cu­rate. Let’s let those go. An athe­ist who invests great emo­tional energy in look­ing down on the the­ism of the dis­ad­van­taged reveals only her own poor judg­ment regard­ing intel­lec­tual virtues and their impor­tant but lim­ited and context-dependent role in people’s lives, as well as a defect in her char­ac­ter. But to the charge that athe­ism is some­how “elit­ist,” I say: “of course. who cares?” The fore­fronts of knowl­edge have always been, and in some sense must be, the bas­tion of those who are priv­i­leged along some dimen­sion or other.

Frankly, Chris, I think that your piece has more to do with sig­nal­ing con­cern for the dis­ad­van­taged (and sig­nal­ing that you’re not a dick like Richard Dawkins) than it has to do with athe­ism per se. Not that these are bad things to do — but it doesn’t seem to me that your athe­ism was chal­lenged at all. As far as I can tell, you just revised your opin­ions regard­ing the dif­fer­ing value of truth in the con­text of var­i­ous kinds of people’s lives. (That would make a slightly less catchy title, how­ever). We can agree that it would be “cruel and point­less” to try to talk these peo­ple out of their the­ism. But label­ing athe­ism itself an “intel­lec­tual lux­ury” con­sti­tutes a near­sighted attempt to imbue athe­ism with the con­no­ta­tion that it’s unnec­es­sary and friv­o­lous. Please don’t for­get that in other con­texts, the non-religious do impor­tant work towards cur­tail­ing religiously-motivated harms (female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion, any­one? allow­ing chil­dren with eas­ily cured med­ical con­di­tions to die?) At those times, it is keep­ing quiet about unjus­ti­fied reli­gious claims (“think­ing dif­fer­ently” from athe­ists!) which would be cruel.

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5 Comments

  • Michael Glass wrote:

    There’s cer­tainly a cor­re­la­tion between under edu­ca­tion and poverty (although, maybe not in the cited fields of poetry and his­tory). But I think this response comes dan­ger­ously close to mak­ing the link between hav­ing means and hav­ing the right to an opinion.

    If anyone’s reli­gious faith is truly benign, it is that of the underprivileged.”

    This deficit approach to poverty is lazy, and really miss­ing the point of the article:

    I also see Richard Dawkins dif­fer­ently. I see him as a grown up ver­sion of that 16-year-old kid, proud of being smart, unable to under­stand why any­one would believe or think dif­fer­ently from himself.”

    Chris’s point isn’t: “give those poor peo­ple a break”. Rather: “think deeper” or “under­stand motivations”.

    And that mes­sage is *espe­cially* impor­tant for those aggra­vat­ing the­ists of means. With­out belief being a crutch, what func­tion does it serve?

  • Say­ing that athe­ism as an intel­lec­tual lux­ury is like say­ing there are no athe­ists in fox­holes. Sounds con­vinc­ing at the sur­face, but when one digs just a bit deeper — why is it that every­one is beg­ging their god to inter­vene — surely not because one truly believes that eter­nal life is what’s at hand.

  • Reli­gion is, as Marx said, the opi­ate (that is, the anal­gesic) of the masses. It enables peo­ple to con­tinue to live when things are against them. It is unsur­pris­ing that those in the worst cir­cum­stances would adopt religion.

  • My hus­band grew up des­per­ately poor, and has been home­less as an adult (due to being drug addled at the time) as well. He came to his athe­ism at 13, on his own. He has main­tained his athe­ism through­out his life– while home­less, and while get­ting and stay­ing off of meth. His intelligence/logic level has naught to do with his income level. I have never been home­less or drug addled, and was raised athe­ist. I can­not imag­ine being any­thing else. I rely on myself, not some imag­i­nary being or power. And now, I have a won­der­ful hus­band to rely on as well. Oh– and he has had a heart attack and now has can­cer– still no god in his life. Just fam­ily. His daugh­ters’ and my love is more than enough.

  • So any­thing that gives a per­son hope is defen­si­ble and under­stand­able, and should not be dis­missed or chal­lenged. Will we be defend­ing next the right of snake oil sales­men, faith heal­ers, and ponzi scam­mers to sell their wares to the under­priv­i­leged with­out excoriation?

    Per­haps the scam “his­tory” shows the His­tory chan­nel has been show­ing for a num­ber of years now should not be crit­i­cized because some peo­ple like them and want to believe the gov­ern­ment is cov­er­ing up mer­maids and fak­ing moon landings?

    Say noth­ing ill of Niger­ian princes offer­ing the hope of a bet­ter life to the downtrodden!

    Are we next to claim truth itself is priv­i­lege, since truth-seeking is an act that the edu­cated and wealthy have time for, not the poor? And there­fore lies are acceptable?

    Yet I’m fairly cer­tain one of the laws of these under­priv­i­leged reli­gious peo­ple is “Thou Shalt Not Lie.”

    No. False hope is not hope.

    Be care­ful as well where this line of thought leads, what rab­bit holes it unwit­tingly falls down, for it also sug­gests think­ing and ratio­nal­ity are priv­i­leges of the wealthy and edu­cated, in which the poor can­not par­tic­i­pate nor be expected to.

    And yet this is not so.

    Be care­ful that while we defend the poor as not lazy welch­ers, we do not then quite com­pas­sion­ately infer instead they are stupid.

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