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 elite 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.


  • 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.

  • And yet that’s exactly what the author did. It doesn’t really surprise me any, because I’m used to just that from irreligious fundamentalists (and for the record, you guys are every bit as tiresome as the religious ones).

    For me the hilarious line is “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.” In my personal experience, not only do I know more science & philosophy than the deevangelists, I also know more math, history and literature (and mostly because my interest in the subjects is genuine and not premised on my desire to convert anyone to anything).

    Also, you should know that cognitive dissonance is a universal trait, you suffer it yourself in degrees that would probably shock you if you got a critique from outside your social circle.

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