Sunday, December 29, 2013

Atheism Is Not An Intellectual Luxury For The Wealthy - An Open LetterTo Chris Arnade

The following is an open letter to Chris Arnade, in response to his article on AlterNet, titled "Is Atheism an Intellectual Luxury for the Wealthy?" (originally in The Guardian).

My answer to the question you pose in the title of your article, is an adamant "no".

You start the article with a story from your adolescence similar, in regards to interactions with believers, to the stories many of us who were atheists at that age have.
Preacher Man's eyes narrowed. He pointed at me, "You are an APE-IEST. An APE-IEST. You going to lead a life of sin and end in hell."
You then describe your later life.
Three years later I did escape my town, eventually receiving a PhD in physics, and then working on Wall Street for 20 years. A life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments. During that time I counted myself an atheist and nodded in agreement as a wave of atheistic fervor swept out of the scientific community and into the media, led by Richard Dawkins.
You're incorrectly equating atheism & science and lending credibilty to the silly notion that Dawkins is some kind atheist Pope, but that's only minor criticism.  My problem is more with what followed.
I eventually left my Wall Street job and started working with and photographing homeless addicts in the South Bronx. When I first walked into the Bronx I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be.
You expected the homeless drug addicts to be atheists.  This is insulting for a number of reasons and reveals your ignorance in a few ways.

When you expected to meet other atheists you assumed they would be just like you, as if we're all identically cynical.  The atheists I've met have been the least cynical group of people I've ever encountered.  I tend to be fairly cynical, and it shows most when shown next to the optimism of the atheists I know.  And yet we still constantly face this stereotype.  Maybe you didn't know many atheists or knew nothing of what atheism really is, but either way, you were reinforcing that stereotype.  I doubt that was your intention, but it was nevertheless the result.

In addition to your ignorance about atheists, you reveal an even greater ignorance of both the poor and of religion.  The most common path from religion to atheism is indeed a level of inquiry not available to the homeless, whose entire focus is rightly on merely surviving.  This fact could have been a good argument in favor of a "yes" answer to your titular question, but you didn't address it all.  I suspect you left it unaddressed because it never even occurred to you.  If you'd realized that economic status is not relevant to belief in a god, you'd probably have spared us the article entirely.

How else could you have been so surprised that they're not only believers, but they're more so than most others?
None of them are. Rather they are some of the strongest believers I have met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.
Of course they're strong believers.  Religion provides hope to the desperate that their current situation is a temporary stepping stone to something far better.  It's a false hope, but that's irrelevant to the desperate.

Also unaddressed was how religion uses that false hope to prey on the desperate.  Religious charities often use the promise of help to coerce people into letting themselves be preached to.  Religious charities promise religion will make their lives better and then give them things, like food & shelter, that actually will make theirs lives better.  It's not far fetched to expect that the people being helped would mistakenly attribute the improvements in their lives to the religion and not to the food under a roof.

And that's all assuming that everyone in that situation is even a believer.  It ignores that many may have left religion before they they encountered hard times.  It disregards the fact that atheists can become homeless too.  It ignores the fact that homeless atheists often feign belief when it's what's required to eat.

You may have left your cushy Wall Street job to photograph the homeless, but you appear to still have some things to learn.
They have their faith because what they believe in doesn't judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I cannot tell them that there is nothing beyond this physical life. It would be cruel and pointless.
At least you got this part right.  Sort of.  Of course we shouldn't be preaching atheism to them.  As noted above, their focus is on survival.  Preaching atheism to them would make us no better than the religious ghouls preaching religion to them.  They don't need to be preached at.  They need something more tangible.

This is all obvious to most atheists I know, so why include this?  Do you think atheists are going around preaching to the homeless?  I'm not aware of any atheists who would call that acceptable behavior.  Including that bit suggests that atheists running around acting like assholes, preaching to the desperate, when we're doing no such thing.  You needlessly throw us all under the bus.

And for what?  To make yourself feel superior about not doing that thing that none of us are doing?
Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.
I'm sure your intention was not to suggest that atheism is only available to the rich.  You tried to qualify it by saying "my atheism", but the rest of your statement negates that by talking about atheism in general.  It's a blanket dismissal of all the working class atheists who exist.  That, by the way, is a hell of a lot of atheists, including myself.

You were a rich guy interacting with the opposite end of the spectrum.  You ignored the majority of people in between those two extremes of economic status.  You also ignored all the rich people who are devout believers, especially those who became rich via those beliefs.
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. I see a person so removed from humanity and so removed from the ambiguity of life that he finds himself judging those who think differently.

I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others. Preaching from a selfish vantage point.
Preaching from a selfish vantage point is precisely what you were doing with this article.  You're preaching at the atheist community for being proud of our reason.  You're projecting your own arrogance onto Dawkins and the rest of us.

Dawkins is indeed arrogant about his intelligence.  But that doesn't make him out of touch or so single minded that he cannot understand why people believe differently from him.  He understands it well enough to have a written a book, The God Delusion, that many atheists credit as sparking their path to atheism.  The only other book I see given such credit more is The Bible.

You, on the other hand, seem to have trouble figuring out why people disagree with you.
Given that tweet, you also apparently have extremely limited experience interacting with both the religious and with atheists.  This seems pretty odd to me, since you're more public to the religious than I am.  If you got the e-mail I receive, you'd know better than to suggest they simply bring things to read & eat to those they disagree with.

And if you knew the atheists I know, you would know better than to suggest that they're hypocritical assholes.

If you're going to talk about us in the future, please do us the favor of actually learning about us.  That would be much more appreciated than preaching from your Wall Street high horse.

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