Monday, January 20, 2014

Chris Arnade's atheism challenge

I know much has been written already about the December 24th, 2013 piece in the Guardian by Chris Arnade, and his assertion, more or less, that atheism is a position of privilege, and introducing people, at least those in dire straits, to the reality of the improbability of gods is "pointless and cruel". But it was an interesting article, and, having spent some time thinking about it, I feel compelled to share a few of my own observations.

Firstly, the journey to atheism is not a one-size-fits all adventure, and all atheism certainly is not borne of comfort and privilege, as the author concludes. It is, however, the end result of deep introspection and study -- and that is usually done most easily when life is not desperately difficult. This is true of most things. It is more difficult to devote yourself to learning in general when you are consumed, of necessity, with the basic struggles of life. That "privilege" is a state we should wish on all people, not deride as elitist. The world would be a better place if everyone could manage their basic care (food, shelter, heat, etc.), if everyone had the "luxury" of devoting time to growing their mind, examining their ideas, etc.

It also strikes me as a rather naive view of mankind to suppose that suffering reliably breeds atheism, which Arnade initially expected to find. The world's great religions all more or less promise escape from suffering, rewards for suffering, great things to those who have suffered great wrongs. Some preachers actually prey on the pain of the suffering to fill pews and coffers. In the same way that religion targets the young ("train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart"), who have not yet developed a capacity for critical thinking, it promises to be a salve to our injuries -- in this life, but particularly in the next. Human history illustrates exactly how seductive these promises, across faiths, have been. It seems, in reading Arnade's piece, that he traded one simplistic assertion -- that suffering reveals atheism -- for another -- that ivory towers make atheists.

What is, perhaps, most troubling is that Arnade's solution is so defeatist. Essentially, the privileged and enlightened should sit back and do nothing, because to interfere with a homeless person's belief would be needlessly cruel. While this seems a false set of choices to me (why must it be a question of do nothing, or shatter a person's only hope in life?), there are, apparently, no other options that he sees. There are certainly none that he addresses. So there must be an elite, privileged class who knows the Truth, and a class of people who are left to believe falsehoods and myths to get by from day to day because, really, that's all they can handle. (There is also no consideration for what a person might do upon realizing that a single lifetime is, indeed, all they have, that the actions we take now are the only ones that will ever be taken because there is no comforting tomorrow waiting). It reeks of the very elitism he scorns: for some people, a delusion of happiness is all that can be hoped for, and this placebo should not be interfered with.

Furthermore, the whole thing revolves around a faulty assumption that atheism is attempting to wrest this happy myth from the clutches of desperate people with nowhere left to turn. In truth, there are no hordes of rampaging elitist atheists taking to the streets to intellectually batter the homeless and sex workers. To attempt to tie Richard Dawkins' and others' work with his experiences discussing religion with people living on the streets is ludicrous. Atheist academics and intellectuals engaging in the god debate, particularly prominent atheists such as Dawkins, are not preying on the disadvantaged; they almost always engage in debate with equally, ostensibly at least, qualified representatives of "the other side". They are certainly not taking their objections to people whose primary concerns are basic survival, beating them upside the head with The God Delusion, and robbing them of their last shred of hope (that sounds more like the gameplan of the Catholic charities who send Bibles to disaster areas in lieu of aid). The god debate is hardly a battle of ideas, with academics, philosophers, and the elite wealthy on one side, and the poor, starving and ultimately disadvantaged on the other. It's a debate between priests, theologians, rabbis, imams, religious intellectuals, academics, scientists and pseudo-scientists, and secular intellectuals, academics, thinkers and scientists. In other words, a world of people who are, by Arnade's describing, "entitle[d]" and "privileged". Individual atheists and theists may or may not fall into that category, may or may not be poor and downtrodden; but the debate, contrary to the article's implications, is one among intellectual and social equals.

Now, Arnade's exhortations to what amounts to humility and compassion are worthwhile. Arrogance is an unhelpful, off-putting air, and we should all have compassion for our fellow men. Unfortunately, these are buried among many missed opportunities; he could, for instance, have delved into what can be done beyond a placebo effect, rather than leaving matters at "good enough". The missed opportunities are themselves drowned out by false assumptions and implications; most notably, he writes as if it's an unexpected conclusion that it would be cruel to rob an addicted homeless person of the only thing that gets them through the day and leave them with nothing -- but who would advocate doing such a thing?! All of this is seasoned with a bit of false equivalency; he sees his experiences "on the streets" as somehow tied to the, if you will, 'off the streets' world of academic debates. All in all, Arnade's intentions seem to have been good, but the execution was very unfortunately handled; instead of making a convincing argument toward a more positive atheist community, he seemed to get too caught up in his own preconceived notions to make a compelling case for anything but the most obvious: it would be appalling for educated, comfortable people to intellectually bully poor, homeless, addicted and/or abused people. And I'm pretty sure most people already figured that out...

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