Thursday, December 26, 2013

Atheism as a Function of Wealth

There is an article making the rounds by a Chris Arnade which puts forth the thesis that atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy.  There are arguments to be made that this is somewhat of a valid claim, but I can't say that I find his evidences for this to be particularly meaningful.

Here is the link to a reprint of the original article.

I was originally linked to the article by way of a Youtube video which more or less made the counterargument that the best thing we can do is really push for reform that helps to take people out of the poor lifestyles in which they live so that they are less likely to use religion as a crutch.  I have something further to add to this, but I'll get to that.  I have other points worth making about the article in addition to that.

I feel, when I read the article, that the examples he brings up has nothing to do with nonbelief being associated with being well-off, but rather than belief is strongly associated with suffering.  This makes sense because religion can be a pretty effective emotional crutch for those who are in dire circumstances.  People who are poor, people who have been through hardships, people who lead difficult lives, etc...  a blind faith in the fanciful images of a glorious light in the sky can give them the hope needed not to kill themselves.  Living is difficult, and plenty of people have it harder than their own emotional and intellectual willpower have the capacity to hold up.  That is the purpose of an emotional crutch.  To quote Marx, "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart in a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions; It is the opium of the people."

There is a tendency among Christians in particular, to claim that Atheist X converted to Christianity on his/her deathbed.  And while all such claims have an absolute certainty to be a lie, it wouldn't matter if any of them was actually true.  Those moments before death would be moments when someone is at their weakest in mind and body, at their most vulnerable and most overtaken by fear, and as such, they would necessarily be the ramblings of a person driven to irrational statements in a terrifyingly fevered delirium.  How on earth can you take such a thing seriously as if it is proof that these beliefs are in any way true?  I suppose you'd have to be a religious apologist, which necessarily means you are in the profession of maximizing intellectual dishonesty.  You'd have to look no further than the idea that your beliefs took hold even over someone staunchly opposed to them and completely ignore the fact that it would mean that said disbeliever only found "God" when not of sound mind.

Okay, so people who are poor, uneducated, suffering, and leading horrible lives beyond the imaginations of most of us who complain about the slowness of their internet connections tend to be very deeply religious.  This is not news to any of us who have been atheists, and more importantly rationalists for a long time.  I don't think that this is the same thing as calling it a luxury of the wealthy.  I will say that I have never been "wealthy" at any point in my life.  Granted, I'm not stricken by poverty either, but I was an atheist, or at the very least, a doubter long before any of that.  I at least had questions that were interpreted as doubts well before my age hit double-digits, but by no means was my family wealthy at that point.  Heck, my father is also an atheist, albeit that he was never as open about it in his youth as I am now.  He is only somewhat more open about it now because I wear my disbelief on my sleeve.  I can't claim that my father grew up in the lap of luxury or even anything resembling it.  What is different, though, is that we are educated individuals.  That too, we come from a South Indian Brahmin household, where academic achievement is your sole measure of worth as a human being.  But this is my addition to the argument that we need to do something about poverty.

Make top-quality education all the way through grad school free.  That's the best, biggest, most powerful thing you can do to put an end to poverty.  If you want to push for a competitive advantage, you can at least introduce some small fees at state schools for out-of-state students (i.e. those who are not contributing to the school's cost structure by way of state taxes) and subsidize expensive private schools to the end effect of making it affordable for the majority.  When you have that, you actually have opportunity for all.  You actually create the possibility for even the most poor of people to pull themselves out of poverty down the line and actually contribute to society in significant ways.  The age when unskilled and uneducated labor could be a major force in the job market and one could actually get by on it is pretty well gone.  To continue on the earlier Marx quote, the following sentence states that "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness."  Religion is the imaginary beacon of hope that puts forth the belief that everything will be all right even in the face of hardship, regardless of whether or not it really will.  Well, if religion is an imaginary beacon of hope, education is a real one.  That is the road to opportunity.  Pro-lifers like to use the line that an aborted fetus could otherwise have "grown up to cure cancer."  Leaving aside that cancer will never actually be "cured" per se, unless it was the child of a super-rich family who had the resources to get him the best of the best medical science education, that is a definitive impossibility.  If you take away that requirement, the argument holds a little more weight, but then it really becomes more strictly a question of the rights of the mother.

Now I want to get to the other problem I have with the article.  It is indeed easy for atheists to get very argumentative when faced with idiotic arguments.  The article takes the position that for those people who are in such terrible situations that they depend on religion as their only emotional crutch, it would be cruel and in a sense "bullying" to argue back against them that they are believing in something utterly idiotic and founded on abject failures of logic.  At the same time, Arnade brings up a story where he avoided mentioning his own atheism out of politeness, and is eventually pressed to finally state it...  and the response he gets is to be called an "ape-iest" and being told he is leading a life of sin and doomed to go to hell.  I don't think that qualifies as a case where the atheist is bullying the theist.  You cannot tell me that Arnade was the cruel one here, but because the screaming "Pastor Man" was in a downtrodden state, it's okay for him?  One word.  BULL.  But that's not the real problem I have with this argument.  The real problem is that no atheist has a concern over religion among homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts, etc...  The problem is religious people who have money and fund political campaigns against abortion on religious grounds.  The problem is religious people in our legislature who argue that it's an affront to Christianity to impose harsh penalties on anti-gay hate crimes.  The problem is people who go argue that climate change is false because Yahweh makes rainbows after killing everybody by flooding the Earth.  The problem is people that we have universities actually gaining accreditation while simultaneously teaching that the universe is less than 10,000 years old.  The problem is that governors of states institute a government-funded day of prayer to pray for rain in order to end a drought.  The problem is that state legislatures have passed laws that posit that science itself should be officially recognized as a form of religion.  The problem is that we have political leaders who actually argue that the existence of the Loch Ness monster is evidence for "Intelligent Design."  The problem is that church officials actually testify before school boards that stars having Arabic names (Aldebaran, Baten Kaitos, Betelguese, etc) proves that the field of astronomy is connected to radical Islam and al Qaeda.  These are not people who have the excuse of going through such tragedy in their lives that they don't have anything else to depend on to keep them going...  No random Christian on a web forum can claim that it's bullying if he strawmans the atheist position and we call him on it.  It is perfectly fair for us to call Ray Comfort a delusion-perpetuating charlatan and a pathological liar because that's all he ever has the capacity to be.  These are the kinds of people with whom atheists are actually concerned (well, insofar as arguing against theism, anyway).  Nobody is going around to crack whores telling them to renounce their faith.  We're addressing those who are shoving religion in our faces and using wealth, power, influence, and numbers to do it.  And if you want to call that bullying, then we are talking about people who deserve to be bullied.  End of story.

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