Atheism As A Movement of Privilege

While the prostitutes are easily looked down upon, perhaps God has a special job for them:

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” – 1 Corinthians 1:27

This is what Christian Post had to say about an article in Guardian.

Apart from cooing over the admission that atheism is for the richer and well off members of society due to the fact that the most vocal atheists tend to be “rich”.

Well mainly it’s looking at Richard Dawkins and how the vocal members of our movement are from a single demographic. How atheism has generally been fronted by rich white blokes. It is an attack on image.

And the Christian Post falls down that same trap, where it looks at the poorest members of society and assumes their poverty has a purpose in the grand scheme of things. That to get to heaven you are blessed to be poor. To be rich is a curse.

Which is nonsense, poor people exist because of social and economic reasons that prevent them from having jobs which are in itself a self defeating problem.

Most people want experience when they hire so getting a job without experience is hard, but you need a job to have experience. So poverty due to a lack of a job slowly makes you difficult to hire. Prostitution is just one of those ways to make ends meet. It’s not some special plan from a god. If it is then we must question the morality of the god. If he is dicking with the foolish and the weak to shame us then this is a god who never cared about the weak and the foolish.

Preacher Man would question me, “What do you believe in?” I would decline to engage, out of politeness. He pressed me. Finally I broke,

I am an atheist. I don’t believe in a God. I don’t think the world is only 5,000 years old, I don’t think Cain and Abel married their sisters!

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.”

And you wonder why we think Christians aren’t helping the poor. See the atheist here tried to respect the feelings of others, it isn’t the atheist forcing others to be like him but the religious.

I eventually left my Wall Street job and started working with andphotographing 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.

Religion is the opiate of the masses. When that statement was made, Opium was common place. You could buy opiate drugs and they were regarded as quite beneficial. A lot of people smoked opium at the time.

But opium was known as a painkiller. What Marx meant was that religion clouded the eyes of people to the suffering they are in because religion promised them rewards that could never be cashed in. It ENCOURAGED poverty and made it okay. It prevented the masses from wondering why the  select few had all the wealth and why they lorded it over others.

It stops slaves from thinking that they can oppose the whip. Remember for most of civilisation and until quite recently the rich ruled through fear and oppression. Until Marx mobilised the workforce there was little to no progress for the common man.

And Marx was correct, the people worst off in society cling to religion more because religion is like opium. It eases the pain, it’s addictive but it creates a social structure and belonging to something where you are promised a reward later for suffering now. The suffering becomes personal but it becomes personal for good. If you endure this you will get a prize.

None of them are. Rather they are some of the strongest believers I have met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.

The dialogue of religion is that we are all inherently bad people. That we are miserable and terrible. That all the joys we can have now are pointless and fleeting and that we must eschew them for a higher reward.

How comforting is that to ones who have no joy? People who are actually miserable and feel terrible would find it easier to relate to the wretched humanity of religion than we do.

The first addict I met was Takeesha. She was standing near the high wall of the Corpus Christi Monastery. We talked for close to an hour before I took her picture. When we finished, I asked her how she wanted to be described. She said without any pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”

I have heard that phrase before.

The Harijans of India. Children of Hari. Children of the Preserver. A Child of god. The children of god moniker was again utilised for the untouchablees of India. People who live in similarly terrible conditions.

It’s sad when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me.

And if she had come from India the god would have been one of the many available. That doesn’t mean her faith is real or that it’s healthy. It’s a coping mechanism.

Takeesha and the other homeless addicts are brutalized by a system driven by a predatory economic rationalism (a term used recently by J. M. Coetzee in his essay: On Nelson Mandela). They are viewed by the public and seen by almost everyone else as losers. Just “junkie prostitutes” who live in abandoned buildings.

I actually  see them as victims of a social, cultural and economic system that doesn’t provide a safety net except through the usage of charity which results in large gaps in the system. In addition the culture of the USA punishes socialism and makes high risk high reward behaviour the norm because that is the “American Dream”.

So everyone else still fighting is “living the American Dream”. Just because they haven’t got their millions yet doesn’t mean they are not going to in the future. To these Millionaires in Potential these are people who didn’t follow their dreams or want it hard enough. The real fallacy is the American Dream.

No one’s told them the truth. That most people will never make it to the holy grail of that status of “Ultra Rich”. Most people will forever be normal. They will have a moderate standard of living.

It is why Americans think anything to help these people is a waste of money, because they never saw them as victims but people who gave up. And if they give up on the American Dream then how can you trust them to not give up on something as hard as rehab?

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.

And this is why atheist charity is important. This is why atheist groups need to be out there. Because the people providing them support is not us but their gods.

Humanity abandoned them, the gods didn’t. The gods are not judging them, the gods give them the hope of redemption at the end and of eternal reward for suffering now. And their faith exists because it has to. They have to have something that holds them up because we never did.

Atheist charity can be done properly. It can be done without the abuses of the missionary. It can be done with efficiency. But what it needs is organisation. It needs resources and that means it needs a massive system of funding it’s projects. This means it needs to “stop” being a charity.

A lot of people think free workers make charity efficient. It depends really.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it just makes charity ineffective. Knowing when to use them and when to use professionals makes the difference. It does seem selfish, it does seem arrogant but we have an image problem. Hemant Mehta’s donations have demonstrated that much at least. That we cannot donate money as ourselves. We literally have to pretend to do charity.

In order to do charity we must stop doing charity to feel good and start doing it to solve problems.

In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners.

Not all people who are Atheists have computers of even a voice that is heard.

We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don’t. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has numbed their understanding of our fallibility.

No one is perfect, not Christian not Us. Because we try and rationalise our morality it is more subject to criticism and it is more likely to meet reality and survive.

We understand we are fallible. We just don’t think believing in the infallible is going to help us. We think that the best help is from a human source.

Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.

Which is a problem.

There are poor atheists out there. There are atheists in incredible amounts of strife. The problem is like any movement anyone who gets to the top is bound to be  rich simply because they are at the top.

I find this rationale faulty. Atheism is higher among the better off for a variety of reasons ranging from intellectual opportunity to social pressures among poorer communities to “not” be an atheist.

I look back at my 16-year-old self and see Preacher Man and his listeners differently. I look at the fragile women praying and see a mother working a minimum wage custodial job, trying to raise three children alone. Her children’s father off drunk somewhere. I look at the teenager fingering a small cross and see a young woman, abused by a father addicted to whatever, trying to find some moments of peace. I see Preacher Man himself, living in a beat up shack without electricity, desperate to stay clean, desperate to make sense of a world that has given him little.

They found hope where they could.

I want to go back to that 16-year-old self and tell him to shut up with the “see how clever I am attitude”. I want to tell him to appreciate how easy he had it, with a path out. A path to riches.

Yes, but our atheism is part of who we are. I should not have to hide my atheism. I am polite, you may believe what you wish as long as you let others believe what they want.

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.

Not all atheists come from that situation. He was lucky  as were most of the famous atheists we hold “important”. However there are atheists who quietly do great work for their fellow man and who never judged the religious beliefs of people unless it was harmful to others.

I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others. Preaching from a selfish vantage point.

Which means that no atheist who has a major voice can ever speak out against the religious excesses.

Until one has suffered, one cannot speak out against an injustice? That seems like a rather select few people who can speak out against religious excess.

And again this highlights the need for charity being done by open atheists and secularists in the same vein as the missionary lest we be completely alienated from the notion that we are incapable of providing any assistance.

It is not by faith in gods that these people’s lives will improve but by the actions of man. And is that not the rationale we have built our lives on because we are atheists?


  1. says

    That to get to heaven you are blessed to be poor. To be rich is a curse.

    A lie by a no-doubt rich priest, about why it was good for the people doing useful work in society to impoverish themselves keeping his lazy ass comfortable.

    If it were the least bit true, then every Pope ever must be in the direst levels of hell, because they were all (in their hearts!) very, very wealthy men. Among the wealhtiest in the world for many centuries.

    Religion is obscene in many ways.

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  3. lpetrich says

    Seems to me that we will be attacked for their social status no matter what it is. If we are not well off, we will get attacked as failures. If we are well off or professionally successful or well-known or whatever, we will get attacked as elitists.

  4. Al Dente says

    Most religions promise pie in the sky when you die. Your time on Earth may be miserable but after you die everything will be great and the greatness will last forever. You just have to have faith in gods and the afterlife will be everything you were denied on Earth. This is what Marx was referring to when he discussed the opiate of the people.

  5. smrnda says

    Joe Hill was a pro union pro labor songwriter who mocked the Salvation Army by giving their hymns new lyrics, and was fond of mocking their ‘pie in the sky’ message, particularly at a time when pretty much no religions were getting behind workers as they actually fought for meaningful reforms that would improve their lives. I doubt he had much money, but there are poor people who see religions for the scam it is.

    On his ‘how dare I criticize the religious beliefs of suffering people if it gives them hope?’ Best thing to do is to decrease the suffering and then see what people end up believing. If your life is hard, difficult, and you’re struggling just to survive I doubt one has a lot of time or effort to calmly weigh the evidence for different beliefs. This is why you see more atheists in places with less poverty and fewer social problems. You can’t think clearly when you’re struggling to survive.

  6. says

    On his ‘how dare I criticize the religious beliefs of suffering people if it gives them hope?’ Best thing to do is to decrease the suffering and then see what people end up believing.

    Because just taking away the opium is cruel.
    It’s also undeniable that there are real benefits for being religious in a world where lots of charity is church-based. You get a support system. I bet that many people were saved from becoming poor by their nice church community. By people being willing to watch your children so you can work/go to college. By people willing to bring you meals when you get sick so you can recover. Because of the mechanic looking at your car and doing the repair with spare parts they had lying around, the car you need to do your job.

  7. gshelley says

    I wonder if people like this hae eer read anything by Dawkins, or just a few out of context quotes. Dawkins certainly understands many of the reasons people beliee, he just doesn’t pretend they are good ones

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