You may well have seen this column by Chris Arnade, a physicist turned turned Wall Streeters turned activist against homelessness, in The Guardian. His claim is that atheism is “an intellectual luxury for the wealthy.” And his only attempt at an argument for that conclusion is that the homeless people he works with typically believe in God.
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.
I saw some of myself in him: quick with arguments, uneasy with emotions, comfortable with logic, able to look at any ideology or any thought process and expose the inconsistencies. We all picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies. It is the skinny 85lb (35.6kg) weakling for anyone looking to flex their scientific muscles.
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.
None of them are. Rather they are some of the strongest believers I have met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore…
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.
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…
Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well…
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.
This is all a bit baffling. Yes, people in desperate poverty do tend to cling to their faith because it offers them hope, however false. But how does it follow from this fact that therefore Richard Dawkins and the rest of us should therefore not argue against the truth of religion, especially since at least part of the reason for such extreme poverty is the influence of religion in propping up such inequality? How does it help the situation to continue to give them false hope rather than offering real hope in the form of human action to help them?
Nathan Tumberg, an atheist and humanist who has been homeless himself, provides the right answer to this:
That article seemed to be to be talking down to the homeless, the poor, the starving, and the addicted. It implies that without a faith in God, those of us in the worst places and situations would have no hope, and that we’re incapable of dealing with a universe that allows such unfairness.
I’ve been homeless, poor, and starving/food insecure (I’ve avoided addiction, except for tobacco). And I’ve lacked faith that entire time. I was and remain completely capable of dealing with it. So can the people that article talks down to, whether they realize it or not.
God almost certainly doesn’t exist. Yet people who have faith routinely claim that it was the strength God gave them that let them get through the worst times of their lives. To which I routinely respond in my head, “No! Don’t denigrate yourself! That strength was in you the entire time. You are stronger than you think!” Of course, it’s not just from within the person that such strength emerges. The support of friends, family, and others who care can lift us up when we find ourselves struggling…
Social interaction. People around us. Connection. And our own inner strength. That is how we survive. That is how we get better. That is how humanity improves, as individuals, and as a species.
I got off the streets because of other people, other humans, giving me a helping hand when I needed it most. God had nothing to do with this. I’ve survived depression multiple times (including recently) for the same reason. They added their strength to mine, and it was enough.
And to everyone who thinks they only improved because of God? Stop denigrating yourself (and your supportive loved ones).
It absolutely is not enough to spend our time debating the existence of God. In fact, I have almost no interest in doing that anymore and haven’t for a long time. The way to lessen the cruelty of poverty is not to pretend that there is a God that will help the poor, it is to turn thought into action and work to help those trapped in such circumstances. And belief in God should be irrelevant to this. A great many churches and religious organizations do important and necessary work serving the poor and so do humanist organizations. I’d like to see us work together as much as possible to do so, setting aside our religious differences. But that doesn’t mean that Dawkins or anyone else should stop advocating atheism or criticizing religion.