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Atheism, Homelessness and False Hope

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.

Comments

  1. Abby Normal says

    This is somewhat tangential to the topic, but this part annoyed me.

    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.

    I’m so sick and tired of the stereotype that atheists eschew faith because of cynical emotionalism. It reverses the burden of proof. It assumes belief in a divine being is the default and people need a reason to turn away. In my experience most atheists, myself included, come from the opposite direction, asking why should I believe god exists and finding no good evidence, dismiss the concept.

  2. grumpyoldfart says

    Anecdotal evidence follows – take it with a grain of salt:

    In my younger days (many decades ago) I lived on the streets and nearly every one I knew was an atheist. If there were any Christians among my friends, not one of them ever said so.

    More recently I did a lot of volunteer work in a Day Centre for the homeless. Probably 200 people passed through the Centre each day and there was usually a minimum of twenty people inside at any given time. On Sunday the church service was attended by the preacher, two or three parishioners from his regular church, a couple of Day Centre staff members and maybe one or two of the clients (both of whom were probably more interested in biting the preacher for a handout after the service than they were in the service itself).

  3. raven says

    And his only attempt at an argument for that conclusion is that the homeless people he works with typically believe in God.

    1. And how is that working out for them? They are still homeless. God hasn’t helped them one bit.

    2. In fact, if god belief and homelessness go together, one could argue that believing in god causes homelessness. Correlation doesn’t prove causation though, so it might or might not. You need more data to distinguish causal from correlated.

    3. It’s known that religion does well in ignorance and poverty. This doesn’t make religion good.

    Communicable diseases, malnutrition, and many other social problems also do well in ignorance and poverty.

    Religion, disease, hunger, and social problems don’t cure poverty, they are a result of poverty.

  4. jamessweet says

    I think there is a grain of truth in this guy’s argument, in that having the time and energy to do serious mental self-examination is (sometimes) a luxury of the middle class. On the other hand, there is no doubt that many people in very dire circumstances ARE deep thinkers (and conversely, countless people with time on their hands are nevertheless very shallow thinkers) so it would rather classist to assume that this is always the case.

    How far does this take us? This far: We could stand to be a little more forgiving of false beliefs and poor self-actualization among people who have been shafted for most of their lives. Doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong, but we might judge a little less. Of course, we don’t really ever know another person’s circumstances, so we might just do well to judge everyone a little less (while of course never compromising on what we know to be right or true).

    I know I certainly could. I find god-belief in adults so face-palmingly ridiculous that I am sometimes more contemptuous than is really needed. I don’t really know what people have been through, I don’t really know how their minds work. People wind up being badly mistaken for all sorts of reasons. For me, personally, I could probably benefit from more attempts at understanding, and less eye-rolling.

    All that said… yeah, this guy ultimately is talking down to the poor, and that sucks. “You’re too poor to handle reality”? Yikes.

  5. says

    raven “1. And how is that working out for them? They are still homeless. God hasn’t helped them one bit.”
    Wrong. Think of how much worse things would be if God wasn’t on their side.

  6. raven says

    There is so much wrong with Chris Arnade’s drivel, it’s hard to know where to start.

    1. Its Argument from consequences. Religion gives hope to the downtrodden so that makes it good. Assuming that is true and it probably isn’t, so what? It still doesn’t make religion true.

    2. Religion gives hope to the desperate poor. So what. They also get relief from heroin, marijuana, alcohol and whatever other drugs they can find.

    They don’t need false hope or brain numbing chemicals, they need a place to live and something to eat.

    3. The vast majority of people in the USA aren’t…the homeless. or the 1% either. His faulty argument doesn’t have much to do with the lives of a typical first worlder.

  7. Chiroptera says

    I’ve seen this argument before. It basically boils down to “religion is the opiate of the people.” As if that were a good thing.

  8. Sastra says

    It’s another Little People Argument against atheism. Not for the existence of God, mind you, but against atheists speaking out. The ‘Little People” are not as smart or wise or thoughtful or deep as we are and can’t handle the truth; let us therefore refrain from being so condescending as to treat them as equals and critique what they believe as if truth matters to them. It doesn’t. Not only is atheism a luxury of the rich; so is philosophy, art, and literature … if you’re going to make the alternative “food, shelter, and survival.”

    In addition to the denigration of the poor (what, they’re all to be treated like children? ) the insidious Little People category is slyly extended from the admittedly weak to every single believer, who are human and thus all in some sense weak and in need of support. Thus the issue is immediately turned from truth to utility and atheists framed as arrogant monsters who think they have no flaws and wish to kick out the crutches of those who recognize that they do. It’s where the Little People Argument ends: start with a dying grandmother or recovering addict … and rapidly proceed to include the religious as a whole, in all their power and might. Pity us, who are strengthened by God Almighty.

    What I found particularly annoying in this particular article was the way the story of his 16 year-old self (he tried to avoid bringing up religion and only mentioned it when badgered) is magically transformed into template for Richard Dawkins behaving like a pert and obnoxious teenager badgering others. Please. Don’t do that.

  9. says

    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…

    What atheist would do that? When the RDF raises money and donates it to a worthy cause, do they send little tracts espousing their beliefs along with the funds like religious organizations often do? Of course they don’t.

    And personally, I have never said anything remotely like that to anyone who hasn’t already engaged me in conversation about the subject. I was always careful around my sister’s children since she is still a believer and it was not my place to interfere (as it is two out of three grew up confirmed non-believers, and the jury is still out with the third).

  10. lpetrich says

    Yes, Chiroptera in #8, that’s what I thought. It’s from Karl Marx, and it’s a paraphrase of this:

    Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

  11. Sastra says

    tacitus #11 wrote:

    And personally, I have never said anything remotely like that to anyone who hasn’t already engaged me in conversation about the subject.

    From what I can make out, Arnade’s point is that even if one is directly confronted by a believer and specifically asked about beliefs, the atheist should still decline to engage in the issue at all . Or, maybe the idea is that a good atheist, a compassionate atheist, a thoughtful atheist will in some way give their verbal ‘blessing’ to the believer, possibly with a rousing encouragement that they will continue to derive happiness and good cheer from their faith. You need it. Poor thing. I forbear to give the details you seek, out of respect — for I do not know your story and you may be weaker than you seem.

    I mean, consider the example he gives of the time when he was a ‘smug’ 16-year-old-kid:

    Preacher Man tried to get me to join the prayer meetings, asking me almost daily. I declined, preferring to spend those small work breaks with some of the other guys on the crew. We would use the time to snatch a quick drink or maybe smoke a joint.

    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.”

    Keep in mind that in this scenario the atheist is apparently supposed to be the bad guy. He wasn’t respectful enough, I guess. Because this is the example the author uses to explain why Richard Dawkins is both a “grown up version of that 16 year old kid” Arnade once was … and inhuman.

    To many people, the worst thing an atheist can do is try to convince a believer that there is no God. Atheism is bad enough, but permissible. Turning other people into atheists, though, degrades them. Changes them from good and happy … to whatever the atheist is and has, which is horrible. No offense.

    As accomodationists argue, many of the religious will accept atheists and even like us — under a simple condition. No debate. We should not try to drag them down to our level. Absent that, it’s total respect. Really. I’m sure that’s a great strategy, then.

  12. marcus says

    To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut “Peoples should take care of each other, God (if he exists) can take of himself.”

  13. Ichthyic says

    a physicist turned turned Wall Streeters turned activist

    I can’t parse this.

    it’s not like:

    “The results of those beliefs I had had had had no effect on those around me.”

    which is perfectly understandable.

  14. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    The one possible grain of truth in there is that Atheism is an “intellectual luxury”, in so far as it’s easier to come to the conclusion that there is no God if you have the education and time to think it all through. Other than that it’s all patronising drivel, as far as I can see.

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