Note: The Women in Secularism 2 was kind of a weird rollercoaster. The highs — and it was overwhelmingly highs — were very high indeed; the lows were seriously low, and of a variety that seeped poison into the highs and made them harder to appreciate. Many other people have been writing about some of the lows: I may well weigh in on them at some point myself (although others have already said most of what I would want to say). But the speakers and panelists at WiS2 mostly seem to have cared deeply about making this conference incredible, and overwhelmingly brought their A-game. Lows aside, this was easily one of the best conferences I’ve attended. It’s hard to find the balance between not ignoring the awful but not letting it take over everything, and I’m not going to tell anyone else where that balance should be for them. Myself, I want to spend a couple/ few days writing about the awesome, before I decide what to say about the crap.
“People want to matter more than they want to live.”
A somewhat interesting thing happened at the Women in Secularism 2 conference. The talk that got most people excited and happy and buzzing was from a speaker who isn’t often seen on the atheism circuit. I asked almost everyone I spoke with at the conference who their favorite speaker was… and almost all of them said, “Rebecca Goldstein.” Or else, since many people weren’t familiar with Goldstein, they said, “The last speaker on Friday before the reception. The one who spoke about mattering.”
That was certainly true for me. I was gobsmacked. I’ve only seen Goldstein speak once before… and both times now, she has completely rearranged my brain. Today’s piece is something of a mish-mash between the ideas she presented in her talk, and the places where my now-rearranged brain is running with them. Mostly, though, they’re her ideas, and she deserves the credit.
The core idea: There are a handful of deep, fundamental desires that drive almost all human beings. We want to eat; we want to have sex; we want connection with other people; we want to feel good; we want to survive. Some others.
Goldstein’s thesis — and one that’s now being supported by many psychologists — is that we have to add something to this list: We want to matter.
Some people, in fact, want to matter more than they want to live. Think about people who are willing to die for a cause. They are willing to die, indeed happy to die, if they think that their death — or the work and the fight they’re risking their lives for — will matter.
This is the idea that’s been resonating through my head for days now. I’m seeing it everywhere. Why are we so obsessed with fame and celebrity? Why do people take ridiculous dangerous risks, just so they can make videos that go viral on YouTube? Why do I get more upset about the ultimate heat-death of the universe than I do about my own eventual death? People want to matter… in some cases, more than we want to live.
So what does this have to do with religion and atheism — or for that matter, with women and feminism and social justice?
Well. For starters:
One of the main things people get from religion is the feeling that they matter. After all, what could make you feel more important than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares passionately about you: that he wants more than almost anything for you to do right and be with him after you die, and is even waging a war for your soul? In fact, Goldstein — along with the psychologists who are running with this idea — argues that modern religions with more interventionist/ caring gods began to arise with the rise of civilization and cities, when many people began to have less of an intimate connection with their society and their world, and became more anonymous and interchangeable. When you don’t matter as much to the people around you, when the human world is treating you like a replaceable cog in a machine, the more animistic, “gods and spirits are running around doing stuff that affects us but without that much attention to us” religion isn’t as attractive as a god or gods who keep close tabs on each and every human life.
Of course there’s a creepy Orwellian aspect of this kind of belief as well. What with the all-knowing creator of the universe constantly spying on you, never giving you a moment to yourself, listening in on even your private thoughts and desires. But I’m guessing — and I’d be interested to know if the psychology backs me up on this — that most of us who find this God thing more creepy than comforting are people who already have a strong sense of mattering. We don’t need to matter to an invisible magical creator… since we already feel like we matter to the world.
Which brings me to Part Two: What does all this have to do with women and feminism and social justice?
I bet you see where I’m going with this. Or rather, where Rebecca Goldstein is going with this.
Religion — especially this “God knows and cares about every feather falling off of every sparrow, of course he cares about you” religion — is going to be more appealing, and more important, to people who feel that they don’t matter. People who are marginal, invisible, anonymous to the world around them, will have more of a need to believe in a god who sees them and loves them, a god to whom they matter. People who have a greater sense of agency, visibility, influence, aren’t going to need that as much.
And when you think about people who are marginal, invisible, anonymous to the world around them — women are high on that list. Along with poor people, blue-collar people, people of color, LGBT people, disabled people, many others I don’t have space to list here.
So if atheism is going to flourish, we need to do two things.
1: We need to make damn well sure that these folks matter to us.
We can’t keep building a community and a movement for people who already have power, people who already feel like they matter. We need to build a community and a movement where otherwise marginal, invisible, anonymous people matter. And we can’t just decide to make their concerns our concerns, out of the benevolence of our hearts. We need to create a community and a movement where all atheists count as “we.” We need to create a community and a movement where these folks get a voice, a place at the table, a say in what matters to all of us.
And 2: We need to work towards a world where these folks matter more… period.
It’s already been well-documented (largely and most famously in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment by Phil Zuckerman) that societies with high levels of happiness and social functioning tend to be societies with high rates of atheism. If Goldstein’s hypothesis holds up, this doesn’t just apply to the obvious elements of the “happiness index” Zuckerman talks about, a strong economy and a low crime rate and good education and good health care and well-supported arts and good beer. It applies to whether people feel like they matter: whether social policies are more egalitarian or more rigidly hierarchical, whether there’s relative economic equality or economic power is in the hands of a few, whether the government is deeply corrupt or the people have a say in it.
We need to treat people as if they matter. Everyone. We need to put work and effort into getting people to matter who commonly feel like they don’t. We have to do this if we want atheism to flourish.
Not to mention it being, you know, the right thing to do.