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“People want to matter more than they want to live”: Rebecca Goldstein’s Talk at Women in Secularism 2

Women In Secularism 2 logo

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.”

Rebecca GoldsteinA 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:

Jesus_Blessing_the_ChildrenOne 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.

society_without_godIt’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.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for posting about this. I’ve read allusions to Goldstein’s talk and was extremely intrigued. I hope it was recorded or that the test will be available.

    it seems to me that the need to matter is related (or identical) to Erich Fromm’s notion of the (evolved) need for effectance. I think the existentialists’ discussions of childhood are wrong on this score: they view childhood as a happy and comfortable time in that children are supposedly relieved from mattering – play is the opposite of mattering. But if you really think about it, play is often precisely play at mattering. Children aren’t relieved from the burden of mattering because it’s fake – it pretty much requires the illusion that it’s not fake. And the sense of effecting, of mattering, for infants, children, and adults, is exhilarating and needed.

    But the existentialists and Fromm were both right to argue that this recognition is also a source of distress and great fear. Effectance/mattering, if seen clearly, carries with it the burden of heavy responsibility. And we often run from this burden of responsibility and the difficult choices that accompany it by trying to locate our actions within a larger human or divine project or teleology: of God, Science, Nation, History, Progress, Civilization,…

    I don’t know if this view is (necessarily) contrary to Goldstein’s. More likely, it complements hers.

  2. Martha says

    Thanks for writing so well about this talk– it was my favorite, too, one of the best I’ve seen in a couple decades of going to conferences on various topics. Part of what made it so compelling was Goldstein’s admission that she had never before spoken in public about being a woman and her touching exploration of her own journey, of pretending that she hadn’t been treated differently because of her gender in hopes that by so pretending, it would eventually come true.

    I was also struck by the fact that Greek philosophy arose in more or less the same time period as the world’s major religions, and I wondered a bit how one people developed a secular tradition while so many others developed religious ones. I suppose the waters are a bit muddied by the non-theistic Eastern religions that also arose around those times.

    I’m really looking forward to watching this rich lecture again when the video comes out. I only wish more atheists had been around to hear her argue so eloquently for the roles of empathy and of the humanities in the modern atheist movement. I’m a scientist myself, but I think she’s absolutely right on both counts.

  3. brianpansky says

    I sometimes find myself fantasizing about a secular organization that provides so much (childcare, employment connections, I’m always unsure how far with the idea is too far and too unrealistic haha). It would definitely not be called a church, even churches sell themselves short with that label which evokes too limited a focus.

    I do definitely think some way of providing that mattering in a world-of-reality kind of way would improve the world and have the side effect of there being more atheism.

  4. Silentbob says

    @ 4 Stephen Frug

    Not a transcript per se, but a detailed description is posted here.

    Eventually, there will be a video posted by CFI.

  5. RealityEnforcer, Roaming Bear, terror of the Boy Scouts says

    I’m kinda annoyed, because my brain decided on Friday to completely skip out during Goldstein’s talk. Instead, it made doodles. Can’t wait until the video comes out.

  6. Pen says

    It sounds like a great talk. I think I’ve always intuited this, so that in theory, if not always in practice, I’m behind the idea of making people feel they matter. I suspect doing it is a learned skill. I’ll go and read the ‘detailed description’ mentioned at #5. I wonder, has WiS thought about making the content of the talks available on video, or by other means, paying or not. I mean there’s no way I could go, but I’m interested.

    On another note, it’s well known that there is no better way of making people feel they don’t matter than treating them as member of a group rather than an individual which is maybe where some of the backlash against the privilege discussion comes from, especially when people who aren’t used to this phenomenon find themselves on the receiving end of it. Women are very used to it, as you say. Ever expressed an opinion and heard ‘I wish women would make up their minds?’!! OK, that was a stupid question. How about if I ask how many times you’ve heard it?

    most of us who find this God thing more creepy than comforting are people who already have a strong sense of mattering

    I’m not sure about that. I think it’s important not to overlook the immense sense of intimacy many religious people feel with God. They don’t get the sense of creepiness that comes from being intruded on by a stranger. It should be easy for atheists to understand really, since we believe the sense of God is a figment of the imagination, and who on earth should anyone be on more intimate terms with than their own psyche. The vulnerable are prone to religious conversion, but usually there’s a whole load of people love-bombing them and making them feel they matter – and often providing genuine social support, albeit with strings attached – it’s one of the things religions do quite well.

  7. jimhabegger says

    “Myself, I want to spend a couple/ few days writing about the awesome, before I decide what to say about the crap.”

    Thank you. Thank you.

    Thank you.

    I’m sitting here, looking for more words to say what I’m feeling, and those are the only words that come to me. Just “Thank you.”

    About the crap. It might not deserve any attention at all, other than as a sign that the social justice movement is making big waves, as a welcome wake-up call to some people who were still asleep, and as welcome publicity for the movement.

  8. smhll says

    “People want to matter more than they want to live.”

    Tipping this in a political direction, maybe that’s why being ignored and dismissed tends to be so enraging.

  9. johnthedrunkard says

    It is painfully awkward to acknowledge that religion/woo can be described as ‘a chick thing,’ or ‘a black thing,’ etc. Yes, atheism represents some of the most powerful liberation imaginable (Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton) but the gender/color lines tend to reinforce themselves, even if evertyone is behaving nicely.

    Which reflects back on how toxic the ‘negging,’ trolling,’ harrasment, and secondary rationalizing of same are to the future of free thought. Everyone in the lifeboat owes the people still submerged their best behavior.

  10. Stephen Frug says

    @ 5 Silentbob:

    Thanks for the link. If you see it, and remember, maybe post a link to the video once its up?

  11. great1american1satan says

    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.

    My guy has zero self-esteem and finds omniscient god creepy, so anecdotally, that theory is sunk…

    Although that doesn’t sink the idea of outreach and welcoming and so forth. Certainly as a person who believes the only purpose or meaning of life comes from humans, I think we should treat humans as important. And of course people will appreciate being treated in that way.

    I just don’t think there’s a necessary cause or even correlation between finding dictator god offensive and feeling any sense of agency or self-worth in life. Heck, one could easily see atheism being a result of a sense of cosmic worthlessness, too. It’s a weird thing like that.

  12. Silentbob says

    @ 11 Stephen Frug

    If you read FTB, I don’t think you’ll miss it. I’d bet my cotton socks that a lot of FTB bloggers will be linking to it as soon as it’s available. ;-)

    If you want to be sure not to miss it, subscribe to CFI’s YouTube channel.

  13. G Pierce (Was ~G~) says

    This gave me an epiphany about why I feel so drained and uninspired about the movement as long as large organizations continue to either ignore or tip their hats to the harassers and sexists. It makes me feel like my feelings and my contributions don’t matter to them.

    On a side note, I think wanting to matter is exactly what motivates some of us to really be more active in making a difference on social justice issues. We want our atheism to matter to the larger world not just by promoting atheism or skepticism but by directly taking on the destructive paradigms fueled by religion and lack of critical thinking such as sexism or the war on reproductive rights. Doing these things would matter to non-believers and believers alike.

    Not long ago I started considering the idea that some people within skepticism or atheism may transfer what I thought of as “feeling special” and “transcendent” that they received from religion to an aspect of atheism/skepticism that some seem to embrace. This is an attitude I sometimes see of perceiving us as smarter than the average joe, the idea that we have a special knowledge or ability that others don’t, and a feeling of exclusivity that perhaps the religious get from feeling that God favors them over others. I now see how this can translating in wanting to matter. When people challenge the idea that atheism/skepticism is an exclusive club or that maybe we aren’t all as smart as we think we are, maybe those people are going to feel like we are attacking that sense of being special or “mattering”.

  14. lpetrich says

    The development of religions whose gods are concerned with individual worshippers has been noted by others also. In Richard Carrier: The Historicity of Jesus – YouTube, he notes the development of individual-salvation cults in the Hellenistic world, usually from more impersonal agricultural ones. The death and resurrection of the crop plants becomes the death and resurrection of the worshippers.

    Wanting to matter sometimes takes negative forms, and a long-ago case of that was a certain Herostratus, who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus so he could get eternal notoriety.

    Looking back further to nearly 3000 years ago, one of Homer’s stock phrases is one that means “undying/imperishable/everlasting fame/glory”: kléos áphthiton. It has a precise cognate in another ancient language, Sanskrit: śrávo ákşitam, and we can look back some 6000 years or so to a language which is only known from linguistic reconstruction: Proto-Indo-European. We find: *ḱlewos n̥dʰgʷʰitom (don’t worry about exactly how to pronounce it).

    Of course, others may sabotage one’s attempts to matter, and an extreme form of this is damnatio memoriae (Latin: “damnation/condemnation of memory”), trying to erase someone disliked from the historical record. This includes disliked Egyptian Pharaohs, Roman Emperors, and Communist Party officials. Long before image-editing software like Photoshop, certain people painted the images of disfavored officials out of official pictures of them, and David King wrote a book about that: The Commissar Vanishes. Some pictures: NEWSEUM: The Commissar Vanishes

Trackbacks

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  3. [...] You see the same dynamic play out in our modern, non-fantasy patriarchy. Men are harmed in countless ways by stifling male gender roles. They are cut off from their emotions and have to expend a serious amount of energy always maintaining the image of masculinity, and that energy drain appears to lead to higher levels of stress for straight men than for out gay and bi men. However, many straight men appear to believe that in exchange for constantly policing the boundaries of masculinity, they get a number of pretty significant male privileges, including economic opportunities, fewer domestic responsibilities, and, most importantly of all, being treated with gravitas and respect that is not generally extended to women. They get, in other words, to matter, and that is worth quite a bit of sacrifice.* [...]

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  5. [...] You see the same dynamic play out in our modern, non-fantasy patriarchy. Men are harmed in countless ways by stifling male gender roles. They are cut off from their emotions and have to expend a serious amount of energy always maintaining the image of masculinity, and that energy drain appears to lead to higher levels of stress for straight men than for out gay and bi men. However, many straight men appear to believe that in exchange for constantly policing the boundaries of masculinity, they get a number of pretty significant male privileges, including economic opportunities, fewer domestic responsibilities, and, most importantly of all, being treated with gravitas and respect that is not generally extended to women. They get, in other words, to matter, and that is worth quite a bit of sacrifice.* [...]

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  9. [...] You see the same dynamic play out in our modern, non-fantasy patriarchy. Men are harmed in countless ways by stifling male gender roles. They are cut off from their emotions and have to expend a serious amount of energy always maintaining the image of masculinity, and that energy drain appears to lead to higher levels of stress for straight men than for out gay and bi men. However, many straight men appear to believe that in exchange for constantly policing the boundaries of masculinity, they get a number of pretty significant male privileges, including economic opportunities, fewer domestic responsibilities, and, most importantly of all, being treated with gravitas and respect that is not generally extended to women. They get, in other words, to matter, and that is worth quite a bit of sacrifice.* [...]

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