New job, less blogs (maybe)

I’m pretty boring. The only possibly interesting thing about my presence on this network is the fact that I work in child welfare. Due to my perspective, I’ve been meaning to write about it, but for various reasons haven’t. For the past 10 years I’ve worked in the field both directly with families as well as more behind the scenes. Guess which pays better. The paradox of all social services work is that the more money one makes, the less direct interaction there is with those they hope to help.

Working in child welfare has only cemented my non-belief in a kind and loving god. Such a god who doesn’t stop the horrors perpetrated against children that I’ve been confronted with on a daily basis is beneath contempt. I have intimate knowledge of some the worst things in the world – specific stories of abuse, neglect, violence, child sex trafficking, etc. Each story is different in it’s own heartbreaking way. Every person in the field needs the ability to compartmentalize. In my case this has led to numb feelings of desensitization, which is a depressing coping mechanism.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been long been ambivalent to shit like presidential elections. No matter who’s in office (federal, state, local), the workload of child welfare workers generally remains the same. The plight of abused and neglected kids, an extremely large proportion of which grow up in poverty, are mere talking points by asshole politicians who don’t do shit. Any attempts to mitigate poverty and institutionalized racism are band-aids applied to gaping wounds, and the children are the ones who suffer the greatest. It’s a fucking race to get ahead in the hyper-competitive developed world, and these kids are held back and getting lapped by the more privileged.

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Social services workers are almost always overworked, underpaid, and very unappreciated. There are no TV shows or movies celebrating what we do (or are there? I don’t really have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entertainment field). If we’re ever portrayed it’s always as exhausted and mildly incompetent, with the latter being a direct consequence of the former. Compared to other public servants, such as firemen, nurses, and even teachers, we’re largely invisible, little thought of, and certainly not worthy of fetishization by popular culture, as opposed to the aforementioned.

The only time the general public is aware of anything relating to child welfare, to pick the aspect of social services I’ve been involved in, is when something horrible happens – a child dying in foster care, a social worker clearing a family for child abuse or neglect only for the worst to happen. At the same time there is a nagging, and not entirely undeserved perception of child welfare workers breaking apart and ruining families – after all, we are paid representatives of sociopolitical structures that have historically oppressed people unluckily born into bad situations.

None of this is to excuse the fuck-ups, of which there are countless in child welfare and other areas that comprise the field. There are wide systemic problems in the delivery of services to vulnerable populations. That we are a largely reactive industry that confronts systemic societal problems certainly doesn’t help. Also not helping: there’s little sign that systemic societal problems show any meaningful signs of abatement. A professor once told me that there will always a need for work in human services, and that’s proven to be right in my experience. But as I wrote, the work is low paying, hard, and little appreciated. Turnover is high on and just behind the frontlines, and there’s stiff competition for mid to upper level management. Often this necessitates prohibitively expensive higher education, a risk in any field that may or may not pay off financially.

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Anyways, it’s not all bad. I’m just feeling a bit melancholy about it all because I’m about to start something completely new. While I’m still with the same organization, I will now be performing quality assurance related duties. It’s hard to say how often I’ll be able to blog, as I’ll need to devote more brainpower to an area I’m relatively unfamiliar with. It doesn’t help that I write slow and scattered – it takes much more time than I’d like for my thoughts and words to coalesce. So we shall see.

My atheist story

Lately, due to various personal reasons I haven’t felt like writing about much that requires discerning thought. But writing about my atheist story is easy. Moreover, I have written little about atheism on this blog.

I was raised Catholic and had to attend church every Sunday from birth until around age 17. That included CCD classes once per week in the fall/winter. I fucking hated all of it. I didn’t care for school in general, and church represented more time that I had to be bored out of my skull. Despite this, during my childhood and early adolescence, I recall having a vague acceptance that God was real, and so was the Jesus story. I remember wearing a cross necklace or two because I thought it looked cool. [1] I also wore a WWJD bracelet because it seemed like Jesus was a good dude. This was probably around age 13 or 14.

I was not the type that interrupted church classes with pointed questions and attempts to expose hypocrisy or things that didn’t make sense. No, I paid next to no attention, doing the bare minimum in terms of participation and watching the clock miserably (oh what I would have given for a smart-phone back in those days).

I only recall a few what-the-fuck style memories about religion in my early years:

  1. In 3rd or 4th grade I gave some money during the solicitation portion of mass, thinking that the money would go to the poor. I was informed afterwards that that wasn’t the case; instead, the money went directly to the church. Fuck that, I thought, the church doesn’t need another stupid fountain.
  2. During my freshman year in high school, I made it to state for wrestling. By this point it had been drilled in my head that God was responsible for good things happening, while receiving none of the blame for the bad. For as long as I remember I thought this unfair. Anyways, I was told I should be thankful to God for my success. Fuck that, I thought, I’m the one that did this shit, why should I give credit to God?
  3. What the fuck happened to people who died before Jesus’ time? Or peoples who lived in places free of Christianity and had to wait hundreds of years to receive the means for salvation? Seems kinda shitty, Jesus.
  4. I didn’t get how people decided they could pick and choose what parts to believe/follow from the Bible. It seemed to me that either ALL of it was true and needed to be followed or it was flawed, and thus imperfect and definitely not divinely inspired.

By freshman year of high school, I was already a year or so into my chosen rebellion of punk and hardcore music. It was through this that I was introduced to radical politics and to a lesser extent atheism. The latter was manifested primarily via blasphemous lyrics and imagery. Some of the best were Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Propagandhi, Integrity, Overcast, Converge, Disembodied, Bloodlet and Catharsis. There were also some good Christian punk/hardcore bands in those days (Zao, Slick Shoes, Living Sacrifice, Strongarm): “See mom? This band is Christian so it’s not bad that I listen to this type of music!” Here are some awesome songs:

By junior year I self-identified as agnostic. Despite this, I was still Confirmed. I had skipped classes, finagled my way out of the overnight retreat, and my mom had to convince the priest to do it. Even during this time, I played the sulking teenager, paying no attention and participating only when necessary. In retrospect, it’s too bad I didn’t play the bad-ass punk contrarian. At any rate, I went through with it out of love for my mom, though getting money from the subsequent Confirmation party certainly sweetened the deal.

In 2006 or 2007, I finally decided I was an atheist. Dawkins’ “spectrum of theistic probability” as described in The God Delusion was the pivotal factor and I rather liked this way to categorize belief. On that scale I wholeheartedly identified with the “De facto atheist” definition of “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” Moreover, the agnostic label never was able to adequately convey my disdain and repudiation of organized religions and their hypothetical deities.

Atheism is a foundational aspect of who I am, though it doesn’t figure too prominently in my day-to-day life. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded socially by other non-believers, as well as respectful believers that don’t give me any shit (#blessed). I enjoy coming to FtB to consume stories from an atheist perspective, and the writers here do a very good job at addressing the insidious, the absurd and the infuriating. It’s so well-covered that I rarely feel I have anything substantive to contribute. Perhaps that will continue, perhaps not.


[1] I was wrong. It was not cool.

 

 

Ancient atheism

“When life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e’er again return”

“There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world”

Sarva Darsana Samgraha by Vidyaranya [1]

When I’m fortunate enough to get out of the city, I like to take time to stare at the stars. Thanks to our scientific apparatus and educational system that explains certain scientific findings, I know that our sun is a star, same as all the stars seen in the night sky. I’ve long considered the sheer scale of the universe to be a powerful argument against a Creator. [2] Why should there be so much matter in the vast emptiness of space if humanity is the all-important center of the everything?

If I were a Scythian nomad, or an aristocratic medieval prince, or a pre-Colombian Amazonian hunter-gatherer I have little doubt I would accept whatever wisdom and knowledge I received from the culture I was born into in regards to the universe and humanity’s place in it. I would gaze at the stars and likely never conceive that they were made of the same stuff as our sun if it weren’t conventionally known. I would fully believe in the deities of the culture and that there was some form of life after death.

It’s with that in mind that I enjoy reading about the metaphysical beliefs of pre-modern peoples, especially those that are iconoclastic with regards to their time period and lay adjacent to the current scientific conception of reality. Roughly contemporary with the Pre-Socratics, a sect of philosophers in Vedic India espoused a view that is recognizably atheist from our modern perspective. [3] I’m referring to the ancient Indian school of Charvaka. I did a search on FtB and it appears no one has written about it. What follows is a brief and very broad synopsis, though every subject briefly described is deserving of far more explication. I should point out that I have a layperson’s understanding and am certainly open to those with more knowledge of Indian philosophy pointing out errors and misconceptions.

Charvaka is seen as heterodox in terms of arising from the philosophical/theological framework of the Rg Veda, Upanishads, and Mahabharata but neglects to provide justifications for the teachings from those traditions. Arising during the Vedic and Epic periods in Indian history (roughly 1500-500 BCE), Charvaka is grouped spatiotemporally with Buddhism and Jainism as standing opposed to the six orthodox Hindu philosophies: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Samkhya, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. Unfortunately, the primary Charvaka document, the Brhaspati Sutra, dated to roughly 600 BCE, is lost. The primary evidence for its tenets come from rival sects and are preserved in writings dated a thousand years after its founding. The seventh century CE Tattvopaplavasimha by Jayarashi Bhatta is the earliest complete account, though there are arguments for and against its association with Charvaka. [4]

Samkhya and Mimamsa are both atheistic in terms of not positing a creator, but they adhere to the atman/prakrti (roughly equivalent to soul/matter) dualistic conception of the cosmos as the rest of the orthodox philosophies do, with the exception of the Advaita sub-discipline of Vedanta. Buddhism, while atheistic, has both dualistic and monist characteristics that vary by sect, but all reject the soul/atman. However, there is belief in supernatural elements like reincarnation, different dimensions inhabited by gods and demons, ghosts, etc. As far as I can tell, Charvaka is the only school of thought from that fertile philosophical time period to be both atheistic and nominally monist vis-à-vis the atman/prakrti dichotomy [5] while repudiating the fantastical elements contained in the other systems. There is no concern with breaking the karmic cycle of samsara that their contemporaries strive for, since death is final.

There is a sense of hedonic nihilism embedded within the doctrine:

“The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste, etc.” – Sarva Siddhanta Sangraha, by Shankara

Given the obsession of Buddhism and the orthodox Hindu traditions with suffering and the best way to cope with it, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the impoverished masses didn’t gravitate towards a hedonistic lifestyle they didn’t have access to. Moreover, the ruling classes probably weren’t likely to exploit a “religion” that didn’t advocate piety and obedience, with the promise of a better subsequent life to make up for one’s present shitty life. These could be two of the reasons why Charvaka didn’t last.

It’s wild (to me anyways) to think that during the life of Thales of Miletus in ancient Greece there were dissident proto-atheists half a continent away. I’m humbled by the the thought of early humans being able to cast aside what current atheists regard as illogical beliefs, something that’s fairly easy to do nowadays given widespread access to scientific information. I’m pretty sure if I existed in an earlier era I wouldn’t be able to do the same.


1. Most of the following information comes from A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishan and Charles Moore.

2. It turns out that our observation bubble is even larger than previously thought: http://www.space.com/34382-universe-has-10-times-more-galaxies-hubble-reveals.html

3. I’ll reductively classify atheism as the denial of a Creator coupled with a monist conception of reality (i.e. only physical reality is real).

4. The book referenced above definitively places it within the Charvaka paradigm, but the Wikipedia entry for Bhatta cites proponents of arguments against this.

5. I should note Charvaka describes the principle elements of matter as listed as air, fire, earth and water, so perhaps monist is not the best description. However, the existence of a soul/atman is explicitly denied. Consciousness is said to arise from a mixture of the aforementioned elements and ceases to exist upon the body’s dissolution. As yet another aside, Vaisheshika, while still dualistic in nature, has an atomist conception of matter/prakrti.