‘Poor, ignorant atheists’

Recent results revealed by the US Census Bureau show that the ranks of the poor have increased to record levels in the US.

This should really come as no surprise to any thoughtful observer, given the relentless drive by the oligarchy to squeeze everyone else in order to enrich itself. But Walter Russell Mead, one of those so-called ‘centrist’ establishment pundits so beloved in the media who can be relied upon to deliver conventional wisdom on any topic, has come up with his own explanation as to the reasons why. He says that the growing inequality in the US is due to the rise in numbers of poor, ignorant atheists. Why? Because when people leave religion, they also leave religious institutions that promote the virtues that could lead them out of poverty.

He bases his argument on a study that suggests that “While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those without college degrees compared to those who graduated from college.”

Someone named David French over at the National Review comments favorably on Mead’s musings that atheism and poverty are closely correlated.

Earlier this week, Walter Russell Mead highlighted disturbing research showing that the poor — far more than the rich — are disconnected from church and religion. While church attendance is dropping among all social classes, it’s falling off a cliff for the poorest and least-educated Americans. In other words, the deeper a person slides into poverty, the more they’re disconnected from the very values that can save them and their families.

French then raised the ante, saying that “It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor” (my emphasis). Ergo, since the numbers of the poor are increasing, so is depravity.

This astounding statement aroused such a hostile reaction even in the comments section of the same magazine (where one might expect the readership to be sympathetic) that French hastened to write a new post saying that what he said was not what he meant. He used a variation on the old “Some of my best friends are Jews/blacks/Muslims/whatever” defense, dropping various hints that he is a Good and Virtuous Person who Loves the Poor (within a short post he manages to inform us that he is a Calvinist Christian, volunteered to fight in Iraq, adopted a daughter “who was born into absolute poverty in Ethiopia”, and mentors at-risk youth) and that therefore he cannot have meant anything bad.

For some reason, people like Mead (and French) seem to think that we atheists won’t like the idea that the poor and uneducated are falling away from religion and joining us. Here’s Mead again:

Atheists and agnostics like to think of themselves as smarter than the God-bothering trailer trash on Tobacco Road, and deeply dislike the thought that they are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared; religious people have to be concerned for the future of religion when whole social classes are dropping away.

It is a curious argument. The idea that atheists view with disdain the poor and uneducated and do not want them swelling their ranks is absurd. I have felt that it would be harder to dissuade poor people from religion not because they are less smart but because ideas of heaven become more appealing if your life on Earth is hellish. If poor and less-educated people are breaking free from the shackles of religious indoctrination, then religion is heading for irrelevancy even faster than I anticipated. I don’t see how this study is anything but unqualified good news for atheism.

Mead also seems to overlook the fact that the study clearly states that religious adherence is dropping for all, which suggests that the atheists are winning the argument on all fronts, not losing it in any. The drop is just faster for the poorer and less formally educated. So Mead’s smug assertion that we atheists “are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared” is just flat out wrong.

Another revealing mistake that Mead makes is typical of elite Villager thinking: that more formal education necessarily implies that one is smarter or that material success is correlated with virtue. This is a typical conceit of the intelligentsia and the well-to-do, that they reached their state in life purely because of their intrinsic abilities and virtues. This is why it is so easy for people like Mead and French to associate poverty with depravity.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    The real problem here is when the poor kick their opiate-of-the-masses habit, they’re likely to become a good deal less patient with the blatant unfairness of their lot in life, and might even be inclined to correctly identify the culprits. It’s not surprising that privileged assholes like Mead and French would view that prospect with alarm.

  2. Jared A says

    Wait, but if a significant portion of us atheists are in fact the “trailer trash on Tobacco Rd.” that Mead describes, than why would we not want ourselves swelling our own ranks? The circularity of his logic his ridiculous!

  3. says

    Shalom Mano,

    Without reading the study, I think you hinted at what I think is really going on here when you noted that:

    Mead also seems to overlook the fact that the study clearly states that religious adherence is dropping for all, which suggests that the atheists are winning the argument on all fronts, not losing it in any. The drop is just faster for the poorer and less formally educated.

    I would hazard a guess that any college-educated American, those who have completed four years of university education is the standard measure, who continues to regularly attend religious services after graduation leans toward the hard-core segment of the religious population, perhaps their degree is from Bob Jones or Oral Roberts universities, and less likely to change their views. This leads to a slower rate of defection among that group.



  4. says

    Associating poverty with depravity is shallow and immature. It doesn’t necessarily imply that being poor makes someone an ignoramus. Or, people tend to lean away from religion and theism if they are not college graduates.

  5. Steve LaBonnes says

    Menachem, it’s more than shallow and immature; it is, itself, depraved. And it’s a staple of our useless, fat-arsed “moderate” and conservative punditocracy.

  6. P Smith says

    Given the abnormally low percentage of atheists amongst blacks in the US, first nations people in Canada and the US, and the preponderance of religiosity I’ve seen visiting the Philippines, I beg to differ. The poorest cling to religion under the vain hope of “the meek inheriting the earth”.

    In reality, that maxim is a security blanket given to the poor to keep them comfortable instead of revolting against the rich, like a child beaten by a bully who says, “I’ll get you back!” just to make himself feel better. And yes, the wealthy and religions are the bullies.


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