January 5, 2014

Is Atheism Only for the Comfortable?

English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Fran├žais : Un sa...
Homeless man, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Paul Fidalgo has been doing a bang-up job over at Friendly Atheist lately. You've probably noticed that I have been linking to quite a few of his posts recently, and this is because I have really enjoyed his recent work. He is an excellent writer, and I find his work consistently thought-provoking. I'm going to link to his work again here, but I wanted to start things off just by thanking Paul for his outstanding contributions.

In the post I want to mention today, Paul responds to a recent article in The Guardian by Dr. Chris Arnade. Dr. Arnade is an atheist with a fascinating background who has recently been working with the homeless, a group he describes as "some of the strongest believers I have met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore." He sees the religiosity as understandable because religion is a source of hope for many of the homeless. But the part that really grabbed Paul's attention and the attention of most of the other atheists who have addressed this article is the following:
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.
My initial reaction to this statement was one of puzzlement. What do you mean who are you to tell them that what they believe is irrational? How would this even occur to you as something that would be a viable part of this sort of aid work? Who is advising you to condemn the homeless people with whom you are working as irrational? If someone is in the midst of a crisis and clinging to life by a thread, who would possibly recommend that we cut that thread no matter how irrational it might be? Nobody.

Paul also notes that he has never heard of an atheist "targeting the downtrodden and brazenly attempting to force the blessings of godlessness on them" (i.e., atheists are not out there attempting to reconvert the homeless). He's right. This does not seem to be happening.

I would hope that Dr. Arnade realizes that there is a vast difference between one person concluding that something is irrational and that same person communicating this understanding to another party. When the person in the midst of a suicidal crisis tells me that the only reason she does not go home and kill herself within the next hour is her faith-based conviction that suicide is a sin, I may recognize that her faith is irrational, but I am certainly not going to communicate that to her in the moment!

Assuming I were to continue working with this woman after she through her crisis, I might seek to promote adaptive reality-based coping skills, enhance healthy forms of social support, and assist her in changing some of the beliefs that led to her depression. But even then, it would not occur to me to target her faith unless I was truly convinced that it was fueling her distress. And even then, I'd only do it if she agreed it was problematic and needed to change. In short, I would be something we'd need to agree to do together and not something I'd attempt to do to her.

On the broader issue of providing assistance to the homeless, Paul provides an accurate description of what many atheists are doing: providing aid with no strings attached. That is, atheists are out there aiding those who need assistance without attempting to modify their belief systems in any way.

Is Atheism a Luxury?

Paul seems to agree with some of what is behind Dr. Arnade's assumption that atheism is only for those who have the means "or at least are not struggling to such an extent as the subjects of his work are." For example, he agrees that overcoming religious belief is probably easier for people who do not have to constantly worry about meeting their basic needs. I think he's right here. He also hints that the more desperate someone is, the more susceptible they are to "seeking a grain of hope wherever they can find it, even in the ephemeral or fictional." I agree, and I'd add that desperate people are also better targets for those willing to manipulate them for their own ends, including the religious believers who are primarily concerned with the size of their flocks rather than the well-being of individuals.

If atheism is a luxury that the homeless cannot afford, one would have to expect that there will be virtually no homeless atheists. And yet, there are homeless atheists, poor atheists, and struggling atheists. If atheism is a luxury, how do they afford it? Saying there are no atheists in homeless shelters is a bit like saying there are no atheists in foxholes.

Again and again, we hear about how misfortune brings people to religion. We are told that there are no atheists during an economic collapse even though we see plenty of atheists who go through dire circumstances without resorting to superstition and fantasy. I do not question that tragedy brings some people to religion; I question the merit of the often repeated claims that there are "no atheists" to be found on sinking ships, hurricane ravaged towns, cancer wards of hospitals, and the like.

Paul is correct to point out that it is difficult to even discuss some of these subjects.
The magic force field our culture has placed around religious belief and superstition makes every discussion and debate fraught with tension and tender sensitivities.
And yet, such discussions must be had. Faith is irrational and based in superstition. The fact that hearing this said aloud makes some people uncomfortable does not make it any less true. And yet, it is true that there are times and places for such conversations. I would hope that the direct provision of aid to the homeless or any other vulnerable population would not be one of them.

Atheists are not out there trying to pop the religious bubble of homeless individuals; atheists are working to improve the circumstances of homeless individuals so that religion gradually becomes less necessary. As Paul notes:
If religion is giving desperate people hope, rather than shake a finger at those who argue against religion, perhaps we should be working as hard as we can to give these people something other than religion to lean on. Something real that actually solves problems, rather than mystical falsehoods.
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