The argument from solace

girl-15599Some time ago I linked to an article on Jezebel about atheism and dickery, and Matt Dillahunty’s response to it. One of the issues that article brought up was the issue of the solace many people derive from religion, and accused movement atheists of attempting, somehow, to take away religion from people who use religion as a source of comfort.

In the Jezebel article, Lindy West, who identifies as an atheist (in fact, goes to considerable length to establish her atheist cred in the opening of the article), winds up by discusses a woman named Angela who, along with her sister, was the victim of rape in her teenage years, and understandably, has had difficulties coping with her experience, and seeks solace in religion and eating. She goes on:

You’re going to tell that girl that she’s an idiot for believing in god? You’re going to laugh in her face and trot out one of your big logical trump cards? You’re going to pat yourself on the back for being “smarter” than this person whose humanity was violently stripped from her when she was just a child? Are you also going to tell her that she’s a disgusting fatass who should go on a diet because of your insurance premiums? Who the fuck are you to tell her how to survive?

There are a lot of people in the world who have nothing. Faith in a higher power gives them one thing. You know what we call people who try to take away other people’s one thing?

A fucking dick. Don’t be one.

Well, in an article on the UK Guardian website, Chris Arnade, who also identifies as an atheist and who, after getting a PhD in physics and twenty years working on Wall Street and currently works with and photographs homeless people in the South Bronx, including addicts and prostitutes, discusses his conversations with people among whom he had expected to find “the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be”, and found instead strong believers, “steeped”, as he puts it, “in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.” He cites crosses and rosaries carried by these people, the ever-present worn copy of the Bible amid the litter of crack-houses, the print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper that has accompanied one addicted and homeless couple from squat to squat, and poses a similar question to Lindy’s:

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.

In both articles we have atheists attempting to dissociate themselves from a stereotype of atheists as privileged, soft-handed, too-clever-by-half, and smug, who take pleasure in seeing other people’s delusions crumble; in other words, a straw-man atheist. Chris draws a self-deprecating picture of his experience before walking into the South Bronx as “(a) life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments”, and extends that self-deprecation to the atheist movement in general, and especially to everyone’s favorite atheist lightning-rod, Richard Dawkins.

I saw some of myself in him: quick with arguments, uneasy with emotions, comfortable with logic, able to look at any ideology or any thought process and expose the inconsistencies. We all picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies. It is the skinny 85lb (35.6kg) weakling for anyone looking to flex their scientific muscles.

More to the point, Dawkins is also patrician, affluent, and an Oxonian, whose high-handed style makes him a good embodiment of the straw-man, aggressive atheist.

Well, in the case of “who am I to question your faith, when that is all you have?”, the answer seems clear to me: you don’t approach a person who is highly vulnerable, whether through personal tragedy, lack of education or lack of sophistication, start trying, without being asked, to undermine their religious beliefs, and expect to be considered anything but obnoxious. Every atheist knows someone who clings to religion for comfort: whether it’s a recovering alcoholic who adheres to the 12 Steps or a grandmother who goes to church every day, and believe it or not, it’s not business-as-usual for an atheist to interfere with how other people live their private lives. And neither Lindy nor Chris cite any evidence that atheists as a group do such things. Atheists leave that sort of behavior to believers, many of whom are well-known for using periods of personal tragedy, stress, or difficulty as a means of proselytizing, whether it’s charities who serve up a sermon with the hot meal and the bed, hospital chaplains who attempt to preach to terminally ill patients, or some well meaning person who asks “Have you tried the Man Upstairs?” when one is going through emotional or personal problems. That’s not compassion, that’s opportunism.

Atheism has never been a question of taking things away from people. Unless you happen to have grown up in a secular home, if you are an atheist, you shed your religious beliefs, not had them taken away. That’s why I like to refer to atheism as a journey or a process, a way of deprogramming oneself out of the habits of mind which lead one to unfounded beliefs which result in irrational and harmful actions. Dropping my science on someone when they are dealing with personal trauma or vulnerability is like discussing the physical phenomenon of combustion with someone whose house is on fire. You keep calm, rescue the occupants, put out the fire, offer material assistance, you help rebuild the house, and later, if you are both inclined, you can ponder the science of fire. Anything as important and as complicated as reconsidering one’s position on something requires a stability in one’s life that is usually lacking when one is homeless or grappling with a personal problem or tragedy. For many of these people, religious belief provides that sense of stability. I get that. Most atheists get that. And not just atheists either. Anyone with a sense of proportion gets that.

But in both of these articles, Lindy and Chris’ picture of desperate and vulnerable believers is as patronizing as their picture of privileged atheists is misrepresented. Apparently, we shouldn’t expect people who turn to religion for solace in desperate circumstances to see their lives improve to the extent that they have the time and the opportunity to grow emotionally or intellectually, let alone question the beliefs which may have sustained them in bad times, but may be less relevant to them in good times. This is akin to the assumption many Americans hold that individual character, not social forces like wealth, privilege, economic change, and systemic inequality, is the reason why some people are poor, homeless and desperate and others are comfortable, secure, and successful. It’s probably no accident that the countries with the best all-round standards of living are the most secular, such as Denmark and Sweden, countries which have made significant efforts to be economically equitable and socially just. So when we ask “why should we take away the one thing which makes these people’s lives tolerable and meaningful?”, perhaps we should also be asking, “what are we doing wrong as a society that so many people have only that one thing in the first place?”

If solace is what we want from life (and we all do to some extent), religion is not the only source of it. If we also want truth and justice in life, we might do well to examine the argument from solace and ask if what it actually amounts to is a reconciliation to untruth and injustice.