On Atheist Janitors: Followup

Around this time last year, I wrote a post titled “On Atheist Janitors“, addressing an e-mail from reader Serban Tanasa that asked whether atheism has something to offer to people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The other day he wrote back to me with a follow-up post addressing some of the issues first discussed here, and I wanted to offer some further thoughts.

Atheist forces and their agnostic coalition members have launched devastating artillery barrages against the veracity of the Holy Books. But Abrahamic Religion is not mostly, or even primarily, about the Books. The truth is, religion is a Life. It provides a social network. The conditions for membership can be harsh, but are simple enough that even the dullest can understand them, if not fully live up to the ideological ideals. In some cases, membership provides a sense of community, a sort of family away from home. It can also be a help network. Most importantly, going through the motions provides one with the sense of self-worth and accomplishment, supposedly achieved by getting closer to God.

These are all good points, and I agree. Atheists should keep this in mind: The tenets of religion are not irrelevant, but for most individual believers, they’re beside the point. The majority of pew-fillers, I would venture, are there not because of a philosophical or rational preference for the tenets of that particular faith over all competitors; they are there because that church and that religion are the locus of community in their life. They provide a sense of place, of purpose, and of belonging – basic things that all human beings seek. This is a truth that we atheists need to keep in mind if we try to persuade people to step out of the fold. It doesn’t make our efforts futile, but it does mean that we’re struggling uphill. I agree that we need to offer something more than logic, however eloquent and persuasive that logic may be.

So far, Atheism has offered Truth (well, Doubt). This Devil’s Sourdough is a little too bitter for many people (even though most would get used to it if they had to).

I have to say that I just love the phrase “Devil’s Sourdough”.

Most of us live in capitalist democracies. With the partial collapse of traditional values, materialism has prevailed. In an age of mass democracy and juridical equality, wealth and conspicuous consumption have emerged as the only ways to distinguish oneself from the crowds. What can Atheism offer to the hordes of disenchanted losers, who slowly realize that they’ll never make it to the top, or even to the middle of the pack? How can Atheism provide spiritual succor? The joys and awe of science? It takes a curious mind, and even then, it takes patience and skill to be a scientist. Most people have neither.

I agree that most people don’t have the traits that would incline them toward life as a professional scientist, but that’s a very different matter from saying that ordinary people don’t have the ability to appreciate the glories of science at all. That’s like saying you can’t appreciate poetry unless you’re a professional poet. Not everyone can participate in the creative process, it’s true, but I do maintain that anyone who wishes can appreciate the fruits of that process.

I think that most people do have the intellectual curiosity needed to learn, not necessarily all the technical details, but the broad strokes of what a scientific theory is about. And I do think that most people, given the proper encouragement, can find awe and mystery in that. I don’t consider those emotions to have any correlation to one’s level of economic prosperity.

More to the point, I don’t think that people who’ll “never make it to the top” are “disenchanted losers”. That comment implies that the real goal of life is material success, and that understanding the wonders of the cosmos is just a consolation prize given to those who miss out. On the contrary, I think it’s the endless pursuit of the mirage of wealth and fame that renders life flat and unsatisfying. True happiness comes not from accumulating possessions, but from more meaningful and spiritual pursuits.

If you think about it, religion is in the same business-branch as computer games: providing users with an alternate reality where they get to be significant, one that users are willing to pay money to be allowed access to. There is no reason why this should not be doable in a far less haphazard manner. Identify the temporal lobe brain centers that endow objects with deep meaning, find a way to predictably generate tunable stimulation patterns, and you blow religion out of the water. You can get people to stack piles of manure and feel that they’re experiencing an epiphany with each shovelful.

This idea is disturbing to me, and I think it’s missing the point. Our goal shouldn’t be to develop brain stimulation so that people can be zoned out and blissful despite leading miserable lives. Our goal should be to restructure the world so that more people can lead the kind of lives that are genuinely fulfilling and blissful.

Studies have borne this out, showing that religious influence wanes as societies become more prosperous and more secure. People who lead good lives in this world don’t need to cling to the hope of another.

In terms of community support, we have to get organized. When we can get people to go to ‘church’ (for lack of a better word) every Sunday, without the promise of eternal life to drag them out of bed, we will know we have succeeded.

This is one point where I do agree. I’ve written on multiple occasions about building the secular community, and my sketch of a post-theistic world has humanist organizations that serve as focal points of meaning and fellowship. These things are intrinsic aspects of human psychology, not the property of religion. Creating them is an ambitious effort and one that will take a lot of work, but it can be done, and there is no shortcut. To dislodge religion and end its monopoly, we must be prepared to offer people a meaningful atheist alternative.

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