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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Samuel Skinner

    I can’t read this without hearing the Chinese government’s annoucement that they were backing religion because it “promotes social harmony”.

    “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. ”

    We live in stratified society… just like every other time in recorded history. Although atheism itself doesn’t have attached values it almost always tends to weaken the grip of faith- and I can’t but help to see removing the big reason for discriminating against homosexuals is anything but good. After all, there are poor gays.

    Not to mention that, you know, atheism tends to be associated with leftism in the US.
    Seperate things, but given that having a religion means being at the control of the church (sometimes more so- Kerry voting leading to the threat of excomunication, remember?) it gives you a bit more independance. So you can vote an work for your interests, instead of concentrating on “moral values” of the most obsene sort and selling your childrens future down the river.

  • Brad

    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?

    I have two answers for this question. First, what can atheism, in and of itself, offer? Uncommon sense and pride in seeing past the silly aspects of organized religion. A deconvert might find peace in being “in the clear air.” Second, a person would travel towards meaning in all of the same avenues that a believer does – minus one dead-end path. As we have discussed before, the average believer, at least in certain cultural bubbles, is practically a secular, and so both the believer and nonbeliever would share common activities such as hanging around with friends, enjoying a beer, playing sports, (watching television or playing video games maybe), napping, biking around a park or around town, et cetera. The potential for all worldly happiness that can be had at this level is still there.

    And if we take the idea of humanistic secular communities seriously, then there is much more still to offer those at the bottom of the economy.

    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.

    The same thing could be said of lay believers with respect to religion, no?

    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.

    Or you could just use cheap drugs instead of investing in very technical neuroscience all for the blue-pill mode of living. (Hey, Blue vs. Red Pill could make an interesting essay, EM!)

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Creating [humanist organizations that serve as focal points of meaning and fellowship] is an ambitious effort and one that will take a lot of work, but it can be done, and there is no shortcut.

    To be fair, there are many societies in which a large percentage of atheists has grown up without a corresponding growth in humanist organisations. So I’m not sure that atheist “churches” are central to the growth of atheism (although they might help things along, and perhaps they have other things to recommend them even if people would be atheists without them).

    That said, there are gaps left by the abandonment of religion which I would say do need to be filled in some sense — specifically, by such things as (personal rather than God-given) purpose, meaning, story, and so forth. If we’re worried about materialism, we could also find plenty of room for traditional-style values such as honesty and fairness and hard work, and attach a sense of honour and self-worth to those things. You don’t need God for that. I’m honestly not sure that ‘materialism’, in the sense of pinning your self-worth to how much you own, is as big an epidemic as people claim.

    Slightly off the topic of your post, I can’t quite resist pointing this out:

    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.

    You just totally conceded my point ;)

  • bbk

    I haven’t commented on this before, but I think that the phrase “atheism for janitors” is just asking for a lot of trouble.

    It reminds me of another phrase that in years past has been discussed in much the same way that we are discussing atheism for the poor today. As a military veteran, I personally find the other phrase very offensive. “No atheists in foxholes.” I mean, what possible hope can atheism possibly offer to a Marine who is so very obviously quaking in his boots on the battlefield? Isn’t that the assumption-filled question at the heart of that phrase? And I’m not even talking about the religious pinheads who parrot the phrase, I’m talking about the many atheists themselves who basically used to say “eh, yeah, you know in their situation it’s ok, let them have God.” I think maybe because the current prolonged wars and activism on the part of groups like MRFF, these perceptions are slowly changing to reflect reality.

    I just don’t want to go down that same exact road with a “no poor atheist” stereotype when we could just find one atheist janitor and ask, “so, what’s in it for you?” I’m just saying, instead of just drawing conclusions out of thin air.

  • Brad

    Anecdotal note: I know a couple atheist dishwashers.

  • http://onlayerik.blogspot.com/ Aerik

    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.

    The bad part: atheists are almost never the ones that push the religious away. The worst part: People wouldn’t believe they need religion to have a sense of community if they weren’t told they were shit if they don’t their entire lives.

  • silentsanta

    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.

    As Brad has also submitted, I think this is exactly the business recreational drugs are in. I think it’s interesting and probably a ‘meme’ survival mechanism that many religions tend to condemn drug-taking behavior; they need to silence the competition for providing profound experiences. Similarly, distaste for rock/popular music (historically, Jazz as well) seems to flow on with a similarly convenient self-preservation function.
    Either that or religions recruit the drugs into the religious experience, such as happened with peyote use among Native Americans.

    Oh, hai Aerik.

  • velkyn

    Seems like the best argument for religion this person can give is “it feels good to belong to a herd” and “wahh, I want to believe that I’m important enough for something big and powerful to care about me.” Unfortunately, people are content with this because they are, bluntly, that ignorant and not terribly smart. IMO, there are people who will never want or care about facts or reality, be they janitors or doctors.

    BTW, atheism is not meant to “offer hope”. Hope is that your buddies will save your ass when you are pinned down in a foxhole. Hope is that your family will do alright because other humans care after you are dead because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • Mr.Pendent

    Wow. Is this guy a troll?

    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.

    I disagree with these two sentences. The first, IMO, buys into the (often religious-based) idea that the loss of “traditional values” are the cause of the rise of materialism. In my mind, those traditional values are directly linked to materialism. If this were not the case, then you would see a higher rate of materialism amongst the godless, and a lower rate amongst the godly. This is clearly not the case.

    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?

    Atheism can offer many things to every person. For one thing, atheists might refer to those people by some name other than “disenfranchised loser.”

    Additionally, it might be worthwhile for atheists to suggest to these people, and to others, that there might be better ways to spend their lives than in the blind pursuit of wealth and “making it to the top”. Gandhi was a great man, who accomplished great things, but was not rich, nor did he seek to be.

    How can Atheism provide spiritual succor? The joys and awe of science?

    Yes. One need not hold a Ph.D. to understand the workings of the arthropod body, the wonders of evolution or the fascination of the web of life. All one needs, to start with, is to be free of a group of people telling him that it is wrong, immoral and wasteful to pursue such things.

    So, how would an effective mass atheism have to look like, to be able to compete with religion on its own terms, to confront it on its turf and take its slaves away?

    And here’s the trouble with the entire post–atheism is not, nor should it be, looking to confront religion on its own turf and take away religion’s slaves. Atheism should be showing those “slaves” that what they have been told is a lie, that there is another life they can lead. Atheism should be trying to set those slaves free.

    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.

    I agree (and think this holds true for games and religion as well as movies, television and a good portion of books). But these things will never make that life better. Once the movies is over, or you beat the game, you will go back to the emptiness you felt before. Giving the person some other empty activity to fill that time and calling it “atheism” is no better. You haven’t solved the problem, you’ve just changed the disk.

    But as long as television, politics, religion and society tell people that they must be on TV or be thin or be rich to be worth anything, this slide into materialism will continue. As long as society awards those who get ahead at any cost, good behavior will be valued less and less.

    So, rather than attempt to yoke people with another set of false beliefs that distract them from doing worthwhile and enjoyable things and calling it “atheism”, maybe atheists should be searching for ways to demonstrate that a worthwhile and fulfilling life can be led without vast fortunes, without media attention, and without empty promises of glory in some sky-fairy’s cloudy mansion–and the best way to demonstrate such a life is to live one yourself.

  • Lux Aeterna

    I think Serban Tanasa is utilising Atheism to explain what it is not meant to explain. An analogy would be a creationist arguing that evolution degrades the meaning of life, when evolution dosen’t touch on the meaning of life at all.

    Atheism at its core is a disbelief in god. It is not meant to comfort anybody or replace the emotional void left by religion. To use it as such is to use atheism for something it is not meant for.

    Lastly, whether atheism can provide any benefits to people is beside the point. Even if atheism does not provide any benfits and emotional comfort, I will still be an atheist because I believe atheism to be true. Whether atheism is true is the only question we need to ask.

  • David D.G.

    This blog entry reminds me of a column I wrote when I worked at a newspaper, in which I castigated a daytime-TV commercial on learning to become a bartender, primarily because one thing the commercial did was to make bartending (and learning the trade) look sexy and appealing in contrast to higher education, which was made to look tedious, grim, and pointless.

    Some of my coworkers castigated me for the column being “elitist” (wow, years before Obama — who knew?), condemning those who weren’t cut out for higher education — which was NOT my intent, so obviously I didn’t write it as well as I should have. However, of all people, a grocery store clerk who recognized me from my mugshot with the column complimented me on it! He actually understood the intended message: namely, that education is its own reward and that knowledge of the world makes life far richer no matter what one does for a living.

    The same goes for atheism, because it is just an extension of the same concept — i.e., enrichment of the mind, and thus of life, by learning about the real world. Atheism does not “provide” anything itself, but it is a natural consequence of knowledge gained about reality and of a properly skeptical/scientific mindset (which, obviously, one need not be a scientist to have).

    Theistic belief, on the other hand, is nothing but a shield used by fragile egos to protect blissful ignorance and an inflated sense of importance. My dad asked me once, “Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?” My answer was twofold: First, the two are by no means mutually exclusive. And second, I see no value in being foolishly happy when it also means being wrong.

    ~David D.G.

  • Leum

    But as long as television, politics, religion and society tell people that they must be on TV or be thin or be rich to be worth anything, this slide into materialism will continue. As long as society awards those who get ahead at any cost, good behavior will be valued less and less.

    Hear hear! Our culture has become one in which we assume moral worth and material worth are more or less equivalent (provided you gained your wealth “respectably”). We see it in the condemnation of the poor as lazy and shiftless and in the glamorization of purchase and consumer culture.

    I agree that materialism is part of the traditional ideology. If you believe that working hard is required for moral worth and that hard work leads inevitable to success, it’s almost inconceivable not to arrive at materialism. It also explains the strange alliance of religion and business in the US, despite the repeated condemnations of wealth in the New Testament.

  • Maynard

    I’ve been lurking for a while and really enjoy the topics and comments. I don’t think I’ve posted here before.

    I think as people that we all harbor deep-rooted desires to outdo others. This too often comes out as bigotry towards others based on race, sexual orientation, gender, size…It’s going to manifest in each of us somewhere, somehow, someway. Some rarely, and they will regret those actions when they see the harm it causes to the other. Some will do it and feel empowered when they see the result then strive to do it again.

    Religion has historically provided ways and means to many who want to gain that power. You only have to show your desire to support the dogma of those you side with. Life without religion will not stop us from hurting others this way, whether intentional or not. We’ll probably have evolved to a new species if that ever happens. It does, however, give those of us who have given up religion (or never had it) less opportunity to commit hateful, ignorant, or just abusive acts on others. It also allows us to see how these actions can hurt others from a non-involved observer point of view. If all gods fell the way of Zeus, new forms of tribal demagogary will manifest in its place and the process continues in a new mask.

    I may sound pessimistic but that is not the intent. I just mostly support the above ideas that instead of focusing so much on religion’s obvious problems, we should instead focus on society’s problems that let religions persist in such a manner.

  • http://onlayerik.blogspot.com/ Aerik

    Uh, Hai silentsanta…. ?

  • http://onlyaerik.blogspot.com Aerik

    Hey, just created a profile. I thought I had an account here. That happens at a lot of WP blogs, actually, I think I’m going senile in my young age.

    Anyhoo, yeah hai silentsanta, and you are?

  • Christopher

    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.

    I like video games as much as the next guy, but the thing about religion is that it becomes more than a game to many of its adherents – it becomes a way of life, on they feel the need to impose on everyone else! I don’t play a round of “The Elder Scrolls” and then go around demanding that people join the Fighters Guild or the Morang Tong or embrace the values espoused by the Tribunal Temple – but these brainwashed fools actively go around threating people with hellfire for not serving Jesus or blow themselves up to punish those who don’t acknowledge Allah!

    What happens in a video game stays in a video game – what happens in a church/temple/synagague/mosque carries into aspects of life that can prove disastrous.

  • Christopher

    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.

    Or we can wean the individual off the need for a “church” – letting him become the sole arbiter of meaning and value in life rather than developing concepts of meaning and value for him.

  • Entomologista

    One need not hold a Ph.D. to understand the workings of the arthropod body

    Entomology is a fantastic way for amateurs and kids to get into science. Darwin started with a beetle collection :)

    I would be an atheist even if I wasn’t a scientist, and obviously the two go well together. But I’ve noticed that being in a scientific or technical field is no guarantee that critical thinking skills will be used beyond the laboratory. Agricultural scientists tend to come from conservative backgrounds, engineers get hung up on design, and mathematicians love Plato.

  • http://onlyaerik.blogspot.com Aerik

    Major brainfart, people! I know silentsanta from reddit.

  • Ursula

    I am an atheist and I fellowship with other atheists at least once a week. I go to the UC Berkeley SANE meetings. SANE stands for Students for a Non-Religious Ethos. Every Tuesday, we have a large public meeting, and this week, on the 21st, we are having an “Ask an Athiest” panel, featuring four of our members. One has a chronic and eventually fatal illness, another is from a very disadvantaged neighborhood in Southern California, one was raised atheist up here in the Bay Area, and the other one was home schooled in a Christian environment.

    I’ve also found a welcoming social group that gets better every week. On Fridays, we have “business meetings” for SANE, but some of us choose to “show up late” for dinner somewhere in Berkeley, then hanging out at someone’s apartment for drinks or just for conversation. Some of us wake up on Saturday morning and head out for breakfast and to enjoy another good day in our lives.

  • RollingStone

    I can tell a soldier in a foxhole what atheism has to offer him: the assurance that he is definitely NOT going to Hell.