Anti-Desperation: The Compassionate Humanist’s Most Important Fight

Anti-Desperation: The Compassionate Humanist’s Most Important Fight March 15, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. This one’s mine. I pass dozens of street peddlers and beggars daily, and never fully understand what makes me reach for my change before one and not another. Running late, I know, stays my hand. Children don’t necessarily have me reaching for my pocket, but I suspect I help the young families more than the old. Why? Difficult to say. Not a partiality I enjoy recognizing in myself.

But one factor invariably prompts the act, and sometimes with surprising results.

On Wednesday, I was returning from work in El Poblado, Medellín’s major tourist-and-business district, to my home in more traditional Belén los Alpes. On the way to the metro, I spied a family selling shoes out of a suitcase–and one pair, in particular, that seemed to fit my need for a new professional flat (my old pair, bought cheaply in the pell-mell din of street-market-filled Centro, finally wearing out). Close by, others were selling socks and cosmetics, empanadas and ornate metal crafts, while a Venezuelan mum sat begging on the metro stairs, and an indigenous woman in traditional bright dress  dozed with a baby in her arms and a begging cup and toddler beside her, and a young man held out individual sweets in the hope of a few pesos, and a European tourist bumming for change played the xylophone, and a couple with a microphone tried their luck with out-of-tune crooning. I hesitated by the corner of the shoe-sellers’ blanket, and the mother of what looked to be a four-month-old in papá’s arms leapt over to assist me.

But this wasn’t the same as a proper shoe store, of course: there were only the items on the blanket, in whatever sizes they came. As such, the first pair I’d had my eye on didn’t fit, but the young mum kept darting about, eager to make a sale — any sale. Even though I’d been looking at plain grey flats, she quickly returned with high heels, flashy dress shoes, anything that might tempt.

And so seated beside this family, with their suitcase’s worth of goods, that one factor settled in, the one that makes me a lousy haggler, too, in Centro. I’m talking, of course, about shame: to be still and resting while this woman scrambled all about me, because so much for her relied upon my sale. At last we found something that could pass for a professional flat in my size. ¿Cuanto cuesta? (How much?) 25 mil, she said — about $10.50 Canadian. Muy barato, she assured me: very cheap. That’s when I realized I had only a 50 mil note in my wallet, a difficult amount for most street peddlers to break. I asked if it was all right and she hesitated before agreeing.

I don’t like people running about to serve me, desperate to impress me, but I think it was that hesitancy, most of all, that affected me that night: the fact that she didn’t know offhand if they had even 25 mil for change, so as to get the 25 that would clearly mean a lot to them. I told her 20 mil back would be fine — but I think she didn’t hear me correctly, or assumed perhaps that the white lady had misspoken. She returned with all apologies while counting out change for the final five, but I repeated myself while standing: no need. Twenty is fine.

And that five… that’s about two Canadian dollars.

Two damned dollars.

But tears sprang right away to her eyes.

¿Verdad? En serio? And she turned to her partner and told him, incredulous, that there was a tip, that the white lady had given her a tip, before rattling off the usual Dios le pague, benediciones pa’ ti (God will repay [the formal] you, blessings upon you), while my shame only grew as I took the shoes and wished them a good night.

Now, I don’t know the provenance of their suitcase of shoes. Sometimes the story goes that people get access to cheap, wholesale goods and strike out peddling with them. Others have lost their tiendas, modest little stalls in poorer barrios, and take to a busier downtown corner with the remainder of their inventory. Some steal.

But when I got to the metro I saw the original price tag on the shoes: 49,9 mil. Twice her original offer. Whatever circumstances had her, her partner, and their baby peddling nightly until 9pm on the streets of El Poblado, they’d left her desperate for anything she could make off her wares. In Canada and the U.S., such peddling is criminalized, in part from a fixation on the provenance of such suitcase items. And sure, I understand to an extent that Western anxiety–are we sanctioning theft if we buy from an unlicensed vendor?–but the theft we preoccupy ourselves with, legally, is invariably of property. What about the other thefts in process? Of dignity? Of hope?

All too quickly, our laws weigh the value of things above the human beings using them to get by. Our Western legal system would prefer to see the poor imprisoned for failure to acquire proper vendors’ permits–or heck, sure, even for petty theft, if that happens to be the case for a given suitcase–rather than recognize that the sellers of these uncertain goods are at least trying to engage in the marketplace to secure basic stability, and provide better pathways for future participation.

Meanwhile, this young mother was in tears over two damned Canadian dollars.

More than I usually give in daily coin, but also less, far less, than I surely could.

And in exchange she gave me the only thing she had to spare: a religious blessing.


We in the secular world forget with startling frequency the comfort that goes into our rationalist/empiricist cosmologies. We share stories and memes about those “stupid” street persons who still believe a god will save them from their circumstances, as if that god-belief is what’s preventing them from finding shelter, food, or a job. We smugly share statistics illustrating that more educated regions of the world are more atheistic, eliding the underlying cultural affluence that makes education so much more readily attainable in, say, Canada than in Colombia. We pride ourselves on not being stupid enough to believe in fairy tales, while many in the world go to bed raw both from hunger and from an acute awareness of socioeconomic injustices that they have no hope of changing — and so are left to hope, to imagine, and to dream of a better world to come.

Compassionate humanism, as opposed to baseline atheism, requires this internal reckoning, this critical awareness that even if you somehow retained your atheism when born hungry into an undereducated religious community, it would still be logical to affect belief. Indeed, even in Canada, I talked to undersheltered persons who knew darned well how critical a currency god-belief could be for getting by: men especially who tried to prove their worthiness of your trust, their deservedness for your aid, by insisting that they were Christian, even if they knew precious little about the faith itself. And why not? If you, too, were socially unmoored, would you not use religion’s cultural currency, its god-bless-yous and god-will-repay-yous, if that strategy improved even a little your “take” from alms-gathering, or your access to personal and institutional charity?

Compassionate humanism recognizes, in other words, that the path to no longer needing religious stories is forged by the advancement of robust secular policy; of a social safety net capable of caring sufficiently for all, so that no one need choose their narratives out of desperation. A world where no one hungers, or is sick without hope of either treatment or access to dignified palliative care; where no one lacks opportunities, either, for education and attendant socioeconomic advancement… that is the world in which religion–with its desperate hope for a better justice in the next life–ceases to be relevant.

And yes, some religious communities absolutely act as if they know this, especially when they exploit suffering to develop redemption narratives. When they choose the tacit or explicit continuation of suffering to pitch stories of divine glory in action.

The anti-abortion legislation advocated by some of these communities offers a perfect example of this depravity–because even if we were to grant the sincerity of many persons under their wings, many individuals who might feel convinced that they are on the side of the innocent, the approach to genuinely reducing abortion rates is 100% antithetical to their own campaigns in the public sphere. The proposed legislation of such faith communities creates the conditions for more suffering and loss of life, not less.

Why? Because secular research be damned for its refusal to consider the possibility of divine intervention. Because permitting suffering also permits opportunities for the occasional fluke “miracle”, like the offspring of a child raped by a relative being carried to term and that baby being received with love in its community. Glory hallelujah, look what can be managed with faith in the lord! …Oh, and with the sacrifice of ever so many other pregnant persons’ ongoing trauma and physical peril. Eh. Revelation 21:4, amirite?

The Solution

I won’t mince words here. I share with ever so many other atheists and theists horror and outrage at perpetuations of earthly suffering in the name of holy virtue. What many of these religious communities do is vulgar and depraved.

But here’s the thing: its practice will not be allayed by argument.

I don’t care how witty your banter is.

I don’t care how well-researched is your Biblical review.

Because only the socioeconomic stability necessary to better educate and secure the next generation stands a chance of repairing the faith of desperation, and defeating the faith communities that need such desperation to prosper.

As I noted in my last essay, too, atheists play far too much into their game in general. We do so when we entertain them in direct argument, and when we take the time to ridicule their latest news items. But we also especially prop up such vulgar faith communities when we approach individual believers from that position of smug disdain. When we mock the faithful irrespective of the poverty and the hardship, the fear and the uncertainty and the loss, that lead so many to adopt religious narrative in the first place.

The compassionate secular humanist, meanwhile, is still welcome to their fury and contempt for those institutions that prey upon and exacerbate vulnerability… but also knows that we can’t fixate on anti-faith rhetoric. We really can’t. We have to be, instead, anti-desperation–and not even in the express hope that by being anti-desperation we’ll somehow magick all believers into becoming atheists… but simply because being anti-desperation is the only humane option for anyone who recognizes that this life is our only life. And that a life without dignity–for any of us–lessens the dignity of us all.

It’s an option we share, too, with humanists of faith, people who have maybe spent their lives immersed in religious traditions–the stories, the language, the people–but who look with equal horror and disgust at some of the institutional predations these traditions have allowed. One does not usually slough off a whole narrative, a whole conviction in something larger and greater than oneself, in a night… and nor should they have to, simply to join us in the fight against any community, secular or religious, that would build itself upon the continued desperation of its constituents.

There is enough work for we 21st-century humanists to share in without deriding individuals simply for holding to faith in hard times.

Least of all individuals like that mother on Wednesday, who gave in thanks to my most piddling act of charity… the only thanks that her circumstances allowed her to give.

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