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.

Anti-Desperation

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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  • Thanks for telling it like it is!

  • Becky Hale

    Well said, a wonderful illustration of the potential for how Humanism is “normally”practiced in the US and Canada vs in the less “developed” world.

  • 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.

    This the core of what’s wrong with the way the atheists of our millennium battle religion. They look at religion as nothing more than a set of literal claims about the world that can be judged true or false, and consider the best way to make religion go away is to make every religious person (through online debate) not be religious anymore. Anyone who subscribes to such a plan has no business calling other people delusional.

    Marx said, The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. As you point out, people who know dignity, compassion and justice in this life don’t crave it in some vague afterlife.

    Maybe in claiming that the universe is characterized by “blind, pitiless indifference,” today’s atheists are projecting our own worst qualities onto a world of much richer possibility.

  • I was originally going to shake my fist at Marx for being ever so much more succinct, but then I read your last comment and realized I have to shake my fist at you as well. Devastatingly accurate observation, I suspect–thanks for sharing!

  • But I think there are people whose minds can be changed by those online atheists, and they’re people whose lives would actually be better without a god belief. And certain closet atheists like myself would have better family lives if someone would convince certain family members (in particular, my preacher son) that their god isn’t real, or even if those family members could be convinced that non-belief isn’t a reason to shun your father or your brother. Of course, in my preacher son’s case, he would have to start his life over if he came to realize that what he’s making a living espousing is untrue. But as it is, he’s likely to be angry at his brother until the day he dies, and I’m living with a “don’t ask don’t tell, and halfway pretend” policy.

    Do you not think the evangelistic atheists serve any good purpose at all? No, they’ll never disabuse everyone of their faith, but their audience is self-limiting anyway.

  • These are important counterpoints, Lerk!, and I’m glad you shared yours. That’s a deep well of pain. I’m not sure that an “evangelistic atheist” would be able to reach your son… especially after having invested his life in this set of beliefs… but who’s to say what will or will not soften a hardened heart? I’m so sorry you’re not in a position where you can use your own experience without risking further estranging him; I am glad that there remains, at least, a pathway in you back to family for him in time. Hopefully. All best wishes to you and yours.

  • But I think there are people whose minds can be changed by those online atheists, and they’re people whose lives would actually be better without a god belief.

    I see no reason to accept either of these claims. I can imagine someone changing his mind about some factual matter because of information presented in the com-box. However, can you really say someone would change the entire basis of the way she experiences and interprets phenomena just because of some message-board debate? It seems infinitely more likely that people give up religious faith because it no longer fulfills their emotional needs, or that the need it fulfilled is gone.

    And I’m just not presumptuous enough to claim that anyone’s life would be better without god-belief. As I mentioned in the post to which you’re ostensibly responding, we make it sound like it’s crucially important for people (other people, naturally) to give up their illusions; I submit that it’s more important to eliminate the conditions that make the illusions necessary in the first place.

    And certain closet atheists like myself would have better family lives if someone would convince certain family members (in particular, my preacher son) that their god isn’t real, or even if those family members could be convinced that non-belief isn’t a reason to shun your father or your brother. Of course, in my preacher son’s case, he would have to start his life over if he came to realize that what he’s making a living espousing is untrue.

    So it’s less important in your mind to get your preacher son to act in a responsible, caring way toward family members than to get him to change his beliefs about whether God is or ain’t?

    I guess this is a major difference between the way you and I look at religion. As I said in the post above, I think the question of whether The Big G exists is about the least relevant one we can ask about religion. To me, the behavior that faith motivates in people is what’s important. If someone says she supports marriage equality because “we’re all God’s children,” should I have a problem with that? I may not share (or even understand) the rationale, but if it motivates compassion and empathy, I say it’s fine.

    And on the flip side of the coin, I think your preacher son’s callous behavior is the issue. It wouldn’t be any more acceptable to me if he had rational, evidence-based reasons for shunning family members.

    Do you not think the evangelistic atheists serve any good purpose at all?

    Not really. Just like evangelistic believers, they encourage groupthink and complacency. One of the reasons I support ML Clark’s blog is because it’s one of the few here on Pathos Nonreligious that expects more of atheists than just snark.

  • ” One of the reasons I support ML Clark’s blog is because it’s one of the few here on Patheos Nonreligious that expects more of atheists than just snark.”

    Keep holding me to that, Shem. If I should ever waver, I look forward to the attendant (digital) smack upside the head.

  • “So it’s less important in your mind to get your preacher son to act in a responsible, caring way toward family members than to get him to change his beliefs about whether God is or ain’t?”

    No, but I understand why you ask. I would be perfectly happy if he were to embrace a liberal Christian theology that was accepting of people with different beliefs, including non-belief. As it is, we have been members of a “one true church” denomination (the non-institutional Churches of Christ) going back to my grandparents (maybe before on my mother’s father’s side). And maybe he will. He studies. He doesn’t agree with all of CoC doctrines.

    As far as why people change their minds, both my older son and I came to non-belief, after a life spent as believers (I was 52!) due to reading the Bible. The only reason I knew about my son was that he was following his wife’s advice to ask some other people, and he texted me putting out some “feelers”. So maybe my younger son will eventually change. In any case, people do change for intellectual reasons, and I’ve read of many people on ex-christian.net and other places who have said the same. Bible study (especially for those of us raised as fundamentalists) can make your belief unravel quickly.

    Losing ones belief frees a person up to stop being judgmental. That “peace that passes understanding” that Christianity supposedly gives you, I found when I deconverted. While I personally never worried about Heaven or Hell, I was worried at one time that my Baptist friends might be eternally condemned. (A friend from another denomination dissuaded me of that years ago, fortunately, but this is a real worry for many Christians.) And lots of Christians are terrified that they, themselves, won’t make it to Heaven. My wife is one of them! Paul talks about having to finish the course, and about the possibility of being “disqualified.” So deconversion is a huge relief for a lot of former believers.

    And I no longer have to ask “why?” when the god doesn’t seem to keep its promises. Life is life, and there’s a lot of comfort in just knowing that it ends for all of us at different times as the result of different causes, and there are no unseen beings who might have changed the outcome if only they’d been willing. Cherishing memories of loved ones provides more joy than hoping you’ll see them in Heaven. It’s hard to understand why, but that’s been my experience.

    So despite the dysfunction this has introduced in my family, on the whole I’m happier than before because I can accept life the way it is now.

  • I’ve probably talked too long already, but I need to add that I’m proud of my minister son. He is very good at fostering community, and that’s the best reason for church. I just wish there wasn’t the tribalism that goes with our particular denomination. Maybe someday.