Is Atheism An Intellectual Luxury For The Wealthy?

Crack addict (not one of Arnade's photos - they're all copyrighted)

Crack addict (not one of Arnade’s photos – they’re all copyrighted)

Photographer Chris Arnade has a fantastic collection entitled Faces of Addiction set in New York’s South Bronx. He writes in The Guardian that “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes. I’ve been reminded that life is not as rational as Richard Dawkins sees it. Perhaps atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy”:

They prayed whenever they could find 15 minutes. “Preacher Man”, as we called him, would read from the Bible with his tiny round glasses. It was the only book he had ever read. A dozen or so others would listen, silently praying while stroking rosaries, sitting on bare mattresses, crammed into a half-painted dorm room.

I was the outsider, a 16-year-old working on a summer custodial crew for a local college, saving money to pay for my escape from my hometown. The other employees, close to three dozen, were working to feed themselves, to feed their kids, to pay child support, to pay for the basics of life. I was the only white, everyone else was African-American.

Preacher Man tried to get me to join the prayer meetings, asking me almost daily. I declined, preferring to spend those small work breaks with some of the other guys on the crew. We would use the time to snatch a quick drink or maybe smoke a joint.

Preacher Man would question me, “What do you believe in?” I would decline to engage, out of politeness. He pressed me. Finally I broke,

I am an atheist. I don’t believe in a God. I don’t think the world is only 5,000 years old, I don’t think Cain and Abel married their sisters!

Preacher Man’s eyes narrowed. He pointed at me, “You are an APE-IEST. An APE-IEST. You going to lead a life of sin and end in hell.”

Three years later I did escape my town, eventually receiving a PhD in physics, and then working on Wall Street for 20 years. A life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments.

During that time I counted myself an atheist and nodded in agreement as a wave of atheistic fervor swept out of the scientific community and into the media, led by 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…

[continues in The Guardian]

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  • Andrew

    Excellent article!

    “Without lies humanity would perish of despair and boredom.” – Anatole France

  • Transfixed

    Awful article. Cluelessly not open to other rational explanations as to why addicts claim to be religious and have faith in god. It’s because they know they’ve fucked up so badly and thrown their lives away that the only thing that keeps them going is the vain hope that in the end all will be forgiven. And the only one who can do that – is God. So they selfishly believe out of desperation and the knowledge that no one else in THIS life will likely ever forgive them or see them as worthy, so they put all their chips on the NEXT life.

    • Jin The Ninja

      that is an atrocious view of humankind.

      • Rhoid Rager

        And written in a sanctimonious way, at that.

        • Transfixed

          Well I’m not a typically sacntimonious person, but when you have people addicted to heroin and crack who can’t manage to get up out of the streets, fine, that’s their choice and I won’t judge them for that – but to then turn around and also claim to have “faith” in God, Heaven and the afterlife? PLEASE. If you truly had faith you wouldn’t feel so guilty and ashamed and self-abusive and you’d get up off the street and do something with your life. It’s just a move of last-ditch desperation. It’s OK to throw my life away completely and utterly because I know I’ll be forgiven by God in the end!
          Give me one other good reason why these people would tend to be so religious?

          • Andrew

            > can’t

            > choice

          • Rhoid Rager

            Cuz they appreciate being alive? Isn’t that good enough?

          • Jin The Ninja

            you’re totally wrong in your assessment of why they are religious. religiousity in this context is linked to hopelessness not nihilism. most addicts, whether homeless or not (and plenty are not), feel deeply unloved. if x’tianity posits god forgives, god loves without condition- wouldn’t that draw someone who feels unloveable. nothing of what you are saying relates to drug addiction, drug treatment or being a compassionate human being that can readily relate to others (empathy). are you some kind of sociopath? you speak of evidence; however your treatment of addiction sounds like a fox news family values assessment rather than anything based on psychology, addiction studies, or sociology.

      • Transfixed

        It’s not a view on “humankind” at all, it’s about homeless drug addicts, which is what this article is about. Nowhere is any plausible explanation presented as to WHY this is the case. So, why is it the case? The only vain attempt to explain it is the ridiculous presumption that “atheism is a luxury of the wealthy” which is about the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.

        • Andrew

          Perhaps truth is a luxury.

          • echar

            Perhaps truth can be a limitation?

        • Jin The Ninja

          you’re really making yourself out to be an asshole here.

          “It’s not a view on “humankind” at all, it’s about homeless drug addicts…”

          as far as i am aware, being human has nothing to do with access to the financial system, or the property market- nor does it have anything to do with one’s sobriety. in fact many have argued, what makes us ‘human’ at all is our capacity for compassion and forgiveness. we are not drones. all institutions and structures of humankind, mirror humanity’s flaws- further engender negative personal and cultural traits. we are not rational beings. we can purposely act rational; however that does not make one more or less ‘human.’ your comment was not really in reference to the article- it was you being a denigrating, marginalising, class warrior.

          • Rhoid Rager

            That’s a great way to sort him out. I really liked the way you put that.

        • echar

          From my perspective, this article is about a person who’s perspective was modified by experiencing something beyond their norm. Also about the downtrodden, who find solace in feeling that there is some source of love. Perhaps this comes from within, or they experience this through the actions of others (soup kitchens, The Salvation army, etc.)

          It’s appears to me that you do not have the experience to empathize with this. I recommend getting out of your comfort zone, a luxury some are unable to choose to do because they are consistantly faced with the ugly side of life.

          Preemptive: Most if not all addicts do not wake up one day and say ” I think I am going to slowly kill myself by self medicating”. Many have reasons why they seek to escape their reality. Often times it is because of awful childhoods that leave their neural pathways deficient of oxytocin, dopamine, and other such chemicals.

          True they may have made a choice to begin doing these drugs, but please understanding that it’s far more intricate than what you are expressing here.

    • Tuna Ghost

      There is little evidence that this is the case.

      • Transfixed

        Ok, so what evidence is there for ANY rational explanation? Surely there has to be a better one than “atheism is a luxury of the wealthy”? All the article does is claim that destitute drug addicts tend to have a lot of religious faith. There is no explanation other that the hypothesis I’ve presented that anyone here has espoused. I eagerly await your evidence-based answer!

        • Tuna Ghost

          A major flaw is that you seem to think addicts are all wallowing in guilt and shame. This isn’t the case, especially in areas awash with extreme poverty.

          There are a number of sociological studies on why religion is still popular among the working class and impoverished people. Deciding that, since you look down on addicts, surely they must be ashamed and desperately seeking forgiveness for “destroying their own lives”, is fallacious reasoning.

  • echar

    Good article.

  • Reasor

    The need among people with strong religious affiliations to absolve their conscience by believing that they have been forgiven from the cross is a lot less class-dependent than this author lets on, in my experience. It just seems like a very wordy, roundabout way of saying “I’ve never spoken with Christians who had money.”

    • echar

      I have broke bread with christians that are millionaires. Some attribute their good fortune to their faith. Some feel that their beliefs are what keep them going. I say what’s the payoff for giving the credit away, good or bad?

  • jasonpaulhayes

    It matters not what God the peasants believe in, so long as the clergy can take it to the bank and the generals can march them to war.

    Nietzsche said that “God is dead” and it’s true but that vacuum of belief is giving rise to extremism where in I’ve had faithful people I love argue for slavery and genocide… telling me how concerned they were with the violent tendencies of homosexuals and atheists.

  • DrDavidKelly

    No new information here, just more people using religion as a crutch for their shortcomings, be they self inflicted, circumstantial or both. And as one commentator has pointed out religious people are not the enemy, religion is.

    • Andrew

      Everyone has shortcomings. What’s wrong with crutches?

      • DrDavidKelly

        Nothing I guess. As long as you aint hurting no one.

  • Rhoid Rager

    The religious–non-religious divide is specious. Everyone is on a journey of self-discovery, and this is articulated in different ways. To seek atonement for ill-willed actions against others is the most lucid and sane thing someone can do. The fact that such atonement often seems impossible to receive in this material world is not necessarily a problem with the ‘rationality’ of the individual who seeks it, but the ‘rationality’ of current cultural and social norms that exist to deny it.

    • Mitch

      Beautifully written. I think even the Pope has begun to advocate ecumenism between his church and secular humanists when he said they should all do good deeds, then meet in the middle.

    • Jesse

      Why must people label the journey of becoming a better person as religious?
      Seeking to right wrongs done is enough in itself.
      If you feel you can do more,
      Do more.
      If you feel you can never do enough,
      Get your head checked.

  • CammyMas

    I don’t know why everyone is putting this article down so aggressively. Poorer countries do tend to have higher rates of religiosity than wealthier nations. I feel there is some truth to the idea that atheism is better reached when you have the luxury to sit and contemplate — when you are not struggling to figure out where your next meal is going to come from or how you will clothe and shelter yourself. Of course, being comfortable is not the only (or even the main) factor that goes into reaching atheism (as many wealthy people are still religious), but I do think poverty and hardship tend to hinder the shaking off of the belief that a higher power is watching out for you, or that you will be rewarded for your struggles in the next life.

  • Oginikwe

    Well, I know plenty of WASPs who have done quite well and believe that all that they have came from God because he loves them and wants them to be happy, and their largesse is their reward for being so good. I also know Jehovah’s Witnesses without a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of who believe that God loves them and wants them to be happy too, and that their reward will come in the next world.

  • Jesse

    Naw, religion is the luxury of the poor.

    • Tuna Ghost

      I’m assuming that’s a joke hinging upon the juxtaposition of “luxury” and “the poor”.

      • Jesse

        Nope. Just neglected to put ‘intellectually’ in front of ‘poor’.

    • Rhoid Rager

      Or opium of the masses?

      • Andrew

        RELIGION = FREE DRUGS!

        • Rhoid Rager

          I was waiting for someone to make the reference, so i just bit the bullet and made it myself.

          • Tuna Ghost

            He also described it as “the heart in a heartless world”. Funny how nobody ever quotes that line.

  • MikeofAges

    I have long said that maybe the affluent can get away with worshiping at the Church of New York Times. For the rest of humanity, maybe not. I can’t tell you if there is a or is not heaven or a hell under the Earth, over the next hill or beyond the sky somewhere. But I do know there can be one right here. Raise children without religious practice and you’ve got them halfway there before they start. Secular social research back that up.

    • echar

      Raise them with, and they have a hell. That’s certain.

  • Jin The Ninja

    many people come back from drug and alcohol addiction.
    many people come back from homelessness.
    you’re obviously not aware of the term ‘self-medicating’ and its link to addiction and mental health. mental health is also firmly intersected by socio-economic status. homelessness can begin or make worse addiction.
    it’s not ‘god exists; he’ll take care of me in the end.’
    it’s ” god loves me, even if i am fuck up.”

  • Tuna Ghost

    I don’t think your reasoning is informed by experience, study or any kind of psychological or sociological training.

  • Tuna Ghost

    Your personal anecdotes are of absolutely no relevance. I was an addict; I didn’t turn to god. None of the addicts I knew turned to god. No one cares, because this is the internet where anyone can claim anything.

    I used “working-class” instead of “dirt poor” for the sake of being polite, but whatever. By your own admission, the addicts you’re referring to are the ones living in those conditions, hence my referencing the fact that religion has traditionally been stronger in poor neighborhoods where the addicts you’re referring to live in and often came from. There have been numerous studies as to why this is so.

    And don’t give me the disingenuous crap about not looking down on addicts. You essentially just said “I don’t look down on addicts, but how could they NOT be ashamed of themselves?” What, you’re not ashamed of them but they should be ashamed of themselves? At least own up to your own opinions, guy.

  • Tuna Ghost

    a.) No, it doesn’t, and b.) that’s fine because no one believes you anyway.

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