The Privileged Few

Posted by on February 2, 2011 in Thoughts | 8 comments

This is a topic I have thought about a bit, and I was hoping that by writing it down I could clarify my position on it. It seems to me that the majority of people who are speaking on the topic of atheism live in a relatively privileged position; that is to say, not living in poverty, not living in an oppressive dictatorship, not living in a disease ridden cesspool. Those of you who are reading this are sitting at a computer, or are on your mobile phone, and live in a society with a communication infrastructure, electricity, shelter and ample food. We have time, between our jobs and our families to get online and argue with theists about the existence of god, or lack thereof, and why it matters to us.

But just imagine, if you will, that you were born into a 3rd world country, with no education, not enough to eat and drink, with poor sanitation, meagre shelter, and no chance of escape. Do you think you would hold the same views? Possibly, but probably not. In a lot of cases, the religion that people are born into is just a part of their daily life, the routines and rituals of religion blending into the very fabric of just getting along.

Obviously, we must look at this in context. Like I said, the people who read this live in relative privilege, because there’d be no other way to get this information. (There may be some exceptions to this, but as a general rule I think this is pretty safe to assume.) Those who are the most outspoken against religion and religious dogma have a stake in this privilege, at least on some level. Is it possible that the voice of secularity is confined within the ranks of the privileged few?

If this is true, and secularity is a western middle-to-upper class phenomenon, does this mean that it is only for those who have the spare time and resources to write about it? And does it make atheism and secularity any less important? Have people in 3rd world countries even been offered the alternative to religion in their communities, and if they have, would they be likely to take up the cause?

The problem in a lot of these countries is that many of them are isolated from the outside (meaning us), by poverty, by government, by militia or regimes, or by lack of education. People in these situations can get some advantages from religion, and in lieu of education and water and food and shelter and basic human rights, religion can fill a need that the privileged westerners take for granted. Hardships and starvation are hard to stave off, especially when you don’t understand what is actually causing these problems, nor what a possible solution might be. Education can help people see past this.

Those of us who are privileged enough to live in a 1st (or 2nd) world country can have these things, we can teach outselves and others, we are relatively free to practice what we want (or not practice) and be who and what we want to be. These cultures in isolation not only do not have this freedom, many may not know anything other than what they have exists.

So is atheism and secularity for the privileged few? Not exactly. The second most secular nation in the world is Vietnam. Many people there live quite simple lives, just above poverty, subsistence traders and farmers. So what is different there? A good education may be just as hard to come by in the Mekong Delta as in the villages of Sudan, so why such a high rate of secularity there?

The other point of view would be that I look for my information on the internet, on TV and in books. Here in Australia I have access to all these things, and I can afford to pay for them. Does the fact that I have more access to these ideas affect my worldview? Definitely yes. Access to people and ideas is a form of education, and I have access to it all.

I was pointed to this article by my mate Jonathan Elliot. It comes from The Chronicle and is titled “The New Atheists’ Worldview“. An extract of this article says this:

“But most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.”

The author goes on to say how his experience in 3rd world countries has showed him how religion plays a much more vital role in society than just “explain­ing na­ture and guid­ing mo­ral­ity”, and then goes on to show how Buddhism is more about finding psychological ease and happiness, something which most western religions seem to leave for the afterlife.

He may have a point, that we can’t bunch all religions into one basket and label them all equally “wrong”, or equally “delusional”. Some are more interested in the personal journey of discovery, and discovery of peace with the universe. (At this point I’d like to point out that I am not sure I would call Buddhism a religion as such, more of a philosophy and set of techniques for living life.) I’d like to say in refutation of his claim of a “narrow worldview” that many of the people I see arguing against faith have a much wider worldview than most of the world’s population, and this understanding can be hard to reconcile when dealing with social critiques.

And all that is well and good, but it doesn’t really answer the question. Is atheism the exclusive realm of the privileged few? If it is, that can only be for one reason; access to education and information. As information grows, so does god shrink. The more ones ability to look at the world with a “cause and effect” outlook, the more the spirits fall by the wayside.

As a bonus, with education comes better hygiene, better ability to self govern, more equality between the sexes, lower population growth, less disease, less child mortality, better ecological maintenance, and will eventually lead to an impoverished community pulling itself up and becoming self sustaining. I don’t know about you, but I can see only one direction this train of thought can go.

I may not have broken any new ground here, but at least I know where I stand at this issue at the moment. I’d be interested to read your thoughts on this issue as well.

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  1. I am an atheist that grew up in a split home (split religion wise. Both my parents were loving, understanding and accepting of each others views). My mother was raised catholic and took my sister and I to church and Sunday school. My father was raised Atheist and generally took no part in any religious activities.

    We moved at one point and we all stopped going to church because mum couldn’t find one she felt comfortable at. This started a lull in religious activity for probably 5 years or so.

    When I hit high school, I became friends with a girl in the same situation as me. Mother was religious, father was not. So I started going to church with them. At this point I think it was more a community thing. More of a desire to be included in something.

    Anyway, long story short, around when I was 15 or so, I made the decision to stop going. This stemmed from the unbelievable amount of judgment that goes on in that particular church. It was a weekly gathering for people to show off how amazing and wonderful they were and I didn’t fit in at all. I was too “weird” and became the center of the Sunday gossip sessions.

    I remember that particular day I thought a lot about everything. I thought about whether I had to attend church to be in “Gods” good graces. Whether I even believed there was a God (this was also deeply rooted due to being told when I was young by a Sunday School teacher that anyone who does not believe in God goes to Hell. ie: my daddy).

    After that I think I became an agnostic. More or less unsure. Since then, however, I have spent a fair deal of time reading on the subject. I love debating and have a few very close christian friends who aren’t offended when I offer my views and ask them questions about theirs. So I think I have a pretty informed view on everything.

    I think had I grown up in a home where both parents were, without question, god fearing individuals and had I not grown up in a world where information is so readily available things may have turned out quite different. I think with anything, religion included, if you are not aware of the alternative how can you possibly choose it?

    Segregation is a powerful thing.

    That being said, part of my opting to essentially “cut god out of my life” was his followers and events that took place in my young life to make me question its validity. Would that happen in a world with a lack of information? I’m not sure. Choice is something we have, but not something we necessarily are aware of. Perhaps that is something knowledge would be needed for as well.

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  2. A great post, thank you Martin.
    It seems to me that the ‘under privileged’ of the world have been the prime target for religions for millenia (if not more). IMO, it is the very fact that they have very little to be thankful for in their lives that makes them so predisposed to take solace from the promise of an afterlife in ‘paradise’.

    Religions new about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs long before he made it more common knowledge.

    This being said, does this explain the apparent rapid rise of seemingly ‘money based’ faiths like Scientology and Hill Song Church?

    Olivier Roy has some interesting opinions on faith which might add to this conversation. See his article in New Humanist here >>

    Keep up the good work Martin :)

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  3. There is a strange phenomenon here. Those who need religion the least are the ones who have it the most. Those who no longer require the comforting blanket cannot seem to shrug it off.

    I think the answer to your question is “education”. Poorer countries cannot afford the high price of a good education. The populace do not have sufficient understanding of the world around them to figure out how it works. Nor do they have a rigorous skeptical approach to differentiate possible causes from real ones. It’s much easier to accept superstitious solutions to the world’s problems than to actually think about them – hell, even the educated have a hard time with this.

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  4. Martin, thanks for such an interesting and thought provoking post. It ties in well with my current area of research. You ask:

    [If] secularity is a western middle-to-upper class phenomenon, does this mean that it is only for those who have the spare time and resources to write about it? And does it make atheism and secularity any less important?

    My answer is “no”.

    Third world countries depend to a large extent on Western aid in the form of financial and health resources. We also provide immigration opportunities and asylum for refugees. Generally, this aid is provided regardless of the religious beliefs of the nations or people requiring our assistance. Health assistance is provided, largely, based on science rather than ideology.

    One would like to think that this would also be the case if Christians gained control of our Western governments. Unfortunately, the right wing radical Christians who, even now, have taken control of America’s Republican Party are not the ‘peace, love and goodwill to all men’ type of Christians one expects from a group which purports to emulate Jesus. These are the ‘Tony Abbott’ style of Christians who believe that Jesus would ‘stop the boats’ full of refugees and send them back to where they came from! These are the Christians who oppose state welfare and universal medical insurance. These are the people who oppose an Australian Bill of Rights and view the United Nations as evil. These are the people who wish to impose their religion, by force if necessary, onto the rest of the world because they believe that the second coming depends upon Christian world-domination.

    The Christians who are insinuating their way into our governments are people who despise multiculturalism, pluralism and ecumenicalism (with the possible exception of Christian ecumenicalism – there’s political advantage in numbers!). Their ideal society is one in which Christians dominate and other groups, if tolerated at all, must accept an inferior position in the society. Science is anathema to them – especially where it conflicts with their prejudices. Their law would be Biblical law. Only Christians could aspire to public office as only Christians can be considered sufficiently ‘moral’ to uphold the law of God’s kingdom. One could expect foreign and domestic policy decisions to be made based on a literal interpretation of scripture rather than on scientific evidence.

    We have already seen the devastation caused in Africa by the Catholic Church’s stand against condoms as a preventative measure against AIDS. We have seen the poverty caused in South America by religious bans on contraception. Imagine if we ‘privileged’ atheists sat back and did nothing to stop the further infiltration of religion into our country’s political and public realm. These third-world problems would be greatly exacerbated – not to mention the diminution of freedoms of non-Christian immigrants and refugees.

    Consider the effects on world peace if the West was dominated by the Christian nationalists who wish to gain control of our countries. In the US, the military is already heavily dominated by evangelicals. The torture at Abu Ghraib was overseen by good American Christians. We have seen what happens when an evangelical gains power in the White House. We have already seen Iraq invaded after Bush consulted with his evangelical colleagues and decided the illegal invasion was ‘God ordained’. Can you imagine foreign policy ruled by a strict adherence to Christian scripture (as interpreted by the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell)? The instability that would cause world-wide would devastate those in the third-world and possibly throw us into another world war.

    I completely understand that, for anyone who hasn’t studied the rise of Christian nationalism in the US (and the links between these groups and our Australian Christian lobbyists) that this seems far-fetched, hyperbolic and even like a conspiracy theory. Is it likely that radical right-wing Christians will gain control of our government and public institutions? Probably ‘not very’ likely, but it would be all the more likely if someone doesn’t recognize that the plan is in place and organize to stand up against it!

    So, in answer to your question, if the ‘privileged’ atheists of the West don’t stand up for democracy, multiculturalism, reason, science and secularism, who the hell will? As you said, we have the education, the money and the leisure to be able to keep abreast of the Christian assault on our freedoms and fight against them.

    And if we don’t, it will not just be our own countries that suffer, but the whole of the third world.

    Of course, I am not suggesting that all, or even most, Christians have this view. I am talking here about a powerful minority – the evangelical Christian nationalists who dominate the GOP in America and are, even now, infiltrating our Australian Christian lobby groups and political parties with the aim of dismantling secularism and making this a ‘Christian nation’.

    We might say, “That could never happen in Australia”, but consider the influence that organizations like the National Civic Council and the Australian Christian Lobby have on our politicians. Consider how many of our politicians have extreme evangelical Christian leanings – or are ready to feign them in return for votes. Read Marion Maddox’s “God Under Howard” if you doubt the impact that an evangelical right wing and a cynical conservative government can have on this nation’s policies! Make no mistake, the infiltration of Australia’s government and public institutions by crusading Christians is a part of these groups’ long-term strategies and plans are already in place to stage a silent religious ‘coup’.

    Australians are largely ignorant of this happening. It is atheists who are noticing and standing up for the retention of a secular Australia. In America, it is atheists who are, with difficulty, holding the line.

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  5. Martin, great post mate. The comments are also very thought-provoking.

    Nice work also Chrys :)


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  6. Chrys pointed out the devastation wrought by Catholicism in Africa. I’ll just add that Protestantism, which is on the rise there, is also destroying lives.* Witness the plight of LGBTs in Uganda, and its proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill:

    I’m Facebook friends with Micheal Mpagi, who runs the Atheist Association of Uganda:

    Mpagi would like to have Western atheist and humanist speakers come to Uganda, to speak and to help support and spread the word about freethought in Africa. (Mpagi’s on Facebook, so atheists interested in contacting him can look him up there.)

    I think we should make it a priority of our movement to reach out to freethinkers in the Third World. (I just happen to know a teeny bit about what’s going on in part of Africa, but obviously there are places all over the world where the introduction of atheist ideas, critical thinking and skepticism, could do a lot of good.) Sadly, the economic crisis makes that tougher than ever to do. CFI’s Norm Allen had contacts in Africa and was building a strong relationship with them; but when CFI experienced its recent budget clusterfuck and consequent restructuring, Allen was ousted.

    * Promoted in part by American evangelicals like Scott Lively

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  7. I should have wrapped that up by answering your question, Martin: No, atheism is not the exclusive realm of the privileged few. There are atheists (some out, some closeted) all over the world, probably more of them than we realize, even in places (like Uganda) where being an out atheist is downright dangerous. We mustn’t lose sight of them. They need our support.

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  8. Of course atheism is a privilege of rich and secure societies. So are democracy, philosophy, art, justice, and literacy. Does that make them any less important?

    Not living like a caveman is objectively better than living like a caveman. Having privileges and options is objectively better than not having them.

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