The Privileged Few
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.
“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.