Thursday, January 2, 2014


Chris Arnade, who earned a doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins and then spent a career working on Wall Street, describes in The Guardian how his atheism was shaken by some of the most down-and-out people in America. He begins his story with a flashback to his youth:
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.

I eventually left my Wall Street job and started working with and photographing homeless addicts in the South Bronx. When I first walked into the Bronx I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be.

None of them are. Rather they are some of the strongest believers I have met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.
You'll have to go to the link to read how these encounters shook his comfortable assumptions. It's an interesting story and has created a bit of a stir on the net. Many of the commenters at the link are critical of Arnade for his disparaging reflections on atheism in general and on Richard Dawkins in particular, but one wonders. What does atheism have to offer the people Arnade encountered?

The truth of the beliefs of these people aside, their faith that God cares for them offers them a tincture of dignity and hope in the midst of a life in which there's not much basis for either. The most atheism can offer them is the assurance that there is no hope, no dignity, no meaning to their misery, and no possibility for redemption. These wretched folk, the atheist must aver, will endure their suffering as long as they can and then they'll die and that'll be the end of it.

I can understand why someone would be an atheist if they were convinced that God didn't exist, but what I don't understand, except as an expression of human perversity, is why so many people would not want God to exist, why they would actually want him not to exist. Why want the world to be the kind of place that offers these street people nothing but despair and hopelessness. It's not only perverse, it's cruel, and yet many people who don't believe that there's a God, or anything like God, will acknowledge that it's not because the intellectual arguments for atheism are compelling that they don't believe, it's because they just don't want there to be such a being.

It's very strange. The atheist, following Freud, criticizes the theist for believing on the basis of "wish fulfillment," i.e. believing in God because they want it to be true, and yet wish fulfillment is precisely the reason many atheists are atheists.

Set aside the question whether one is justified in believing on the basis of wish fulfillment. If both theists and atheists do it, ask yourself this question: Which is more ennobling, uplifting, and inspiring, to want and hope there to be a perfectly good and just Creator who loves us and offers us eternal happiness, or to actually desire and hope that such a being not exist? For my part, I simply don't understand why anyone would choose the latter, yet many do.