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Repost: On Atheist Janitors

[Author's Note: I'm reposting some old favorites while I'm away on vacation this week. This post was originally from October 2007.]

I recently received an e-mail which asked me if I believe that atheism is a worldview that anyone can take up, or whether the majority of society needs religion to keep them happy and pacified:

The question at the heart of the debate is: does the average Jacques need religion in his life? I am familiar with all the atheist talk of self-fulfillment and living the only life you've got to the fullest, and think it's a great idea. Except for a snafu. The people who write about these issues tend to be highly educated, and at least relatively well off. Sure, it's great to see Richard Dawkins walk among some stunning natural landscape and tell us to explore the world. But where does the average working schmuck find the resources to do that? Face it, the vast majority of people are losers, people who have to settle for less than others. It is a fact that many (perhaps even most) people's lives suck, with or without religion. If it forbids you from having sex, advocates the chopping off of bits of your genitals, or makes you feel guilty about everything you do, religion might contribute to the unhappiness. But in terms of everyday living, the endless and often self-inflicted drudgery and boredom that is often the lot of regular people, perhaps there is solace in the thought that there is someone out there that cares for you, and that it does, after all, get better than this. My question for you is this: do you think a fully atheistic society can survive, not only with atheistic doctors and social scientists, but also atheistic sewage workers and janitors? What would they have to look forward to? Or perhaps the "people at the bottom," people who've never read a single book in their entire lives, are too limited to care about such lofty things anyway?

My answer follows below.

My question for you is this: do you think a fully atheistic society can survive, not only with atheistic doctors and social scientists, but also atheistic sewage workers and janitors? What would they have to look forward to?

I don't mean to put this person on the spot, but his question is an excellent example of how, if we're not careful, religious presuppositions can slip into our thoughts without our being aware of it. In this case, it's the presupposition that human beings need something to "look forward to", as if happiness can only come in a future time when all our problems will be solved for us.

Instead of placing all our hope of happiness in the future, we should seek it in the present. That's what humanism is all about! Every day should be a joy to us. We should be grateful every day for the opportunity to be alive and to make the most of our time. I wrote in "The New Ten Commandments" that we should seek to live life with a sense of joy and wonder, and that is just as true for janitors and sewer workers as it is for famous authors and scientists. Working as a janitor may not be the best job there is, but I don't think it must be so terrible as to foreclose all possibility of happiness.

Sure, it's great to see Richard Dawkins walk among some stunning natural landscape and tell us to explore the world. But where does the average working schmuck find the resources to do that?

There's no reason why an average person can't explore what the world has to offer. I believe it's possible to have an economic system in which every full-time job pays a living wage and guarantees the basic necessities of life, including reasonable allowances for leisure. If it seems otherwise in the world we currently live in, then that is an inequity that should be corrected, not proof that the world must be forever divided into haves and have-nots.

On the other hand, if religion teaches people to submit to a life that they would otherwise find intolerable, it seems to me that that is an argument against it, not for it. We should not teach people delusions so that they will meekly endure suffering without resistance. That would be a tremendously arrogant and evil idea. Instead, we should help people notice inequality so that we can work to correct it, rather than giving out band-aid solutions which make that inequality seem more tolerable.

But in terms of everyday living, the endless and often self-inflicted drudgery and boredom that is often the lot of regular people, perhaps there is solace in the thought that there is someone out there that cares for you, and that it does, after all, get better than this.

I believe this correspondent answers his own question here: as he points out, boredom is often self-inflicted. There's a universe of ideas waiting to be explored, enough to occupy a hundred lifetimes; and with public libraries and the internet, the landscape of human thought is more accessible than ever before. As far as "someone out there that cares for you", why are our fellow human beings not enough as a source of friendship and solace?

Or perhaps the "people at the bottom," people who've never read a single book in their entire lives, are too limited to care about such lofty things anyway?

I strongly deny that humanity can be divided into classes in the way this remark suggests. On the contrary, I believe the evidence shows that all human beings are basically alike in intellectual capacity and dignity. The idea that humanity can be classified into a small number who are fit to rule, and a much larger number who are fit to be ruled, is one of the more pernicious doctrines our species has invented. It is an apologetic for tyranny, and history readily testifies to both its factual falsity and its disastrous moral consequences.

I also deny that atheism deals only with "lofty things". On the contrary, the subjects which atheism addresses are the issues of basic concern that are shared by every human being: questions like, "Why am I here?", "Where am I going?", "What should I seek from life?", "What is the best way to live?" These are not esoteric matters of interest only to a few, but fundamental questions which every person faces at some point in their life.

And in truth, atheism's answer to these questions is quite simple. All that atheism proclaims is that we have the ability to answer these questions for ourselves, through studying the world and through the use of our own reason. We need not accept the widely believed answers just because they are widely believed, or because they are old and venerable, or because they come with threats attached for dissidents. Reduced to its bare essentials, atheism is the simple proclamation that these are insufficient reasons for believing anything to be true, and that better answers are available if we choose to use reliable methods. If it is a truth too terrible to speak aloud that we can make up our own minds, then humanity is in a sorry state indeed; but I do not worry for a moment that that is the case.

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