This was the headline that the Texas Standard chose to run for this story. It’s soft-pedaling hogwash, that’s what that headline is. Forty-two Percent of Texans Are Poor is how that headline should read. That is what the coded word struggle represents. Poverty. These people are poor but the media doesn’t want to call them poor. Poor is failure. Poor is less than human. Poverty is never to be admitted to, even by the poor themselves.
Though the state’s economy is experiencing relatively healthy growth overall, a new report by the United Ways of Texas shines a light on the surprising number of Texans who are struggling financially. The new report, “ALICE, A Study of Hardship in Texas,” says 42 percent of all households in Texas cannot afford basic needs such as housing, food, transportation and health care.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the definition of ALICE from the secondary link,
ALICE, an acronym which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, represents the growing number of individuals and families who are working, but are unable to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care, and transportation.
Asset Limited. Poor. Poverty. Now, the federal government and most especially the state of Texas will tut-tut that and say that those people are well above the poverty line established by government. Again I say, hogwash. Federal guidelines and especially guidelines from the state of Texas will not be truthful, if by truthful you mean accurate. This goes for anything that touches on the sacred beliefs of the average American, most especially the delusion that poor Americans aren’t poor. They just aren’t wealthy yet, and they never will be wealthy. But don’t tell them that.
This is well trodden ground for me these days because I’ve spent the better part of two months arguing with an in-law about this very subject recently.
I don’t think you know what poverty is. I was born in it and raised in it. The only thing that got me out of it was hard work. I had no intention of raising my children the way I was raised, therefore they had better than I had. And I do pretty well now only because I work hard to better myself. President Trump is making it so people can work and better themselves and get off the coattails of the government. I do not understand how anybody could think putting people back to work is a bad thing. Obama on the other hand closed down factories and put millions of people out of work and on food stamps.
I had to block that poor fool because he kept calling me stupid. This exercise would be me once again wasting my time, convinced I can somehow reason with someone who refuses to think. The uninformed political opinions he’s throwing around I will dig into somewhere else, have already dug into somewhere else before (Obama, Caveat Emptor) But the poverty stuff? I don’t talk about that very often (Greece, Bootstraps) However, I’m pretty sure I have a general understanding of what poverty is and what it can do to people. I’m positive I understand it better than that in-law, because poverty has been my constant companion throughout my adult life.
That in-law is better off than I am, but he’s still right on the margins of poverty. He’s middle class but not comfortably so, and not likely to stay part of the middle class unless he can keep working for another twenty years. The proof is in the statistics cited above, 42% of Texans are poor. That is just under half of all Texans being poor. Half. No one who isn’t independently wealthy will stay middle class without working, and independent wealth is built up through generations of hard work. Something I know neither he nor I come from.
There was a brief period of about two years in my adult life where I wasn’t poor. And when I wasn’t poor I never struggled for anything other than struggling to keep my job so I could keep paying for things. People of means do not struggle. They see a shrink and work it out, because they can afford to pay to have someone listen to them and help them work out their problems. Having a job that generates enough money to live on is not struggling in the way that the research demonstrates. The struggling that the United Ways is highlighting comes from having too much work and not enough money. A uniquely post modern development. Gainfully employed and still starving.
I keep linking this video in the vain hope that people who think that a dollar has work value attached to it would watch and learn a few things. It’s not like it’s a long video. It’s not a huge investment in time to watch.
I’m sure it’s quite painful to watch if you are a conservative. Conservatives and conservative economics have created this problem. Have created it more than once. Thinking you have to work to survive, to deserve to survive, is outmoded thinking and has caused the kind of crisis we are living through today. Has caused it repeatedly down through time. Today’s system throws off enough wealth all on it’s own to eliminate poverty completely if we simply set ourselves to the task of eliminating it. And even if we do eliminate poverty we’ll still have people wanting to work, and even more people capable of doing that work, because poverty is a man-made ill. Poverty is something we created to justify ourselves and our assumed status in life.
“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.”
If you think of yourself as white and you are poor in modern America, the fact that you are poor grates on you so much that you go looking for people who suffer more than you. Having a paler skin color is seen as a sign of status, has been seen as a sign of status down through the ages. Being pale means that you don’t have to work out in the sun. You have leisure time. you can throw this assumed status around, use it to your advantage in social interactions.
Unless you are poor. If you are poor, there is no question that your paler skin doesn’t convey advantage any longer, because there are demonstrably people darker skinned than you that have more status than you. They have more status because they have the conveyor of modern status, money. This is a corruption of the natural order in the mind’s eye of a racist, and we can’t just allow the natural order to be corrupted, now can we?
This is how we get to the point where the party of Lincoln, the party of the man who lead the Union through the Civil War and destroyed the slavery based economy of the Southern Confederacy; this is how the Republican party has become the party of people who wave the stars and bars of the confederacy and demand that they be given privilege over the brown-skinned. Republicans see everyone who is darker than they are as other, outsider, illegal. They couch their arguments in law and order, just like Nixon coded it in the seventies. But Nixon was a racist, too. They don’t even know that what they are promoting is racism. Donald Trump’s naked attempt to create a white American royalty.
How can Democrats win in deep red America? During the midterms, momentum behind progressive candidates in red states garnered national attention — Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. These were no overnight successes. They were the culmination of, among many things, including the tireless efforts of grassroots organizers.
But it is even more basic than that. Will our children and their children go hungry? Will they have access to shelter from the cold or the heat, especially given the unpredictable nature of the climate change we are creating? Will there be schools to teach the children that all of us will rely on in the future to provide every single thing we need? Things we will need paid for with money we didn’t work for that day? We didn’t have to work for, because the system itself provides a mechanism (money) that allows us to not have to work every single day in order to survive? These are real, hard questions that have to be answered today, so that we can have access to those things tomorrow. All of us, not just the 1% that currently receive all the benefits of modern society.
Or would you rather that your children starve for want of food when fortunes turn on them as it does on everyone? Sleep out in the cold because they can’t afford shelter? Rather that they die of preventable diseases because there was no profit in researching cures or vaccines? All of these things require public investment, something that you won’t learn from the worship of robber barons that pervades what passes for conservative ideology these days.
“The liberals will always do what they can to hold you back”
Conservatism is about adhering to the past, not looking beyond what our ancestors did, the rights they claimed for themselves. That is the sum total of conservatism.
Liberalism is about experimentation. Liberalism is a friend to entrepreneurs, scientists, etc. Liberalism promotes new ways of thinking and new ways of dealing with the world. That is the definition of liberalism. Look it up anywhere aside from conservapedia, and you will find that I am right on this subject.
Liberals accept that society and its inventions, things that we all inherited, belong to all of us. Because none of the living invented any of the technologies that provide the food for our tables today. We stood on the shoulders of giants and thought ourselves tall. Liberals understand that the only way to do justice to those who came before us is to see that those that come after us have what they need to thrive, just as we had what we needed to thrive.
Our rights include things like clean air and clean water. Health care is a basic human right since it takes the wealth of the entire nation to maintain the system, it has to be available to everyone, not just those who can pay.
If you want questions answered, you have to ask questions. Ask questions which are answerable. Declaring that everything you don’t understand is a plot to take the little you have to your name now is nothing more than a paranoid delusion. You can’t lose something you don’t own, and most of what we deal with today are things that don’t belong to us alone. The internet is useless without other people to talk to. You can’t tend to your own physical injuries if those injuries require expertise to remedy. If you have that expertise and try to doctor yourself, then you have a fool for a patient. It takes others to do anything meaningful in life. Spitting on the state, on government, and turning your back on progress in the name of preserving what you have now is to settle for less than you could have had, if you only have the sense to look around you with eyes that aren’t clouded by fear.
Modern farming would be impossible without federal research grants, federal subsidies, federal mandates. The ability to get a mortgage and own your own home was a federal mandate. Every single scientific endeavor survives on federal seed money. There would be no internet without it. There would be no handheld computer to read this message on without NASA. There would be no vaccination program without federal mandates. No science-based medicine without government oversight and consequently no way to know what medicines work without government involvement.
So yes, I will rely on government. So will you, even if you don’t think that’s what you are doing. Government touches everything. And in the United States, we are the government. We can pay ourselves enough that none of us need starve, and still leave room for entrepreneurs to profit off of their ideas, giving them motivation to create, to work. Contemplate that for as long as it takes to sink in.
The problem is nation-wide.
About 39 percent of Americans ages 18 to 65 experienced at least one type of material hardship last year, statistically unchanged from the 39.3 percent who suffered hardship in 2017, the nonpartisan think tank found. The study spans the first two years of the Trump administration, as well as the first year of the tax overhaul. Yet there was little progress easing the financial challenges experienced by U.S. adults last year, the Urban Institute said.
There have been several podcasts in my feed over the last year dissecting and observing the subject of poverty. This is probably because of the over-hyped evidence that the majority of Trump supporters were poor, rural whites. The podcasters in their turn feel they need to address the issues raised by these people. The issues that made these poor, rural whites feel so desperate that they would hazard the welfare of us all on a known liar and con artist.
I say over-hyped with no intention of belittling the plight of the poor, or the fact that poverty runs rampant in the modern United States. Poverty is more widespread and more painfully felt now than it has been at any point since the end of World War Two. The disparity between rich and poor today is comparative to 1929, in the time leading up to the crash and the Great Depression. People are poorer now and paid worse than at any point in modern American history.
But it isn’t trade deals that are causing this problem. It isn’t illegal aliens in the US taking our jobs. It isn’t any of the things that Donald Trump or the majority of conservatives say is causing poverty, and his solutions to fix poverty are solutions that not only have been tried before but failed to work previously. So why do them again?
No, I say over-hyped because the rural poor more than likely voted for Trump because the rural poor have been the largest viewing block for reality TV. The rural poor have little other entertainment they can access aside from television. The Apprentice was popular with the same people who voted for Trump. Why is it so hard to admit that these people thought that the character on that show was the guy they voted for in the election? That the lack of broadband access in the rural areas of the US have lead to an information gap that resulted in the election of a con artist to the presidency? That poverty is merely a factor in the larger problem of inequality in America?
All of these podcasts have struck a chord with me. I have blogged both directly and tangentially about this subject in the past. It is not a subject I like writing about. The nerves are raw and the wounds are kept fresh in my current situation of disability and poverty. The series from On the Media, Busted: America’s Poverty Mythsbrought me to tears. I recognized so many tropes from my own childhood. Things family members and friends both have uttered in my hearing. Things that I have been guilty of believing in the past. In this article I will take a more purposeful walk down that memory lane, painful as it is. I want to do this in the light of these discussions by scholars, writers and journalists.
…and I will start this journey of introspection with the writer/journalist Stephen Dubner and his podcast Freakonomics,
James Truslow Adams, born in 1878 to a wealthy New York family, became a financier and, later, an author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of New England; and later he wrote a book called The Epic of America. Even though it was written during the Great Depression, Adams took a fundamentally bullish view of the United States.
His book was hugely popular, and as best as we can tell, it introduced the phrase “The American Dream.” Adams defined this as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The phrase caught on, and not just a little bit. Especially among our presidents…
…The Stanford economist Raj Chetty has been working with large data sets to try to understand why so many Americans are no longer living the American Dream. When it comes to economic opportunity, Chetty and his colleagues found huge regional and even local differences throughout the U.S.
As he told us, kids growing up in San Francisco have about twice the chance of living the American Dream as kids from just across the bridge, in Oakland. Why? One easy explanation would be that the people in those different areas are just different – they have different abilities, different cultures, different job opportunities. And that certainly has some explanatory power. But Chetty and his colleagues found the story isn’t that simple…
…This is hardly a new idea – that growing up in a poor neighborhood isn’t the best launching ground for economic success. This idea, in fact, led the Clinton Administration to experiment in the mid-1990s with a program called Moving to Opportunity.
Okay, so young kids who move out of a high-poverty neighborhood do much better later on. What, exactly, does this signify? What’s going on in the poor neighborhoods to depress income mobility and what’s going on in the better neighborhoods to increase it? Answering those questions has become a big part of Raj Chetty’s work.
The above hits the high points of that Freakonomics episode, without getting into the meat of it, which is excellent. The scholar Raj Chetty‘s five factors address my personal experiences of poverty directly. It was because of this episode that I felt the need to write more on this subject, but the title of the post comes from a segment of another podcast, which was introduced to me through this episode of Radiolab,
In a 5-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it’s like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.
This episode features an excellent overview of the 5-part series; enough for the casually interested, but not enough for someone who remembers the shock of sudden poverty as a child. A now old man who lives in poverty due to illness, disability, a truly lackluster US economy, sexism/ageism in the workplace directed at the Wife, etc. But I don’t want to get ahead of the narrative, and discussing the particulars of my experience in poverty even in the general sense gets ahead of the introduction provided in the full five part series from On the Media.
As the Freakonomics episode mentioned, It is actually twice as easy to move up the income ladder in Canada as it is in the US. This is a travesty, an ongoing insult to America, this delusion we live under. What delusion is that? The delusion that the US is the best country in the world to live in, that we provide more access to social mobility than anyplace else in the world. It simply isn’t true. Hasn’t been true for a good, long time.
The first episode of the On the Media series is an introduction to the reality of poverty in America. It is the boxing glove on the fist of the next three episodes that drive home the fact that we Americans really don’t have a clue what it is to be desperately poor in the US. Even I only vaguely recognize the lives that the truly poverty stricken must live. The reason for this is that I profited from the status of my parents. My parents, in their turn, benefited from the status of their parents; white, working class, upwardly mobile christians with land. My paternal grandparents had enough property that they farmed at first, and then sold land to the city and to new families moving into the bustling township that Leoti, Kansas was after the dust bowl. They sold and profited as the town grew around them, just like the dreams of all Americans play out.
“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.”
The possession of land leads to wealth, if one is lucky enough to own the right piece of land at the right time. The Steele family in Wichita county, Kansas were those kinds of people. The fact of their ownership of land made them powerful within the township. The location near a then-growing town gave them a chance to sell off some of their property for cash, something that there is never enough of in any small town. People have to eat, after all. They have to have somewhere safe to sleep. All of this costs money in the modern economy, and the only way to get money is to work or be born into it. So I wasn’t born into poverty, at least.
I was born overseas to a father who was stationed there in the military, a mother who enjoyed being overseas for the first time but really didn’t enjoy the constraints of a military wife in the 60’s. She returned to the states not too long after my birth, and my father left the military as soon as his mandatory term of service was up. They returned to my father’s home on the high plains of Kansas as I mentioned. My father grew up in a little town named Leoti that would be so small you would miss it if you blinked, if only the main roads went anywhere near the place. My father’s family had settled there a few decades previously and Grampa had several thriving businesses in the town. One of those businesses was sold/given to my father when he left the military, and he settled down with my mother for the happily ever after that all young people believe in.
Did I say “happily ever after?” Yeah, that never showed up. Dad took to drinking a fifth of bourbon every single day as he struggled to deal with bringing in enough cash to support his growing family. Mother was unhappy because the family kept growing and her husband didn’t seem to be around much to help. The fighting got worse until it damaged the furnishings and frightened the children, and the divorce wasn’t long after that. Coming out of the 40’s and 50’s and the attitudes about women and families, the ridiculous notions of money and politics, wealth and poverty and the meaning of all these things all wrapped up together, the surprising part of this story is that some women put up with the way life was for them. They put up with it instead of leaving. Maybe they had better husbands?
The story of my pre-teen life was pretty common for the time. By the mid-70’s when the divorce happened fully half of all marriages went that way. Prior to World War Two women were expected to stay home, raise children and provide for the running of the household which encompassed pretty much everything you can imagine. Everything you can imagine, if you imagined a self-sufficient household operation that was a day’s horseback ride from the next nearest town, a train ride away from the nearest city with running retail businesses in it. A household without running water or electricity. That is what frontier life was like just two generations into the past for me, four generations from the time of this writing. My grandparents remembered towns without electricity, the introduction of indoor plumbing and the automobile.
Automobiles made the difference. This fact is spelled out in the heaps of rusted metal you can find dotting most older farmsteads. When the old car dies you leave it where it sits and buy another one, just as you did the tractor and the harvester. On the Wife’s family farm you can still see her dad’s first tractor, parked on the edge of the field where it died, rusting into nothing as the decades fly by. It still sits there even though the farm itself has changed hands twice since her mom sold it. Sold it because there just wasn’t any reason to keep it any longer.
We weren’t farmers. We were never going to sign up for that life. The automobile made city life bearable because you could live in the outskirts of the city and commute downtown for work. In the city you don’t need to make your own clothes, you can go to the store and buy them. You can go to the store and buy them, that is, if you have the money. Money has been the limiting factor imposed on the poor for longer than any of the now living can remember. Longer than those who came before us can remember. Further back than even our great-grandparents and their parents time.
Brooke meets Carla Scott, a young woman in Cleveland forced to sell her plasma for bus fare after a series of events derailed her life, as well as Carla’s nonagenarian grandmother, Grace, a hard-line believer in “personal responsibility.”
Personal responsibility orpaying for every mistake you’ve made for your entire life. That would be costly, and hasn’t been my experience. This is the privilege of white skin in the United States. It certainly hasn’t been luck that has seen me through to now. I’ve told myself all my life I make my own luck. I make my own luck because 50/50 chances almost never fall my way. Even so, there are many behaviors that I have engaged in that would have resulted in imprisonment and probably death, had I been caught doing them while black.
While I was near homeless for a few years living in friend’s spare rooms and sleeping on enclosed porches, I never had to sell plasma. I didn’t have children of my own to tend to before I was ready largely because I knew what a pain children could be. That was one of the many lessons I learned being raised by a single mom.
The benefit of city living masques the machinery of poverty creation. Having everything you want or need available at a store for purchase makes the delusion of self-sufficiency seem quite real. Self sufficient, if you have the money to buy these things. Self sufficient, if you have work that pays money. I have always had work because I would do just about any job offered to me. White, young, male, with no tattoos and no piercings. Maintaining the illusion of normalcy was more important than personal desires. The illusion of a fine, upstanding middle class status kept me working.
Poverty waits for those who fail to maintain the illusion. Jobs that go to others. Careless sex that leads to children. Drug addiction. Tattoos and piercings that announce your rejection of white bread America. That inner-city poverty of slums and ghettos? The tattooed and the pierced? The drug addicted and the ne’er-do-well? That poverty has moved out into the country from the cities. The rebellion that motivated the election of Donald Trump was generated in rural America, in the persons of the last victims of a grinding poverty that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of cities since their creation. I noted the rural American bellyaching rang hollow to me in the essay I named after him,
Oh poor, misunderstood me whining by rural whites strikes me as just this side of pathetic. As if urban blacks don’t have problems, haven’t had worse problems for the better part of two hundred years.
I know what grinding poverty looks like even though my experience with it was mercifully brief. That time was right after my parent’s divorce. For a time after kicking the alcoholic out of our home my mom tried to make the best of life in rural Kansas. We got to keep the house. Dad moved into a trailer parked behind his service station. He managed to wrangle down his child support to $300 which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of keeping a roof over our heads, even though that roof had been home for as long as we could remember. Mom took her first job outside the house since going to college, a job teaching Head Start to Leoti preschoolers, a job that was taken from her because she didn’t have a teaching certificate. She left college to get married and had no saleable skills aside from homemaking, a job she couldn’t do anymore without a husband.
So she remarried. The new husband was a nice enough guy when we met in Leoti. As soon as we left Kansas and moved to Texas, the trouble started. The poverty got worse. Dad stopped paying the child support and only restarted it after mom sued him to get it. The stepdad also started drinking heavily, and he was a mean drunk. There were a number of times where my mouth got me in trouble and I ended up on the floor. The last time I saw him was the day he brought another woman to the house. After watching him abuse my mother wordlessly for months, after being the victim of his abuse during that time, having him show up and flaunt his girlfriend in my mother’s face was too much. When mom sent us into the house and told us to hide, I waited behind a door I knew he would come through if he did come in for his stuff. I waited with a high vantage point and a heavy blunt object. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity presented itself, there would be a near guarantee of killing him. I hated him that much.
Luckily for both of us, the opportunity never occurred. He left without his stuff. I was on a plane to stay with my father in Kansas within the week. Psychotherapy was part of that process. I was the lucky one. The luckiest of the four children who endured the stepfather. I had a room of my own in my father’s house. I had running hot water at the tap. I had a mother and father who were concerned for me. I never appreciated this fact, this blessing, until visiting my mother in Texas and seeing what hitching her cart to the stepfather’s wagon had wrought in the end.
The unlucky ones? They had one bed for the four of them to share. Mom went through another divorce, which means those three siblings went through it with her. The garage apartment they found in the tiny town they had ended up in didn’t have a reliable roof or much in the way of indoor plumbing. They had to heat water on the stove to fill the bathtub so that they all could bath each night. My mother had taken the next of dozens of jobs she would eventually hold, working the night shift running that blight of the American landscape, a convenience store. Virtually the only profitable business in yet another small town whose only claim to fame was being on the road to somewhere else.
When I saw how bad their living conditions were, I cried. We siblings then made the first of several pacts that followed over the years. After a few weeks of mutual badgering, our parents in their separate hostile camps were convinced to let the rest of the kids move back up with dad and his new wife. I didn’t appreciate having to share a bed with my brother again, but at least they had hot water to shower with. Television to watch. Decent schools to attend, back in the good old days, when Kansas still believed in investing in young people.
For the first time in my mother’s short life, she was free. No children to supervise. No husband to cook for or tend to. Free to try and advance her skills by returning to school. So she did that. She moved to a larger town in the area, a town called Sweetwater. It was a town with a school, a town big enough for a trade school, but not so big that it became expensive to live in. She took business classes and worked odd jobs. She was probably about as happy as she had ever been.
This happiness was short-lived. This is a section of the story that I wrote about at length here,
Dad had remarried, but found the chore of raising 5 unruly children too much to deal with so he sent us back to our mother in Texas to live. The 5 of us crammed ourselves into whatever housing she could afford on the wages for whatever jobs she could get.
…She just went back to working at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, the odd convenience store job as the demands for housing, clothes and food for her growing children required.
It was a point of pride to my mom that she never took food stamps. That she never had to go on welfare. Her memory is a bit more selective than mine. We may never have needed food stamps, but we certainly ate a lot of government bread and cheese. Drank a lot of government milk. I got a job as soon as I could after moving back in with mom. I knew even before she explained it to me, there was no way we’d survive if I wasn’t working. So I started sacking groceries and cleaning up at night at one of the two grocery stores in that mid-sized Texas town. I took a lot of food that the store was going to throw away home with me instead, one of the benefits of being the flunky who throws out the trash. We never went hungry, but that is just barely the truth.
I spent my senior year in high school as a stranger in a school I didn’t really want to attend. I preferred the Kansas schools of the time. Kansas’ investment in higher education (now abandoned) Kansas’ belief in better times ahead (ditto) Texas was meaner. Texas was harsher both in climate and attitude. That mythical Southern hospitality is the velvet glove over the iron fist of crony capitalism and repressive social structures designed to keep the poor in their place.
I attended the same trade school my mom had moved to Sweetwater to attend and I made the best of the illusions I had been fed as a child. That I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I had no limitations. That all I had to do was work hard and I would make the grade. That I could live happily ever after, too.
In the third installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we take on one of our country’s most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?
With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the “rags to riches” narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers… only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of “random acts of kindness” and the fateful role of luck — where you’re born, and to whom — in determining success.
Much like Benjamin Franklin in reality, as detailed in this segment of the story, I moved away from the family that was a drag on my ability to succeed on my own. Their poverty making my poverty that much harder to ignore, that much harder to escape. After a brief, heartbreaking few months trying to establish myself in Kansas back living with my father, trying to make good on promises made to a girlfriend I had left in Kansas and failing at that rather spectacularly, I returned to Texas and moved up the road from Sweetwater to Abilene for a brief time, living on my own. Like everyone who transitions to life on their own, that was quite a shock. I think it was the month driving on a leaky tire because I couldn’t afford a new one that brought home just how hard it was going to be to make the grade. Just how remote the possibility thathappily ever after might ever occur.
“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
It was while living in Abilene that I noticed that I effectively had no boots and thusly no bootstraps to draw myself up by. I had a limited education, most of which I provided for myself through voracious reading. I clearly had a problem producing work in my chosen profession, a barrier that I had never realized was mine alone until that time. There was no one with money in my immediate family. I knew no one in Abilene aside from co-workers at jobs I no longer had, and I wore out their welcomes in pretty short order. I even had to borrow mom’s pride and joy, the first new car she had ever bought for herself, just to get myself out of the rut I’d made in Abilene and move myself to a new, hopefully more promising locale, San Angelo.
It was in San Angelo that I met the Wife, working at one of the many odd jobs that came my way. It was there that I dragged the rest of my Texas family, after I finally found a job that paid money and had rented a house that would fit all of them. It was there that all of them eventually went to college. It was a long, hard struggle even getting to that level, the level where I felt I could attempt to repay a debt to my mother that I knew I still owed. But I was still poor, just not as poor as I had been. In order to not be poor I knew I was going to have to find a bigger city. Bigger cities require more architecture, more planning, more design, and I knew that was a demand that I could help satisfy if I could just get there.
In the fourth installment of our series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we examine the strengths and shortcomings of our nation’s safety net. Government assistance does help lift millions out of poverty each year — indeed, without it, poverty would be twice as high — but those in the most dire circumstances often slip through the cracks.
With the help of Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we consider how anti-poverty programs can actually keep people poor and offer little hope for a way out.
Also, Brooke meets Margaret Smith, a Columbus woman made homeless after a violent crime derailed the life she’d carefully built with her six children. And we visit an Athens County food pantry that provides not just meals to the community, but also school supplies, clothing, furniture, job training, home repairs, disaster relief…even burial plots.
In the city there is no illusion about the temporariness of prosperity, of hearth and home. If there is any real difference between city life and country life, it is the illusion of permanence that country life affords. In the city you pay by the month for everything including hearth and home. You never stop paying for anything, ever. New cars, bigger houses, longer commutes, more roads, taller buildings, denser usage. The city is a meatgrinder, and the meat it grinds is human. Best not to watch it happen if you have a weak stomach.
It’s true, there are more opportunities in the city if you can afford to go there and look for them. I took that leap almost thirty years ago now. Left what I see now as a quiet little town of a hundred thousand people; ten times the size, and more, of my hometown of Leoti at its peak. Austin boasts more than a million citizens now. if you incorporate its far-flung suburbs, there is something closer to two million people who work and live here because of Austin being here and pretty much for no other reason. It certainly isn’t for the weather, which is Texas hot nine months out of the year.
There is a little joke in Austin that if you move here and don’t have allergies, wait five years. You’ll have them, just wait. I had allergies before moving here and I never intended to stay here. Fate has kept me here, year after year in spite of my intentions to leave as soon as I was assured of an ability to provide for my family. I was ill before I got to Austin, and my illness has gotten worse every year I’ve been here. The symptoms which had no name eventually got so bad that I found a name for them, Meniere’s. Finding that my symptoms had a name is the only reason I’m alive to write this uplifting little post today. Having a name for what keeps me from working is what gets me disability payments that kept my now-grown children fed while they were still growing. The disability made me worth more alive than dead; so I’ve kept living, to the consternation of many.
Disability isn’t a carefree life of freedom and bliss. Ill health is generally hard to endure even without the grinding poverty that accompanies it in most cases. The poverty is inflicted on those of ill-health by the system itself, not as a function of their relative worth. The cost of treating illness is itself a function of building the wealth of countless millions of healthcare professionals, people who would be as poor as I am without people like me coming to them for treatment. Without Social Security and Medicare paying my bills, I’d have taken my own life years ago. All those thousands spent to educate my children, house, clothe and feed them, would never have existed. Their promising careers, the careers of my Texas family who went to college because I brought them somewhere that had a college, all of the people who benefitted in some way from the work that I’ve done if not by the simple existence of my health issues, none of them would be where they are now had I simply not existed. Had I been cast aside like the poster-waving homeless visible on every city street corner in the US.
Nothing hits so hard for me as being in my car pulling up to an intersection, and having someone come to me with their hand out. I can’t look because I know that if I give in to my desire to help everyone around me, I will soon be the one standing on the street corner holding a sign. See to your own needs first, as any properly trained triage attendant knows. You can’t help others if you end up needing help yourself. I have clung to the top edge of a vertical drop into non-existence for more than a decade now. Every single cent of every dollar spent in the last ten years having to be justified in some way. Kicking myself for ever frivolously spending anything in the years that I had money, not realizing that those years would be the briefest of all.
When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we present a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It’ll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.
With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
Like him I really don’t have any answers aside from the plain observation that what we have attempted so far in the realm of aid to the poor has failed, utterly. We must begin again if we ever hope to improve the human condition. The only sane way is to approach the problem with the knowledge that we don’t know what will work before we try it. So it will profit all of us to make sure that what we are attempting can be tested for effectiveness before we embrace it as true and real.
One final video for this article. Another take on the problem of wealth in America. The concentration of wealth in the hands of far too few people.
Editor’s note. This article was originally written for the blogspot url in 2017. I retitled it, rewrote the beginning of the article and moved it up to its current publish date after Trump’s bullshit about the end of poverty started making the rounds in 2018. It was ported over to WordPress with the rest of the Blogspot content, and then updated in October of 2020 for the new url. I toned down the language slightly so as to not alienate the people I wrote the article for. You are welcome.
Throwing off the baggage of revealed knowledge. We don’t need its dead weight any longer.
This is a story about a title, a phrase. It is the story of an an idea and about disbelief in general. It is also a story about how the best of intentions can go so horribly wrong when you promote an idea to a prejudiced group, an idea that you don’t quite understand yet yourself. It is also a story about a label and who will willingly wear it.
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Once upon a time there was a forum at Dan Carlin’s podcast website. The forum has since been deleted, and the posts only sporadically appear in the Wayback Machine. It’s hit or miss to find any of the almost six thousand posts I logged there over the decade or more I haunted the forums. For a very long time I considered those forums the best place, the only place, to go to argue politics and philosophy. I was probably always wrong on that score, as I was wrong on so many other scores back then, but it felt almost like home for a period of a few years. Before it turned sour. Before it was dominated by the hateful few who had successfully driven off the thinkers there.
I discovered Dan Carlin’s podcasts, Common Sense and Hardcore History through an advertisement on Freetalk Live, back in the days when I was a hardcore Libertarian idealist. Back when I would show up to argue things I didn’t understand with people I didn’t understand and couldn’t figure out. I was lucky if I could extract a rebuttal from the cryptic lines of text they would type in reply to my (in my mind) clearly worded arguments. It took many years and lots of fumbling to realize that what I thought was clearly worded was generally the same mish-mash of disconnected and unconnectable personal anecdotes turned into text strings that I was presented with by other members of that and other forums. Groups of the blissfully unsuspecting that I would descend on like a vengeful wraith of anarchist freedom gone mad, sputtering coded gibberish that I’m sure most people couldn’t even wrap their heads around. At least, that is how it seems in hindsight.
Dan Carlin was one of the pioneers of what is now a burgeoning industry of informational and news podcasts, and I was an early listener of his starting with about the thirtieth podcast of Common Sense. I signed up for his community forum in January of 2007. I made enemies almost immediately and was driven off by old-timers there a few times. I was driven off only to return the next time Dan posted a Common Sense show that I wanted to argue about. I say driven off because that is what was happening. Dan Carlin had and still has some quaint ideas about the value of input from those uninterested in conversation, what most of the world today labels as trolls. I wasn’t above trolling in my own way, but I never understood why clear attempts to end conversation were never stopped by the many moderators present on the forum. It was years later that I realized that they were never going to do anything about these trolls. Dan Carlin’s expressed opinion on the subject of freedom of speech was that everyone had a right to speak even when that speech was specifically intended to disrupt. As my willingness to be verbally assaulted waxed and waned, and as the membership in the group altered and new people appeared to take the place of old adversaries, I would come and go infrequently.
I would come and go infrequently that is until episode 172, an episode I retitled Texas SBOE Destroys Education; an essay that I posted to this blog at the time and also posted to the forum. In that podcast Dan appears to suggest that creationism could be successfully taught alongside modern scientific theories about the history and future of the universe, a point which he quickly denied on the forums and yet remains exactly as I stated in the podcast. When I protested that the last thing that should be done was to compromise the scientific method in such a fashion, I was immediately laid upon by a large section of the forum’s membership, an overwhelming number of which were christians (like the majority of American society itself) christians who wanted their views taught in school as if their beliefs were the unassailable truth. Truth with a capital T, better than the results of scientific inquiry. (Christianists. –ed.)
After being badgered for days about how science is itself ultimately unprovable in a post-modernist sense, after being badgered for my atheism and how atheism also makes claims about reality which cannot be proven, I created a secondary thread with the title Atheism is Not a Belief System. I honestly thought I’d at least get the rest of the atheists on the forums on board with this subject line. I mean, not having a belief in a thing isn’t itself a belief, right?
Part of the problem was mine. It took years for me to distinguish between those offering friendly criticism and those who were militantly convinced that all atheists were of the devil. The last group was pretty clearly demarcated because most of them were incoherent even though they offered walls of text as explanations. It was during the attempted shepherding of this rolling orgy in a cesspool that a lot of my current attitudes towards substandard attempts to troll, incoherent if firmly believed arguments, and just plain bad attempts to be funny were formed. Since the people trolling the thread to silence conversation were never going to be punished by the administrators of the forum, I was forced to simply block the trolls who could not be reasoned with. I blocked the dangerously deranged and mildly threatening alike, attempting to force the thread onto the course that the title implied, all to no avail. The militant christians of the forum made it a religion thread, until I finally gave them what they wanted. I changed the title to That Religion Thread. This was the first of several subject lines I gave it. Every one of the new names I came up with were blatant attempts to murder the thread. I would change the title and the OP’s contents to reflect what the forum’s participants were saying at the other end of the (then 400 page) thread, and I did that several times over the course of years. The effort was largely ineffective, although I did get the thread to roll briefly off the front page of the forum once. Once.
As I became more and more disillusioned with the concept of online arguments per se, I spent less and less time on the one board that I had ever managed to get a foothold in. In the end my cutting wit would get me banned from just about every forum I joined. If I was not banned outright, I would simply submit to the pressure to leave. I’ve never been one to overstay my welcome. This eventually became true at Dan Carlin’s forum as well. The only time I came back was when someone would resurrect the zombie atheism thread specifically to get us old-timers (now I was one of them) to come back and argue about something. The orifice-plugging spectacle reached a staggering 608 pages in length before Dan pulled the plug on the forum itself, finally admitting what I had attempted to illustrate to him several times; that some form of authority is required for a productive conversation to occur. He has now moved his community to Facebook, where any user can remove anybody for any reason they please from a conversation. This also impedes productive conversations, but at least those threatening your life can be kept from seeing your activity online there.
That is the story so far, the history of the title of this piece without the meat of the argument for it. Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. I will now attempt to codify six hundred and eight pages of sporadic on-topic posts into one sound argument that I think will cover the ground intended. I’d like to hope that it turns out better than the time I told my mom I don’t want to talk about god anymore, I’d rather talk about something important, but please don’t hold your breath waiting to see if it will work. I’m not going to hold my breath so I wouldn’t expect anyone else to, either.
Part of the problem of outlining this argument is that, for me, the argument has always been transparently easy to understand. Ever since first discovering that belief in god wasn’t universal, way, way back when, back in the days of Sunday school religious indoctrination, grade school prayers and mandatory church attendance for the children while the parents stayed home and slept in. Back in the olden days before the internet and cable television, the days when you had to read books to learn anything, and you had to know which books told you what thing you needed to know to even be able to pull off that herculean task. But it was bound to happen eventually. As a voracious reader who wouldn’t have minded living at the library, I was going to run across the fact that some people didn’t believe in god in some book somewhere.
Reading Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill as a teenager was my introduction to disbelief. Black Velvet is the name Winston Churchill gave to the afterlife. A featureless non-consciousness with no experience of time. Eternal dreamless sleep. Rather than instantly converting me to atheism, the idea that there was an ending to existence scared the crap out of me. I doubled down and became a born-again christian, crawling to the front of the church in my desperation to believe the way everyone around me seemed to believe. The way my grandparents believed and were so happy with. I wanted to be like them.
But it was useless. I was never going to believe the way they did because I wasn’t them. I also wasn’t my parents who cheerfully packed us up and sent us to church with the grandparents while they went back to sleep. I had questions and I wanted answers to those questions, even if the answers to those questions scared the crap out of me. It wasn’t until I found a kindred spirit in the form of the Wife that I knew that it would be OK to simply admit that I didn’t believe the fairy tales written in the holy books that everyone took so seriously. Our children have never set foot in a church unless we went with them; which means they’ve been to several weddings and several funerals at churches and not much else. So I proved I was not like my parents or my grandparents to my children and to myself.
But what does it mean, Atheism? Is it different than Agnosticism? What about Freethought? The answer to those questions is that every single person who takes on one of those labels has some different conceptualization of what the label means to them, exactly like any other descriptive term applied to any individual whether that term applies to sex, gender, race, religion, job function or area of study and thousands of other quantifying parameters that I can’t be bothered to mention. So if I tell you atheism means “X” I’ll get a majority of atheists who will probably disagree with me the moment I state it that concretely.
What my years of shepherding that thread proved to me is that the devil is in the details of the phrase Atheism is not a Belief System. Depending on how you define atheism, you will or won’t agree with it being a belief, let alone a belief system, which itself has a definition that most people will argue with you about.
A belief is an attitude that something is the case, or that some proposition about the world is true. (Wikipedia) A belief system comprises a set of mutually supportive beliefs. The beliefs of any such system can be religious, philosophical, political, ideological, or a combination of these. (Wikipedia) There are things which are beyond the level of mere belief. The kind of things that go unquestioned and so are never even things you consciously believe in. The spiritually minded call that faith. Faith or trust can be used almost interchangeably by the average person. There is no fundamental difference between the two words.
There are things which are not faiths or beliefs or trusts. There are things which simply are. Things that simply are can be questioned and their nature will be revealed by the interrogation. Gravity exists, even though science cannot currently explain it. The Earth rotates around the sun and also rotates on its axis. This gravitational relationship causes the sun to appear to rise every single day, and this arrangement has persisted for the entire length of recorded time. None of us need to believe the sun will rise, it simply does the thing it does just like dropped objects will fall to the ground. If they don’t fall then you aren’t on Earth. What is the weather like in space? Believing the sun will rise is a waste of brain energy, just as believing in gravity is a waste of brain energy. Things that can be demonstrated don’t have to be believed to be true, they simply are true.
Christianity is a belief system. The system parameters involve accepting some basic tenets of the faith. Jesus Christ is the savior. He was born of a virgin. He is part of a triumvirate made up of the father, son and holy ghost. These rules were worked out in deep lines of blood over the course of centuries, and still there are those who want to be called christian and yet not believe in these three basic things.
Islam is a belief system. I don’t know it as well, having been raised a protestant christian in the middle of the bible belt, but Islam’s basic tenets are that Muhammad is the last prophet of god and that the Qu’ran is the word of god set down by him. What is in the book and the associated writings of historical mullahs makes up the system that constrains Islamic faith.
Every single religion has a book or philosophy associated with it that constrains it. Very few people before the enlightenment era in Europe (1800’s) knew what was written in the books that Catholics and Protestants venerated, and even today reading the Qu’ran in any language aside from Arabic is considered problematic by many islamic sects. So if you don’t speak and read Arabic, you won’t know what is in that book even now. That’s not to say that the books are not available, even to disbelievers, but that very few people actually read the books that contain the rules defining the religion they ascribe to. This leads to its own set of problems, but in the end even the hucksters who misuse tradition are constrained by the rules they invent to describe their variation of the religion they promote.
This is not true of atheism. I didn’t always think this way. When I was first liberated from the need to feign belief in the father/son/holy ghost I wanted to proclaim my atheism to the world. I wanted to evangelize like the christians that I was surrounded by did. I wanted to be able to check atheist off on the religion list and say “see, I don’t believe in your god.” That thread on Dan Carlin’s BBS was an outgrowth of my desire to tell everyone that their god was bullshit. I was an anti-theist.
Then I discovered that not all atheists were attempting to understand what it was they believed and why; they were not dreaming of themselves as amateur philosophers. They weren’t even people who were interested in knowing how they knew things. They simply believed like religious people believe, never questioning the fundamentals of what it was they believed. Some of them were not anti-theist. My experiences there changed my attitudes and thus changed me from an anti-theist to an atheist to a freethinker. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Even if I venture to define the word atheism there is no set of rules that an atheist can be punished with that constrains what an atheist believes or doesn’t believe about the universe. Other atheists will tell you that’s not atheism but they have no ability whatsoever to make you stop claiming you are an atheist. There is no rules committee that will kick you out, no authority that will seek to force you to conform, no structure of any kind aside from simply being willing to refer to yourself as an atheist and suffer the consequences. Consequences inflicted by believers everywhere.
Now I will move on to hazard a definition of atheism. I’m going to cite a source rather than walk out on that limb all by myself:
Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. Strong atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.
Atheism, theism being the root word and a- being added to denote the lack of. A lack of belief in gods. Even that broadest of definitions will get some atheists’ panties in a wad, and they will definitely squall at my insistence that a lack of belief is not itself a system of belief. There are many, many atheists out there which share nothing in common with me aside from the fact that neither of us believe in gods. There are even some who believe in things which aren’t gods and also aren’t demonstrable by science, but that is another discussion and an entirely different article.
Atheism, as a mode of critical thinking, is loosely congruent with skepticism. Skeptics and atheists both question things that the vast majority of humanity agrees to, but that is about as far as their agreement goes. There is far more agreement between humanists and atheists in general than there is between atheism and skepticism, the latter being quite capable of disbelieving things which are actually demonstrable. Skeptics can simply dispute the findings of science. Like atheists, you can argue with those people about what it is they believe and why, but they will still call themselves skeptics anyway. Groups like The Skeptics Guide to the Universe combat that kind of silliness, but it’s a never ending game of whack-a-mole trying to keep the disbelievers from using skepticism as a cover. This is why I don’t identify as a skeptic even though I am skeptical of just about everything I hear, read or see.
Humanism arose in the enlightenment era, along with the re-emergence of atheism from the hiding that a millennium of persecution by Catholic Europe had forced it into. Humanism quickly split into two factions; Religious Humanism and Rationalist Humanism. Religious Humanism became loosely affiliated with Deism, both of which have almost vanished into history. Rationalist Humanism rebranded itself as Secular Humanism, and if you were going to point to an atheist belief system, Secular Humanism is its standard bearer. But not all atheists are comfortable with the Humanist moniker, making humanism its own belief system, functionally different than the looser term atheist:
When people talk about “isms,” they are referring to some “distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice” like liberalism, communism, conservatism, or pacifism. Atheism has the suffix “ism,” so it belongs in this group, right? Wrong: the suffix “ism” also means a “state, condition, attribute, or quality” like pauperism, astigmatism, heroism, anachronism, or metabolism. Is astigmatism a theory? Is metabolism a doctrine? Is anachronism a practice? Not every word that ends in “ism” is a system of beliefs or an “ism” in the way people usually mean it. Failure to realize this can be behind other errors here.
When pressed by believers to explain what atheists believe, I am frequently forced to reference other sources as a bulwark for the concepts I’m trying to relate. Believers rely on the sureness of the majority to justify the things they believe. The empirical nature of human experience justifies doing this right up to the point where we start talking about things we believe but cannot prove directly. A freethinker cannot rely on the comfort of the majority because a freethinker has none to fall back on. A freethinker must be able to tie what they think to concretes that are demonstrable so that the believer will be unable to disbelieve the thing being demonstrated. An agnostic will simply claim no knowledge on subjects they cannot demonstrate. Agnosticism is useful when conducting experiments, I’ve used it several times myself when running experiments that I really want to understand the outcomes of. But I am not agnostic about the subject of the existence of god. I have found no proof for the existence of god.
Test it yourself. The next time you are asked to pray, don’t close your eyes and bow your head. Notice anything? No sense of otherness? No sense of being in the presence of some greater power? Look around. Do you see those other unbowed heads? They too question the existence of god, but not enough to stop going to church. To synagogue. To the mosque. Why do we do this? Jesus said that we should do our praying in private. Why do we insist we must pray in public? Force others to pray in public? Enforced compliance? Discipline that forces the next generation to tread the exact same path we were forced to tread? Break that mold and see what is outside of it, you might like it.
When you observe the beauty of nature, realize that the beauty is anchored in naturally evolved healthy forms. That is why fungus and disease repulse us. Not because they are supernaturally evil, but because they are evolved systems just like the human form; co-evolutionary systems that our evolved brains recognizes on some subliminal level as harmful.
The observation by Jonathan Ross in the video above (within the first ten minutes) that he was reluctant to refer to himself as an atheist because he didn’t see the need to define himself by what he didn’t believe in or scarcely thought about is offered as the same reason that I prefer to be tagged with the label freethinker these days. Freethinker describes my process for coming to accept facts that I encounter. Atheist merely relates my lack of belief in gods. We as humans do not all agree on the importance of faith, of having faith or of belief of any kind, and it becomes imperative that those of us who question the rampant religiosity of today’s political climate to stand up and object to it. If we want to be successful in our objections, we have to not alienate the people we hope to persuade. Not adopting monikers that come pre-loaded with hatred is one of the basic things we can do to achieve this goal. Freethinker is more subtle. Freethinker is so subtle that I have encountered christians in Facebook Freethinking groups who are unaware that freethinkers in general are atheists. Are atheists because there is little rational reason to profess a belief in gods beyond a nod to the concerns raised by deists.
What is the purpose in life? Why are we alive? Here? Now? None of these questions are the kinds of things that atheism can offer answers for. Belief in a universal god, a natural god, does lend some quietude to those kinds of epistemological questions. Deism or Spinozism can be bedrock to anchor the unquiet mind upon, but most believers remain unsatisfied with a deity that they cannot ask favors of. A maker who doesn’t hate the same things the believer hates, love the same thing the believer loves. Spinoza was himself ejected from Jewish society for atheism. There wasn’t enough of god left for the believers to believe in, apparently.
The United States was founded by people escaping religious persecution. Religious people who turned right around and persecuted their own people for not adhering to the doctrines that had been imported with them. The few who have stopped to question traditional beliefs, people like Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, have been ridiculed down through history for their disbelief (in the case of Paine) or qualified belief (in the case of Jefferson) at the same time they are celebrated for the things that lead to the creation of the United States. A godless country founded on a godless constitution. Godless for good reason; because persecution of the people through authority not founded on demonstrable principles of justice is what lead them to leave the places they came from. The rich heritage of disbelief that is this country’s birthright is being forgotten, buried under mountains of false piety, demagoguery and self-righteousness.
The judicious application of Occam’s Razor to the mountains of bullshit we are confronted with on an hourly basis in this information age is a life-saving necessity. If we don’t learn how to find air in this ocean of data, we will drown for lack of sense. These observations bring me to the core of the argument. The argument that Atheism is not a Belief System.
There is a specific piece of baggage that believers want to saddle all non-believers with. That is the baggage of revealed knowledge. Atheists are equally in the dark because they cannot know the things they claim to know. There is an intellectually rigorous approach to knowledge which questions the basis of that knowledge. This is commonly referred to in professional circles as performing your due diligence; researching your precepts to make certain they are valid. Insofar as atheism resembles agnosticism (no knowledge of) on the subject of the existence or nonexistence of a generic god, a Deist or Spinozan god, one can say with a respectable level of certainty I know this. Consequently non-believers are not in the same boat as believers. Even the average religious believing person can escape that boat, the boat of claiming certainty for things they don’t actually know, if they simply adopt this intellectual rigor for themselves. As a recent news article summarized, be willing to adopt and use the phrase I don’t know.
This argument about atheism is at its root a legal argument. Can you prove the things you believe? Can you demonstrate the existence of god beyond a shadow of a doubt? Believe whatever crazy thing you want to believe, just don’t tell me I have to believe like you, or believe anything at all without providing some kind of proof to back up the claims that are made. Why would I take a different stand? I pick my battles carefully. I created that thread on Dan Carlin’s BBS forum all those years ago with this specific argument in mind. Never mind that the SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up) continued around me beyond my ability to control it for year after year. It was the attempt to place the onus of revealed knowledge as a shared burden on the shoulders of all humanity that I initially rebelled against. You, dear reader may disagree with me, but I think I can finally say I’m happy with the argument I’ve laid out here. The defense rests, your honor.
It is a testament to how many times I’ve rehearsed this argument in my head that this post comes pre-equipped with an addendum. Many of the arguments thrown at me in the past have been incorporated in the longer post that appears today on my blog. Much longer and much better thought out than my stumbling attempts to communicate what I thought were simple ideas all those years ago.
Still, I know what kinds of arguments I didn’t incorporate, and what kinds of objections I’ve seen in the past and already have rebuttals for. Hitler was not an atheist and atheists don’t kill people for having a religion. That argument figured highly in numbers of mindless repetitions, but it was a stupid argument so I won’t write about it here. Austin Cline who wrote for About.com at the dawn of the internet age has written much more about this subject than I ever will. Go read his work if you just have to have that argument addressed right here and now. I will, however, take a few extra paragraphs to deflate a few of the better thought out counters that I’ve run across in the past. I will be saving everyone some time and frustration this way. No one needs more frustration, and everyone wants more time these days.
I’m going to start at the beginning. There is a segment of the human population who are simply afraid of atheists. Atheophobia is a thing. I’ve met quite a few of them over the years. When I run into new ones these days I can almost be bored while hitting the block button. Almost. Fear of atheists is very real and predominates a lot of political rhetoric in the world today. There is no group more targeted than the disbeliever other than the sects of the majority’s own religion, sects that are considered threatening to those in power. Once those troublemakers are out of the way, the atheists are the main targets of hostility. We dare to say the emperor wears no clothes, and believers cannot produce the emperor’s garments or even the emperor himself in order to disprove the assertion. Fear of atheists is the basis for most of the arguments that follow.
The more determined philosophy majors decided early on to make a career out of repeating specific arguments, relying on the casual reader’s ignorance of a specific subject, philosophy and its arcane word usage and definitions, to allow their falsities to go unchallenged. If you really want to know something about fallacies and what constitutes one, here’s a list. Specifically, the Argument from Ignorance was oft-cited, so I feel that it warrants specific mention:
Argument from ignorance, also known as argumentum ad ignorantiam or “appeal to ignorance” (where “ignorance” stands for: “lack of evidence to the contrary”), is a fallacy in informal logic. It asserts that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false, it is “generally accepted” (or vice versa). This represents a type of false dichotomy in that it excludes a third option, which is that there is insufficient investigation and therefore insufficient information to prove the proposition satisfactorily to be either true or false.
Argument from Ignorance is an informal fallacy; which means, the argument could also be true and still be fallacious. Life is a series of imperfect decisions based on partial knowledge, and that’s when things are most certain. The least certain involves a coin flip and deciding whether you want to believe the coin’s conclusion or doubt it. One can possess good reasons for thinking that something doesn’t exist, an idea captured by Bertrand Russell’s teapot, the analogy I started this article with. However, the existence of a creator god, or much more, a specific religious conception of the creator god, would fall under the arena of pragmatism (Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony) wherein a position must be demonstrated or proven in order to be upheld, and therefore the burden of proof is on the argument’s proponent. That is, the person who wants you to believe in a thing has to prove that thing is true or real. In this case, a god.
Believers will frequently fall back to Pascal’s wager next. “Ah,” they’ll say, “but if you believe in god you get to go to heaven. So it’s safer to believe in god and not go to hell.” In a side note about my personal journey to freethought, Hell was one of the first concepts that I discarded, and I did this for my own sanity. Which version of god is the god I need to believe in? This is important because if you postulate that avoidance of hell is the goal, you need to be sure to observe the right rules and not the wrong ones. Since religious texts are generally self-contradictory given enough time and permutation of belief, you really can’t know from them which laws to follow and which ones not to. How can you possibly know how not to end up in hell?
As for that, I deemed that if god was love then hell had to be of our own creation; literally, if you are living in hell you had a hand in making it, in its continuance. I can understand why suffering people don’t just kill themselves. I’ve been disabled and stricken with vertigo and migraines on a regular basis for ten years and more. But if you experience hell, you are the one that can change that experience. No one else will be as capable as you are of correcting your personal dilemma. You don’t go to hell when you die. That would not be the actions of a loving god. You would find perfection hellish if what you value is not the values of the inhabitants of the afterlife.
It was a close place. I took . . . up [the letter I’d written to Miss Watson], and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.
After discarding the human-made construct of hell, I could breath a lot easier and it made the rest of the argument that much easier to deal with. A believer might well object “you can’t just get rid of hell,” but the truth is that you can. In the christian religion everyone has a personal god. You take god into your heart and if you listen to him he tells you the truth. Listen to your heart. You’ll hear it say “there is no hell” unless you need to punish others so much that you cannot let the concept go. If you can’t then I really do feel sorry for you.
The next target in the argument for god varies radically based on the personal experience of the believer. A favorite argument of my past tormentors was the concept that evidence proves something. They would call evidentialism into question, as if the requiring of evidence before ascribing to a certain belief is somehow suspect or disqualifying. Contrary to the hand waving excuses I’ve heard repeatedly, requiring evidence before believing something is a generally accepted practice for anything not involving high-browed philosophy and religion.
While no sensible epistemologists generally urge people to disregard their evidence when forming beliefs…
An oft-retyped summation of my willingness to accept evidence as proof runs as follows; while gravity may only be a theory, I wouldn’t suggest jumping off a tall building and expecting to float. Evidence dictates you will fall to the earth at a pretty predictable rate and cease to exist in a living state pretty shortly after contact with a hard surface. Please note that not only are all the concepts in this summation open to question if you start questioning evidentialism, but I could just as easily be describing how to bake a cake as I am trying to communicate a crucial fundamental understanding of the universe. Gravity exists whether you believe in it or not.
“Correlation is not causation but it sure is a hint.”
I think this came up in relation to an argument about the Big Bang origin of the universe and whether or not all the stuff in the bang existed before the bang. Physics will tell you it had to exist before time/space existed or else there wouldn’t be a universe to exist now. So there was a before before space/time. What that might be is a matter of the highest speculation, but then we are talking about the suggested existence or non-existence of a creator god here. Hard to beat the infinite regress of creator gods to explain the previous creator god, much more likely is the infinite string of universes coalescing and dispersing in their own little space/time bubbles. Turtles all the way down as the saying goes.
Finally, the last argument worth mentioning is “Granted you can’t prove god exists; but then how do you prove love exists?” I always assumed the believer was wanting me to capitulate in a sobbing mess and swear my everlasting love for god almighty in light of this observation. I mean, you have to grant that love exists without proof, right? Except that you really don’t. This is one of the oldest problems in human existence, the foundation of what is responsible for more killing than every war in history. Does she love me? Does he love me?Luckily, science has an answer for that:
The researchers said that their study, entitled Love-related changes in the brain: a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging study, had successfully obtained the “first empirical evidence of love-related alterations in brain functional architecture”.
There you have it, proof that love really exists. Yes, I know, I’ve just destroyed all of romanticism.
As an atheist or freethinker or agnostic or skeptic or whatever disbelieving label I choose to adopt later, I don’t have to prove the infinite nature of the universe, or the non-existence of an intelligent hand in it’s creation. I don’t have to prove these things any more than any believer is capable of proving that the opposite is true. That is the nature of a belief, as opposed to a fact or knowledge. I can freely believe in the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) I can even refer to you that group’s website, venganza.org. I don’t have to provide one shred of evidence for the FSM’s existence to have a belief in him; or for that matter, to have him represented at any event in which participation by varying beliefs is encouraged. That was the purpose for which the FSM was created. A religion based on eating pasta, drinking beer and love for everyone. In the FSM, disbelievers finally came up with a god worth believing in.
The FSM is just the latest in a series of fanciful creations presented in an attempt to prove to believers that they were pretending that they could know things that can’t be known. A host of previous creatures that include the original satanism church, pink unicorns and the floating teapot mentioned previously all leading up to the FSM and Pastafarianism. May the blessings of his noodly appendages be upon you. All of these creations purposefully misunderstood by the believers who encounter them and refuse to understand. Believers who protest “you’re just being silly.” Yes. We aren’t the only ones that observation can be applied to.
The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.
General wordsmithing throughout and the addition of the atheophobia section – 03/24/2018. Added a sentence declaring why I was better acquainted with christianity to the Islam paragraph, and added a link to my origin of the universe postulation in the addendum 10/15/2018. Migration to WordPress – 1/7/2019. Added Pastafarianism doesn’t kill image – 2/23/2019. Added the TAM2012 youtube link, updated links to current blog location – 4/22/2019. Redirected some links from archive.org to blog posts created on the blog from the archives records. Other minor wordsmithing. Recreated the quote from About.com for “is atheism an ism?” after finding it in the Wayback Machine again. Added the war in the name of atheism link and descriptive sentences to the first paragraph of the addendum. Added seven states image and associated links – 7/28/2019. Added Bertrand Russell end quote and the featured image with a link to the author of the image – 2/6/2020. Redirected the who kills more question to the article Atheism Kills that just went live on the blog as a recovered archive piece, wrote an intro paragraph to explain the wandering nature of the narrative, fixed the Mo teapot image link. – 02/29/2021. Added a definitional paragraph for beliefs. I almost can’t believe I had to do that. Added a paragraph for my abandonment of anti-theism. – 07/19/21
One year later, same subject, and Dan opens with the same joke. Ouch, Dan.
Theocracy Alert discusses Sen. Grassley’s inquiry into prosperity preachers and other subjects. The movie Fitna (sent to me by a friend a while back) warranted a discussion. Fitna could just as easily be about any of the three Abrahamic religions, at some period in their shared history. Religion, faith and willful ignorance in general is the problem, not just one specific religion.
Pagan Pulpit speaks to the subject of the episode, faith healing. Dan quotes James 5:13-15, and rightly points out that all prayers are supposed to be answered (several preachers have told me over the years “But sometimes the answer is no”; that’s not what the bible says) which calls the entirety of faith into question.
The activity of some of the parents involved really begs the question of why the legal obligation for children’s health care isn’t more stringently enforced in cases of religiously based neglect, than in other cases. The failure of god to deliver a miracle when it is prayed for can only be seen as a failure on the part of those doing the praying, if prayer is truly effective. A direct indictment if there ever was one.
Lori Lipman Brown was the guest. She represents a resource that many people might find useful, The Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group in Washington DC that does pretty much what the name says, advances the secular nature of our government.
She discusses several issues that she was working on at the time; combating faith based initiatives, the Christian embassy at the Pentagon, etc. All disturbing examples of christians ignoring the Constitution and establishing religion within government.
Dan’s Pagan Pulpit challenges christians to document what happened on Easter Sunday, referencing their own holy works. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as Acts and 1st Corinthians. As Dan notes, Thomas Paine attempts to do this in The Age of Reason, and he was unable. I had not realized that the gospels varied this much myself, on the holiest of holy christian holidays.
A lengthy Theocracy Alert this week, with W. acting like the average buffoon that he has come to represent, warning about re-introduction of the fairness doctrine (amongst other things) which Annie Laurie Gaylor lamented loosing. Dan Barker at least made a stab at illustrating the reason that the fairness doctrine is nothing of the kind, dictating to someone what they can do with their property is hardly fair. I daresay that their station would not want to give equal time to Republican views, which would also be required under the fairness doctrine.
John C. Hagee of the Cornerstone church in San Antonio has endorsed McCain. Another good reason not to vote for McCain. Barack Obama was also caught pandering to the evangelicals, resulting in a re-airing of JFK’s moving speech on religion.
Dan’s Pagan pulpit highlights the reason that torture and violence are acceptable to the devout, reciting several passages from the Bible.
The major portion of the show was devoted to the discussion of morality in the absence of religion. Dan again outlines his minimize harm philosophy, which is good as far as it goes. I prefer the Golden Rule, as I state below (the previous episode, this week last year, also dealt with the subject of morality) I’ve also written a letter to a local representative on the subject of morality and religion entitled It’s called Philosophy.
This episode marks the first time I heard a response to the weekly “Ask an Atheist” blurb, in which Dan and Laurie give out an e-mail address and phone number, so that the curious out there can ask questions that they might have about atheism.
Not surprisingly, a good portion of the mail they get is pretty vitriolic. They read several of them. They also read a legitimate question, probably the most common. “How can an Atheist be Moral?”
Contrary to popular belief, the Golden Rule isn’t a christian creation. I consider it one of the highest moral principles around. Their answer was different, arranged around the concept of harm, but it boils down pretty much the same way. I’ve heard this question many times myself, and the idea that you need religion to be moral is such a foreign concept to me that I almost never have a good answer when the question is asked.