Sigh. It's really bugging me, especially since Mike the Mad Biologist, whom I usually admire, has linked, apparently uncritically, to Chris Arnade's essay, Atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy. So I want to look at the issue in a different way.
Arnade's argument seems to be that religious faith is a comfort to the poorest and most oppressed; atheists oppose religious belief, therefore atheists wish to deny comfort to the poorest. Because we wish to deny comfort to the poor, we are as morally and emotionally stunted as the ultra-wealthy. Arnade's argument is in the same vein as David V. Johnson's article, A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists. According to Johnson, atheists argue that the world would be better off if, holding everything else constant, religious belief was removed from society. However, because religious belief is (among other things) a comfort to the poorest, removing religious belief, ceteris paribus*, would entail great suffering. It is therefore wrong to oppose religious belief.
"Everything else being equal," or, "holding all else constant."
I want to make clear that by the "poorest," I don't mean people who don't have a lot of stuff. I mean the people who, for more-or-less economic reasons, simply cannot obtain basic human dignity and social value from secular society. These are people who must turn to illusion to gain the most basic emotional support necessary for human survival.
The problem with Arnade's and Johnson's arguments is that unlike things like food stamps or welfare, religious belief cannot simply be eliminated without changing anything else. There are some problems that can be examined in isolation, such as church-state separation, but the overall issue of religion cannot. There is perhaps some value in performing a ceteris paribus cost-benefit speculation (and arguing that the benefits would outweigh the costs is not to be indifferent to the costs), but such speculation is entirely hypothetical. It is completely impossible to simply excise religion from human culture without changing anything else.
I accept the argument that those who cannot find dignity and value from secular society must by necessity turn to religion. But so what? How does that change my project?
For Arnade's and Johnson's arguments to be relevant, they must show one of two things. First, they could show that atheists really are directly targeting the poorest and trying to undermine their faith without compensation. I don't think anyone can actually do so; I read a lot of atheists, and that direct targeting is just not there. Alternatively, they could show that the actual atheist project indirectly undermines the value of religion for the poorest. But how?
The atheist project rests on four interlocking planks: the intellectual, philosophical, and scientific bankruptcy of religion, state secularism a.k.a. church-state separation, atheists as first-class citizens and moral human beings, and the social delegitmization of religion.
The first three planks of the atheist project are irrelevant; the only relevant plank is the fourth, the social delegitimization of religion. Certainly if religion were immediately and completely socially delegitimized, the poor might suffer. (They might get mad enough to revolt, and gain in secular society what they are denied today and must turn to religious illusion to supply. But that's an argument for another day.) But religion cannot be immediately and completely delegitimized. So instead of noting that the immediate and complete (and impossible) delegitimization might have undesireable consequences, we have to ask, what are the consequences of a gradual and partial (and possible) delegitimization?
There are three kinds of atheist. First, there are "individual" atheists, atheists who really don't care at all about other people's religious beliefs. Second, there are libertarian atheists. These atheists really do not care about (or endorse) the suffering of the poorest. However, these beliefs are not at all connected; they don't care about the poorest just because they don't care about the poorest, not because they are atheists (and vice versa, they are atheists just because they do not believe in any god, not because they don't care about the poorest). Finally, there are liberal, progressive, and radical atheists, atheists who want to eradicate religious belief among the poorest by eliminating poverty. We don't want a world where the poorest are denied the comfort of religion; there are many disagreements about ways and means, but we all want a world where there are no poorest, where everyone can obtain dignity and human value just by being good people. We believe, among other things, that a world that supports the social legitimacy of religion allows for the existence of the poorest; we want a world that does not allow anyone to live in such poverty. We don't want to take away the comfort; we want to take away the need for that comfort. For this we deserve praise, not censure.