In The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes, Chris Arnade observes that the poorest and most oppresed in society are some of the strongest religious believers. Religious belief, he notes, offers such people the hope and dignity they cannot get from society. From these observations, Arnade concludes that atheists are indifferent to the plight of the poorest. "Who am I," Arnade asks himself rhetorically as an atheist, "to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent?" Atheism, while superficially clever, partakes of the selfishness and emotional distance of the wealthy.
Arnade explicitly compares atheism to the privilege of the rich, linking to an earlier story, The wealthy 'make mistakes', the poor go to jail, contrasting the privilege of the rich with the oppression of the poor. Arnade seems to reason that only the wealthy can afford atheism, the wealthy are at best emotionally distant from and indifferent to the plight of the poor, therefore atheists are equally distant and indifferent. Our project, or an inevitable consequence of our project, is to take away the only thing that can give the poorest any hope, without offering anything in return. And we don't care, because we are just as emotionally distant and indifferent as the very wealthy.
While the poorest and most oppressed can rarely afford atheism, atheism is not a characteristic of only the ultra-wealthy, and atheism is distinct from the rationalizations and justifications the capitalist rulers of society. Arnade's comparison is not only odious and offensive, but also untrue. While the most oppressed can rarely afford atheism, atheists include people from all but the very poorest socioeconomic classes, and the religious include people from even the very top classes. Arnade offers no evidence, only guilt by association, showing any connection between non-belief in gods and indifference to the plight of the poor.
The only atheist Arnade references is an unflattering caricature of Richard Dawkins. But neither Dawkins nor any other even moderately prominent atheist makes a project of stripping religious belief from the poorest of the poor. Atheists have long recognized the role of religion for the poorest of society. As Marx famously notes in the introduction to Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Those people oppressed by an unjust society, who seek in a delusion some comfort and dignity denied by society, do not directly offend the vast majority of atheists. Atheists struggly against the pervasive religiosity of society, not its presence in one social class. By criticizing atheists, Arnade seems to imply that this pervasive religiosity is necessary to comfort the poorest, that we all must pretend so that those we deny real dignity can maintain its illusion. Atheists have a different perspective: a society that requires a pervasive delusion is a bad society; we should have a society where everyone can find hope and dignity in the real world, not an illusion. No individual can do everything; atheists are just those who attack the delusion directly, while others struggle against the material injustice of society.
Arnade is also actively infected by religious delusion, to the detriment of those he supposedly champions. He sees the addicts and prostitutes as failed people; his central criticism of the wealthy (and therefore atheists) is that wealth has "numbed their understanding of our fallibility." But the poorest are not those who have failed in any meaningful sense. They are oppressed. They are victims of a society that has institutionalized oppression and degradation. Arnade does nothing here but assert his own smug paternalistic superiority masquerading as compassion.
Arnade needs to understand that atheists do nothing but point out that we have constructed a lie to justify and rationalize the oppression and degradation of millions of people. When that lie is exposed, maybe we will be less hesitant to permit the degradation that the lie conceals.