Inspiration Is a Privilege

It was not so long ago at the University of Chicago that the evangelical Christians from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the atheists from the Secular Alliance sat down to host a joint Q&A event. The audience members got to ask questions of the panelists. Apart from some super-insensitive rhetoric from the other side (something along the lines of defending the idea that “secularism is responsible for gas chambers” because “secularism has no account of human dignity”) and the friendly sparring over trite theological/philosophical points like Pascal’s Wager and the Euthyphro Dilemma, nothing stood out for me from the discussion besides a very intriguing question.


A previous audience member had asked what gave atheists hope. It’s a very common question, and our eloquent panelists, Lauren Daurizio and Brian Green, did an excellent job of explaining how much awesomeness there is out there to be discovered, how enjoyment in everyday things and optimism in scientific progress are wonderful attitudes to hold. And they’re absolutely right. As I hope this blog and the actions/words of many others around the world show, we are incredibly lucky to be alive and to enjoy this wonderful, but finite journey called life–all in the not-quite-middle of this magnificent Universe. Let’s keep doing that!

Then, an audience member (I don’t remember if it was the same person) asked if this answer would be valid for people in dire situations, like people living in desperate poverty in some developing country. This question is what I’m going to answer here.

The answer, of course, is no. Many of the positive thoughts and feelings we take for granted in our lived contexts aren’t available or aren’t possible for others. And for many reasons:

1) Many people we tell to “enjoy science” and to “reflect upon the midnight sky” aren’t in the position to do so. Watching Cosmos is not going put food in front of hungry kids; it’s not going to rebuild the livelihoods of the victims of sex trafficking, or stop the next devastating natural disaster.

2) Many people don’t have the luxury of understanding the world as we do. Science and humanism are not wrong, but many people don’t grow up having the tools to understand the power of inspirational freethought. By the pure lottery of birth, we are put into distinct cultures, times, and societies that have varying degrees of educational opportunity and popular appreciation for modern science.

3) Many people simply have brains that can’t. According to NAMI, one in seventeen people live with a serious mental disorder. The brain, while amazing in its complexity and function, is just a collection of cells that can wreck havoc on people’s lives. This is why I absolutely cannot stand it when people say that suicide and depression is always the victim’s fault/responsibility. What they’re really doing is blaming people for a bunch of neurons firing in some unbelievably complicated way that nobody wants. Mental illnesses aren’t self-made, fabricated wounds for the mentally weak (whatever that means); they’re real wounds, and should be treated as such.

What does this all mean? It doesn’t mean that you should stop reading this blog or unsubscribe from the Carl Sagan series on Youtube. It doesn’t mean that being inspired by everyday activism, kindness, and generosity isn’t amazing in itself. It doesn’t mean that reposting “I fucking love science” memes or reveling about the next Mars Rover mission is a waste of time. I firmly believe that popular science and spiritual contemplation (in the most secular sense) are incredibly valuable, and can be appreciated by people even with few means.

What I really want to say is that we should have a sense of humility and an acknowledgement that inspirational freethought is a luxury. It’s an unfortunate fact of the world that optimism and hope isn’t possible for everyone. Rather than trying to impose happiness and hope on others based on some limited perspective, the fact that hope is scarce in the world should drive us to do something about it.


Posted on December 4, 2012, in Humanism, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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