Monday, January 17, 2011

How Atheism Led Me To Social Work

More often than not, when you ask a person in my field--I work in a homeless shelter--what motivated them to join up, it is reasonable to expect some variation on the following answer: I was called to it.

Without a doubt, the religious faith of folks in my line of work is a factor. Whether it was a person who has 'been there' and wanted to give back, or a person full of empathy and awareness of the shortcomings of our system, and got the little nudge that they needed from their respective church, mosque or synagogue, religious faith tends to motivate; That is wonderful, that is fine. We need as many good people as we can get, whatever the motivation (and there are many inspiring religious folk in this field: try to maintain a disdain for the faithful when you see all of the wonderful services the faithful offer in the homeless community; it's near impossible).

I offer my own testimony as both that of an interesting exception, and in the hopes that other secular folk might be inspired to get involved as well.

The spirit that led me to my current station was the realization that there was no other kingdom, and there was no greater glory to be found in the needless suffering of my fellow primates.Learning that there was probably no hereafter moderated many known (and unknown) masochistic tendencies I possessed in my religious life. To know that 'this is probably it' lit a fire under my ass to do something good with my life, to hell with treasures in heaven.

Homelessness offends me on different levels. On one level, I'm offended by the sheer callousness with which mankind can treat his fellows. In a society with a supposed safety net, an awful lot of people end up hitting the concrete pretty hard. I am also offended for selfish reasons. Isn't it obvious to everyone, that if you want yourself and the people you love to be safe and sound and free from the twin sins of want and ignorance, maybe it would be a good idea to make sure our neighbors are safe from them as well?

I feel a sense of urgency compelling me to try to contribute positively to our current (and only guaranteed) situation, and since I am able to do this kind of work, why shouldn't I?

Ideas have different effects on different people. Religion encouraged in me--as I believe it encourages in many people--an acceptance of suffering as part of god's plan, and--sickly--as a gift in some cases. As an atheist, I assure you that I don't look for divine meaning in the suffering of sentient beings. I look to find ways to minimize suffering for myself, and for others, and to maximize general well-being. I'm not working towards a utopia in the sky, or a utopia here on earth: I don't believe in either thing. I do believe in optimal states, however, and think that is an attainable goal worth working towards.

I have met many great people of faith working in this field. It's softened me, and has opened my mind to the possibilities of collaboration with people of different viewpoints and belief systems. Something that has saddened me, however, is how under-represented secular groups and individuals are in homeless service. This is something that I would very much like to see change. If you're an atheist, agnostic, non-theist, bright, or free-thinker, or have some connection to such a group, why not think of a way to volunteer in this field that could definitely use your time, money, and creativity?

cross posted at KOS.


Andrew David King said...

This has been a consideration that's crossed my mind in recent years much. I know that the reason I participate in social programs, support cultural anthropology and the historical appreciation of different cultures, is not because a god(s) has issued a rulebook that instructs me to do so: I do so because I, similarly, derive the need for compassion for my human beings not from a divine mandate but from an innate instinct toward altruism and the desire to see the fellow members of my species succeed, not fail. This is, in my eyes, no less noble than doing it because I was told to, and may even be more so in some cases.

For me at least, having been raised with over ten years of private Catholic education, I've always felt that the processes of nature--processes usually always indifferent to the plight of man--were treated as if they did not exist by religion. And if they did (as in evolution) they were evil. Funny the treatment "God's creation" gets sometimes. Personally, I don't think that an accurate assessment of the "natural way of things" points toward a conclusion of either good or evil, but impartial neutrality. This is empowering: instead of seeing nature, or the natural tendency of particular members of a species to fall by the wayside, as a fixed element of a terrible realm, it can instead be seen as a mutable truth--something existent, sure, but something amendable, something to be improved upon. We are no longer doomed to the dour state of things on this planet while we wait anxiously to be delivered to some cushy afterlife. And this brings with it an urgency to social work that I have always felt religious-based charity work, to some extent, fails to reproduce: that if "heaven is/can be now" (a vast metaphysical idea, I know, so forgive my abbreviated usage of it) and not a dessert for later, then we have a responsibility to work all the more faster to improve the state of the well being of our fellow humans while they're still around.

The other approach--the Mother Theresa approach--is to just encourage the poor to like being poor, tell them that poverty is a spiritual virtue (despite its masochism, I kid you not), to pay their indulgences, and to look forward to silk robes and golden staffs in a cloud somewhere after a few tormented decades of near-starvation.

Sad thing is--and this kind of goes without saying for people like us--society views the latter as immensely noble, but what I put forth as base. And yet, despite this, world hunger, poverty, starvation, homelessness, curable disease, and a host of other problems persist for some reason.

Must be God's will, I guess.

Spencer Troxell said...

'Personally, I don't think that an accurate assessment of the "natural way of things" points toward a conclusion of either good or evil, but impartial neutrality.'

That's a big realization, and I agree that it's ultimately freeing.

I'm sure you have all kinds of doors open to you career-wise; whatever field you get into, it's reassuring to me to know that you've spent some time thinking about this stuff.

Lodo Grdzak said...

NYC sort of forces one to think about money all the time. Like Russia or...hell the U.S. in another 5 years, there's not a lot of middle-class. You're either popping off big or just jerking off.

I don't know if I care enough about my fellow man to do social work. My first question would always be "You haven't been breeding have you? 'Cause that'd be a shame for all of us." Course there's not much meaning in what I do now, that's for sure.

You seem like a genuinely kind person Spence. Not enough of those in the world that's for sure.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks for the nice comments, Lodo.

Social work can be tough. At a recent ethics seminar I attended, the speaker informed the room that social work was the lowest paying field a person could get into with a bachelor's degree. Add to that the inevitable emotional toll, and it's easy to burn out.

Regarding the breeding, I agree to a certain extent. There are definitely people out there who are in no position to be parents. Conversely (as you will see in my Thursday post), I think it's a shame that some folks don't have more kids. I know some very competent parents with handfuls of beautiful, conscientious, promising little kids. I'm certainly not going to tell them to bow out of the game; Our future can use as many good people as we can get.

Lodo Grdzak said...

There are certainly those w/ the right temprament and attributes to keep this planet fully populated yet living within its means. Just so happens they aren't the ones spreading their DNA.

My breeding comment in retrospect appears a bit harsh; but...the road toward self-improvement and financial self-reliance is not a mystery: Get educated; don't get saddled with financial debt you can never dig out from; stay flexible; and protect your health.

Anyway, looking forward to Thursdays post.

Angie said...

I have an MSW and I'm an atheist! Nice to see there are others out there. :) I am currently a stay-at-home mom to my six-month old, but I'm in the process of applying to a local interfaith agency for the homeless. If I get the job, it will definitely be an interesting experience!

Anyway, great post. I look forward to reading more from you!

Spencer Troxell said...

Nice to meet you Angie!

Let me know if you get the job. Working in this field can be very rewarding and challenging.