Flaccid lines for flaccid cocks: masculine self-pity amongst cartoonists

I’ve only just latched on to Scott Adams’ withdrawn-but-not-retracted, reposted-with-caveat, misogynist-rant story, most probably because I just don’t care about the Dilbert cartoons. Increasingly, I’m finding cartoonists a pretentious bunch who reduce life to corny sentiment and ignorant generalisation, before serving their work up with the utmost piety. Consider Leunig.

Leunig, who while using his trademark floppy lines to decry the culture of kids left in daycare centers, failed in a series of cartoons back in the day, to manage much anything other than blame mothers as a causal factor.

But it was his response to the outcry (being called a misogynist and having pointed out to him scenarios like the single mother who has to work while her child is in daycare because her husband is a deadbeat) that was laughable. Claiming of being called ‘a misogynist’…

‘It’s like saying a wife-beater, a racist, a paedophile. I think this type of accusation accounts for a lot of men being silenced about all sorts of things.’

(Bettina Arndt, ‘All Care…’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2000)

Yes. Poor Leunig, Australia’s most popular cartoonist. Nobody ever gets to read what he has to say, being so suppressed by the jack-booted forces of mere disagreement.

I never tire of saying about such self-pity, that you’ll know nanotechnology has matured as a field when it finally creates the violin small enough to play an appropriate lament.

Unless they have some kind of anxiety disorder or are considerably undereducated, the only things men are really worried about saying that could attract criticisms of misogyny, are misogynistic things. Which naturally they want to express without being called on it.

Things like claiming women have all the power nowadays (boo-hoo sniffle), that women in some way have to take responsibility for being raped, or fixating on the role of women in condemning children to day-care sans commentary on the role of deadbeat husbands; women being forced to stall careers; industrial relations realities like the rise of the two income family, and so on.

And what shameful apologetics Arndt was enabling, prefacing the above Leunig quote with…

‘Hence their attempt to silence him.’

(Bettina Arndt, ‘All Care…’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2000)

We’re talking about academic criticism, and letters to the editor, not privations by The Ministry of Truth.

‘Hey Bettina, someone down the street doesn’t like Leunig’s artwork!’

‘TYRANT!’

‘They used the word ‘misogynist!’

‘Sorry, you’ll have to repeat that last bit. The conversation was silenced.’

***

Now If you really want to appreciate just how over the top the poor response to criticism shown by Leunig and fans alike is, you need only consider Leunig’s use of moral equivalence between being called ‘misogynist’, and being called ‘pedophile’. If you accept Leunig’s equivalence, then you really can’t balk at something along the lines of…

‘Being called a paedophile is like being called a racist, a misogynist. I think this type of accusation accounts for a lot of friendly neighbourhood kiddie-fuckers being silenced about all sorts of things.’

Oh, the poor, brutally suppressed kiddie-fuckersbeing compared to… misogynists of all things!

No. Not buying it.

This is absurd precisely because Leunig’s equivalence is false, and spurious, and downright pathetic. Yet Arndt gobbled down Leunig’s terms without so much as a hiccup.

Being called ‘misogynist’ is not the same as being called ‘paedophile’, and the criticism isn’t made to silence Leunig. Leunig’s work is criticised as misogynistic by critics because it’s misogynistic, and because this warrants criticism. Pretty straight-forward stuff, at least for grown-ups.

On occasion I’ve suspected that Legal Eagle over at SkepticLawyer may be just a little blind to subtle winks, nudges, veiled facetiousness and the like, which could just be the chief source of my disagreement with her about the old GrodsCorp crowd. But in the case of Leunig on Muftis, religion, sex, women’s freedom of expression and the threat of rape, Legal Eagle gets it exactly right. Leunig’s post hoc justifications only serve to verify what his critics are saying.

At least he spared us the spectacle of calling his oppression fascism; ‘gleichshaltung‘ is how Leunig describes his critics disagreeing with him – and you know we’ve got gleichshaltung in Australia when not everyone agrees with Leunig, the poor victim.

***

Now on to that other poor victim, Scott Adams.

Adams, a couple of weeks ago, as mentioned, managed to churn out a post that drew infuriated responses before being withdrawn back up the author’s own fundament.

After opening by telling us that he’d been in contact with readers concerned with Menz Rightz, Adams elaborated…

According to my readers, examples of unfair treatment of men include many elements of the legal system, the military draft in some cases, the lower life expectancies of men, the higher suicide rates for men, circumcision, and the growing number of government agencies that are primarily for women.

(Scott Adams via TinySprout, 2011)

I’m not so unsympathetic to fathers in custody battles that I’ll say there’s nothing in it, nor will I say that male circumcision is a non-issue, because it isn’t. But give me a break.

No, better still give Adams and his readers a sense of proportion (or history)!

The lower life expectancies of men are a very recent phenomena, pregnancy for the better part of human history being the cause of much lower life expectancy rates for women. The present difference (in the developed world) is an artefact of recent and abrupt medical/biological realities, not an imposition by a matriarchy hell-bent on immortality for women only.

As a guy, all else being equal, I’m probably going to die younger than most women in the developed world, historically/statistically due to the benefits of contraception. I’m not going to resent womens’ rights for this, or the subsequent, massive improvement in their quality of life! Good for them!

At some point in the future, when we’ve got over the discussion of the risks of reproduction to women (not just in terms of death rates, but in terms of economic and social inclusion), when the last penny has dropped for the last reproductive ignoramus, then the matter of male lifespan may be a whole lot more demanding (or given the likely timescale, the issue may rectify itself without any Adamsian advocacy).

As it stands, the matter of womens’ reproductive rights (bound intrinsically to, but not limited by, the reality of womens’ lifespans) is for most women far from being something able to be taken for granted. When you have laws being drafted in the US, that would potentially see women prosecuted for a miscarriage, or when you see serious political consideration given to ‘screening’ rape victims into categories of ‘forcible’ and ‘non-forcible’ rape (thanks John Boehner), it’s clear there’s still a long way to go.

Yet if you read further into Adams’ pathetic rant, the limited and flawed liberation of women in this respect, is somehow part of a monolithic feminist utopia, one which men are intimidated by, and should be resentful of.

Seriously, what do these guys want? A magical medical breakthrough in male longevity isn’t realistic, so the alternative is to coercively calibrate women’s reproductive rights so that on average, they die earlier at just the right age. Then perhaps Adams and his readers can dance through the streets in a ticker tape parade to celebrate The End of The Gender War.

(And what if they want equality of standard deviation in those stats? How coercive would that have to be?)

***

Having had to duck, what with a pack of Germaine Greer’s thugs probing my study with a spotlight beamed from armed patrol jeep, I almost missed the part where Scott Adams segued with…

‘Now I would like to speak directly to my male readers who feel unjustly treated by the widespread suppression of men’s rights…’

(Scott Adams via TinySprout, 2011)

Tell me about it brother! Oh wait…

Adams was being sarcastic?

‘…Get over it, you bunch of pussies.’

(Scott Adams via TinySprout, 2011)

It was a bait-and-switch all along? Well no, not really.

‘The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone… It’s the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.

So parsing all this sarcasm, what we are left with here is the suggestion that matters of gender difference (less pay for the same job, longevity and health, and so on), are merely territories to be tactically ceded in a battle against women.

‘Being old sucks, so let them have it’, is an interesting, if interestingly stupid take on the cultural evolution of women’s longevity, when you consider the unavoidably associated reproductive rights. The criticism laid before the faked about-face, still applies afterwards – Adams still needs a sense of proportion and history if he doesn’t even recognise that he’s dismissing the tenuous but significant gains in reproductive rights, with simple, base ageism.

And besides this, what ‘battle’ are we talking about? I’m not at odds with women claiming that they earn less, nor demands for pay equality.

Maybe I’m not a part of the ‘team’ of man, Adams talks about; a fifth columnist! Maybe I’m one of these irrational ‘pussies’, too hung up on ‘fairness’.

‘Fairness is an illusion. It’s unobtainable in the real world. I’m happy that I can open jars with my bare hands.’

(Scott Adams via TinySprout, 2011)

What rubbish. Not all inequalities are as intractable as the difference in the capacity to open condiments with bare hands (roar). Many aren’t. Once women couldn’t vote, now as a result of political effort, they can. There’s nothing at all unobtainable about campaigning for ‘fairness’. Quite a lot is obtainable if you pay attention to history.

Imagine Scott Adams if he was a polemicist from the beginning of The Enlightenment.

‘Stop trying! It’s futile to invest effort in female emancipation! It’s unobtainable in the real world because I can open jars!’

A 21st Century perspective would make Enlightenment Adams seem the dunce, in much the way it makes him seem the dunce in the here and now.

Adams cod-philosophical, phony-stoicism, belies a need for convenience (and some pretty base standards) in order for him to be able to consider himself in any great esteem. I may not be as rich as Adams, and I don’t begrudge him his financial success, but I just couldn’t live if I had to judge myself so lightly.

***

Amidst all this bluster, there’s one especially telling piece of bullshit.

How many times do we men suppress our natural instincts for sex and aggression just to get something better in the long run? It’s called a strategy. Sometimes you sacrifice a pawn to nail the queen. If you’re still crying about your pawn when you’re having your way with the queen, there’s something wrong with you and it isn’t men’s rights.

(Scott Adams via TinySprout, 2011)

Oh dear. Honestly, I laughed. Nothing forced about it.

There are two types of guys who use this kind of adolescent bluster.

Guys who ‘get with the queen’, in which they’ve been selected, merely being allowed to consider it a conquest in order to keep them pacified; the guy usually suspecting something and therefore needing to reinforce the myth of his own prowess, just so his cock doesn’t shrivel up.

And then there’s the forty-year-old virgins who loudly fake confidence and a track record of sexual conquest, all the while secretly holding the faith that some day Neil Strauss will deliver, allowing them to unleash an angry, battered inch from Calvin Klein catacombs.

Outwardly confident, inwardly self-loathing and resentful. Chest puffed-up, balls ascended into abdomen. Smiles and winks with cock-skins more wrinkled than Leunig’s wobbliest lines.

That getting to ‘nail the queen’ is given as an example of natural instincts for sex and aggression, is probably a bit telling.

~ Bruce

Caveat: I’m not at all remorseful about using male sexual-imagery as pejorative. Protestations that talk of ascended balls, and flaccid penises, is like dismissing a women for the size of her breasts will not be well met. I’m using the schlong as metaphor, for one. Something that the penis is apt to do being a particularly expressive organ. The old cock and balls; balls risen in fear, dick shrunk in revulsion, relaxed and hanging about. How’s it hangin’?

Moreover, the sexual objectification of women is something historically imposed upon women. Cock talk hasn’t been foist upon men at all; much of the history of male sexuality is the history of guys talking about their gum-nut nestled in bush.

The Dinner Party Shaman

If you’re developed-world, middle-class enough, perhaps even cashed-up-bogan enough, you should know what I’m talking about.

You’ve gone to a dinner party or a barbeque or some similar gathering, and you’re trying to relax with a beer when someone starts talking about their health issues. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but inevitably like ants at a picnic, this draws the attention of The Dinner Party Shaman.

They’ve traveled all the way from Nimbin, or some other realm of haute-hippie-culture, with the kids Starshine and Moonbeam, begrudgingly in tow, sullenly carrying the funky lettuce salad and the chimichurri-marinated guinea pig kebabs.

Spiralling into your lives like a tie-dyed dervish on acid cast in a David Lynch film, descending amidst an invisible cloud of jasmine and patchouli, The Dinner Party Shaman has arrived to regale you with just how roolly (née really) deep and culchooural (née cultural) they are. To show you how culchooural they are by taking control of the concerns of you suburban philistines.

You just wanted to relax, kick back, and maybe show a little empathy for your ailing or aging friend or family member. A chin wag over a drink about how you’re both getting on.

‘You need a coffee enema!’

‘I have this dong quai tincture that’ll really strengthen your yang!’

‘There’s this aromatherapeutic poultice I could apply…’

‘Hear, let me activate your chakra…’

‘Relax! Touch is a normal part of human communication. You need to lower your barriers and let me touch you where I want to touch you!’

Roughly a third of the audience, seeing spirichoooal (née spiritual) brownie points up for grabs, will nod in the affirmative, listening attentively and urging The Shaman onward with their exposition of supposedly sage advice.

The poor suffering sod you sat down with will listen patiently for the first few moments, nodding, nodding, subtly making anyone with actual empathy aware of their distress, while waiting for the first polite juncture to point out that they’re seeing a doctor, and that they’re really doing as best they can under the circumstances. All they want to do is relax.

But relaxation is not the prescription, especially if you’ve seen a doctor. The Dinner Party Shaman won’t have any of that!

‘Oh no, you don’t want to do that! Doctors will fill you up with poisons!’

‘That’s not nachooral [née natural]!’

‘Come here and let me…’

No ailment is so serious, no suffering so much, no agony so pervasive that they can’t trivialise it by showing everyone their super-psychic, hero-holistic, magical-imaginary, wonder powers. Be the problem big or small, The Shaman has what The Shaman thinks you need!

Irritable bowel syndrome? They know all there is to know about that! Just bend over!

Cancer? Why that’s just another word for opportunity! An opportunity to show everyone just how earnest they are!

When your friend who’s been a bit under the weather, after wearing of having their rest and personal space violated, points out that they’re confident in their doctor’s experience and education, that’s when the show really begins. You see, you mustn’t imply that The Shaman doesn’t have what you need. That would be disrespectful!

‘I studied aromatherapy for eight weeks at the WEA!’

‘I have a stall each year at the Body, Mind and Soul Fair where people come from miles around!’

‘Are you saying that my qualifications aren’t equal to a doctor’s, if not better? Reductionist! I treat the whole person!’

The uncritical parsing of anecdote and bare assertion is all the study that’s required of such deep, deep people. Gifted intuition does the rest.

By this point in the proceedings, you and your busted up friend have really gone and done it. You’ve offended The Shaman. How rude. You’re ruining the dinner party, with your scepticism, incredulity, self-respect and personal space.

Where do you get off thinking you can behave like that? Who died and made you Shaman?

It’s a bit like Benjamin Franklin was supposed to have said…

‘There are no greater liars in the world than quacks — except for their patients.’

Except again perhaps for shamans and their acolytes, and maybe the wording’s a little too harsh; not so much ‘liars’ as self-obsessed, bullshit artists.

There are no greater self-obsessed, bullshit artists in the world than first-world, middle-class, Dinner Party Shamans – except for their acolytes.

With your slight and that of your friend, the party takes a turn for the serious.

You’re in league with oppressive forces; Big Pharma; The Man; Western Imperialism; The Spanish Inquisition (who nobody expects); The Third Expeditionary Invasion Force of The Illuminati-Reptile-People.

Your facts you are told, conflict with and discriminate against their equally true ‘facts’. Something that they, Shamans and Acolytes, have suffered against since the first witch was burnt at the first stake; facts contra alternative facts.

The child who’s died of whooping-cough because their community is sufficiently anti-vaccination to have lost herd immunity, is both dead and living happily in an incense imbued laa-laa-land. Why can’t you see this.

Both can be true. Accept this and you’ll be well on the way to seeing how you’re wrong and they’re right!

You just need to be open-minded, and then you’ll learn. The acolytes are of many persuasions, the better to foster erudition.

The resident visual arts academic will school you on how scientists get more funding than basket weavers as part of a plot to destroy beauty in the world.

Elders in the group through the bare authority of their age, can tell you how modern medicine deliberately obscures the fact that before street lights, there was no such thing as hay fever. Such deliberate obfuscations as how the supposedly much, much older diagnosis of hay fever by Hippocrates around the start of the 4th Century B.C.E., is really a history fabricated into the textbooks by the corporations that fluoridate your water.

Learn how public schooling secretly plots against free-spirited students who would otherwise learn the evils of aspartame, vaccination and shadow government mind-control, by learning in the ideal Steiner school, or in home schooling.

Convincing? No? Then you must be a shallow, close-minded monster. No wonder you’ve upset The Dinner Party Shaman. You boor!

Perhaps you’ve had enough. Perhaps you’re sick of yourself and your friends being poked and prodded by egoists with no respect for other people’s boundaries. Perhaps your sick of the self-deception and banality of this veneer of the considered life. Perhaps you’re sick of the enablers who make it worse and worse every time.

The pretensions of The Dinner Party Shaman and their Dinner Party Acolytes are intrinsically self-absorbed to the point of absolute myopia and screw everyone else. It’s not just their social appendages that they don’t give a hoot about either.

Children avoidably dying of pertussis, or measles, as a result of a reduction in herd immunity and prompted by anti-vaccination disinformation is incredibly tragic. How does it happen? Disinformation. Who spreads it? New Age Shamans. The advocates of alternative(s to) medicine.

But this is just a shallow foray into the consequences of privileged spiritualism. The toll, shockingly, gets much, much worse.

A serious diversion from the sarcastic is in order.

***

Except perhaps for the most oblivious of the most provincial, it’s well-known that many African nations are suffering an AIDS epidemic, particularly in South Africa. What’s not so well-known, is the extent to which this suffering has been avoidable.

Between 2000 and 2005, in South Africa alone, it is estimated that 330,000 people painfully and unnecessarily died because of government obstruction of the availability of antiretroviral drugs even when freely donated, and of Global Fund grants (Chigwedere, et al., 2008). Why?

This tragedy occurs in a context where the South African President of the time, Thabo Mbeki, condemned antiviral medication as toxic and counterproductive, while adopting the position that only medications for opportunistic infections, rather than drugs preventing the advance of the HIV virus, were to be supported by public funding.

How did Thabo Mbeki come to such an appallingly stupid policy position?

I’ll let you glance across Ben Goldacre’s description of how barrister Anthony Brink, after reading alt-med ‘AIDS dissident’ material, was elevated to the status of an ‘AIDS expert’ by Mbeki. Brink would later become an employee of ‘AIDS dissident’ Matthias Rath, of Linus Pauling Institute fame; the same Matthias Rath that declared that the answer to the AIDS epidemic was not antireterovirals, but megadoses of vitamins, while taking his perverse circus of suffering, masquerading as research, on tour through South Africa.

AIDS denialism and the subsequent lethal obstruction of real medicine as policy in South Africa, has clearly and unambiguously been enabled by the developed world luxury known as ‘alternative medicine’, even egged on by parts of the industry. As Goldacre points out, Matthias Rath is still a darling of the alt-med revolution, even with some academics.

Over three-hundred-thousand is a large number of people to die unnecessarily, much, much worse than the number of deaths by pertussis brought about by anti-vaccination disinformation campaigns in the developed world. It’s no act of hyperbole to call this tragedy genocidal in scale.

The developed world exported this tragedy; exported it in the form of luxurious, lavender-scented ignorance.

When Naomi Campbell complained that her testimony concerning a gift of blood diamonds from former Liberian dictator and alleged war criminal, Charles Taylor, was ‘an inconvenience’, people were rightly concerned at her lack of perspective.

Campbell however can call on the defense of having been intimidated, having expressed concern for possible consequences for her family members should she talk.

When The Dinner Party Shaman starts to peddle their blood diamonds casually and without regard for the consequences of their denialist culture, their ginseng tablets, their homeopathic strength ‘cures’ and all the attendant cod-epistemology and conspiracy theory, they don’t have the ‘intimidation’ defense. They aren’t under pressure from the cronies of some warlord somewhere; the greatest threat to their families comes from their own negligence.

What vanity. What empty posturing, calling this self-important, self-absorbed quest for recognition, ‘spiritual’; a quest that through provinciality and in the fashion of the worst solipsism, cuts people off from mere human concerns like the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people.

If the word ‘spiritual’ can mean anything, this isn’t it.

Time to return to the party.

***

So there you and your sick chum sit, holding your beers or your Champaign, lectured by The Dinner Party Shaman and told off for your lack of deference by the acolytes, you rude, rude person. Your scepticism and incredulity cast as cynical, reductionist, scientific imperialism, or something approximating such things, you’ve been put in your place.

You’ve ruined the mood. Not the spirichoooal (née spiritual) types, who naturally by virtue of their well-meaning nature, rightly have access to every aspect and orifice of your being.

You’ve ruined the mood. Not the spirichoooal (née spiritual) types, their absorption in the roolly (née really) deep and culchooural (née cultural) too important to be distracted by consideration of human consequences on the mere material, mortal planes.

The Dinner Party Shaman, the person so privileged in their middle-class cocoon as to both be a victim of imperialism while at the same time having their cult’s toxic bilge conveniently exported out-of-sight-out-of-mind to the developing world, is beyond your attacks on their dignity. The acolytes are unimpressed with your reliance on facts, reasoning, and material concern. Bah! Materialism!

So comes the conclusion to the gathering, the obvious obligation; you have to apologise. Otherwise there’ll be no dessert, no second invites for you!

And we all know what’s right and decent at these events, right?

~ Bruce

(Picture Source: Allegory of Vanity, Trophime Bigot).

Atheist kindness

If there’s one particular argument over “who’s better and why” that I find disturbing, it’s the “theists do more/atheists do less to help the disadvantaged” trope. The PR associated with the “debate” over the issue has a way of making the vulnerable and disadvantaged, the very people who’s needs are supposed to be the purpose of the whole welfare venture, instrumental to other people’s self-image. Usually people who have more money than them.

Really, it seems quite selfish to me, this “we are kinder/just as kind”, kind of crap. You have these people who have a home, money and security, sponging off of the destitute for brownie points.

I’ve seen it in religious apologetics with the use of bad statistics, usually containing category errors which make unverifiable assumptions about those donating to charity. There are many avenues one can go by to help those in need, and most of them don’t discriminate against help on the basis of the life stance of the donor – hence they don’t exactly have a running census. You can’t just go and assume that all of World Vision’s work is the work of the religious – they seek donations from theist and atheist alike.

While I’m of the understanding that a number of church-based welfare agencies are pointedly non-proselytic (for example, it’s a violation of Centrecare’s code of ethics and social justice policy*), the same isn’t true of a number of religious aid initiatives. Let’s not mince words. Proselytism to the disadvantaged and vulnerable is predatory. It’s taking advantage of a lack of social justice to engage in coercion. Furthermore, it can get in the way of genuine relief efforts.

There are always resource bottlenecks in crisis situations. Even when infrastructure isn’t compromised, resources are finite and geared more closely to the supply and demand situation under normal circumstances. A large stochastic event drastically alters supply and demand in a way production isn’t geared to cope with. Take any of the serious Australian bushfires we’ve had in the past few years – we’re well equipped but in each relief effort you’ll hear words to the effect of “please no more clothes, just send food or donate directly to this fund”.

Storage space and transport are finite. Sending and storing things that aren’t needed doesn’t just not help – it can get in the way of relief efforts. A plane or truck carrying something that isn’t going to save a life could otherwise be used to transport something that could. In essence this is what John Stuart Mill called (and what economists call) opportunity cost.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that Haiti’s infrastructure was rubbish before the earthquake. It doesn’t take Einstein to tell that it’s even worse afterward. And it shouldn’t be beyond the average person off the street to be able to tell that a solar power bible isn’t going to pull anyone out of the rubble, or administer CPR, or set up a field hospital.

The easy answer to this is “ATHEIST CHARITY!!!” It’s an easy answer and like many easy answers, I don’t like it. For one, I prefer secular charity. There are two big, albeit not-necessary implications calling a charity “atheist” – either one of non-religious proselytism or exploitation for political ends: a response to the calculated stereotype that paints atheists as necessarily selfish (something the current Pope is guilty of spreading around).

It appears to be very easy for atheists to be baited into exploiting the beneficiaries of their charity, if only inadvertently. Take the recent “atheist giveaways“. Well meaning, no doubt. Needed, no doubt. And no signs of proselytism – that’s good.

But… Filming the needy at their most vulnerable – when they are asking for help – to produce a video showing how atheists can be nice, is not okay. It’s exploitative.

Sure, make a video arguing that atheists are nice people. Make a video promoting the cause of welfare. I don’t have a problem with either. There are however, right and wrong ways of going about it.

Helping people isn’t easy work, much less so when done properly. Just because the Vatican (and others) really has it in for atheists these days is no excuse to make great displays of kindness at any cost – including the cost of the dignity of the disadvantaged. This PR problem that has been foist upon us by others is the problem of said others – we shouldn’t be sabotaging our better inclinations just in order to respond.

Further to this. It should become apparent that in as far as the motives for helping people are concerned, I don’t think that the identity of the helper is particularly relevant. When I’ve done charity work, I haven’t, nor will I ever give a rat’s arse about who I do it with. At least in as far as religious affiliation is concerned.

Seriously, if you’re an atheist reading this, ask yourself “would I deny help from a theist in helping my fellow human?” If your answer is yes, then you’ve got problems. Sure, you probably don’t want to proselytise or be a party to proselytism directed at the poor – I can relate. But that doesn’t prevent you from working with religious people.

I know it’s not impossible because I’ve done it myself.

So what kind of “atheist charity” do you have if you have Christians and Muslims and fellow humans from various other religious affiliations at your side? You don’t have one. And if you aren’t church-based, and you don’t proselytise, what you have is a secular charity.

I’ve got a bit of a “faitheist” for a cousin, who likes to point out that there aren’t any atheist charities. Put simply, if you have a non-church-based charity that doesn’t proselytise and doesn’t care one hoot about who helps out, you’ve got as atheist a charity as many an atheist would ever want. Of course, these secular charities don’t stand out, but that’s not the point – they are numerous, but they’re there to help out, not to make a display.

Opportunity cost plays a part in this as well. Why waste energy on replicating welfare infrastructure that is already available to secular ends, even if the infrastructure just happens to church-based? Energy wasted on unnecessary replication of infrastructure is energy not spent on helping people.

That being said, atheists shouldn’t have their efforts frustrated either. There’s a lot of need in the world going unmet. So on the occasions that I’ve been made aware of secular not-for-profit initiatives aimed squarely at where need exists being discriminated against because of their non-religious status, I’m truly appalled. This comes down to opportunity cost as well.

A charity that serves X amount of utility, for Y amount of funding, displacing the utility provided by another contender (Z), where Xis being paid Y amount of funding to generate negative utility. Put more simply, they’re being paid to displace a better welfare agency and thus increase the need for welfare.

This can be put in even more sinister terms. Consider a thought experiment.

$1 million of funding is available to tender poverty relief. Using these funds, Charity A will alleviate $1.2 million of poverty; Charity B will alleviate $1.5 million of poverty. Due to denominational politics, Charity A gets the tender. The sinister aspect in this thought experiment is that the poor are paying $300,000 in opportunity costs so that Charity A can absorb $1 Million of funding into its infrastructure – along with all the political influence that buys – at the meagre cost of $200,000 (from tax-exempt income, of course).

This isn’t nearly as hypothetical as you may think. This, in various forms and with various sums, is essentially a lot of what happened with Job Network contracts under the Howard Government. Although the criteria for discrimination was more (albeit not entirely) secular – church-based institutions, along with more secular Job Network members, would be enticed carrot-and-stick to comply with new Job Network policy, attracting political influence at the price of giving political or religious validation to the Federal Government.

Concerns about what was best for the disadvantaged were pushed down the list of priorities as this religious-political horse trading was executed. Deserving, principled welfare groups (both church-based and secular) were themselves disadvantaged if they didn’t play along**. The needy being the end-recipient of this neglect.

The take-home message in all of this is that welfare agency, and not-for-profit attempts to better humanity’s lot in general, can be undermined when treated as political capital. Secular or not.

I am a big believer in secular welfare, and I think it the best way to bring about social justice – material needs being met with the best (albeit not infallible) guarantee of the preservation of human dignity. Not that I think for a moment that atheists have been selfish in the past, the renewed interest in welfare amongst the out-atheist community is to be welcomed. Just not as a PR exercise (why dignify anti-atheist propaganda with such a response anyway?)

In any undertaking of secular welfare however, we atheists need to keep in mind why we should be (not just why we are) going about it in the first place and let those justifications inform our strategies. We atheists are still quite capable of stuffing this up if we lose our way.

Perhaps instead of getting defensive in response to the fatuous “selfish atheist” charges, we just get on with the job and make explicit our expectations that our theist counterparts do the same. Appealing to them to join with us in opposing the treatment of welfare recipients as political currency.

~ Bruce

* Indeed, the policy goes beyond a “do not”, mandating that Centrecare workers take deliberate preventative steps against imposing their personal beliefs upon clients.

** This is all relative of course – even those that came through the process relatively unscathed weren’t at all happy about the horse trading for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the effect upon the provision of service.