© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12

packMy mind has been on invisible knapsacks this week.

After health care reform passed, the gnashing of teeth intensified among its opponents — a deep concern about (non-war-related) expense, dire warnings of our descent into one or more other-than-capital isms, and a tearful eulogy for the America We Loved. These flies are always buzzing, and I’ve learned to just keep my tail moving and go about my day.

But there’s one trope in the mix that brings up an especially deep outrage in me, one that makes it hard to hold my tongue. It’s the suggestion that this Act confers benefits on people who — unlike the speaker — have not earned them.

Which led me back to the invisible knapsack.

Twenty years ago, in a piece titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Centers for Women crystallized the argument that racial discrimination, especially today, is less a matter of “individual acts of meanness” than “invisible systems conferring dominance” on one group over another.

In our culture, I’m a member of several privileged groups (white, male, educated, heterosexual) and outside of others (religious, attractive). Like most people, I’m able to see and decry the advantages I am denied, but those I do have are largely invisible to me — until someone points them out, as McIntosh does so lucidly in her essay, with a list of 50 privileges she holds, but usually fails to recognize, as a white person. It’s a quick and thoughtful read, and I recommend it.

The nonreligious rightly protest unfair advantages conferred on the religious. But when it comes to our own advantages as nonreligious people, we too often act as if we earned them all.

Our advantages?? Sure. My secular humanism doesn’t confer much social advantage, but I do think it has allowed me to see a much grander, more astonishing, and ultimately more inspirational world and universe than the one my most conservatively religious friends inhabit. I don’t think this makes me a better person than they are. But I am deeply grateful for what it has done to the color and depth of my life and to my ability to open that lovely perspective to my kids.

Darwin hints at this color and depth in the last sentence of the Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (First edition, 1859)*

I’m glad for that grand naturalistic view, at once humbling and ennobling. But I recognize that in addition to the serious effort I put into reaching my conclusions, I also had some advantages along the way — advantages that not everyone shares.

My parents valued education and the life of the mind and encouraged the same in me and my brothers. They took us to a UCC church, a liberal denomination free of thought-paralyzing dogmas and fear. They encouraged us to think for ourselves and to be infinitely curious. My early interests in mythology and science were nurtured. I had a first-rate education, K-Ph.D. I was raised in relative physical and economic security. I knew people of several different religious traditions and eventually attended churches in nine denominations. We attended a Unitarian fellowship in my teens.

Not one of these is essential in achieving a naturalistic worldview free of traditional religion. Many of my nonreligious friends found their way out despite far fewer advantages than I had. But I recognize that many of the folks we rail against for holding on to beliefs we find unbelievable have often inherited, in one way or another, a more formidable set of obstacles.

The end result of such a process is greater empathy for the believer. Not for the beliefs themselves, especially those that are malignant or dehumanizing. It’s unethical to leave genuinely harmful beliefs unchallenged. But the most effective challenge to beliefs begins with heartfelt empathy for those who believe.


*Go here for a fascinating look at the (what else?) evolution of this poetic passage through later editions, and Darwin’s regret at “truckl[ing] to public opinion” in changing it.

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This was written on Thursday, 25. March 2010 at 08:39 and was filed under belief and believers, Can You Hear Me Now?, critical thinking, diversity, myths, nonbelief and nonbelievers, values, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. The advantages on “getting out” are interesting. It took me much longer to get out of religion, and most of it was those sorts of obstacles you imply. I was raised SDA (which is one of the 1844 spin-off Christianities with its own prophet, Ellen G White) and attended entirely SDA schools all the way through high-school. Because of that I never had a single science class that even questioned young earth creationism as a viewpoint. Every aspect of my upbringing was within this context and I was fed all the “best” of the YEC arguments against old earth and evolution, and nothing else.

    One of the earliest things that made me question the church was one of my friends getting kicked out of our boarding academy (in 9th grade) for making a pass at another guy in the dorms. Homosexuality hadn’t even been a topic of discussion at that point, but he was widely derided after he was gone and that soured me on the SDA church, though not god. When I got out of high-school I knew I didn’t want to continue my education in an SDA school, but my parents laid down the law that they would only pay for SDA college, or community college… so I opted for community college (in Orlando, far away from them in GA). For financial reasons I stopped school after a semester to take a year off and save up some money for further tuition… and that ended up stopping my college education when my high-school sweetheart moved in with me a year later and subsequently got pregnant and became my wife. When our son came along she insisted we start going to church again for him.

    Though church was uncomfortable for me, we found one that was tied to our SDA upbringing while being vaguely more liberal… and I could spend my entire “church” time helping with the kids program and getting to spend extra time with my son. It wasn’t long before my schedule was filled up with work and church stuff and actually thinking critically about my religious world-view wasn’t something I “needed” to do. It wasn’t until I had a little more time settled in a stable job, and kid #3 was on the way, that I really started to think critically about it.

    In some obvious ways my SDA education was an obvious handicap, but on the other hand it has been fascinating to, in my 30s, discover how things REALLY work and feed into that life-long education I always wanted. Oh I dropped out of college yes, but I’ve also kept up my own education all along because a love of reading was something my parents fostered in me (they never paid for grades like some of my friend’s parents, but they did give us $10 per book in the set of encyclopedias we had).

    I’ve had the advantage of being male, middle-class, and white (and I won’t break into a Ben Folds Five song here), and TRY to remember that even though I wasn’t always “middle-class” as an adult, I’ve had a lot of advantages (family giving me jobs, fall-back options for housing, etc) that can’t be discounted just because there was a lot of hard work involved too.

    And now I’m off to read that Unpacking The Knapsack article. Thanks for making me think this morning.

    Comment: CharlesP – 25. March 2010 @ 9:11 am

  2. There is a Catullus poem that this reminds me of (and a quick search doesn’t turn up the connection I expected to find). In poem 22, after many lines of invective against a man who considers himself witty and sophisticated, Catullus changes tones and says that we each wear our faults in a bag on our back–so we can see everybody else’s but not our own.

    I consider myself very lucky to have been raised by an atheist. He instinctively did some of what you suggest–we learned about the Jewish half of our background, but in more of an educational context, and I read Greek mythology and other folklore before any Bible stories.

    Comment: mouse – 25. March 2010 @ 10:57 am

  3. […] The Meming of Life » Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12 … […]

    Pingback: Millburn/Short Hills NJ News – Millburn Board of Education … | Educational Pennsylvania – 25. March 2010 @ 11:33 am

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Global Atheist, Dale McGowan. Dale McGowan said: New post @ Meming of Life: Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12 http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=3484 […]

    Pingback: Tweets that mention The Meming of Life » Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12 Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders -- Topsy.com – 25. March 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  5. Thanks for this post Dale. It really bugs me when a born-and-raised atheist derides a person of faith as being stupid or uneducated or such. I just think “I was there once, does that mean I’m stupid too?”. Also, I think being raised fundamentalist christian gives me some empathy and makes me believe (yes, believe) that there is hope for people caught up in that indoctrination. If someone who was as deep into it as I was can come out then anyone can.

    Comment: jcornelius – 25. March 2010 @ 5:55 pm

  6. This made me think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how it relates to religious beliefs. Many people don’t have the luxury of thinking critically about the beliefs that have been handed to them culturally because they’re too busy scraping together an existence.

    I wholeheartedly vote for empathy, although I have often been guilty of feeling scorn for people whom I think should “know better” than to hold certain beliefs (based on their level of education and economic status). Personally, I find it much easier to have empathy for those who do not have the resources to be able to “know better”.

    On another note, I too have always loved both mythology and science. My son is at a developmental stage that causes him to automatically reject anything that I suggest to him, so imagine my delight when he discovered the Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series! He has devoured the first book, is well into the second, and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his own personal set from Scholastic. This morning he actually said that it would be cool to have a unit on Greek mythology in school! Wonderful discussions have been happening in my house since he’s gotten into these books. Now if he could find a way to fall in love with science . . . *sigh*

    Comment: codysmom – 26. March 2010 @ 8:53 am

  7. […] Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12 […]

    Pingback: The Invisible Truth About the Universe | 2012: End Of The World – 27. March 2010 @ 7:42 pm

  8. […] is unimpressed by tropes like the “tearful eulogy for the America We Loved,” but is outraged by “the suggestion that this Act confers benefits on people who – unlike the speaker — […]

    Pingback: Sunday in Outer Blogness: The End of the World Edition! | Main Street Plaza – 28. March 2010 @ 5:43 am

  9. Excellent !

    (1) I agree, being an ex-believer I have a natural sympathy with believers even though I now disagree. That is why “Natural Atheists” (those who never embraced a faith) often seem rather harsh. But then, even former believers, like ex-smokers, can be harsh. Maybe it is just a temperament issue.

    (2) On the health care issue: I agree that the objection of “not deserving” is deeply mistaken and comes from grounds of blindness to privileged (great essay!). But even so, a policy can be mistaken even though it is mistaken refuted with such poor logic and insight.

    Comment: Sabio Lantz – 30. March 2010 @ 6:04 am

  10. […] The Meming of Life » Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12 Parenting Beyond Belief on … […]

    Pingback: American Idol alums Elliott Yamin and Brandon Rogers give back – 21. April 2010 @ 10:48 pm

  11. The link to the essay on White Privilege no longer works. Here’s the top one in Google (and it does work): http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf

    Comment: JaniceOly – 09. June 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  12. Thanks Janice! Fixed.

    Comment: Dale – 09. June 2011 @ 1:52 pm

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