Saints and Scapegoats

When my parents tell their family friends what I’m in school for, the reaction is usually concerned panic about the future state of my finances. Once, though, they got a different reaction. The person said, “Oh wow, social workers are saints.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and my complex feelings about it, and the ways in which this common perception of social workers both results from and drives expectations about the type of work we are supposed to be doing.

First of all: I’m not sure that I agree that social work is uniquely “hard” as a profession. Certainly the work can be stressful and can cause vicarious trauma or desensitization. Certainly the work can follow you home. Certainly many jobs will overwork you and not give you enough support (material or emotional) to do the work as it ought to be done. But I’m not sure how this differs from many other jobs.

In fact, to me, most other jobs seem much more difficult than mine–prohibitively difficult, even. Journalism. Scientific research, especially in the natural sciences. Business. Finance. Construction. Food service. Computer engineering. These jobs all require skill sets that I lack and could only build with considerable effort, stress, and financial investment, if at all.

The job I chose feels easier to me than these jobs because I am suited for it.

But people are tapping into something slightly different, too, when they say that social work is “so hard” or that social workers are “saints.” Maybe they notice our abysmal pay. (Someone with a Masters degree and years of cumulative field experience deserves a starting salary of significantly higher than ~35k, but the money’s just not there.) Maybe they notice that we have to do the job of two or three people. Maybe they notice that our work environments can be unsupportive and even abusive.

And I would hope that they notice these things and instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have chosen social work if you wanted more money,” they will say, “It’s abhorrent that you make so little money and if there’s ever any way I can influence this situation, I will.”

(Irrelevant sidenote: I hate it when I express concerns about money and people say, “Well, you’re not exactly in this field for the money, are you?” You are correct, I am not in this field “for the money.” I am in this field for the same reason anyone else is in any field: to be able to pay the fucking bills and the rent. Yes, I should be paid enough for that, and then some.)

But one thing that few people seem to pick up on–at least, people outside the field–is that part of the problem is that social workers are being tasked with things that should not be our job.

I don’t mean that in a flippant way; I mean that I continually feel like we are being asked to fix things things that it is simply beyond our power to fix. Or we’re being asked to slap bandaids onto severed limbs. I get so demoralized sometimes when I realize that I’m being asked to essentially help people learn how to cope with poverty or racism or homophobia or simply working a crushing minimum-wage job while raising kids alone without any help from anyone, and it feels almost cruel to try to help people be more okay with this when this is not something that anyone should be okay with.

I know there’s no other way. I know that, of course. I’m all for harm reduction. If I can help someone deal with the fact that they are going to be poor and hated by the rest of society for their entire life, I guess that’s better than not helping them deal with that.

You know what would be even better, though? If more people gave a fuck about creating a world in which it doesn’t have to be that way.

So when I say that fixing poverty shouldn’t be my job, that’s because it should be everyone’s job. We should all care about poverty. We should all learn about what types of approaches might actually help in reducing poverty. We should all vote for legislators who pledge to implement such approaches (rather than utter rubbish like mandatory drug testing for mothers on food stamps or reducing the total number of months someone can receive public assistance so that they “just get a job already” and all that). We should all then vote those legislators out of office if they fail to follow through on this during their first terms. We should all, if we are able, donate to organizations that have a proven record of helping people in poverty and helping communities develop the resources they need to thrive.

Instead, right now, we all seem to collectively decide that poverty (and racism, and violence, and unemployment, and all that) is someone else’s problem to fix. Let all the social workers and community mental health practitioners handle that stuff; we’ll just be over here voting for whichever candidate looks the nicest.

No wonder many people think social workers are “saints.” They have charged us with singlehandedly fixing all of the most enduring and challenging social problems in our society, while making barely enough money to get by. We’re sometimes less saints and more scapegoats, the people on whom the responsibility to care falls because nobody else is caring.

And, naturally, when things go wrong–an abused child doesn’t get the help they need, or a child who isn’t really abused is taken away from their parents because of false reports of abuse, or a person with an untreated mental illness becomes violent–people ask why the social workers or mental health practitioners didn’t “do their jobs,” and how it could happen that someone would fall through the cracks like this.

If you build a crappy cracked pavement and let it deteriorate without ever making the effort to fill in the cracks–or, better yet, rip the whole thing up and build a better one–don’t be surprised when those of us tasked with running around trying to catch people sometimes fail.

That’s not to deflect responsibility from us. That’s to spread it a little more evenly. We are responsible for doing the jobs we are hired to do, but we can only do so much in an environment where nobody else seems to care.

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Atheism Sucks Sometimes

It’s pretty obvious—at least, presumably, to atheists—that being an atheist comes with a lot of benefits. It’s pretty nice being able to choose my own standards of right and wrong that make sense to me and the people I interact with. It’s great being able to fuck who I want, when I want, however I want. I like eating cheeseburgers and bacon. I like alcohol. I like not having to worry that some small and ultimately insignificant misstep will cause me to literally burn alive for eternity.

Besides that, it’s a relief not to have to ascribe things to invisible, unpredictable, incomprehensible forces that I will never be able to have any evidence for. They say, “God works in mysterious ways.” I don’t want any fucking mystery in my life. I like either knowing why things happen, or being able to say, “We don’t know yet, but there is a reason and someday we’ll figure it out.”

It’s nice that I can be as queer and poly and sexual as I want without fearing that the communities I have chosen to belong to will disown me forever. (Not that religious communities are the only ones who do this, but they’re certainly more likely to do it than, say, my gaming friends or my local atheist group.)

I’m sure there are more benefits to atheism, but that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about is that there are also a lot of drawbacks, and I feel like that’s an unpopular thing to say because religious people will take that and throw it back in our faces. “See!” they’ll say. “You’re all miserable and lonely and unfulfilled.”

I’m not miserable (except sometimes) or lonely (except sometimes) or unfulfilled (ever), but atheism can suck a little sometimes.

I was never truly a practicing Jew, since I spent my religious years in a place where I couldn’t conveniently access a Jewish community (long story short, I was a child in the suburbs and no way were my parents going to drive me to synagogue every Friday). But I still spent a lot of time at Jewish services, holiday celebrations, classes, and other events, especially in college, so I remember what it was like.

Here’s what it’s like as a Jew: as sundown nears on Friday, you can walk into virtually any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and be welcomed.

They’ll hand you a prayer book and perhaps a kippah, and after the services they’ll introduce you to people, heap food on your plate, and ask you about your life. And if you become a member of that community, you’ll have access to childcare, interesting classes, emotional and financial support, and help with practical things. The Rabbi will invite you to their home for Shabbat dinner, and to their child’s bar/bat mitzvah. You and your Rabbi will argue about science, philosophy, and, of course, religion.

Not all Jewish communities (heh, #NotAllJewishCommunities) are welcoming or supportive to everyone, and someone with my lifestyle and ideals probably wouldn’t feel very accepted in, say, a strictly Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem where the women sit behind the men during services. (In fact, I’ve been to one of those, and I didn’t enjoy it.)

But community is there if you want it.

What about atheist community?

Well, first of all, many atheists claim that they (or atheists in general) don’t even need community, because, you know, that’s for those weak and pathetic religious believers. In fact, pretty much anytime the Friendly Atheist runs an article pertaining to the atheist movement or to atheist community building, folks will fill up the comments with inane whines about how there isn’t/shouldn’t even be an atheist movement or community because Atheism Is Only About Not Believing In A God And Nothing Else. How boring. They’ll also accuse anyone who participates in even marginally church-like atheist activities, such as Sunday Assembly, of Holding The Movement Back. Whatever, dude.

Second, even when the desire to achieve an atheist community is there, doing it seems to be rather difficult. For all sorts of factors, women and people of color are underrepresented in atheist spaces, so going to any atheist social event usually means walking into a sea of white men. Walking into a sea of white men often means getting sexually harassed. Sorry, but it’s true. Even when sexual harassment doesn’t happen, there will inevitably be some clueless asshole bloviating about evolutionary psychology or how hard it is to find women to fuck or why the poors and the brown people are ruining the nice city views or whatever. And the more white men there are, the more the conversation will focus on Why There Is Definitely Absolutely No God And Anyone Who Doesn’t Realize This Is A Fucking Idiot Haha. I find this conversation offensive and insufferably boring.

(Ironically, one of the reasons women and people of color are underrepresented in atheist spaces is because they are more likely to need the sorts of resources that religious communities provide, and the ones that white male atheists are so loudly shouting they personally don’t need.)

For all the many, varied flaws of religious groups, including even the most progressive Jewish ones, nobody has ever sexually harassed me at a Jewish event. Nobody has ever acted like they were just there to find someone to fuck. (Marry, maybe?) I never felt like I was there as decoration.

There are other aspects of being an atheist that I feel are drawbacks. For instance, it really kind of fucking sucks to contemplate death as an atheist. While I do find relief in the fact that there is no hell, honestly, heaven would be kind of nice. Thinking about nothingness is terrifying. It would be much nicer to believe that dying will mean seeing all my previously-deceased friends and family again, for instance.

Of course I know that it would all be a total lie. Obviously. And I know that, as an atheist and a person who values science, critical thinking, and rationality, I ought to find the idea of believing in a falsehood to be completely repulsive. But maybe it would mean that while I’m alive, there would be a little less terror. And once I’m dead, well, it won’t matter anymore what I believe.

Religious people also have a built-in explanation for any random awful thing that happens to them or to the people they care about: “god willed it.” Clearly, that explanation doesn’t exactly resonate with atheists, but if it did, we wouldn’t be atheists. I can’t personally imagine that being comforting, but I know that religious people find it comforting. Maybe for them, it’s a little easier than it is for me to contemplate a world in which terrible things happen seemingly at random to people who clearly did not deserve it.

Or maybe not.

There are a lot of debates, many citing wildly conflicting scientific research, about whether religion is “adaptive” or “maladaptive,” “evolutionarily advantageous” or not, but I think that the best answer we have right now is that religion is adaptive for some people and maladaptive for others. I can see how religion might be adaptive for me and I can also see how it might be maladaptive. Ultimately, for me, the harms outweigh the benefits, and therefore I would not choose to be religious even if I could. For others, that calculus might turn out differently.

But despite not having been religious for quite some time, and despite being very sure that there is no god, I understand that impulse to religion in a very visceral way. (By “understand,” I literally do mean that I understand it, not that I necessarily condone or accept it.)

That’s why, despite the persuasive arguments of my friends, I just can’t bring myself to anti-theism. Religion is a very poor, and even sometimes a very dangerous, way to deal with the uncertainty and the horror of life (and of death). But, truthfully, I don’t see atheists offering a better one. With a few commendable exceptions, I don’t see atheists fighting the large-scale injustice and cruelty that many people worldwide seek relief from through religion. I don’t see atheists creating meaningful secular rituals to help people celebrate or mark life transitions. (I do see atheists mocking and ridiculing people who want such rituals.) I don’t see atheists creating food banks, homeless shelters, and free childcare centers.

You could certainly argue that religious people do these things with the wrong motivations, but at least they’re fucking doing them.

#NotAllAtheists, blahblah. As I said, there are exceptions.

But I can’t walk into an atheist community center (there isn’t even such a thing) in any city in the world on a Friday night (or any night) and find support and company. When I want to lean on tradition to give shape and significance to certain events in my life, atheism is of absolutely no use. I can’t go to an atheist leader for some informal advice. Most of the visible “atheist leaders” we have spout vile bigotry on Twitter, tell us to shut the fuck up about our silly problems, insist that calling ourselves “Jewish atheists” is “holding the movement back,” or even, in a few cases, actually harass and assault women (and sometimes men) at atheist events.

And when I’m faced with loss, injustice, despair, and fear, there is no consolation to be had in atheism. Atheism is agnostic on such issues–as it should be. But that leaves me to contemplate these things mostly on my own, to feel the brunt force of their realness and meaninglessness without anything to make the medicine go down easier.

I will always encourage people to see atheists as capable of morality, happiness, and meaningful lives. I will always protest bigotry and discrimination against atheists. I will always encourage religious people who are questioning faith to consider other alternatives. I will, obviously, demand that religious people stop using their religions as an excuse to curtail the freedoms of others (including their children). I will always emphasize the importance and the awesomeness of science and scientific thinking.

But I will not demand that people leave religion. Not when I can’t promise them a better alternative right now.