On Faith and Privilege

Painting by Abraham Hermanjat of a Bedouin family outside their tent at dusk, like the Habiru or the migrant Hebrew, the ones who sometimes need a faith in God

Wealth and Piety

Being poor doesn’t guarantee a strong nor an honest faith, but something in a precarious existence opens us up to religious devotion. The opposite can also be true. When we have prestige and wealth, we depend less on others, whether they are human or divine.

Although the well-off and privileged may feel less need for a god who loves and holds them, many wealthy people attend religious services. This doesn’t prove they’re believers, of course. We go to churches, synagogues, and temples for many reasons, not all to do with faith. Still, the rich can be as pious as anyone else. They may pray and feel relief at the closeness of their god, and their religious values may guide their actions.

Unfortunately, they do not always do so. “Men live in power as fish live in water,” writes Fenton Johnson. [1] A religious man or woman may swim in the trappings of their faith simply because they were born to it. They may fail to feel its necessity or see its sacred beauty.

Strength from Belief

Not that religious faith guarantees we will be good or even kind. Nor is it true that Atheists are immoral. Our values and behaviors have less to do with what god we trust than with how we interpret our place in the universe and whether we feel responsible for our neighbor. Secular Humanism, for instance, is as compassionate a philosophy as any other. Indeed, for the Humanist who doesn’t believe in a deity, it is imperative that we take care of one another, since no mystical being will do it for us. Humanism find strength in the community of individuals who care for and work with one another.

Other people gain strength from believing in a deity who loves us. Faith can help us keep going in spite of hardship and setbacks. It encourages compassion and generosity. Because of our beliefs, we may find we are willing to sacrifice our own security for the good of the community.

Either way, when we swim in power, we feel less need of religion than when the powers that be control and oppress us.

Painting by Abraham Hermanjat of a Bedouin family outside their tent at dusk, like the Habiru or the migrant Hebrew, the ones who sometimes need a faith in God

The Solidly Secular

This can be seen in a 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Using their data, they clustered Americans into religious types. For instance, “Sunday Stalwarts” attend a religious community nearly every week, take part in other religious activities, and pray. Most of them are Christian, some evangelical, but they include a few Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and perhaps some Unitarian Universalists. [2]

Another category Pew defined is the “Solidly Secular.” Not all of these secular types are atheist. A few identify with a faith such as Christianity or Judaism, and some even believe in psychics or reincarnation. Yet these predominantly affluent, white, well-educated males are the most likely of all social classes to reject a belief in a higher power of any kind. [3] Johnson speaks to why this might be so.

Journey to Faith

In his journey to understand the Catholic faith in which he was raised, a faith he later rejected, Johnson came to see that because he was a person with power and authority, a white man in the United States, it was hard for him “to come to faith.” [4] He couldn’t feel the need. He didn’t know how to be humble.

When we are given power, love, authority, we often fail to recognize it. Just as we breathe the air without noticing its temperature or texture, taking our breath for granted until disease makes us gasp for that invisible sustenance, so we accept our place in the world without realizing how different it is from that of others. Unless we make a conscious effort to immerse ourselves in the lives of strangers, to sit with and get to know those outside our circle, or unless our world falls apart, propelling us into danger, darkness, and drudgery, we will not see how protected we are. We will not feel our powerlessness.

Over time, Johnson understood that unless he could touch that vulnerable and frightened place within him, his faith would not grow. Faith requires a falling, a surrender. It requires humility, the recognition that we need something bigger than ourselves to be fully human.

When he realized this, Johnson stopped judging others for loving and longing for a personal god who would hold them and keep them forevermore. On his journey of discovery, he found “that those drawn to God are so often those who have suffered, and the consolations of the mind, though they are great, cannot console the heart . . .” [5]

Science and Religion

The scientific method is vital to our well-being. Even when we lived in small bands, vulnerable to nature’s whims, we observed and catalogued the world around us. Without rational thought, we would be lost to our rages and insecurities.

Yet scientific principles and rationality do not comfort us when we feel battered, weary, and afraid. Then we turn to others, to animals and people and gods. Indeed, I have heard from many patients and their families that they could never get through their struggles and their pain without their faith.

I don’t know if this is true. Atheists figure out ways to cope just as effectively as do believers, which is to say, they do not find comfort all the time, but sometimes they do, whether God figures into it or not. Some atheists wish they could believe in something bigger than themselves. They long for a hope beyond today. Yet not every believer feels peace, either. They may be angry at God, they may fear Hell, they may find their prayers have become meaningless. Nonetheless, my sense is that most people who have faith in a deity experience a measure of serenity even when faced with death and despair.

Believing in Energy

Not long ago, I spoke with a woman who was detoxing from methamphetamine. She desperately wanted to stay clean, and she had been told that without a higher power, her chances were not good. She had some sense that there was a unifying energy in the universe, something that coursed through everything and gave it life. Perhaps she could call this God. Yet how does one talk to energy? How does one reach out to a nebulous power? She couldn’t fathom a way.

During our conversation, she mentioned that she would love to believe. Her family were Christians, and they couldn’t understand her lack of faith. She saw how comforted her family felt, and she wanted to experience that same peace of mind, but how does a person claim a belief she doesn’t have? We may be convinced by cogent arguments and trustworthy facts in the realm ideas, but faith cannot be proven. We either believe or we don’t.

If Johnson’s journey is any example, though, our experiences can change our hearts and our views, and faith can sneak up on us. When our world turns upside down, when we suffer tragic losses and personal pain, atheists can turn into Christians. In the same situation, however, Christians can lose their faith, especially if they believed in a god who would protect them from all harm in exchange for loyalty and obedience.

Reality Is Reality, No Matter Our Belief

Regardless of what we believe or think, we cannot change the reality that exists. If there is a god, it will not die because we fail to believe in it. Nor can we create a deity by wishing it so.

To some degree, we do shape our reality, yet life is a lot less amenable to magical thinking, affirmations, or prayers than we like to believe. Nonetheless, we sometimes do stupid things. For instance, a colleague told me of a patient who was bitter at God.

“What has God ever done for me?” he wanted to know.

Over the years, he had abused his body. He was obese, he didn’t exercise, he used street drugs. Yet when he got sick, he blamed God.

Perhaps his genetic makeup was such that he could not control his urges. In that case, God may be to blame. After all, didn’t God make the man? Wouldn’t that mean God was responsible for anything and everything that happened to this person?

Moving on From Anger at God

Yet how is this belief helpful? By staying stuck in his bitterness, the patient could only fume and resist. Because of his rotten genes and bad luck, or because of his own choices, he was dying, and he didn’t want to die. Yet even if he lived, his body would ache and bloat. He would be miserable. The anger he felt at God came out of his belief that God controls our life. Why would God give some people ease and happiness and others agony and despair? The man could not honor a deity who did this to him, and he could not accept the comfort of friends and family who encouraged to forgive God and move on.

But not every religious person believes God controls the minutiae of our days. I am sometimes awed by the steady faithfulness of those whose lives have been one long struggle after another. Loss after loss beset them. They have no money or power to ease their way. The level of burden they carry is enormous. Some have mental illnesses, physical health challenges. Most have experienced trauma in childhood or as adults. Because of this, they are vulnerable to addiction, sexual abuse, anger outbursts. Poverty, job loss, homelessness, incarceration are common.

Billions of people live on the edge, with no cushion to soften the annoyances and tragedies that happen to us all, such as our car breaking down or our child getting sick or the drought withering our crops. Life can be so hard.

The Habiru

A loving, compassionate, forgiving deity can be very helpful at such times. On the other hand, when those in power oppress and betray us, is it any wonder we might find solace in a wrathful God who protects us and punishes our enemies?

I was introduced to this idea in seminary when my Hebrew Scriptures professor told the class about the Habiru. [6] Thousand of years before Jesus was born, these bands were scattered around the Middle East. Though the description of who they were varies, it seems they were fugitive slaves, refugees, nomadic warriors, and armed men who camped wherever they could find space and who managed to eke out a meager living one way or another. [7] These were people who had lost homes and livestock. Impoverished in their own land, uprooted from their political and social spheres, they sought a better life elsewhere. In their new communities, though, their more settled and prosperous neighbors looked down on them with contempt and fear.

Nadav Na’aman, in his article about the Habiru and the Hebrews, explains that these individual refugees, these rejected people, gathered together into small bands. Though they “had nothing in common apart from their similar social status,” they found a way to cooperate. [8]

Habiru and Hebrews

According to my professor, these Habiru became the Israelites. There’s justification for this idea. For instance, the term Hebrew, like Habiru, was a scornful designation. Enemies of the Israelites, such as the Philistines, used it to refer to those who had emigrated to a foreign land. In the book of Exodus, the term “Hebrew” refers to Israelite slaves. [9]

Other scholars dispute the connection between the two terms. As Robert Wolfe points out, the Bible tells us that the twelve tribes of Israel were descended from the sons and grandsons of the patriarch Jacob. If the Israelite community formed from various Habiru bands in the area around Canaan, they couldn’t possibly be Jacob’s descendants because they weren’t related to one another. For many, this was theologically unacceptable.

Rejecting the Egyptian Gods

In his effort to understand the Habiru-Hebrew connection in a way that confirmed his belief in the Bible stories, George Mendenhall explained that the Hebrew people were not migrants at all, but settled in villages. The term “Habiru” was used to discredit the Israelites because they wouldn’t bow down to the Canaanite rulers. Instead, they obeyed their own god.

But what kind of god was this?

When they had been slaves, they were forced to at least give lip service to God’s representative in Egypt, the Pharaoh. Doubtless this angered them, so when they were free, they chose a different kind of god. Their god was so powerful, he could not be looked at, so no images could be made of him. He was strong enough to defeat the powers of Egypt and Canaan, yet gentle enough to love and nurture a motley and disorganized community of fugitive slaves. Their god was on their side, and he was bigger and better than any god before him. [10]

A Powerful God

Regardless of whether my professor was right or wrong about the connection between the Habiru and the Hebrew people, she was correct about one thing: the Habiru and the Israelites were both oppressed, enslaved, and abused. In their powerlessness, they sought a god who would destroy their enemies, bring them to freedom, and guarantee them a home.

If it is true that the Hebrew people have always been wanderers, derided and enslaved, then of course they would worship a god who could save them from this uncertain and impoverished existence. For millennia, they have been seeking a place to rest, to be safe, to be accepted. They would want a god who could give them some land, even if that god used force.

If we have the wherewithal to read these words, to claim a homeland, to determine our own course in life, who are we to judge those who have no such luxury? Who are we to say their warrior gods are evil? Who are we to claim that a belief in any god is wrong? As Wolfe points out, those who are powerless want “a ruler god who side[s] with the slaves rather than the slavemasters.” [11]

Do We Serve Others or Don’t We?

Many of us are lost, weak, uncertain, hungry, sick. Other people can help us, though they often do not.

Instead, they walk past the needy and the broken. So do we. We fail to take care of one another. Every faith, including atheism, has branches that teach us to care and be compassionate, to feed the widow and the orphan in our midst. We are responsible for our siblings. Yet Humanism falls short as often as do god-based religions.

When we have financial and political resources, we have the luxury, or the misfortune, to live as if we need no one else. We pretend that because we can buy all the help we require, because we need not barter or share or commiserate, we are somehow better than those who must. Sometimes those who don’t believe in god judge those who do as weak. Atheists sometimes deride believers as simpletons who cannot tolerate the reality of death, who are afraid to stand on their own. Of course, sometimes believers condemn non-believers. We are all human.

Depending on One Another

When we know what it was like to live an uncertain life, to lack power and privilege, we can better understand this need for a god who loves, protects, and sustains us. Atheists fear changing their world view as much as believers do. Some refuse to give up their understanding of the world as ordered and observable and capable of being known, even when the facts show us that reality is not always concrete and measurable. We can all feel threatened by realities that are different from our own, whether we believe in God or not.

We live uncertain lives. If we have enough money, we can pretend otherwise, because with wealth, the vagaries of existence do not become crises. We can always buy our way in or our way out. Yet if we don’t have a financial cushion, we must depend on others, whether human or divine. Most of us find we need to depend on both.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Johnson, Fenton, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 202.
  2. Pew Research Center, “The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion,” August 29, 2018.
  3. Ibid 6.
  4. Johnson 202.
  5. Ibid 202.
  6. They are also called the Apiru.
  7. Wolfe, Robert, “From Habiru to Hebrew: The Roots of the Jewish Tradition,” New English Review, October 2009, https://www.newenglishreview.org/Robert_Wolfe/From_Habiru_to_Hebrews%3A_The_Roots_of_the_Jewish_Tradition/, accessed 6/22/19.
  8. Na’aman, Nadav, “Habiru and Hebrews: The Transfer of a Social Term to the Literary Sphere,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 4, 1986, 271-288, 273, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/544204.
  9. Ibid 286.
  10. Wolfe.
  11. Ibid.

Photo of Cronos by Francisco Ghisletti on Unsplash

Painting of Bedouins by Abraham Hermanjat [Public domain], Campement de bédouins au crépuscule, sans date [vers 1892-1893] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ad/Abraham_Hermanjat%2C_Campement_de_b%C3%A9douins_au_cr%C3%A9puscule%2C_FAH-ACQ2010-001-Copie.jpg

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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