I am writing this at 2200 on Friday 24 May in a coffee shop at Waterloo station, between sniffles. My Internet access is limited, which is not ideal when commenting on an evolving story. I may well regret this post in the morning, which is the sort of thing that happens if you choose to dip a cautious opinion into the murky waters of the blogosphere. I hope that nobody questions the spirit of respect that motivates this, ahem, baptism.
Doug Stanhope is a God.
And no, I, don’t mean that metaphorically. What I mean is that like the deities of popular religion, the American comedian Doug Stanhope seems prepared to act capriciously, at long distance, and in ways that surpasseth all understanding.
I’m not familiar with much of Doug Stanhope’s work, but I’ve found most of what I’ve seen incredibly funny. I don’t necessarily agree with his politics, but when discussing comedians that’s akin to saying I disapprove of the way my dentist drives.
Doug’s strident atheism, if anything, makes me like him even more. Far too many intelligent, cultured people in today’s world place an unquestioning belief in harmful, consciousness- constricting nonsense. And so, like Stanhope, I was delighted to see Rebecca Vitsmun, one of the incredibly fortunate survivors of the Oklahoma tornado, respond to Wolf Blitzer’s request that she “thank The Lord” for her life by politely replying that she was an atheist.
To be frank, the entire world seemed to be delighted by it, and in the space of 48 hours people helped that short video spread at speeds that put the tornado itself to shame. And good for them. But it is what Stanhope did next that confuses me.
He set up a fundraising page, interspersed with what are genuinely brilliant bits of comic prose, in order to raise 50,000 to help Mrs. Vitsmun rebuild her life. The reasoning behind this spontaneous act of generosity, according to Stanhope, is that atheists should stand together.
I applaud this sentiment. I do. But I cannot help feeling that the more important message to state at times of crisis is that human beings should stand together – regardless of their faith or background. I suppose that this where humanism parts company from atheism – the idea that what people are is more important than what they think.
Doug’s appeal has now exploded through its target, and I salute his commitment to the cause as well as every single person who selflessly donated to help a person in desperate need. But good intentions count for precious little in the twisted, chaotic world Doug and I know we inhabit, and so I have to ask: was this ever a good idea?
In the aftermath of incidents like this, what matters most to communities is a sense of solidarity. The feeling that everyone has experienced the same sense of loss, and that the recovery is being made together.
The idea that 50,000 dollars are to be dropped in the lap of one so-called ‘lucky’ lady who happened to come to the attention of Doug Stanhope reeks of old testament mythology. How is this brave lady to face her community knowing that, irony of ironies, her lack of prayers have been answered? What about the other, no less brave, no less needy, no less atheistic neighbours who never had the good fortune to be asked a stupid question on air by Wolf Blitzer? I am profoundly moved by Stanhope’s desire to help, but his are the actions of an unpredictable, self-centred, deity. The only difference between Doug and God in this situation is that Doug exists, and should therefore know better.
If Doug has tried to prove that atheists are no less charitable than Christians, his attempt has backfired. What he has done, to my eyes at least, is show how keen atheists are to be seen as no less charitable than Christians, and that they do charitable far less elegantly.
The idea that sufferers are to be rewarded for their perceived intelligence and courage is a sickening perversion of the concept of charity. Do victims have to prove they are worthy of receiving our aid? Who are we? Even the faith-based charitable organisations don’t discriminate according to what recipients beleve.
According to his twitter page, Doug has 59 days of fundraising left with nothing to spend them on but drink champagne. There are an estimated 300 people now homeless in Moore, Oklahoma. I can think of at least 5 things Doug can do on each of the next 59 days.