What would Jesus do ... ?

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

When the subprime crisis began in America and people began to lose their homes, I was stunned by the reactions to any suggestion that the government might come to their financial rescue in any way. Indeed might consider any kind of regulatory response to try to reduce the chances of such financial predator-prey interaction happening in future.

As best I could tell, the reaction from those who hadn't lost their homes towards those who had was a kind of an old testament judgment that they had it coming. Or perhaps the kind of glee that sees the performer you most dislike booted off American Idol in the most humiliating way. In the familiar expressions it seemed to be evidence that "a fool and his money are soon parted" and "there's a sucker born every minute".

I was amazed by the vicious comments on blogs that anyone who had lost home and money should be left to rot. It was quite clear that significant numbers of people thought that anyone who had succumbed to the massive advertising and peer pressure, by corporations using all psychological techniques refined in the 50 years since "The Hidden Persuaders", should get no sympathy at all. Not so much three strikes and you're in, but one strike and you're out.

Everything that happens to you in life is a matter of personal responsibility, it seems. No room for errors, failures of intellect, failures of education, family circumstances, personality quirks, or bad luck. No, if you have fallen victim to the shonky business practices of the subprime world you are to be left in the gutter.

Perhaps as an example to others? But how would that work? And how can it possibly benefit society to let families go to the wall, rot in the gutter? And how many families must be allowed to do this, as a sign that personal responsibility is the only value that matters? Are we prepared to let the subpoor increase in numbers until cities become unlivable, society suffers a complete breakdown, the economy heads towards another Great Depression? Does the expression cutting off your nose to spite your face ring a bell?

And why does the same attitude not attach to the CEOs of companies that go broke for whatever reason? When was the last time that a CEO jumped from a Wall Street window without a golden parachute? When was the last time one of these people, far more culpable, far more personally responsible than the average Joe Public, took personal responsibility and refused to take the golden handout?

Whenever someone like, oh well, me, writes about the baneful influence of religion in society, I will inevitably be attacked by someone claiming that atheists like me believe in evolution, nature red in tooth and claw, believe that humans who fall by the way side should be culled for the good of the race. The Nazis will be mentioned, eugenics, Social Darwinism perhaps, all in contrast to those societies like the American in which religion plays an increasingly dominant role. Where religion rules, it will be implied, human beings are valued as god's children, suffer the little children, no sparrow falling, lilies of the field and all that.

But the reaction to the subprime victims shows this for the hypocrisy it is. Here is an atheist calling for safety nets, public housing, social support, and there are non-atheists (if that is a word) demanding that there be no room on the life boat for the drowning. Religious people seeing the subprime crisis as a way of selecting out the subhumans (a bit like Katrina). Happy to see the least of these not valued but persecuted. Happy it seems to see the possession of money as a sign of adaptive fitness, and the lack of money as a sign that someone is the weakest link in the gene pool. Have I missed some religious revision? Has the new testament been rewritten to say that all poor people are going to hell, straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect government handout? Can the poor not pass through the eye of a needle while the rich get their own heavenly mansion (in the ultimate gated community)?

Look, you all know that, while I might have moments of bitterness, I don't cling to guns and god. But you guys, well, some of you guys, do. So what I want to know is - what would Jesus do about the victims of the subprime mortgage crisis? I mean, he was a sink or swim kind of guy, right?

Check out The Watermelon Blog for moments of bitterness interspersed with the sheer exhilaration of a life free of religious dogma.