Ask Richard: An Atheist From a Different World July 26, 2010

Ask Richard: An Atheist From a Different World

Note: I responded to this letter by email, offering the kind of caution and encouragement that I usually give to young people who are in very vulnerable positions. The advice itself is not remarkable; what you might expect for this situation. I decided to publish it to raise awareness about atheists in developing countries, where sometimes poverty combines with inducements by missionaries to create unique social pressures, and conflicts between native culture and imported religions complicate things even more. I think we usually picture atheists struggling with the challenges found in developed countries, but this person apparently comes from a place utterly different from what most of us have experienced.

Subject: Help. I cant sleep.

Dear Richard.

I am not very literate in writing. But I need some advice.
I come from a very poor family. They are all mormons. I myself am a mormon but something in my heart tells me there is more to life then being a ‘mormon’.
There is 24 members in our small house here where I live. We live next to the sea. However it is full of pollutants. My mother is having an affair with the Priest of our church. And at dinner time she prays like she is a holy mormon. The father of this household is very strange, he goes to work early and comes back smelling of acid.
I have caught him once wearing womens high heels. My other friends say that he is a poofta that works for money in Town.
Sir. I am very how do I say, Disheartened at this life. My family all together makes only 50 US dollars per week.

I Come to school and use the internet and I have found that atheism seems to have all the answers using science and fact. I want to become a atheist. However. This place where I live is very strict on Mormonism.
I AM AFRAID TO TELL MY Family that I don’t believe in the Holy prophet Joseph smith, may his soul rest in peace.

I Want to prove to everyone that I am a atheist!

Can you help Richard?


Dear Kovana,

I think that you should keep your atheism private for now. Do not tell your family, and do not tell anyone who might tell your family. If they find out, they will probably be very upset. If Mormonism is very strict there, they might treat you badly. Until you are living on your own, and until you have your own job and your own money, keep this to yourself. You do not need to prove anything to anybody, and you do not need to bring trouble onto yourself.

You can still be helpful to your family without believing what they believe. Believing or not believing something does not make you good or bad. You are a good person because you do good things. Be good to others just because it helps your family, your friends and your community. Give people love and help even though they are not perfect.

Leave your mother’s and your father’s problems to them. What they do is their business, not yours. What they do makes them what they are, and what you do makes you what you are. You can still keep being a good person no matter what they do.

The best thing for you to do is to stay healthy and strong. Keep your mind clear by staying away from alcohol and drugs, and go to school as much as you can. Study hard like you were a hungry man, hungry for knowledge. Use the internet and read books as much as you can. Learn everything you can about science and the real world around you.

If the school or the church teaches you religious things that you don’t believe, just listen quietly and wait for the day when you can stand up on your own. Then you will be able to tell people what you think. But when you do, be ready for some of them to be angry. There are other people around you who are atheists too, but they are also being careful. You will slowly find them, and then you can have friends who think the way you do.

Believe in your own ability to learn and grow and be successful. Do not be disheartened by your difficulties. Life is difficult, but you can make a good difference. Many great and wonderful people have come from poor families, and some of them were atheists too. Study hard, work hard, don’t drink alcohol or use drugs, be an honest and kind person, and you will be able to help make things a little better. Maybe even much better.

I wish you all the very best and I hope that you are able to make your life and the lives of others better.

With deep respect,

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

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  • TychaBrahe

    Was the religion changed for the purpose of this post? I am trying to think of any place where Mormonism is like that, and I really can’t. It sounds more like Islam. For one thing, while Mormons have a great deal of respect for Joseph Smith, they don’t venerate him as this writer does.

  • meshugna

    I found that interesting, too, Tychabrahe.

    It also reminded me in the way of writing of the book The Girl Who Played with Matches; a family where the children are kept completely apart from the rest of society and as a result have odd Engish-isms incorporated into their speech, since they have no basis other than their oppressive father for learning.

  • The mother and the “father of the household” seem to deviate somewhat from the behavior patterns of the Mormons I have known growing up. Perhaps they are “Mormons in name only”…

    Hopefully some actual Mormons (ex or otherwise) could comment on how the Mormon faith deals with those in a household questioning Mormon beliefs.

    Also note that atheism is merely the lack of belief in Gods. While many atheists embrace the scientific method as a much better way to learn about the world (better than religious superstition and deferring to authority), atheism shouldn’t be thought of as itself a replacement or alternative to religion. Atheism itself doesn’t “have all the answers”. Science has lots of answers and provides more every day but science doesn’t yet have “all the answers”. Many people turn to religion because they want easy answers to hard questions. Atheists view supernatural explanations such as “God did it” as a cop-out and not really answering the question. You should be commended for wanting more in-depth answers to profound questions.

    As a religion, Mormonism is silly. Of course, all religions are silly. Just be careful that questioning this “silliness” doesn’t get you killed.

  • Rob

    There are many Mormon communities outside the USA – the Mormon church claims 12.5 million members, only 5.5 million of which are in the States.

  • Aaron

    Maybe I am a big sap, but Kovana’s email made me tear-up a little. I certainly hope he is OK.
    I am curious what country this is from.

  • Am I a horrible person for being a bit skeptical that this letter is real?

  • CassvileAtheist

    @Laura I too have my doubts on the letter. It seems a bit extreme. However, if it is real it deserves attention.

  • It was hard enough too come out to my parents an an Atheist after I’d moved out of the home. I can just imagine the pressure you are going through.

    But Richard is right. Telling everyone that you’re an Atheist now may just cause you more problems. It’s best to be confident in your own ideas before you have to defend them and explain them to other people.

    There’s no rush. Just hang in there. You’ll find the right time eventually.

  • Also Laura, I know what your saying. It seems strange to me too, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt…

  • Also keep in mind that any advice given can help people besides the author of the letter. Even if the letter turned out to be is a hoax, advice can help others. My hunch is that the letter is sincere.

  • Opium_4_the_Masses

    This letter looks like a joke to me.

  • Lukas

    Yeah, as Rob says, Mormons proselytize all over the world, and there are mormon groups pretty much everywhere. I live in Europe, and I know two mormon families; they have their own social circle and their own church. There are areas where mormons make up a sizeable percentage of the population. Mormons have come to my door probably half a dozen times in the last ten or so years.

  • Hollynoats


    I felt the same way. So I did some light research.
    I’m curious if this person is located in American Samoa.

    @Julia, I felt the same way initially. But I can’t figure out what the purpose of lying would be?

    I almost hope it’s not true. Because it’s heartbreaking that people have to repress their desires because of religion, or anything else. The point of life is to be happy, and this person isn’t getting what they deserve.

    This story makes me feel so helpless. I just hope that this person found some solace and comfort in Richard’s advice. Just knowing a safety net is out there can do so much for one’s willpower.

  • Dymara

    @Laura – not necessarily; but is it better to take it seriously and end up embarassed, or assume it’s a hoax and ignore someone reaching out for help?

  • bryne

    I am an ex-Mormon living in the States and I can speak from experience when I say that someone questioning Mormonism (within a Mormon family) can (and probably will be) treated like crap. They will be shunned, if not worse. Sometimes making a clean break from the family entirely is the only way to live a life not based on fear and manipulation and guilt.

    My dad was the authority in the house, a true head of household that was not to be questioned or argued with. His word was law. For those not born in the Church, you will probably only see the side Mormons want you to see – the happy, smiling side. It was never like that for me. It was pain and guilt and grief until I broke free 5 years ago. It still is that sometimes, because my family will not accept that I am no longer Mormon. I am a project and an apostate, something hated and reviled and feared. I am not allowed to talk about my beliefs with family members for fear that I will destroy their testimonies.

    I feel very sorry for Kovana. One day, with luck and effort, maybe he can claw his way free.

    PS. As for Joseph Smith, he is second only to Jesus in the Mormon religion and yes, all the praise given to him in the church is on par with worship. He is highly revered.

  • Doug

    I think one important thing you left out from this response, that I’ve seen you put in others, is that he should remain quiet now because he is dependent on his religious family. He should strive to privately satisfy his desire for more accurate knowledge, but work towards gaining independence so he can speak his beliefs freely, without fear of harming his future.

    It is awful that a family would shun their child because of their opinion on one subject, but it is the reality in many cases, and is all the more reason for us adults to work towards making society a more welcoming place for atheists.

  • Icaarus

    @ Laura. I agree, I am very sceptical that the author is real, or if they are real I do not think they are being honest.

    After knowing a great number of Mormons I have never heard of Joseph Smith referred to as a profit. Not to say the religion or the people don’t see him as such, just that the people who follow the religion do not refer to him that way (in my experience).

    Also of concern is the $50 USD/week for 24 people, how many countries around the world would this be possible. Out of those countries which ones would have unsupervised internet in schools? And which ones of those would be near heavily polluted waterfronts? These details just seem odd to me, too specific and at the same time too generic. like scam emailes I have received that try to make it sound as though I have talked with them without ever talking to them.

    The last red flag is the use of the word poofta, I have never heard that one before. After looking it up it seems to b a predominately Australian and British, mostly long forgotten (19th century) term for homosexual.

    If this letter is as I suspect riddled with adjustments then the author must have extreme anonymity concerns. If the author is so worried about anonymity they are in a situation where reaching for any advice is extremely dangerous and they should not attempt it. However if this letter is, as I fear, a hoax, then it should be ignored. I have every desire to help people who need it, and equally strong desires to ignore those that try to take advantage of it.

    Kovana, if you are real, good luck.

  • Trace

    Pretty much what Richard says. Stay low until you are in a situation where you can leave without detrimental consequences.

    Good luck to you.

  • Richard Wade

    To my friends commenting here:

    The letter is presented here exactly as it appeared in my email, word for word, letter for letter.

    I also had some small suspicion that it might either contain exaggerations or be a complete hoax, because of some, but not all of the things icaarus has mentioned. I didn’t state this at the beginning because I didn’t want to poison the well. I wanted to see what others thought without my prompting.

    But real, exaggeration or hoax, it doesn’t matter.

    There are many atheists who live in conditions of crushing poverty, cultural tension, and under the boot of religious power structures. They face difficulties every day that would certainly bring me at least to the edge of despair. Real or not, this letter has served to help us be mindful of that, and to adjust our own attitudes toward their and our own very similar, yet very different plights.

    Whether Kovana is real or not, I think that my and others’ counsel of caution and encouragement is useful for many people who are in similar predicaments. No material aid can be sent to the letter writer, so nothing is wasted. Someone is likely to be encouraged or comforted by the caring that people are expressing here, and you caring people, so giving of your hearts, are better for it too.

  • Claudia

    To the commenters above, I think we do need to keep in mind that all religions, including mormonism have breakaway sects that may or may not follow the mainline rules or dogmas. Sometimes these sects exist as tiny isolated minority communities in countries where the predominant religion is different. “Kovana” could belong to one of these groups. It could be fake of course, but then a lot of work was put into making her sound like English was not her first language.

    Taking “Kovana” at her word my heart goes out to her. A family with those sorts of troubles would be bad even in the rich part of the planet. Combine it with poverty and its just too much. To Kovana I’d like to add one piece of advice. Yes, stay in school as long as you can. Yes, stay away from alcohol and drugs. But also DON’T GET PREGNANT! If and when you decide to have sex ALWAYS use a condom. If the guy doesn’t want sex with a condom, he isn’t worthy of you. I know this isn’t religion related, but it’s very important. You will never be independent and able to live your life as you see fit if you have a baby before you’re old enough and have enough money to support yourself and a child.

  • Silent Service

    This letter smells bad. People living at that level of poverty aren’t surfing the internet at school for atheism. Honestly, they probably don’t have unrestricted access to a computer. The reference to “50 US dollars per week” seems odd too. If this kid’s family is in a US held territory they’d be getting more than that in welfare and food stamps (or equivalent). If they’re not in a US held territory the kid has a fairly exact understanding of monetary exchange rates.

    Mormon men serving as missionaries are titled Elder not Priest. When I hear the term Priest I think of Catholics not Mormons. Richard, I think you’ve been Poed.

    All of that having been said, excellent advice for any budding atheist still at home.

  • As an ex-Mormon, I think this letter sounds very strange–it seems to imply polygamy and seclusion, neither of which is practiced currently, and the Joseph Smith pbuh and reference to “the Priest” (rather than a bishop or branch president) are odd.

    Perhaps this is an Apostolic United Brethren church in Mexico ( )? “Poofta” makes me think it’s a British colony, though.

  • Google returns some hits for Kovana pertaining to Samoa, which sounds somewhat plausible; Samoa is 15-30% LDS ( ).

  • JB Tait

    It could be he had to change the name of the religion to get it out of a computer with a snooping or censoring filter.

    Or it could be an experiment to see what advice he would get, and he chose a religion he saw as oppressive.

    But yes, the email sounds fishy and the term “pooftah” does usually only occur in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, rarely in Canada, but maybe in India.

    Could it be that the awkwardness and strange constructions are the result of using a translator program?

    You could reduce the mystery a bit by identifying the country (or maybe even ISP) of the originating IP address.

  • grazatt

    I bet it is from Samoa “pooftah” is used by Australians and New Zealanders and many Samoans live in New Zealand. Just check out the show bro’Town
    The Samoan term which pooftah is probably being used in place of is Fa’afafine

  • Ron in Houston


    I admire you for taking all the letters at face value and giving them you’re very most honest answers.

    If nothing else, you show that someone who has no “God” who commands them to love their neighbor, that you can have more compassion and empathy than folks who supposedly have some God who tells them how to behave.

  • Dan W

    I think it’s better to take this letter at face value. It may be a hoax, but it’s better to give advice on the assumption that it isn’t a hoax in this case, to help this person in their situation. And, as others have already said, there are plenty of places outside the U.S. where Mormons live, and where English might not be the main language used. Besides that, I see no good reason why someone would send an email/letter to Richard claiming all this stuff when they aren’t an atheist.

    Good advice, Richard.

  • gwen

    Something smells rotten about that letter. I don’t think it is real…

  • Regardless if the letter was real or not, I just want to adopt him.

  • No way is that letter real. Someone’s yanking Richard’s chain. Hemant should watch his logs for incoming links to this item in the coming days, because I guarantee it’s going to be on a comedy site somewhere.

  • Amelia

    Jennifer, me too.

    If the exact letter is not all it seems to be, either because it is a hoax or because the writer was afraid or has a poor grasp of English, that’s okay with me. The important thing is to let people know that they are not alone and that their beliefs do not make them the demons that some religious folks would have them believe.

    Mormons are quite aggressive in conversion. My understanding is that LDS youth are expected to convert on “mission” for a few years each, within and outside the U.S.

  • False Prophet

    Well, even if it is a hoax, the worst that happens is Richard was duped into giving good and thoughtful advice to what he felt was a sincere cry for help. I’d like to see some joker make hay from that without coming across as a complete jerkass.

  • Chris Jones

    I signed in to write exactly what I see that Dan W has already said. It doesn’t matter whether this letter may be a hoax. With respect to this sort of thing, it must be treated as if it is real if there is any possibility of that being true. Nothing other than a few minutes of time is lost in replying to it if it is a hoax, and if it isn’t, someone will gain valuable advice.

    I, too, was thinking as I read it that the religion may have been changed. It felt more realistic if all references to Mormonism and Joseph Smith were switched to Islam and Muhammed. Nonetheless, the letter writer could very well have made this alteration of facts in order to further obscure his or her identity. On the other hand, while the particular observation of Mormonism described here would seem a poor fit for what we know as Mormonism in the US, it may be that the religion has changed and adapted as it migrated to other parts of the world. That seems to happen quite a bit with religions, as can be seen in some of the remote African tribal practices of Christianity where missionaries have converted a tribe and then left for some time.

    Richard’s advice was probably as good as advice could be under these circumstances.

  • muggle

    I’m on the side of give the advice hoax or not. No way of really knowing and even if it is, no harm, no foul and might help someone else reading it.

    Good advice for a tricky situation. This is not like someone from the developed world trying to get out of their parents’ home. It’s a little more complicated than getting a job and an apartment and Richard’s advice takes that into consideration. We often take for granted how easy it is for us to defy authority when there are people all over the world for who it is deadly.

    I’d say Kovana needs to proceed with extreme caution and that is what Richard is advising. Proceed but with extreme caution. There’s a reason Atheists don’t tend to make martyrs of themselves. When you don’t belive in eternal life, you treat the one life you have as the precious commodity it is.

  • Randy

    As far as ther income, if it is Samoa, the average eincome is stated as $1170.So maybe, maybe not. My wife holds four masters degrees and worked three jobs in Russia, in her field of study, for $50 month. So I wouldn’t discount the financial side of the story.

  • Robin

    I will just note that people shouldn’t be thrown by the use of the word poofta. It was commonly used at my east coast (USA) high school. That was quite a bit more recently than the 19th century. Who knows how these things travel?

  • @Icaarus

    I’d have to disagree with your assertion that Mormons don’t refer to Joseph Smith as a prophet. The following scriptural quote is often cited both by general authorities and in congregations: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” ( ). Also, Mormons continue to sustain members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve by the title “prophet, seer, and revelator” (,_seer,_and_revelator ). The reverence/sacredness given him here is a bit extreme, but he’s profoundly respected as one of God’s chosen mouthpieces.

  • Miki

    Even if it’s fake for the person writing it, it’s real to someone experiencing it. The scenario is plausible, even if bizarre, and Richard’s response was sound and universally applicable to anyone similarly situated. When we (the religious-turned-atheist) become liberated we sometimes forget the crazy shit we observed.

  • L. Foster

    Something that stuck out in my attention was “I Want to prove to everyone that I am a atheist!” I wonder even if “atheist” is the word Kovana intended to use. I’m reminded of the episode of South Park where all the parents, shocked and scared by scandal in the Catholic church, all declared “We’re atheists now!” When in fact they weren’t really atheists; what they were were people against this particular practice, who were dissatisfied with their church. Atheism (I surely don’t have to state here) isn’t just believing that the particular church you’re raised in is wrong.

    Also, I hope that Kovana doesn’t really think atheists “have all the answers”. Nobody has all the answers. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that what we know for sure is that a lot of the time we don’t have the answers, because “God did it all” is not an acceptable answer (nor is “It must be a ghost”, “It must have been in a past life”, or “It must be Mercury in retrograde”.) What I personally believe as an atheist is that I want to know the actual answers, and that the way to do that is through science.

    So, atheists don’t have all the answers; but we do actually ask the questions.

  • Joseph Caine

    I think that Richard is right, even if this is a trolling attempt, it’s better to take the letter at face value and just give the advice. Wow, we look like a bunch of idiots to some 12 year old who is sniggering at his computer screen. “Oh man, I got them SO good! I’m gonna post this on ED!” That’s a better scenario than alienating a girl by calling her a liar because her situation sounds a little too crazy to be true (Sometimes truth IS stranger than fiction)

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