Ask Richard: Looking for Role Models, Mentors and Heroes October 21, 2010

Ask Richard: Looking for Role Models, Mentors and Heroes

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these kinds of questions for people, it’s awesome to have this kind of resource. You’re kind of a mentor/role model figure who is accessible to a lot of people in the context of atheism, and that’s really important, because most role models set up for us in society are in the context of religion. As it happens, that’s what my question is about.

To me, atheism is a part of my general growth as a person, and my decision to become an atheist was directly in the context of personal growth. The world-view frees me of a lot of unnecessary baggage and “cognitive dissonance.” When I first became an atheist, it was not because I was at all knowledgeable about Pascal’s wager or evolutionary theory or the atrocities committed in the name of religion – it was because I arbitrarily chose it for the sake of escaping from all the results of the beliefs I previously had. Sam Harris puts it so well in The End of Faith when he says the belief that it is going to rain invariably puts an umbrella in everybody’s hand on the way out in the morning. Beliefs have direct results, I wanted better results in my life, so I saw atheism and literally “tried it on for size”

It fit! Pretty cool. Two years later, I can say that was one of the best decisions I ever made. I’m lucky I was able to see how beliefs affected my actions and those around me without reading Sam Harris, because as a Jehovah’s Witness I shouldn’t have touched his work or anything like it with a ten-foot pole.

What is your process for growing as a person, and how does atheism, skepticism, and the pursuit of truth factor it? And more specifically, who are your role-models? Where do you find good role-models? Do you take anything good from the religious figureheads typically set up as role models and mentor figures in our society, or have you found good secular alternatives? Are your parents godless, and if so, are/were they a positive force in your life?

More succinctly, where can I find people who really have it together who aren’t just gonna tell me that God gave it to them?

Thanks, from a 22-year-old newbie atheist and newbie at life in general. 🙂


Dear Keith,

I admire your willingness to simply try a viewpoint “on for size,” and see if it fits. That takes an open-mindedness that is hard to find. It also takes an uncommon confidence in yourself, knowing that you’ll be able to take the viewpoint off again if you find that it doesn’t fit.

Keep that basic openness. Never become too attached to your beliefs or views. Hold them lightly in your hand, or they might grip you like a vice. You wouldn’t want your favorite clothes to root themselves into your skin, no matter how much you like them right now.

Having role models, mentors or heroes has its pluses and minuses. Imitation is one basic way we learn, but imitation is an indiscriminate copying of another person. I want to recommend a more careful choosing of the person’s best qualities to match and even excel, so I’ll use a similar word, emulation.

The people whom we hold in high regard are human, so it is important to not forget that they are fallible, they have their faults, and they sometimes stumble. Nobody has it all together. Some just have parts put together that you value. In fact, apparent perfection is a warning sign: Either they are deceiving you, or you are deceiving yourself.

In your pursuit of truth, don’t lose track of something far more important, honesty.

I can increase my respect for someone who is widely admired but who can honestly and unequivocally admit when he’s blown it. Trying to cover it up to maintain a facade of flawless virtue I usually find much more objectionable than the fault itself.

When you emulate role models, mentors or heroes, your self-responsibility is very important. You don’t just give yourself up to doing whatever they do or tell you to do. You look at each specific behavior or idea, and you decide if it fits your own developing collection of values. If later you discover that you’ve copied parts that are not desirable, you must fully own the responsibility for that and not blame that person for leading you astray.

Indiscriminate reverence or idolization can harm the admired as well as the admirers. It’s something I call adoration poisoning. I’ve known several wonderful, wise, generous, loving, charming and charismatic people who started out with selfless and virtuous motives, and it was natural for others to gravitate around them, then begin to admire them, then be in awe of them, and finally to adore them. Slowly that worked its way into their egos, and they very gradually became more vain, self-centered, self-important, arrogant, and finally abusive. The original qualities that attracted people were all corrupted, except they still had the charm and charisma. The outcome is usually a pattern of increasing exploitation and mistreatment that damages everyone involved.

Thank you for your kind words about my being a role model or mentor. I must admit that the praise I get for this column feels great, but I’m susceptible to adoration poisoning just like anyone else. Praise encourages me to keep going when I’m tired, but it also makes my vanity and egotism grow. When I get fair and accurate criticism, and I see the error in my thinking or behavior, that’s when my character grows. It isn’t comfortable, but it’s necessary to keep the toxic levels down.

Now to answer your questions about me: My process for growing as a person is to stay involved with other people in constructive efforts. I try to be exposed to differing views, and I aim for understanding rather than agreement. I put myself out there, such as by writing this column, and take the risk of stumbling. When I do, I get up, make amends and keep going.

My dad was an agnostic and my mom is a deist. They taught me more by their example than their words to think things out carefully. I seem to have been born with a skeptical nature. I was never able to be fully convinced of something without seeing it for myself. I sometimes joke that my first words were not “ma ma,” but “yeah, right.” Atheism is only one outgrowth of my skepticism. Skepticism is not the stubborn refusal to believe, but the patient willingness to withhold belief until acceptable evidence is shown.

I can’t actually single out a person whom I’d call a hero of mine. I emulate bits and pieces from people I admire, so if something about them turns out to be not so admirable, I don’t have to throw out the good stuff. Some are atheists, some theists, some have no interest in either of those things, some are very different from me.

With this “buffet” method, I can find good role models anywhere, seeing traits that are worth emulating in tattooed bikers or silk-suited bankers. Old men and little girls have been my role models for small parts of their character. I’ve known people who are very smart, or very educated, or very eloquent, or very talented, or very rich, or very energetic, or very strong or very beautiful. While I may have envied some of those traits, I’ve only been impressed when they demonstrate their compassion, fairness, courage, honesty, and respect for the freedom of others.

One frequent source of role models are the people who write these letters. They tell me about their daunting problems, and sometimes they seem bewildered and lost, but I usually see their caring, love, forgiveness and wisdom trying to come out from underneath all that pain. They’re an inspiration. As I described at the beginning, I admire something in you.

Keith, keep your heart and your eyes open, and you’ll see role models, mentors and heroes all around you. Don’t invest too much into any particular one, and you can gather so many scattered pearls of wisdom that you’ll amass a treasure trove. You yourself may already be a role model in some way for someone else. When you discover this, just accept it as it is, neither wanting to gather more of that admiration nor push it away. Encourage the person to emulate what they see as valuable and to collect their pearls from many other places too.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Grimalkin

    I don’t usually read the Ask Richards (sorry, Richard!), but this one caught my attention. Great question and great answer!

    As I was reading the question, all I kept thinking was “why follow a person?” People are so flawed, so human. I don’t want to aspire to be an ordinary human with flaws and idiosyncracies. I want to aspire to be perfect!

    So when I choose role models for myself, I don’t look at the people, I look at the aspects of them that I admire. Some are real, some are fictional, some are atheists, some are theists. If they have a trait that I admire, I emulate that trait. I frankenstein all these pieces together to create a whole person that I then try to be.

    So I was very glad when Richard responded with a similar answer. Let’s chase traits, not people.

    Or as a Hindu once said to me: “admire the art, not the artist.”

  • The “Ask Richards” are my favorite part of the blog (sorry Hemant!) 🙂 (but I like the rest as well).

    Kieth, congratulation for having the courage to “try atheism on for size”. When I first read your letter, my immediate thought was that trying atheism on didn’t make any sense. You either believe in theistic propositions or you don’t. But in thinking about my own life (I’m a life-long atheist) I did kind-of try on a loose metaphoric feel-good Christianity once… but it didn’t fit right. It took too much effort to maintain the cognitive dissidence and there were always things about even liberal Christianity that I found untenable.

    The only thing atheism is really missing is a social support system with places to meet about every 4 or 5 blocks throughout the land. Things are getting better, though. The internet is great in this regard. Due to this lack of social support, atheism does require adherents to be a bit more independent and self-reliant. I usually find inspiration from people who are self-confident but in a way that is not egotistical. Consider the Jesus archetype. I like the idea of Jesus hanging out with the down and out, saying no to power, and saying not to be all consumed with the self.… but I don’t like the idea of Jesus giving bad advice about leaving families, saying the world is almost at an end, and supposedly passing judgment on who is saved or not. As Richard said, I look for the good in everybody.

  • my response? learn to love a state of “meh.” which is to say: you’re young, and right now and given your religious background/upbringing, religion seems like it’s a really, really, really important question and position upon which one takes, in both the public and family ways. but eventually, you gain the ultimate freedom:

    you don’t care anymore! about any of it! you’re completely free of doubt and fear borne of religious claims.

    i love it when believers “curse” me for being gay or an atheist; it’s a good laugh. i stroll along with jolly, naked abandon in Gaytown on my way to a club, looking at the poor slobs in a rented van coming to our neck of the woods to “save” us. i sleep thru the prayer part of funerals or family dinners, i read interesting books about history and modern art instead of wasting my time on columns about religious morality or texts on the lives of the saints (snore!). i turn the volume down when a politician starts talking about gawd, and i have a really great tool with which i can judge the intelligence of a potential new lover or friend. is “god” (or whatever) a big part of their lives? if so, i’m fairly sure i won’t also be. and it’s great! because of all this, i have found it amazingly easy to attract and make and keep great friends and lovers who are like me, and think of religion as something for (basically) the childish mind. we don’t need them, and they don’t want us, so everybody is happy!

    to me, the best part of atheism is the freedom. have you ever had a moment reading the news about foreign lands, about an ethnic or religious conflict you literally can’t understand? you think to yourself, “wow. i can’t believe people would spend so much money and effort and time, even to the point of killing each other, or their own families, over a question like that. i mean really, who cares?” it’s sort of the same thing. i know that’s sort of an “Ugly American” way to frame it, but the not caring part is still true. when you don’t devote your life to making lists of people to condemn, hate, oppress or mock just because they challenge your orthodoxy, life is much better.

    the best part of not devoting your life to hate and fear? it’s easier to get along with almost anybody. i actually get along just fine with intellectually honest believers; UUs, Quakers, hell, even some Baptists and pagan mystics and i are friends. but the fear-driven believers and haters? they have no power over me, and never will. that’s the true gift atheism brings.

    the only reason i pay close attention to some aspects of the religious/believer’s world is political. religion is politics by a different name/form. when it forces itself into the common political and social contract, i educate myself about it, to better fight it. and usually win. best of luck, Keith. you’re not alone.

  • which is to say, Keith: your role model is and always should be you.

  • Claudia

    I’d like to add that it’s not only people who can be role-models. Sometimes stories can teach us about the kinds of people we wish to be too.

    I’m nowhere near as sophisticated in this sense as Richard; I do have heroes. However having a hero doesn’t mean you idolize someone to the point where you assume their perfection. One of my heroes is Norman Borlaug. He’s a hero to me because he represents an aspiration I hold dear; making lives better through science. I don’t know much about his personality, but that matters less to me than the ideal he embodies.

    I guess my point is that if you can engage better with certain ideas if you give them faces and names, then that’s ok, just as long as it’s the ideals/values/capacities that are the actual object of admiration, more than the people themselves.

  • Keith

    This. Is. Awesome. I don’t know which is better, Richard’s response, or the comments.

    I have met more people worth emulating in the last couple years than I had my whole life before. The first step was to open myself up to meeting people instead of disqualifying them for not having the same beliefs as me like a good JW.

    I’ll be sure and take your advice, Richard, and keep it balanced. Catch people at their best, and just treat them like humans. Hero-worship is no better than any other kind of worship.

    Thanks again, guys. 😀

  • JohnJay

    I don’t know about a role model… but last week the topic of Pat Tillman came up again. If anyone, here was a man who should have, and was, given a great deal of respect…. until people found out that he was an atheist. It seems they forgot and still “thank god” for people like him, and totally ignore his atheism. As if an atheist couldn’t be moral or a hero.

    If you don’t know the whole sad story, here’s the recent article. You must watch the vid of his bother, Richard, talking to Bill Maher. What he said at his brother’s memorial service is incredible. He’s my hero also. (warning… some NSFW language)

  • Lael

    Good for you Keith! I was raised a JW and know it can be hard to leave, it literally pulled my family apart. All I can say is take knowledge and joy where you find it and like Richard said, don’t put all of your hope/ faith/ love or addrimation in one person. Think for yourself and enjoy sleeping in on sunday 😉

  • Carl Sagan has always been one of my skeptic heroes.

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