Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am not asking for advice but being simply curious if I should count my self lucky. Up until the age of 10 my family attended our Episcopal church every Sunday without fail, something I had always hated. At this point I still believed, I said my prayers every day, we said grace at meals, and basically did the usual Christian stuff. I simply hated going to church because it was so boring, and I would have rather slept in on Sunday as it was the weekend. Therefore at the age of around 10 or 11 (not sure exactly but I know it was in the late 1990’s) I told my parents I was an atheist just so I would get to stay home on Sundays. They were somewhat upset, especially my mother but much less than what I have read on other Ask Richard emails. After that my family still went to church but eventually stopped going as our denomination had ordained a gay bishop and my dad said why be part of the church when they go against their own scripture. Now none of my family is anti gay, my dad just saw it as ignoring your own religious doctrine. After that day none of us has ever attended a church service except for a friends wedding or with my brothers future in-laws as they are pretty serious Christians. Fast forward to today and it seems like my family are all atheists or agnostics. My mother now refers to herself as spiritual and believes in something after death, but I don’t say anything about it since she has gone through two cases of severe breast cancer and years of various medical procedures so I don’t want to make her any more depressed.
So basically, I’m asking if I should count my self lucky as I had it easy when becoming an atheist? I read of people who grapple with it for years and I decided I was one before hitting puberty, my family never gave me problems with it, nor have they ever tried to dismiss what I say. I came to accept evolution on my own while I still believed in god and eventually dropped him altogether. I actually feel guilty for not going through some life changing decision over a long period of time while being put down for it. My family went from Christian to atheist in just a couple of years without any real problems, they just wound up at it.
p.s. A little bit about me. I was born in Saudi Arabia and half my family is Arab, with my grandparents being Palestinians. I am related to a former Arch Bishop of Jerusalem and was actually baptized in the river Jordan.
Yes, I think you should count yourself very lucky, and in more ways than those you have described.
Yes, as you say, you’re lucky to have had an easy internal process, as well as parents who didn’t abuse or disown you when you renounced your faith, and who later changed in the same direction. You’re also lucky that their religion was not the one that is a little more prevalent in the part of the world where you were born, wherein often the prescribed penalty for apostasy is death.
Let’s look at some of the other ways in which you and the rest of us are lucky:
Starting with the basics, we’re lucky to be alive. As Richard Dawkins has famously said,
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
While we are here, we’re lucky to have our minds free of belief systems polished over centuries to be both powerfully coercive and powerfully seductive, that guard themselves from challenge with guilt, fear, and tranquilizing reassurances. We’re lucky to have minds that do not accept childish explanations for our questions, or childish motives for our moral behavior, such as reward and punishment. We’re lucky to appreciate the preciousness of our daily lives. We’re lucky to live in a time in history and a place on Earth where we had the chance to find that mental freedom, whether it was effortless or hard won.
When you hear how arduous and painful some other atheist’s or agnostic’s journey has been or still is, there’s no cause to feel guilty just because your journey has been easier. Your best response is to feel guiltlessly lucky. Not just lucky to be you and not them, but lucky also to have met them or heard their story. Admire their courage, grit, and tenacity, and keep their inspiration in your back pocket in case some other kind of adversity comes your way. If it somehow bolsters someone else’s resolve in any kind of trial, then their hardship has paid unexpected positive dividends. And that brings me to one more shared good fortune we should appreciate:
We’re lucky to have each other, to have comrades in unprecedented numbers, to have fellowship that can reach around the world. We’re very lucky for the advent of this extremely convenient medium for finding each other discreetly and safely, where we can each go by our own comfort level of being anonymous versus being known, and we can encourage each other to stretch our limits. Freed from the necessity of slow and cautious probing, we can meet a like-minded friend face-to-face for the first time at lunch because online we were safe to be open about our views.
Jason, your story, with your youthful realization and not too difficult family adjustment is the kind of story that we all hope will become commonplace in the next few decades. My story, an uninteresting one which involves no internal struggle or family conflict at all, is the kind of story we all hope will be commonplace a few decades after that. I hope that some day in the not too distant future, people will no longer have anything to remind them of how lucky they are to think freely. I hope they take it completely for granted. I hope they’ll be puzzled and perplexed if they read some obscure old archived blog column where we were appreciating how lucky we were.