Ask Richard: Should I Count Myself Lucky? February 28, 2011

Ask Richard: Should I Count Myself Lucky?

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

Dear Richard,

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.

Jason.

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.

Dear Jason,

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.

Richard

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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  • Shawn

    I was born to almost completely secular parents. Not atheist. Not religious. Just secular.

    So when I started asking my Catholic friends about Midnight Mass (then Christmas songs, then the story of the first Christmas, then what a ‘virgin’ was, etc.), it didn’t even pass the sniff test. I chalked it up to adult weirdness. It wasn’t until I began to learn a bit of psychology that religion made any sense.

    No angst. No drama. I feel like Tim Michin in Rock ‘n Roll Nerd.

  • venus

    me, too, Shawn.

  • Raised Godless

    Me too, Shawn & venus. This is really refreshing to read. I did have angst in relation to some friends when I was around 10-14 years old, but I had a level-headed family to put things into perspective for me.

  • Little James

    I actually feel guilty for not going through some life changing decision over a long period of time while being put down for it.

    Christians sometimes get this way too, where it’s almost like a competition to see who was the worst sinner before getting born again. The greater the turnaround, the bigger the badge of honor, and sometimes the same is true for conversions in the other direction. While dramatic conversions are often astonishing, it’s silly to get caught up in it like it’s a competition.

    This attitude never made any sense to me, even when I was a Christian. It would never have rung true for me to go through some emotional born-again moment. I never felt any need for such an experience, and sometimes it made me wonder whether I was doing things right. I guess I felt like you do now, in a way.

    One thing that brought me comfort was a theory I heard about troubled vs untroubled souls. I probably won’t do it justice, but it’s something like this: A troubled soul feels unloved or unworthy of love and therefore feels a need to go through a ceremonial and sudden transformation in order to be gain approval with God. This is the typical born-again pattern (I don’t mean to say that “untroubled” is better or worse than “troubled”, they are just different perspectives born of different circumstances). An untroubled soul has enough love already around him that he doesn’t feel like he needs to reinvent himself in order to gain God’s approval. Knowing I was one of these “untroubled souls” was comforting… the fact that I already did (and still do) feel worthy of love (which was due to my family rather than any God, of course) is definitely a reason to count myself lucky.

    Similarly, my conversion to atheism was slow, gradual, and undramatic, just like all of my personal growth has been. I try to remember that where I am now is more important than how far (or how short of a distance) I’ve come.

    Best of luck!

  • CanadianNihilist

    So this guy became a pretend atheist in able to sleep in on Sunday.
    Ok, I get that. Waking up is for chumps. But he was still religious even after learning a bit about evolution, and then just faded god out of the picture.
    If he still believed in god while he accepted evolution how did drop him altogether? Was it just rational thought left no place for god? or was it too much effort to juggle them both?

  • Danielle

    Yup, I’m in the same situation. My dad was a Catholic and my mom was a Christian, but they were very secular in my upbringing. I never went to church but they told me that the bible was the word of god, and I watched bible videos and learned about the flood as from god’s wrath, but I never really believed it.
    Eventually I just dropped it altogether, which is really kind of a blur. I don’t know when I “lost faith”, it just happened slowly over time without me even realizing it.
    I learned about evolution and read about other atheists and watched videos. I have learned more than I ever did in high school regarding science. That knowledge eventually spread to my family, I would sort of “debate” my parents when they said something religious, and they didn’t really have anything to convince me. They ended up going with the “just got to have faith” excuse.
    Now both of my parents are agnostic-deists. They know the Bible is written by man and is flawed. They know there is no such thing as the Christian god. But they feel that there might be something out there.

  • Shawn

    @venus and @RaisedGodless

    It’s nice to meet you, my vanilla brethren.

  • Mihoda

    …same story as most. Secular upbringing, minimal exposure to the bible, the “God stuff” was classified as “weird shit adults do.” Never bought in.
    But… I have come to resent religion.

    No faith whose tenants demand the destruction of the individual will is worth having.
    No faith whose god is cruel and unjust is worth having.

    It’s all right there; Bible, Koran, whatever. How can people bring themselves to believe when it is so destructive to both self and family?

  • Thegoodman

    My story is very similar to Jason’s. My parents in the past few years have started attending church more frequently; but I think that is more of social issue than a religious one.

    Good to know someone else out there hasn’t had such a hard route to freedom.

  • exe

    Jason, if it helps, maybe you can look at it, not as an easy way out, but as showing others that it CAN be done, going from more-or-less religious to atheist without a lot of hysterics. I also find it interesting that in your case it seemed it was the child leading the parents. It is refreshing to hear that rational thought can win out no matter whether it comes from “traditional leaders” (parents) or “traditional followers” (young children).

  • Matt H.

    I grew up in a rather tolerant, lukewarm Methodist family. My dad’s side wasn’t religious at all. My mom’s family were the Methodists. We visited church occasionally as a family. There was a big social factor involved.

    I was curious and read up on lots of woo and pagan beliefs at various times growing up. It was like believing in magic, I thought it would be neat.

    I got “tricked” into attending bible club during High School lunch at one point. I stayed and listened out of courtesy. For some reason I got involved in it. I think because I was depressed and lonely and the bible kids acted like my friends. I decided they were batshit crazy after attending a “get together” where the kids took their secular music CDs front stage and broke them. I sorta leaned more towards agnostic after that.

    My transition from agnostic to atheist was gradual and not really inspired by anything.

  • Douglas Kirk

    I love this. It shows that atheists come in all stripes and emphasizes that it’s not about how we got here; it’s what we do that makes all the difference.

  • Luther

    I hope they take it completely for granted.

    I hope they understand that it was not a given and it is not a given that it will continue. That like democracy, equality, and many other things it requires eternal vigilance.

    And despite our hopes and best efforts it is far from a given. If Robert G. Ingersoll were alive today he would be completely surprised and disappointed at how little has changed and how far things have regressed.

  • “There is no such thing as luck. There is only adequate or inadequate preparation to cope with a statistical universe.” – Robert Heinlein

  • AyaSka

    I had a secular upbringing on the home front. Being Norwegian though, I had Christianity as a subject in school for nine years, then “Religion” (2/3 Christianity, 1/3 Other Stuff People Believe) for three years. And because they taught it in school, I believed it. God was presented as as factual as 2+2 = 4 and A is for Duck. (… it is in Norwegian. XP)

    That thought scares the hell out of me now. My Christian friends insist that we’re just teaching the children the cultural foundation of our society. But it was presented as fact, by a person whose job it was to teach us facts.

    Anyway, God just sort of faded out of my world view. I started disliking Christianity and its followers after my confirmation, as our teacher was a relatively nasty specimen. (Compared to the bland (rather than blind) faith of most representatives of the state church anyway.)

    I tried to kickstart my faith by turning to less anemic religions, but I just couldn’t find any lasting conviction. So that part of my life just faded from lack of interest. So for all intents and purposes I’m an atheist. No gods or their texts have any say in my life. I used to call myself an agnostic until I realised that if I actually believed there would be any judgement about my eternal soul at the end of mortal life, wouldn’t I at least be trying to placate some deities out there? But I wasn’t. So the label agnostic just didn’t feel right.

    Maybe I’m just apathetic. 🙂

  • Angry Vince

    I started out in a semi-religious upbringing – church on Sunday, Sunday school and after-school christian classes, Christianity Class in primary school (this was the seventies), christian camp, and also being a cross-bearer for the chruch service.
    Ok, so maybe ‘semi’ doesn’t seem particularly correct.
    Anyone remember that Simpson episode where they join the cult and the teacher asks Lisa some questions (all the answers being “The Leader”) and telling Lisa “You do want to be right, don’t you?” Lisa struggles with the conundrum of being both intelligent & sceptical versus being the smart kid in class. Yep, that was me.
    Luckily, intelligence and scepticism slowly won out and I started making my own calls on my belief (or lack of). The transition was slow but relatively easy – my dad had always treated religion as a joke and my brothers also sublimated into athiests.
    By the time I got to university, I was a big “A” Athiest and have remained so ever since.
    There was no real struggle within the family or society in becoming Athiest, but then I also grew up in NZ and we’re a godless lot – the last three Prime Ministers have either been athiest or agnostic.
    Pretty easy, in retrospect.

  • what i’ve learned from reading this and other atheist blogs is just how much difference it makes where one lives. some of these letters to Richard just frighten me, as i don’t and never have lived in a “bible belt” and i have a hard time imagining being surrounded by hard core fundamentalists who control everything, every business, school board and social calendar. i really pity those kids growing up in a sea of woo, and socially pressured to conform to outward demonstrations of belief. this kid is “lucky” in the sense that it sounds like that’s not where he lives, and for that he should be grateful.

    but truly, there are “2 americas.” one of them is damn close to Saudi Arabia but with a xtian twist, and the other exists with perhaps not enough understanding of the fundamentalist other half. but atheists today face the same challenge gays faced for many years: the only option is to *get out* and move to a big city, college town, or place with true diversity.

  • Jon

    Finally, a response from Richard that isn’t 3x as long as the original letter.

  • Jason,

    Your story does sound fairly mild compared to what many have posted here. For that you are lucky fortunate. Even after we make the transition away from religious belief, we still must live in a world populated (and sometimes controlled) by religious people. I’m sure you will face challenges in the future even if your internal (immediate) family life is stable and peaceful. I wish you luck with your interactions with the larger world. I know in my life I had no internal family problems at all with religion but I did face a number of challenges in dealing with my very religious peers and classmates. It gets better as you become more established in the world. I’ve had a number of girls not want to date me because I was an atheist. But eventually, I found one that saw the larger picture and now I’m happily married. That is just one example, but it is possible to navigate a course through religious waters as an atheist. You mainly need perseverance, a little creativity, and a positive attitude.

  • SWare

    My family recovered from Catholicism when I was around 4 years of age because our church deemed my nephew a bastard for being born out of wedlock and they refused to baptize him. My sister & I were discussing this once and she recalled that this same church publicly humiliated a particular woman for being divorced and they denied her communion from then on.
    While this experience drove my family from the Catholic church, it was not enough to drive religion completely out of our lives. My mother put me through vacation bible school (an oxymoron if you ask me) at a local Presbyterian Church to ensure I would still have some religion.
    In middle school I would occasionally visit the churches that my friends attended and even got involved in a Baptist youth group. At this youth group, I recall the pastor telling us quite explicitly that we should not date people outside of our religion. This never sat well with me and I did not last much longer with this group.
    I spent a number of years into my own adulthood making attempts to find the “right” religion in some form of Christianity and just never found it. I eventually exhausted of my search and asked myself really hard questions about what I truly believe and refuse to believe. Then one day out of sheer curiosity I picked up Sam Harris’ book “Letter to a Christian Nation”. That book changed my life. It made me realize for the first time in my life that religion is no necessity, but in fact is a huge deterrent to finding true fulfillment in life. Not only that but it made me realize that even though most people around me are religious, that there was no need to conform and that by conforming I was doing myself and everyone else a disservice. I think one of the main and admittedly silly reasons that I kept looking at religion was simply because “that is what people do”.
    There are times when I think of my journey to this point and wish that I had awoken to this place sooner but in all honesty, the religious background and experience I had is extremely good to have in explaining the hypocrisy of it all when debates arise.
    I also live in Iowa, where the debate on gay marriage has heated up. I am proud to say that my life experiences have armed me well for standing up to the fundies that are trying to force this matter to a vote (as opposed to getting our government to work on job creation or the economy…you know petty stuff like that) even though gay marriage has been legal here for 2 years and has harmed no one. All of the so called reasoning behind their attacks have been religious based.

  • Richard Wade

    Jon,
    If more than 140 characters at a time is too long for you, I suggest you get your Wisdom McNuggets from Bartlett’s or fortune cookies.

  • My deconversion story is much longer and slightly more arduous (though I still had it easier than a lot of folks, I think). But I had to sort of chuckle at the triviality of the motivation for “Jason”‘s initial foray into atheism, since it reminded me a little bit of myself: I am pretty sure I would have arrived at nonbelief eventually anyway, but my journey got quite a shot in the arm because of the simple fact that I was wholly socially incompatible with the LDS culture in which I was raised. I just didn’t identify with these people, didn’t get along with them, didn’t enjoy their activities, didn’t have enough common ground intellectually, found them all pretty corny and trite… This simple preference, essentially a purely aesthetic preference, was impelling me away from religion long before I had any reasoned or principled objections to it. heh…

    In fact, I think it’s fair to say that if I hadn’t found my fellow churchgoers so annoying on a social level, I probably would still consider myself an agnostic. I doubt I ever would have been motivated to scrutinize religious claims to the level I have, and to recognize their epistemological bankruptcy.

  • Jachra

    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.

    Ehhhhh….
    I don’t really find this remotely comforting. I can see how some people do, but it strikes me as disturbingly similar to the ‘don’t masturbate’ argument some Christians employ.
    More importantly, I just don’t consider it to be terribly valid – unrealized potential isn’t very valuable.

  • I grew up atheist, so there was zero drama, angst, or inner turmoil for me.

    In my life, lack of religion was completely natural. I didn’t have a god-concept in my head at all until I was about 7 or 8, and even then I figured that everyone else knew God, heaven, and hell were make-believe. It took me years to understand that other people actually did believe in those things and, shock of shocks, took them seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever quite recovered from that realization, LOL. I always reflect on how lucky I am when I read some of the letters people write to Richard. My experience has been so easy in comparison.