An Atheist’s Yule Sermon

I woke up at 3 AM earlier this week to see the lunar eclipse. Dressing in the dark, my wife and I went out into the freezing silence of the winter solstice to see the moon: a small disc high in the sky swallowed by the planet’s shadow, glowing coppery-red with the reflected light of every sunset on Earth.

I’ll admit, it wasn’t the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had (being fully awake tends to facilitate those transports of awe and wonder). But I’m glad I saw it, nevertheless. If nothing else, it was a rare opportunity: the next few lunar eclipses won’t be visible from North America, and the next time a total eclipse coincides with the solstice, it will be in 2094. By then, I think it fairly safe to say, none of us reading this now will be around.

And the rarity of this conjunction got me thinking – about how fortunate I am to be alive in this time, in this place. If I had been born a thousand years ago, it would have been into a nasty, brutish world wallowing in superstition and feudalism. If I had been born even a hundred and fifty years ago, it would have been into a world where the wealthy and the powerful classes ruled everything, where science and medicine were rudimentary at best. Even today, there are millions of people who live in brutal dictatorships or absolute theocracies, who subsist in grinding poverty or live in tribal cultures that haven’t changed appreciably since the Stone Age.

I could have been born in one of those times and places, but I wasn’t. And I recognize that being alive when and where I am was an enormous stroke of good fortune. To be born in a country where there’s no official religion or state church, where human rights are protected by law, where the people are free to speak their minds and their votes determine the government – considered over the span of human history, that’s a rare and exceptional privilege.

But even within the circle of citizens of First World democracies, I can’t deny that I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I wasn’t born into crushing poverty or abuse or neglect, but into a loving, well-to-do middle-class family. I wasn’t raised in a fundamentalist household where my mind was poisoned with dogma and indoctrination, but into a secular home where my parents let me make up my own mind. I’ve been fortunate in qualifying for – and being able to afford – an education in a world-class university. In the midst of a severe recession, I have a stable, well-paying job. I don’t deny that I’ve worked for what I have – but I also can’t deny the major role that chance played in my being born into a life where I’d have the opportunity to achieve all these things. The vast majority of people who’ve ever lived wouldn’t have had any of those opportunities.

And that knowledge, that I’ve been the beneficiary of incredible privilege, gives me the uneasy feeling of possessing something I haven’t earned. Why should I have been the fortunate one while so many others were left behind? I didn’t do anything to deserve it – I couldn’t have, since it came to me from the moment of my birth – and I can’t repay it since there’s no one to whom such repayment would be due. There’s only one other response that eases my conscience, and that’s to turn and offer a helping hand to those who didn’t get the same opportunities I’ve had and who could do well with them, given the chance.

That’s why, this holiday season, I’ve been making donations through sites like Kiva and Global Giving, which allow you to choose which projects to donate to and show exactly what your money will be used for. Of course, there’s an ocean of need out there, more than any one person could ever alleviate – just browsing these sites will make that plain. But even if no one can do everything, everyone can contribute something, and if we all joined in that effort, the amount of good that could be accomplished is enormous, and I, for one, intend to do my part. If you feel as I do that you’ve been the recipient of undeserved good fortune, why not join me in extending that hand, and help in the effort to make those same opportunities available to all members of the human race?

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Is Assisted Dying Narcissism?
On Moral Superheroism
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.