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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About Adam Lee

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

  • Bob

    I agree with this author and give towards good causes! Along with giving to better their current state is the idea of training others to be skeptical and rational. There is a line in one of the Symphony Science Songs “Teach a person to reason and they will think for a lifetime”.

  • Bryn

    By then, I think it fairly safe to say, none of us reading this now will be around.

    Challenge accepted.

  • Tommykey

    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.

    Aren’t you a glutton for punishment?

    I thought about it, but I figured I’ve seen enough lunar eclipses in my lifetime and there will be better opportunities in the future.

  • Demonhype

    Well…the wealthy and powerful classes still technically rule everything or at least almost everything, and they are doing their best to return to those halcyon days of human livestock controlled by a minority of human demigods–and have done a pretty good job of convincing the poor and downtrodden, as well as the average, to help them do it by voting against their own best interests and supporting various violations from both government and corporations, and convincing the average that if we only de-regulated the wealthy and powerful and let them run rampant the magic hand of the free market will magically make everything better–because what could go wrong when the obscenely wealthy use their power and money to essentially buy the legislative process and strip the dignity from the less affluent? Scary times indeed.

    That’s my only beef, however. :) Otherwise, this was a great Christmas post!

  • staceyjw

    I appreciate this post, I feel the same way. I live in Mexico now,and see crushing poverty every day, which has really put my good fortune in perspective. The rich STILL own everything, and it’s getting worse in the Us everyday.If we don’t stop it, the US will be like Mexico with it’s extreme disparities of wealth, no regulations and a corrupt market and government. it’s still an amazing time and plae to be, but I digress………

    So, instead of getting gifts for the holidays, I have everyone make donations in my name instead (Otherwise they skip it all together and both you and the charity lose out!). I support animal welfare charities first (ASPCA, Humane Society and smaller ferret shelters), along with Humanist groups, but if someone has other ideas for spending, that’s fine. At first, people resisted, but after a few years, they ALL realized I was serious when I said II have all I need and to send it elsewhere.

    I’m not anti material wealth, but when you have what you want, why be greedy for more? Having privilege should come with responsibility to help out those without it.

  • staceyjw

    demon hype- too true. for all those that vote against their own interests, I invite them to visit me in Mexico so they can see what they are trying to create. Though, the current crop of corporate overlords would make the US more like India than Mexico, but since Mexico is close and many people know at least one immigrant, it’s a good example to use. Oh yeah, no regulations that stop the wealthy from ripping the rest of off, how could that go wrong? *sigh*

    This makes me sad- we finally, for the first time in human history have the ability to get rid of starvation and poverty on a global scale, but we don’t have the will to do it.

    On a positive note, if the wealth gets even more concentrated into ever fewer hands, at least we will have fewer people to kill when the poor and working people revolt……. (KIDDING- they won’t ever revolt. They are too busy listening to Fox news) /snark/

  • gamba

    Ebon, you really are furtunate and you are right; Am spending this holidays with my mum here in the village (Raba, Nigeria) where people are still “wallowing in superstition and feudalism….where the wealthy and powerful classes ruled everything, where science and medicine are rudimentary at best….” But like you, i (a little exception) wouldn’t want to say “stone age” cos i’m “furtunate” to find you thru the INTERNET.

    You sound so passionate, loveful and kindful (not what i was told in the church about atheists) I think, the kinda guy who if again privileged to step a foot in ‘our’ world, might touch “souls” that weren’t touched all these years by all these God-love-pastors i see around us, (they and their God was here for about 120 yrs) never gave us shit, they cant even guide us out of poverty, instead, they want our money sent to their head qrts for -only their God knows what- for the past 4 decades. While we die in hunger.

  • Herb

    I discovered Kiva through this site – thanks again for advertising it. I added some more funds to my Kiva account today.

  • Ebonmuse

    For the record, I in no way meant to suggest that Nigeria or any other developing nation is living in the equivalent of the Stone Age. I meant that phrase literally, as a reference to the groups of indigenous people still living in Papua New Guinea, the Amazon, southeast Asia, and other places who continue to practice a hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle.