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