People born with privilege like to believe that their good fortune is deserved, whether by divine favor or by superior work ethic. It's difficult to accept that our blessings are due to chance, but that acceptance is essential to building a fairer world.

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[Previous: The deathbed perspective]

If there’s a god, it must like me.

I’ve had a good life so far. I don’t have too many regrets (some, but not a lot). I have my health and, even after entering middle age, a body that feels fit and strong. I have a blissfully happy marriage, a son who’s my pride and joy, a loving family, and friends old and new. I have enough money to provide for my needs and to fulfill reasonable desires.

Most of all, what makes my life worthwhile is hope. The world has its share of pain and sorrow, but I try to keep that in perspective and remember that past eras faced much worse challenges, with fewer countervailing trends. Though naysayers scoff, I believe it’s possible to look to the future with optimism.

I don’t say this to boast. I say it to refute any religion that claims you can only be successful or happy by praying, tithing, honoring the gods, or performing the proper rituals. I’m a proud atheist who does none of those things, yet no thunderbolts have struck me down. I offer myself as an example not to inspire envy, but to show that these beliefs are nothing but empty superstition.

Patting myself on the back

There are more subtle superstitions that even an atheist can fall for, if we’re not wary. The predominant worldview in my time and place—capitalist, American, neoliberal—would encourage me to take the credit for how my life has turned out. It would have me believe that my good fortune is entirely due to choices I made.

According to this Ayn Rand-esque worldview, it’s hard work and willpower that are responsible for success. I studied hard and got good grades in school, which won me admission to a prestigious college. I kept up my academic pursuits and graduated with honors, which landed me a career in a high-paying industry. I have a good marriage because I chose a compatible partner. I’m healthy because I exercise, make time for sleep, eat a good diet, and don’t indulge or use drugs to excess.

Yep, it’s all about me. Aren’t I so great? Me, me, me.

But hold on. This self-congratulatory evaluation shines a spotlight on certain things while ignoring others. What about the benefits I’ve received that had nothing to do with choices I made?

I didn’t choose the circumstances of my birth, but I’ve benefited greatly from them. I had parents who nurtured my curiosity and encouraged me to read and learn. I did well in school, but that’s only possible if you live somewhere that has schools to attend. I was born in a middle-class region of a wealthy democracy, not a poverty-stricken slum where high-paying jobs don’t exist or a dictatorship where earnings are siphoned away by corruption. I never had to flee my home because of war or famine or disaster or start over in a new country.

The same goes for my health. Some people are born with genetic diseases they couldn’t possibly have prevented. Other people live healthy lifestyles but get sick or suffer accidents through no fault of their own. Neither of those fates has befallen me, but that wasn’t due to any choice on my part. I can’t credit it to anything but luck.

You could also say that I’m privileged. I was born male—a coin flip of chromosomes, nothing more—in a society where men tend to be afforded more latitude and more opportunity than women. I was born with light skin, in a society where people with darker skin tend to be penalized, looked down upon, and treated as other more often.

However, “privilege” is just another way of saying that you’ve been lucky. It’s the advantages you have that you didn’t gain through your own choices.

There’s no such thing as luck

I’ve benefited from luck in my life, there’s no doubt of that. Also, there’s no such thing as luck.

The resolution of these apparently contradictory statements is to recognize what chance truly is. We think of luck, whether good or bad, as something you can have—either a trait, like big muscles or a prominent chin, or a kind of stuff that clings to you, like toilet paper on your shoe. Both conceptions are wrong.

Luck isn’t a property, not of objects or of people. If you rolled a fistful of dice, are the ones that came up showing 6 “luckier” dice than the ones that landed showing 1? Of course not (even if some gamblers mistakenly believe otherwise).

If you rolled the same dice again, they’d come up showing different results. It’s just that in life, we don’t get to reroll. For better or for worse, you’re usually stuck with the outcomes you’re born with. “Luck” is nothing but the name we give to this tumbling of random chance.

This idea sits uncomfortably with many people, and not just conservatives. We seem to prefer the Ayn Rand worldview, the just-world hypothesis which insists that people deserve what they get and get what they deserve.

Of course, this notion persists because it’s very flattering to those on top of the hierarchy—that they reached those heights because they’re superior. Because those people by definition have the wealth and the power, society reshapes itself to tell them that they’re right.

However, even the non-rich and less-privileged often believe in the just world. We like feeling in charge of our own destiny. We like believing that our choices matter and we’re not at the mercy of chance. For those who are comfortable, it’s reassuring to believe that we can stay that way indefinitely, as long as we stick to the straight and narrow. Even when life is going badly, it’s a comfort to believe that we can turn things around.

The alternative is that life is chaos: that sometimes the wicked prosper and the good suffer, tragedy strikes for no reason at all, and even the best choices won’t always save us from ruin. It’s understandable why we resist believing this as a general principle, even though most of us have witnessed examples in our own lives.

Bitter medicine

In this sense, the secular worldview is like bitter-tasting medicine. Life is random, and the world is unfair. There’s no higher power or law of karma which ensures that people reap what they sow. It hurts to accept, even though it’s true.

However, this doesn’t mean that free will doesn’t exist or that everyone’s life path is fixed at birth. We can make choices that are better or worse, given the possibilities that are open to us. You can wreck a privileged life with self-destructive decisions, and—once in a while!—a determined person can pull themselves out of poverty.

The world isn’t completely random, nor is it completely controlled by our choices. This is the middle way which neither denies the obvious nor robs us of hope.

This is a more mature, more rational view. Better yet, it comes with a course of action built in. If the world is partially fair, it’s up to us to make it more fair. When tragedy strikes at random, we should comfort the afflicted. When evildoers prosper, we should bring them to justice. When people are born into poverty, we should participate in charity and mutual aid to lift them up.

And even though no one can cure all the world’s ills by themselves, those of us who are more privileged—who’ve benefited more from the unfair order of things—have a greater responsibility to help. We should redress the randomness of existence and raise up those who’ve been laid low through no fault of their own. We can do this with money, or with time, or votes, or speech about the need to abolish oppressive institutions and make the ones that remain more equitable. Or, preferably, all of these.

However we choose to do it, we should do what we can to smooth out the rough places so that fewer people need to suffer. That’s the humanist perspective on blessing. It’s not a treasure we should hoard, but a gift we should spread around to others.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...