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One of the most wonderful things about my recent trip to Australia was meeting people who have read my book. I’ve had emails from ex-Muslims and other atheists who have simply wanted to share their own stories of how and why they came to leave religion behind. Below is an email from Juris Jakovics whose story deserves a book of its own. He’s kindly let me reproduce it here. Juris and I met at a “Skeptics in the Pub” session in Canberra, where we disagreed on why we might choose to describe ourselves as atheists or agnostics. I’m glad we disagreed, because it led him to write this to me:

Hi Alom,

It was a pleasure to meet you yesterday at your book reading and to engage with you in the ensuing discussion. You asked me inside the cover of my copy of your book to forgive you for being a little harsh on “agnostics”. I didn’t, and don’t, take offence.

I’ve read your book from cover to cover since then. It was compelling reading. I disagree with none of the points you make in the book, although there are some things I could add to, but then so could you, as you so clearly state.

Having thought a bit about why I disagree with you on what you said at the pub about agnostics, it probably stems from our differing life experiences, even though we have some startling parallels in our life stories. I could engage with you in an almost page by page discussion of the points you make in your book, agreeing with or embellishing what you say, but I doubt that you have the time or that that would necessarily be productive.

So I’ll try and paraphrase or distill some of my thinking for you, if you’re interested, as to why I differ with you on the one issue – the issue of how I label myself.

I think I’m old enough to be your dad, but I consider myself your equal, probably not in terms of intellect, but as a human being. I have a lot of friends of both genders, some of whom are much older or much younger than me, but I give all my friends equal space and appreciative attention. As you can imagine, I abhor ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia and prejudice of any kind against anyone (and indeed against any being, such as occurs with an anthropocentric view of the world). That’s not to say that I don’t recognise my own propensity for prejudice, because, as you yourself say in so many words, none of us is actually rational. In fact there have been carefully controlled scientific studies that have shown that we tend very much jump to conclusions and are incredibly adept at instantly finding convincing justifications for those conclusions.

A little background about myself. I’m Latvian of origin, born in Riga, Latvia, two years before the end of the Second World War. A year later my mother took me as a babe-in-arms to Germany, fleeing from a return of Russian troops to Latvia under fear of persecution and possible deportation to the Gulags of Siberia. My father turned up in Germany and found my mother in a refugee camp when the war ended, having spent most of the war years on the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians with the Germans. My sister was born three years after me in Germany. In my teens I discovered that my mother had miscarried a child before me. She was a very attractive woman and must have also suffered a lot of unwanted attention and who knows what else in Germany, under constant bombing attacks while travelling across it by train with me as a sickly baby.

  • Kylie Sturgess Mar 8, 2012 Reply

    A great story, thanks for sharing it Juris!

  • Thanks for sharing your story Juris. The atheist/agnostic thing is interesting. I have described myself as both (it very much depends on who I’m talking to/how I feel).
    “I don’t believe in God, or any kind of supreme being, and yet, I call myself an agnostic. As I said, that’s because I allow that there are things I don’t understand and therefore I can’t be absolutely certain that there is no God, whatever way that might be defined.”
    This quote pretty much covers my feelings on the matter, except that I am even uncertain about which label to give myself. To claim atheism would hurt people I love, but is agnostic a true description of
    my beliefs (or lack of them)…I really don’t know.
    I loved reading your thoughts on this matter and it has got me thinking. Thank you again.

  • Juris Jakovics Mar 9, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for the thanks, Kylie. I think there are a great many similar stories out there, many entailing far harsher childhoods than I’ve had, and a good deal of them with unhappy endings. Certainly I feel like I’ve had a charmed life, with plenty to be thankful for.

  • John Coss Apr 30, 2012 Reply

    A problem with the atheist/agnostic thing is that these terms can be used in different ways. In the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins sees agnoticism as a sort of half way house between theism and atheism. I prefer the idea that atheism relates to belief and agnosticism to knowledge. So one can have a postition on both, rather than either/or.
    Weak agnostics claim no knowledge themselves as to the existence of god or some supernatural agency but do not rule out the possibility that others do. Strong agnostics deny the possibility of such knowledge. Weak atheists do not believe in in the existence of some god or supernatural agency, strong atheists believe that no such entities exist.
    Personally, I prefer to self identify positively as a Humanist, and live AS IF there is no god or supernatural agency intervening in the world or taking an interest in human affairs, a position that is also compatible with Deism.

  • You have lived and living your life beautifully…Just loved it for your philosophical views of the life ….Truly absorbing & heart touching autobiography …… I salute you, Juris

  • Brett Stark Sep 20, 2012 Reply

    Well good you found some people that have readed your book. I hope you had some free time as well in australia ?

  • James Oct 17, 2012 Reply

    Agree with previous readers, this is a great story, thanks for sharing oit.

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