Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

One of the few skeptics in my family growing up was my old school no bullshit World War II veteran pacifist communist grandfather. Nominally a lifelong Catholic, he may or may not have believed in some loose conception of God, but nonetheless there was nothing like the stunned silent, exasperated incredulity and defiantly principled contempt in his eyes whenever he was confronted with fundamentalist absurdities and cultishness. His ice cold eyes and gruff chuckle as he’d shake his head rather than argue said everything that needed to be said.

I like to think I embody this part of his spirit, in my own way. I also hope I carry that will to live which clung with bitter determination to his last breath. I like to remember that it was while he lay in his hospital bed a year before his death that I fatefully read the book that would months later effectively end my faith. I love that he told me over and over how he’d read that book in the war.

I like to think he’d be proud of what has become of me.

Here is what I wrote three years ago, recounting my relationship with him as I was still a believer:

I always had contentious relationships with my grandparents.  My mother’s parents were not fond of my father and my father’s mother was not fond of my mother and my grandparents did not like the strong ways in which I expressed either my mother’s or my father’s personality.  I really have a particularly strong mixture of my parents’ two strong and contradicting personalities.

The grandparent I was closest to was my mother’s father, even as he found me maddeningly argumentative as a kid.  We didn’t argue over practical matters, I was an obedient kid who almost never got into any trouble that way.  But my mom often recalls the day that Grandpa babysat me when I was a kid and she came home to find him all riled up because I had insisted to him that there was no such thing as Italian bread because bread cannot have a nationality and refused to hear otherwise.  As I grew up and my mother and I became outspoken Evangelical Christians, he (a borderline atheist sort of nominal Catholic) always (rightly) found some of my theological positions dubious.

By college, I had started to learn not to fight him on these things.  I didn’t know quite how to handle Christmas 1997 when he showed up excited to show me an article about the Pope’s recent expressions of approval for evolutionary theory.  For one thing I was an Evangelical Christian to whom the Pope’s opinion might carry even lessauthority than it would for the average non-believer and for another thing I really didn’t care about the question of evolution as it had very little to do with how I understood my faith or what the important questions were.  But he was really insistent that I engage him on this.  And I just tried to blow it off.

Right after my junior year ended, in the spring of 1999, he fell very ill while up from Florida visiting us in New York and spent a couple weeks or so hospitalized in New York where we could see him all the time.  This essentially turned out to be the beginning of his year long process of dying.  And we spent as much time as we could visiting with him.  And at that point, I had already matured to the point where I learned not to argue with Grandpa at all but simply to appreciate him and love him as much as I could.  Whatever Grandpa said was right as far he had to be concerned.  There was simply no point in butting heads with him and irritating him.  He wasn’t going to change his mind about anything and it wouldn’t make a whit of difference were he to do so.  And it certainly was not worth a rift with my grandfather to worry about philosophical disagreements.  I just wanted to enjoy being with him and helping him in whatever ways I could.

And it means a lot to me that through that time we spent there at the end we became really close.  A little voice just piped up in my head and asked, “But were you really close if the closeness was conditioned on avoiding discussing your truest thoughts and placating him?”  And the answer was that absolutely yes, we were genuinely close because we opted to be closer to each other than even to our own opinions.  But no, I didn’t placate him, I respected, loved, and appreciated him as he was and how he saw the world.  I let go of worrying about how I saw things and learned to focus on appreciating the way his mind worked and the unique wealth of experiences that informed his thinking, rather than worrying for that time about my own mind and experiences being understood.  And it makes me prouder than I can articulate to know that in the end he was proud of me.  And it makes me sadder than I can say here to think that he is gone.

The last time I saw him was in 2000 as I was preparing to graduate college and waiting to find out whether or where I would get into graduate school.  He would die very shortly thereafter.  I made the trip home for spring break just to make sure I saw him in case it was the last chance to do so.  That week he gave me the directions to Fordham (where I had applied) so that I could go make a spur of the moment visit.  He knew the directions because he went to high school right across the street from the school about 60 years prior.  I got extremely lucky to randomly bump into the chairman of the philosophy department who recognized that I was lost and asked me if I needed anything.  When I told him I had applied he told me that even though they don’t regularly give interviews he would meet with me.  He told me that the night before I had been accepted into the PhD program but it was up in the air whether I would get funding.  I like to think that that interview played a role in my eventually getting funded to start the PhD program that I am now just months away from completing 9 transformative years later.  It means a lot to me to be able to pass his high school, to be able to associate his help with my academic progress, and to connect the place where I spent my twenties tangibly with the one where my grandpa grew up.

Your Thoughts?

Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

    I actually have a grandfather like that too. :-)

  • ctcss

    Daniel

    It is obvious that you loved your grandfather because of his good qualities and and strength of character. You (and perhaps he, as well) drew inspiration from many of the humanly discerning truths that you each found in Nietzsche’s writings. Likewise, a person can be inspired by the truths that they have found in scripture. For my own part, I hope I can personally stick to the biblical truths I have found to be useful and good, and not forget the hard-won lessons I have learned from studying and applying them in a similar fashion to those useful truths you seem to be hoping to stick with. Taking a stand on what we individually discern and thoughtfully understand as high and caring principle and sticking it out even when the going gets tough is a strength that I think that all can agree to appreciate.


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