The Contributions of Freethinkers: Ann Dunham

Past entries in “The Contributions of Freethinkers” have discussed nonbelievers and dissenters whose lives made a direct and lasting impact on the world in any number of ways: in politics, in science, in the arts and culture. But it’s worth remembering that sometimes – in fact, often – our greatest effects on the world are indirect, in the ways our lives influence the lives of those we come in contact with and those who come after us. Today’s post is meant to be a reminder of that. You may never have heard of Ann Dunham. But I bet you’ve heard of her son, whose name is Barack Obama.

The following is an extended excerpt from President Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, from the chapter on religion and faith, discussing his own religious background:

I was not raised in a religious household. My maternal grandparents, who hailed from Kansas, had been steeped in Baptist and Methodist teachings as children, but religious faith never really took root in their hearts. My mother’s own experiences as a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas only reinforced this inherited skepticism. Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones. Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation — and who in the same breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary. She remembered the respectable church ladies who were always so quick to shun those unable to meet their standards of propriety, even as they desperately concealed their own dirty little secrets; the church fathers who uttered racial epithets and chiseled their workers out of any nickel that they could.

For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.

This isn’t to say that she provided me with no religious instruction. In her mind, a working knowledge of the world’s great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part — no introspective exertion or self-flagellation. Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways — and not necessarily the best way — that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives. In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well. Moreover, as a child I rarely came in contact with those who might offer a substantially different view of faith. My father was almost entirely absent from my childhood, having been divorced from my mother when I was 2 years old; in any event, although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves. She loved to take children — any child — and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life.

It is only in retrospect, of course, that I fully understand how deeply this spirit of hers guided me on the path I would ultimately take. It was in search of confirmation of her values that I studied political philosophy, looking for both a language and systems of action that could help build community and make justice real.

Although President Obama did eventually come to hold a more conventional Christian faith, he states clearly that it was the values instilled in him by his freethinking mother that first set him on the path his life would ultimately follow. His empathy, his self-discipline, his progressive values, his concern for poverty and injustice – all came not from religious texts, but from the teachings of a loving parent who considered religion just one more human cultural phenomenon. And yet her wonder and reverence for life, in his own words, surpassed those of the more conventionally religious people he’s known.

For the foreseeable future, America is unlikely to have an atheist president. The situation we now have may be the next best thing. I’m not suggesting that Obama is likely to do us any favors – we don’t yet have the political power to demand that, and no politician, Obama included, is likely to stand up for an unpopular voting bloc unless they see benefits to doing so. But, having been raised by a nonbeliever, I think he may understand our viewpoint as well as we could have any right to ask – and that may be a benefit to us when we do need to put pressure on him to respect our views.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I can’t help thinking (hoping?) that Obama is only a christian for political expedience.

  • NoAstronomer

    I’m with Steve. I believe that President Obama is, at heart, an atheist. However he’s also a realist and he knows how the political system works in this country. That doesn’t explain his call for bipartisanship though. A couple of other points:

    I’m not suggesting that President Obama is likely to do us any favors

    The president shouldn’t be doing anybody ‘favors’, especially not the powerful groups. Democracy being what it is though, it often doesn’t work out that way.

    I think he may understand our viewpoint as well as we could have any right to ask

    Which is the most any person or group should ask or expect or get.

  • http://millennialthoughts.wordpress.com/ ChristineS

    Wow. I’d read a snippet of that passage before (the part about being raised in a non-religious home), but I’d never realized the depth of the freethinking that Ann Dunham lived. Teaching her children about all religious traditions equally, instilling in them a sense of wonder about the natural world… maybe that’s why Obama has mentioned non-believers in his speeches.

    I find the discussion of his mother’s attitude towards Christianity quite interesting also, along with his own somewhat dismissive attitude towards those fundamentalist beliefs.

    Thank you for once again reminding me that I need to pick up a copy of this book.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Well, many people do like to describe Obama as “Lincolnesque.” What most of them don’t realize is that Lincoln was one of the most atheistic presidents we’ve had to date. Though there’s some debate on what exactly his beliefs are, and if he professed more belief than he had for political expediency. Though this is now sounding like Obama a bit as well… though I do personally suspect he’s sincere in faith, mostly due to the timing of when he arrived at it.

  • Wayne Essel

    I can’t help thinking (hoping?) that Obama is only a christian for political expedience.

    I think he has more integrity than that. And I understand that some Christians do not consider him to be one of their own.

    I’m not suggesting that Obama is likely to do us any favors – we don’t yet have the political power to demand that, and no politician, Obama included, is likely to stand up for an unpopular voting bloc unless they see benefits to doing so.

    I believe that he has said, if not in so many words, that the political majority MUST take into account the minority view. To do otherwise would invite much trouble.

  • Alex Weaver

    My impression is that he’s a humanist first and a Christian humanist second. It’s possible that he’s adopted this for political reasons, but it’s easy to jump to that conclusion when you’ve become so accustomed to anti-human sentiment from the religious that you immediately associate any positive assertion of human dignity and human worth with atheism.

  • Valhar2000

    Yeah, I have to agree with Alex. We have focussed so much (for a very good reason) on the unpalatable aspects of religious practice that we find it unbeleivable when a beleiver behaves differently. Perhaps Obama is sincere in his professed religious beleifs, but they just happen to orders of magnitude better than those held by so many other people (including many of his own voter, I’m afraid).

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I can’t help thinking (hoping?) that Obama is only a christian for political expedience

    I think he has more integrity than that. And I understand that some Christians do not consider him to be one of their own.

    .

    I didn’t mean to doubt his integrity. If he is being pragmatic I think that is understandable given the sentiment in the U.S and I personally would not think any less of him for hiding his atheism if indeed that is what he is doing. Roll on the time an openly atheist politician could get elected president.

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    I don’t think it really matters what his beliefs are. So long as he makes decisions based on verifiable evidence, rather than personal convictions, that should be good enough. Outside of that, why should we care what he believes? We don’t want to be discriminated against based on our personal philosophy, so let’s extend him the same dignity.

    Having said that, in Dreams of My Father (Obama’s autobiography up until his early 30s) he never really comes out and says specifically what is faith is. He seems to be areligious (if not atheist) until he meets Jeremiah Wright – and even when he has a quasi-religious experience at one of Wright’s sermons, he doesn’t say that any particular deity has value, he says that the stories we take from the religion has value. He says that they give us a context and a way to define ourselves, separate from the belief itself.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    How long before some troll pops up here with the “he was really born in Kenya” story?

  • Christopher

    How long before some troll pops up here with the “he was really born in Kenya” story?

    Even if the story was true (a *very* long shot – so long it’s barely plausible), why in the fuck would it matter? As much as I dislike him (as I dislike all people with power in the social order) and his politics, this guy is still as American as anyone else in your country is – as he spent the overwhelming majority of his life in your country and thinks of himslef as being American, Kenya-born or not…

  • valhar2000

    How long before some troll pops up here with the “he was really born in Kenya” story?

    He was born in Kenya! He was born in Kenya!

  • Polly

    How long before some troll pops up here with the “he was really born in Kenya” story?

    He was born in Kenya! He was born in Kenya!

    Yeah right, and McCain was born in Panama…Oh wait, that’s true!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Having said that, in Dreams of My Father (Obama’s autobiography up until his early 30s) he never really comes out and says specifically what is faith is. He seems to be areligious (if not atheist) until he meets Jeremiah Wright – and even when he has a quasi-religious experience at one of Wright’s sermons, he doesn’t say that any particular deity has value, he says that the stories we take from the religion has value.

    I noticed that as well, Erigami. Dreams From My Father was surprisingly vague on the subject of his religious beliefs. Obama more or less says he was nonreligious when he started his work as a community organizer in Chicago – I recall an exchange where one of the local organizers, who was religious, asked him why he was doing that work if he wasn’t. And though his conversion in Wright’s church is implied, it’s never stated explicitly and he never revisits the topic of faith after that chapter. One gets the impression that religion wasn’t particularly important to him, at least not at the time that he wrote it. (Had he known at the time that he would later run for office, I suspect he would have given it greater emphasis.)

  • yoyo

    As someone who didnt have a dog in this race but was neverless very happy when mccain lost, I didnt realise how lovely his mother was. i’ve tried to educate my daughters on similar principles, they know about many religious texts as cultural artifacts but see them all as pretty silly.

  • goyo

    It seems the moderate (lukewarm) xtianity is politically expedient in politics from necessity. How many of you knew that in my state constitution(Texas), it is illegal to hold a political office if you don’t profess belief in “a god”? In other words, atheists need not apply.

  • http://blackskeptic.wordpress.com blackskeptic

    I’m wondering if Obama’s mother was a nonbeliever. And by nonbeliever, I mean atheist. She might have been nonreligious. Perhaps a theist, but not a religious theist. But I also understand that you might have termed her an unbeliever meaning someone that does not believe in conventional (religious) dogma.

    Sometimes I worry that we’re too quick to put people under our umbrella b/c we want to believe more people are atheists than really are.

  • AnnaZed

    Wow, Goyo, I was born in Texas. Is that true (though I believe it) if so; where is that written in law. Surely someone should challenge that.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Goyo

    in my state constitution(Texas), it is illegal to hold a political office if you don’t profess belief in “a god”? In other words, atheists need not apply.

    F**k! (have you ever noticed how redundant those asterisks are?…however) F**K!!! really? that is so outrageous I almost don’t believe it.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    There are still a few states that have these laws on the books. See here.

  • Leum

    On the plus side, a Supreme Court case a few decades (or was it only years, I think decades) back made such provisions unconstitutional and irrelevant.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Some states still do have clauses in their constitutions that ban atheists from office, but those are unenforceable. They were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1961 in Torcaso v. Watkins.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    What I want to know is, what was Barack Obama doing writing autobiographies before he was even president? Before he was president who was he? No one.

    BTW: As others have mentioned. I suspect Barack to be an atheist. I don’t blame him at all if he’s only pretending to be Christian.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    If I hear one more “Barack Obama is someone I suspect to be an atheist” comment…

    Maybe I am too naive, but why can’t we just take him at his word and respect his personal beliefs?

  • Leum

    I agree with Teleprompter. Assuming otherwise is rude to both Barack Obama and to the communities of moral, rational theists

  • MissCherryPi

    What I want to know is, what was Barack Obama doing writing autobiographies before he was even president? Before he was president who was he? No one.

    He got offered a book deal because he was the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review.

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    He is going to be one of the great Presidents of USA, if not the greatest. No option for him. He has to prove to all those doubting Thomases who didn’t vote for him, that a person like him of mixed races can also be as effective as a pure white bloke. Also he cannot shatter the dreams of all the black people, who now have gained some self-esteem and feel that anyone can become anybody if he has the right qualifications for the job notwithstanding the skin colour. The theistic fundamentalists of USA know about the atheistic temperaments of his father and mother and suspect that Obama is professing a belief in Christianity just to be politically correct and get into the good books of the majority population whereas his true inclinations might be secular and atheistic.

    A lot of people are waiting to see him fail. True that obama attends church because his maternal grandparents expect him to, but he has a good heart and a lot of empathy and compassion which you do not find in many so called religious people like the ex-President Bush. Obama has inherited a collapsed internal economy, and chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza. It will indeed be very difficult for Obama and his advisors to set right all these immediately but we, as his well-wishers should wish him the best.

  • old&inalabama

    In “Dreams from my Father”, he says his mother had “a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny. …she was a lonely witness for secular humanism…” [speaking of her experience in Indonesia], p. 50, Three Rivers Press paperback edition, 2004.