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:

Weekend Coffee: April 18
No, Belief in Satan Doesn't Make Us Moral
Weekend Coffee: March 28
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
About Adam Lee

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


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