When this series first started, my answer to why I am an atheist was pretty simple: I read the Bible. It’s a quick 2 second answer I can give any time. And so I have, at least occasionally getting a laugh in return. But after several weeks of reading others’ responses to the question, and reflecting on root causes, I’ve come to realize that my reasons are much more complex. Ultimately, however, I’d have to say that I’m an atheist because of my father.
My father was an avid reader. I learned from his example that reading was a good thing. Like most boys, I wanted to be like my dad, a reader too. When I started school, I picked up reading rather quickly and read everything I could get my hands on. Our den had a wall of books from floor to ceiling. My father told my brother and me that any book on the shelf that we could reach without a chair was ours to read. Once my mother was out of earshot, he added that he didn’t consider the step-stool to be a chair. One of the books on the upper shelf was “The Passover Plot”, from which I learned that messiahs were a-plenty in Jesus’s time.
My father was an FBI agent and later a private investigator. He taught my brother and me not to believe everything we’re told or even see for ourselves – he knew a few magic tricks he could use to demonstrate. He encouraged us to ask questions, and never said we were too young, or that we wouldn’t understand. He was comfortable saying “I don’t know,” usually followed by, “let’s find out.” And when he was busy working on the car, or building a shed, or whatever, he found ways appropriate to our abilities that we could help, even if in the long run, that made the job take a little longer. He didn’t get angry with me when I took things apart and couldn’t put them back together again (OK, so he did encourage me to experiment on things that were already broken – he was a practical man, after all).
I grew up Lutheran, and while my father was active in the congregation, he wasn’t exactly dogmatic about the religious aspects. We were encouraged to be active members of the congregation as well, so I took my confirmation classes seriously in order to become an adult member of the congregation, just like my dad. Our final weekend of classes, my classmates and I, our pastor and a lay-minister spent on a retreat. I was convinced by the end of that retreat that the ministry was my calling. And like any budding minister I felt it was my duty to read and understand the Bible in its entirety rather than only the parts chosen for me by my Sunday school teachers. The inconsistencies, compounded with the politics I began to be exposed to as an adult member of the congregation were enough to engender a distrust in organized religion. But I still clung to arguments from design and complexity as a rationale for believing in a god, if not the one I was raised with.
We didn’t have a lot of money, but enough for me to go to an excellent state college in Texas (yes, they do exist, for now anyway) as long as I lived at home and worked to pay for books. I could probably have taken out student loans, but having grown up during in the depression, my father was averse to more debt than absolutely necessary. So, live at home I did. During my undergraduate years, my father and I would have long talks about anything: philosophy, politics, mathematics, physics, computers, women, beer (absolutely anything). We didn’t always agree on everything – he was convinced that the polygraph was a useful and reliable tool, for one – but he always let me have my say. He let me teach him the things I was studying, at least to the extent he was capable of following. Doing so helped me to organize my own thoughts not just on what I was studying, but what I believed. He was particularly entertained by a paper I wrote on taking up heresy as a hobby for my freshman comp. class. I wish I still had that paper.
My second sophomore semester I took a course titled “Controversial Sciences”. We used textbooks written by Martin Gardner and James Randi. It was a class in skepticism, but I guess it needed a catchier title – it was a state school after all. By sheer coincidence, that same semester some magazine (I honestly don’t remember if it was OMNI, Discover or Scientific American – I devoured all three) published an article about Benoit Mandelbrot, and I discovered the colorful, awe-inspiring world of Mandelbrot and Julia sets. I learned that apparent complexity can come from rules that were rather simple. I read Einstein and Lewis Thomas. I watched Cosmos and read “Broca’s Brain”. My final arguments for believing in a god that created the universe fell away. The voice of my internal dialog whispered to me “god is not necessary to explain any of this – there is no god.”
I’m somewhat ashamed of myself that when it came time to come out to my parents, I chickened out mid-sentence and simply pondered “what if I’m not Christian enough?” My father, I knew, would have accepted it just fine, but I was worried about how my mother would take it. Several years later he actually came out to my wife on Christmas Eve while I escorted my mother to candlelight services – he had gotten another of his mysterious Christmas Eve headaches that he seemed to have acquired about the time I graduated from college, and my wife being a life-long open atheist was all too happy to stay home and take care of him.
I was later outed by the local newspaper when they published a photograph of my wife and me enjoying an Independence Day celebration with a hundred or so other atheists. The title under the photograph was “Atheists Need Fellowship, Too”. That article was syndicated worldwide, and found its way to my mother’s aunt in Seattle, from there to my grandmother in Portland, back to my mother here in Fort Worth. Grandma was cool. Mom was not. She doesn’t talk about it. Dad thought it was funny.
Eight years ago in my father’s hospital room, he was visited by a minister from a local hospice. He told her he still considered himself a Christian, but that he had doubts. It’s the only time I ever felt he was being dishonest (OK, maybe when we played poker, but that’s kind of the point then, isn’t it?), but I understood his reasons. Mom was in the room too, and in Texas, a secular hospice is about as rare as snow in July. He died two weeks later, at home where he really wanted to be.
I’m an atheist because I had an awesome father.