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Aug 21 2012

Why I am an atheist – William Lowe

Like so many my weltanschauungen is the progeny of my familial roots. 

My father, who passed away in 1982, had few passions in life, one was watching football and another was to castigate any and all religions. I now watch little to no football but I still have my father’s disdain for all things religious. My next birthday is number 57, the same age my father was when he died, his death-day was also his birthday. I have long ago surpassed him in the sheer amount of vitriol, sarcasm, and opprobrium directed at that farcical folly called religion. 

Unfortunately, my father was also an alcoholic during most of my childhood; he would withdraw into his martinis and surface now and then long enough to get excited and toss gin soaked euphemisms about a particular play, or to comment about the myopic ref missing an obvious infraction or making a spectacularly bad call. Although football obloquy was limited to weekends (he did show uncommon excitement when Monday Night Football was inaugurated), contempt laced invectives about religion could happen at any time but I have vague memories of it happening often while he went fishing for the olive. My father dried out while I was in college. At that time he lived about 50 miles away and started to visit me every other week compared to never when he was drinking. For about six months it was the beginning of a nascent father-son relationship, something that was missing before then, his sudden death from a heart attack ended it long before I could truly appreciate what was happening or for him to tell me about his childhood or why he was an atheist.

My father was a student of the Vienna Circle having studied under one of its disciples. “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” and other tracts and tomes from Wittgenstein’s contemporaries and disciples – Ayers, Schlick, Russell, Moore, Whitehead, Wisdom, Feigl (whom he studied under at the Univ. of Minnesota) cluttered my father’s library. My childhood held moments where I would parse the titles and pick out a book to read; motivation was three parts a need to connect with my father and one part curiosity. However, the science and language philosophy pricked and provoked my ADD to no end. The one title that held my attention was by an author whom I would characterize as the Dawkins of my father’s day, Bertrand Russell. I read “Why I Am Not a Christian” from beginning to end during a hot and sweltering South Dakota summer day and long into an evening that yielded little to the heat. 

In a small town (they are all small towns) in South Dakota where I grew up, an atheist was an anomaly, I took it as a point of pride. All my friends were from families that went to church, mostly one was either a Lutheran or a Protestant and for a long time I barely knew other religious ideologies existed outside of those two because they were so omnipresent in the community, a pervasive blight infecting the Dakotas. My friends never questioned my atheism, they were searching for answers to questions they weren’t allowed to ask and unfortunately it held them back from asking me questions about my world view, they would often just listen to my ad hoc arguments with a summer phenomenon.

Through my early teens, a ritual with my friends was to spend two or three hours once every month of summer debating itinerant evangelicals. Young and male, they dutifully traveled in pairs and I think they enjoyed the debates as respite from going door to door and mostly having that door politely slammed in their face. Bertrand Russell was my inspiration and guide throughout those debates. With my father it was mostly listening to his diatribes and occasional expositions, it was rarely a discussion. Ensconced in the middle of our one city park, amid towering cottonwood trees, sometimes with slow falling cottonwood seeds so thick it looked like winter had come early, in that city park, our backs against deep furrowed bark my friends and I would confront the short-sleeved, white shirts and narrow, black ties, trademarks of the antagonist in this summer theater. The debates shaped my thoughts about religion and my atheism, partly a yearning to understand my father and partly a need to find my own voice. My friends never participated in the debate, they would only listen, behavior I interpreted as loyalty to me and acceptance of my views. After the debate ended, swaggering with youthful hubris, I would lead the gang to someone’s home hoping their mom would honor our masterful victory with an offering of grape or orange Fanta pop to quench our thirst. I have a vague recollection though that the debates would sometimes be more like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and we would wind up debating the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow. Farting in ones general direction, given that we were young males talking to slightly older males, could not be ruled out as a debate tactic. Why does this remind me of the recent republican debates?

My mom was raised Catholic but the pressures of the depression of the early twentieth century brought so much physical abuse to her and her sisters from her parents that she has blocked out most memories of her childhood and in the process abjured any notion of a just and benevolent deity. I have no recollection of her ever appealing to supernatural authority. To deal with her demons she always had her nose buried in a book. At some point, long after I had graduated from college, the books gave ground to television and she became a Borg of Fox News, voted for George Bush Jr twice and we moved further apart. She saved my life once as I did hers. 

One day during the summer after I graduated from high school I came home to the smell of natural gas and an almost unconscious mother, an attempted suicide. In 1999 I fell into a three week coma after cranial surgery to relieve the pressure from a bilateral, subdural hygroma; most likely viral encephalitis after a bout of viral meningitis which lead to the hygroma. She stayed by my hospital bed using her nurses training to ensure I got the care I needed, without which I may have succumbed to benign neglect. She was in the middle of making arrangements for a hospital bed to be installed in her home when I came out of the coma. She is in hospice now, a frail, frail woman, at times coherent enough to know what is happening but not coherent enough to recognize me except to be aware that she should know who I am but doesn’t. I bring her flowers and a card. She looks at the card several times during my visit to see who it is from, each time she reads my name and that of my children with no hint of recognition on her face. I never, ever felt any reproach from her regarding my atheism, I did however cause her great anguish when I became a vegetarian, a lifestyle I adopted almost 30 years ago.

Throughout my 56 years I have never wavered from my atheism except for a brief time in college when I had a crush on a young woman who was born-again. In a moment of obsession I deluded myself into thinking the solution to my hormonal desires was to join her cult, it never went anywhere, she knew I was not sincere, something I too eventually admitted to myself; I got over her and never looked back. I still have memories of making out with her, mutual desires becoming more palpable and difficult to stop and then like a switch was thrown she would push away and get down on her knees and start to pray very loudly to exorcise a devil that she believed caused such lascivious behavior. In the dark of her apartment, sexually frustrated, while she loudly prayed I would immaturely mock her by miming her prayer with exaggerated facial gestures much like Chevy Chase mocked Jane Curtin during the Weekend Update on the original Saturday Night Live episodes which were popular at the time. 

I read the four horsemen, I read the atheist blogs, I discuss atheism with my atheist and non-atheist friends and what it means to be an atheist and some of the insights gained become inextricably part of my weltanschauungen; my notion of what atheism means to me has evolved and still evolves. It will keep evolving until the day I begin to inexorably return all my molecules to the universe, perhaps one of those molecules will become part of a reader of this essay who happens to eat a plant or animal that has assimilated my remains.

Now more than ever there is a need to push back against the fundamentalists who are trying to hijack our nation. I have never been prouder to be an atheist than this time in my life. There is this satellite we call home, it may be one of billions that has life but for all intents and purposes it is the only one we need to know and care about. It is in danger and now is the time to act, especially for the sake of our progeny and posterity. There is so much that needs to be done, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

William Lowe

4 comments

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  1. 1
    David Marjanović

    weltanschauungen

    -en is the plural ending. :-)

  2. 2
    Thomas Lawson

    This is my favorite. I don’t think it will be topped.

  3. 3
    skmarshall

    Thank you for the fascinating story. If it’s not too nosy, did you ever find out what event or motivation enabled your father to “dry out”?

  4. 4
    lawmom

    Beautifully written.

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