How the child of an atheist found God
By Martha Woodroof
CHICAGO — My father did not shake his fist at God so much as thumb his nose.
Pop was born in North Dakota to dirt-poor farmers: devout, German-speaking Mennonites for whom God's comfort must have been one of the few. It's not clear to me when Pop decided God was not for him. His four sisters certainly stuck by the Almighty.
Aunt Ruth became a Baptist missionary in the Congo (newly liberated from Belgium at the time). One evening while studying in my prep school library, I picked up The New York Times and read that both of her hands and feet had been chopped off by her ungrateful native "children." This later turned out not to be so. While her companion had, indeed, been hacked to death, my aunt was airlifted out safely, dangling from a helicopter rope above her dead friend and a howling mob, which, like Pop, had had it up to here with the Christian religion.
Pop didn't hack or howl; he simply left. At 19, he stuck out his thumb and began hitching east, ending up a student at Columbia University in New York City. It was there, I suppose, that he transformed himself into my father: handsome, urbane, erudite, the husband of my mother. By the time I got to know him, the only discernible mark left on Pop by his childhood was a visceral antipathy toward religion.
Pop was pure Marxist in this respect. Religion, to him, had been the opium of his people. He had grown up among those who praised the Lord for not sending them enough to eat. Faith, God, religion — they were all the same, and all nonsense, to Pop.
Pop was, however, ethical to the bone. His insistent, loud-mouthed conscience cost him both money and social prestige. When I look back, it seems strange to me that Pop, who was curious about everything else, seemed to have no curiosity at all about the nature or origin of a person's conscience. His conscience was there, he obeyed its directions to a fault, and that was the end of it. He had no interest in exploring the presence of this mystery inside himself. Either that, or its presence made him nervous.
My parents moved to North Carolina shortly after they married, so I was raised godless in the Bible Belt, becoming such a worrisome heathen by the 2nd grade that my public school class would pray over me.
Every Monday morning, my teacher would ask anyone who had not been to Sunday school to stand so that the class might intercede with the Almighty on his or her behalf. Every Monday morning, I stood up alone. I asked my father once if I could lie by staying seated, and he said certainly not, that I was always to stand up for what I believed. And he emphasized that "always" part.
Standing up for my beliefs — both literally and figuratively — was hardship duty when I was a 2nd grader, but it was the only way my father knew to operate. For better or worse, we are our fathers' students.
The experience toughened me in what I think are good ways, and it also contributed mightily to my growing curiosity about the nature and origin of the human conscience—that touchstone against which, according to my family's tenets, all actions are to be tested.
As I got older, I increasingly felt a need to give this touchstone a name that signified not just what it did, but what it was. So, sorry Pop, but in my early 40s, I decided that this voice embedded in us that didn't seem to be of us, this voice that drives us to relate to our fellow humans in ways unrelated to surviving as the fittest, this voice that you, Pop, called your conscience, I would now call God.
I don't mean to imply that I believe God is some mysterious entity somewhere else that speaks through my conscience; I believe God is my conscience. God is whatever it is in me — and was certainly in you, Pop — that constitutes the commonness of my humanity, that tells me clearly what the next right thing to do or think is, urges me to do it or think it (even when it runs counter to my own self-interest), and gives me the capacity to do it with what feels suspiciously like joy. I don't get to understand why this still, small voice is there, or how it gets there; I just get to accept that it is there.
I am not now, nor — God willing — ever will be, conventionally religious. In this I remain my father's younger daughter.
I have no desire to participate in any of society's attempts to corral the Almighty. It has always seemed to me that Yahweh, the great I Am, is the one truly unfathomable mystery of the universe, and as such can best be related to by me through wordless faith, rather than through religion's limiting show. God is not something I can explain, but something I accept and live with and listen to. Unlike my father, I enjoy the presence of mystery in me.
As for Pop, he has been dead a decade. I sometimes wonder what he would think now that his daughter has come out of our family's closet as a person of faith. I'm sure he would applaud me for standing up for my beliefs, but I suspect he would go right on thumbing his nose at God.
I don't for one moment believe that Yahweh — in whatever way Yahweh considers these things — would think any less of Pop because he never called God by name. We are how we do by each other, after all, and my father did just fine.