Atheism: A Family History

One thing I find interesting is the question of whether or not there is a genetic predisposition to atheism or religiosity. I was raised by atheists, and when I was younger I used to worry that I didn’t come about my atheism honestly, through free inquiry from questioning a religious upbringing. Never mind the fact that growing up in the Bible Belt gave me plenty of exposure to Christianity and opportunities to debate it. And as I’ve gotten older this has been less important to me. But I do find the interaction of genes and environment interesting to consider.

On my mom’s side of the family there is a history of doubters. My maternal grandfather was a deist before he met my grandmother. My grandmother is a devout Methodist. He attended church with her, but even after all these years when I talk to him (he’ll be turning 90 next year, and he’s alive and kicking and doing well) he’s always very secular in his outlook. While he talks about death, he doesn’t seem to expect to go to any sort of after life and he plans to donate his body to scientific research.

He also accepts evolution passionately and reads Discover magazine and discusses it with us. While he is the oldest doubter in the family I’ve traced and where I definitely think the doubting element came in on my mom’s side of the family, I know his father (my great-grandfather) didn’t share it. My grandfather has commented on how his grandfather did not like the fact that he played the trombone in a band that played big band music as he thought it was the music of the devil (no word on my great-grandmother, though, so perhaps it came down through her).

In all honesty, given that he met and settled down with my grandmother in the post WWII years, I don’t think it was socially acceptable at all for him to be a deist, and to fit in with middle class ideals he attended church with my grandmother. I’m not sure how much he believes any of it, though.

And while my grandmother is a believer, she was never a fundamentalist. She taught my mom to think of the Bible stories as parables and not to think of them literally. Though I do know my mom was nervous about leaving me with her when I was a baby because she was scared she’d have me baptized, it was one of those things that never became a big deal.

My maternal grandparents had four children. Two of them, my Aunt C and my mom, were doubters, and my mom more strongly than Aunt C, who was a marginal Christian, though lately I’ve noticed more atheist rhetoric when she speaks and wonder if she’s fully embraced godlessness. My mom always remembers harboring doubts about the existence of god and says by the time she was a teenager she was an atheist. She says she volunteered to teach Sunday school to get her out of sitting through church services growing up. One of the big sticking points for her was wondering why god used to talk to people in ancient times but not now.

My dad’s family history, though, is a different picture. I’ve not been able to find any antecedent for his doubt. His parents are both devout, fundamentalist Methodists and young Earth creationists, as were their parents before them. One trait that my dad and grandfather share, that eventually led to my dad’s developing atheism as a teenager, is a strong regard for humanity. Unlike the stereotypical rugged man of the period, both of them are emphatic and very against human rights abuses.

For my dad, he started having ethical questions about Christianity and the notion that only Christians are saved. He thought about hunter gatherers in Africa who never met a Christian and wondered if they would be condemned. At first he thought he was lucky that he was born in a place that had heard of Christianity so he would be saved. But then he started to think that the Muslim in Iran would feel that he was lucky to live in Iran where people knew about Allah and that they would be saved. And that people of differing religions over the world would feel the same thing, and that there wasn’t any more evidence for Christianity than for those other belief systems.

Unlike with my mother, there were fights between my dad and his family. My dad and my grandfather love a good debate, though they tend to tone it down a bit because it upsets my grandmother.

So on my mom’s side of the family there is a history of doubt, and on my dad’s, there isn’t that I’ve been able to find. And I think my mom’s side is interesting because of the role of the culture of the time. It’s likely that, were my maternal grandfather a young millennial, he’d likely embrace atheism. It’s also interesting to compare the similarities between my mom and Aunt C and look at how they are different from their two sisters who continued to be Christians. Especially when you consider that Aunt C was the oldest, my mom the youngest, and they were not very close to each other growing up because of a good 8 year age gap (that changed when they became adults). I have some ideas there, but I’ll address that in a later post.

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