For the last two years, John Moe has donated money to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s high school essay competition to enable doubling the scholarship awards for honorable mention recipients. Moe, a Lifetime Member who lives in southern California, talked recently with Freethought Today to share his background and some of what makes him tick.
He was born Jan. 1, 1928, in St. Paul, Minn., and grew up in Glendale, Calif. His parents, particularly his mother, were religious and it was “grace at all meals and (Presbyterian) church on Sundays” for Moe. After high school he enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
“I began to doubt when I was at the conservatory. A very good friend—I’m gay, so this man who was my chief interest outside of myself—was an atheist. He really admired Ralph Waldo Emerson and ‘Self-Reliance.’
“Don, my friend, and I once had a conversation. I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to believe in God.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t.’ Which I thought was about the best answer you could possibly give. After thinking about that for awhile, I finally realized he was right, you didn’t have to. It took me awhile to come to terms with that.”
Moe eventually transferred to Los Angeles State College (now California State University-Los Angeles) and got his teaching credential and a master’s in history. He taught at Whittier College and in the Los Angeles and Long Beach public school districts. He taught special education with special programs for young adults until retiring in 1993.
All the while he was also playing piano professionally. One of his steadiest gigs, for 33 years, was as accompanist for the now-defunct Ellis-Orpheus Men’s Chorus. A 1988 Los Angeles Times review noted that Moe “provided able and stylish support” to the singers.
Now, due to arthritic fingers, he’s given his piano and organ away to nonprofit groups. “I had a career of 60 years. That’s not bad.” He still hikes and swims in the Pacific Ocean, but admits he’s not the man physically he used to be. “I guess I’m slowing down at 80. I don’t have to prove anything.”
He maintains regular contact with some of his former students. “They became my larger family, many of them, and they still are like my sons and daughters.” Moe calls himself “not much of a joiner” but founded a local atheist group and belongs to the League of Women Voters. He used league materials in his work helping people with disabilities go to the polls. He chaired a local commission for disabled persons and founded a nonprofit to award scholarships to those with disabilities.
“The major reason I like the Freedom From Religion Foundation so much is that they actually do things and don’t just sit around and fret,” Moe said. “And of course I like that they have the essay competitions for persons in high school and college. They are the future of the atheist movement, which happily has come a long way since the ‘60s when I first go involved.
“I just want to encourage young people to think. That’s always been my motto. We teach reading, writing, arithmetic and so forth, but perhaps the most important thing we teach is for people to think independently, to read about many things and make up a philosophy of life.
“I believe in enjoying life as much as we can. There are lots of things that are tragic about life, but that’s just part of it. I guess I don’t have a coherent philosophy. I suppose I’ve lived my philosophy and I’ve not put it into words.”
Moe takes his civic duties seriously and regularly writes his elected representatives. “If you live in a democracy, you should participate. . . .
Many people are so caught up in the minutiae of their own lives that they don’t give any thought to being a good citizen.”