“I hope and suspect that you have not moved into unnecessary confusion,” read my grandfather’s letter in troubled script.
I am “blessed” in the statistical sense to have a father, who, despite being a church elder, will agree to read and discuss selections of Richard Dawkins’ writing after only mild coercion, and a mother who volunteers as a Sunday School teacher only out of a profound desire to avoid interaction with the vociferous social conservatives who frequent the adult classes.
I suppose it is fitting that my grandfather’s Presbyterian ministry embraces an idealistic simplification of God as the embodiment of love and not the terrifying entity that his denominational fellows theorize entertains himself by dangling sinners over a flaming abyss.
But despite my grandfather’s remarkable open-mindedness, he was alarmed when my father inadvertently revealed that I, his supposedly pious granddaughter — whom he personally baptized with water he collected from the Jordan River — was not the staunch Christian he anticipated.
When his concerned letter arrived a few weeks later, my parents advised me to downplay the issue for convenience. Couldn’t I, they pleaded, simply feign agreement? Easy for them to say.
The early emergence of my atheism could stunt my relationship with my grandfather. Here I was presented with the perfect gateway to honest, open dialogue. Besides, as a casual skim through the Old Testament will reveal, lying has adverse consequences.
So began our tense correspondence, an ongoing dialogue on belief. In a stream of lengthy letters, he expressed his confusion over why, in my WASP-y world free of creationism, homophobia, sexism and the other oft-targeted shortcomings of religion, I am so opposed to the church.
I desperately tried to articulate that his beloved moderate institutions, though conceivably palatable, enforce the notion of religion as an indispensable component of society, thus shielding fundamentalist faiths from criticism and letting hordes of potentially great future scientists and thinkers receive a life of miseducation under the guise of respect for religious diversity.
He remained steadfast in his belief that Christian education spreads essential virtues. I found myself struggling to find a delicate way to express that my Sunday School experience enlightened me only to new techniques of eye-rolling.
I labored over each letter so as to completely address his questions while remaining both respectful of his life’s work. Amid piles of discarded drafts, I questioned whether it was my place to express even courteous disapproval over this wise, gentle man’s philosophy. Awaiting his responses, I imagined him poring over my tortured writings, insulted and mired in disappointment.
At his funeral, I sat sobbing in a sea of Presbyterian ministers arguing over the mechanics of when, in the biblically unaddressed circumstance of a fatal coma, the soul leaves the body. “Are you the atheist?” demanded one of the many pastors there. “Your grandfather used to read parts of your letters at some of our meetings. It meant so much to him that one of his grandchildren took an interest in discussing the subject.”
In a sense far different from the one my grandfather had in mind, he had absolved me of “unnecessary confusion.” I now know with certainty that no decent individual will see ignominy in freethought or free dialogue.
Abigail Dove, 18, Collegeville, Pa., was valedictorian at Perkiomen Valley High School and is attending Swarthmore College to major in neuroscience and minor in cognitive science.