Philosophy is his drive, love is his goal

Name: Art Mielke.

Where I live: Point Richmond, in the California Bay area.

Where and when I was born: Syracuse, N.Y., in 1949.

Family: I am the oldest of four children. My father was a Presbyterian clergyman active in urban affairs and committed to the separation of church and state. My mother, a trained school psychologist, kept our home life together and held leadership roles in the PTA of the school we attended. Sundays meant church attendance: a worship service in the morning and youth fellowship in the evening.

Education: I received a degree in philosophy from Bucknell, a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, a master’s in counseling psychology from Lewis & Clark, and Master of Philosophy and Ph.D. degrees in religion from Syracuse. I was also briefly a graduate student in theology at Oxford. However, I should go on to mention that it was my diploma in advanced diesel from the Wally Thor School of Trucking in Whittier, Calif., that allowed me to make enough money to own a home and to not feel economically stranded with a solid formal education but no place to use it to earn a respectable living.

Occupation: I am presently a part-time community college instructor in psychology and philosophy in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, with additional teaching experience at two four-year institutions nearby.

Earlier in my career, after dropping out of Oxford, I worked temporary jobs in Cleveland before getting merchant seaman’s papers and shipping out on the Great Lakes ore boats for the better part of a year. Later, after a stint as a teacher at a tony private academy, I was a delivery driver for a bottled water company in Los Angeles. But the trucks there were too small for my ambitions. At age 30, with my Wally Thor diploma and my commercial license in hand, I went to work driving 18-wheelers around the Los Angeles area. For the next 25 years, off and on and in different parts of the country, I worked as a truck driver. Mostly, I hauled gasoline to service stations and commercial accounts. I had wanted to disappear into the American working class, and I think I did a pretty good job of it.

Where I’m headed: After some years of what felt like very unsettled living, I am now, on a regular basis, comfortably ensconced in real estate I own, in my solarium reading chair with a good book, a glass of wine, and a view of the San Francisco skyline. I have arrived. I am obviously headed toward the great boneyard that awaits all of us, and at 67 feeling this more than ever. In the meantime, I continue to enjoy teaching and hope to do that for some years to come.

Person in history I admire: Scottish philosopher David Hume was a trenchant and devastating critic of religious belief. What he writes about miracles, for example, has made belief in them difficult ever since for careful thinkers.

Quotation I like: I’m going to cheat and supply two. The first belongs to American journalist H. L. Mencken, though the precise wording, if not the sentiment conveyed, has apparently morphed over the years. Mencken’s observation hits home in the here and now of our current political climate of misinformation and first-rate buffoonery: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” My second quotation is by that marvelously engaging and scandalously pugnacious Enlightenment figure Voltaire, and goes roughly like this: “May God, if there is one, save my soul, if I have one.” I love Voltaire’s wit and sarcasm!

These are a few of my favorite things: Engaging conversations about issues and ideas; walks and bike rides along the water’s edge near my home; sipping wine and settling in on the couch with a newly purchased book; yearly trips to the Adirondack mountains of New York, where much of my personal history is rooted; train travel; old episodes of “The Bob Newhart Show” and the British series “Rumpole of the Bailey”; feeling appreciated by the occasional student I have taught.

These are not: The constant presence of cellphones; the lack of respect for science; the dumbing down of higher education and the lack of respect for book learning in general; grade inflation; willful illiteracy in all its forms; speeding and distracted motorists; strident religious absolutists; political leaders who put their party above their country and whom history will likely judge to have been moral cowards.

My doubts about religion started: As the oldest child of a pulpit preacher, I grew up with the unsettling thought that there was something major that God wanted from me. At its worst, I wondered to myself in bed at night whether I was actually tasked with being Jesus come back to life. This wasn’t egotism or megalomania or spiritual arrogance. I’ll call it what it was: an overpowering, guilt-provoking, and debilitating conviction of personal responsibility in the face of God’s (and no doubt my father’s) expectations for what I would do with my life.

My more overt doubts started in philosophy class at college. My philosophy teacher (whom I still write to 45 years later) got me thinking what were at times uncomfortable and destabilizing thoughts about the religious convictions I held to but had never challenged.

This process of deconstructing familiar religious parameters continued at Yale Divinity School where I searched in secular philosophies for a description of the human condition that was consonant with what my Christianity had taught me about who we are and how we are made. Perhaps Christianity was true by another name, I wondered.

Even though I went on to a year-long internship in a parish church, ministry was not going to work if I couldn’t get behind the message. And I couldn’t, though over time I developed an interest in learning to be a psychotherapist, and saw connections, thanks to theologian Paul Tillich, between grace as Christians have understood it and acceptance in a therapeutic relationship.

What strikes me now, years later, about the doubt business, is that while I can attempt to plot marker events in my past, my move away from belief has been gradual, fitful, with residual elements of belief coming to the surface, especially in times of emotional pain when the comforts of religion beckon.

I can’t leave off without an additional contextual remark. The rise to prominence in this country of conservative and evangelical Christian belief took me by surprise. I was still trying to digest the work of earlier mainline theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and “boundary” thinkers like Tillich, when the thought culture I was living in and seeking to live by just about went extinct. I had no idea so many of my fellow Americans thought dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth together. I am sure much of the pleasure I get reading contemporary books on atheism comes from their authors’ ability to showcase the various superstitions and stupidities that energize fact-free religious belief in our time.

Before I die: I want to be in love again. That’s putting it simply. But I’m OK with that. If someone were to ask me whether anything was missing from my life — rich and satisfying for the most part as it’s been, with more than my share of advantages and opportunities to be healthy, safe, and able to pursue personal goals and ambitions — it’s that I don’t have a “honey.” The consolations of philosophy are many, but the longing for love remains.

Ways I promote freethought: I promote freethought most often and I hope most effectively in my work as a philosophy instructor at a community college. I can’t think of any work that is more suited to the development of careful, critical and questioning thought about who we are as humans and what our life on the planet might be about. I often reference my own experience as a young college student learning to challenge the received wisdom I learned at home and in church. I have also been moved — largely by my growing conviction of the urgency of our nation’s crisis around the preservation of the separation of church and state — to include FFRF in my estate planning.

I wish you had asked me: What I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on. My work was titled, “Christians, Feminists and the Culture of Pornography.” Let’s just say there were very few dull moments in the research archives!

Freedom From Religion Foundation