Audacity of unbelief

I wanted to say a bit more about that passage from Obama’s Audacity of Hope that Rieux quoted yesterday.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice.

I wish he had managed to say that without presenting it as somehow at odds with secularism, and for that matter without calling it “professed” secularism as if his mother had been either fake or wrong. I wish he had in fact said emphatically that his mother’s attributes were and are entirely compatible with secularism. He could even have said that religion is often at odds with for instance kindness or honesty, not in a random way but as part of its nature. Religion can be punitive, and it can be deceptive or evasive.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves.

Again – entirely unsurprising. I spent a large chunk of pre-dawn time just this morning staring at a particularly spectacular moon – it’s full, so it was low in the west at 5:30 a.m., and the clouds had parted, so it was reflected in Puget Sound. I listen to leaves; I stare at eagles perched in trees over my head; I stop dead when I hear the chatter of a hummingbird, to look for it and then watch it when I’ve found it. That has nothing to do with religion. It is compatible with religion (though not the contemptus mundi kind) but it is in no way dependent on it.

I really, really wish Obama could have discussed the issue without patronizing his mother’s non-theism.

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