David Foster Wallace on Christianity and Atheism
If you consider the usual meaning of “atheism,” which, as I understand it, is a kind of anti-religious religion, which worships reason, skepticism, intellect, empirical proof, human autonomy, and self-determination, my parents’ open tolerance of my religious interests and my regular attendance of services with the family next door (by this time my father had tenure, and we had our own home in a middle-class neighborhood with a highly rated school system) was exceptional—the sort of nonjudgmental, respectful attitude that religion itself (as I see it) tries to promulgate in its followers.
The fact that the most powerful and significant connections in our lives are (at the time) invisible to us seems to me a compelling argument for religious reverence rather than skeptical empiricism as a response to life’s meaning.
Wallace concludes with this story:
The specific instance traceable as the origin of my religious impulse after my interest in the cement mixer passed (to my parents’ great relief) involved a nineteen-fifties war movie that my father and I watched together on television one Sunday afternoon with the curtains drawn to prevent the sunlight from making it hard to see the screen of our black-and-white television. Watching television together was one of my father’s and my favorite and most frequent activities (my mother disliked television), and usually took place on the couch, with my father, who read during the commercials, sitting at one end and me lying down, with my head on a pillow on my father’s knees. (One of my strongest sensory memories of childhood is the feel of my father’s knees against my head and the joking way he sometimes rested his book on my head when the commercial interruption occurred.) The movie in question’s subject was the First World War and it starred an actor who was much lauded for his roles in war movies. At this point my memory diverges sharply from my father’s, as evidenced by a disturbing conversation we had during my second year at seminary. My father apparently remembers that the film’s hero, a beloved lieutenant, dies when he throws himself on an enemy grenade that has been lobbed into his platoon’s trench (“platoon” meaning a small military grouping of infantrymen with close ties from being constant comrades in arms).
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