I just want to say I’m sorry. Fifty-five years too late.
John Bruce Carver, Sr., my father, died 55 years ago today. I was not yet 23. He was not an educated man, having gone only through the eighth grade as had my mother. (My mother doesn’t appear in this post due to her advanced Alzheimer’s in the 1950s and, therefore, had no role in the following interactions with my father.)
I remember my father as a hardworking, conscientious, religious man. He had been a Church of Christ elder for 14 years in the in the Brainerd congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was very much a man of his word. For reasons I still don’t understand, we were not close, though we were never really estranged either. He was pleased, I believe, that his only son seemed headed for the ministry. Still, he was supportive of my joining the U.S. Air Force a few months out of high school.
I came home for a month after basic and technical training, ordered to fly afterward to a three-year assignment in Germany. Preserved as one of those lifelong images we retain for no discernable reason, I can still see him standing on the tarmac when I hesitated at the top of the gangway to board. He had driven me to Chattanooga’s Lovell Field on his way to work wearing, as always, blue overalls with the Esso insignia. Although he’d never said so, I knew he was proud of his 19-year-old son flying off to serve our country.
By the middle of my time abroad, after months of questioning, contemplation, and reading with no tutoring or other personal influences, I had come to doubt my former religion, the faith I was reared in, the faith my father exemplified. I felt that it and probably all other religions had no foundation in fact, but rested only on feelings, indoctrination, unsubstantiated conclusions, and tradition. I called myself agnostic at that time, but later chose atheism as more accurate.
Even at the age of 20, I was disposed toward laying out all the cards. Consequently, I thought it honest to write the elders of my home church to ask that I be removed from the membership roll, including an explanation for so unusual a request. The elders never did acknowledge my withdrawal, but my father did…in an unusually long letter. I’m not sure now how much I resented not being dealt with as an adult by the elders. I was dealing with a serious matter and felt I deserved a serious response from the governing body of my “home congregation.”
My father’s arguments against my apostasy and for Christianity—or, rather, the particular version believed by the Church of Christ—were sincere but hardly convincing theologically. His letter was earnestly constructed, but poorly argued, relying on many of the weak arguments my church used then and that much of fundamentalist Christianity still employs. The Bible is the word of God because, in effect, it says it is. The existence of the Biblical God is proven by the marvels of nature. Apparent design proves a Designer. The planets stay in their orbits because God wills it. An eternal, fiery hell awaits the unfaithful. In testimony of these truths we have the perfection of the Bible, an ancient book with no errors, inspired by God himself.
What I did not understand then and what did not emerge in my youthful perception, was how much my reply must have hurt my father. From his viewpoint, I’m sure the letter he wrote me was his best effort, his heartfelt, genuine counsel to an unexpectedly wayward son. What he got back from me was also sincere, but one argued more as if directed to a debate opponent rather than to a disappointed, possibly distraught father. My unintended insensitivity when added to the original news must have hurt him woefully.
Fortunately, when I returned to civilian life and lived near my parents, he and I would from to time just talk about life, though we never argued the points that divided us. Those easy-going discussions were not only rewarding and gentle, but brought a closeness I’d never had with him growing up. Unfortunately, after only a few of those good months, he succumbed to a heart attack. We had never talked about the effects of my letters.
Fast forward to late 2015. Sarah Harrison Green, Tennessee Director of American Atheists, spoke at the monthly meeting of the Atlanta Freethought Society. Someone in the audience asked her advice on how new atheists could best inform their parents of having left the family faith. I was struck more by her first two words in reply than by her more specific guidance that followed. She said, simply, “Be kind.”
Those words reverberated in my mind for days. They came to rest on my logical, but insufficiently kind reply to my father a half-century ago. The reasoning I gave then about philosophical factors—though expressed with the cheeky, ebullience of youth—is still defensible to me today. Yet today I would express that philosophy to my father with more care.
I deeply regret having had so little recognition then of how difficult the experience must have been for him. To be sure, I owed my father the truth of my changed convictions. But equally certain, I owed him the gentleness due from a son. In my youthful gusto I fulfilled the former, but in thoughtlessness I failed him and even myself on the latter.
Obviously, I have no belief in an afterlife. So this public apology is not offered in hope he will hear it, but because I owe it to the memory of him to say it.