University of Wisconsin–Madison

Meet the Officers: Anna Wright

“Meet the Officers” is a biographical series that seeks to give names and personalities to the officers who run Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics. Every two weeks, the blog will update with a post about a new officer.

Anna Wright is one of the Co-Treasurers of AHA. She is a sophomore transfer student majoring in Agriculture and Applied Economics. Like many people, she found out about AHA from a friend, namely fellow officer Mark Pan. In her spare time, she likes to knit, watch TED talks, draw caricatures of Vladimir Putin, and destroy honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Anna’s Secular Story

The first thing to know about my upbringing is that my dad was a Presbyterian minister. This means that my family was deeply connected to the church, which wasn’t a bad thing. The church community is supportive and is one of the best reasons to be in a church. If you were in the church, you were cared for and a part of something bigger.

I’ll take a moment to praise my father. He had a PhD from Vanderbilt and had a masterful understanding of theology. He always approached religious queries from a progressive point of view, and was disdainful of those who used religion as a crutch for comfort. If I ever engaged him in a theological conversation, I would sense his contempt for those who did not push their belief systems. He was a firm advocate for self-criticism and awareness.
I didn’t always know this. I tearfully admitted to my mom that I didn’t believe in God when I was in sixth grade. I was terrified of the implications, because it meant I didn’t belong within the church community. Right?

Not according to my parents. My dad never stopped telling me just how many atheists and agnostics attended service regularly, and how common it was for people to doubt their faith. They did not see my atheism as a reason for me to leave the church. I did. So, by the time I reached high school, our arguments had evolved into a compromise with two terms:

  1. I needed to believe in something beyond myself so that I had a moral compass through which to navigate life. It didn’t matter what, but I had to have self-examined principles. I had to understand how to make ethical decisions. The intuition of a teenager, in my parents’ eyes, was not a reliable decision-making machine.
  2. I needed to go through confirmation class. I didn’t need to be confirmed, but I did need to go through the process. I did not do this wholeheartedly. I probably attended half of the classes (which my father led), between sick days and other excuses I concocted. Like I said, it was a compromise.

At the time, I was so incensed by these two conditions that I barely acknowledged my father’s existence. I grudgingly told him “good night” each night, and thanked him for rides to school every morning. It’s not a time I am proud of. With my brothers out of the house, family dinners could be remarkably unpleasant.

Looking back, I am stunned by how much my parents guided me towards a free-thinking secular viewpoint. I am so grateful that they forced me into examining different theologies and philosophies, because I would have been content to declare myself an atheist. I would have pigeon-holed myself into a different dogma, and that would have been that. Instead, from sixth grade to tenth grade, my parents helped me come to my own thoughtful, personal philosophies. These philosophies are ever-changing, and I am determined to never allow myself to slide into a comfortable and easy viewpoint, whether it is secularism or theism. That, I got from my father.

My senior year of high school when I was living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I got an e-mail from my dad out of the blue. He was leaving his preaching post after about 30 years of working at the pulpit, for many, many reasons. Although I wish we could have been closer whether or not he was involved in the church, our relationship improved dramatically after he left the church. Still, my parents showed me how open-minded religion can be. My year in Bosnia further taught this lesson—although a predominantly Muslim country, most of my friends were secular and held to the traditions of Islam more than the religion or the institution itself.

Overall, the most painful part of being openly and honestly secular has been the impact on my community life. My family’s life was so intertwined with the church that refusing to attend service meant I cut myself off from deep friendships. To the church’s credit, no one ever held it against me. Over the years, I have been learning to rebuild these ties. It has been a rewarding experience—I do not feel like I am compromising my identity because it is obvious that I am not religious, and I am still accepted and loved by the people in the church.

Now for some real talk. I am adamant that connections within a community should be cherished. Religion is not inherently evil. I abhor oppressive institutions, but many individuals within them are loving and willing to open their minds. You’ll never know until you ask them. This mindset was especially important this summer, when my dad died in a car accident. I’m still processing the event. Yes, there were a few times that I ran away from comments of “He’s in a better place now.” It was just the fact that I knew the person talking was trying to comfort me and so it would be inappropriate to stomp on their foot or look annoyed. Overall, my schooling held. I was able to navigate (with the support of my selfless friends) the religiousness of the individuals and the service because of the years I had spent learning to talk to people regardless of their beliefs. And yes, I think (well, my mom gave me the hairy eyeball for this) that I rolled my eyes at the funeral when the presiding pastor begged God to forgive my dad’s sins. It pissed me off because that is something my father would not have preached. Especially considering that my dad spearheaded a group for inter-faith dialogue in Wausau. Especially considering one of the speakers at the service was a rabbi and family friend. My dad was an advocate for inclusion and understanding. He probably would have rolled his eyes too at someone condemning him for his depravity. But it pissed off my entire family, because we all knew that. My brothers don’t consign much to the church either—but I think both of them are theists. My mom is Presbyterian and I admire her faith. The bottom line? Believe what you want, but you better know why you believe it.
This story is not about my father. It is about me. But my dad’s perspective on faith and religion had a tremendous impact on who I am today. I am very lucky. My parents were intelligent and caring. They accepted that it’s mostly their fault that I turned out as the skeptic I am, and they loved me unconditionally. They not only accepted me, but they understood my thinking and were willing to engage in discussion with me. If there is one lesson I have internalized from my dad’s parenting, it is to never let myself be comfortable with my belief system. I am and have been a secular humanist since seventh grade, but that could change by New Year’s. For now, I’ll just keep on thinking.

Anna with her parents and grandather

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