The Secular Humanist in President Obama’s Life

What would it take for a fatherless black man, who grew up in a progressive, yet somewhat chaotic, lower middle-class family and spent most of his childhood moving from place to place, to become the 44th President of the United States?

Last week on the popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron, President Barack Obama joined the comedian to discuss childhood, race, religion, fatherhood, the world, and everything in between. Maron’s interview turned out to be a candid and intimate look into Obama’s early life. They discussed the struggles of finding identity as a teenager and what it was like for Obama to grow up as a fatherless African-American male in America.

By the age of twenty, Obama realized:

A lot of the ideas that I’d taken on—about being a rebel, or being a tough guy, or being cool—were really not me. They were just things that I was trying on because I was insecure or I was a kid. And that’s an important moment in my life, although also a scary one, because then you start realizing, “Well, I actually have to figure out what I really do believe, and what is important, and who am I really.”

He also acknowledged that he was never raised in a particularly religious household and always saw his mother as a progressive person:

I always call her the last of the great secular humanists. She thought all religions had something to say and she thought all cultures were fascinating and…we’d go to church for Easter sometimes…but she instilled in me these core values, that for a while I thought were corny, and then right around twenty, you start realizing, you know honesty, kindness, hard work, responsibility, looking after other people, they’re actually pretty good values.

Interestingly enough, his father was a self-proclaimed atheist, though his influence was absent from Obama’s life.

So what religion does President Obama ascribe to, really? Despite having formally been baptized into the United Church of Christ in 1988, where he remained a member until 2008, his religious beliefs have been in constant question because he never formally became a member of any church afterwards (though he purportedly now worships with a Southern Baptist pastor at Camp David). “Is he Muslim?” is what you may hear from the more close-minded Americans who suspect his middle name may be an indicator. “Perhaps he is an atheist!” is what some more progressive hopefuls would suggest.

Whatever his personal beliefs, they seem to be a hodgepodge of positive values that were unquestionably passed down from his mother, who he calls “the biggest influence in [his] life.” Is it possible to have a leader, albeit not perfect, but effective nonetheless, who is capable of demonstrating the values of “honesty, kindness, hard work, responsibility, looking after other people” without learning those values in a church? It seems President Obama is a great example of strength, love, and power, and all it took was gratitude, determination, and a dedicated parent. President Obama, you may not call yourself a humanist, but your values would suggest otherwise.

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  • squeak

    Just as Barney Frank came out with his atheism after he left office (although he came out gay while he was still in office), I suspect Obama will stop pretending any religious identity once he’s left the White House. I just wish he’d start now!

  • johndowdle

    I think he is playing the field: by claiming a humanist mother, an atheist father, a religious status based on christian baptism and having a muslim middle name. That way, he appeals to a wide-ranging demographic, which secures him lots of votes!
    Maybe he is a nice guy; but I also think he is a very calculating one too.
    A politician, one might almost say!
    Arguably, his early “promise” has never been realised.
    I don’t think it ever will be.

    • Ann Chapman

      Have you been paying attention? Considering the Republicans have thrown major roadblocks in his way the whole time he’s been in office, I think he’s done extremely well. And what votes he is looking for? He’s not running for any office. He’s got a full life ahead of him to make our country and our world a better place, as other former presidents have done. I will be doing my best to help him. Hope you will too.

      • johndowdle

        Of course I have been paying attention – right from the time he publicly signed an Executive Order shutting down Guatanamo Bay. What’s that you say? It is still open and is still being used for rendition purposes? Well, not much change there then, is there?
        As I said before, he may be a nice guy with a nice wife and nice children but he has to be seen as one of the most ineffectual Presidents the US has ever seen.
        OK, he managed to get heathcare introduced – which Hilary never managed – despite almost fanatical opposition and hatred from Religious Right Tea Party Republicans.
        Even so, by comparison with my country – Great Britain – the US healthcare system still leaves a great deal to be desired, particularly from the perspective of poor people.
        Under Obama’s stewardship, the 1% have grown ever-richer and the 99% ever-poorer.
        If you are a humanist, you should also be a rationalist – which means thinking for yourself and not allowing other people to think for you and then mindwash you.
        As Noam Chomsky once remarked, US Presidential elections offer a choice only between the Democrat and Republican wings of the Capitalist Party.
        Maybe he went a bit far but being excessively partisan in a US context is just not rational.

        • Ann Chapman

          I apologize for questioning you–I didn’t realize who you were. And I agree that your country has better healthcare than my country and certainly better than my state (Texas). Republicans are the reason why, in both cases. I’m 74 years old and I’ve been an atheist since about 7th grade, so I’ve been thinking for myself for a while now. I will continue to do so. BTW: I love British television shows and watch them much more than American shows.

        • ReadLearnThink

          As far as shutting down Guantanamo, I believe he had every intention of doing that, but when he got into office and learned some things, he realized that it is not so simple. Do you want a terrorist attack on our soil by someone trying to protest us having these people in American jails?

    • ReadLearnThink

      I don’t think he is playing anything. I think he is just being himself.

    • Bill Haines

      Anyone who thinks public association with humanism, atheism or Islam is advantageous to getting elected in America is an ignoramus regarding our politics.

      Arguably, Obama could have been a more progressive President than he has been, I’d certainly agree with that, and find him quite a disappointment in that way. But as a cautious steward of the nation’s interests following the disastrous second Bush Presidency, he’s already realized his promise, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him become the first to serve in Congress, as President and on the Supreme Court.

  • ReadLearnThink

    I thought the Obamas worship at the Episcopal Church in Washington, D. C. The Episcopal Church is very progressive.

  • johndowdle

    I am sorry not to have responded to some of the points below sooner – it has been a hectic few days!
    Like the UK, the US – according to most opinion polls – is becoming increasingly secularised.
    While in the US it is a political drawback not to have a religion, in the UK it is to have one.
    That is why Tony Blair (or one of his advisers) said publicly “We don’t do god at Number 10”.
    Unusually, it may be the case that what happens in the UK today will happen in the US tomorrow?
    It may also be the case that our prime ministerial political system works better in achieving social change than the current US presidential system – in particular when the Congress is of a different party.
    The UK system is a form of elective dictatorship and so tends to get change achieved much faster.
    There are disturbing reports of US intelligence agencies renditioning suspects to prisons in the Ukraine.
    There are also reports that Guantanamo is fulfilling a similar function.
    Let’s not forget: most of the suspects have never been tried for anything – yet jailed for years.
    As the old saying goes “Justice delayed is justice denied”.
    That may be one very good reason why Obama should never have any role in any US court.