Like many other atheists, I grew up with a significant religious indoctrination. Unlike many other atheists, I actively chose to fulfill my freshman year at a Pentecostal university that focuses more on indoctrination, theology, and worship than on any other departments. It was not the wisest decision to attend that university, but it was one that I made while I was still a Christian, thinking that going to a Bible college would dispel my doubts. I was wrong.
I arrived to the university, and on move-in day, I was playing Metallica while I folded and put away my clothes. When someone leaned in my open door, asked if I was “okay, because that music is really, really sad,” and if they could pray for me, I was shocked. Was this really so different? The answer is yes. Conversation about touchy topics is avoided, and I found deep conversation to be difficult to achieve. Aside from this, I had my doubts about the faith; the following six weeks exacerbated those doubts, and I was afraid to talk about my impending realization of my atheism. Surely, I would lose friends (and I did); surely, I would be turned over to the university administration (which had happened to others before me). The warm environment of the Bible College, a little bubble of religious focus in a progressive city, was not so warm. It was suffocating.
I was constantly afraid to talk about the way that I believed when I came to terms with my atheism. I didn’t want to be turned over, which would more than likely warrant my meeting with the Residence Life Coordinator and being put through counseling, maybe writing a paper rebuking my doubt. I’m not sure about the last part, but I understand that the apology essay is part of the process for LGBT* students who come out at the Bible college.
My then-roommate was fantastic about listening to me pour my heart out over feeling trapped and unwelcome, and I never did thank her appropriately. She and I shared a class in which a man, seeking his degree to become a pastor, blatantly proclaimed to the class that non-Christians are unable to feel or understand love because they don’t know God, the deification of love himself. She agreed that Christians often speak poorly of non-Christians when they think they aren’t around, and it was something I had to keep quiet about regardless. It was my own version of being in the closet. If she reads this, I want to thank her for being the great friend that she was and continues to be, and thank her for letting me use our room as the only room in that Bible college where I could be (almost) shamelessly myself.
When I left that university, it was a great burden and a great relief simultaneously. I had a few good friends that sort-of understood why I was leaving, and more people beyond that who probably couldn’t have cared less. I was happy to be reentering the secular world, where I no longer felt constrained, but I was so sad to be leaving the friends that I had made and the city I came to love. I was nervous about the changes to come, but it was time for me to feel free.
Now, I sit here before my laptop, typing out these condensed anecdotes for a blog run by my new university’s only organization aiming to promote solely secular values, science, reason, critical thought, and so on. I am typing this as Heather, Director of Activities for the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers. I went from feeling unwelcome at a university for my first year away from home to making my new home, surrounded by plenty of wonderful people for whom I do not have to put on a show.
I feel more comfortable now, but sometimes I still feel uncomfortable when people from earlier in my life find out about my abandonment of Christianity. People treat me as if I’m just mistaken, or as if my atheism is “just a phase.” It’s annoying and feels demeaning, but I can’t say that it was unexpected. I understand that it’s the price I have to pay for my honesty.
I am thankful that my experience has been much easier than those of many others, and I can only hope that I add positive memories and connotations for the Christians that I’ve befriended or left behind.
(Get it? Left Behind?)