I've been reading the ISSA blog for more than a year now, so when Max offered me an opportunity to guest-write an article, I jumped at it… and into a pit of far too many possibilities to write a single, cohesive and satisfying article. The best I can do is share some of my experiences that might seem strange and new to atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers at UIUC.
So where to begin? I'm currently an atheist, and I’ve been going to church since I was seven years old. My mother recently told me why this began: in the wake of Columbine, my parents decided that taking my younger brother and I to church was a good idea. My kneejerk reaction was, “What, because Biblical morality will make sure that I don’t grow up to become a murderous psychopath?”
“No,” said my mother. “We heard about the two boys that stood up to the shooters [and were promptly gunned down, mind you]. I admired their bravery and faith, and your father and I agreed that this was something you should have in your life.” To reiterate, my mother sent me to church so that I could grow up to be Bible-thumping target practice. What. The. Fuck.
I've learned a lot of important lessons from my family over the years – sometimes kids don’t learn from timeouts, you don’t realize you’re poor if it’s the only thing you've known, and everyone is happier if they don’t know you’re an atheist.
That last one came into play when my parents pushed me to apply to a Lutheran college. Now, even if you're an atheist, you don’t say ‘no’ to attending a Lutheran college as an atheist when you’re getting a 75% scholarship and your parents are covering a nontrivial portion of the rest. So, here I am, “the most atheistic person you will ever meet,” according to my girlfriend, smack-dab in the middle of a Christian campus drier than a mummy’s asshole, and sporting a rack of pro-life pamphlets in the nurse’s office (“Keeping the Baby: Or, Why You Spent $43,000 to Get Knocked Up”) instead of a jar of condoms. Given my situation, you’d think I’d keep the idea that “everyone is happier if they don’t know you’re an atheist” in mind and try to keep my head down.
But you’d be wrong. After a bit of coercion, I started up my Lutheran college’s own Secular Student Alliance chapter. It was about as well-received by the Dean of Student’s Office as a bomb threat. It was an uphill battle of two semesters’ length just to be recognized as an official club by Student Government, with all manner of dumb excuses from every level of administration along the way. “We already have a philosophy club,” the student government president said during our hearing, “so why do we need a freethinkers society?”
“We already have a French club,” I responded, “so why do we need a Spanish club?” He shut his damn mouth, and a month later, the now-official club reserved a table outside the cafeteria on Ask an Atheist Day.
If starting an SSA chapter was as well-received as a bomb threat, Ask an Atheist Day was as well-received as a coordinated nuclear strike. It was pretty much this (average meeting attendance):
InterVarsity was meeting in a conference room down the hallway, and when they heard what was going on, we were mobbed by angry evangelicals. In case you guys don’t have InterVarsity at UIUC, it’s a Jesus fan club with one of the highest memberships and highest budgets, enough to pay a big-name anti-LBGT speaker to give a lecture in ’09. I have never in my life personally seen so many self-proclaimed Christians act so un-Christlike. They spent two hours presenting the same tired arguments for the existence of God:
- It makes me happy, so it must be true.
- I can’t imagine God not existing, so He must exist.
- Science hasn’t explained everything ever, so the Lutheran Missouri Synod must be exactly right.
- Secular wars have claimed more lives than the Holy Wars + 30 Years War + 100 Years War, so atheists must be wrong.
Even though I spent most of Ask an Atheist Day worried that I was going to be lynched, InterVarsity's antics did manage to attract the attention of every atheist, agnostic, skeptic, freethinker, deist, and person fed up with InterVarsity’s bullshit, and by the end of the day, we had a decent number of people on our mailing list.
Unfortunately, mailing list size doesn’t reflect attendance size. Most people are just not interested in going to meetings to talk about things they don’t believe in (which was unilateral among all members, regardless of religious status; in order to reduce animosity and maintain interest, we kept the emphasis on general skepticism. Have a night where you grab a lecture hall and watch “Ancient Aliens” and give MST3K commentary, it’s a blast.)
It’s now two years later, and our SSA chapter doesn’t meet any more. A combination of lack of interest by the relatively small, mostly Christian student body and a feeling of inevitable failure among the club’s members gave us cause to not make an appearance at the most recent organization fair. You can only try to roll the boulder up the hill so many times before recognizing that you’re Sisyphus, except here the boulder was made of neutronium and the hill was Mount Everest if Mount Everest was a currently-erupting volcano.
One good thing I can say about not having a strong nonbeliever support group present on-campus is that I've been forced to consider what I believe and why I believe it a lot more carefully, and in all areas of my life. Three years of living at a Lutheran school has been like an atheist boot camp: I went in an edgy teenage atheist and have come out a champion of rationalism and the scientific method, capable of clearly articulating the what’s and why’s of observable reality.
So, to the Christian masses, thank you for making me a better person. It was worth the lost friends who couldn't handle their faith being examined, it was worth the lost hours of sleep I spent wondering if I was doing the right thing, and it was worth the money I lost from running a failed SSA chapter with a budget of zero dollars.