So, I’m an atheist. No, not your friendly neighborhood agnostic or non-practicing Protestant, but an actual atheist. I don’t believe in God. Trying to convince me to believe in God is like trying to convince me to like country music or become a Republican (don’t waste your time). I just cringed a bit, because that is usually a difficult thing for me to say. While I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember, the associated stigma and awkwardness mean that I’m often uncomfortable admitting it.
This discomfort began around age 8, when my Christian classmates (basically all of them) began receiving their First Communion. They wore fancy clothes and had parties and presents and all that jazz. At one of these parties, a friend’s mom inquired as to my own religious beliefs. “What church do you attend? Who is the priest? When is your First Communion?” When I told her that I didn’t believe in God and would, therefore, not receive my first (or second, or any) communion or spend any time in any church, she told me to take back my words or I would end up in hell. “But I don’t believe in hell.” (She nearly choked.) Later that night, she called my (atheist) mother to inform her of my “inappropriate” behavior. Naturally, I wasn’t invited to anymore play dates.
Once my young self learned of this atheist stigma, I fabricated numerous false religious identities. I’d rather lie than let people think I’m a bad person! It seemed like everyone in my hometown attended one of three churches and was either Catholic or Protestant. As a result, whenever questioned, I lied and said I was Jewish or a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Mormon and attended a temple 20 miles away in the middle of the forest. This caused quite a bit of eyebrow raising but usually worked, aside from the few times I encountered an actual Jew or Mormon with knowledge of such a temple. As I grew older, I identified simply as not religious, which seemed always more acceptable than atheism.
These encounters with curious Christians instilled in me a bizarre (and inappropriate) desire to mock them. And when I say them, I’m referring to people like my friend’s mother, Gov. Rick Perry and perhaps the Pope. While I’m not always vocal about it, in my head I refer to these folks as closed-minded, backward, proselytizing Jesus freaks. I’m usually that annoying troll, harassing people on pro-life Huffington Post forums or www.ConcernedWomenForAmerica.com. Not only do I feel pressured to violently type phrases like “Last time I checked, this was a secular nation,” “wake up and smell the science” or, my personal favorite, “keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” I enjoy it. Anytime any politician says “God” or, even worse, “Jesus Christ” in some variation, I cringe and b---- at the television (feeling rather pleased with myself, of course). Maybe seeking out these people and situations is my much-deserved tidbit of revenge?
This past Christmas break, I was somehow roped into watching reruns of “Sister Wives” with my grandma. When I (obviously) scoffed at Mormonism during the show, it spurred a surprising discussion. Now, my grandma is so Catholic that she received a picture book of Pope Benedict as a Christmas gift and cried tears of joy. She knows I’m an atheist and constantly tries to sway me, usually with highly religious, cash-filled birthday cards and stories of attractive men at her church. After my “Sister Wives” remark, though, she replied, “Chelsea, you mock these people for their beliefs and yet, you get extremely defensive when anyone questions your own. While I would love for you to believe in God, I would love it even more if you stopped being such a hypocrite.”
I hate to admit it, but Grandma is right. How can I strive to peacefully not believe in God when I am so hostile towards those who overtly do? I still think that religion does not belong in the public sphere (seriously, natural selection is a fact, and my ovaries should remain rosary-free), but that doesn’t mean I should freak out every time I meet a practicing Catholic.
I’m certainly more comfortable expressing my atheism at Duke, although I am one of the only atheists I know. It seems that everyone here is some type of non-practicing Christian or open-minded agnostic. Are most Dukies really on the same page of the Bible (or whatever), or do those with differing beliefs feel the need to conceal them? While Duke is great at de-stigmatizing just about everything, I feel like there’s this magical level of religiousness that we’re all expected to conform to. Not too religious, but not atheist—it’s at both ends of the spectrum where the stereotypes lie. Fundamentalists are prude and insane while atheists are snobby and mean.
So Dukies—let’s take it upon ourselves to realize that religion (or a lack thereof) is deeply personal and respectable. Healthy discussions about religion and politics and everything else are great, but stigma and stereotypes really suck. We shouldn’t have to conceal our beliefs for fear that some crazy atheist or fundamentalist is going to attack us. Because that’s me. I’ll play nice if you do, but otherwise, I’m not worried about going to hell.
Chelsea Sawicki is a Trinity senior. Her column is part of the weekly Socialites feature and runs every other Wednesday. Send Chelsea a message on Twitter @ChelsTweetzz.