FFRF awarded Casimir a $1,000 scholarship.
By Casimir Klim
Unlike many of my fellow nonbelievers, I faced no backlash for my atheism until years after I had “come out” to my family and friends. Growing up in a relatively secular household, I was encouraged to think critically and draw my own conclusions about life. Although my parents were somewhat spiritual, they never forced their beliefs on me and understood when, as a young man, I rejected religious faith.
As a child and teenager, I was not made to feel like an outsider because I refused to believe unscientific explanations for existence. That all changed when I chose to become a firefighter and moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to El Paso, Texas.
After high school, I had decided to forgo college in favor of a career in the fire service. The choice satisfied both the desire I felt for adventure and the inclination to help others that my family instilled in me. After training in Michigan, I encountered a struggling economy where most municipalities were laying off public safety workers. Being passionate about my career choice, I accepted a position in El Paso and began working as a firefighter/paramedic at the age of 22.
I had not considered what a large role religion played in the fire service. At the training academy, I saw a large number of cross necklaces and tattoos on my classmates and teachers. But my real wake-up call occurred at the dinner table a few months after I had finished training and began station work.
In fire stations, crews work 24-hour shifts and traditionally eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Close quarters breed familiarity, and almost no topic of conversation is off limits. As the “new guy” from out of town, I was a bit of a curiosity. During a lull in conversation, the question of my faith arose: “Hey Klim, you Catholic? What religion are you?”
I was taken by surprise. It was a question I had never been asked point blank before, let alone in a room full of other people. I could, of course, have declined to answer. But fire crews value a type of trust that is only fostered by brutal honesty. If I couldn’t tell them the truth about myself, how could they trust me to watch out for them inside a burning building?
“I — I’m not anything. I’m not religious,” I said cautiously.
I hoped it would blow over, but these were not people to take controversy lightly. They reacted with genuine shock, which quickly gave way to relentless mocking over the eternity I would surely spend in hell. To succeed as a firefighter, one must have thick skin, and I didn’t mind getting kidded about the “religion thing.”
It could just as easily been about my big ears or Midwestern accent. The joking was easy to take in stride. What really hurt was seeing the face on one of my mentors fall as I professed my lack of faith.
He, it turned out, was extremely devout. He looked both surprised and saddened by my proclamation. I wondered if our relationship would ever be the same. To bridge this new divide, I vowed to be the best firefighter I could be. I needed to prove that my atheism did not affect my abilities or my morals.
As time went by, my hard work paid off. When I proved I could successfully triage patients at a multi-car pileup and competently work the nozzle in a burning bedroom as flames rolled over our heads, the issue of where I went on Sunday went out the window. My mentor put the issue behind him and continued to serve as a great friend and adviser.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find other members of the department who lived upstanding lives without any form of religious faith. These kindred spirits also happened to be some of the best firefighters I have worked with. Many of them were equally, if not more, morally scrupulous than their religious peers.
Watching them cheerfully face long shifts with no sleep reinforced my observation that morality does not come from God. These brave men and women risked their lives to help others, not for a reward in the afterlife, but because they felt it was simply the right thing to do.
The acceptance I eventually felt from my firefighter brothers and sisters does not, apparently, translate to the rest of society. A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that nearly 40% of Americans feel that atheists “do not at all agree” with the vision that they have of society.
Would they still think so, knowing that atheists are running into burning buildings to search for their families? That we are educating their children? Policing their streets? I don’t think so. We nonbelievers are represented in myriad aspects of American society. We need to start standing up and saying so.
Initially, it was difficult to be forthcoming about my lack of faith to my peers. But in the end, it was a valuable and eye-opening experience. They were shocked at first, but it wasn’t long before we were back to eating steaks, watching TV and waiting for “the big one.” We found common ground in our work protecting the citizens of our city.
My time as a firefighter showed me the importance of “coming out” as a freethinker and atheist, regardless of one’s profession or location. If nonbelieving professionals make their position known, it will start to erode the view that atheists lack morality and do not share the values held by their fellow Americans.
If enough of us speak up, we will be recognized as the ethical and responsible members of the society that we are. I feel that this simple step will help us to move closer to a tolerant, inclusive and rational society.
Casimir Klim, 24, says his experiences as a first responder helped him discover a passion for health care. That led him to make the difficult decision to resign from the fire department and return to school. He’s a freshman at the School of General Studies, Columbia University’s undergraduate school for nontraditional students. He’s pursuing a neuroscience degree and plans to apply to medical school.