Freethought Today · September 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Gaining my freedom from religion

anna bFFRF awarded Anna a $500 scholarship. 

By Anna Biela 

Seven years ago, I was a Catholic who was starting to ask the important questions and to put words to the doubts that plagued my childhood. I spent years trying to work through all the cognitive dissonance and the shame religion taught me.

It was one of the most difficult and freeing things I’ve ever done. Now I’m the president of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University. I’ve been on the local evening news standing up for separation of church and state. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been. 

I wish I could say that I got here by my own willpower, but there were four people that made it possible. They’re why I’m an “out” atheist, and they’re my inspiration and motivation.

Rachel has been my friend since middle school. When we first met, she was going to a fairly conservative church, though she was never really into it. While I was still struggling with my own sexuality, she was actively advocating gay marriage. She was the window that gave me a glimpse of the world beyond my sheltered Catholic childhood.

One of my most vivid memories was when I asked her how she could be religious and pro-gay rights. She responded very matter-of-factly, “I can think for myself, and I think that everyone deserves love.”

It made something click in my mind. A very simple truth emerged from the jumbled mess of religion in my mind: The welfare of people trumps religious idealism. She was the first person I told I was an atheist. She smiled and said, “It’s about time.”

In high school I met Joseph through a friend who thought he could help me. He was the first self-labeled atheist I ever met. He never told me what to believe, just asked questions and pointed out flaws in my logic.

He made me realize that I was, in fact, an atheist already, but I was afraid of what giving up my god would mean for my world. I was afraid, and he taught me that fear wasn’t a reason to dismiss the truth. For the first time, I was taught the radical notion of “good without god.”

Then, in college, I met Kacey and Ben, respectively the former vice president and treasurer of the Society of Non-Theists. They encouraged me to come to meetings and made me feel welcome at a university swarming with campus ministries. Before I knew it, I had found myself a home with heathens in the middle of conservative Indiana.

Civic engagement

Kacey, Ben and the other amazing Non-Theists turned my de facto atheism into activism. They gave me the courage and support I needed to be open and proud. Since joining, I’ve worked with them to raise money for charity, build relations with other campus groups, staff countless Ask an Atheist tables and coordinate trips to various conventions and the Reason Rally.

Last spring I was elected Non-Theists president almost unanimously. I was expecting a summer off, but ended up spending a month fighting a proposal for  the city of West Lafayette to subsidize a church project by issuing $7 million of economic development revenue bonds.

Our work changed the original 6-1 vote to a very close 4-3 in favor of the church, which wasn’t quite a success, but we made a difference. We convinced two council members and made the city stop and think, all while establishing our presence in local government. [FFRF also got involved.]

To be completely honest, I’ve had my moments of doubt, wondering if my activism is worth it, considering the prevalent bias against the nonreligious. Any potential employer can easily discover my position in the club by Googling me. The pastor of the aforementioned church had misquoted and vilified me during his Sunday service, leading members of his congregation to harass us. It has created a huge barrier between my parents and me, and I’ve lost too many friends.

But every time I doubt, I realize that those are the exact reasons why being out of the closet is so important. I had four amazing people to stand with me and guide me. Now I have a duty and the ability to help any other young person with doubts. I will make the Society of Non-Theists strong for everyone who comes after me. I will fight for equality and rights.

I will stand up for anyone else who finds themselves the victim of religion. Religion hurt me, taught me self-loathing and repressed me. Atheists helped me, taught me the value of my voice and helped me find an ounce of truth in this crazy, beautiful universe.

 

Anna Biela, 20, was born in Michigan City, Ind., and is a junior majoring in nuclear engineering at Purdue University.

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