Unleashing the atheist within by Jennifer Wilson

By Jennifer Wilson

My parents raised me with a profound respect for science but not with religion. My physicist taught me that there are certain laws of nature that the universe abides by, and even though we cannot understand everything, these laws exist and allow us to survive.
My respect for science has never led me to belittle religion or those who believe. It simply allows me to justify a world in which the answer to “What is the meaning of life?” is just as easily nothing, as it is God, nirvana or the number 42.

I had a Catholic friend in junior high who tried to pique my curiosity. She talked about religion a lot. I only mentioned my nonbelief when I was asked what church I went to. When we were 14, out of the blue, she told me that I could come to Mass with her anytime and said, “I pray for you a lot because I’m worried that you’re going to go to hell.”
The sentiment came from her heart, a place full of compassion for others, but I was taken aback. In my head I told her she should save her prayers for people who actually want them, but aloud I just said, “Thank you, that’s very thoughtful.”

Whether it was by telling me about Jesus Christ in the middle of an abortion debate or trying to debunk decades of scientific inquiry while discussing creationism, my classmates found ways to poke the atheist within me.

The vast majority of students at my small Lutheran college in Minnesota are Christians. I was hesitant to attend because of that, but I felt at home on the campus, the academics were rigorous and the financial aid they offered was stellar.

Three problems faced me: biblical studies, theological studies and ethical studies requirements. One day in my first-semester class called “Bible in Film,” the professor did the unthinkable: He asked those of us who believed in God to raise our hands. I was the only one who didn’t. He then asked me to justify my nonbelief.

Two weeks into college, in a room full of strangers (and my roommate), I froze up, unable to justify myself or even ask the simplest of questions as a rebuttal: “Why do you believe in God, professor?” For the rest of the semester, my peers met my opinions with glares of disdain and immediate counterattacks.

That first semester was rough, but I’ve become more confident in expressing my opinions. I’ve used my nonbelief to instigate discussion rather than argument.

I’ve always been an atheist, and I always will be, no matter how many of my peers poke at the atheist within me, trying to stamp it out.

Jennifer Wilson, 21, was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and lived in France the first eight years of her life but considers Lawrence, Kan., her hometown. She’s a senior majoring in English and mathematics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. She wa awarded $200 for this essay.

Freedom From Religion Foundation