Fourth place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Audrey Gunn

‘Heathens and heretics,’ oh my!

FFRF awarded Audrey $750 for her essay.

By Audrey Gunn

I have always been an atheist. My mother grew up in a strongly Catholic household, the kind that had six kids and prayed at every meal and went to church every Sunday come hell or high water. When she went off to college, my mother stopped attending church, which came as a great relief, as she had stopped believing long ago. Her mother, my grandma, was distraught, but just said that she’d pray. She meant well, I know.

My dad was raised a Scottish Protestant in Ohio, but was more or less indifferent to religion. So I grew up without it, aside from my grandma’s occasional gifts of rosaries and confusing explanations of Jesus. My mother always told me that if I was interested in going to church (or a mosque or synagogue), that she’d find one and take me, but the idea just seemed a bit odd, like Santa for adults.

Most of my best childhood friends were Christian, but the only time that interfered was when they couldn’t sleep over on Saturday because they had to go to church on Sunday. It wasn’t until college, strangely enough, that my atheism became something I had to be careful about discussing. I’d ended up “coming out” at Concordia College, a small Lutheran school in northern Minnesota, before classes even began.

The entire first-year class had read a book called Happiness over the Summer, and my orientation group was invited to our professor’s house to discuss it. One particularly religious girl (let’s call her Mary) said she felt like the concept of “joy” was minimized in the text. To her, she explained, joy could only come from religion, and from Christianity specifically. Mary was sure we could all relate.

My heart started pounding so hard that my whole body felt like a live wire. I’m a pretty reserved person, even shy, so when I opened my mouth, everybody turned to me, a bit surprised, I think, that I was speaking. “Well, I’m an atheist,” I said, and in that moment, you could have heard an ant crawling across the carpet.

“But I still feel joy. Maybe it doesn’t come from the same place yours does, but I feel it — when I go hiking, deep in the woods, when I see the boxes of food I’ve helped to pack for charity, when I’m painting with my little cousin and she says she wants to be just like me one day.”

I paused, but it was still dead silent. “Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I experience a smaller range of emotions. Joy might come from different places for me, but I feel it, too.” I was trembling. Mary’s face was twisted, like I couldn’t possibly understand.

I didn’t really have to deal with the stigma surrounding my atheism for a while. But in one class, called “Satan in Literature,” the topic was bound to resurface. Mary finally took her petty revenge about a month later.

We were reading Dante’s Inferno. Mary had designed her own version of the nine levels of hell, which she was describing to us in class. The first few levels were silly — people being penalized for theft and the like with ridiculous, jokey punishments. By the sixth level, we had made it to murderers. “What’s on the ninth level, then?” another student finally asked. Mary looked straight at me: “Heathens and heretics.”

I wasn’t about to confront her again about this ridiculous bias. If she wanted to condemn me to the ninth pit of hell, hanging out with Satan himself, then so be it. As far as I’m concerned, I will cease to exist after I die (the bible is full of fascinating stories, but I fail to see why they’re more than just stories).

I worry about being a good person here on Earth, making the most of the short life I have rather than wasting my time condemning others for life choices that differ from mine. Most people I’ve met at Concordia have been much more accepting of me, and I’ve even found a couple other nonbelievers along the way.

I refuse to let one closed-minded girl hinder my pursuit of freethought. Audrey Gunn, 19, grew up in Eagan, Minn., and is a junior English literature major and German minor at Concordia College in Moorhead. She plays clarinet in several groups, is a member of the Secular Student Community and serves on the advisory committee for the college’s honors program.

Freedom From Religion Foundation