My Path to Freethought: Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

By Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

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Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

I was raised without religion. My parents, both freethinkers, didn’t want to indoctrinate my sisters and me and left us to decide for ourselves what we believed. Aside from a few rare occasions when staying with friends or relatives, I never set foot in a church growing up. I had little exposure to Christianity until I started attending elementary school, where other children were very vocal about what their parents had been teaching them. The community where I went to school was very conservative and very Christian, so many of my childhood friends and classmates were raised in strict religious homes and were glad to tell me about what I was missing out on. On the playground and in class, they would reiterate (often incorrectly) things they had been told about Jesus and the bible.

Other kids often asked me whether or not I was “saved”–a question that always confused me. The first time I was asked this, I answered, “Of course, I mean I’m fine, but saved from what?” Once the kids explained it to me, I began to understand that there was some sort of clandestine secret society that I was not a part of and had hitherto not realized existed. And those accepted into this club proudly bore the label “saved.” I asked one of my friends how one would go about getting saved (like any young kid, I wanted to be let into this elite group). She told me I needed to be baptized, and after she explained the ritual this entailed, I told her that maybe I was in fact saved. After all, I couldn’t remember back to my infancy.

Around age seven, I was sitting in a waiting room at the doctor’s office and I picked up a Children’s Bible. The preface spoke of the tragedy in modern society in which fewer and fewer parents were teaching their children about the bible. As I read on, I became upset that my parents had never told me about any of this. I was beginning to suspect that Christianity was the key to understanding the world (after all, this is what everyone kept telling me), and I was concerned that my parents would deprive me of such an important piece of information. So I confronted them about it, asking why they’d never told me the truth, why they never baptized me or took me to church, why we didn’t say grace like all my other friends’ families. They explained to me that everyone had their own beliefs and that I shouldn’t automatically accept Christianity as truth.

I tried to view my ultra-Christian surroundings in this light, but it was difficult to resist all the tactics used by religious groups and churches to recruit me. In junior high school, I ended up getting roped into going to some social event put on by a Baptist church and soon the church members were calling me to make sure that I’d be at the service the coming Sunday. I liked the feeling of community that I got from attending service and other functions and, although still very skeptical, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and explore the possibility of the existence of God. I remember praying for some sort of sign so I’d know it was all real.

But, of course, this sign never came and I began to feel like an impostor whenever I went to church. I was always scared that “they” were going to find out that I didn’t believe in any of what they were saying. I grew sick of living this life and so I stopped showing up at service, small group meetings, and weekend retreats and all the other events that had filled my life. It was difficult leaving the social network I had there, and I always felt a little awkward whenever I saw people from the congregation (which was daily because this was the most popular church in my town). In the hallways of school, the aisles at the grocery store or in messages left on my answering machine, they were always asking me why they hadn’t seen me at church lately and asking me to come back.

But, slowly, I began to replace this community with a new one. I began to identify as a freethinker and found I wasn’t as alone as I had thought. I realized that there were others who believed as I did, including many of the people I had learned about in history, science and other classes in school. When I was 14, I found a copy of Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith at my local library. I was thrilled to see so many of my inner thoughts and doubts reflected by someone I’d never met. A girl at school saw me reading it at lunch and approached me, saying she had read it, too. We ended up getting in a great conversation about religion and atheism and I discovered that even in my ultra-Christian high school, I could find a small niche of people who dared to think otherwise. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper about a group called the Freethought Association of West Michigan. I went to a meeting and invited my mom to come with me. What I found was a group of about 25 mostly gray-haired men who would become my mentors. I invited a friend to join me at these meetings and, later, he and I started a Freethought Club at our high school. We were lucky if five kids showed up each week, but our efforts left a very real impact on our high school.

My experiences growing up as an atheist in a conservative, Protestant suburb have made me realize just how harmful state-sponsored religion can be, as it thwarts diversity, independent thought, and one’s feelings of confidence and belonging. Taking on my school in issues of church and state entanglement became one of my primary projects during high school. When I seceded from my Baptist church, I knew that I would never be able to be free from its influence, for the church, as well as our local Campus Life group, was, in a sense, aligned with my high school. The Baptist church held their functions in our gymnasium and we held some of our sports practices in theirs. Campus Life had free reign in our hallways and lunch room and sponsored mandatory assemblies during school hours. I felt constantly bombarded with Christianity and saw many of my peers lured into the church and Campus Life by promises of friendship, community, free food and fun.

Whenever I felt the wall of separation between church and state being breached, even in small and subtle ways, I began to feel more and more like I did not belong in my own high school and my own town. I felt like I was strange and different from my classmates and that, somehow, I didn’t deserve to be at my high school as much as they did. But I slowly began to realize that I didn’t deserve to feel this way–that it was my school and my town also, and I had a right to feel comfortable there.

My first big run-in with my school’s administration concerning religion in our school was in regard to the school board’s acceptance of a painting from the Christian organization World Mission, and their intention to hang this painting in the halls of my high school. The painting was entitled “The First Prayer in Congress.” Ironically, it was framed along with a copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. World Mission was trying to imply that Christianity was embedded in our country’s history from its inception and, therefore, we are a Christian nation which need not cater to the concerns of the heathens within our borders.

Any true student of history knows that this is not the case. The Constitution, the foundation upon which our country was founded, makes no mention of God or Christianity. It is a purely secular document that was intended to establish an equally secular government. The Constitution only discusses religion when it lays down the restrictions thereof in the government. The First Amendment was written specifically to avoid situations like that at my school in which there is an “establishment of religion” by the state or state officials.

Needless to say, I was deeply disappointed in my school board for accepting this painting without considering those who may be offended. Furthermore, I was disgusted by World Mission’s determination to see this painting placed not only in my school, but in public schools, governmental buildings, and political party headquarters all over the United States.

I decided something must be done to make my school more conscious of the number of students who would feel insulted and forgotten if this painting were to be posted in their school. So, I decided to use my position as the student representative to the school board to give a voice to these students (as well as myself). I prepared a statement asserting that there were students who did not appreciate the board’s acceptance of the painting and who wished for their feelings to be taken into consideration in the decision whether or not to hang the painting.

I read the statement at a board meeting, but I felt as though it had little or no effect, until the next day, when I was called out of class down to the office. There waiting for me was the superintendent, the principal, and a journalism student. They wanted to discuss with me my statement at the meeting the night before, while the student took notes with which to write an article for the school paper. Although I felt a little ambushed, I saw this as a good opportunity to help the administrators understand our concerns as well as make more students aware of the issue.

However, I left the meeting feeling discouraged. I felt as though the superintendent and principal were not genuinely trying to understand my peers’ concerns, but rather that they wanted to placate me and shut me up. But I wasn’t about to let that happen. I wrote up a petition and circulated it throughout my school. Working with the other members of the Freethought Club, I was able to get over 200 signatures of students and even a few teachers (many others wanted to sign it but were scared to go against their employers). We requested that the superintendent come speak to the Student Council and other concerned teachers and students. The meeting was more packed than any other Student Council meeting during all my four years. We must have made an impact, because a few weeks later the school announced that they would not hang the painting.

Every year, there was a vote at our high school on whether or not there would be a Christian prayer at graduation and, of course, every year the majority of students voted yes. Some of us felt that a vote was not appropriate, because no matter how large a majority is, it does not negate the rights of the minority. The principal saw our point in this and put an end to prayer at graduation.

When it came time for my graduation, I was proud to attend the very first secular graduation ever held in my high school. Not only was there no prayer, but none of the speeches was a sermon, as many had been in past years. The speakers that addressed my class (the Valedictorian, Salutatorian, and myself as Class President) were all freethinkers, something that had never happened before. As I received my diploma and looked back on my experience in public education, I was proud of the way in which I had been able to open the eyes of my administration and peers. I felt confident that I was leaving my high school more tolerant than I had found it.

Heidi Reynolds-Stenson is a sophomore at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where she has a double major in Sociology/Anthropology and Economics and a double minor in Women’s Studies and Spanish. She hopes to go on to law school and become a union lawyer. She is very interested in (and disgusted by) religion, especially as it correlates to the subjugation of women.

Heidi was awarded a $500 scholarship for her essay.

Freedom From Religion Foundation