Emma was awarded $2,050 by FFRF for her essay.
When my Shi’a Muslim host mother realized that I indeed fit the term “infidel,” she told me “It’s horrible to be a kafra.” I was an exchange student in Muscat, Oman, for a year, with the singular goal of engaging in cross-cultural communication between Americans and Muslims.
My host had opened her home to me but had expected a pious Christian girl. Before departing, I had decided to keep my atheism to myself, because I recognized how many fundamentalists strongly oppose it. But over time, my host family grew to recognize that I did not accompany the other American students to church, I did not pray or wear religious symbols. They began to question their assumption that I was religious.
Living in a significantly Muslim culture was painful and confusing at times but helped me to grow and appreciate my own identity. That year, I explored my own atheism in the midst of an overwhelmingly religious culture and found spirituality independent of belief in a deity.
I tossed and turned many nights, exploring reason and religion in the context of each other. Amidst my transfer from a fairly secular family to an extremely religious one, I solidified my belief that there was no God.
Being a freethinker has, for me, meant encountering a constant stream of appeals from religious society. Everywhere I go, I find religion. Oman’s national religion is Islam. In the U.S., billboards have Jesus plastered on them, Even our Pledge of Allegiance explicitly refers to a deity.
With religion permeating world culture, it can be ostracizing to fall on the outside, requiring me to explain over and over why I am a humanist. I am constantly asked to justify myself, and then shot down for supposedly being less wholesome or virtuous than religious people.
But to me it boils down to the basic idea that people are fundamentally good, regardless of whether they worship a deity.
I believe in the true possibility to live a just life independent of religious worship. When I look around the world and see people who are devoting their lives to social justice and change, they rarely do so in the name of religion. Nicholas Kristof, intrepid reporter and crusader for human rights, articulates his views of a tangible and possible world peace and understanding without emphasizing a need for religion.
Kristof inspires me to focus living justly for the right reasons, not to please a deity but to create interpersonal and intercultural bonds, to work so that no human goes without basic needs and to care for the Earth upon which we live. Rather than focusing on an afterlife, a truly good person tries to create the best life while still alive. Because I don’t believe in a god, this is all the more apparent to me.
But many people in my life cannot understand this. Although their religions preach love, they plainly tell me I’ll go to hell. They fear their God’s wrath rather than embracing tangible human love.
When I meet this sort of person, I try to avoid argument. Instead, I allow my actions to speak for themselves. By living as justly as I can, I try to persuade people that, in the words of humanist leader Greg Epstein, it is possible to be good without God.
As my year studying abroad closed, the exchange program was searching for new host families, and the director asked my host mother to host a student, a Christian girl, for three weeks over Ramadan. “No,” she said. “We would only want a student like Emma. Someone good like her.”
I still smile at that milestone in my humanism and life, that through my actions I was able to truly spread the idea that the godless are not goodless.
Emma Conover-Crockette, 18, Beloit, Wis., will be attending Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to major in political science and international relations with a minor in Arabic. Emma participated in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad program in Oman and blogged about her experiences.