Anna was awarded $1,050 by FFRF for her essay.
My hometown of Midland, Texas, is crafted in the image of its patron saint and favorite son: George W. Bush. His boyhood home is now a museum with a veritable shrine of a gift shop.
In true Bush fashion, our city of 111,000 people boasts 304 churches and four bookstores. Even the atheists here have three biblical names, Anna Faith Cain, for example. As a freethinker in this Baptist paradise, my fall from faith was destined to be exciting.
I began doubting God when I was in fourth grade. At the time, my family belonged to a charismatic Baptist church that ministers to those “struggling with homosexuality” and threatens damnation for every offense from premarital sex to interpreting the bible metaphorically.
Understandably, I was terrified. I had never met a person who was not religious, and I only knew a handful who were not Baptist. So for six years, I lived with the knowledge that those doubts would condemn me to eternal torment in hell.
The summer after 10th grade, I met two atheists. At that point, I did not believe in God but had been silent about it for years. My friends understood that I needed an injection of courageous freethought. Thus began the most adventurous summer of my life.
We devised an ingenious method of smuggling books: Harry Potter parties. Though this may sound ridiculous, the long robes and elaborate costumes allowed us to conceal books from any watchful adult eyes. And so, under my Gryffindor robe, I smuggled Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, Barker and Sagan past my parents. Within a month, I was out of the closet as an atheist.
When my fears of hell vanished, a profound disgust for Midland remained. My private school praises Christian virtues like tolerance and acceptance but forces all students to attend a daily 30-minute chapel service on penalty of detention. This town of Christian charity uses the threat of ostracism to keep freethinkers silent and invisible.
So we began resisting. I distributed freethought books to a fellow doubter. A number of us regularly sat together in chapel to display solidarity by not taking the Eucharist. And then, we scored one public victory.
Early in my senior year, a congressman named Mike Conaway visited our government class. After a rather forgettable conservative lecture, Conaway closed with a prayer and a declaration that America would be saved when we return to family values and Judeo-Christian morals.
In Texan subtext, return to family values is code for stoning homosexuals and turning feminists into housewives. Accepting Judeo-Christian morals is code for creating a theocracy. Mr. Conaway had turned his political lecture into a Christian soapbox. I was angry. So as a teen columnist for Midland’s newspaper, I wrote a scathing denunciation of his speech.
Within a day, the entire school had read and rejected my article. I even heard credible rumors that fellow students circulated a petition to have me expelled. Additionally, a few Christian classmates wrote a letter to the editor defending Conaway.
When the letter ran, one of the authors posted a picture of it on Facebook so I could see the dozens of likes and favorable comments. The firestorm extended past the walls of my school. Almost weekly, a stranger pulled me aside at a restaurant or grocery store to comment on my infamous polemic.
Up until the Conaway incident, I had feared the rich conservatives who run Midland. These Texan aristocrats are a bit like God. To a young freethinker, they appear both omniscient and omnipotent. The consequences for speaking against them seem dire. But when I turned to atheism, no lightning bolt dropped from the sky to smite me. Similarly, when I wrote the Conaway article, many people supported me.
God is a myth. So is the notion that these conservative barons, who make their fortunes draining oil from an Earth they insist is only 10,000 years old, can rule by fear.
The Texas aristocracy may seem all-powerful, but a freethinker who has the courage to stand up and speak out cannot be silenced by fairy tales or those who cling to them.
Anna Cain, 18, Midland, Texas, is enrolled at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo. She’s interested in pursuing a double major in English and a foreign language. In high school she tutored sophomores, wrote an anecdotal history of her school, wrote a biweekly column for the Midland Reporter-Telegram and volunteered as a “teen attorney” in Midland Teen Court, defending teens charged with minor offenses.