Let me tell you, it’s not fun. I kept the whole ‘atheist’ thing in the dark until ninth grade, when I finally thought my classmates were accepting enough to handle it. Well, not everyone, but mostly. Our school speaks thirty-seven languages, and I swear it feels like half my friends are lesbian or bi. It’s a melting pot. Why couldn’t they accept me?
At first, things were tough. When I finally replied, “No, I’m not religious. I don’t think there’s a real higher power out there,” in my physics class, one religious male (I seem to run into a lot of those, for some reason) commented scathingly, “That must be a really sad way to live.”
No, I thought. It’s really not. But I didn’t say anything. Because I was already understanding that this was what I was up against. I was a white, upper middle class teenage girl. I’d never been part of a minority before, not really. Now, though… it sucked.
Probably the worst moment was at a sleepover, roughly a year ago, with some of my friends and I. Somehow, the topic turned to religion. One of my friends was a devout Baptist. Here’s our conversation, as well as I can remember it.
“So tell me,” I asked, “is Gandhi going to Hell?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” she replied.
Whatever section of the Baptist branch she belonged too, it sure was harsh. Poor Gandhi. I thought, and then asked a question I would come to regret. “Do you think I’m going to Hell?”
I was hoping, however foolishly, that she would consider it. That it would be a lot harder to condemn someone she knew, someone who’d sat next to her on school trips, chatted about silly hobbies in study hall, and commiserated about love lives, to an eternity of suffering in fire. But I guess, at the time, it wasn’t.
“You are,” she said. To give her credit, she didn’t sound too happy about it.
I looked away, feeling the same kind of pain I still feel remembering this now. The pain anyone feels when they realize that even the people they know think they’re doomed. Like the gay boy I talked to who admitted, “My grandmother tells me, ‘I love you, but you’re going to burn in hell.'” Or the Wiccan who’s been called Satanic by her own family. “Do you think I deserve it?” I asked.
No one answered.
Even now, that memory is still painful. But on the bright side, that friend has been changing. Even a few months ago, she admitted that she no longer believes that everything in the Bible is strictly true. I can’t say how much of that is because of education, or just her own thought processes, but I hope that I had some hand in it. Because, as it turns out, it is a lot harder to condemn someone you know. The stereotype of the heathen, immoral, baby eating atheist doesn’t hold up to real life.
As an atheist, I don’t need to go door to door to win converts. I don’t even want converts. I just want acceptance. And really, to get acceptance all I have to do is be there, to prove everyone else wrong.