After four long and miserable years, I finally escaped from this mind-prison of a school once and for all at my graduation on May 19th. As far as I am concerned, this college has achieved the opposite of its goal of “nurturing my walk with Christ.” Instead, it accidentally shaped me into the dedicated atheist that I am today. It was the pivotal point in my life that pushed me from agnosticism all the way to atheism, to this blog, and out of the closet.
I realize that I haven’t yet given a very solid explanation for why I, a lifelong unbeliever, chose to attend a Christian college. I knew it was Christian, but if you know about my ultra-Lutheran upbringing, then you will know that Christianity was nothing new to me. For eighteen years I had gone to church every week and prayed before every meal with my family. I’d seen what an amazing time that my oldest sister had had at her Christian college, and how much my other older sister was struggling to meet quality Christian friends at her secular university. I’d gone to a Catholic elementary school for three years in the past (because even Catholic is better than no religion at all), so weekly mass and religion class weren’t new to me. But I wasn’t ready for this.
This school advertises its three pillars as its main selling points: affordable cost, rigorous academics, and Christ-centered community. I was also attracted to it because it was relatively small, it was in a good location, and it had a marching band. Sure, it required each student to attend 128 chapel services, but I figured it would balance out with all of the school’s good qualities, and it would be nothing compared to all of the church services I attended every single week since I was born.
As it turns out, federal loans are very helpful in making college affordable—and this school doesn’t accept them. And for a college who occasionally claims to be one of the most rigorous and reputable schools in the country, its classes such as Apologetics 101 are a testament to why that is blatantly false. Perhaps the academics were rigorous for some people in their respective majors, but as someone who wants to go into graphic design, it doesn’t even have a program for that. I had the privilege of taking a whopping three whole design courses to prepare me for my life’s work. I didn’t have time for many more anyways, considering that we were required to take seven courses in how Christianity relates to civilization, culture, and science.
Seven courses isn’t enough, though. I did not make it through a single class that was not absolutely saturated with Christian thought. I suppose I should have been prepared for this, knowing that it was a Christian college, but without having to sign a statement of faith, students weren’t required to be Christian—that is, not until we arrive on campus. If you decide to attend Grove City College as an atheist, you need to be prepared to have slim to no campus activities to choose from, no freedom to speak your mind, and no classes with non-Christian real-world applicable skills.
Once I enrolled here, it took a while for my atheism to catch up to me. As my story goes, like a broken record, I never truly believed in God, but it wasn’t until college that it began to affect my life. When I was a freshman, I was up for the task of faking it. The only person I had ever come out to was my fiance (my boyfriend at the time). Looking through my school laptop, I found a few old papers that I wrote years ago from deep within the closet. This is an excerpt of a paper that I wrote for a sociology class (which was also required and had nothing to do with my major). I have no idea what the prompt was, but I’m sure I got an A.
“Four thousands of years, the Christian religion has been a very integral, central aspect of hundreds of cultures and of millions of lives. However, recently the popularity of Christianity has been dwindling, and many have begun to shrug off Christ’s teaching, finding it outdated and unstable. This is not the doing of each doubtful individual, but of a mob mentality which makes for a shifting societal viewpoint. In recent years, it is becoming more and more difficult to openly express one’s Christian beliefs without being targeted by those with different opinions. Even in these tough times, though, there are still many Christians whose faith is strong and unfaltering, due to the support of friends, congregations, and family.
While it is difficult to find a sociologist who keeps a Christian perspective in his studies, it is no less true that Christ is what keeps society and the individual together and functioning. It is hard to believe that people accept the idea that humans can coexist without the help and presence of God.”
I don’t know about you, but not only do I have absolutely no recollection of writing that, but I cannot believe that I ever would. I have a hard time even believing that I was an agnostic at that time, but I was. I was just a damn good hider. And a bit of a suck-up.
My sophomore year is what pushed me to examine who I was an what I believed. When I took a class on the worldviews of Christianity, deism, naturalism, nihilism, and existentialism, I was determined to find which category I fit into—and that was naturalism. The word ‘naturalism’ was my first step in calling myself an atheist. The paper that I wrote on naturalism and nihilism ignited a fire in me that made me want to learn more on why people do and don’t believe in God, and whether I do or not. I then made my decision, but I’m still learning about it to this day, because I love to.
I was a junior when I first began using the word “atheist”. By definition, I had been an atheist for a decade, but the word’s stigma made me hesitant to identify as one. It wasn’t until my first blog post that I was comfortable saying “I am an atheist,” and I still hadn’t come out to anyone other than my fiance. Weeks later, I admitted my atheism to my roommates, and eventually I revealed it as part of a presentation to a huge class!
Becoming passionate about atheism (and coming out at home) made it almost impossible to stay closeted at school. Still, every class assignment incorporates Christianity in some way, from asking us to give editorial feedback on apologetics book proposals (in a class that is totally unrelated to apologetics) to asking us to write about how we incorporate our Christian faith with our studies and future work. Upon receiving the latter assignment, I asked my professor, who knows I’m an atheist, if I could instead write about how being an atheist affects my studies at a Christian college. I told him that if I didn’t, my paper would be really bad, and also a lie. I don’t have the energy for lying that I used to. With this special permission to alter the assignment, I wrote the following in my very last assignment of my undergraduate career:
“At Grove City College, God is everywhere. Although students and faculty are not required to sign a statement of faith, one would be hard pressed to find a single student who does not practice or believe in the Christian faith in one aspect or another. That’s not to say that it is impossible, however. Ex-Christian apostates are few and far between here, but they certainly do exist. I know because I am one myself.
The Christian religion permeates every aspect of life at Grove City College. The ‘Christ-centered community’ that the advertisements always boast is certainly manifested at what feels like every conceivable turn. This community is maintained all throughout campus life: hall bible studies, religion classes, ministry groups, worship nights, mandatory chapel, and much more. Outside of Grove City College, Christianity also thrives throughout several avenues, like church services, family devotions, and rituals that are passed down throughout generations. Together, Christians discern the Bible, discuss their values, create art, and spread the Gospel with others. As a whole, Christianity is a very social religion.
Not all beliefs are so group-oriented, however. In my experience, atheists feel like a community of rogues. Without ceremonies to perform, hymns to sing, or books to interpret, we don’t have many practical reasons to come together. This becomes troubling for those of us who hide our nonbelief in a world whose views differ from ours. When I found myself in this situation, I felt alone, although I knew that there must be more enduring the same struggle. In order to find community, I turned to the Internet, and so had thousands of others.
I now find myself in a community of atheists. It is not the traditional community that one would encounter at Grove City College, because it doesn’t have a physical home, but a virtual one. Two expansive hubs for the online atheist community are Twitter and Reddit, although I participate primarily through maintaining my personal blog on WordPress. Nevertheless, these groups are built almost entirely upon language, rhetoric, and symbols. These atheists find camaraderie with others by blogging, vlogging, tweeting, and speaking. We write and read books. We have written, spoken, and shared hundreds of ‘deconversion stories’. In the absence of God and religious tradition, we have created a dynamic new culture that evolves as more and more people flee their faith and turn to the Web for acceptance. If it weren’t for these virtual, storytelling groups, we would all think we were alone.”
Finally, after resenting everyone around me and my choice to attend Grove City College (which, I hear, has been jokingly referred to as God’s Concentration Camp), I feel an ounce of freedom, or at least a loss of inhibition, to be who I really am here. In the end, though, I sincerely believe that I do not belong at this college. I never did. Nevertheless, my years here are over, and at last I am onto bigger and better things.