September 11, 2006

Journey of an Atheist, Part III

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the third part of a multi-post series. Part II can be found here, or if you'd like to start from the beginning, you can find Part I here.

As high school graduation neared, I found myself becoming more liberal than my parents on most issues (e.g., I supported the legalization of drugs, animal rights, and became quite concerned about the environment). I saw no use for religion, but my feelings toward it were somewhat less hostile than they had been previously. Had you met me at the time, I might have even described myself as "spiritual but not religious." I saw religion more as a waste of time than a destructive force. My feelings toward most believers could be described as a mixture of pity and disdain.

Under the guidance of my parents and a few influential high school teachers whom I trusted, my college application process focused on private liberal arts colleges. I had the grades to get in, and my grandparents were willing to help considerably with the expenses to fund what they saw as a superior education. I was in complete agreement with everyone advising me that a small liberal arts college offered too many advantages to pass up (e.g., small class sizes, an opportunity to work closely with faculty, higher academic standards than state schools, etc.). The fact that all the liberal arts colleges I was considering were religious institutions did not bother me because all the ones I applied to played down their religious origins and emphasized the quality of the education they provided.

I ended up at a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest with a student body of approximately 4,500 at the time. The influence of religion turned out to be something of a paradox. Most of the faculty with whom I would work closely were either openly atheistic or so quiet about their religion that one could not guess what they might believe. The students were another matter entirely. I would say that approximately 50% of the student body were conservative Christians. Still, conservative Christians in the Northwest are nothing like those in the Midwest and Southeast, at least they weren't at this point in time. Most had no interest in converting anyone; they just preferred to hang out with their own kind and talk about how the rest of us were going to hell.

Academically, I was drawn to psychology, philosophy, and law. The pre-law program was fairly weak, so I ended up majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. I absolutely loved the liberal arts perspective of encouraging students to expose themselves to a wide variety of subjects. I took courses in biology, anthropology, art, and even religion (Christianity and Buddhism). Outside of my major, my favorite courses by far were the philosophy of religion, a survey of Buddhism, and an advanced philosophy seminar on identity and the nature of personhood.

I had discovered Bertrand Russell in high school and read more of him in college. This helped me to realize that not believing was a viable option with a long history behind it. I was quite open about being an atheist during at least 3 of my 4 years in college. I regularly debated Christian students, wrote most of my philosophy papers on the flaws of religious arguments, and had several great discussions with peers and faculty on the subject. I felt truly alive during this time and experienced virtually no meaningful consequences from my openness with atheism. There were plenty of rational students around, and my circle of friends was large. For the first time in my life, I felt free to be open about my atheism.

In retrospect, the lack of consequences for being so open seems surprising. Of course, the culture of the Pacific Northwest is extremely different than most of the other places I've lived since. But I don't think that this was the only factor. My mindset at the time was very different than it is now - much more idealistic and carefree. I suppose it would be accurate to say that any rejection I may have encountered due to my atheism simply rolled off my back so that I barely noticed it. If someone didn't like my viewpoint, that was their problem, and I never dwelled on it. I guess you could say that I felt much more comfortable in my own skin then than I do now. But that will have to wait for the next part of this series.

On to Part IV.