December 24, 2006

Journey of an Atheist, Part IV

Statue titled, Monument to Multiculturalism by...
Statue titled, Monument to Multiculturalism by Francesco Pirelli at Union Station donated by the Italian community of Toronto in 1985. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the fourth part of a multi-post series. Part III can be found here, or if you'd like to start from the beginning, you can find Part I here.

Where the third part of this series left off, I had graduated from high school and entered a private liberal arts university in the Pacific Northwest. Attending this particular Christian university turned out to be exactly what I needed. As I described in my previous post in this series, I received an outstanding secular education in this context, studied Christianity from both a theological and philosophical position, and honed my critical thinking and debate skills. I read Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Thoreau, Freud, and of course, Bertrand Russell. It was Russell's excellent Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects that gave me permission to fully reject Christianity and helped me understand that I was certainly not the first to do so. By the conclusion of college, I was openly atheistic and experiencing the joy of finally breaking free of religious indoctrination.

I graduated with a B.S. in psychology and acceptance to a Ph.D. program in the central U.S. Since I knew I wanted to go the distance for the Ph.D., I saw no reason to wait. I left for the graduate school the summer after graduation. In retrospect, it might not have hurt me to do a bit more growing up before beginning graduate school, but I felt like I needed to capitalize on the momentum I had built up in college and keep going while my motivation was high.

I would not be exaggerating to say that nearly everything about my new graduate program was a shock. My life changed so dramatically at that point that I would end up becoming a very different person than the one who had just completed college. Relevant to my purpose here, I will focus on only one aspect of the transition - my exposure to a very different view of religion than anything I had previously experienced.

The community in which I resided was much smaller and more conservative than the area I had left on the West Coast. Religion was still a rather private matter here, but it was certainly more prevalent. However, this shift was trivial compared with what I experienced in graduate school itself. Not only was I the only atheist among my peers, but I would soon learn a very difficult lesson about my chosen field of psychology which continues to affect me to this day.

An important part of my training involved multiculturalism. This is typical in the helping professions because programs are faced with preparing students who may have had rather limited experiences with diverse groups to competently provide services to members of these groups. To my amazement, religious belief was considered part of multiculturalism in the sense that perceived intolerance of religious beliefs was considered as unacceptable as human differences based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. For a more in depth discussion of multiculturalism, political correctness, and religion, see my previous posts on the subject.

As you can imagine, this put me in an excruciatingly difficult position. It was made clear to me that successful completion of the program would depend on my ability to keep my disbelief to myself. Why? Merely by being an atheist, I was perceived as not having adequate respect for religious believers. Trust of my peers became an issue, as I learned that statements I had made outside of school got back to a professor. Clearly, this was not a safe environment to be open about atheism. I became increasingly depressed, withdrawn, and distant. I convinced myself that this had to be a fluke of this program and couldn't possibly reflect the field as a whole. I was determined to soldier on, bury my atheism, and refocus my energies on my studies. I would succeed, but success would come at a price I am only just beginning to understand.

On to Part V.