When I was accepted at Maryville College, its affiliation with the Presbyterian church was the furthest thing from my mind. I decided on this school because I had a very specific, intended major that was difficult to find at public universities: American Sign Language. I also wanted a school that would provide a challenging academic curriculum and a positive community atmosphere.
During orientation and the first few weeks of class, peer mentors and staff members frequently asked us to share personal information with groups of fellow students to get to know everyone better.
Time and again, religious identity would be brought up, and everyone would share their denominations such as “Catholic” or “Baptist.” It was assumed that everyone would fall under the umbrella of Christianity.
I am agnostic. I am not ashamed of this, but I am uncomfortable proclaiming it to a room full of Christians. I inevitably get several confused looks or eye rolls. People start apologizing when they discuss spirituality in front of me. Others ask why I chose MC if I am not religious.
The thing is, being nonreligious does not make me closed-minded. It does not keep me from sharing the values that Maryville College strives to uphold. Because I do not believe in the God of the Bible does not mean I am against the notion of a higher power or something bigger than myself. Most importantly, it does not make me disrespectful of those who are religious.
The following is a quote from the MC website: “The Presbyterian tradition encourages service, stresses humility, and promotes growth in faith and understanding throughout each of our lives.” I do not need to be religious in order to find each of these pursuits worthwhile. What I choose to put faith in might look somewhat different, but that does not mean I do not have any.
For months during my freshman year, I felt alone and misunderstood. I heard students generalize about atheists and agnostics having no morals. One even told me that I would not reach heaven because I was not saved. Although MC in theory accepts students of all religious backgrounds, there were many instances in which I did not feel accepted.
My acceptance into the Bonner program in October was especially difficult in this regard. I interviewed and got a spot because I am dedicated to serving the community, but all that seemed to matter in the first few meetings with other Bonners was that I was not a Christian.
One student, in particular, repeatedly joked about my spreading evil intentions throughout Maryville. Though I knew it was in jest, it sent a damaging message.
Toward the end of fall semester, something remarkable happened. Every student in my honors tutorial training was required to attend a workshop together.
We were asked to break into groups according to identities we have felt judged for in the past. Each group was then responsible for making a list of things they never want to hear said about their group again.
I joined a group of nonreligious students, and I was surprised by our numbers. We shared our concerns for the way other students regarded us on campus and talked about common misconceptions. I felt understood in a way I had not in a long time.
When our group presented our list to the rest of the class, we were surprised by the reaction. Other students nodded along with what we were saying or commented, “Wow, I never knew.” I realized that the main reason people judge atheists and agnostics so harshly is because they do not understand what it means to be nonreligious.
It is my hope that this article will have the same effect that workshop did. Nonreligious students will find that they are not alone, while religious ones who do not realize they are alienating their fellow students will learn ways around it.
I initially wanted to write an ongoing column sharing my personal experiences while also incorporating the perspectives of my fellow nonreligious students. While this is no longer possible, I hope that other writers will continue to spark conversation about respecting all MC students.