When Kristen, my best friend in high school, joined Young Life, a non-denominational Christian youth organization that runs clubs and summer camps, she went from being an unconditional gal pal to an obsessed and judgmental authority figure who wouldn’t rest until I was “saved by Jesus.”
One boring weekday night, she tried to convince me to attend a club meeting with her, assuring me that I would find it inspiring – that I, too, would be hooked to what I considered a cult-like association for young, influential kids. Naturally, I said no, using dance class as an excuse.
In the beginning of our friendship, I was more open to discuss Christianity with Kristen. I even considered the prospect of becoming more religious – I was baptized at a young age, after all, but I rarely attended church.
However, after taking an AP biology course, my skepticism of religion turned into a strong identification with atheism. The theory of evolution and the big bang theory were much more attractive than the prospect of discussing each verse of the Bible. They were the deal-breakers.
So, I went out with another group of friends instead – the type who would rather sneak their parents’ liquor into water bottles and roam our small town in hopes of finding some sort of temporary excitement than sit in a circle and pray for salvation. But, due to the power of social networking, my lie was revealed, and Kristen was furious.
“How could you keep this from me?” she questioned, blowing up my phone with angry text messages. And, while I should have been honest, the confrontation quickly went from a white lie to a bigger problem.
“Are those really the types of people you want to hang out with?” she asked, referring to the drinking, the flirting, the – you know, normal high-school activities. What I knew she meant was, “How can you be associated with such an ungodly group of people?”
I no longer was invited to meetings. We no longer shared a locker. And when I invited her on a big trip to Greece, Kristen turned it down to return to Young Life camp.
But I’m not alone in my lack of religious structure. According to a 2012 Pew report, the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion is quickly growing. One-fifth of Americans and a third of adults younger than 30 – speaking to our generation – are religiously unaffiliated.
That’s not to say being non-religious and being an atheist are by any means equivalent. Many unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way, and many, like myself, do understand that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by bringing together communities and helping those in need, which is exactly why I never criticized her religious choices or forced my theories down her throat.
But Kristen clearly lacked the same tolerance. She started spending all of her time with her fellow Young Life acquaintances, making me feel as though my atheism was an embarrassment.
I wasn’t invited out on the weekends, and I no longer had a connection with her family. I was now perceived as her “unholy friend.”
Nor was this the first time I’d felt isolated or even discriminated against due to my atheism. I’ve since received negative comments (i.e. “You’ll end up in hell,” or “So you don’t have any morals?”) from acquaintances and even a boss at my first high-school job. When you are the minority – only 5 percent of Americans identify as atheists, according to a “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” poll, conducted by WIN-Gallup International – you get used to people misunderstanding or even disliking you.
In a 2006 study conducted by the University of Minnesota, more than 2,000 people were interviewed by researchers, and the results were clear: Atheists are America’s most distrusted minority. Participants rated atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and several other minority groups when asked which groups of people do not share their vision of American society. And when researchers asked whether or not they would disapprove of a child’s choice to marry an atheist, 47.6 percent said yes.
But while statistics give light to people’s general feelings toward atheists, it wasn’t until I went through an eating disorder that I could understand how badly someone else’s intolerance toward my own beliefs and life choices could hurt.
In particular, Kristen, who saw me come to school with bags under my eyes, avoided awkward stares and vicious rumors she once protected me from, and instead brushed off my diminishing weight, claiming that “I looked just fine,” and that if I “let Jesus love me,” then I could also learn to love myself without – in her opinion – useless anti-depressants and counseling.
Why was it that while I never criticized her faith that she had the right to decide whether or not I was sick, solely based on her religion? And why had her beliefs suddenly made our friendship more about God than encouragement and concern?
After I enrolled at Temple, and Kristen enrolled at a private Christian college, I started receiving Facebook messages from my ex-confidant. “Hi, how are you?” she asked. I, of course, was too busy being “godless” to respond. Despite my decision to ignore her, she followed up with various “Let’s get lunch” requests. But there was nothing more to talk about; she had abandoned me, and I was finally over it.
I recently ran into Kristen’s younger sister, who often is referred to as the “black sheep” of the family, at a friend’s party. We smoked together, drank together and exchanged stories that probably would have made Kristen drop down in prayer. Kristen’s sister is also religious, but somehow she refrained from making judgments, from assuming that I lack morals due to my disbelief in a spiritual being.
Now, confident in my decisions, I no longer keep my atheism a secret. In fact, when recently asked in an icebreaker exercise to reveal an interesting fact about myself, I had no problem announcing, boldly, “I’m a dedicated atheist.” (It’s a rarity, right?) I even took a course at Widener University on human evolution to further my passion surrounding biology.
I probably will never see or speak to Kristen again. I won’t run into her in some sort of afterlife, I won’t receive her prayers for me or my troubled life and I’ll probably never be saved by Jesus – despite her wishes.
And maybe that was just God’s plan for us – to have a fleeting friendship. And maybe that’s OK.
Cary Carr is a senior journalism major and and a Living columnist for The Temple News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.