by Patrick Jimenez
Realizing that Santa Claus was not real made me feel grownup at the age of ten. I had known that my family bought my presents for a long time and I no longer believed the explanation that this was to save Santa Claus time. There went my faith. Unfortunately, my new found skepticism was not limited to Saint Nicholas. I could easily say that Santa is fake, but there was something else. Something I found I wanted to keep secret. God did not exist either. I stumbled upon these two epiphanies almost simultaneously and the idea idea that God is not real overshadowed my tardy goodbye to Santa.
Atheism was not a fun concept to me. My ten year old self cried for a very long time. I wanted God to exist. I wanted to have a soul. I simply was not able to convince myself that God exists anymore. The genie was out. I vowed to myself that I would not burden anyone else with what I saw as a disease, like cancer. Cancer is the body’s cells turning against themselves and atheism was my ten year old thoughts turning against themselves. Why would I try to ruin for others what my thoughts had already ruined for me? God had the power to comfort those who believed in a way more powerful even than Santa Claus. I would be a quiet atheist.
I stayed true to this vow, more or less, over the next decade and a half. As I got older, I became more comfortable with atheism, and even began seeing religion as something negative. I would talk about atheism in chat rooms and with a couple friends whom I knew were also atheist. This was still a far way from being “open” about my atheism. Most people I know equate morality and God, and I did not want to risk people making negative character judgments about me. More importantly, I still did not want to inflict psychological damage on others by taking away their belief in God. Granted, I was probably giving myself too much credit. It is not like everyone would magically be transformed into atheists once I talked to them. Yet the risk for real anguish was there, and I did not feel any need to take that chance with someone else’s happiness.
Several years out of school, I began seeing college as a possible outlet, as a place where I could talk about atheism without hurting others. I was getting tired of my job at a health insurance company and upset with my inability to find friends. So I decided to go back to school starting in Spring 2010. Hopefully as a student I would be able to challenge my mind and perhaps find others I could be more open with.
Chaffey Community College is in the northern part of Rancho Cucamonga, an affluent suburb of Los Angeles in the region commonly referred to as the Inland Empire. Rancho Cucamonga, along with the surrounding communities is demographically speaking, a red blotch of paint on an otherwise very blue state. The students of Chaffey College reflect this conservative population.
The school has had a Christian Club and a Muslim Student Association, but no club for atheists. When I began attending Chaffey, I pinned my hopes of making friends on the Philosophy Club. Certainly the Philosophy Club would have a lot of intelligent and open-minded members, I thought to myself.
One of the first presentations I saw there was about near death experiences. The presenter put on a video that seemed to parody a documentary. It was horrible and silly. At the end, the presenter asked if we were now all convinced of the immortality of the soul (never mind the fact that even if this video was credible, it said nothing about the immortality of souls!) About half of the Club enthusiastically raised their hands. I slammed my head on the desk. It hurt, but I thought it the most appropriate form of protest.
There were other atheists in the club. Probably almost half of the Club in fact. Yet, they were not comfortable expressing their atheism, and so usually stayed quiet. At the time, I assumed they were probably just quiet. I did not believe they were somehow being silenced.
A couple weeks later, a very popular and stringently theist member of the Club, Andrew Melchor was there. He was being triumphantly celebrated by the members for what they considered a debate victory over an adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Dan Mages. Professor Mages is an atheist and they had debated in front of a large group of students whether the God of Classical Theism existed or not. No one in the group seemed to have thought that Mages had won, or even made a good point. God, it seemed, was very demonstrable and not just as a matter of faith to these students.
It turned out that this event was put on by a new Club that I had not seen in the club brochure. It was called the League of Secular Free-Thought (which is now known as the Club of Secular Understanding or CSU). I looked up the meeting times and started attending. I had found my home; a club where atheism was celebrated and not dismissed.
The Adviser of the CSU is the English Professor, Angela Bartlett. She was asked to be the Adviser by the Club’s founding President, Steven Morales. Professor Bartlett suspects she was asked because she has a reputation for being open-minded and supportive. It turns out that she is also an atheist. Since she was As a kid, being raised in a Roman Catholic family, Professor Bartlett had always questioned “her” faith. She went through the motions, which I ncluded her First Communion and Confirmation. Yet the Church’s conservative stances on issues relating to women’s rights and homosexuals always gave her pause. That being said, she never really considered herself atheist either. Most of her familiarity with atheists revolved around the New Atheists whom Professor Bartlett considers obnoxious.
Professor Bartlett accepted the position because she had been interested in being the Adviser of a club. Once the CSU got underway, in Fall 2010, Professor Bartlett began identifying herself as an atheist for the first time. A lot of this had to do with how openly and nonchalantly the students were discussing their atheism.
Recently I was talking to a small group of people which included both a theist and an atheist. Before the atheist even took the time to find out if the other person ws atheist or not, he began talking about how “stupid” religious people are. He couldn’t understand for the life of him why anyone would believe such idiocy. The theist in the conversation was certainly a bit unnerved by this. The atheist, apparently blind to all body language, continued. Atheists have a reputation for being jerks, and as this anecdote suggests, sometimes live up to it. Though Professor Bartlett was excited about being the Adviser she states that her biggest fear about the the club was that “all the students would be baby [N]ew [A]theists.”
I do not want to make any excuses for rudeness. One can be an atheist without attacking someone who believes in God. My issue is not with those who believe in God, to the extent that I have an issue, it is with the belief itself.
Antipathy towards religion is in no sense included in the concept of atheism. Instead that antipathy seems to be a response to the larger culture which often marginalizes atheists. Professor’s Bartlett’s fears that some members might be aggressive or arrogant were not realized. It would be simplistic to say this is because the CSU only brings in people who are respectful. Rather, those individuals once at the club have been able to take the chips off their shoulders. The CSU is able to build up understanding towards religious individuals amid our predominately secular crowd, because these same individuals now have a platform in which they can speak their minds. The atheist gentleman in the conversation has been at the CSU many times since and I have not seen him direct a single disparaging remark towards religion.
Though the establishment of the CSU did not encourage atheists to become rude or derisive, the same cannot be said for the CSU’s influence over other members of the student body. As the CSU was establishing itself at campus, there was a lot of controversy generated, especially under its original name of the League of Secular Free-Thought. Some established members of the Philosophy Club saw this as an affront to anyone who was religious and as atheist snobbery. For a time I was the Treasurer of both the CSU and the Philosophy Club. During a discussion at the Philosophy Club, the Vice President voiced her personal dislike for the officers of the CSU. Her view was that the CSU was not needed, and the only reason people insisted on creating it was because they were afraid of having their beliefs challenged in the Philosophy Club. She did not continue once I told her that I was actually the Treasurer of the CSU as well. She did not take back anything she said either. This very open opposition to the CSU on part of some senior members and officers of the Philosophy Club did not manage to keep many members of the Philosophy Club becoming members of the CSU as well. In fact, many of those silent voices in the Philosophy Club’s presentation on near death experiences became some of the CSU’s most active members. Not only were they open about their atheism in the CSU, they began to become more open about discussing atheism and bringing up challenges to religion in the Philosophy Club.
I was really convinced that my atheism had the power to cause harm at the young age of ten. I was right about that. Just about anything can be harmful in one way or another. I was not wholly right though. I wanted to protect others from anguish by keeping my atheism a secret. The CSU taught me, and others, that the pain of atheism is making it into something we have to be ashamed of, or quiet about, at the very least. The harm is in keeping it inside, in some sort of not fully conscious, zombie state.
I have witnessed a real change in many people at Chaffey. That change has been in them becoming who they are, more honestly. It seems that maybe finding our community begins with letting our voice be heard.