Growing Up Atheist - And Then Going to Siena

Yep, you read that right. I grew up in an atheist household - and I’m now going to Siena, a Franciscan, Roman Catholic college.

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I can’t say I’m not religious. On some level, I am. Growing up, I believed in a heaven or hell like most people. I knew the basic principles of Catholicism and Judaism - God created the universe, Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, Eve sinned, something about Satan. You get the point?

When classmates talked about church school in elementary classes, I never knew what they were talking about. When I was at a family dinner and my (extended) relatives did grace, I didn’t know whose hand to grasp. Talking about religion always felt taboo in my household - I was never comfortable asking my parents who this character was or why did this happen or what the purpose of saints was. Religion wasn’t an open subject - I always got a lecture about how church was a waste of time and how people should decide for themselves what they believe in instead of forcing their beliefs on their children.

Hypocritical much? I think so.

In an act of rebellion (because I was that kid who didn’t get in trouble), I began to read mythology. Greek mythology, to be exact, and then Egyptian, Roman, Hinduism, Norse - Shintoism and Japanese folktales are probably among my favorite religions to study. I spent weekends reading commentaries on the significance of Egyptian mummification and hours studying how Buddhism affected the lives of people in Asia in the modern day.

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Learning mythology had taken over my life. By the end of middle school, I had gone further than mythology: I was becoming invested in the cultures of the places I was studying, learning that myth sometimes was interwoven with truth, and we only have to look to stories to give us insight into the culture we are studying.

But I dared not learn about Christianity or Judaism - it felt like I was crossing too much of a boundary. I was uncomfortable when someone mentioned Christ or even something about their church choir. I hurt a lot of people with my rebuttals against their faith, not realizing it was simply out of ignorance.

Why, then, did I choose Siena College, a well-known Catholic college? The simple answer: Siena is a great liberal arts college, with an amazing English/writing department and a staff that is willing to work with me and help me achieve.

The real reason is a bit more complex. My sister had started dating her future husband while I was in middle school, and had converted to Christianity soon afterward. My best friend declared a patron saint our freshman year of high school. I dated a good friend of mine, whose ideals I could never quite understand. Everyone around me was finding solace in an ethereal power, and I was studying religions that are, for the most part, dead.

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I wanted people to change. I wanted people to understand my point of view, not theirs. "Why are you supporting a religion that views women as self-subservient, unworthy to choose what they want to do with their bodies? Why are supporting a religion that doesn’t tolerate the LGBTQ+ community? Why are you supporting all this hate on earth?"

It took a long summer, the first brutal weeks of college, and an unexpected health diagnosis for me to understand why people turn to religion in their darkest moments. I was desperate for something to latch onto, to provide me comfort as I called my friends and sister crying because life was too much to handle and I couldn’t focus on my studying.

It wasn’t anyone who had to change - it was me. I had to change. I began to realize, quite painfully, that the negative views I had on Christianity and Judaism and every other religion are mere projections of what I had been taught.

I know what your question is now: have I converted? The answer is no, and I don’t think I ever will. The negative views I have grown up with - not to mention what is portrayed in the media - are too deeply ingrained in me.

Siena has given me the chance to learn about these religions I have been taught to hate. I read the Book of Genesis recently, and instead of being repelled, I did what I do best: I went and found a documentary on the Tower of Babel.

This process towards acceptance is going to be long. I’m going to say some ignorant things, wound some more people, and at times wonder why the heck I’m even doing this. But I’m not going to stop this journey. Someday I'll make it to the grotto, and maybe I'll even attend mass.

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