After I left the military, I bounced around for a little while from job to job and from state to state. I was still looking for a career, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or how I was going to get there. I had conducted some short trainings and orientations while in the Air Force, and after I left, I thought that maybe I would become a teacher. But I also thought that I wanted to travel and see the world, after all that was one of my motivating factors for joining the Air Force in the first place.
So eventually a couple of friends of mine, after listening to me complain about all of this, convinced me to go sign up for college. It didn’t take much convincing. I was already taking a couple of classes at the community college, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take that final step into going to college full time and deciding on a major. I knew I needed to do something drastically different with my life.
So I took that leap! I drove to Kalamazoo, MI, onto Western Michigan University’s campus, and applied. It was surprisingly easy to do! And before I knew it, I was moving into a dorm and taking classes. I majored in English Education. I was also awarded a work study grant and found a job on campus.
At this job, I met Matt, a real, live Atheist! He was the first person I ever met that proclaimed loud and proud that he was an Atheist. I was 21. Matt had also organized a registered student organization on campus called Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists. He wore his Atheism like a badge, and he was bold, he questioned ideas and authority, and I thought he was a bit arrogant. You see, Matt was the kind of person who wanted to talk a lot about his beliefs. He also was one of those people that wanted to challenge everything challengeable. So he was a valuable person in many ways, but I grew tired of him quickly. So, regrettably, I never joined his organization.
To this day, I think that was a big mistake. There are many different kinds of Atheists in this world, just like there are many different kinds of Christian, Jews, Muslims, etc. I should have known that instead of letting one strong personality turn me away from an entire group.
Matt wasn’t the only Atheist I met in college. Through a friend of a friend, I met Amy. Because neither Amy nor I worried much about other’s beliefs before forming a friendship and because we both disliked people who felt the need to constantly talk about their religious beliefs, we were friends for more than a year before we found out we were both Atheists. And even then, our conversation went something like this.
Me: I don’t believe in God.
Amy: Yeah, me either.
Me: Oh really?
Me: Cool. What are going to do tonight?
We both keep current on issues of science, economics, and politics (a place where we disagree), but religion was never the basis of our friendship, so we never really talk about it. I was, and currently am, just happy knowing that I have someone in my life who had the same basic religious view, so when I need someone to talk to about religion or things that concern me about religion, I always have her to go to. In fact, she was the first person I turned to when my daughter started coming home from preschool with Christian ideas of Heaven. Amy didn’t have an answer to help me solve my dilemma, but she had empathy, and that goes a long way in comforting someone when they are upset.
When I was 22, I met another Matt who was Atheist. We had great discussions on why people cling to the idea of Heaven and an eternal afterlife. And shortly after I met Matt, I met my husband, Adam. And with Adam we talked a lot about secular morality as well as political morality and responsibility. I won’t get into that here. We often worried and talked about the demands our families made on us to continue in Christian traditions, like Christmas, even though we are Atheists. I’ll get more into that later.
I also met a lot of people in college who were able to say to me, “I don’t agree with you, but I love you and accept you.” That was very empowering. I started to feel less alone in the world and more like I belonged to a community, something that is often hard for religious minorities to find and also for children who moved around a lot like we did when I was a child. So by the end of college, I felt empowered, confident, and more ready to be myself than I ever had in my life.