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Honorable mention — Lydia Taylor: The American infidel

By Lydia Taylor

I am an unabashed infidel not afraid of burning in hell. If my grandparents heard me say that, I’m sure I’d be disinherited. This June, I completed my freshman year of college, where I was fortunate enough to take a course called “American Atheism.” Coming from quintessential small-town America, I’d never felt free to express my beliefs. I stood for the Pledge of Allegiance every day in high school and fell silent during the words “one nation, under God.” Once I hit college, I found myself debating in favor of atheism with my peers. Life as an atheist, a nonbeliever and an infidel in America hasn’t been easy with the election of Donald Trump and his energetic support from the Christian Right.

I was raised Catholic, like most of the other kids in my town, and I always enjoyed going to church because I liked a good fantasy story. As I grew older, I realized that’s what I had always interpreted the teachings of the bible as — a fantasy story. I began to see that concepts like heaven and hell in Christian teachings, and their counterparts in other religions, were merely a means of finding comfort in a world that sometimes seemed to be without rhyme or reason. The more I thought, the more I questioned, the more I realized that the stuff I’d been raised on was simply illogical. Jesus coming back to life to save the world was no more real than the monsters in “Scooby-Doo,” where the unlikely heroes always managed to unmask the seemingly otherworldly monster terrorizing the town. After reading Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, I felt more and more certain that it was possible for young people like myself to unmask the hoax that was religion.

I was always shocked at how some of the most intelligent people I knew depended so heavily on the crutch of religion. Couldn’t they see how misleading religion is now and always has been? Besides all of the logical fallacies and embellishments found in religious texts of all types, the scientific proof of essential processes such as evolution, and the hypocritical nature of many religious icons (such as the abundance of sexual harassment at the hands of trusted community priests), people I had once truly respected and admired lost some of their prestige in my eyes as they continued to bow again and again to religion. And looking around, I saw countless ways that religion, especially Christianity, had tangled its way into American society. From the daily Pledge of Allegiance to the swearing-in procedure of our justice system, to everyday sayings in reaction to a sneeze and stereotypes about nonreligious folk, religion seemed to be everywhere. And what is even more disturbing to me is my own past complacency in such ingrained traditions, norms and stereotypes.

I found myself encountering such stereotypes on a day-to-day basis, especially as I became more open about my true “infidel” nature. During one of my first conversations with my freshman roommate, she asked me about my class schedule and when I told her about my “American Atheism” class, she fell silent. After a few moments she said, avoiding eye contact, “Oh, you really don’t look like an atheist,” as if she were expecting some middle-aged white man wearing a T-shirt that read “I Hate God.”

Lydia Taylor

In the long run, it’s interactions like these that make me proud to be an unabashed infidel, not afraid of burning in hell, because the more visible I am as an atheist, the more power I have to weaken religion’s grip on our society as a whole.

Lydia, 19, is from Millstadt, Ill., and attends the University of Denver. She volunteers at a day shelter for women, children and the transgender community. She hopes to get a master’s degree in international studies and serve in the Peace Corps.