A few weeks ago in one of my classes, we had an assignment of posting in an online discussion forum and responding to other students’ posts. As it was due at midnight on a Friday night, I actually forgot to do it at all, but my professor let me know that the submission time was extended through the next week. This is significant because I was the very last student to write in the forum, and almost no one else saw it.
The prompt was as follows: “Have you had an experience where you were able to bridge individual or group differences with someone with whom you didn’t think you had much in common? Can you share how you were able to move beyond seeing the other person as a category and started seeing him or her as an individual?” I took this as an instance when my atheism would be relevant to the conversation.
I posted in the abandoned class forum: “It can be hard at times to see past the labels on people and get to know the individual behind it. A lot of times, conflict can arise between different religious groups, or between religious and nonreligious, when they don’t see past their differences. To this day, I can find it baffling when people take the luxury to not look past a “category” and get to know the person behind it. I’ve found that I can’t afford this luxury, as no one I know falls under the same “category” as I do—the atheist category. When there’s not a soul in sight who shares my beliefs and values, I have no choice but to see past religious differences and get to know people on a one-to-one basis. Oftentimes, in order to get to this level, I avoid the topic of religion in order to minimize overt differences.
I suppose I could say all of my experiences are those in which I must bridge differences and focus instead on what we have in common, which could be anything from a passion for design or writing to finding a fellow introvert or band member. When it becomes a communication problem is when this courtesy is not returned to me. It can be easy to see someone with a minority view as an outsider and think of or treat them differently. It may become difficult to see them past this label at all. I find this to be a shame, because when two people fall under different categories, that’s when the connection begs to be had. That’s when there is a gap to be bridged. And missing that opportunity just because of a fear of differences is a great shame, because we have so much to learn from each other.“\
I didn’t want the slight nausea I got from writing that forum post to go to waste. In the case that my teacher wouldn’t fully read each and every post from the class, I sent him an email to thank him for extending the deadline and to let him know that he might be interested in reading what I wrote. He quickly replied back to say that he thought it was very interesting indeed and that I should check the forum for his response. Here’s what my teacher had to say about me being an atheist:
“It’s always the “quiet ones’ you have to look out for. Haven’t I said that a few times this week? You are blazing new trails at the College, Rebekah. While I’m sure you’re not alone, it probably feels like you are. As you’re learning, the world is too rich and people are too valuable to dismiss. We have much to learn from and teach to each other. I appreciate you and respect you so much for sharing this post.”
I’m not one to ever get close with professors, so I was surprised to see this (as you can see, I’m pretty quiet in class). I’m amazed that the diversity I bring to my college can even be seen as a positive thing. I find it extremely refreshing to see a Christian professor be so accepting and appreciative of a vulnerable atheist student.