Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why I Care About the Atheist Movement (AKA The Poop Story)

So, lots of people know I talk about poop a lot. This story will be no exception, although in this case it isn't my poop I'll be talking about.

Flash back to 2007. I was a conservative Christian who was losing faith (but stubbornly clinging to it, since I knew nothing else), and I was also a high school senior deciding where to go to college. I had visited a tiny Christian college in a small town in Iowa (pop: 10,000) and fallen in love with it and decided to go there.

Fast forward to 2010: I'm back from a semester spent in Johannesburg, South Africa, very progressive, and an atheist-- and now back in this conservative small town and hyper-religious campus. I was frustrated with how completely pervasive Christianity was on campus (often, I'd be "tricked" into going to religious events-- posters would advertise events such as a campus-wide game of Capture the Flag but wouldn't mention the 30 minutes of "sharing testimony" before we could play-- not that doing that is wrong, simply that I think it is disingenuous to say "open to everyone!" and not mention that it was essentially a Christian group). Wanting to see if there were any other non-theists on campus and to hopefully start a community, I asked Twitter how I could start an atheist club at my school. I was directed to the Secular Student Alliance (who I now work for, full disclosure). I requested a Group Starting Packet, managed to find a faculty sponsor, and put an announcement on the student announcement page that simply read "Atheist, Agnostic, or generally non-religious? If you're interested in starting a Freethinkers' Club, email me!"

Campus blew up. I got emails from staff members (to my pleasant surprise, the staff and administration was very supportive about my right to start the group), fellow atheist students (who had mainly been quiet about their non-beliefs, which explains why I thought I was the only one), and Christians (some of whom were very supportive, and some of whom were very upset). 

Here's an example of what someone who was friends with me on FB said (and one of their friends, followed by my response):

The whole conversation went on for pages, and someone who didn't attend my school (or even know me) stood up for me, but of course everyone kept arguing against him and called me a "jackass." My comment was deleted shortly after it was posted, and so I unfriended the person who made the status (although, to this person's credit, they sent me an email a few days later with a semi-apology, and a year or two after I graduated this person eventually became involved in the SSA at my school. To my knowledge, they are not an atheist, but they are now supportive of secularism/secularists, so that worked out better than expected in the long run). 

However, conversations were started on campus, and that was what I wanted. In order to start a club at my school, you needed 10 signatures of people who supported the club formation. I think I got somewhere around 35 signatures, all from people who shared my sentiments: campus was not a very friendly place to non-Christians. So, I filed all the necessary paperwork and posted the time and date of the first meeting.

So many people showed up to our first meeting! I was thrilled! We had a great, positive meeting, where people talked about how they felt excluded frequently, how they would have pamphlets about Jesus pushed under their doors at night, how people would be rude or dismissive when one of them said they didn't want to participate in a religious ritual, how professors called them out in class for not "believing," and a whole litany of other microaggressions. This group, we all hoped, would change that-- or at the very least, offer a safe space where those microaggressions wouldn't happen and where we could feel safe talking about our lack of beliefs.

I left the meeting feeling better than I ever had in my three previous years at the school. The next morning, I woke up, still flying high from the excitement from the meeting. I opened my door to go take a shower...and a garbage can full of liquid fell on me. "This is a minor inconvenience," I thought to myself as I picked up the can-- that's when I realized it wasn't water, but urine. I started crying and texted the Hall Director so the cleaning staff could come by to clean it up, showered, and left for classes that day.

I came back that afternoon and felt so discouraged. Why were people reacting like this? A handful of Christians had shown up to the meeting, not to argue, but to show support for us. Why couldn't more people just talk to us so they knew we weren't just sitting around, bashing Christians? Didn't they realize they were the majority on campus (and in the country) and that our tiny little group was in no way threatening to them? It was so frustrating. However, as discouraging as having a bucket of urine fall on me was, it also strengthened my resolve to keep the group going. 

So, the meetings continued...and so did the harassment. Posters were torn down more often than left up, or they had "fuck you" or "die atheist bitch" written on them, people would leave anonymous notes in my mailbox about how much they hated me and how awful I was for starting the group, my door handle was superglued (so I couldn't get my key in the lock), not to mention the rumors or passive aggressive comments made to me in class (before, of course, refusing to have an actual discussion with me about the group). Nothing topped what happened Easter weekend, though.

I went home for Easter weekend (since I lived about 7 hours from campus and didn't have a lot of opportunities to see my family during the year), but only after a very serious deliberation about going to the American Atheists conference in Des Moines that year. I was driving back to campus with a girl who lived in my hometown, and my neighbor (and the girl with whom I shared a bathroom) in my dorm called me. The conversation went like this:

Neighbor: "Hey Sarah...are you on campus?"
Me: "No, I'm still about 2-3 hours away. Why, what's up?"
Neighbor: "Um...somebody did something to our bathroom."
Me: "What did they do?"
Neighbor: "...It's covered in shit."
Me: "What do you mean?" (Thinking she meant someone had sprayed our toothpaste everywhere or something, which I had seen done before)
Neighbor: "It's covered in shit."
Me: "Yeah, I get that, what kind of shit?"
Neighbor: "Actual shit. Like...human."

Yep. Someone(s) had shit in our bathroom and then smeared it all over my half. On the counter, on the floor, on the mirror, above the light...the real cherry on top was when they put all my soap, shampoo, and toothbrush in it.

Luckily the cleaning staff had it all cleaned up by the time I got back (and my friend was willing to drive me to Wal-Mart so I could buy new toiletries), but still, the damage was done and the message was clear.

By this time, I think the administration was sick of dealing with my problems (and by that I mean the problems people had with me) and they didn't even try to find out who did it. I ran into the head of security a couple days later and asked him how the investigation was going, and he hadn't even heard about the situation (and it was a small enough school that he would have heard of it).

I know other members of the group faced harassment as well, but nothing quite as severe.

It was frustrating, but the group kept going, and is still going today. I like to think I changed some people's minds, but even if I didn't, I made a safe space for people to talk about their lack of beliefs. There were several people who told me I was the only atheist they had ever met, so at the very least I was able to help some people realize atheists are real people.

The curious thing I've noticed looking back now (2 years removed) is the response people had to it: almost every single person I told either assured me that most Christians would never do that (which I would never think or claim), or they reacted with anger (either toward Christianity or at my school). The only person (aside from close friends) who I can recall focusing on how I, as a person, reacted and felt about it, was Todd Stiefel (at the 2011 Texas Freethought Convention). I remember going to my room after our conversation and crying, because it did still hurt-- yet most people used this story as an opportunity to make it about their agenda (either for or against Christianity).

I'm not going to say the people who did it did it because they were Christians, or because they were "bad Christians" (both arguments I've heard), they did it because they're malicious people who probably felt threatened by someone who thought differently than they did. It was a shitty (ha ha) thing to do, and I would never condone anyone doing something like that to someone. To be honest, it feels pretty dehumanizing to have someone hate you SO MUCH that they willing touch their own feces to smear on your stuff.

I wanted to write this story much earlier, but I either felt too mad or hurt about it until about now. My life rocks now, I have a great partner, a job I love, two adorable cats, and we just bought a house. However, I still want to share this story because I want people to know what it can be like to be an atheist (or just to be different) in a small town. It's scary, and it's rough.

That's why I encourage groups like Secular Student Alliance affiliates. A lot of people on places like r/atheism ask "Why would you meet? Atheism isn't a religion!" and my response is this. Because being ostracized because of your beliefs really sucks, and it's nice to have a community that supports you. Funnily enough, even though it was me starting the group that caused the harassment, it was also the group that got me through it.

So, I guess I'm pretty much over it now. However, if you're moved by my story and want to help, donate to the SSA, because somewhere out there there's a student going through what I went through or worse, and we want to help them. Or just share this story. Or just don't poop on anyone's stuff, for any reason, ever.

And that's my poop story. Now you know.


  1. Shame on the school for not finding the people who did this and charging them with assault. That's what it was. Dumping a bucket of urine on a person is assault. You deserved better.

  2. This is such a sad story. Why were there no grown ups telling these people that this behavior was unacceptable? I guess because in their heart they didn't feel that it was. That is what is really sad.

    This really shows that the real function of religion isn't to try and make people love each other, it is to give the in crowd reasons to hate the outsiders and increase the power of those in charge.

    I explain why this happens. If you can't understand someone from their perspective, you can't understand them and default to xenophobia (my hypothesis).

  3. Yikes. What an awful story :( What's amazing to me is that, as long as I've known you, you've always been a strong person and passionate activist. To know that you went through all that and still came away from it as you did says something powerful about who you are.

  4. terrible! i wonder if the offenders were creationists, because i am really amused by the idea of anti-evolutionists flinging their excrement like the primates they are. :)

  5. I'm sorry you had to go through that, Sarah. I don't understand why someone would do that to another human being. And I'm also sorry that so many people have responded to this with their own agendas... I have to confess that, when I began writing this comment, I was going to respond with my own agenda -- but then I realized how wrong it would have been to indulge in that sort of thing. I guess that sometimes it's really hard to come to understand the deeply personal situations of others in non-abstract terms.

    I am happy that you are still involved in the movement and that, instead of destroying you, you seem to have spun the experience into a positive (you describe it as the reason you care about the atheist movement).

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Sarah. You are a hero.

  7. Cutting short what was rapidly becoming an (even longer) rant/essay than it ended up being:

    First: Best wishes for happy holidays. I hope you enjoy a safe, comfortable environment with your loved ones this season.

    Second: Your story rips at my heartstrings. It will be shared. If/when you feel the need to revisit that bad place, know that you have me & people like me keeping you in our thoughts. Also know that more than a few of us have taken it beyond thoughts and donated/volunteered to secular organizations sympathetic to your experience.

    Third: Dollars and man-hours spend better than words. Prayers not so much. This year, I intend for my xmas gift to everyone who's NOT family/friends to be holiday commitment: do better supporting local secular charities w/ noble causes.

    Thanks for writing your column Sarah. Nobody deserves the experience you've described. I hope your courage in speaking out gives others the momentum they need to move forward safely.

  8. 100% of the current Kindle Edition (and some percentage, maybe all of future and other editions) of Sungudogo, the first novel to my knowledge in which Sarah is a character, will be given to the SSA. And, I'm rewriting large parts of it (cleaning up the choppy beginning, extending the last three chapter) ... that will take a month or so, but I hope it's OK if a version of this story fictionalized (maybe very fictionalized) goes in there!

  9. Atheist (Jewish Section) here - what you've had to put up with was intolerable. I've had to tolerate intolerance (from atheists, too, noch) but what you've endured it unspeakable. Oh, for the religion of peace and love.

  10. Wow, I'm so sorry those things happened to you! You are very brave to have kept going and standing up to that! How hateful people are. You are badass for what you have done and are still doing.

  11. The similarities between this story, and the harassing behavior of some skeptics and atheists towards women/feminists online is really obvious to me. I agree with you that this isn't about Christianity vs Atheism, nor is the fight among skeptics a Women vs. Men issue. Both are about people defending the status quo against those of us who want to see the world be a more accepting and equal place. Those who fight against us will use terrible threatening and frightening tactics because they think they can scare us into silence.

  12. I am simply horrified at your experiences. Sarah, you are an inspiration.

    Reading your story I was reminded of a quote by Steven Weinberg

    "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

  13. You are an amazing person to face all that and keep going. I great inspiration. Thank you!