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Roxane B. Salonen, Published November 08 2013

A response to essay by young atheist

A North Dakota State University student recently wrote a column in her college newspaper about the difficulty of being atheist on campus.

It takes courage to turn oneself inside-out for the sake of discussion, and I applaud Rhianna LaValla for that. As a fellow columnist, I believe in the value of sharing one’s experiences and opinions.

But I also think it might be good for her to hear from those she’s challenging; namely, believers in God. Maybe we can learn from one another.

Her main complaint surrounds the proliferation of T-shirts by a group of Christians on campus; apparel that boldly bears the name of their organization. She calls the shirts “free advertising for religion” “annoying,” and “a constant reminder … of how many people do not accept a lack of religion yet.”

My question: Does expressing a belief automatically mean an unwillingness to consider other possibilities or indicate that despite differences in views there’s no compassion for the humanity in another?

Again, I’m glad this writer has a place to air her grievances, but I would gently challenge her to consider the free speech our country holds dear. The T-shirts may represent a belief system she doesn’t share, but they seem a peaceful display, and one she could fairly mimic if she chooses.

A bit later, she writes that often when others learn she’s atheist, “a feeling of disgust and misunderstanding hangs in the air.”

To this, I can only offer up a prayer: “Dear Lord, please let it be, instead, that she’s simply detecting our inability to relate, an honest response. Help us always be on the lookout for commonalities above all else.”

The writer next admits she’s been invited more than once to church by her believing friends but prefers staying home and watching Netflix with her goldfish and Hot Pockets.

“Just because I do not go to church and pray for hours on end does not make me a bad person,” she says, noting she volunteers and even “helps little old ladies cross the street.”

I suspect most believers don’t pray for hours on end, but rather get by on what we can muster each day. Nevertheless, this is a nudge to me that when I am in prayer, I need to be asking for help to grow in compassion, generosity and selflessness.

The writer concludes that she wishes she could have more respectful discussions with her believing friends but she’s afraid she’d eventually get punched in the face.

It’s here where I just want to hug this girl and say, “No, sweetie, we don’t want to punch you. And if we do, clearly we’re off base.”

“Lord,” I’d add quietly, “please help us never resort to punching just because we don’t understand.”

I have to admit, the column made me uncomfortable. Through it, I’ve been given a glimpse of how some non-believers see us God-loving folks. It’s reminded me of the chasm between us and our need to continue working on charity.

But there’s also room for simple misunderstanding. We can’t control whether someone has read us rightly. All we can really do is our best to bring love into the ways we move and the words we choose. Being human, we have our work cut out for us.

I will shamelessly add, too, that we believers have something much more tantalizing than goldfish and Hot Pockets to offer. But we must acknowledge, in the end, that only through prayer, a sprinkling of grace and a heart open to love will it be received.

As I was recently reminded, we are not asked to be successful, only faithful.

Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com