Atheism on the Tire Swing

I suppose you could say my interest in the interfaith movement started in fifth grade. I grew up in South Carolina, a state not exactly renowned for its religious tolerance. Our location in the middle of the Bible Belt does not contribute to a lot of interfaith dialogue. And if you can say this of the adults of this region, you can definitely say it for the children—for it is a sad truth that kids will often parrot the opinions of their parents with far more cruelty and less actual reasoning than the adults.
In fifth grade, one of my best friends was an atheist. She was a superb student, the child of two Chinese immigrants; ours was a friendship that had developed over our academic rivalry to be the best in the class (she went on to get a perfect score on the SAT and now attends MIT, while I graduated valedictorian of my high school and now attend Boston University—it’s ironic that our Southern childhood friendship ended up following us both to Boston, where we continue it still). We bonded over Harry Potter and origami and a shared love for mermaids. Politically active even at that young age, we came up with petitions to save the bamboo on our playground and founded a school newspaper. Our fifth grade teacher humored our antics because he knew we would still excel on all our tests.
I never really knew my friend was an atheist—not that it would have mattered to me—until a group of us fifth graders were playing on the tire-swing at recess. Somehow the topic of church came up. At that age, I still assumed everyone went to church, a kind of universally obligatory Sunday morning punishment. But as the other kids talked about their respective places of worship (Baptist, Catholic, the huge non-denominational church my parents sometimes jokingly called a cult), my friend was asked where she went. And she calmly replied, “I don’t go to church.”
Confused looks. A sudden eruption of tittering. “What do you mean,” one girl asked, “you don’t go to church?”
My friend shrugged. “My family doesn’t believe in God.”
And, suddenly, the mindset of our little group changed. It was no longer a cluster of friends chatting; so quickly, a mob mentality appeared. My friend was singled out against the group. In children, this is even more unsettling than in adults. Because children can be infinitely more cruel. They are less constrained by the varnished politenesses of society. They won’t try to be politically correct.
Subtly, the positioning of the group changed. My friend stood alone, the other girls formed a wall around her, advancing slowly on her. “You don’t believe in God?” one girl spat. “You don’t go to church?” another one prodded. The unkind whispers continued.
I clung to the chain of the tire swing, looking between my friend and the group of girls. I’d been taught that Christianity was the one true religion—I’d heard that since I could remember. I couldn’t defend my friend’s atheism when I claimed to believe in Jesus. But I hated seeing her, solitary against that group of self-righteous spite.
And then, harshly, “You’re going to go to hell.” It was the first girl who said it.
Those words triggered me. I stepped in front of my friend (who, though alone, wasn’t shrinking at all from the hateful gazes she was getting). “Leave her alone,” I shot back. “She can believe what she believes.”
I don’t remember too clearly what happened after that. The angry group broke apart, turning away with a few resentful glares. The venomous atmosphere of the confrontation dissolved. My friend and I walked back to class, probably to fold some more paper cranes or draw pictures of mermaids.
But the image that has never left my mind from the experience is that of those words being spoken—“You’re going to go to hell.” My mother tells me she still remembers a car ride, back when I was very small, when we were talking about another one of my friends, who happened to be Jewish. “Mom,” I asked, “Will she go to heaven, since she’s Jewish?”
My mother, a well-versed Catholic, hesitated, then told me, “I don’t know.” When she recounts the story now, she says that she didn’t have the heart to tell me no, that she isn’t even sure of the answer herself, though the Scripture and church doctrine spells it out.
And that’s the trouble with talking about religion. There’s the temptation to condemn others, to judge their beliefs as inferior. I am a fervent supporter of the interfaith movement. I believe religion is something we need to talk about. But we must remember that this dialogue must take place in a positive, accepting environment. We are not children on a playground, telling another child he or she is going to hell. We are believers of all different types, coming together to see what there is to learn, and to understand.
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