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Hello Richard!

I’m currently enrolled in nursing school in a college with no particular religious affiliation, but I seem to be having an existential crisis. My lab partner and I gave a (if I do say so myself) well thought out and very neutral presentation on the roles of spirituality in nursing. As a nurse you have to be prepared to encounter all types of spiritual beliefs, and sometimes we’re forced to answer some pretty hard questions. E.g: Why does god hate me? Why is he punishing me, etc. As an avid atheist, I was thrilled to write about this topic and presented it to the class with enthusiasm. At the end of the presentation, the topic of not judging a book by its cover was touched on, during which my partner and I asked the class, “What religion do you think us two are?”. When we mentioned we were atheists, the mood immediately turned sour. (Luckily it’s only a class of 13). During our Q & A segment, we were belted with questions that were accusatory and mean-spirited, but we took it in stride.

The next day, a classmate whom I had personally tutored that normally sat by me now refused. She sat on the complete other end of the classroom and refused to make eye contact. Hilariously enough, she was still able to tell someone else to ask me for my paper so they could copy the notes off of it, but that hypocrisy is beside the point.

During the 10 minute classroom break, I was walking to leave the building to get o my car when I could hear another 2 of my classmates screaming about how we were atheists and how wrong it was. I was in shock. I exited the building and they just stopped talking and glared at me.

Lately it has been harder and harder to get any of my classmates (except for the only other atheist in the class) to work with me. I don’t know how I can deal with this issue tactfully, either. A lot of the students are very very Christian/Baptist, and are downright bullying me. A lot of the staff have beliefs like that as well, so I don’t feel like they are safe to broach the topic with. Do you have any ideas how I can deal with their intolerance and bullying? I still have 12 more months with these people after all!

Thank you!
– Hopeless

Dear Hopeless,

It’s amazing how so many of the devotees of the Prince of Peace can instantly transform from adults with college-level intelligence into spiteful, sulking, snubbing, screaming pre-teens. Maybe they missed the Sermon on the Mount because they had a head cold that day. Or perhaps they all are without sin, as indicated by the stones they’re casting.

Unfortunately, so far I have never seen the tactic of confronting Christians with the un-Christian quality of such mistreatment to work. They merely dismiss it with an ad hominem argument that an atheist cannot credibly tell a Christian that they’re not living up to their creed’s precepts. That reasoning is faulty, but it also seems to be impermeable.

I shudder to think how as nurses they will treat their atheist patients who are helpless and at their “mercy.”

You mentioned that after the initial incident there has been subsequent “intolerance and bullying.” I don’t know what the severity of that is, but if it remains at the social snub/shun level, you may just have to endure it.

But do not return spite for spite. Basing your standard of conduct on others’ standards of conduct is a spiral that only goes downhill. If it does not put you in jeopardy or a disadvantage, continue to be available for tutoring the others, and continue to generously share your class notes for them to copy. Although this might have the effect of softening their antagonism toward you, that is not really the point. Continue your good natured helpfulness because it is your nature to do so.

However, being good natured does not include being a passive victim of serious discrimination.

Regardless of how mild or intense the acrimony is, I strongly suggest that you document everything. Nurses have excellent skills for documentation. Create a medical chart for this “patient,” your situation. If the condition worsens, you’ll have a history to show patterns and identify the specific pathogens. Meticulously write down dates, names, exact words and actions, the context of each incident, and how it is affecting you professionally and emotionally. Write everything keeping in mind that you may have to show this to people in authority or even a judge. Keep it professional and mature. Get your atheist comrade to do the same, and compare your notes so you don’t have glaring contradictions. Do not tell anyone else that you’re doing this.

If the animosity rises to an intensity where it unavoidably interferes with your ability to complete your tasks as a student, or to fulfill your assignments, or if it prejudicially affects your grades, then you should take your well-documented case to the Dean of the nursing school and the Dean of the college simultaneously. Whether or not they have similar religious beliefs as those of the pious students, the administration and the faculty still have the professional duty to provide all students an environment for a fair and equitable opportunity to learn, to excel, and to contribute to their field. If they do not respond satisfactorily, make it clear that you’ll be consulting a lawyer, perhaps from the ACLU.

If such a formal complaint to the Deans is not warranted, then maybe years from now your “patient’s” chart will make an interesting chapter in your memoirs.

In the meantime, stick with your god-free comrade. See if there is a secular student group in the larger college, and look for moral and social support in an atheist group outside of campus as well. Your nursing school may remain a hostile environment on a social level for the rest of your year there, and you will need emotional nursing to stay healthy and strong.

Atheists strive to base their behaviors on observable reality. We can think about, talk about, and work for a world that ought to be, one of fair treatment for all, but we must not be naïve. As wrong as it is in principle, the reality is that atheists in the U.S. are pariahs, socially acceptable targets of abuse. If we decide to “out” ourselves, we must be fully prepared for, and not surprised by, the ferocity of the consequences.

We can react to these painful experiences by becoming bitter and cynical, or we can learn from them to become more empathetic toward the downtrodden of any cut of cloth, such as despondent patients who, as you’ve described, are wondering why God hates them. We can respond with the good will, mercy and compassion that Jesus urged all people to show, even though we don’t believe he was divine.

I wish you the best in your education and your career. I think your future patients will be lucky to be in your care.


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