The Daily Gamecock

Atheists share personal reflections in USC panel

Second-year English and French student Michael Lambert, a proud member of the Pastafarians and the Unitarian Universalist church, did not consider himself an atheist when he first came to USC

However, when the former Episcopalian and Alabama native finally decided to identify himself as a “nontheist,” it was not because of a moment of sudden clarity or a pivotal revelation.

“I basically decided that I needed to take a break from God,” Lambert said. “I realized I had never experienced anything but the Christianity I had grown up with.”

After hopping around several different houses of worship, Lambert said he ironically found peace in settling on an atheist mentality.

“I don’t really think it’s important to know if there’s a God or not — I still have to deal with my life the next day,” Lambert said.

Lambert’s story was one of the six individual testimonials shared at the “Ask an Atheist” panel hosted by the Pastafarians Wednesday night in Gambrell Hall.

Five students and one faculty member gave their own accounts of how they came to terms with their beliefs, or rather, nonbeliefs, before a 40-member audience.

The Pastafarians had spent much of Wednesday afternoon publicizing the panel on Greene Street, meeting a mix of polite reception and hostile glances from students.

“We’re just trying to reduce the stigma around atheists,” said Kelley Freeman, the president-elect of the Pastafarians and a second-year Russian student. “We come from a lot of different backgrounds.”

Each of the panel members had a different tale to tell with different reasons for becoming atheistic. All have had some experience with religion in their upbringing, whether Baptist, Catholic, Jewish or Episcopalian. Sociology professor Barry Markovsky, faculty adviser to the Pastafarians, struggled with his beliefs and his family while going through his own bar mitzvah.

“I remember feeling unsupported in my beliefs,” Markovsky said. “It put me at odds with every authority figure and every hero in my life, and that was terribly lonely.”

However, the more Markovsky learned, the more he became comfortable with what he saw as the declining probability of a higher power.

“It helped to know that love, compassion and creativity were not dulled by my lack of belief in God,” Markovsky said.

Other panel members described more traumatic experiences that influenced their turn from religion. First-year anthropology student Dustin Tucker finally came to terms with atheism after five years of witnessing religious conflict while serving with the Army in Iraq, while Freeman abandoned the idea of religion after a family fallout and a suicide threat from her mother.

“It’s aggravating when people say it was a test of faith. You don’t test a 13-year-old with that,” Freeman said. “I came to feel that Jesus as a divine being wasn’t relatable, and I wasn’t getting an answer from prayer.”

A question-and-answer session followed the panel’s testimonies, with questions submitted from the audience read aloud by president of the Pastafarians Axton Crolley, a first-year anthropology student. The panel addressed some of the most profound and common questions that atheists encounter, the first of which dealing with what happens after death.

Tucker referred to one of his favorite quotes from noted atheist Mark Twain for the answer to that one: “I did not exist for billions of years before I was born, and it did not inconvenience me in the slightest.”

And what about the Pastafarians’ spoof theology surrounding their symbolic and somewhat controversial deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Are they concerned that it might be offensive to other religions?

“We tend to think we’re funny, and humor is an important part of how we discuss things,” Lambert said. “Nothing is above humor, and I think the lens of humor tends to make things perfectly clear.”

Even though, according to Freeman, there tend to be many divisions among atheists in terms of coming to a common belief, all six of the panel members shared the same resolve in standing true to their identities, no matter what ideology might ultimately be true. All seemed to identify with Lambert’s preplanned response to the Big Man Upstairs if he does someday find himself before the pearly gates: “All I can say is I lived honestly according to what I believed, and I can’t apologize for that.”


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