I am not religious. I grew up going to church with my family (and still go on Christmas Eve and Easter), and I was a part of a youth group for a couple years. Regardless, Christianity plays little to no role in my world view. When I found out that ARI was a Christian establishment, I was surprised at first, and then I felt apprehensive. Part of what has convinced me to stay an atheist is the amount of intolerance and even hate towards certain groups that I have witnessed from many Christians. Quite frankly, I was worried that I would not feel welcome at ARI. However, as the month has gone by, I have realized that ARI’s goal is to bring people together and be accepting of everyone, regardless of where they come from and what religion they practice.
I first want to go into detail about the role religion has played in my life. As I mentioned earlier, I went to church with my family most weekends, and joined a youth group when I was 13. Admittedly, my reason for joining this group was for spending time with my best friend and had almost nothing to do with any eagerness to learn about Christianity. In this youth group we did some volunteering at nearby homeless shelters and helped collect and package food for food banks. On other days we sat in a meeting room and talked about the Bible and contemporary issues, both in Albuquerque and around the world. Even back then, I was having doubts about whether I considered myself a Christian or not, but I recognized how beneficial this youth group was for helping out those in need.
When I was 14, my parents signed my friend and I up for a Christian summer camp in the mountains near Santa Fe. The camp was recommended to my parents by members of our church, so it seemed like a good idea. However, soon after arriving at this camp I realized that it did not at all align with my values, or even the values of my church back home. While my church back home was very moderate in its Christianity, this camp was firmly rooted in the “accept Christ as your savior or spend eternity in hell” mentality. All the other camp members seemed more or less on board with this view, but as someone who was questioning my faith and the utility of religion, I felt extremely uncomfortable at this camp. I could not accept the method of instilling guilt and fear in order to convince people to believe in an ideology. Eventually I ended up talking about how I felt to the main priest, and still could not get any answers that made sense to me. He told me that in the end, if you don’t accept God into your life, you can’t be a good person. Overall, my experience at this camp left a lasting impression on my values and beliefs, though most definitely not the kind that the camp had intended. I don’t think that your religious beliefs have anything to do with whether you’re a good person or not. There are plenty of examples to be found throughout history and contemporary times of religious people committing atrocities (and using religion to justify them), and plenty of atheists who have done a lot of good. The reverse is also true for both groups.
Even though my way of viewing the world has been rooted in atheism for several years now, I can still understand and appreciate the value that religion has for many people. For me, involvement in my church has allowed me to become closer to certain people and help members in the community. The summer before my sophomore year in high school, my youth group took a week long pilgrimage to New York City. Visiting museums, churches, New York tourist attractions, and bonding with the members of my group made the pilgrimage one of my favorite memories of my high school experience. The churches and museums helped me appreciate the beautiful architecture, art, and music that religion inspires. In short, religion has no value for me in a spiritual or moral sense, but I value the sense of community and artwork that it brings about.
Given my past experiences, I did not know what kind of Christianity to expect from ARI, and was concerned that it would resurface those feelings of guilt I felt at summer camp. Needless to say, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that while Christian ideologies are present here, they allow for acceptance of all types of people—as Christianity should. It was such a relief to hear that people of all faiths were welcome, even those without faith. The morning gatherings in the chapel serve the purpose of bringing the community together, and the songs and prayers help me appreciate the food, the people around me, and the wonderful opportunity I have to be here. I think ARI is a perfect example of using faith to unite people and not to divide them, a mindset that needs to be more prevalent among religious groups today.