Ask Richard: Atheist Nursing Students Treated as Pariahs


Feb. 17, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I'm currently enrolled in nursing school at a college with no particular religious affiliation. My lab partner and I delivered a well thought-out and very neutral presentation on the role of spirituality in nursing. (As a nurse, you have to be prepared to encounter all types of spiritual beliefs and are sometimes asked some pretty hard questions, such as, "Why is God punishing me?")

As an avid atheist, I was thrilled to write about this topic, and presented it to the class enthusiastically. At the end of the presentation, my partner and I asked the class, "What religion do you think we are?" When we said that we were atheists, the mood immediately turned sour. During our Q & A segment, we were belted with questions that were accusatory and mean-spirited.

The next day, a classmate whom I had tutored and who normally sat by me chose to sit at the other end of the classroom and refused to make eye contact. During the 10 minute classroom break, I left the building to go to my car and I heard two classmates outside screaming that we were atheists and how wrong it was.

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. Many of the students are very Christian and/or Baptist, and they are downright bullying. In addition, a lot of the staff share their beliefs, so I don't feel like it is safe to broach the topic with them. Do you have any idea how I can deal with their intolerance? I still have 12 more months with these people.



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, I have yet to see good results when it comes to confronting Christians about un-Christianly behavior. They merely dismiss it with an ad hominem argument that an atheist cannot 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.

You mentioned that after the initial incident there has been subsequent intolerance and bullying. I don't know how severe that bullying has been, but you may just have to endure it if it remains at the social snub/shun level. Don't return spite for spite. Basing your standard of conduct on others' standards of conduct is a spiral that only goes downhill. Continue to be available for tutoring as long as it doesn't put you in jeopardy or at a disadvantage, and continue to generously share your class notes. Although this might soften your classmates' 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 mean being a passive victim of serious discrimination.

Regardless of how mild or intense the acrimony is, I strongly suggest that you document everything. 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 these incidents are affecting you professionally and emotionally. Write everything keeping in mind that you may have to show this to people in authority–possibly 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 the intensity where it interferes with your ability to fulfill your assignments or it prejudicially affects your grades, then you should take your well-documented case to the deans of the nursing school and the college. Whether or not they have similar religious beliefs to those of the pious students, the administration and the faculty still have the duty to provide all students with a fair and equitable opportunity to learn, excel and contribute to their field. If they do not respond satisfactorily, make it clear that you'll be consulting a lawyer, perhaps from the American Civil Liberties Union. If such a formal complaint to the deans is not warranted, then maybe years from now your "patient" 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 nurturing to stay healthy and strong.

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



(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseld more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)