Anna Lonergan, winner of the first place Secular Student Volunteerism Award in Spring 2018, is a lifelong volunteer who is dedicated to making a positive difference for others. In addition to making a difference at Second Harvest Food Bank and other charities, she served in leadership roles for the Secular Student Alliance at UCF for several years. We are proud to give the first SSVA award to Anna.
It is well known that atheism is most popular among the college aged demographic. A college campus is probably the safest place for someone to be an atheist. I can be open around my friends, coworkers and even my family without fear of repercussions. However, there is one place that I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable as an atheist— Volunteering.
Why is it that I must tip toe around the “a-word”? When the friendly front desk agent at the food bank looks at me and says “What group are you volunteering with today?”, why do I suddenly become ashamed to say it out loud? When I am getting dressed in the morning why do I hesitate to put on my Flying Spaghetti Monster t-shirt? Why do I struggle with being my “authentic self” at a volunteer event, when I can so easily express myself on campus? I am not the only atheist to experience these feelings. Service and religion are so linked that when I try to participate I feel the need to hide my atheism.
This desire to hide is what makes secular volunteerism all the more important. Atheists are out in the world. We are neighbors, community members, family members, and friends. Atheists want to do good in this world, and we shouldn’t need to hide from that. I’d like to share a small story of an encounter I had while volunteering, in which I realized that I shouldn’t hide.
I signed up for a shift at Second Harvest food bank doing donation sorting. When I arrived I was alone in a crowd of 15 or 20 volunteers who were eagerly waiting to sort packages of meat into several boxes. I was waiting with the other volunteers when I struck up a conversation with an older woman waiting next to me. She asked me which group I was volunteering with, to which I replied that I was alone. Then I briefly explained the scholarship to her, and after some questions I finally admitted that the scholarship I was applying for was a secular student scholarship. I half expected her to awkwardly walk away from me, but she simply smiled and said that it was great to see college students volunteering. While this conversation could have easily gone in the opposite direction, I did realize that not everybody holds negative views towards atheism, and that having these kinds of conversations with strangers was important.
I think that humans have a way of internalizing stereotypes. If an atheist constantly hears the negative stereotypes (i.e. “Atheists eat babies” or “All atheists are immoral people”), then they may begin to feel unwelcome in these spaces, and withdraw themselves. Atheists may be afraid to be open in fear of being shunned. Not everyone subscribes to those stereotypes though, so if we are brave and open about our views, then atheism will more quickly become normalized and those spaces will become more welcoming to ALL people. At the end of the day, more welcoming volunteer spaces means more good work gets done. As an atheist, it is tempting to put up walls in fear of judgement or retribution, but the way forward is clear. The next time I volunteer, you can count on me wearing an atheist t-shirt.