Author: Ryan Croom, USA

I spent many of my childhood summers in a small town in Mississippi—just an hour outside of New Orleans. Summers included an unbearable heat, running barefoot through my grandma’s backyard, and the weekly visit to the church down the road. Every Sunday, my grandma coaxed my mass of hair into looking presentable and helped me into a frilly sundress. For an hour, I attended Sunday school where I learned how to gain entrance into the pearly gates of heaven. Afterwards, I sat next to my family in the pews of the church. I paid little attention, but even I absorbed one irrefutable fact. Unless I accepted the spirit of Jesus into my heart, I would never enter heaven.
For years, I accepted Christianity as the ultimate truth because it was the only truth I knew. But as I grew older sitting silently on church pews burdened me. After church sermons, I headed to my bedroom to pray fervently to feel something, anything. I watched enviously in church when people claimed to be saved—the moment when Jesus touched their hearts. Loneliness radiated from the tear-stained pages of my Bible as I waited impatiently for Jesus to cleanse my sinful, unworthy soul.

When I met Avijit Roy and his wife, a preteen girl grappling with a profound lack of faith, they exposed me to a new higher truth. Raised in the heart of the Bible belt, they exemplified a belief system I had never seen. Instead of chastising me for my criticisms of Christianity, they encouraged me to seek knowledge outside religious texts. Self-proclaimed atheists, the moral code they adhered to lacked the hypocrisies which infected the Baptists at my church. The atmosphere surrounding the two encouraged intellectual debate instead of thoughtless consumption of information as truth.

As a result of this influence, I explored doctrines outside of the Christian faith. I formulated my own opinions based upon my research. I stopped attending church and feeling ashamed for my absence of faith. I no longer conformed to a belief in a higher power or afterlife. However, the realization did not inhibit my moral compass. Instead my morality became a representation of me and my newfound doctrine. Kindness and compassion for others originates from a genuine place rather than a desire to impress an abstract god. The limit of my compassion no longer stops short when confronted with individuals of varying faiths, sexualities, and gender identities (unlike my religious compassion which openly condemned homosexuals and other minorities).

I cannot claim to know what enlightenment looks like for others. But for me it is realizing God does not exist. There is no afterlife. Life has no predetermined meaning. I must resolve my own moral dilemmas. There exists no guidebook for nonbelievers—nothing except my intuition to separate the rights from wrongs. However, confronting the emptiness of life does not leave me hopeless. Instead, I take the empty canvas which is my life and paint my own meaning. I create my own purpose; the spectacle which is my life requires no divine intervention.