By Graham Knight
Graham Knight is a PhD Student at The Ohio State University (Higher Education) and works closely with the IDEALS team at OSU.
Saturday December 19, 2009 — a decade ago almost to the day — was the day I dropped my Catholic faith. It’s no coincidence that also on this day I received my rejection letter from the University of Notre Dame and gathered with family to celebrate my grandmother Mimi’s 90th birthday, which would fall two days later on the winter solstice. She used to joke that she got the longest night of the year to celebrate her birthday.
I decided to attend the University of South Carolina for college. I only applied to two schools, and my standardized test scores and high school class rank meant that I was guaranteed acceptance to the state’s flagship institution, even though the much larger envelope with YES! on the front would not arrive for another month or two.
It wasn’t until much later that I began to grapple with what dropping my faith meant. “Catholic” went first because I had stopped attending Mass, but it took much longer for me to realize that, as a non-believer, I couldn’t call myself a Christian at all. Dropping that title, at least publicly, was a much more daunting task when you’re in the middle of the Bible Belt and every single one of your closest friends and family are Christians, and so too are many of their friends and family.
The realization that I was no longer a Christian came on slowly, but the nail was driven home most of all the first time I experienced Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” the narrative of which I include in italics throughout this essay:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest, but for us it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. — Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
Pale Blue Dot was a photograph captured by the Voyager I spacecraft as it passed Saturn on its journey to the edges of our galaxy. Sagan’s intent in having the spacecraft turn around for one final shot of Earth before it became too small to capture was to make a statement about our place in the universe; for me he succeeded. It put into perspective that we are vastly more similar than we are different, and differences of human belief seem small when cast so sharply against the enormous backdrop of space:
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. — Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
The endless cruelties I saw in my most formative years included 9/11 and the beginning of what is now the longest war in U.S. history. It was not until much later, in college, that I was able to encounter and come to know and love many of the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants from other corners of this dot.
In looking at the recent national report published by IDEALS, Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development (2019), I saw myself and my college experience in the sections “Conflict is Not the End” (p. 8) as well as “Inspiring Appreciation” (p.12). These two sections show that today’s college students tend to appreciate the people and groups they meet on campus, even if those people are deeply different.
To this day my closest friend is a devout Christian, and he and my other college roommate (also a Christian) were at the center of many of my social groups in college. I ate with them, danced with them, and tailgated with them throughout my college experience, and though we did not see eye-to-eye on matters of belief, they were unfailingly gracious enough to allow me into their circle.
I cannot be sure of my own self-importance in their lives and college experiences, but I can at least hope that through coming to know me their attitudes towards those of no belief are more positive now than they were before we met. There is no doubt that there are members of their faith community who did not welcome me, who possibly viewed me with disdain or skepticism. Nevertheless, I am fortunate to still consider my Christian college roommates among my closest friends.
My friends of faith helped me to better answer the enduring existential question, “Who Am I?” (p. 15) as I came to understand that I was neither religious nor spiritual, but instead focused on making as positive an impact as possible on those whom I affect because we are all on this mote of dust together.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. — Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
So as I reach a decade of non-belief I continue to give thanks to my close friends of all faiths, those of none, and everyone in between who have walked alongside me on my path atop this Pale Blue Dot.
Oh, and Mimi? If she makes it to this winter solstice, she’ll be 100 years young and still partying all night long. May we all be so fortunate.
IDEALS is a national study of college students’ experiences with worldview diversity spanning 122 institutions. The study is conducted by research teams at NC State University, Ohio State University, and Interfaith Youth Core and is led by Drs. Alyssa Rockenbach and Matthew Mayhew. For more information about IDEALS, please visit our website or follow us on Twitter.