An Atheist at Liberty University

If you noticed that Daylight Atheism was quieter than usual this past weekend, you were right – I was out of town and had limited internet access. But there was a good reason for my absence: I was on a secret mission to penetrate into the very heart of the Bible Belt. Namely, I was storming the gates of Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell, infamous for banning the College Democrats from campus and for instantly expelling any student found to be gay. Would they recognize me on sight? Would some supernatural sense of discernment tell them that an atheist was among them? And what would they do if they did find out?

The idea for this trip developed several weeks ago, when one of my friends, a frequent traveler, mentioned having read The Unlikely Disciple, a book by a liberal Brown student who transferred to Liberty for a semester and wrote about his experiences there. I had likewise just finished The Preacher’s Son, a similar memoir about a survivor of an extreme fundamentalist family who accepted that he was gay while attending Liberty. A third friend of ours mentioned that she knew someone who attended the school and would be willing to show us around, and over a conversation, a plan was hatched. We set off on a road trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, with a few other stops along the way – one of which was Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, which I may write about later – and at the end of our journey, we saw the sign that let us know we had arrived:

Lynchburg is a semi-suburban town in rural Virginia, sprawled around a tangle of highways and strip malls. Like many communities, I guessed, it owes most of its growth to the university, which was founded in 1971 by Falwell as Liberty Baptist College. The campus certainly dominates the town: it’s by far the largest institution there, its buildings and their prominently placed logos visible from far off. And just in case you missed the point, a giant “LU” is landscaped onto the side of a nearby mountain.

For all of that, getting onto campus was easier than I had hoped. There was no Soviet-style security, no checkpoints or guards at the gates controlling who entered or left campus, as I had been more than half-expecting. (I later learned that this is enforced in a different way: resident assistants perform nightly checks to ensure that every student is in their room by curfew, and undergrads must get written permission to stay off-campus overnight.) It would have looked just like any other college campus if not for the first building we passed, the first one that gave me a strange, world-turned-upside-down feeling of disorientation I’d experience many more times on this trip: an arena that was boldly lettered “LaHaye Ice Center”.

Our first priority on the trip was to attend a Sunday-morning church service, so we headed for the Vines Center, a domed structure that doubles as the stadium for sporting events and assemblies. When we walked in and found seats, I was taken aback: what stood at the center of the arena was not so much an altar as a stage, complete with swirling spotlights and a fog machine. It could have been the setting for any concert or rock show, if not for the signs scattered about (and for the sharp-eyed, notice the “Falwell” jersey hanging above the stage on the left):

We were early, and I was expecting a flood of people to arrive before services started, but the flood never materialized. I estimated that the stadium could hold around ten thousand people, but throughout the service, most of the seats were empty; I doubt the number in attendance ever got much above a thousand. Attendance at these services isn’t mandatory, although I’m told it used to be, and we later found out that many Liberty students attend Thomas Road, the nearby Baptist megachurch also founded by Falwell, or one of the other local churches in the area. (Liberty students are still required to attend convocation, a three-times-weekly mini-church service that includes prayer, announcements and worship songs.)

The stage setup was there for a reason, as we soon found out. The band arrived and took their places on stage, and the service began with a half hour of Christian rock music, during most of which the crowd was asked to stand. I had read in The Preacher’s Son that Liberty banned all rock music, even Christian rock, at the time the author attended, so it seems they’ve relaxed their rules somewhat since then. In any case, I doubt they ever had reason to worry: most Christian music is carefully devised to contain nothing that could possibly offend even the most uptight evangelical, and this was no exception. The music was technically accomplished, insofar as I’m any judge – it was a seven-piece band, with four different vocalists – but the lyrics were insipid and repetitive, each song consisting of the same chorus sung over and over again. It was easy to endure, although after a half hour, I thought I could feel my brain beginning to turn to mush.

But for all its calculated blandness, there were some disturbing undercurrents in the music’s message. One song praised Jesus as follows: “I know you’re my healer; you cure all my disease”. Needless to say, any Liberty student with diabetes or appendicitis would soon find out just how lethally untrue that claim is, if they took it literally and tried putting it to the test. Another one referred to Jesus as “the Lord of this city”, which was the kind of unsubtle theocratic message I had been expecting from the beginning.

The music was probably intended to work the crowd into a heighted emotional state, the standard tactic of mass manipulation, but if that was the effect they were seeking, they didn’t get it. There was no speaking in tongues, no students collapsing in their seats or hollering amens and hallelujahs. The most visible effect I noticed was a scattering of people raising their arms and swaying sedately in time to the music. That said, the whole spectacle was very well-produced and well-televised. Four enormous screens hanging around the interior of the stadium showed a close-up view of what was happening on stage, and there were cameras recording the action from every angle.

I was unmoved by the music, but there was just one part of the performance that I found genuinely affecting. In between two songs, one of the vocalists read a section from the Bible, from Hosea chapter 6. It was a good choice: there’s still some wonderful poetry in that old book, and this is one of the better examples:

Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.

After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.

Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.

That said, the band obviously skipped over some of the darker and bloodier parts of that very same book, like this one:

The people of Samaria must bear their guilt,
because they have rebelled against their God.
They will fall by the sword;
their little ones will be dashed to the ground,
their pregnant women ripped open.

The schizophrenic contrast between these passages just goes to show what a deeply conflicting book the Bible is: it blends beautiful, pastoral imagery with savage threats of hate and bloodshed, all supposedly sanctioned by God. Evangelicals arrive at the belief that the Bible is divinely inspired only by ignoring or downplaying the nastier parts, whereas atheists see this book for what it is: a mirror of the humans who wrote it, magnifying both their best and their worst traits and attributing both to a vindictive and omnipotent god.

Coming up: Part II of our heroes’ adventures at Liberty University, as the campus pastor takes the stage. Will he deliver a sermon to stir even the hardened heart of an atheist?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    You brave, brave man . . .

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Would some supernatural sense of discernment tell them that an atheist was among them?

    And what would that be called, “pray-dar”?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    When Dawkins visited LU, he said they had dinosaur fossils on display labeled as “4000 years old.” I hope you located them. Pics?

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I love a good spy story, this is just like James Bond. Looking forward to the gun violence and witty dialogue.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Lynchburg just so happens to also be one of the ends of Skyline Drive, which is a very scenic drive from one end of Shenandoah to the other. If nothing else, Falwell can pick a location, considering how beautiful Shenandoah is.

    Come, let us return to the Lord.
    He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
    he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.

    Isn’t this akin to the passage in Isaiah where god says he creates evil? Isn’t it saying here that god causes suffering?

  • Jim Baerg

    In this case “Liberty University” has a ‘they do protest to much’ air about it, like “Peoples Democratic Republic of …”.

  • shane

    Very interested to read more, it’s like looking into a parallel universe. Eagerly awaiting part 2 :)

  • JulietEcho

    I’d like to hear about the rules they impose on the students. I knew a guy who attended Bob Jones, and it sounded insane – especially when it came to dress codes, monitoring activities like movie-watching, and anything involving the two sexes mingling.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Awesome! Hooray for infiltration, I can’t wait to see how it goes. (Reginald, that “pray-dar” is simply divine.) The bit about winter rains is nice, but as for this section:

    Come, let us return to the Lord.
    He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
    he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.

    That sounds an awful lot like rage and atonement. Which gives me the jibblies. Although I suppose a dualistic sort of god who is both darkness and light is better than the monolithic sort of purity-obsessed deity we have available to us nowadays…

  • Valhar2000

    I’d like to hear about the rules they impose on the students. I knew a guy who attended Bob Jones, and it sounded insane – especially when it came to dress codes, monitoring activities like movie-watching, and anything involving the two sexes mingling.

    As the Dick Dawk himself once said, they should attend a real university.

  • Hailey

    Oh! I am very excited about this one!

    I have a good friend who attends Liberty. She was an absolutely brilliant high school student; top of the class (which in my case contained around 350 people). And it always, always bothered me how someone as strikingly intelligent as her failed to ever once publicly question her unwavering faith in a God. Although she is a devout Christian, and myself a life-long Atheist, we tend to get along just fine.

    But I’ve never asked her about her experiences in Liberty. I knew it was Falwell-founded, and that immediately turned me off to the idea. I didn’t want to offend her over a school she loves so dearly.
    I thank you for writing this and taking this daring little trip so that I may see what Liberty steals behind its gates from the eyes of a fellow Atheist.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    When Dawkins visited LU, he said they had dinosaur fossils on display labeled as “4000 years old.” I hope you located them.

    Alas, I didn’t know about that display, or I would certainly have made a special effort to find it. However, I did find a lot of other creationist-themed amusement, which I’ll write about in a followup post.

  • Andrew T.

    This is suspenseful! Looking forward to reading more about your brush inside the lion’s mouth…

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Come, let us return to the Lord.
    He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;

    Sounds like an abusive relationship to me.

  • http://feralboy12.com feralboy12

    So “Liberty” University enforces a curfew. Why am I not surprised?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It was easy to endure, although after a half hour, I thought I could feel my brain beginning to turn to mush.

    You’re a better man than I. Given the choice between Christian “rock” and waterboarding, I’d have to flip a coin.

    Repeatedly, if need be.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    C’mon Thump it’s no contest, waterboarding definitely. In fact I’d go further.. I would rather watch Australian soap opera.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Thus

    Repeatedly, if need be.

    :D

  • Caiphen

    When I next go to America I’m going to make sure I visit this place. On the shirt I’ll wear it’ll show on the front each evolutionary stage from Ardi to us. On the back it’ll read in bold red letters ‘GAY LOVE IS BEST!’ I want to stir up the old farts on their university’s board.

  • lpetrich

    That reminds me of Richard Dawkins’s visit to there, which has a picture of RD himself in front of LU, captioned “Is that a school or a warehouse? Liberty University”

  • Penguin_Factory

    I’ve always had a morbid curiosity about places like this. I guess these posts will satisfy it.

    I can’t believe that’s where they have their religious services- I really like churches even if I disagree with their function, so it’s a shame they use such a soulless piece of arhcitecture. No wonder a lot of students go elsewhere.

  • http://www.neosnowqueen.wordpress.com neosnowqueen

    Just for the record, speaking in tongues is pentecostal, and Liberty University probably has a more Baptist evangelical population. You won’t see speaking in tongues there at all.

  • http://theonetrueblog.blogspot.com/ The Vile Scribbler

    Aw, man! I used to live in Charlottesville, and I had to travel to Lynchburg (and the LU campus, for work-related reasons) many, many times over a seven year period. I wish I had known you were passing through; I would have been happy to make the trip to Monticello and personally say hello and thanks for all your writing!

    I used to leave my vehicle running with rock music blaring when I had to go inside one of the campus buildings briefly; I amassed a cool collection of Repent!-style pamphlets that would be waiting on my seat when I got back. I don’t have them any more, sadly.

  • Paul

    Just for the record, speaking in tongues is pentecostal, and Liberty University probably has a more Baptist evangelical population. You won’t see speaking in tongues there at all.

    The Baptist church I attended when I was young was a big believer of speaking in tongues. I’ve also attended “non-denominational” churches referencing and praising the phenomenon. It’s nowhere near clear cut as “only pentecostals believe in speaking in tongues”.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    …the Bible is…a mirror of the humans who wrote it, magnifying both their best and their worst traits and attributing both to a vindictive and omnipotent god.

    One’s view of God (or gods) is like a rorschach for the soul, as well. A good person has a good God. A judgemental, willfully ignorant douche has a judgemental, willfully ignorant douche. Falwell fell in to the latter group.

    Jim Baerg “In this case ‘Liberty University’ has a ‘they do protest to much’ air about it, like ‘Peoples Democratic Republic of …’.”
    “They” use words differently than “we” do. “Liberty” means “the ability to freely choose to follow God’s will”, if memory serves.

    Steve Bowen “In fact I’d go further.. I would rather watch Australian soap opera.”
    “Crikey, Shoila. Oi got er feelin’, dip down in moi haht…oi’l jus’ come out ‘n’ say it…Shoila, oi love you!”
    “Aw, Bruce, oi loves you too!”

    Paul “It’s nowhere near clear cut as ‘only pentecostals believe in speaking in tongues’.
    It’s theology. The only clear-cut thing in theology is that the other guy is the one who is wrong.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Goddamnit, Modus, stop making sense.

    Pleaze.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Don’t worry Thumpalumpacus, since I’m an atheist*, my God is no god, which, by my own tortured logic, means that I’m nothing at all.

    *…also, sometimes agnostic and occasional deist

  • Caiphen

    That reminds me of Richard Dawkins’s visit to there, which has a picture of RD himself in front of LU, captioned “Is that a school or a warehouse? Liberty University”

    Ipetrich

    I have to admire a bloke that seems to be in the same photo as so many beautiful women. Lucky bugger! I should’ve become a biology professor.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Nice opening post for what looks like a good series. I attended a Christian college (not quite as conservative as LU), so reading this brings back memories and allows me to compare/contrast my experiences with what LU is doing now.

  • Ashley

    I attended Liberty University, and like you, at first all I saw regarding the school were words that others had spoken, or lists of rules. Even as a Christian, I took a printed list of rules and highlighted all that I thought I would end up breaking. As I settled in, it was certain to me that I would grow to love the environment. There isn’t a college anywhere that consists of more genuine loving people.
    As it turned out, the rules were not difficult to follow. Those who attend the school know about the rules and pay a good tuition to “choose” to follow the rules. It isn’t as Liberty University is making anyone do anything; those who choose to attend also choose to abide by the rules. And as you find the rules ridiculous, you would probably not pay 30,000 a year to attend and be forced to abide by rules in which you do not approve. It is almost like choosing to live in any certain apartment complex. Each complex has different rules and you sign a lease to abide by the rules in order to live there. This is the same type of situation. You wouldn’t “infiltrate” a retirement home or apartment complex and question their requirements and rules.
    Liberty University provides an excellent education and environment in which to obtain the education. The dorms are much higher quality than a state school. I lived on East campus and had a brand new building with a walk-in closet and my own bathroom! The campus currently has snowless ski slopes, which are the first in the States. An Ice Skating rink is located conveniently on campus, and their newly founded Law School is earning accreditation faster than any other school in the country. The student body is close knit and serious about theology and their own faith. Yes, a large portion of the student body attends Thomas Road, but also many smaller churches in the area.
    Some students feel it is worth paying to go to a school that ultimately cares about their students. As an atheist, it may be extremely difficult for you to understand the concept of “raising champions for Christ.” I personally found it refreshing to go to a school that didn’t allow partying or drunkenness. I found it phenomenal to not witness couples practically having sex on campus. Living, studying, and fellowshipping with 10,000 other people with similar morals and standards as me added value to my college experience. You and I are clearly different. This university that I found phenomenal, you might never enjoy. Perhaps you would consider a university with beliefs that you find important, which makes sense logically.
    Notice I didn’t try to “convert” you in my argument. I know some atheists put Christians in a box, believing all are the same. Really, though we are different, your judgment on the entire campus from one visit can be countered without Christianity or Atheism involved. Liberty University is an acquired taste. If someone or something (like the government) were forcing everyone to go there, I’d see an issue. Until then (which will not happen), it is a school that people are well schooled on before they pay tuition money. They (Liberty) certainly do not hide the rules and they do not force anyone to continue there. Most credits have no problem transferring to other accredited universities, so if one should hate it after a semester, they can simply go somewhere else.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Ashley
    Did you learn any science?

  • Rollingforest

    I spent a week at Liberty University during high school for Boys State Virginia, which is a camp put on by the American Legion to teach about government. It was during the summer so the students were gone then and I actually had very little contact with the religious side of Liberty. I did hear Falwell speak. He was supposed to speak for 5 minutes but ended up spending half an hour at the podium.

    Boys State always invites the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General to make speeches. Well, at the time (circa 2003) both the Governor and Lt. Governor were Democrats, but Liberty was forced to let them speak on campus because they had signed up to host Boys State. The irony was lost to me at the time, but I do enjoy thinking about it now.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Could I, an open atheist, attend Liberty?

  • Rollingforest

    I’m certain the answer is no. It is private property and they can kick you off at any time even if you are just visiting.

  • lpetrich

    Thumpalumpacus, why might you want to do so?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It’s not that I’d want to; I just want to learn whether the “Liberty” in the name is actual or not.

  • Lindsay

    I’m an atheist living in Lynchburg. The Falwells are probably the biggest property holders in the city. It’s an ass-backwards place. I was told I would burn in hell when I was 17 because I said that “there are two sides” to the abortion debate. My co-workers laughed at me for saying that I believe in evolution. As a waitress, I frequently receive religious tracts in lieu of tips. It sucks. People are completely intolerant to any religion other than Christianity. I find it really ironic that the name of the school is Liberty. Students have a curfew and get expelled if their is any evidence that they have drank alcohol. The “University” part is also ironic considering most of the classes are consumed by prayer requests and their science program is a joke.


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