Atheist Student Prays for Peace from College Chaplains Email

On 27th March of this year, a student at Dundalk IT called Nadia Williams, published a blog post that earned very widespread media coverage in Ireland and beyond. Nadia’s piece described unwanted proselytising from the college and the story was described in national newspapers, such as the Sunday Times under the title “Atheist Student Prays for Peace from College Chaplains Emails”. Click on the newspaper image to read the Sunday Times article.

Atheist Ireland is grateful that Nadia has kindly agreed to write a follow-up piece and her guest article titled “Small Foxes” is included below.


Small Foxes

I wonder how many stories which end with: “And that, my friend, is why I became a hermit and to this day live on this isolated mountaintop in Timbuktu” start with “One day, I wrote something on my blog.” I sure hope that’s not how this story will end, so I’ll start it with something different, even though in a way it started when I wrote something on my blog. Here, then, is how my story starts:

One day, I spotted a fox.

It was, as you can see, a small fox. It appeared on my horizon in the form of emails from the chaplaincy at the college I attend for a degree course. The content was benign, just announcements of masses and prayer meetings and stuff. The fact is, they were being sent to an email address I don’t exactly spread around, given to me by the college and used exclusively for communication related to my degree studies. This email address includes my student number, which is again not quite private, but also not something you’d throw around without thinking. I guarantee you it’s not something I would share with any organisation outside college unless they could give me a very good reason why I should. It was therefore rather alarming that the college had decided, on my behalf, that this semi-private information was okay to share with an employee of a church.

Now, I’ve since been told that he would not be able to see individual email addresses, it’s a tick-box action which sends his message to a whole mailing list. First, I have to have a moment of silence for those who thought this meant the whole situation was okay. Second, the way things are set up, unless restrictions are placed on his access which I’m not aware of, a guy who works for an organisation wholly unrelated to the college could quite easily access the specifics of individual college email addresses, should he wish to do so.

At first I thought I’d just ignore them. The emails only arrived at a rate of about one a month. It would be no bother to just roll your eyes and delete them. This was, when all is said and done, a small fox. The thing is, what I’m facing might be a small fox. Easy to ignore. Easy to sidestep and carry on my life. But there are other people in Ireland right now who are also facing a small fox, except he is with his friends:

In every place where we allow a small fox to make itself at home, we are placing a foundation stone under the feet of The Way Things Are, to stand firm in situations where it’s not just a nuisance email. Where it’s not just a stupid prayer, a meaningless oath. Where it’s someone’s job, someone’s freedom of thought, someone’s right to marry whomever they love.

I didn’t let this small fox lie. I did what I could, asked to be opted out, wrote to the college president, finally trudged to someone’s office so my email settings could be adjusted as per the IT department’s instructions, to send the priestís notices direct to the shredder.

Then I wrote something on my blog.

Which got shared. And shared again. And shared, and liked, and shared and shared. My quiet little public spot for huffing over things that annoy me, which usually racks up about ten views and a bit of sympathy from a few friends, got over 1,700 hits in one day. I watched with half pleased, half horrified fascination as it travelled to Reddit, where it quickly racked up 123 comments.

I replied to a few, just for fun, though not without trepidation: the internet is a volatile place, and while comments were relatively benign, even the ones which called me a moron, you never know what might move some obscure lurker somewhere to decide you’ve offended them and start sending death threats. I love the internet, and it terrifies me.

“I think she just wants to cool and be an atheist,” said one commenter.

“In winter,” I replied, “I prefer not to cool and rather to warm.”

One fellow DkIT student checked their college email to enlighten everyone to how few and how benign the priest’s emails were. “Although I count myself as an athiest[sic] (though leaning more towards agnostic) I just can’t muster up enough outrage to be offended. Perhaps because a number of other things to think about on a daily basis that actually have any bearing whatsoever on how I conduct my affairs. Or perhaps because none of those messages are particularly that offensive.”

“Should we aim to take down every notice for the Islam society that find themselves on the colleges many public notice areas, lest they invade the field of vision of those cut from the same cloth as the lovely author of this piece? Hmmm, that’s certainly worthwhile food for thought.”

Yes, because sticking a notice on a board is exactly the same as sending an email to someone’s Inbox. (Because this is the internet, I’ll spell out that the previous sentence should be read in a voice laden with sarcasm.)

Some folks started wondering if I had a church wedding. The conversation spun on, to speculation I bought a house near a good Roman Catholic school, with a picture of the priest above the fireplace. I enlightened them on the wedding thing, that it was in a church but not a Catholic one, that I’d attended my first ever Catholic wedding when I was in my thirties (come to think about it, didn’t I blog about that, too? No, wait, I put that story in a book. I’m starting to wonder if I have some weird disorder that compels me to put stuff in writing, in public, that people may faint over). Details of my house would, I decided, be giving too much information, and what’s over my fireplace … there are some things, I assure you, that you don’t want to know.

The storm in the teacup subsided, fortunately. Views on the blog fell from their lofty height to a few hundred the next day, then under a hundred, then back to the usual average of about forty, most of them for a dungarees pattern I’d posted a few years ago, which is apparently the only one on the internet.
I checked Reddit again, but no further comments after the very last thread, one to which I’d replied.

“You poor dear,” said significantrisk (I suspect that’s not their real name), “it must be so traumatic.”

“Sniff sniff. It was,” I responded. “Thanks for the sympathy.”

CDfm replied: “There there.”

And it was all over.

Then this fella from the newspaper phoned …

John Hamill