The Personal Renaissance of an Atheist Daughter

Credit: Xiaorui Zhou

by Annick van Rinsum

My curiosity for the cultures of the MENA region started with a friendship. In my first week of university I met the warm eyes of Noura, who is from Saudi-Arabia. Over time we covered a lot of topics in our conversations, but the most prominent stayed politics, family and religion.

Growing up as a daughter of two atheists, I had been given a very valuable moral compass, an open mind-set, a thing for new ideas and tolerance, a strong sense that I can rely on my logical thinking and pretty cool socializing skills. Noura had been given pretty much the same things, but a little bit more, she had also been given a society that emphasizes the importance of family bonds and social obligations.

I had always had an incredibly good bond with my parents, but when my mom died when I was fifteen years old, I was very disappointed by the lack of support from the rest of the family. The following years I survived – and thrived – thanks to my wonderful friends, and I thanked my parents again for my social nature. Still, I envied Noura’s big extended family and I was often concerned or annoyed when I saw other people in my Western society actively turning away from theirs in the spirit of individualism.

My mother was the glue of our small family. She provided the closeness with friends and family with her appreciative and warm presence. She asked people what was going on in their lives with sincere interest, she invited them over, she asked me whether I had kissed a boy already every time I came home from school ever since I was 6 years old, she is said to have had always danced front stage at concerts of her high school friends with great enthusiasm. My mom never failed to feel lucky with the ones who surrounded her and made sure they knew it.

She loved the south of France and lived in Aix-en-Provence for a year when she was around nineteen. Being in the Côte d’Azur makes me feel closer to her, and to the way she lived her life.

The adrenaline of meeting awesome new people, casually walking to Italy and back at night, having great conversations about politics, family, religion, making plans about what I want to do here and seeing so many interesting books that I’ve never seen before in the SciencesPo library caused me to lie awake one night, in my small ‘Forty’ bed, for hours on end. At 2 o’clock, I text my friend Hidde back home ‘have you ever experienced not being able to fall asleep for so long that you started hallucinating?’ I am seeing beautiful patterns that my conscious mind could never have imagined.

This experience turns into an hour-long nightmare in which I struggle with keeping my grip on what I can be sure of. Suddenly, I am with my recent boyfriend. I feel embarrassed to admit I have lost control and need help. He’s very sweet to me. I find myself in the room of my best friend Marie. She always knows how to calm me down. Now I’m actually starting to have a good time. She wants to go to sleep. I ask her if I can sleep over in case I start ‘hallucinating’ again. I remember my boyfriend, who must be wondering where I am. He’s very upset that I’ve been gone for so long. Long story short: he breaks up with me. I find my way back to Marie where more of friends and my parents are gathered. I show them a voice memo of my hallucinating self saying very random things, being unresponsive to Hidde calling me. They understand that this is a serious issue now. Then I switch into another scenario again.

Every time I’m fighting my own belief system, but every time someone I care for is there, I calm down.

An hour later I realise that I have not texted my friend, and that I am not hallucinating, but I am having a semi-lucid dream. I don’t like that I don’t have control over my brain, and that I can’t seem to open my eyes or my mouth. The fact that I am still imagining to see and talk makes me question my sanity. Note to self: next time when you can’t ‘see’ or ‘talk’, you’re dreaming.

Every time I’m fighting my own belief system, but every time someone I care for is there, I calm down.

It can be really hard to know what to believe in, but I found that my friends and parents will never forsake me. The conversations with my friends, my dad’s warm and smiling face or the presence of my late mother, they are always with me, even when I’m not with them.

This faith gives me peace.

In my experience, people without a God are as empathetic and caring as those who have a God. But whereas ethics, equality and tolerance are very instated in the society I come from, the importance of togetherness is something I learned from my Mom.

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