On September 14-15, I attended my 50th Bismarck High School Reunion. The organizers had done an amazing job of communicating with every graduate that they could find. They created two evening events with other opportunities interspersed within the same time period – lunch at the iconic Big Boy and a tour of the high school itself. On Saturday, they made all of us teary eyed as they showed slides of all of our classmates who were deceased, starting with the soldiers of the Vietnam War, one of whom died just after graduation in 1969. While I only attended the two dinners, I had ample opportunities to meet and spend time with old friends. Thankfully, everyone had name tags – printed with women’s maiden names where appropriate and in a large font!
Everyone, of course, had changed over such a long span of time. But for me, I felt as if I was a totally different person from the one I was in 1968. In 1968, I was very skinny, dressed in home-made clothes, and my hair cuts were all done by my mother, who was not a hairdresser. This was in stark contrast to the more popular girls who were very attractive, dressed in the current fashion, and beautifully coiffed.
But the larger contrast was my view of the world. In high school my sphere of friends was mostly concentrated in the Luther League group at Trinity Lutheran Church. During the school year, we had a potluck every Sunday and often did group outings to bowling alleys or roller-skating parks. While I never had a date in high school, my life was filled with these activities – and a lot of studying. I was one of the five valedictorians that year.
But today I am the polar opposite of my Twiggy persona. I have been happily married for 30 years and have a 27-year-old son, twin stepdaughters and two grandchildren. And yes, I don’t sew my own wardrobe or do my own hair anymore.
The most striking contrast, however, is that I am an atheist activist. My husband I and both exited religion two decades ago. We never thought much of it, but then on June 28, 2014, the U. S. Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby issued its 5-4 seminal decision to allow this privately held company to refuse to provide certain forms of birth control to its female employees because of the “company’s religious views.” I was incensed. I remember a friend who, in all likelihood, had flown to New York during our last year in school to obtain an abortion in the only state which allowed it at the time. I remember arriving in Seattle at a hotel during a Luther League trip and finding an immaculate room – except for the two bloody towels in the bathroom. At Concordia College in 1969, they impounded our student newspapers because they had a small add about abortion services in New York. And of course, I remember the decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.
I ended up editing two anthologies about how religion subjugates women, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion and Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith… and for Freedom, started a YouTube channel and blog – the Faithless Feminist – and spoke at national secular conventions.
Were there other atheists at my reunion? Undoubtedly there were a few. But for me, I had shifted 180 degrees from the shy girl of Luther League to the activist writer I am today.
That was my last trip to North Dakota. I haven’t kept in close touch with anyone who lives there. My sister and I drove past our old house built by my father and his former office, a house built in the early 20th century. And we stopped at Trinity Lutheran Church and took pictures of the plaques my sister had purchased in our names and the names of our parents.
But 50 years later, the church is undoubtedly still filled on Sundays with congregants singing the same hymns we sang in choir. Will our country ever abandon religion? How many lifetimes will it take before people realize it’s just a myth, just like the myths of the pharaohs, the Aztecs, and the Babylonians? I can only hope.
Karen L. Garst
The Faithless Feminist
October 6, 2018