We’ve all read the heartwarming stories in Christian pamphlets, right? Somebody was just going along happily, living their life, until one day, tragedy struck. They found God, and now just look at how happy they are! It’s proof that God exists, isn’t it? He must be real, since a real person’s life has been changed for the better. Right?
Well… maybe not. It might be that sometimes tragedy strikes, and people make it without god, but we never hear their stories for comparison. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with one atheist whose non-belief has strengthened as a result of overcoming personal struggles.
Devidyal Givens has been an atheist for most of her adult life. Now thirty-three, she has been quietly living her life without gods since she was in her early twenties. She owned and operated a small cafe in New Mexico, was active in the arts, and by all accounts, was having a fine life. Though people did go to church where she lived, she didn’t feel like she was an outcast. “In New Mexico, I guess people go to church but it’s not a major part of their lives,” says Devidyal. “The entire time I lived there I can’t remember one person asking me what religion I was and the rare occasion it came up and I said oh, I’m an atheist they’d say okay and conversation would continue.”
In 2005, Givens moved to Atlanta, where she worked as a manager at the Flying Biscuit. Here, too, her non-belief was no big deal. “When I was in Atlanta, I was heavily involved in the art scene. I don’t think I know anyone there that goes to church on a regular basis and if I do they certainly don’t talk about it. No one ever asked me about my religious beliefs and if they did it was no big deal or they’d be curious and want me to tell them about atheism.”
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Though it is normally one of the easiest forms of cancer to treat, it was not so for Devidyal. “I had all kinds of complications with mine. I was in the hospital for 8 days and then in and out of the hospital for the next year and a half on a weekly basis. My medical bills were running me $50,000-$60,000 a month and I soon found myself homeless.”
From small business owner to homeless in five years, Givens’ story is no less compelling than any Christian’s. One could certainly forgive her if she had felt like she needed supernatural assistance after such a terrifying brush with death. But that’s not how she felt at all. Instead, she relied on real help from real people. A friend in Decatur took her in until she could get back on her feet — both literally and metaphorically.
Devidyal found hope in Decatur, and then she found love in Gainesville. She moved to be with the man who would become her husband, and started her life over yet again. Ironically, one of the most difficult challenges for her was living with all the Christians around her:
“Gainesville is by far the most conservative town I have ever lived in. The first question people ask is what church do you go to. I used to at least attempt to be polite and say, ‘Oh, I don’t go to church,’ but then they start drilling you with a million questions like which churches have you tried and why not this one and why not that one, and you should try my church sometime. So now I simply answer I’m an atheist and they usually walk away.”
“Even though I was raised in the South, I went to private Catholic schools. All my friends went to school with me and I was insulated by that world. I never noticed the insanity that is evangelicalism that was all around me. So Gainesville is my first one-on-one experience with people that truly believe the earth is 6,000 years old, evolution is a leftist conspiracy and anyone that doesn’t believe every word of the bible is literal is going to hell. I encounter it every single day out here.”
I’ve become much more vocal about my atheism. I’m tired of hearing how evil we are, how all the rapists, child molesters and murderers in the world are atheists and all the other evils they blame on me simply for not believing their fairy tales. I never considered myself an atheist activist until moving to Gainesville.”
And oh, has she become an activist! Since enrolling in college to pursue her lifelong interest in neuroscience, she’s been one of the biggest movers and shakers in the Gainesville secular community. She joined the Secular Student Alliance and due to her hard work and persistence, Gainesville State College recently hosted the biggest debate… well… probably ever, in Gainesville. Renowned atheist and former preacher Matt Dillahunty debated local Christian Mark Allison. (Read my synopsis HERE.)
There’s a great need for her kind of activism, too:
“At school there are about a million Christian clubs and only our one secular club. The Secular Alliance can’t keep our fliers on the walls for more than one day, they are often torn down almost as soon as we put them up. I believe one way to combat that fear is by exposure. If we create more clubs and have more of a presence on campus perhaps they won’t be quite so frightened of us. I think the most important thing is to constantly tell people I am an atheist. I want them to associate a nice, young, good willed person with atheism.”
In addition to plans for starting a Humanist Student Union next semester, she and her husband are spear-heading efforts to organize bus transportation for Atlanta area secularists who would like to attend the upcoming Reason Rally in DC in March 2012. For us nerdy internet types, she maintains a very active blog. (If you’re interested in the Reason Rally Bus, contact her through her site.)
From living a comfortable, quiet life of non-belief to fighting for her life and losing everything, Devidyal Givens had every reason to lose faith in herself and cry out for an invisible friend to save her. Instead, she relied on her own strength, the power of friendship, and ultimately, the most satisfying kind of love — that shared between two living, breathing humans. She beat cancer, and then she got on with living life to the fullest. Hers is not the story we will hear in church, but to me, it’s far more inspiring than another conversion tale from yet another sad sack who didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to believe in herself. Devidyal is a testament to the power of belief in what’s real — real human connections, real perseverence, real determination to overcome life’s obstacles. No gods necessary.
If you know of a local atheist who’s overcome adversity, helped their community, or done anything you think deserves recognition, contact me on Facebook or through my website, and maybe they’ll be featured in their own Local Atheist Hero article.