Freethought Today · Vol. 26 No. 7 September 2009

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Third Place — College Essay Competition

Third Place — College Essay Competition A Scar, My Parents, and Fighting Intolerance in the Fourth

For many people, surviving a traumatic injury prompts a religious devotion or a sense of having been “saved” by a higher power. Yet, growing up with a third-degree burn had the opposite effect on me: Rather than relying on the mystical and the uncertain, I turned to science and self-reliance.

When I was 15 months old, I accidentally pulled a cup of boiling hot cocoa onto my left arm, resulting in a severe scald that required a skin graft. To this day I still carry the scar, a twisted, bumpy band of flesh, approximately 6 by 12 inches in area, that I still must avoid placing in direct sunlight. Today, I accept this permanent mark on my body as an outcome of time and chance. However, as a child, the question, “What did I do to deserve this?” plagued me. To this day, my devoutly Christian grandparents claim that “the will of God” caused my burn. They also perpetually assert that “the Lord intervened so that you didn’t need a blood transfusion” while so many victims did during an era in which blood screening remained considerably more primitive than today. My internal search to write my own version of this tragedy of my youth pointed me onto the steady path of agnosticism, the path of living in the present for the individual.

When I came to an age to explore the beliefs of my family surrounding my burn, I felt confused by the contradictions I observed. I asked myself how my grandmother could simultaneously claim to know that God saved my life while preaching that the lord’s will is unknowable. Did God really save my life? Not materially. Instead, I realized, doctors deserve the credit for healing me. After all, if I had lived just a century before, I would have certainly died in infancy of my exposed wound. It seemed inconceivable to me that the supreme controller of all things had punished so many children merely for being born in the wrong century. I also wondered exactly how and why “the Lord intervened” to prevent me from undergoing the transfusions needed by the other children in the burn unit.
I had certainly never seen God and possessed no proof of his miraculous work, although I did know my doctors and witnessed their efforts to rehabilitate my arm. In the end, I grew to equate the positive influences of logic and science with the most practical way to live. I decided to cast out from my daily thoughts the possibility of something beyond the scope of investigation; I concentrate only on forming my own personal values galvanized by experience. Even as an adult, I refuse to make conclusions about the inconclusive or to pretend that I understand the incomprehensible. No person can claim to empirically do so in a world where we rely solely on what our senses perceive. So, I chose not to place faith in the ineffable, but rather to abide in the present, in the concrete, and in the scientific reasoning that truly saved me.

In addition to my indelible memories of attempting to make sense of my burn, my parents’ tolerant attitudes encouraged my commitment to reason and individual integrity. Due to horrifying contact with religion in their early lives, my parents sense the importance of allowing me to choose my own path of belief. My father, raised Catholic, had attended a parochial school where the nuns who served as teachers used physical violence against him and, in one instance, forced him to beat himself. My mother suffered under the yoke of an oppressive fundamentalist Christian sect. Thus, when raising me, my parents never pushed me to follow any religion.

Instead, they told me that I should act in such a way that conformed to my personal morals, whether they should adhere to a particular denomination or not.

The freedom offered to me by my supportive parents catalyzed my desire to live unburdened by the commandments of others or the illusory search for that which cannot be grasped. Although I do not impugn religion or its positive influence in many people’s lives, I find that subscription to a particular spirituality often leads people to unhealthy extremes. While I understand that belief does not inextricably constitute fanaticism, I still observe that following a predetermined set of ideas, whether they come from the Bible, the Koran, or any text, stifles individuality and personal probity.

In examining the lives of my parents, I recognized they have both found happiness and fulfillment in their current circumstances once they detached themselves from organized religion. Similarly, as I matured, I interrogated the world around me for the shred of evidence that supports the spiritual avowals of any faith: I failed to find any. Yet, I cannot conclusively answer that God does not exist. Instead of dwelling on this controversy, I accept the here and now and seek the answers I need to live in the world around me. For instance, I eschew any institution or the world of any alleged deity that pretends to instruct me about my role as a woman, or how to feel about myself. I embrace my identity and my ambitions free from the constraints of any doctrine. As a proud agnostic, I avail myself of the personal freedom encouraged by my parents.

Growing up in a small, sometimes suffocating Vermont town has strengthened my resolve to maintain my objectivity, keep my mind open, and avoid the blinding effects of religious doctrine. When I moved to the Green Mountain State from Philadelphia, one of the first representatives of the village to knock on our door invited us to take part in Christian Sunday services at the local church. However, when my parents politely informed this member of the church council that our family did not plan to attend, we instantly felt a wave of resentment from the community. Somehow, the fact that my parents and I lived in the town, paid our taxes, and contributed to local business paled in comparison to our choice to live according to our individual ethics rather than in agreement with the collective beliefs of the congregation.

Tensions intensified when I attended the village elementary school and discovered that the church councilor who first confronted my parents would be teaching my fourth-grade class. During the half-year I spent in her class, I felt as though she often considered me an outsider and expressed her hostility to the differences that set me apart from other children. For example, when I told her that I had already learned the material in a particular lesson, she banished me from the homeroom. She also criticized me and punished me more harshly than the other students. Ultimately, my parents enrolled me in another school in order to protect me from such discrimination that left a lasting impression in my life.

Facing prejudice and anger from religious members of my community opened my eyes to how dogma unfounded in reason breeds animosity and discontent. Faith, despite its ability to motivate positive achievement, also leads people to become rigid and quashes their motivation to understand the positions of others. Through assuming that one knows for certain the nature and preferences of God, one closes oneself off from all other ways of life. Thus, several religiously conservative residents of my town who feel that they obey the commandments of the Lord view all dissenters, no matter how peaceful or moral, as sinners and outcasts. I and my family witnessed the destructive impact of a narrow-minded religious society. Looking back on the injustice of the situation, I vowed never to shun tolerance or presume to know the only “right” way to live. After all, I do not negatively generalize religion; many people make the educated choice to abide by a system of spiritual values that conforms to their personal opinions. I respect the choices of many to follow a particular doctrine just as “Love thy neighbor.” Nevertheless, I cannot reconcile unthinking belief in God or what is assumed to be his “teachings” with my ideal of a functional, liberated community. Out of the ashes of my hurtful interactions with discrimination in my community, I cultivate reason, prudence and acceptance of others through agnosticism.

My choice to lead an agnostic life founded on reason has fueled my self-reliance, enriched my mind, and fostered balance and tolerance in my interactions with the world around me. As a result of many years of struggling to make meaning out of my physically and psychologically scarring injury, I freed myself from disorienting assumptions about God’s will and instead embraced science and logic. Similarly, my parents’ broadmindedness gave me the strength to distance myself from the religious pressures in today’s society and follow my own values.

In the face of the discrimination within my small, conservative Vermont town, I solidified my resolve to never fall prey to the influence of blind faith or to engage in the irractional closed-mindedness that religion frequently engenders. These personal experiences deeply impacted my identity. By choosing to examine the world through the lens of empiricism, I now feel liberated to reach my own conclusions. I have the strength to recognize what I cannot know and to focus on that which I can understand and control. Forged in the pain and confusion of my youth, my dedication to agnosticism motivates me to abide in the present and fosters integrity and fulfillment.

When I reflect upon the literal Greek meaning of the word agnostic, “one without knowledge,” this etymology strikes me with irony. In my experience, cutting loose any assumptions about the existence or non-existence of God ushered me into a new perspective of empirical wisdom and self-discovery. I study, I give to charity, I advocate free expression, I believe in equality of opportunity and individual rights, all as a result of my own convictions. However, most importantly, I engage in these activities as a result of my own free will rather than out of guilt, fear of punishment, obedience, or assumption.

I consider my life an experiment: I avoid what harms me and pursue all that fosters and inspires me. In this way, being an agnostic has empowered me and provided the key to actively controlling my life and seeing through to who I really am.
I cannot reasonably know for certain that God exists. However, I do know that I exist and I intend to fully exercise the right to forge my own principles and live logically, freely and sincerely.

Nora Fiore, a sophomore at Middlebury College, plans to major in French because of her great love of literary and linguistic analysis. She also takes a keen interest in music and has sung operatic roles with the Lake George Opera and the Opera Company of Middlebury and recently served as a directorial assistant during her internship with Hubbard Hall Opera Company. She also enjoys tutoring middle and high school students at her former high school, Long Trail School, and can occasionally be seen performing as a clown, making balloon animals at local county fairs.

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