This is one of several honorable mention" essays in FFRF's 2007 contest for college-bound high school seniors. Mahesh received $100 for his essay.
By Mahesh Murali
Religion is one of the topics most contested by members of the human race. However, almost every religion seems to agree that they are the driving force behind benevolence, compassion and every other "good" sentiment present in a human being. Although organized religion would like to claim responsibility for that rush of moral righteousness we feel when we are faced with a moral dilemma, the intuitive sense of right and wrong in every one of us suggests otherwise.
The biggest paradox between religious morality and morality based on reason is that religious morality appears forced. Can moral decisions taken due to a fear of God's wrath or tenets from a holy book actually be called moral? Unless a person actually reasons through a dilemma and decides to choose the moral high ground due to their own principles and reason, they are only following established rules in order to guarantee a comfortable afterlife. It is a matter of personal gain and instilled values instead of common interest and reasoning specific to the situation.
When I am faced with a decision in which my ethical principles need to be applied, I do not refer to a set of arbitrary rules I learned from a religious text. Instead I apply the common sense solution that I can reason my way to.
Another problem with using religion as a basis for morality is that every religion wants to preserve itself and has a few rules which call for defending one's religion when it is under attack. The blind defense of one's religious beliefs is dangerous because it is not a product of one's own reasoning. This can lead one astray in the name of morality, but reason will always serve to correctly influence one's choices.
This was demonstrated by Professor Antonio Damasio, who conducted a study where it was proven that there was a biological basis for morality. In his experiment he asked a series of questions to two groups of people in relation to a situation where it was necessary to sacrifice one person for the good of many others. While most of the subjects felt some compunction at the thought of wasting an innocent life, subjects whose prefrontal cortex had been impaired felt no qualms about taking the practical route. They did not feel any strong emotions at this action, suggesting that it is an area of one's brain and not the teachings of higher powers that help us make compassionate decisions and feel for people other than oneself.
It's a funny thing how people claim religion instills moral responsibility, ethics and good behavior in us, yet simultaneously it is the same basis for the murders of six million Jews during the Holocaust, the same thing that sprung the violence in the recent wars in Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Caucasus.
The truth is we are scared. We live in a place where we have no idea why we are here, how we got here, when we'll die or much of anything else, for that matter. The world is a terrifying place and no matter how many education systems we set up, ultimately there is nothing to help and guide us through the struggle of life. Out of the many challenges we face during our brief stint on this small planet, death seems to be the most feared, because no one has ever experienced it and shared the knowledge with the rest of society.
It remains a mystery to every one of us and every religion plays most upon this fear to persuade us to join their ranks. So we look to the fictitious character of God as an imaginary friend for support, encouragement, and two invisible open arms for when we are sad and in fear.
We are alone on this earth, and we look to God to fill that gap by telling ourselves that if we "follow the rules" we will go to heaven where we will live in bliss and if we are bad people we will go to hell. The truth is we're not going anywhere, but death is such a scary concept that we don't let ourselves believe it. We get so caught up in our make-believe ideas of heaven and hell that in some religions we are even willing to become suicide bombers to guarantee ourselves and 20 other people of choice a spot in heaven, filled with sex and other desirable things. So much time is spent worrying about what happens after we die that we never stop to think about life today.
To quote John Lennon, "Imagine no religion. Imagine all the people living for today.'' It would be a completely different place. There could be a chance for peace, considering most wars have their roots in religion.
Morality has been seized by religion. The human race's power does not come from our speed or longevity but from our ability to reason. Many assume that religion and morality have a necessary connection, but the basis of morality is essentially just the golden rule: do not do unto others what you would not like to be done unto you. Humans are intelligent individuals and we do not need religion to tell us what makes people happy or what makes people suffer.
There are many ways to get consolation without religion. We do not have to fear that giving up religion will isolate us and eliminate an anchor which keeps us moored to society. Rather we are eliminating the anchor in order to free ourselves of an item which has weighed down our society for countless ages. As Richard Dawkins said, "We can still retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of religions and even participate in rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage."
The time has come for us to stop traveling on the pre-planned routes of the public transportation system of religion and use our own cars to explore the paths of reason and science.
"I was a senior at Montgomery High School in Skillman, N.J., and am attending the University of Pennsylvania to study biomedical engineering and management. I have attended 16 schools in 17 years and have been to every continent except Africa and Antartica. I actively participated in FIRST Robotics and FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America). I was team captain of my Robotics Team and a member of the executive board of our school's FBLA organization. I swam on the varsity team and ran the hurdles on the varsity track and field during the spring."