Hey teach, look at me now
By Amedee Marchand Martella
Ever since I heard my middle school science teacher say the hand of God was responsible for separating the continents, I knew I was going to be a freethinker who promoted the separation of church and state and the teaching of science in public schools. I wondered how a science teacher could make such a declaration without evidence to support it.
In high school, my expository debate topic was on the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which I chose to illustrate why creationism should not be taught. My coach said if I wanted to do well in competition, I should probably choose a less controversial topic.
I said I wanted to make people think, so I decided to keep my topic on church-state separation and the importance of teaching evolution in public schools. I won local competitions but received low scores in northern Idaho. I made the state finals but lost.
My coach gave me the judges’ feedback. One said the topic was too absurd to be true and that I had made up Pastafarianism to bash religion (even though it’s based on principles of Christianity). I knew my efforts were worth it when I heard an older couple say my presentation was their favorite because it made them think.
One particular teacher was an evangelical Christian. We frequently got into heated debates over religion. The last conversation we had was about faith versus scientific evidence. Another teacher told my class that atheism was a belief system. I explained why it wasn’t and brought him an article just to reinforce my point.
In my digital media class, an assignment was to make a stop-motion video. I made one entitled “Santa versus Jesus: A Race to Determine Who Is Fact and Who Is Fiction.” Concluding there was not definitive evidence for either, I ended with an evolving set of figurines and Darwin coming out of nowhere to win the race. In another class, I wrote and had published a letter to the editor about how “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. My letter sparked debate in the community.
All of my friends are religious. I appreciate the fact they continue to be my friends and are relatively open-minded. They’ve said I’m one of the only freethinkers they’ve ever met. My nonreligious views bewilder them. I strive to make them think critically.
My middle school teacher would be surprised to learn her explanation of the continents motivated me to speak out against the encroachment of religion in society.
Amedee Marchand Martella, 18, Spokane, Wash., is attending the University of Colorado-Boulder to major in evolutionary biology and political science.
Not afraid to speak up
By Jarrett Browne
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m atheist. I’m one of the few people at my school who has no religion, so it can come as a shock to people. They act surprised, as if I had just told them that I had two Bengal tigers guarding my house at night.
One day in government class, my teacher asked for an “adult discussion” about 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist’s effort to get a prayer banner removed from her school. While people were saying how stupid Jessica was, I raised my hand and was recognized.
“Many of you have no idea where this girl is coming from, but I do. I’m atheist, and one of the very few here at Butler. Our school system is horrible about keeping religion out of public schools, and I feel unwelcome here at times. Even if this prayer isn’t directed toward any particular religion, it’s directed toward religion in general and it goes against separation of church and state.”
Many students just stared at me like deer in the headlights. “But it’s not harming anything,” said the girl sitting behind me. “Having a banner in the auditorium isn’t prayer in school! This girl’s being ridiculous!” By now she was standing up and shaking with emotion.
“I agree,” said a guy in the back who was going to Notre Dame on a full-ride athletic scholarship. “If most of the school’s Roman Catholic, they should have this up for the students.”
“But it’s offensive to some students,” I told him. “No, we need it up because it agrees with my religion!” he insisted.
“What makes you better than a couple of atheist teenagers?” I asked. He shut up and didn’t return to the debate.
“I’m with Jarrett now,” a girl said. “Yeah, I don’t think they should keep it up if it makes some students uncomfortable,” said someone else.
“OK, let’s vote,” said our teacher. “How many of you are with Jessica?” My hand shot right up as did a few others. But one shocked me, someone I knew to be very religious and very conservative. I couldn’t believe it.
Even though we were outvoted, I still had an effect on this classroom.
Jarrett Browne, 18, Vandalia, Ohio, is attending Wright State University in Dayton to major in mechanical engineering.
Planting seeds of doubt
By Kaitlin A. Holden
Growing up in the South, religion is one of the most vital aspects of your life. From birth, you are indoctrinated by every adult who raises you. I’m the child and grandchild of ordained ministers. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been taught that betraying “God” is an unforgivable sin. When my parents found out that I was an atheist at age 14, my life took a turn for the worse.
They couldn’t believe it. They tried getting me to read the bible over and over, took me to psychiatrists and sent me to Christian summer camps. I quickly became depressed and thought that nobody loved me. My embarrassed parents wouldn’t let me talk about my views, read books by atheist authors and didn’t care to hear about my life.
I felt worthless but stood my ground. Then I had an epiphany that changed everything. I realized that I was an important person with a purpose. I was kind and passionate and had ideas and knowledge that nobody could ever take away. I seemed to love and support people more than my “Christianly” parents did.
It was then I knew that lack of religion doesn’t make me a bad person. I realized that even if I was considered a heathen, I was proud of myself. I am nonjudgmental, amazed by the wonders of science and the universe and have a thirst for learning that nothing could quench. It was all so beautiful to me.
Soon after, I began to tell anyone who would listen about the restraints of religion — comparing beliefs, pointing out flaws and contradictions in the bible. Although my success was limited, I still found joy planting little seeds of doubt in the minds of the indoctrinated.
Four years later, I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed true to myself and my nonbelief. I look back on my 14-year-old self and smile, knowing I’m in a better place now than I would be within the confines of religion. I taught myself to reason. I shall be a freethinker for life.
Kaitlin Amber Holden, 18, Murrells Inlet, S.C., is attending Winthrop University in Rock Hill to major in premedical biology and political science.
Mission for humanity
By Cheyenne Tessier
My knees were sore. I got down and prayed for wind, joining hands with dirty-faced working men and the long-skirted women. And the wind came.
It was a miracle, I convinced myself, a missionary in a hell-stricken place, the daughter of two devout Christians. Yes, I was blessed.
We were told not to give our food to the starving children because it would start a riot, so we gave them bibles, telling them this is the right way. Do not live with the devils of your ancestors, children. We played and danced.
Then we sat on the air-conditioned bus and ate sandwiches and drank soda, but the children could not drink their bibles. Soon the girls would turn to prostitution to feed themselves, but God was with them, so we gave them bibles as if we offered salvation to a system that was, in the first place, polluted by missionaries.
We didn’t give them work, only scripture. We didn’t heal their water supply, only offered a prayer for their souls. And then we came home, our work done. I hung my Haitian flag above my bed. Many nights I stared at that flag, praising myself as a hero. But doubt is the greatest of infections, and soon I was overcome with questions.
I attended church less and less. I could not think about the evil I had done by starving a community for some faraway god, who didn’t laugh or learn or die of malnourishment.
If there were no heaven and no hell and no God, I wonder if we would share our food and water and shelter instead of our “wisdom.” I wonder if all the love, focused away from the skies and onto humanity, would be enough to eliminate hunger and educate every child to care for our Earth instead of our unreachable skies.
My proudest moment as a freethinker was inviting my former congregation to a benefit I held after the 2010 Haiti earthquake in the name of humanity. I proved that it does not take a zealot or a missionary to change the world, but as Margaret Mead said, “It takes a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”
That night, I gave back to Haiti the sandwiches I had stolen from it.
When I am asked, “Are you doing it with a church?” I quietly reply, “No. I am on a mission, but I am not a missionary.”
Cheyenne Tessier, 18, Hudson, N.H., is enrolled at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to study international affairs and Arabic.
Light bulb in the pews
By Zach Gowan
I was raised by my mom, who never exposed me to a particularly religious environment. As a result, I never really found myself subscribing to any religion. I never really thought about the fact that I wasn’t religious. Put simply, I just wasn’t. However, around seventh and eighth grade, certain events occurred that really brought my attention to religion and its effects in society.
My dad came back into my life in middle school. He and I were never really able to form a relationship before this time. He had gotten himself in order and met a woman whom he soon married. As a result, I would go down to their house and visit every other weekend.
My dad had gotten back into going to church by this point. His wife and her children were religious as well, so all of them went to church. They would bring me along. I didn’t really have a choice. They just made me go. If I ever voiced the fact that I didn’t want to go, I would risk hearing a lecture about how I’d go to Hell if I didn’t participate in their religion. This continued throughout middle school.
My previously religiously apathetic self was dissipating. Now that I was regularly being exposed to religion, I was starting to form opinions of it. And honestly, I didn’t really like it. I completely disagreed with all the things I would hear in the sermons. I couldn’t stand the hate that the preachers would spout about nonbelievers, homosexuals, and so on. On the whole, I just couldn’t understand why people would buy into this stuff.
Eventually, in eighth grade, a particular sermon at church caused my logical faculties to finally kick in (they would improve and enhance over the following years, but this was when reason truly started to play a role in my opinion of religion). It was a sermon about homosexuality and how it’s supposedly a sin. The preacher used an analogy to demonstrate the point. It went a little something like this: You can’t take an electrical plug and plug it into another one. It has to be plugged into a socket. Similarly, a socket can’t receive another socket. It has to receive a plug. Therefore, homosexuality is wrong. Obviously, the plug represents the male reproductive organ, and the socket represents the female reproductive organ. The “logic” here was that if putting a plug into a plug or a socket into a socket is wrong, then the same principle must apply to humans. I instantly saw how fallacious and absurd this was. To use this analogy, you have to assume that the only thing that matters in a relationship is sex, which is an odd assumption for a typically anti-sex group of people to make.
But the absurdity of the argument isn’t what bothered me. The primitive and old-fashioned conclusion (that homosexuals are bad) isn’t what bothered me. It was the fact that everyone in the room blindly bought into the blatantly illogical argument. No one gave it a second thought. They just accepted it because the preacher said it.
This moment was a critical one for me. I would consider myself to have been a budding freethinker at the time, as I was forming my own opinion of religion and its teachings through reason, even if I was just starting out. Looking back on that day, I’m proud of my refusal to accept the preacher’s words at face value. I think religion has its place in society, but I do not like its potential to brainwash people. Fortunately, I was able to escape that brainwashing and from that point on, I can think for myself.
Zach Gowan, 17, was born in Philadelphia and is attending the University of South Carolina in Spartanburg to major in English.
Absolved from unnecessary confusion
By Abigail Dove
“I hope and suspect that you have not moved into unnecessary confusion,” read my grandfather’s letter in troubled script.
I am “blessed” in the statistical sense to have a father, who, despite being a church elder, will agree to read and discuss selections of Richard Dawkins’ writing after only mild coercion, and a mother who volunteers as a Sunday School teacher only out of a profound desire to avoid interaction with the vociferous social conservatives who frequent the adult classes.
I suppose it is fitting that my grandfather’s Presbyterian ministry embraces an idealistic simplification of God as the embodiment of love and not the terrifying entity that his denominational fellows theorize entertains himself by dangling sinners over a flaming abyss.
But despite my grandfather’s remarkable open-mindedness, he was alarmed when my father inadvertently revealed that I, his supposedly pious granddaughter — whom he personally baptized with water he collected from the Jordan River — was not the staunch Christian he anticipated.
When his concerned letter arrived a few weeks later, my parents advised me to downplay the issue for convenience. Couldn’t I, they pleaded, simply feign agreement? Easy for them to say.
The early emergence of my atheism could stunt my relationship with my grandfather. Here I was presented with the perfect gateway to honest, open dialogue. Besides, as a casual skim through the Old Testament will reveal, lying has adverse consequences.
So began our tense correspondence, an ongoing dialogue on belief. In a stream of lengthy letters, he expressed his confusion over why, in my WASP-y world free of creationism, homophobia, sexism and the other oft-targeted shortcomings of religion, I am so opposed to the church.
I desperately tried to articulate that his beloved moderate institutions, though conceivably palatable, enforce the notion of religion as an indispensable component of society, thus shielding fundamentalist faiths from criticism and letting hordes of potentially great future scientists and thinkers receive a life of miseducation under the guise of respect for religious diversity.
He remained steadfast in his belief that Christian education spreads essential virtues. I found myself struggling to find a delicate way to express that my Sunday School experience enlightened me only to new techniques of eye-rolling.
I labored over each letter so as to completely address his questions while remaining both respectful of his life’s work. Amid piles of discarded drafts, I questioned whether it was my place to express even courteous disapproval over this wise, gentle man’s philosophy. Awaiting his responses, I imagined him poring over my tortured writings, insulted and mired in disappointment.
At his funeral, I sat sobbing in a sea of Presbyterian ministers arguing over the mechanics of when, in the biblically unaddressed circumstance of a fatal coma, the soul leaves the body. “Are you the atheist?” demanded one of the many pastors there. “Your grandfather used to read parts of your letters at some of our meetings. It meant so much to him that one of his grandchildren took an interest in discussing the subject.”
In a sense far different from the one my grandfather had in mind, he had absolved me of “unnecessary confusion.” I now know with certainty that no decent individual will see ignominy in freethought or free dialogue.
Abigail Dove, 18, Collegeville, Pa., was valedictorian at Perkiomen Valley High School and is attending Swarthmore College to major in neuroscience and minor in cognitive science.