The students all received $250 awards. Special thanks to John Moe and Dean and Dorea Schramm for underwriting.
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, in the name of humanity, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. 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 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 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 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 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.