Growing up on the seam between my father’s Muslim family and my mother’s Jewish relatives, I’ve fought to form my own beliefs and opinions. While my parents have never tried to shove their religion down my throat, so to speak, faith still surrounds us.
A collection of smaller daily struggles, rather than one monumental event, have shaped me as a freethinker. I started this journey young. Second grade found me in a heated argument with another student over evolution (“Joe, you don’t have any evidence that God made us out of mud, but there are loads of proof that evolution is real!”)
In fifth grade, I found myself omitting God from the Pledge of Allegiance. In seventh-grade life science, when the theory of evolution was taught as hypothetical, my teacher and I came to the conclusion, after a long discussion, that by denying the substantial evidence verifying evolution (gravity is also “just a theory,” do you deny its existence?), the state was actually giving religion a presence in school.
When, in my 13th year, a clump of friends had bat mitzvahs, I sat in a synagogue for the first time in my memory. Many of my friends denounced the hours of practice and theology forced on them by their parents, and I had no desire to attach myself to Judaism, but watching my friends hold service after party after party after party (way too many parties), I couldn’t help but feel like they were part of some kind of club I was excluded from, despite having Jewish heritage.
At the end of my senior year, I was sitting in a mandatory “nonreligious” baccalaureate service. But even here, not only was God mentioned, but was mostly modified to “your God,” implying that everyone present had one they believed in.
Freedom of and freedom from religion are not the same thing, but in a way they should be. Being free to have any religion or belief system you choose should also include the freedom to choose no religion, and to feel comfortable doing so.
Ayla Yener, 17, graduated from Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y., and lives in Canaan, N.Y. She is enrolled at McGill University in Montreal and is interested in studying linguistics (when she’s not engaged in martial arts, dance or playing the flute).