Honorable Mentions — Students Reject Religion

Below are excerpts of seven essays on being a freethinker which were deemed honorable mentions” in FFRF’s 2006 essay competition for college students. Each of these students received $100 in a cash scholarship.

FFRF awarded a total of $4,100 to college students in its 2006 competition. Essays of major 2006 college winners were published in October 2006.

Journey Through Freedom of Thought

By Shane Horn

I remember rather vividly the day I lost religion. At 14 years of age, I had been setting aside an hour a night to read the New Testament. Attempting to absorb the Gospels is not a unique ambition in the United States–Christianity is the dominant religion by a runaway margin–but this had been my routine for a year or so. . . .

I finished the chapter, slammed shut the oversized book with an audible thud and–for reasons I still cannot explain–hesitated before assuming my nightly prayers. I started to think of Japan. My father had lived there for nearly a decade while serving in the military, taking strongly to the culture and language as he studied martial arts with vigor. He had resided in a Buddhist temple for some time and often talked of his experiences.

I suddenly pictured myself as a Japanese boy. In my mind’s eye, I realized that the “Japanese-me” would be as stringently Buddhist as the “American-me” had become steadfastly Christian. I would read ancient scrolls of wisdom with nightly diligence and chime bells beside ornately decorated shrines prior to retiring to my futon.

I slowly pulled my imagination away from Japan, picturing an expansive globe of such individualistic religious communities. The image was dizzying. How (and who) was I to declare which view was correct? If I were born and raised in certain regions of the Middle East, would I hold Islam as dear to my heart? Would I be Hindu if raised in parts of India? Would I love my religion so much that I would want to share it with the world, converting nonbelievers as I had been prompted to do with Christianity?

This thought process was the seedling to my atheism. . . .

The liberation that comes from being free of religious dogma–of having both feet planted firmly in the here and now–may not come easily to some, but I have found it particularly comforting.

Shane Horn, a junior at the University of North Florida, is majoring in social studies education and alternately certifying to teach English, speech, drama, and humanities at the secondary level.

He recently spent six years in the Air Force where, after deploying to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, he proved that there really are “atheists in foxholes.” He met his wife, Yuki, in northern rural Japan, and they just celebrated their second year of marriage. She continues to indulge his many diverse interests–from Aikido study to performing prestidigitation to (secular humanistic) charity and community service work.

Circles of Religious Experience

By Jennifer Driggers

I am a born-and-raised atheist, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My parents never forbade religion, it just wasn’t brought up regularly.

That left my first real encounter with religion until 7th grade. Our final project in social studies was to write a paper in favor of either evolution or creation. Middle ground was expressly forbidden. My 7th-grade class drew battle lines for the last two months of school during the research and writing time that we were given. Strong remnants of those battle lines remained through high school. A priest was invited to speak to us one day, and an anthropologist spoke another day. We broke into groups some days to argue. We were 13-year-olds arguing a pointless discussion that we weren’t yet mature enough to fully understand. One of the most notable things I learned from that experience was that people who really wanted to hold onto their religious beliefs will hold on, no matter how irrational they must become to do so.

Those of us who had opted for a pro-evolution stance were easily labeled, and were persecuted. I never bothered to count how many times during high school I was told that I was going to hell for my lack of religious conviction. A few of us were talking in the bus on a field trip once when a “friend” said that he didn’t care what religion someone was, as long as they believed in God. Jews were fine, Christians like him were fine–anyone, as long as they believed in God. All the other people around me nodded their heads and murmured agreement. I don’t think that I fully realized until then how much of a minority I was in.

During the latter part of my high school career, I began to wonder if Marx wasn’t right: That religion really is the opiate of the masses. People seem to be attracted to religion because it is a “safe” place for them to be. It gives them a community, and a sense of normality as long as they follow its doctrines. For those who choose not to find their own way to lead a positive life, religion seems to offer them a recipe. But I’ve always been bothered by those who claim that people who live without religion cannot, by definition, lead positive, enriching, ethical lives.

Unfortunately, when I mention the fact that I have not become some kind of crazed pathological killer, even though I have never accepted any kind of religion, believers express confusion as to how that is possible. I think it is a little sad that they just follow religion because it is easy, and it is what they are told to do, and they just mimic words, and they can’t think for themselves (in this context at least) enough to have a reply to my rejoinders. Religion is one of society’s ways of keeping people in line if they need a little help and are too lazy to think for themselves. Perhaps a portion of the world’s religious conflicts are based on those people needing to protect what they know as “safe” and “easy,” because they don’t want to have to figure out something new. So they fight.

Jennifer “Jenne” Driggers is a junior in the Physics Department and a member of the College Honors Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. During her sophomore year, she worked as a Resident Advisor in the honors House of the UW Residence Halls. Since the end of her freshman year she has been actively participating in physics research, working full-time her first summer, and part-time during the school year in one of the physics labs at UW looking at the condensed matter casimir effect. She spent the summer after her sophomore year doing research at Caltech, helping to look for gravitational waves. Sometime in life after finishing graduate school, Jennifer would like to live and work on the international space station. She also loves to play squash, go indoor rock climbing, and collect funky sneakers.

From the Outside In

By Caleb Plunkett

Though it may be difficult for Christians to understand, my departure from Christianity did not stem from anger at God, a desire to be immoral, or even from a lack of dedication. Instead, as is the case with many other former Christians, my deconversion was a fairly lengthy process, and actually began during a time at which I was most dedicated to the Christian tradition. . . .

My first questions didn’t really begin as deep, intellectual questions, but raither as an attempt to see from the outside of Christianity inward. I was actually trying to deepen my faith by asking myself, “How can I be a better witness?” In doing so, I began to think of questions which a nonbeliever might ask a believer–questions which might stump me. I figured the more I was prepared for those questions, the more effective I could be as a witness. Since the bible is the core of Christianity and Christianity is nothing without it, I supposed the first and most obvious question would be, “Caleb, why do you believe that the collection of books known as the bible is the inspired Word of God?”

I began to study the formation of the canon, early Christian sects, and the history of Christianity. Rather than deepening my faith (which was my initial goal), I found myself bombarded with questions and began feeling even guiltier about the doubts I was having.

I began not only to see the inconsistencies and nonsensicality of the Christian faith, but also the ironies of the Christian attitude and outlook, and I knew that what had started as an attempt to see from the outside in had actually placed me on the outside for good. I was unable to continue fooling myself and others; I was no longer a Christian.

Though my deconversion, which I compare to being deprogrammed (by reason, in this case) from a brainwashed state, initially left me extremely lonely and almost completely friendless, I have since begun enjoying a new journey. I find time on earth to be more precious than ever, and I feel as though I now have sensible reasons to live life to the fullest, to make a difference in society, and to leave a legacy. I plan to accomplish all of these things now that I am free from the bonds of the Christian faith. And now, more than ever, can I relate to an old-fashioned phrase: “I once was blind, but now I see.”

Caleb Plunkett is currently attending the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., where he is a full-time student entering his senior year as a philosophy major. After graduation this May, he plans to attend law school in order to pursue a career in trial law. “Between classes and on the weekends, I work as an assistant manager at a sports store. In my remaining spare time, I enjoy reading, the performing arts, tennis, golf, spending time with family and friends, and studying.”

Glory Be to the Three-Part Soul: Physical Appetite, Passion, and Reason

By Emily Lorensen

When I started college I enrolled in a philosophy class. The words of Ren Descartes intrigued me. He glorified our ability to reason, to think, to question. His words “Cogito ergo sum,” Latin for “I think, therefore I am,” echoed in my ears. When he was a young adult, he came to the conclusion that everything he knew had been taught from authorities, from adults, and therefore everything was questionable, or even false. Nothing he believed was from his own genuine knowledge. His solution to this was to completely erase everything he knew and start from scratch. Inspired by this idea, I decided to take a similar approach with religion. I would abandon everything that I had been taught about Catholicism and adopt ideologies of my own about God, heaven, and morality based on my studies in philosophy and own meditations.

In that class, I was awakened. Philosophy did not become my “religion,” and Descartes did not become my “Savior.” He only aided my realization of what I truly believed about morality, God, heaven, destiny, and my soul. The class helped me find peace within myself, and my perspective completely changed. The liberal atmosphere of San Francisco State University, and the mix of all the different people and cultures aided in my shift of views. Individuality and diversity became things to celebrate. I realized there was nothing wrong with me for not embracing the religion I had been raised with; there was nothing wrong with me for not embracing a religion at all. I also decided that because each person is unique, everyone has different moral beliefs that are right for him or her and not necessarily right for anyone else. Instead of answering to a church, I was answering to what my conscience told me.

In October, my boyfriend and I drove to Half Moon Bay, fully expecting it to be foggy and cold, but when we got to the beach it was beautiful. The sun was out, it was warm, there was nothing in the sky except seagulls, and the sound of the ocean was music to my ears. As we sat on the beach, I thought about how my change in religious attitude had not damned me to hell, but had actually been one of the better decisions I had made thus far.

Right there, with the warm sand between my toes, my boyfriend next to me, and the waves crashing maybe 13 feet from where we rested, I felt the presence and the beauty of something bigger than me, bigger than all of us. I didn’t need a church, and I didn’t need to identify with a religion; I had nature. To me, the beach was more of a miracle than anything that occurred on the altar.

Emily Lorensen is a sophomore at San Francisco State University. “I love writing and music. I have a strong interest in health and nutrition, and am a strict vegan. I also enjoy subjects in archaeology, theater, photography, and health.”

Oklahoma is OK! . . . Unless You’re an Atheist

By Heather Weaver

My involvement with the Catholic faith and the decline of my belief in a god began when I was in sixth grade at a Catholic grade school. My father, who was my world and best friend, and who never went to church, was diagnosed with lung cancer and given a few months to a few years to live. I was devastated and couldn’t understand how a loving god could take a parent away from a child. I started to explore other religious options and was forced to see a dark side of the people I had always gone to school with. When entering the Thursday mass that we were forced to attend, my classmates would ask me if my hands would burn were I to touch the holy water. I also saw a dark side to some of the teachers at my school. One teacher in particular made a lasting negative impression on me. He was a bit of a fanatic as far as religion was concerned; the kind of man who named all of his children after bible characters and wouldn’t let them celebrate Halloween.

During my eighth-grade year, my father was in full decline and everyone at the school knew it. My teacher had been recruited to teach the religious education classes for the whole school. My little sister was told by this man that our father would be going to hell since he wasn’t a Catholic. She came home crying, afraid that her father would spend eternity in a pit of flames. My mother contacted the school immediately, but no action was taken against this teacher. My dad died when I was 14 years old, before the end of my eighth-grade year.

By the time I entered high school I was a full-fledged atheist. Throughout my religious inquisition after my father was diagnosed, I began to realize how illogical the belief in a god really was. I realized that religion and belief in god were merely modern mythology. The same fervor with which many hold a belief in god today was probably just as strong in people who believed in Zeus and Isis. I saw that the belief in god and religion was merely something used by people to make themselves feel less alone in a world, where their lives would otherwise have no meaning. Most of all, I saw that religion and the belief in god and the devil were control tactics promoted by Christians to keep their subjects under control.

Heather Weaver currently attends the University of Oklahoma where she is studying linguistics and German. “When I’m not encouraging my friends to be more active atheists or protesting things at my school, I like to read and make art and go to concerts. I’m lucky to have a close group of friends who all share my beliefs (or lack thereof). My passion in life is language and I’m determined to learn as many languages as I can.”

Growing in to Atheism: My Views on Morality and Religion

By Sarah Southwick

During my sophomore year in high school, a group of die-hard religious fanatics came to my school illegally to pass out pamphlets professing their perceived moral superiority. It took some time for my anger to subside. I read the pamphlets, and had practiced my rebuttal: How could they tell me that divorce was ruining families when I felt as if a giant weight had been lifted from my shoulders when my parents split? How could they tell me that “homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle that ultimately ends in death” when some of the best people I know are gay? This statement about homosexuality was extremely ambiguous. Death is inevitable, it is not a punishment for a “sinful” lifestyle. Are these people so far removed from reality that they think that teaching kids abstinence actually works? They were promptly kicked off campus, but I am glad that I had this opportunity to examine my own sense of morality, and to differentiate between morality and religious beliefs.

I learned a sense of morality at a young age. It is simple: be honest, and treat people how you would want them to treat you. I did not grow up in a religious home, and was taught that these moral values were important because the only person I have to come to terms with at the end of the day is myself. I am not perfect; no one is. I have made mistakes of course, but I have also watched in complete awe as those who profess morally superior values to my own adhered to none of them. More often than not, these people derived their sense of morality from religion. I am free from religion because I believe and have experienced it to be a hindrance to the kind of morality that I feel all people should share: a morality which values all human life and promotes compassion and peaceful human coexistence.

Religion does not teach people the most important moral values, nor does it provide a good foundation for the values it does promote. When moral values are tied to religious belief, those values are subject to change when that faith is called into question. On a similar note, faith and prayer are not great enough to resolve life’s biggest problems, and I have seen many become lost when their faith no longer gives them a sense of peace. We need to teach people to be human, and to take responsibility for their actions.

In an increasingly small world, a sense of compassion and tolerance should be something that all people can share in common. From my perspective religion stand in the way of this.

Sarah Southwick is currently in her third year at New College of Florida. She is majoring in French and, as components of this degree, studies literature, history, and anthropology. She enjoys singing, has been a runner since high school and enjoys all culinary endeavors. She plans to continue her education after graduation in a field that would allow her go into one of three professions: a teacher, an international lawyer, or a professional chef.

Growing Up an Atheist in the Bible Belt

By Matthew Manley

Both my parents had college educations and I learned a lot about science from them, prompting me to ask such questions of my dad when I was five years old as to what caused the Big Bang. Although science may not ever have all the answers, I took to heart that it glorified proof through experimentation and observation and if found flawed, it sought to correct itself. In direct opposite to this was religious dogma. I was given a copy of an illustrated children’s book of the bible when I was young and read it, but it seemed too far-fetched. In my child’s mind, I wondered why there was no mention of dinosaurs. As I grew older, I wondered why God seemed a very different character between the Old and New Testaments. As I realized the growing number of inconsistencies of the bible and got a better understanding of science, I felt like I could never accept my friends’ faith in Christianity.

I never remember believing in any type of god or an afterlife. As a child, I read stories of ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology with their numerous gods and goddesses. I thought it showed a clear lack of understanding that people today would make fun that thousands of years ago the reigning beliefs in Greece were that lightning came from Zeus or in Egypt that the Sun only rose because of Ra’s chariot. The ancients believed in these deities because they could not explain natural phenomena. I wondered why, with science’s impressive gains in the last several centuries, people still believe in something as illogical as a god to explain the world around us.

My friends in South Carolina did not share my skepticism. They found it preposterous to think that, over several billions of years, humans could have evolved from a single-celled organism. I wondered how they possibly could think that a far more believable answer was that an eternal and all-powerful God would mysteriously create the entire human species in a single day, but purposely leave no direct proof of such that can be accounted for now.

Matthew Halperin Manley was born in Rochester, N.Y., and lived in North and South Carolina before moving to Tennessee in 1999. He graduated from John Overton Comprehensive High School with a Distinguished Scholar Honors Diploma. While there, he participated in the marching band for four years, playing flute and euphonium, and was also involved in winter percussion for two years. His volunteer work includes working at the local public library and the Department of Veterans Affairs Nashville Hospital. His interests include politics, history, current events, space, technology, and music.

He is a third-year student attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in political science and mathematics. Over the 2004-2005 school year, he did undergraduate research with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Cassini-Huygens mission, a spacecraft currently in orbit around Saturn.

Freedom From Religion Foundation