From Churchgoer to Atheism Promoter: Chanelle Ria Bessette

Second Place — High School Essay Contest

Chanelle was awarded a $1,000 cash scholarship from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for her second-place entry.

By Chanelle Ria Bessette

It has only been four years since I last attended church as a believer. My family and I had practically made a career of being nomadic Presbyterians, traveling from church to church, switching it up every few years, constantly on the move after each church we attended ended up destroying itself from the inside out. The houses of worship we frequented were never the kind that had long-standing buildings and ancient pastors; quite often we ended up singing the praises of God in run-down elementary schools and other people’s houses, using cafeterias and living rooms as makeshift cathedrals. Perhaps this lack of a solid structure is what made my conversion from Christian to atheist so easy: I always felt like I was getting mixed signals from priests and hymns and youth leaders and the bible itself. Some of my religious advisers implied that evolution was true and that God’s plan was what made it legitimate. Others firmly articulated that creationism was The Truth and all those worthless middle school biology teachers had the theory of organisms changing from their basic forms over a period of millions of years to adapt to their environment completely wrong. I remember being fully prepared to combat such teachers with all my churchgoing, ready-made arguments sitting in my head. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to use them, because everything my sixth-grade biology teacher said made much more sense to me than anything my current pastor had taught me. Over the next couple of years, the corruption of church leaders, the frustration with catty church wives, the absence of honesty, and the utter lack of cohesion in argument became too much for my family and me. We left church and never went back.

My first contact with the idea of evolution and using the scientific method as an explanation for the universe turned me off to religion. Unfortun­ately, there are children in the United States who are not lucky enough to have such a segue into rational thought because their local schools consider creationism and evolution to be two sides of the same coin: equal explanations for the beginning of life and all of its mysteries, and therefore required to be taught in school. Even I remember hearing the disclaimer before each lesson on evolution: “Now, this is what some people think. We aren’t forcing you to believe anything.”

Darwin’s effect on America and its religious citizens grows stronger with every research paper, documentary, school club, university course and Web­site created in the name of evolution and rational thought. The grip of creationism on schools has been loosened slightly since the early 20th century by the backlash against such cases as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Church and state are more like next door neighbors as opposed to roommates, but the journey of a nation with a government free from religion is not over; we must take further steps to promote logic, science, reason and passion in the name of humanism and all freethinkers.

The ultimate danger of teaching creationism in schools is that naive children trust in the words of their teachers, that creationism does indeed provide proof of the origins of life and that it does so with the equal footing of scientific theory. Not only is the doctrine of creationism full of contradictions regarding the time line, growth, and physical possibilities of long-term development, it leaves no room whatsoever for new theories or thoughts. Whereas the scientific method has built-in self-correction (which includes drafting and revising hypotheses as new evidence presents itself), creationism’s answer is to either ignore new evidence or work it into the general biblical canon as a demonstration of God’s power. There is no room for new answers when one is working with a text that is nearly 2,000 years old; the perpetuation of such ignorance damages future generations. In addition, modern-day America puts great stock in political correctness: in an effort to curb persecution, citizens are advised to accept others for their beliefs no matter now ridiculous those beliefs may be. Even asking a person to answer questions about their beliefs is considered politically incorrect; answers become heated and defensive. On many occasions I’ve questioned my religious friends about their notions that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, the impossibility of certain biblical miracles, and the wrath of a murderous, jealous God, only to have them reply, irritated, “Look, it’s just what I believe, okay?”

The first step to overcoming mass ignorance is to simply question the loopholes in logic, the lack of continuity and the fallacious arguments in the supposed science and reason of the bible. Once people begin to question the belief structure into which they invest time and money, they begin to seek answers beyond church, just as I did.

This is where the atheist community can reach out and do the most good. When a religious man or woman starts to consider leaving the church behind, the road ahead can seem incredibly lonely and desolate. After all, most atheists don’t convene on a particular day of the week to hear buttery, pithy statements about the meaning of life and enjoy refreshments afterwards. We don’t have after-service picnics or night­time bible study groups. Church­es are strongly connected to family, and losing church can sometimes mean losing one’s ties to family as well. Therefore, a strong community outreach among nonbelievers makes the world seem less solitary.

Atheist literature, both the consumption and creation of, builds a base of answers for those seeking out the toughest questions. Atheist clubs, organizations, conventions, lectures and retreats make a world without God seem less uncertain.

A lack of rational thought only hinders societal progress. When all other explanations fail, creationists explain that faith alone is the answer to the hardest questions, and the questioning a person’s faith oppresses them. But the truth will prevail, even if it takes centuries more to eradicate a repressive structure like religion. We can have a great hope for the future because we live in a time that can accurately assess the damaging effects of religion on scientific progress, terrorism, women’s rights and societal well-being. Charity and good intentions are not exclusive to religious communities, and we can learn from Albert Einstein, who said,

“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” A world free of religious superstition is one I hope to live in someday. Only by advancing freethinking can we make such a world a reality.

Writes Chanelle: “I intend to attend the University of Nevada–Reno this fall as a member of the school’s Honors Program and an English literature major. My interests include competitive speech and debate, journalism, reading, writing, painting, discussing philosophy, promoting vegetarianism, promoting atheism and analyzing films.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation