College Essay Contest Honorable Mention Excerpts (March 2003)

My world view went through profoud changes about five years ago. Before then I was a traditional Catholic. Then, after college, not wanting to make use of my biochemistry degree, I served in two vounteer programs committed to youth education and cross-cultural understanding. The first was a year in the economically depressed, bible-thumping backwoods of Mississippi; the second in affluent, intellectual western Germany. Although both programs were partially sponsored by the Catholic Church and I was living and working with priests and nuns, my beliefs were constantly being challenged, and before my service was up religion had completely lost its hold over me. I think my parents and their church friends prefer to believe that I did not make this decision freely, but that I was under the influence of evil forces–a.k.a. “those radical European priests.” Nobody has ever asked me how it happened, so I had not really tried to understand it, until recently. The topic came up during some email exchanges I had with a former fellow volunteer. We had secrets to share: she announced her engagement to the Catholic priest who directed our program, while I admitted that I had become an atheist.

So, how did this change happen? Was it the “bad” influence of the young Jesuit seminarian who laughed at belief in the literal existence of evil? Or the feminist nuns that I saw running their own rural parishes better than any priest? Or was it from years of dating a secular intellectual? I consider these among many positive influences that led me to freedom from religion, but I think I can best summarize my motivation as follows: I had expectations about how God should operate, and eventually I had to admit that these assumptions did not add up with the real world.

. . . All the confusion and contradiction that exist among people who are supposedly close to God is the result of having no objective proof of supernatural phenomena and no divine guidance. There does not seem to be anyone at the helm. If this is the case, then the belief in divine guidance seems very dangerous. It allows people to put blind trust in their leaders, be uncritical, judge others as evil or unacceptable, or allows people to avoid responsibility for their acts and decisions. Perhaps this gets to the heart of why religion is so popular. Decisions can be hard to make and what better way to make a decision than with the help of an omniscient being–how can you go wrong? Even better if the decisions are already made for you, for example, which candidate to elect for president or which issues or values should be important to you.

There was a time when I thought that being a non-believer meant giving up morals and the meaning of life. But now that I am free of religion, I am learning that I have to rely on my personal experiences and constant self-evaluation to decide what is important and meaningful in life. Blind faith has been replaced with greater awareness of the world around me and a greater sense of responsibility for the consequences of my opinions and actions. I find it unfortunate that the majority of people go through life without this experience.

“I am an M.A. student of linguistics at the University of Colorado. My main interests are foreign language and cross-cultural understanding. I am currently studying Japanese language and culture.”

The Dilemma of the Christian Apologist

By Richard Spencer

“What happened?” The previous question is one that I have been asked a countless number of times since my “deconversion” from Christianity to atheism. Like many questions Christians ask, the question is a telling one. As my family and friends search for a reason for my departure from faith, they all want some kind of scapegoat upon which to place the blame for my “falling away.” For my family and friends to admit that I may have good reason for questioning Christianity, and consequently leaving it, would be cause for them to critically evaluate their own beliefs. However, the task of measuring the value of one’s faith is unfortunately a task that too many shy away from. Consequently, it is very difficult for my family and friends to realize that the scapegoat they’re searching for is the simple truth that over three years of bible school, I studied Christianity intensely and found it lacking. To realize that fact would be to admit that I may have good reason for my decisions, and if that is so, then they fear following in my footsteps. We see then that fear of the truth is one of the first things we must rid ourselves of in order to find it.

. . . Faith is belief without reason. Quite simply, if a belief is held with reason, then it is believed by reason and cannot be held by faith. Therefore, any belief truly held by faith is either supported by no reason or by necessarily insufficient reason. Since the belief in god is fundamental to all of Christianity, in order for Christianity to be rational, belief in god must also be shown to be rational. However, Christianity teaches that faith is necessary to not only please god, but to even believe in god. Therefore, Christianity inadvertently admits from the very beginning that its fundamental belief is one that must be accepted without reason. The result is a system of beliefs based on an irrational belief. The Christian apologist then, in attempting to prove anything about Christianity, is forced to attempt to rationally justify that which is inherently and admittedly irrational.

. . . The truth has never hurt anyone. What hurts us are the lies that we allow ourselves to believe. Therefore, we must realize that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from an honest pursuit of the truth. By removing my personal bias toward what I was raised to believe and approaching the world with a respect for the facts of reality, I simply came to the conclusion that any religion claiming to have the truth is not only wrong, but also fraudulent. It took a painful release of my pride, but in the end I admitted my error and began to align my beliefs with that which seems most rational. Looking back, I see that I have left nothing behind but a conglomeration of superstitions, myths and pseudo-intellectual elitism. In the end, I have chosen to reject religion because I cannot doubt that to be led by faith is to be misled.

“I began studying at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., where I stayed through the spring semester of 2002. My plans were to graduate with a degree in pastoral ministry and become the pastor of a church. I ended up taking bible and theology classes to the exclusion of my pastoral ministry requirements, although I never made the change in majors official with the school. During my last year at Lee, my years of studying Christianity culminated in my determining it to be untrue. I have now transferred to Georgia State University where I will major in psychology. Had I stayed at Lee, I would be classified next semester as a senior. However, with my transfer credits, I am a junior at GSU.

“My interests include movies (Fletch, Memento), reading (Fletch novels, freethought-oriented books), music (Mineral, Hopesfall), spending time with my friends, and both watching and performing concerts.

“Well . . . I Was Raised Catholic”

By Dean Barry

My wedding ceremony made me rethink the whole idea of religion. My wife was also raised Catholic and so at first it seemed natural to follow tradition and get married in the church. We did go to a priest and sign up to get married with his blessing.Throughout the meeting, though, we found ourselves lying. Lying about the fact that we lived together (sex before marriage if you’re Catholic–a big no-no); that we wouldn’t use birth control (we already were); and that we would accept as many children as we were granted (we had already decided that two children seemed like a good plan).

We left that meeting in a daze, or maybe it was a fury–I’m not sure. It was very confusing. We didn’t want to begin our marriage on a foundation of lies. Why did we need this guy’s “blessing” anyway? We had already spent two years living together and knew that we had something special and that this was what we wanted for the rest of our lives.

My wife was feeling frustrated with many of the rules of the Catholic religion concerning women–particularly that women are seen as second to men, and of the ignorance toward basic women’s health needs like birth control, and of the control the church exerts over a woman’s decision about her body and abortion. All of these unanswered questions led us to end up getting married at a beautiful park with an entertaining Justice of the Peace. Everyone who came to our wedding had a wonderful time, and more importantly, we felt right in beginning our married life together outside the church. Nearly three years later, we are happier than ever and have not been back to the church since the day we began to question our religion in the first place.

Life is easier when you don’t follow religion. There are a lot less things to feel guilty about and a lot more things to enjoy and be happy about. For example, we can feel confident about our decision to limit the number of children we have. We are no longer sitting on a hard wooden bench for an hour each Sunday morning listening to a man who has taken a vow of celibacy, telling us why birth control is wrong.

Dean Barry is a 28-year-old college junior. He returned to school full-time in January 2002, after being laid off from his job as an aerospace inspector as a result of the industry downsizing after the events of September 11. He graduated from Asnuntuck Community College on May 31, 2002, with an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. He will continue his education full-time at Westfield State College in Westfield, Massachusetts. He plans to double major in American history and secondary education so he can become a high-school history teacher.

An Obsolete Madness

By Jeanne Petty

Perhaps religion has been, in the past, a necessary human “madness.” Mental illness can be caused by circumstances which are awful enough to make a person retreat from the “real” world into a safer, delusional world. This is the mind’s attempt to assert control over uncontrollable circumstances and to subvert the pain of the real world. Religious belief operates upon the same principle.

Religion is a cultural tool for dealing with death. Humans may be the only animals to find themselves in the peculiar circumstance of knowing that they exist as individuals, and being intelligent enough to wonder about the nature of that existence, while knowing also that they will die. Our egos are so well-developed that, naturally, they fight like hell against ceasing to exist. Our consciousness would do anything to preserve itself, and if someone believes that saying 50 “Hail Mary’s” or strapping a bomb to their back will achieve that purpose, then of course they will do it.

People often turn to religion in an attempt to deal with the death of a loved one, unbearable living circumstances, or their own looming mortality. . . . It would be a false happiness, like taking Prozac for the rest of my life, and I would realize that sooner or later.

. . . Another reason why I reject religion is that the religious frequently infringe upon the rights of others in the name of their god. The most horrific examples of this are, of course, terrorism, genocide, and war. How ridiculous to kill over religion. I once heard a comedian say that “Going to war over religion is like going to war over who has the best imaginary friend.” How true. It’s crazy that in these modern times people would kill each other over something so intangible and unverifiable.

“I am a junior in painting at the School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. My interests include philosophy, travel, writing, photography, and reading.”

Jesus Christ!

By T’ere Pagaduan

It is absolute madness, celebrating a birthday in a pre-school classroom. Between the frenzy of fielding dangerous projectile party hats and guarding the heavily frosted cake from probing little fingers, it would have been easy to miss the fact that one little scholar was not joining in the festivities. Yet, I spotted him, across the room, idly fiddling with a pile of Legos. What’s he doing, I wondered. Time out, maybe? I asked one of the other teacher’s aides what he was being punished for. Nothing, she says.
“He can’t participate in birthdays, mother’s orders. It’s against his religion.”

I was floored–and more than a little annoyed. I decided to take the poor kid outside to play. I suspected he did not want to suffer through watching his classmates scarf down cake he couldn’t eat and play with party favors he couldn’t have.
Against their religion. He was four years ago, it wasn’t against his anything. All he knew was that his buddies were having a party and he was outside, alone. I watched him amble about the playground and wondered, What do his parents think God has against birthday parties, anyway? I chalked it up to just another one of those ridiculous rules drawn up by some freak who thinks he’s the voice of God and imposed on the dim-witted through religion.

Later, his parents came to pick him up and take him home. The lead teacher informed his mother that we had celebrated a birthday party today and he had spent the time outside.

“Thank you for taking him out,” she said to me.

“He wasn’t too happy about it,” I told her stiffly.

“He’ll get used to it,” she laughs. She really doesn’t get it.

As they walk out of the classroom, hand in hand, I am relieved to know that they aren’t Catholic. At least the poor kind will never be an altar boy.

T’ere Healoha Pagaduan is a student at the Universtiy of Hawaii’s Kapiolani Community College. She has 42 credit hours completed towards her AS in Paralegal. She plans to attain her BA and go on to law school.

Held Captive By Choice

By Susie Cosier

My definition of religion is that it is a form of voluntary bondage. . . .

Religion cannot exist without faith, like a school can’t exist without pupils. When a person can’t think freely, question the credibility of a statement, be open to opposing views, and make informed decisions, then that person remains captive in their beliefs.
. . . Being brought up with three different religions, Animism and Muslim from my African nanny, and Christianity from the British boarding school I attended, I have observed that these three religions are quite similar. They are all extremely rigid in their beliefs, causing needless suffering, promoting inequality with opposing views of faith, and restricting behaviors with severe punishment, depending on what is deemed unacceptable by each group.

. . . In West Africa, where I grew up with my African nanny, little girls between the ages of five and eight would be taken into the swamp for a horrifying ceremony. They would be restrained on a large rock while the Sorcerer cut off the clitoris with a sharp instrument. The Muslims believe that it gives a woman less desire for sex, and, therefore, makes her less promiscuous. I accepted my circumcision just like all the other little girls, but still wondered why such a painful, terrifying ordeal was believed to purify me and make me more desirable to men.

When I was five years old, I was sent to a British boarding school. Through the degradation of being labeled a “heathen,” and receiving severe punishments for innocent mistakes, I found that this religion caused suffering, too. During the nine years I lived there, I saw what Christianity was like, according to my teachers, who hatefully judged the African religions, had a finality of thought that promoted their culture, and used force to form my mind.

Why consent to bondage of the mind and body, without question, when there is in each human the capability of reason and an immense source of intelligence. . . . Through experience one learns, but through the power of choice, one determines one’s destiny.

“I was born in Gambia, West Africa, to parents who gave me to an African woman for nursing and care. I now consider her as my mother. My American father was in the Peace Corps and my German mother was a nurse. I grew up with my nanny in her village for five years, before I was sent to a British boarding school. I stayed at the school in Senegal, West Africa, for nine years, and then arrived here, in America, to go to high school in Missouri. After high school, I moved to Northern Michigan to attend North Central Michigan College. I am a second semester sophomore, majoring in Social Work with a minor in Art. My interests are in culture, language, and art (drawing, clay sculpting, and writing). My sports interests include running, bicycling, and hiking. I volunteer to help with children at a daycare and babysit for friends. I am employed full-time and attend school full-time.”

If They Knew Then What Some of Us Know Now

By Greg Foster

The grandest and most circumspect claim staked by the world’s religions is the possession of knowledge otherwise unknowable to humankind. This claim of divine inspiration is the keystone of religious doctrine, and thus offers itself as the optimal focal point for critical scrutiny. If the central tenets of religious doctrine can be shown to have human origins or influences, the claim of divine inspiration is suspect and the entirety of its content is called into question.

Critical review of religions past and present reveals the belief in an afterlife and some form of creation myth as the common threads from which the worldview of its believers is woven. Projecting oneself into the mindset of the earliest modern humans can reveal insights as to how and why both became ubiquitous fixtures of religion, by way of their being nothing more than artifacts of human cognition. In doing so, the central tenets of religion can be seen as self-fulfilling prophesies of the human condition, rather than sanctimonious bequeathals from the almighty. . . .

Consider how near-death experiences continue to tantalize the irrational with prospects of an afterlife, in spite of neurological explanations to the contrary. People accept science when they turn on their television or microwave oven, but allow it to be superceded by faith when it comes to spiritual matters. If such beliefs can persevere in today’s informed world, imagine how near-death experiences and dreams of the deceased would have affected people before the age of reason. . . .

While the promise of an idyllic afterlife is enticing and the prospect of eternal damnation is undeniably grim, I see no evidence of divinity within any of the world’s religions to support these claims. To the contrary, there is growing evidence supporting the notion of humankind’s propensity for religious belief being nothing more than an attribute of human cognition. Recognition of purely human vectors driving religious adherence throughout the ages makes the act of casting a minority vote all the more easy. In the end, I am no more impelled to avow myself to a religion than I am to join an organization whose platform I do not believe in. If the end of life marks the beginning of eternal nothingness, then so be it.

“I am currently in the first year of a joint MS degree in Marine Biology and Coastal Zone Management at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, and I plan to continue my studies to the Ph.D. level. My academy and professional goals lie in the field of coral reef restoration. My undergraduate degree was in Chemical Engineering, so this one-eighty to the life sciences could be considered a form of environmental penance, although it goes much deeper than that. After several years in the petrochemical industry, shoulder to shoulder with engineers whose religious beliefs blinded them to the science unfolding before their eyes, I decided my one shot at life would be better spent elsewhere. By the way, my personnel file reflects my outspokenness as a freethinker, surprisingly a very undesirable trait in today’s corporate America. My major interests, on the basis of time allocation, include scuba diving and instruction, nature photography, science, anthropology, and natural history.”

“Simply an Individual”

By Kristina da Fonseca

Every day I am grateful for the fact that I questioned Catholicism as a teenager, because the desire for reason and fairness has provided me with more options and has allowed me to never have to question my love and acceptance of my [gay] brother. The indoctrination of children into that religion only serves to brainwash a new generation of unquestioning contributors. Religion is rarely used for the purposes it claims. Instead of being accepting, it is often exclusionary; instead of being loving, it is often hateful; and instead of being giving, it is often greedy.

As an agnostic, I am afforded the freedom to actively reason out my morality. I can make decisions based on beliefs I have created on my own instead of relying on what others tell me I should do. I can live each day knowing that I can be a good person without depending on an old book or a man who spends his lifetime judging others. I can follow my heart instead of a leader. I can stand up against the sexism, classism, racism and homophobia of many organizations, including churches. I can actively question why heterosexuality, marriage, submission and uniformity are considered by many to be the “right” way.

My rejection of religion may be seen by many as a fault, but I consider my decision to reject religion a positive one. I have felt more fulfilled and free than I would have had I remained a Catholic. I am extremely proud of my unwillingness to be pressured into conformity.

“I entered my senior year at Smith College last fall. I am majoring in both Government and Portugese-Brazilian Studies. I am President of the Lusi-Brazilian Club and will be a member of both Smith Feminists Unite and Smith Labor Action Coalition. Last summer I continued my employment with my local state Senator and also interned for the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. I am very much interested in feminist issues and hope to continue my activism throughout my life. I plan on attending law school and hope to use my law degree to change the laws to help underprivileged people navigate the laws already in place. I believe that everyone has a right to be treated fairly and equally under the law and in everyday life and I plan on working to making that more of a reality.”

Tools of Hope, Tools of Fear

By Nate Hertweck

From my first memories to this very moment, my most intrinsic instincts have been against the institutions of religion. I can vividly remember playing with my best friend on the playground one carefree day in second grade and hearing him tell me that when the caravan returns to pick up all the good people and take them to heaven that I would be left behind because I did not attend church. Initially, I was somewhat frightened, but feeling confident of my instincts I knew this wasn’t the truth about the world that I was only beginning to observe and explore.

About ten years and several blemishing religious experiences later, I began to take greater interest in learning and contemplating religion, philosophy, and history. I have since read such works as those by the great revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, the brilliantly audacious German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, and even the Old and New Testaments, and I see this as only a beginning to my inquiries. Not only have my findings in these readings been consistent with the values of my heart, but also I have been repeatedly surprised and deeply saddened by the false reasoning, the manipulation, and the harm done by religion both throughout history and today in our present societies. I feel the worst of religion’s shortcomings is its condemnation of life, its implementation of fear, and its imperialism of thought.

My very own grandmother once told me, regarding her faith, that when she dies, if that were the end of her existence she would be devastatingly disappointed. The functional selling point of religion is to secure an afterlife for its believers. This idea is packaged and sold as “hope” in exchange for the financial and numerical support of churches or other places of worship. By definition, hope, especially that of a perfect afterlife, vastly exceeds any success, pleasure, accomplishment, happines, or love that can be attained in the reality of this current life. By creating the idea of another perfect world, religion condemns the world we inhabit as always falling short. . . .

Unfortunately, the consequences of condemning life through the superstition of religion can be much more severe than the simple lack of perspective. Now more than ever, the world is seeing religious believers destroy their own lives and the lives of others all because of unfounded faith in the afterlife. The tragic cases of cult mass suicides and suicide bombers would have never taken place if it weren’t for the religious beliefs of the perpetrators. The only reason these people take lives in order to become martyrs for their cause is that they believe in an afterlife that is preferable and promised by their respective religion. . . . The overtly religious acts of terrorists and cult members are also symptoms of this kind of life where hope serves only to degrade reality and justify death.

Perhaps the greatest triumph over the detriment of organized religion is self-confidence. Likewise, the use of fear as a mind controller is probably organized religion’s most heinous crime. . . . Children who are raised to fear their parents and their God only learn one way to make choices: out of fear. In my experience, nothing holds a person back from pursuing dreams more than the fear that is instilled in him or her at a young, impressionable age. Nothing I have ever seen promotes fear more than religion and nothing has been more invigorating in my life than being free from it.

“I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am twenty years old and in my third year at Middle Tennessee State University, where I am majoring in the Recording Industry with an emphasis on Production and Technology. Basically, I’m learning how to be an audio engineer. Someday I hope to be a freelance record producer with a home studio. My hobbies and interests include songwriting, listening to music, reading, working with kids, and traveling. I’m very close to my parents, my sister, and my extended family.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation