College essay contest honorable mentions

FFRF awarded each recipient $200. Essays were edited for space.

Intellectual freedom

By Blake Allen

For 12 years, I believed everything I was taught as a young Catholic. I suppose though I always had doubts and was just suppressing them for fear of my eternal soul. Some people will claim that their faith gives them comfort, but I posit that, were it not for the perceived punishment of questioning religious doctrine, there would be a vast increase in the amount of nonbelievers worldwide.

For a brief period of time, I identified as a deist, believing in a greater power that chose to not interfere in the affairs of humankind. This ultimately served as the final stage of my conversion to atheism, a word which I still find inadequate.

Unlike some nonbelievers I know, I do not “wish I could believe.” Like the late, great Christopher Hitchens, I identify as an antitheist, someone who is philosophically opposed to the idea of there being a cosmological overseer of any sort. Such an idea is both offensive and degrading to humanity. To quote Hitchens, “Heaven would be hell for me.” The notion of being forced to exist for eternity, perpetually praising an entity who created me for that very purpose, is deeply troubling.

I first “came out” to my mother during a car trip to the hospital to visit my grandmother, who had had heart surgery. My mother mentioned something about the family’s prayers having helped. I had previously mentioned my deism to her, but she once again probed as to my faith. I told her then that I no longer had any. To her credit, she took it relatively well.

A few days later, my father engaged me in a conversation about my atheism, obviously at my mother’s behest. He expressed what I consider to be perhaps the most troubling argument for faith I had yet encountered. He said to me, “Sometimes, whether you actually believe or not, it’s helpful to look to something bigger to yourself in times of trouble.” Essentially, he was saying that even feigned belief was better than none at all, that pretending to believe in his and my mother’s point of view was better than whole-heartedly believing in an opposing philosophy. I’m not sure if I have ever been more hurt or insulted in my life.

I know that my view of the world hurts both my parents, particularly my mother. She fears for my soul, and I know that her occasional expressions of disapproval of my lack of belief are out of love. Thankfully, things are relatively peaceful on the whole. I am left alone with my view of belief, and I go to Easter and Christmas Masses. It makes Mom happy.

Blake Allen, Houma, La., is a sophomore philosophy major at Louisiana State University, where he holds a 4.0 GPA as an honors student.

No need for a god

By Alexander Andruzzi

I was raised Catholic and was an altar boy from the time I was 8. I was serving as an altar boy at my childhood parish when the priest in 2008 decided to take a little detour from the normal homily. Red-faced and angry, he began a 15-minute tirade about how it was necessary to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket in order to be a good Catholic.

Obama’s health care plan would turn America into an abortion factory, he preached. That moment changed my outlook on religion forever. I knew my history, but I always thought this type of political crossover could never happen in the 21st century.

I wrote a letter to the woman who scheduled altar boys and told her that I wouldn’t be attending church again. The most disgusting part for me was being awakened to the fact that religion hadn’t really moved forward. My idealistic view of an institution which promoted peace, love, charity and all of the other tenets of Christianity that are sold to people, was extremely misguided. I realized that religion hadn’t changed as much as I thought. There certainly is still a guiding goal throughout the Catholic Church and all established religion — power over their members.

Certainly, there are instances where belief in a higher power can have positive effects on the psyche. It can make the status quo easier to accept, for soldiers at war, for example, or people starving in the desert. But I see no need to believe in a higher power or an afterlife. To people who attribute their success to a god, I ask: Doesn’t that take away from the hard work you put into achieving your success?

It’s certainly easy for one religious group to say that collectively they are the chosen ones, but within that group, the inevitable inequality (not just economic) is a product of what, levels of piety? “It’s just God’s plan” is not a good answer. To write off success or misfortune with those words is simplistic and childish.

I was raised on welfare while my single mother was in law school. I went to an inner-city high school. I am the only person from my graduating class to be attending a four-year college. My acceptance was not because of a higher power; it was due to my extremely hard work to achieve a goal I set for myself. People who suggest otherwise are actively insulting me.

People from all walks of life will find reasons to cling to religion. Some aspects of religion can be positive. But in the 21st century, we have a well-defined moral code because we have the ability to think critically about our history and society, not because of religion. Humans deemed certain behaviors such as murder reprehensible and therefore put laws in religious texts forbidding them. Religion did not influence people; people influenced religion.

To cling to any institution that rejects freethought is a disservice to humanity and will only lead to more problems than it solves. The only thing that differentiates a religion from a cult is the number of followers the former has.

Alexander Andruzzi, 22, Wolfeboro, N.H., is majoring in political science in his fourth year at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Truth I have come to know

By Anna Bridge

Every time I heard a Christian yell “Jesus died for our sins,” I reminded myself that they were the ignorant ones and thought of words attributed [perhaps wrongly] to Edgar Allan Poe: “All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry.”

I knew that I should pity them for their blind faith in something that they couldn’t fully comprehend. To be honest, I often found myself nearly raging at them.

Some Sundays, my family and I would go to church, but the next week we would skip and watch football. After a few years of having to suffer through Sunday school, I decided that I was done. My understanding mother never made me go back. She was the driving force behind my decision to call myself an agnostic when I was 13.

It was on the day my great-grandmother Verla died. She was one of the most influential people in my life at the time. “She’s with God now,” I heard family members say. I couldn’t accept that and finally told my entire family, after a huge meal with our distant relatives, that I wasn’t sure God existed.

After about 20 minutes of elaborating on what led me to my conclusion, my father told me to leave. My sister, a newly converted uber-Christian, tried to exorcise me. Since the supper fiasco, I have been unable and unwilling to speak with any family member about religion or anything remotely related to it for fear of recreating the horror that followed my “coming out.”

I have always tried to accommodate other’s beliefs, knowing that my arguments will likely prove fruitless in attempting to dissuade their blind faith. It seems odd to me that no religious person has ever attempted to reciprocate that courtesy.

I feel comfortable knowing that my view of life has physical and historical evidence to support it. When I first started to question the origins of our existence, I’ll admit I was rather hesitant to doubt what I had been taught my whole life.As I got older, and became surer of my mental and emotional faculties, I began to no longer question myself. I remind myself of how far I have come and how I have worked to achieve the confidence and experience I might one day take for granted.

I hope that, one day, the world will come to understand the truth that I have come to know and, in knowing that fact, be more enlightened and free to think in a way that will only further the progress of the human race.

Anna Bridge, 19, was born in Rapid City, S.D., and is majoring in global studies and German at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where she’s minoring in religion “so that I can better understand how the other half lives and to better comprehend the reasoning behind the beliefs of other cultures.”

Outside the box

By Benjamin Carton

I was fortunate to grow up with Catholic parents who made it clear that they would respect any beliefs I chose regarding religion. When I was about 10, my brother took an interest in Buddhism. I’d never had an intense connection to Christianity, but because my parents and everyone I knew at the time was Christian I followed suit.

I vividly remember walking down my street and thinking “What if I had been born to Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish parents? I realized that the only reason I believed in a Christian conception of the world was because I was born to a Christian family in a Christian part of the world. I was ripped out of a particularly formative box.

Years later, I concluded that spiritual questions are outside the grasp of the human intellect. I am not in any position to say whether or not I know a god or any other spiritual phenomenon exist, but I’ve found that studying spiritual traditions has matured and stimulated me intellectually.

I can’t help but see institutionalized religion as a mechanism of social control and security blanket. I’ve also found that an effective approach is to express curiosity about others’ religions by asking about them. Most people appreciate this, and in time ask about my views with an openness to listen, even if they disagree.

While science has disproven the myths of some religions, it hasn’t made religion obsolete as a learning source nor has it illuminated every mystery in the universe. If anything, science continually shows us how little we actually know. I have difficulty articulating this adequately, particularly with atheists, but I strive to show others that assumptions based on current scientific thinking are liable to be disproven in the future.

I’ve found that neither belief nor nonbelief is satisfying for me. “Coming out” with any belief in a way which is respectful of others is important. If respect, not merely tolerance, can be developed between believers of different religions and nonbelievers, then we can begin building a fairer social order.

I hope that by living with respect and curiosity for the beliefs of others, while staying grounded in my principles, I can further my own wisdom and inspire others to think and live outside the boxes to which they limit themselves.

Benjamin Carton, 21, Pelham, N.H., is a senior at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., with plans to puruse a master’s in mental health counseling with a focus on holistic and humanistic approaches.

Hug me, I’m an atheist

By Eric Duran

I am a nonbeliever who was raised Catholic. Until I was 15, I never questioned those beliefs.

But when telling people that I am a nonbeliever, I see faces showing confusion, disbelief and pity. Then they ask if I am a satanist. Instead of calling them ignorant fools, I take the opportunity to teach someone about freethought. Coming out to others is still a struggle, but it has allowed me to be comfortable with myself.

“You’re Catholic! You were baptized as a Catholic, and you will always be a Catholic,” my mother replies every time I tell her that I no longer follow the Catholic faith. I was taught that any belief other than Catholicism was wrong. I thought it was the only way to live, until I came to my senses.

Coming out as an agnostic was actually my second coming-out process. When I was 13, I realized I was gay. That was a struggle in itself, but my family and friends were accepting and supportive. For the next couple of years, I came to terms with my homosexuality and how it can work with Christianity, even with many others who thought differently. Being told repeatedly by my peers that it was a sin was the first factor that began my disconnect with Christianity.

If you believed in anything other than conservative Christianity, they ostracized you. I was bullied by these kind Christians, but when I tried to go to vice principals or counselors, they told me it was all in my head. I knew the true faces of these students and wondered how you could be such a faithful Christian if you partied as if God was not watching, drank the devil’s nectar, bullied others and had premarital sex every other weekend.

After graduating and learning that my boyfriend was a freethinking pagan, I was able form my opinions more thoroughly. Believing in God did not work. I did not feel the enlightenment that others did and found myself not needing God in my everyday life. I am looked down upon, and people think I have tainted morals. My ideas on life and the afterlife simply vary, just as many people’s do, but I am the same person.

I hope one day that my family and some friends will accept my views and treat me as the same person. Until then I will advocate for other nonbelievers. By attending my secular group on campus, I am able to diRobert and Sean McClain at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Robert writes: “Sean battled a virulently hostile principal to start a secular students group at Brunswick High in 2012, and he brought more than one of his theistic friends into the light of reason,”

Eric Duran, 19, Fort Worth, Texas, is pursuing a B.A. degree in speech-language pathology at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Escape from Mormon patriarchy

By Jenny Cox

I am the fifth of seven children descended from 21 generations of Mormons and polygamists, with parents who taught me rigid, patriarchal Mormon values. My freethought journey started when I was about 9 when my oldest brother announced he was permanently removing his name from the church records.

I have a vivid memory of watching my family huddled with arms around each other in the entryway, sobbing after talking to a church official. I did not understand what has going on. I was scolded by my angry father when I asked my brother why he had left the church. It was his ability to see beyond religion’s confines that encouraged me to begin to open my mind.

My faith was rocked again when my parents decided to divorce. Divorce was rare in the Mormon community. Therapists tried to help me see that my father was abusive and used religion to harm my entire family. I realized just because someone was religious did not mean that they were right or they were good.

My mother eventually took control by leaving him despite church leaders not believing her when she told them how bad he was. She was no longer subordinate as the church preferred she be. I started to find faith and strength in women’s abilities.

A month before I started eighth grade, one of my brothers took his own life. I remember falling to my knees in prayer, begging God that there must be some way to revive him. God did not grant my wish. That was my first realization God did not exist.

The last straw was California’s Proposition 8. Fighting same-sex marriage became a Mormon mission. I was taking a freshman honors English class and learning about logical fallacies. Listening to speakers preach against same-sex marriage, I realized they were using common reasoning errors that I was learning about.

On my 14th birthday, I decided I was fed up. Like my brother, I wanted to remove my name from the church but needed parental permission, which my mother refused to give. I had to wait until I turned 18. I consider myself lucky. Many parents kick their children out when they renounce the household religion, but she chose to love and accept me.

The decision to leave the church was not easy and took courage, but I know I made the right choice. I support human rights that Mormonism opposes. My heart is simply too wide, and I love that I have the option to think freely.
Jenny Cox, 21, Sacramento, Calif., earned an associate’s degree in theater arts at Cosumnes River College before transferring to Cal Poly in San Louis Obispo to major in theater. “Once I earn my degree, I will use professional theater to change of the lives of audience members and students with the diligence I put into my work.”

My atheist life

By Marina Esposito

Before I was born, my parents prayed for a healthy baby, but I was born with a cleft palate in 1992. Then they prayed that I would have a healthy childhood. In June 1994, I was diagnosed with cancer and had 15 months of chemotherapy and my right kidney removed. My parents and I began to pray that I would have a healthy adolescence. I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 9 and I underwent a full spinal fusion in 2006. We eventually stopped praying and turned to philosophy books instead of the bible and did our own research rather than listening to our pastors. In October 2011, in a 24-hour period, my heart stopped five times. I now have a pacemaker.

I have learned that with or without prayer, good and bad things still happen. Instead of looking to God, I wanted to find strength within myself. This is how I went from a Christian to an atheist.

At first, I didn’t want to tell anyone for fear I would be judged. My parents were the only people I confided in, because they also were now atheists. In 2010, my junior year, I finally started standing up for what I believed in. I was no longer ashamed, I accepted myself and my views on life and religion. When friends or family brought up religion, I didn’t shy away and welcomed it as an opportunity for conversation.

After months of conversations, two of my dearest friends started questioning their own religious views. Asking questions is the most important thing you can do as a human.

I ended up attending a Christian university, but whether I’m talking with friends or in a classroom of a hundred students, I let them hear another viewpoint. I hope that atheists will start speaking up so that we may become the majority one day. All religion does is cloud people’s thoughts and create animosity.

It was a very long journey to get to where I am today, but I would not change anything and have no regrets.
Marina Esposito, 22, Peoria, Ariz., works as a dance instructor and is on track to graduate with a bachelor’s in dance education from Grand Canyon University in 2015.

Natural wonder

By Christopher Holder

My progression from sacred to secular wonder happened at 16, when I began to love the natural world instead of the supernatural.

Growing up along the fecund Mobile, Ala., coastline, I loved exploring the trails and brooks near my house. Wilderness and wildness are indelibly linked to my identity. In my childhood, nature represented the span of possibilities of the divine. When I began examining faith as a sophomore in high school, though, I realized that humanity’s natural sense of wonder toward nature is in fact impeded by the impulse to worship.

I was fascinated with heavy equipment as a child: the bucket-wheel excavator—like a Ferris wheel ripping into the ground—and the haul truck, some models stretching higher than half a dozen humans on each other’s shoulders.

These machines, to my prepubescent mind, offered a metaphoric solution for any of my problems, bulldozing straight through anything. I saw God in them. The metal deities were undeniably human, but they possessed unearthly de-earthing power. It doesn’t escape me today that a child so invested in nature could be moved to wonder by its pulverization. Over time, my view of these machines changed. First, for their complicity in the most damning sins against the environment—strip mining, for instance. More to the point, I decided in high school to put away childish things like my notions of heavenly comfort, with all the concomitant metaphors and rationalizations.

But my sense of wonder remained. Humanity’s response to the divine is, I feel, only a misguided response to the mysteries of existence, plentiful and compelling. The more one learns about our universe, the less necessary the mystical becomes. Digging into the gaps between what we know and what there is, we find (and may examine) infinity, strange physics, unexplained phenomena, unexplored territory, enigmatic consciousness.

Our reality is mystic enough. Christopher Holder, 21, is a senior at the University of Montevallo in central Alabama, majoring in English and music and serving as president of the school’s Secular Student Alliance chapter.

An ‘atheist nobody’s’ story

By Joe Magestro

I consider myself a representative of all the people you pass by every day without a glimpse. You do not know who I am and you may not even care. That is what makes me a “nobody.” But give me a chance and listen to my story about why I am the way I am today. I could not have been happier with my childhood. I technically was raised Catholic, but I was so “blessed” to be raised in a mainly secular home. My mother worked on weekends so I rarely went to Mass, but I remained a believer.

In my senior year of high school. I met the most amazing girl, but we could not be together due to her religious obligations. She belonged to a Filipino sect called Iglesia Ni Cristo (“Church of Christ” in Tagalog). We were young, stupid and in love though and still dated, with plans to break up after the summer when I would leave for college. At summer’s end, we decided that in order to be together, I would join her church. By this time, I was pretty much an atheist. I tried to join Iglesia Ni Cristo, which caused a major schism between me and my parents. My mother feared that I would become brainwashed. I was threatened with being kicked out of the house and cut off financially, which didn’t stop me. If it meant anything, my girlfriend’s parents finally accepted me because I had joined.

In order to become an official member, I had to take 28 lessons of indoctrination. They were one-on-one sessions with a minister. The first lessons were generally about why every other religion was wrong. Even though I had my doubts, I started to think that this church actually used reasoning. Then I heard more lessons and became appalled that people actually agreed with these horrible teachings. Where they saw peace and hope, I saw control and manipulation.

I started to research their claims and saw the flaws in their “logic” and how they cherry-picked bible verses and took them out of context. Now I wanted to learn about all religions. I started tearing through Hitchens, Dawkins and other atheist authors. I came to the conclusion that religion made absolutely no sense. I eventually came out as atheist and left the church. My girlfriend still fully accepts me for who I am.

We all need to find a passion to make our lives meaningful. I have found mine. I am now president of the UW-Whitewater Secular Student Alliance. I plan to write a book and become a motivational speaker in the secular movement. I am determined make a change in this world and am ecstatic to one day become the “atheist nobody” that many can look up to. Joe Magestro, 22, St. Francis, Wis., is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater majoring in business management with a music minor.

Questioning everything

By Harrison Slater

Growing up in a Reform Jewish family, my path to atheism was smoothed by one of the most brilliant scientists and authors of our time, Richard Dawkins. After reading The God Delusion, I became more convinced than ever that the universe is governed by nonsentient laws, elements and events. I was impressed with Dawkins’ extensive research and his solutions for people who believe the world cannot function without religion.

Ideally, as Dawkins points out, children would be known as the children of Jewish parents or whatever religion their guardians believe in. It’s such a simple concept, yet many parents would be outraged to even discuss it. It’s frustrating when I see how some of my intelligent friends are held back by their religious upbringing.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I was truly certain of my nonbelief. I got the feeling that when I told my parents I was an atheist that they thought this was just another passing phase. Two years later, I believe they have accepted my atheism. I’m lucky to have such accepting parents with whom I can have intelligent discussions on religion. It pains me to hear stories of atheists coming out to friends and family and getting shunned. It continues to confuse me why atheism is looked down on by a large part of society.

My first instinct says that the fear of societal rejection keeps many atheists from coming out. My second instinct is that religious propaganda has successfully portrayed atheists as ignorant and heartless people, when the truth could not be further from that. I’ve seen firsthand how religion blinds people, even world-renowned scholars. My family from Israel has seen how religion devastates countries and communities through violence stemming from the belief that one religion’s God is the truth and another’s is not. I came out as an atheist to join a movement that has given me passion like I’ve never felt before. I cannot sit idly by and watch society continue take two steps forward, only to be pulled one step back by the stranglehold of religion. Harrison Slater, 21, Westfield, N.J., is a student in the Penn State School of Earth and Mineral Sciences majoring in energy business and finance and minoring in economics, planetary science and astronomy.

An atheist in Texas

By Nathan Stevens

I don’t remember the first time I heard “You don’t believe in God?” but I remember the South Texas faces. It was always the same mask twisted in confusion and disgust. Perhaps it’s my distaste for authority, but these moments emboldened me.

My household was not religious, nor did it promote a disbelief in God. I grew up in an air of apathy toward the idea of a supreme being; it was something I simply didn’t think about. I don’t recall any attacks on my beliefs, or the need for debate on religious matters. It was a slow realization that I was not in the majority. I became truly confident in nonbelief early in high school.

During my freshman year, I dated a girl who was extremely religious. It was fun until she began prying. I was eventually forced to show my hand. She was immediately worried about the state of my immortal soul and made it her mission to push me into the arms of Christ. I went to church with her a few times but felt completely unmoved. The relationship began to disintegrate once she realized I was a lost cause.

I meditated and read Buddhist texts supplied by my dad. It seemed like an exciting, mysterious break from the waves of Christianity around me until I realized that Buddhism shared many common threads with the monotheistic religions I was acquainted with. I’m deeply thankful that I stumbled on a Stephen Hawking quote: “One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but science makes God unnecessary.”

The quote made me realize that, through thousands of years of spiritual evolution, humans have just been trying to understand the incomprehensible. I also came to see that many people of faith believe because it gave them strength and made them happy. I felt no need to lash out against the Christian majority or denounce others’ ideals if they found peace with them.

I realized that the best way I could promote my nonbelief was to be open but kind. In my slice of the South, there are many negative stereotypes about nonbelievers. The best way to disprove these notions is to prove that we are normal, happy people. The realization that freethinkers and people of faith have much more in common than we acknowledge is fantastically important.

Nathan Hume Stevens, 19, Friendswood, Texas, is majoring in journalism and minoring in business at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

‘A classroom with no teacher’

By Jessie Warme

My early life was mostly areligious. My father refused to indoctrinate me. And while my mother took me to a Unitarian Universalist church, I’m hesitant to call that a real religion because God never really was brought up. Even as children, we did not need guidance from a higher power to be a good person.

I attended a private school populated by ardent Christians. At first, I felt no hole or fear in my life. I loved my parents, I was safe, and I played with friends. But when it was discovered I lacked religion, from all sides I heard “You’re going to hell!” or “Jesus died for your sins!” or “God will strike you down!” Children on the playground would push and hit me and, on occasion, pelt me with rocks, all in the name of Jesus Christ. My own personal stoning.

I was cowed into obedience and sought out religion to avoid the terrifying consequences their words painted.

I turned to Christianity first, the religion of my attackers after all. But even as a child, Christianity baffled me. Eventually, the insanity of it all terrified me more than hell. The answers to my questions were unsatisfying, to say the least.

Every response came down to “God is greater than we can ever understand.” This infuriated me. One cannot plug gaping holes of logic with “we just do not understand.” Nowhere else in life is “just trust me” a valid justification for belief and action.

I searched for another religion, but quickly found problems in each. Each claimed that they alone offered salvation and that to choose another was to choose condemnation, yet none offered more evidence of its validity than any other. A friend worded it wonderfully: “Religion is like a classroom with no teacher, filled with several different textbooks. Throughout the semester, students study their chosen textbooks and argue ardently that their choice is correct. On the last day of class, the teacher appears, punishes those who chose the wrong books and rewards those who chose the right book.”

At age 12, I realized that if even one of these many gods existed, it was not one I wished to worship, if only because the god would punish those who happened to pick the wrong number in religious roulette. When the religious call me back from the darkness, I respond simply and evenly: “I am too small to say what is out there. But I am too big to believe it is what you tell me.”

I stand proudly as a skeptic and a freethinker, the only honest way to live and believe. I stand outside the cave of ignorance, blinking in the brilliant light of a world untethered by a hateful doctrine and a vengeful creator. I.Am.Free. Jessie Warme, 20, Van Nuys, Calif., earned associate’s degrees in social and behaviorial sciences and mathematics at College of the Canyons in Valencia, where she was valedictorian. At the University of California-San Diego, she’s majoring in international studies/political science.

Freedom From Religion Foundation