Fifth place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Emma Follmer

Proud to be a heathen, where at least I know I’m free

FFRF awarded Emma $500.

By Emma Follmer

When I was 7 years old my family moved to a city I now swear I will never return to: Birmingham, Ala. My initial excitement at a new place had completely vanished by my third day of school. In those three days everyone I met had a question for me: “What church do you go to?” I would naively and cheerfully respond: none.

This was not the correct response. By day three I was a confirmed heathen, the worst possibility in an Alabama elementary school.

My classmates had, of course, picked this question up from their parents, who were quick to ask it on their own. As to the inevitable follow-up, “But where do your children get their morals?” my baffled parents would say, “From us, of course.”

The idea that life experience and its lessons could be just as effective in teaching morals as a centuries-old fable was apparently a revelation to these steadfast believers. After a while, my astute parents, when asked about church, answered in complete seriousness, “Our Lady of Spain Park.” Spain Park was the school campus where the whole family would spend Sunday mornings riding our bikes.

I am similarly baffled as a young adult by the assumption that morals can only be learned from religion. Life experience, history, literature and interaction with peers teach us what our morals should be. This process leaves us room for growth and improvement. We can explore the gray areas, question the standards and norms and push the boundaries. We can adapt.

Those who have learned their morals from a bible and preachers do not have this skill and luxury. They have right and wrong presented to them with little room to deviate and their strict adherence to an unchanging system has left them outdated. So while nonbelievers have been stigmatized as lacking morals, it is the religious who are left with a set of morals that no longer apply to our time and culture. We nonbelievers have been dismissed by the very people who could learn most from our ideas.

My early experiences with the religious secured my dislike of their practices and a disbelief in a judgmental god. Disbelief was solidified by the works of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and by regularly watching Bill Maher. For the sake of fairness, I looked into religion, read the literature, listened to sermons and researched various churches.

I found intolerance, hypocrisy, a holier-than-thou attitude and a distinct lack of logic, reason or critical thinking. My lack of belief went from a vague personality trait to one of my core values. God was a fraud, and religion was the world’s most successful and most harmful con.

Don’t pray for me

When voicing this opinion to religious friends, I hear back, “I’ll pray for you.” Nothing is more infuriating. The act itself is harmless and laughable; the idea behind it is insulting and controlling. Those who do it truly believe that it will have some kind of effect on me and are in essence trying to seriously interfere with my life.

They are asking a higher power to influence me without my knowledge or consent. They do this with the misguided belief that I must be saved.

Can I say with absolute certainty that God does not exist? I can only attempt to convince others through reason and arguments of my absolute pride and comfort in being a nonbeliever. I will respect the rights of others to think differently until their beliefs actively and negatively affect me and those around me. I want to do what is right for those who exist in the here and now.

Believers’ certainty in the existence of God and an afterlife is absurd, but the most dangerous aspect is their insistence in forcing the practices of their beliefs on me. Their beliefs should have no bearing on my ability to choose what is right for my body or whom I choose to legally marry.

Having to pledge allegiance to my country while affirming the existence of God is evidence of the insidious historical creep of religion. They must spread the word and must convert all, and do so with the misguided and selfish belief that their god is the one true god and that their religion is the only way to live. When they fight for what they believe, they do it for a reward, for the promise of an afterlife instead of what it will accomplish on Earth.

I have learned to respect the beliefs of others even though I may disagree with them. I want to do what I can to improve the world we live in for everyone, and I expect no reward. Yet somehow, I am looked down on for these qualities.

It is a good thing that I enjoy irony.

Emma Follmer, 19, Richmond, Va., is a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. “If all goes according to plan, I will graduate in the spring of 2018 with degrees in English and political science. I will probably throw in a minor in journalism for good measure.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation