Fourth place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Erika Walsh

Nature, creativity are my religion

FFRF awarded Erika $750

By Erika Walsh

There are countless examples of atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers who not only exhibit morally upstanding behavior, but also have made crucial contributions toward the betterment of our planet, and humanity itself. Regardless of nonbelievers’ significant influence on history, science and politics, atheists in the U.S. are generally perceived as having no morals and often suffer from blatant discrimination.

Historical evidence points to the fact that most of our founders did not follow organized religion. James Madison stated that Christianity brought about “pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” John Adams condemned Judaism and Christianity as being among the bloodiest religions ever, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson expressed similar sentiments.
The irony of this, considering the lack of acceptance of atheists, is astounding. Former President George H.W. Bush once publicly said, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

It is virtually impossible for an atheist to win a public election, and to “come out” would equate to instant political suicide for a presidential candidate. The reality of atheists’ modern-day isolation from politics would be disheartening to the founders, to say the least. The Constitution clearly calls for separation between church and state.
The forward-thinking founders did not see a place for religion in government, and this was a crucial aspect of their intention to establish a free nation.

A personal code of moral conduct is more easily achieved when the individual is not being seduced by the promise of salvation, or deterred by the fear of condemnation. Albert Einstein once stated that “a man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.”

Einstein himself, arguably one of the most brilliant individuals in the realm of both scientific and social issues, condemned the idea of a personal god. His ideas concerning not just physics, but war and peace, the education system and the nature of humankind, were undeniably groundbreaking, regardless of, or perhaps in part due to, his agnosticism.
Perhaps it can be said that distance from organized religion ignites a sense of freedom and individualism, which better equips people to explore the mysteries of the universe, and question why things are the way they are. The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking states that he identifies as an atheist, and that science offers a “more convincing explanation” for the creation of the universe, and the miracles of religion cannot coincide in harmony with the facts presented to us by science.

Hawking might never have dared to explore the science surrounding the creation of the universe if he had been constrained by blind faith. He might have been too consumed by fear of what might happen to his soul, should he dare question this idea, to explore alternative possibilities.

In my own experience, I was never fully convinced by the rationalizations presented by standard religious teachings. Even as a child, the tenets preached in Sunday school did not sit well with me. I remember one incident where my teacher proclaimed that people who commit suicide go to hell. I was only 9 or 10, but I knew injustice when I came across it. I argued with her statement, refusing to accept that a loving god would punish someone for committing an act unto their own self, born out of pain and desperation.

This altercation somewhat solidified my feeling that Christianity wasn’t for me, and yet I continued to say my prayers before bed each night for some time afterward, holding on to attachments born out of fear of the unknown. I am aware of a spiritual connection to myself, my surroundings and other sentient beings, akin to the “cosmic religious feeling” that Einstein describes experiencing.

I know now that my spirituality cannot be expressed within the confines of a church, temple or mosque. I experience this cosmic feeling primarily when I am submerged in nature or expressing myself creatively.

By owning my agnosticism and distancing myself from organized religion, I have found ways to express myself that may have been deterred or warped by the beliefs of Christianity, which I was baptized into and expected to practice.

Identifying as a nonbeliever simply means that a person is not content with the answers presented to them, and wishes to seek their own truths instead. I hope that our society will be able to overcome its fear and fully accept nonbelievers into our nation, recognizing that the individual choice not to believe is just as valid as the decision to believe.

Erika Walsh, 19, was born in Kings Park, N.Y., and is a sophomore writing major at Ithaca College. “I am a member of Feminists United at Ithaca, and I am on the executive board of IC Animal Rights. I am a vegetarian and am very passionate about ethical eating and living.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation