Third place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Julia Upchurch

The atheist’s never-ending task

FFRF awarded Julia $1,000.

By Julia Upchurch

Religion is inescapable in the Southeast. Each day, as I walk from one end of our campus to the other, I encounter two men peddling religious pamphlets: one Christian, the other Islamic. Each asserts that only the pious are redeemable, which means that every day I am told that I am irredeemable.

My nonreligious mother does not discuss religion with her friends out of fear that they will harass her for her lack of faith. My younger nonreligious cousins told me that their friends keep trying to bring them to religious services at the insistence of their parents. Were we members of any other religious group, such as Judaism, this would be seen as persecution. But because we are individuals without faith, it is considered customary.
In a 2011 study titled “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” participants were read a description of an individual engaging in abhorrent behavior and asked if it was more likely that the individual was Christian, Muslim, a rapist or an atheist. The results were telling: People were more likely to believe atheists would engage in immoral actions than religious individuals or even rapists.

I wish I had been surprised by the results. I have informed many acquaintances of my personal beliefs, only for them to respond that I seemed such a morally upstanding person. They appear to be incapable of understanding what my morality is based upon, if not religion.

I am a secular humanist, which is basically a fancy way of saying that I am an atheist who believes all living things should be treated the way that I would like to be treated if I was in their place, and they in mine. I believe actions that are seen as societally acceptable and unacceptable have less to do with organized religion and more to do with this principle, which Christians have dubbed “The Golden Rule.”

Many have argued that “The Golden Rule” is a religious construct; however, empathy has been documented in at least two nonhuman species: elephants and crows. Both have been shown to mourn their dead. Elephants will carry the bones of any deceased they encounter back to their burial grounds, and crows will host a wake whenever they come across remains. Neither do this because of religious mandate; they do it because they empathize with others of their species. Nonbelievers base their morality on this same empathy, instead of on the belief that they will be rewarded or punished after they die.

Moreover, there have been studies that have demonstrated that nonreligious individuals are equally as moral as their religious counterparts. One such study in 2014, “Morality in Everyday Life,” asked participants who were religious, nonreligious, liberal and conservative to report moral and immoral actions that they themselves committed, received, witnessed or heard about within an hour’s time.

The only difference between the reports of religious and nonreligious people was the depth of emotion religious people experienced with each moral and immoral act: They felt more pride in their moral deeds and more embarrassment in their immoral deeds. Clearly, a lack of religion does not denote moral depravity.

Despite all of the scorn that nonreligious people are faced with every day, they have made indelible, and oft celebrated, contributions to the arts and sciences over the years. Examples include Frank Lloyd Wright, a well-known architect; Samuel Clemens, an author better known as Mark Twain; Albert Einstein, a renowned physicist; and Katharine Hepburn, a beloved actress.

To be the source of near-universal scorn, yet to still dedicate one’s life to uplifting humanity, is the atheist’s continual task. If that is not worthy of respect, I fail to see how anything else could ever measure up.

I was not always a nonreligious person. My parents believe in informed choice, so I attended a Lutheran church as a child. I was a voracious reader, and little appealed to me more than traditional fairy tales. Many people are unaware, but traditional fairy tales deliver morals through threats of magical intervention and death, and I found an odd number of parallels to the bible.

One day at Sunday school, I pointed out to my teacher that the intervention of fairies and those of angels were extremely similar. My teacher cautioned me that fairies did not exist, so I should be wary of putting too much stock in fairy tales. When I asked her how she knew fairies weren’t real, she told me that they had never been observed. I asked her if angels had ever been observed, and she informed me they hadn’t. When I asked her how she knew for a fact that angels existed, she told me that it was because angels were mentioned in the bible.

That was the day that I lost all respect for Christianity. I never again could place any stock in blind faith.

Julia Upchurch, 22, Camden, S.C., is a sophomore environmental science major at the University of South Carolina. She’s interested in a career in limnology and plans to pursue an advanced degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Freshwater and Marine Sciences.

Freedom From Religion Foundation