Midnight in the Garden of Faith and Reason: Alex Schroller

College Essay Honorable Mention

This is one of four essays winning $200 “Honorable Mention” prizes in the 2008 FFRF college essay competition.

by Alex Schroller

It wasn’t always this way. For many years of my life I believed in a deity. But, then again, I used to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy as well. Like the slave to deception in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, when one turns his attention away from the shadows on the wall one begins to find a higher truth–one that has been so often arrogated by the religious who claim that they alone have been granted privilege to deal in such matters. The consequences of a history in which the institutionalized Church was, for so long, the fount of scholasticism and knowledge, exercising political clout and demanding personal and societal obeisance, have left deep marks in the minds of individuals and global society. The advent of the Enlightenment began to fill these gaps with the findings of natural inquiry, but only with great reluctance has the fever, still prone to occasional shocks of resurgence, begun to subside. The infectious wound inflicted by religion has turned gangrenous, but antiseptic science and reason show promise in mollifying the sickness.

My family first began attending church services when I was seven, so it would be most precise to say that I was brought up in a Presbyterian household. Like Richard Dawkins, I think it duplicitous and inaccurate to deem a minor “a Christian or Muslim child,” rather the child of Christian or Muslim parents. I was far too young, too naive, and simply too inexperienced to assert that I was a Christian. Before beginning my Sunday school education (if that is, in fact, what one obtains in Sunday school) I don’t remember ever having any conception of God but, being the curious, impressionable child that I was, I absorbed what I was being told by benign adults. I appreciated God the way I appreciated the other characters of which parents had told their kids: God was a parcel of information that grown-ups had benevolently bestowed on me, the child. He (I apologize that the English language lacks a gender-neutral pronoun) worked in ways that were invisible and unverifiable . . . but He was there!

For me the facts were true and the belief was genuine. I distinctly remember an episode from when I was six-years-old: It was Christmas Eve night and I, like the nice present-awaiting, sugar plum fairy-dreaming child lionized in the carols, was trying to fall asleep (after all, the red-suited man did know when I was sleeping and when I was awake) when I heard the jingle of sleigh bells. Jolly ol’ Saint Nick was crossing the globe that night, delivering presents to all the children of the world, and I had experiential evidence that he was now on my street, magically entering the front doors of the houses as Houstonians have no need for chimneys. What an utter manifestation of a credulous mind breeding its own facts! When enough whisperings from peers of Santa’s non-existence compelled me to confront my parents on the issue (thankfully, they gave me the honest answer) the rest, save religion, fell like a house of cards. After all, cultural fables and religion are two entirely different magisteria. The former are innocuous contrivances of the imagination; the latter is, well, important. Theistic belief was really theistic fact. It was altogether more serious.

Indeed it is serious. Religion concerns itself with more than the mere entertainment of the young mind. No politician has ever run on a platform of injecting the Easter Bunny into the public square, or of requiring witnesses in a jury trial to profess a belief in elves, or inserting the Tooth Fairy into our science textbooks. At least I hope not. Religion exercises incredible influence over leaders and governments, communities and nations; it precipitates crusades and perpetuates enmity between groups.

My move toward disbelief was more gradual, though infinitely more interesting, than my rejection of the fictions that filled my childhood. As my exposure to the world began to broaden I witnessed the role religion played in fostering animosity among people. Even when religious differences weren’t part of the ultimate conflict, their presence served as a proxy, consistently worsening any dispute into which they entered. A la Mark Twain’s The War Prayer, figureheads and fighters spoke sanctimoniously like the soldiers who asked God for the strength to make widows of the wives of their enemies, to burn their homes, and to leave their children, illegitimate and indigent, to wander the streets with the pains of hunger and thirst.

Such images reinforced my commitment to a vigorous separation of church and state, but they did not lead me to reject faith. Surely these conflagrations were the products of proverbial bad apples taking matters to such crass extremes and not the fruit of a sickly tree that was spreading pestilence and plague into the garden of humanity.

These exhibitions of dogma-laden animus only produced more doubt and questions in my mind. I realized, with each side claiming the divine favor of the almighty and exclusive access to the one true faith, that someone had to be wrong. If Christianity’s promulgation that the lone way to Heaven is through the salvation of Jesus Christ was true, what would that mean for my Jewish and Muslim friends? They were good people. Surely a benevolent God would not punish them for all eternity. Or, in the vein of self-interest, what if I was the one who was wrong? Kierkegaard wrote of a different kind of fear and trembling, but not one that was this acute and debilitating. The dizzying consideration that the Truth to which I had so ardently clung could be wrong induced vertigo as I struggled to avoid falling into the abysmal unknown.

I guess I didn’t plunge into directionless darkness because, rather than retreat into a callous righteousness that what I had believed was impregnable to the iniquities of the world, I began my pursuit for objectivity and truth. Certainly, no theist can say that I didn’t at least try the medicine he offered. I earnestly sought to rediscover my faith, but each attempt felt more contrived than the one before it. I didn’t want my search to be a selfish one; for the sake of truer meaning and a more inspiring world-view I was happily willing to undertake whatever rigors I needed to meet or material comforts I needed to forego. Choosing a religion felt like what I imagine buying a car must feel like: one searches widely; takes advice from friends; test-drives a few models and eventually, even if the car isn’t a perfect fit, settles on one. My readings spawned no renaissance of belief and I couldn’t bring myself to accept the least bad possibility. I was agnostic, but no more satisfied.

That is, until I read Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The likes of Sartre and Russell had rejected religion, but none had countered it with the nuance and beauty that Sagan found in science. I found in science and reason not dogma or religion under another name, but a whole new way of thinking. Religions claimed to be knowledge per se, but science and reason were two edges of a sword that could cut through deceit in the pursuit of knowledge. My public school science education had not been corrupted the way it has for students subjected to the encroachments of creationists or the inanities of intelligent designers, but it had lacked the inspiration that science was not merely a collection of dry facts in a textbook; it was a tool in the arsenal of critical analysis that could be applied outside the school laboratory. Science wasn’t the answer; science was a method for finding answers. Reason wasn’t the truth; it was the process for discovering truth.

Unlike holy tracts which claim to contain within their pages the only Truth one would ever need to know, Sagan showed that Truth lay in nature. Our minds could perceive patterns in the workings of the universe, and from there we could discern the truths of our existence. Unlike religious denominations, whose leaders propound theories and then arbitrarily search and apply “facts” to fit such theories, science and reason boast no such human authorities. The natural world is rich with authority and we are the lucky beneficiaries who get to discover it. Unlike religion, which commands obedience and relies on revelations, often to those same leaders who deceive their followers and themselves, science and reason encourage us to challenge our surest assumptions. While I might not recommend using one’s body to disprove the theory of gravity, the skeptical mind can be one’s best defense against duplicity and untruth. Science polices itself and only those theories that most accurately describe natural phenomena persist.

Reason and science, working in tandem, produce for society unquantifiable richness and meaning. Rather than stifle the imagination, they enthusiastically persuade us to push the bounds of inquiry and creativity. Reason and science shun none and offer hope to all. Truly, through reason humankind can unleash itself and take in the freedom that comes from being unbound. This is why reason is more promising than faith. This is why I choose reason over faith.

Born and raised in Texas, Alex Schroller is an economics major at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. An Eagle Scout and an avid reader, Alex is the co-President of Hendrix’s Humanist Association. He hopes to attend graduate school and earn a Master’s degree in either public policy or business administration.

Freedom From Religion Foundation