The Ride of a Lifetime: Mark Collins

College Essay Honorable Mention

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

by Mark Collins

No one told me that this is what being an atheist would be like. No told me what it was all about. They never said that there’d be times when I’d stop in the middle of the day and just think, “This is the only life I have.” They never said there’d be times in high shcool when everyone would look at me for only mouthing “under god,” like some sort of insurgent. Or that my mom would snicker, “An atheist? Yeah right!” They never said that people would tell me “don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it” or “that’s what all teenagers say.” They never warned that I would be judged, that I would be made to feel ashamed, that I would sometimes wish I just believed in god and heaven and blood and sin to finally end the awkward questions. But they didn’t need to tell me.

It wouldn’t have made a difference.

I am an atheist and it’s not like I ever really had a choice. I mean, not really. It is not in my nature to continue to do things that I know are hollow and empty or believe what I know is false. I would just as soon go hunting for unicorns as I would profess my faith in god. Oh sure, I could have gone to church and sat and prayed to the beautiful Sunday morning outside and been a good little Christian boy, but where is the dignity in that? It is the life of an Apologist, and I apologize for nothing.

I am an atheist and I now know what I got myself into. The criticizing looks, the sideways glances, the piercing stares, and the smug repulsion. It sounds like a hard life, right? But actually, it is not bad at all. I find that standing by my own beliefs and living by my own convictions is a much more fulfilling existence. You can keep your plastic manger scenes and gold cross necklaces, I’ll keep my mind (and Sundays) open, thank you.

I am an atheist and I could not be happier. The thrill of living every minute knowing that this is your one shot to do something great, the adventure in not understanding the mysteries of the universe and leaving them open for scientific exploration, the freedom found in making decisions for yourself and not some otherworldly reward, the empowerment in seeing yourself as the master of your own fate, the leader of your own destiny, and the god of your own perspective! Where the chains of creeds, and the binds of ancient books, and the bidding of old men evaporate in favor of personal preference; where the credit for every outcome belongs to you and only you; where the divine law you need to follow is written on your own heart; this is where I live.

Remembering the past, I only laugh. For in church they called me a miserable sinner–a blind sheep–so I left. And you know what? They still call me a miserable sinner and a blind sheep.

Although there was a time when my eyes were not yet opened. There was a time when I did believe in a god. Although I don’t think “believe” is the right word, because I really didn’t. It was just accepted, unquestioned, set in stone. No cookies before dinner, wipe your shoes before entering, say “please” and “thank you,” believe in god. There was no real thinking, it was just automatic: like a servant following orders, like a robot turning screws, like a mindless zealot, arms raised to the sky prepared to kill his only son for an all-loving god.

But salvation was found. I was saved! (And it was not in any born-again baptismal kiddy pool or in the hallucinogenic whispering of some imaginary angel.) I was saved by the very thing religion has been trying to quash since the first chapter of Genesis: knowledge. For you see, faith–like rock–does not crumble to the whipping of the wind or the thrashing of the ocean; but it should yield to the careful hands of the skilled artisan named Thought. Only when carved confidently with the precise motions of this wise engraver does faith truly achieve its full beauty. These are the monuments that people truly admire. And preserve.

And my faith was shaped. A power greater than any Protestant “rebirth” or military tank swept through my mind. It was the power of the wondrous artisan. The power to question –“there’s what in that chalice?!”–and power to dig for alternative answers–“so John Paul says it’s blood, Dawkins says it’s just bad tasting juice.” It was during that time of great questioning that glorious word–the most important word in any language–became like a best friend, a trusted associate, a cognitive companion: Why?

It is funny how the smallest of things can tear down the most imposing structures; how the quietest ripple can conjure a tsunami thousands of miles away; how the weakest flicker can ignite a conflagration capable of consuming cities; how the most innocent “why” can quickly destroy the world as you knew it.

Why every Sunday? Why not Congregationalism? Why no pork? Why a male god? Why unleavened? Why a virgin? Why all the sheep?

Although the credit does not solely go to me–no more than the man who flips open a book can be thanked for writing the words within. I was only the conduit of thousands of previous voices, those brave thinkers who dared ask questions, and, even braver, look for answers. For I am a humble student of every great thinker whose work I have read with awe and respect. In particular: Thomas Paine for introducing me to the road less traveled, John Stuart Mill for making me proud to walk such a road, Douglas Adams for allowing me to laugh on that road, and Richard Dawkins for showing me that the road continues into the future. They are the ones truly deserving of praise, and yet the ones most ignored.

You see, our society–as with most–is really not OK with the idea of you not believing in a god of some sort. And that prompts the question: why does society particularly care? You can believe that the trickle-down theory of economics works; you can believe that the Backstreet Boys are the next Queen; you can even believe that those are Pamela Anderson’s real breasts, but heaven forbid–quite literally–that you don’t believe in god. Why does everyone care so much?

I can answer that one. It is very simple because religion, in every sense, was invented as a means of control. It was actually quite ingenious, so much, in fact, that you’d start applauding if you didn’t realize how detrimental it was. But there it is: religion is society’s greatest means of control, of telling you “wait until you are older (dead, in fact),” “go ask your mother (i.e., god),” and everything else that restricts the individual’s freedom to explore this life to the fullest. Whether it’s repressing sexually spry teenagers, being used as a justification by politicians to wage war, oppose a woman’s autonomy, or just breed that infectious, useless emotion called guilt, religion is the finest tool a chauvinistic, racist, elitist, totalitarian, civilization could ask for.

I mean, as I said before, they call us “sheep” right to our faces. Are we supposed to sit there and take that? I don’t know about the rest, but I’m for abandoning this ignorant, depraved, cowardly flock. And, they probably don’t want me to say this but, there’s no shepherd up there. There’s no old wise man leading all you millions to your green pasture. There’s only a bunch of old sheep telling you: “step lively, now, no time for thinking, we’ve got to keep going, you can rest in the afterlife . . .”

Well I don’t know about an afterlife, but I do know that there’s a life worth living right now. It may not be wrapped in clouds and ethereal adornments, but I like it just fine. Plus, there’s no line to enter, free admission!

Step right up and start living your life. Only freethinking sheep allowed.

And so, I am an atheist. A freethinker. A sheep on the run. Life is not a waiting room. Life is not an amusement park line. Life is the main attraction! And people may not like it if you shout and laugh on the way down, but that’s only because they’re shutting their eyes the entire ride. Don’t worry about them; just make sure you smile nice for the picture.

They never told me that this is what being an atheist would be like. No one told me what it was all about. But now that I know, I’ll never go back. Life’s too precious to waste in the gift shop. My mind is my religion, my decisions are my destiny, my self-esteem is my savior, and my happiness is divine.

Mark Edward Collins, from Rhode Island, attends Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., currently studying Government and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. He writes: “I have read extensively on religious topics–from Bertrand Russell to Alvin Plantinga–and take pride in my recently found atheism (it’s only about two years old). Aside from religion, I am also a committed feminist. In my free time, I play tennis when it’s sunny, wakeboard when it’s warm, ski when it’s snowing, and write (mostly essays) when it’s raining.”


Freedom From Religion Foundation