Sixth Place Graduate/‘Older’ Student Essay: Death and deceit: The effects of the imposition of religion by Ayoola White

FFRF awarded Ayoola $400 for her essay.

By Ayoola White

The concept of religious liberty, as defined in the First Amendment, is a two-headed beast.

On the one hand, it seeks to avoid placing limits on people’s free exercise of religion. On the other, it forbids the establishment of a state religion. The latter measure is clearly directed at the government.

But what of private citizens? There is certainly no shortage of missionaries, proselytizers and evangelists endeavoring to expand their influence beyond their already captive audiences. They travel door to door, distribute fliers on street corners, broadcast their messages over airwaves, and, most concerning, promote legislation and government policies that reflect their belief systems.

Although religious individuals who engage in these behaviors often do so with the intention of helping other people, in reality, they are infringing on others’ freedom. The imposition of one’s own religion onto another — whether on an individual basis or at the government level — is unethical. Such an action necessitates a paternalistic denial of the agency of others to direct their own lives, which can and does lead to lower quality of life and, in extreme cases, violence.

Of all of the Religious Right’s attempts to legislate morality, the promotion of abstinence-only sex education in schools has had a particularly wide reach. Proponents of abstinence-only education argue that if middle- and high school-age students receive accurate information about contraception, consent, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and reproductive health, they will feel encouraged to have premarital sex. As a consequence of the spread of this thinking, currently 19 states require that sex education classes focus entirely on abstinence. In the past 20 years, abstinence-only education programs have received a total of $2 billion in federal funding.

The problem with the widespread nature of this form of education is that it has the opposite effect of what is intended. The states with the highest teen pregnancy rates and rates of STIs are those where abstinence-only measures are in place. Moreover, students who are exposed to accurate information about sex and sexual health are actually more likely to delay sex than their counterparts who do not. Thus, U.S. taxpayers — regardless of their beliefs — are consistently paying for the continuation of programs that are known to be ineffective.

The reach of the Religious Right is, of course, not limited to the bounds of the United States. One chilling example of the international reach of U.S.-based evangelical Christianity is the uptick in persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Uganda and other African countries. In countries such as these that have had a history of being colonized by European powers, it is already common for colonial-era anti-sodomy laws to remain on the books. As such, LGBT individuals risk imprisonment and death for simply being themselves. It is common for human-rights advocates to find fault with African cultures for enforcing these laws. However, what is not commonly known is that many pre-colonial African civilizations designated esteemed societal roles for people whom we would refer to today as gay or transgender. One example is a special class of women of the Ankole people in Uganda who dressed as men to act as oracles to the gods.
When religious European colonizers arrived, they treated these identities with special hostility, rendering them illegal and encouraging other colonized subjects to disparage them as well.

This trend of subjugation of minority sexualities and genders has continued in recent, postcolonial history, with evangelists from the United States such as Scott Lively taking trips to Uganda in order to warn against what they perceive to be the dire peril of homosexuality. The result has been a tenfold increase in violence toward LGBT people inspired by anti-LGBT legislation. While it is true that Lively and others have gone on record stating that they never intended for such violence to happen, their intentions are irrelevant in light of the toll that has occurred and continues to occur.

The dangerous effects of specific groups imposing their religion upon others are more numerous and well-documented than can be enumerated here. In both of the examples described here, the actions of the Religious Right violate not only the First Amendment, but also another constitutional principle, found in the Preamble: the edict “to promote the general welfare.” It is impossible to force all people to hold the same beliefs. Therefore, religion should be a private matter that is not imposed upon others.

Ayoola, 26, is from Detroit, and attends Simmons College in Boston, seeking dual master’s degrees in history and archives management. She graduated in 2013 from Mount Holyoke College, majoring in anthropology. She has won several prestigious scholarships, including the Mosaic, Spectrum and the Sarah Rebecca Reed scholarships. She hopes to become a library director.

Freedom From Religion Foundation