College Essay — Honorable Mention: Living Beyond God: Jessica Critcher

This essay was one of several that received an honorable mention in FFRF’s 2009 college essay competition and a prize of $250, including $50 donated by Don and Dorea Schramm.

Pascal’s wager is essentially the idea that believing in God is the safest bet. If there is no god and no afterlife, it won’t matter who is right. But if there is a god and an afterlife, devout worshipers stand to be rewarded. Therefore, according to the wager, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by worshiping God (even just in case).

Pascal may have wanted to hedge his bets, but I for one have enthusiastically embraced atheism for the simple reason that I would rather risk going to hell than be shackled by a god or religion.  My arguments could (and may someday) fill an entire book, but to state it simply, I have three reasons: logic, free will and personal responsibility. These are things I require which religion lacks. I have more experience with Christianity, but the more I study about the world’s religions, the more my atheism is reaffirmed.

Faith by its very definition contradicts logic. The two are almost mutually exclusive. For example, during my first year of college I saw a flier for an upcoming debate. The topic was evolution versus creationism. While there is logical evidence to support evolution, the idea behind creationism is that it relies on faith.

Having faith is, in essence, believing something without any evidence or believing something though there is evidence to the contrary. Claiming to have faith is admitting to ignoring logic. The entire premise of the debate seemed absurd, because “God did it and we mustn’t question it” is an argument that will never hold any water (with me at least).

Besides, trying to pass off creationism (or any aspect of religion) as logical is technically blasphemous, as it negates faith (because trying to fit logic somewhere it does not belong raises dangerous questions). I can attest to this, as common sense is what led me from the proverbial straight and narrow path and down the slippery slope of reason and independent thought. This is, of course, a very cut-and-dried example, and I would not go so far as to state that religious people are entirely illogical or unintelligent.

But in many branches of organized religion, followers are expected to accept beliefs without question. This led me to wonder why God would have made me so inquisitive in the first place if my questions were all going to be met with brick walls.

According to most of the country (and quite a few people I know), I am going to hell. Evidently the idea that there is no afterlife is more terrifying than the possibility of being tortured for eternity. My freethinking, blaspheming ways have already landed me a one-way ticket to eternal damnation, and unlike rapists and murderers and child molesters, I can’t even repent. Somehow religion (Christianity in particular) claims that followers hold some sort of moral high ground while the rest of us wallow in sin and misery. But this begs the question of free will. If my actions are determined by my beliefs, and my beliefs are based in an antique dogma which I am forbidden to question, I have no real free will.

A family member once asked me what I intend to teach my children, since to her the idea of moral values and belief in God are indistinguishable. She would rather I threaten my children with eternal torment, or entice them to be good with promises of a reward. I don’t steal or rape or murder (or even litter) because I believe it is wrong, not because I have been intimidated by hell or discouraged by the fact that invisible angels are watching me and writing it down. I show compassion and feel empathy because they are rooted in my own personal morals, not to earn myself any sort of eternal prize.

This brings me to the related idea of personal responsibility and how religion can be seen as a concentrated effort to avoid it. A popular Christian slogan worn on T-shirts and bracelets tells people to P.U.S.H., or, Pray Until Something Happens. I refuse to believe that my life is that far out of my control. People feel this inexplicable need to believe in something bigger than themselves, even without organized religion, often as a sort of coping mechanism for things they cannot change or understand. I for one cannot comprehend the reasoning be­hind thanking God for winning a Grammy or acing a test or finding lost car keys when millions of “his” children die every day of AIDS and starvation and cancer (and any number of plights “he” invented). If there is something bigger than us in charge of things, he is doing a terrible job.

With no God in the picture, the chaos of our existence is not only still manageable, it is empowering and liberating. Without a devil waiting in the bushes to tempt me, there is no one to hide behind or blame for my shortcomings. Without God stealing the credit for everything I do, I can also take full responsibility for all of my accomplishments. I refuse to spend my life waiting and “P.U.S.H.”-ing when I could spend it in the driver’s seat. Operating without the safety net of believing in God was initially terrifying. But with no one to pray to, I was forced to look inward. Knowing that I have the individual strength of character necessary to overcome any challenge that comes my way is much more satisfying than begging to an invisible man in the sky. God is nothing more than a security blanket or a crutch. When I let go of God, I simultaneously took control of my life, and I refuse to give it up.

People are continually fascinated by the fact that I am an atheist. Responses range from pity and condemnation to disbelief and curiosity. One such encounter occurred while I was speaking Spanish with my aunt’s housekeeper. Though she spoke perfect English, she would often humor me by allowing me to practice my accent and vocabulary. We broached the subject of religion, and I said (as confidently as I would in English) that I was an atheist. She asked me a question people often ask atheists without thinking: “¿No crees en nada?“  (“You don’t believe in anything?” or, alternately, “You believe in nothing?”).

Though I was unable to bridge the language gap at the time and articulately express my sentiments to her in Spanish, I felt the need to correct her then just as I feel the need to correct people now. The fact that I do not believe in God does not mean that I “believe in nothing.” I believe in true love and the potential for great ideas to change the world. I believe in the value of human life and of treating people with respect and kindness and sympathy. I believe that someday I am going to die, and I hope to make a positive impact on the world around me and the people I love before that happens. I believe very ardently that my existence is meaningful and that my life can be fulfilling and purposeful. In fact, in stating that I am an atheist, the only thing I admittedly do not believe in is a god. But, for many people, God is all-encompassing, so by abandoning him (or her, or it, or them) one indeed abandons everything. I am living proof that this is most certainly not the case.

So, unlike the faithful sheep in their placid little flocks, or those taking the safe way out with Pascal’s wager and unconscionable fence-sitting, I have resigned myself to either grisly mortality or eternal suffering. Honestly, I have never felt so free. The burden of trying to be perfect has been lifted, and I have the courage to stand on my own feet.

A preacher once referred to atheists as kicking sand in the face of God, but I prefer to think of it as refusing to let God kick sand in my face, whether he is real or not.

Jessica Critcher writes, “I am currently a sophomore majoring in English at The University of Hawaii at Manoa. I love reading virtually anything I can get my hands on and writing essays, poems and short stories. I play the guitar and I adore seeing live music and discovering new bands. I also enjoy baking, anonymously correcting grammar on fliers, drawing, board games, films, sewing, meditation and harmless mischief.

Freedom From Religion Foundation