Honorable mentions: College essay contest

Each honorable mention awardee won $200 from FFRF and $50 from Dorea and Dean Schramm.

Stopped praying, started thinking

By Ashley Bates

Perhaps, if I had not catapulted into the depths of depression in my early teens, I would never have become an atheist. This depression spanned a morbid period of my life darkened by personal strife and its resultant emotional distress.

These were trying times for me, very similar to times when many religious people claim to “find God.” Instead, when I reached my lowest point, I found God’s absence. 

I was a theist when I entered this period of my life. I was baptized as an infant, attended Sunday church throughout my early youth,and ended up attending Catholic school for seven years.

Over time, this religious history became the foundation of my atheist reasoning. My religiosity came to an end when my depression brought on a boon of critical thought in my first year of high school. 

My atheism began with a simple question. In my despair, I asked myself, “Why would God do this?” If God was an omniscient and all-controlling being, then why would he fracture my life in this way? I could not understand how the God I loved had let me fall so far, so quickly.

With my questions ignored, what I did understand was that God was not going to fix my problems for me. After so many desperate and unanswered prayers, I stopped praying and started thinking instead. 

It took my lowest point in life to ask the question that came equipped with many more. Counterintuitively, Catholic school turned me into a stronger atheist rather than a better Christian. When I stopped memorizing my religious lessons and started learning them, it became clear that the foundations laid out for God and his worship had a basis in faulty logic and sometimes even outright falsehoods.

Prayers and miracles are not the work of God but instead the work of real people and statistical chance. But most importantly, the concept of God conflicts with the actual state of the world: God is infallible, but the world is flawed.

This sum of reality is why I do not believe in God. 


Ashley Bates, 20, Buffalo, N.Y., is a senior psychology major at SUNY-Buffalo. She also intends to earn a graduate degree in social work.


Feeling confident in nonbelief 

By Parker Buel

My distaste for religion developed during a single week in my childhood. Although both my parents have religious beliefs, neither made their children attend church. But one afternoon, my mother decided to buy me an illustrated children’s bible so I could explore the tales of Christianity.

I thought the story of Adam and Eve was entertaining, almost on the same level as my favorite movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But when I read about the Tower of Babel, I couldn’t help but laugh at the ludicrous ending. According to the story, all the world’s languages developed in an instant when God wanted the tower builders to stop working. Unable to communicate with fellow laborers because of their newfound languages, the men were scattered throughout the world.

That night, I made the mistake of asking my father a religious question. He ended up opening his old bible on the kitchen table and reciting passages from it with such vehemence that I could sense a rising passion in every phoneme.

I suppose he was trying to sway me toward religious belief, but the rant only left me with a sour feeling. From then on, I experienced this same sour feeling every time someone tried expressing religious validity to me. 

I remember during my middle school years in particular that religion seemed ubiquitous. I was expected to say “one nation under God” every morning. My closest friend was a devout Christian, and sometimes the other students would ask me about my religious beliefs. “No, I don’t go to church. But I believe in God!” I’d say.

If I forgot to add that last bit, the other kids would scorn me. I couldn’t afford to be completely ostracized because I had so few friends already. Most of the students suspected me of being gay, and if they labeled me a gay atheist, I would certainly be the biggest outcast in school. 

Finally, after enduring all the years of drama, I feel confident calling myself a nonbeliever. I know that some teens currently in school are going through the same troubles I had, so I wish them the strength to maintain their doubting minds.

Science is helping people realize that we no longer need to tell fanciful stories to understand the universe. Hopefully, moving away from religious beliefs is a trend that will become more popular as time passes.


Parker Buel, 20, I was born and raised in Gahanna, Ohio. He transferred from Columbus State Community College to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to major in motion pictures and television with an emphasis on screenwriting. The films that inspire me most have lyrical cinematography and strong female characters dealing with emotional conflicts.


This I do (not) believe

By Brandon Cooper

I often wonder about what it would be like to start life with no religion or god. I wouldn’t have felt unnecessary guilt about things that every boy goes through, and I wouldn’t have fed myself the perniciously numbing lie that “everything happens for a reason.”

More importantly, I would have scoffed at the idea of God. A mind raised to be critical and open rather than dogmatic can, like Mark Twain’s character “Little Bessie,” dismantle the claims of religion with grace and ease. Simply, how do you know there is a God? What does this God look like? Why believe in him, or is it a her? Where is the evidence? Has science proven this?

Hume’s maxim, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” poses the issue perfectly. Philosophical debates on the existence of God are intriguing, but I only have so much patience for something that is so simple. The burden of proof lies in the hands of those making claims that are grossly contradictory to the laws of nature, not those denying them.

If someone approaches me and says there’s an invisible Martian floating above their head, it’s their job to prove it to me, not my job to disprove it.  

Rejecting religion was frightening at first. It’s like realizing for the first time that your meager backyard is actually at the foot of a massive tropical rainforest. The forest is intimidating at first, and you’re unsure of how to get through it. But ultimately, its density, vastness and life become beautiful. You realize that the value and exhilaration of exploration is far better than the “certainty” of the pew. 

Most importantly, I learned that if indeed “everything happens for a reason,” it is a reason that we determine for ourselves. I am the only agent giving my life meaning, my “purpose” is driven by myself, not by an invisible man in the sky. The idea of God is an assault on the freedom and dignity of humanity.

I have never needed the promise of eternal damnation or eternal bliss to validate my actions. I act because it feels good and right to me, not for the greed of heaven or the fear of hell.

God is an atrociously illogical idea insulting the beauty of life, and for this I must reject him/her/it entirely. 


Brandon Cooper, 21, Roseville, Calif., is a junior transfer to Portland State University from Sierra College. He’s working on a B.S. in political science and plans on going into journalism and writing (along with trying to finish Finnegans Wake).


Religion is false hope 

By Sonia Cruz-Rivera

The word atheist is often received with many surprised and confused stares. As a person of Puerto Rican descent, I witness Christianity, primarily Catholicism, enforced in our everyday lives. Before we eat, we are encouraged to make the sign of the cross with our thumbs. We attend church and Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes.

I and my family have outgrown these traditions, but there is one last thing that I as an atheist still do just to please my grandparents. In the Puerto Rican community you must say “bendición” (blessing) whenever you enter or leave someone’s home, especially the home of an elder. In return, those in the home must say “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you).

Those who do not follow this tradition are seen as disrespectful social outcasts. My relatives all know that I am a proud atheist, but I am still expected to say this. It is seen more as a respect issue toward those in the dwelling than a respect issue toward God.

Why do people choose religion? It is my idea that religion is false hope. The world is full of many great places, experiences, food and people. Yet these things are shadowed by the darkness that consumes our planet. Natural disasters, murder, war, suicide, rape, abuse, hunger, and disease all plague our world. There must be a better place. A place that does not include any of these things, right? Maybe the living world is just temporary, and when we die we live in an eternal paradise? 

People spend so much time focusing on the afterlife that they forget to live in the here and now. It consumes them like any other addiction. They want you to also do their drug so they can have more members and power for their group.

That sounds like a cult to me.  


Sonia Cruz-Rivera, 19, Lowell, Mass., was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. She’s a sophomore nursing student at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and volunteers at Lowell General Hospital’s Emergency Department. “I have so many passions. I want to be a nurse, a social anthropologist and a writer.”


Reason’s clearer lenses

By Kevin Granger

My deconversion was much more than losing my faith. It was seeing everything through new lenses. I no longer had to make excuses for God. I no longer had to ignore evidence. I no longer had to wonder why “God chose me.”

The first bruise taken by my faith happened when I was about 11. My grandparents are devoted to their faith and guided me from a young age into their religion. I asked them once if their dog would go to heaven if he died. Without hesitation and with complete confidence, they said that he would not. I wondered how they knew this.

The dog seemed to have emotion and some kind of intelligence and he dreamed. He was as organic as I was. How could they be so quick to say that he would just stop existing and that I would go to heaven? 

I had always loved science and knew that I wanted to study it when I got to university. After finally being exposed to modern evolutionary theory and ideas from other areas of science, I knew that I could no longer hold the bible as literally true.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that this was a fatal blow, because if you can decide what is and is not literally true in the bible, it loses all authority. I started to compare what religion and science have each given to the world. I realized that religion stands opposed to science not just in specifics like evolution; it stands totally against the philosophical underpinnings of science (e.g., materialism, naturalism, etc.).

I have always been enamored of the natural world. I was amazed at everything I learned in my science classes. I could also see tangible results. 

I see the world now as it is. I see it through much clearer lenses of skepticism, reason and curiosity.


Kevin Granger is studying chemistry, biochemistry and biology at the University of Arizona-Tucson. “I would like to go to medical school and graduate school to do research into developing scientifically rigorous medical practices.”


My transition to atheism

By Megan Hanna

When I was around 10, the pastor of my church said something in his sermon that really bothered me. He stated that Christianity is right and all other religions are wrong. I wondered what gave him the authority to make that claim.

I also wondered what made his claim any different from a Jewish rabbi saying Judaism is right and all others are wrong. My questioning of his authority led to questions about lessons he taught.  

The end of my sophomore year was a very rough time.  My dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in February and died in May. I wondered if my dad’s death was my fault for not believing in God.

Many people attempted to comfort me with remarks such as, “He’s in a better place now” and “God needed him in heaven.” None had the desired effect of making me feel better. I still had lost my dad and still didn’t have a satisfying answer. I wanted to believe that he was in heaven, but I knew that in reality he was just gone.

Through grieving and coming to terms with my dad’s death, I have realized that I don’t need God to give me answers. Life is full of random events; some are good and some are bad.  T think the comfort that Christians find in giving control to God is similar to the comfort I found in giving in to random chance.

Now I consider myself fully atheist. My transformation from theist to atheist was very long and at times painful. I want to use my experiences in turning away from religion to help others who may be in the process.

One way I have done this is by starting a Secular Student Alliance chapter at my school. I attend a small, religiously founded school but one that is open to other opinions. We have a membership of 30 and I hope to see expansion in the future. I am excited to be part of an active group on campus.


Megan Hanna, 20, Thedford, Neb., is a senior psychology major at Doane College. She’s involved in the Secular Student Alliance, Sertoma, symphonic wind ensemble and Chi Delta sorority.


Gods created by humans

By Lillian Huebner

The Greeks were 100% sure that Zeus existed, and look how that turned out. Whatever happened to Zeus? Where did his followers go? When did he cease to exist?

I can guarantee you that in ancient Greece, the believers in the gods really did believe in the god, just as much as people today believe in their gods. So what happened?

The truth is, Zeus ceased to exist when the people stopped believing in him. If there are no worshippers, no believers, then there is no one to say that the gods are real, no one to give them a presence in the real world. 

Every religion in the world is the same one — the religion of the creator, a religion that keeps humankind a pet, an experiment, inferior. Think about it! What makes “God” any different from Zeus? What makes Brahma any different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph? 

We create our masters, and don’t even complain at our slavery. I can’t live like that. I don’t believe in God because I believe in myself. I believe that, just like Zeus, someday this “God” will lose his believers.

And he will go down in the annals of history as just another myth created by terrified humans. Without me, the “gods” are nothing. 


Lillian Huebner, 18, was born and raised in Stockton, Mo. She’s attending the University of Oregon to major in journalism and minor in philosophy and/or religion.


From obsession to absolution

By Emerson Hardebeck

Slowly and painfully, I shed the devoutness that was really only obsessive-compulsive disorder, a psychological condition characterized by an inability to tolerate uncertainty. Its sufferers, myself included, often find Pascal’s Wager terrifying. I will never, ever go back.

I will never go back because although I can understand being curious about what caused the initial formation of protons and neutrons in our primordial universe, I am finally comfortable remaining curious, rather than artificially sating my wonder with a solution cobbled together from various human mythologies that were popularized before anyone even knew what a proton or neutron was.

I will never go back because I don’t think it’s productive to live in a world of binary morality, where telling friendly white lies or experiencing healthy sexual urges makes you a bad person, but being dipped in some special water makes you a good person, and where there’s no allowance for the simple fact that most ordinary people fall somewhere in the middle, neither entirely damned nor quite blessed.

I will never go back because I’ve endured enough arbitrary fear and ritualizing for one lifetime, thank you very much.

Most of all, I will never go back because while I do find humility and awe generally appealing, there’s no sensible argument to be made that the specific miracles or evidence or scripture or testimonials that support Christianity are any more or less convincing than those that support Islam, or Buddhism, or Jainism, or even the twisted, amalgamated creed invented by my preadolescent self. They’re all equivalent. 

And so, in rejecting any one of these beliefs, I happily reject them all.


Emerson Hardebeck, 20, a native of Olympia, Wash., is studying English literature as a junior at Arizona State University. He has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as he can remember.



In charge of my own life

By Megumi Kato

I am the one who mustered up the strength to push through the obstacles. It was my choice to fight back. God was not steering my car as I sat blindly in the passenger’s seat hoping for the best.

He was not there as I was battling my eating disorder. He didn’t help me decide that I needed to take control of my roller coaster lifestyle, nor did he bring me the beautiful one that I’m living today. 

Now, don’t take those last couple of sentiments to mean that I wrote off God’s existence because I’ve gone through some sucky times, because that’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I’m just saying that I believe that you are the only person who makes your life what it is.  

As a nonbeliever, I can, metaphorically, jump headfirst out of a plane, not hoping that God will zap me some wings so that I can fly, but instead, jump with a parachute, ready to guide myself to safety.

Sure, sometimes it’s scary, but I know I can figure it out.


Megumi Kato, 19, Sacramento, Calif., is studying cosmetology at Paul Mitchell: The School.


Questioning, then breaking away

By Jake T. Raymond

I spent 17 years of my life in an old brick building. At first, all I did was color pages with the baby Jesus and crosses on them. Later, I watched the instructor hold up picture books with arks and animals.

When my head got higher than the pews, I attended traditional services, where we’d sing songs in tone-deaf voices and listen to our enthusiastic preacher attempt to decode barely comprehensible scriptures.

But something didn’t feel right. I had questions, questions that no one could answer, questions that I was in fact discouraged from asking. One in particular that the church failed to answer was, “How could a being who loved us (God), give us free will and then punish us for using it?”

Throughout the bible, there are dozens of events that show the risks involved in using free will. Killings, fear, revenge, destruction and curses — the bible says God has done them all. I learned to stop asking questions. I kept my thoughts to myself, but continued to wonder.

After 17 years of wondering, I finally walked out of my church for the last time. “It was in the bible” was not a good enough reason for me. My thoughts, my questions, my ideas — all of them were suppressed unless they were the exact thoughts championed by the church.

“God is love,” everyone says, but the stories in the bible include actions that I find questionable. Yet there is diversity and love outside of the bible that is real. Friends and family are real, as are the multitude of beliefs and the people on Earth that make the world such an interesting place.

God is supposed to represent good. I want to focus on the good I see in this world, not on a good that I am told exists but isn’t authentic or real.


Jake Raymond, 20, Monroe, Mich., attends Michigan Technological University in Houghton. He’s a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering with an interest in construction trades,


Gods are for the weak

By Diana Vasquez-Aliaga

Schools in Peru teach religion alongside reading and math. Every day before recess, we learned the story of the son who turned water into wine and was later crucified by the evil Romans. We even had a comic book of the life of Jesus. A lot of this did not make much sense to me. 

Although sometimes I would pray on my own and hope God came to the rescue, he never did. As I became more aware of the world, I learned about wars and diseases and hunger plaguing people all around the world. How could God, who I was told is endlessly kind and fair, let this happen?

I prayed for it to stop. I prayed for food for everyone and for the homeless to find a home. This didn’t happen. Why did all these terrible things happen to people who clearly did not deserve it? Maybe God was not as involved or caring as we thought he was. 

It was sometime after that when my 13-year-old mind put it all together: There is no God. He never shows up when he’s needed, he lets innocent people suffer, he does not answer my begging prayers and scientific discoveries explain so-called “miracles.”

He has done nothing to prove himself real. Although I did not know the word “atheist,” I think that was when I became one. 


Diana Vasquez-Aliaga, 19, is a native of Cajamarca, Peru. She’s a sophomore at the University of Arizona-Tucson. where she intends to choose a science major and Italian minor.

Freedom From Religion Foundation