Fifth place (tie): Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Marcus Andrews

Working for human(ist) rights

FFRF awarded Marcus $500 for his essay.

By Marcus Andrews

I certainly wasn’t “raised atheist,” as countless people ask me, either out of contempt or ignorance. I was raised to be curious and healthily skeptical and not to blindly follow authority or tradition for their sake alone.

While my parents could be considered atheists or humanists like me, they never pushed me toward unbelief. I did not even know the full meaning of the word “atheist” until my early teens, when I found it on my own. Simply put, Sundays for our family were not for church, but for trips to the science museum or art museum or zoo, for spending time with friends and family and for seeking out new experiences.

When I grew old enough to consider religion, the natural outcome was atheism, but being that kid whose family never went to church was at best weird and sometimes confusing and uncomfortable. When I went to a funeral or other religious function, often with our extended family, we just didn’t quite fit in. My parents had over the years refined the art of respectfully going through the motions and herded my brother and me along, discreetly telling us when to stand up, bow our heads or just sit quietly.

But I was always acutely aware that every piece of the ritual was empty to us, and that everyone else knew that while I halfheartedly moved my mouth, nothing like the Lord’s Prayer or whatever the psalm of the occasion was, was coming out.

While I always knew that we were different and understood the unease it could create, I’m not sure it ever bothered me enough as to ever want to conform. At every step in my growth as a nonbeliever, I had at least some sense (along with a stubborn affinity for contrarianism) that I wasn’t really missing out.

I still remember what might just be my first solo encounter with unbelief. I have no idea what started this profound first-grade conversation, but it ended with the girl across the table informing me that men who eat pork “go down into the fire.” The student teacher a few feet away hurried over to assure us that no one was going to hell just then.

Mixed with a subtle, naïve worry that I just might need to start being more careful with whatever unseen forces were out there, I could not shake the more overpowering thought of how ridiculous and cruel such a belief could be. Is that really what a god does? Punishing otherwise good people for something so arbitrary, that I myself do all the time? Even at that young age I understood that I was fairly alone in my class having no regular religious custom to attend, but that this was the first of many moments to come where I grew much more content with that.

By the end of middle school, I understood that I was in fact an atheist, even if I didn’t quite know the full meaning and implications yet. I was comfortable being different, even if I did not go to any effort to advertise it if I didn’t have to, understanding that I was part of a not-so-tolerated minority.

But as I moved through high school, I discovered the intellectual foundations that I had been missing, first in YouTube clips of scholars like Dawkins and Hitchens and later in their writing. I finally understood that I was not alone and that my life was not missing something.

Now there’s no stopping me. My rejection of the supernatural and commitment to understanding and advancing myself and humanity, is the absolute basis for everything I do. It guides me to value every second of this one short life, and it directs me to pursue a life dedicated to making society better for all. It is the reason I study international relations with a goal to create a world where opportunity and human rights prevail over artificial national differences and religious traditions.

I never hesitate to express humanist ideas because I know that the only way to attain this ideal world is for everyone to understand that there is much more to this universe than ancient tradition, and that humanity can and must do better.

In this endeavor, I keep Hitchens’ words with me every day: “Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.” I discover more of each continually, renewing my resolve to work for a world ever more wonderful.

Marcus Andrews, 20, was raised in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and is a junior at Ohio State University. He’s double majoring in political science and international studies, with focuses in international relations and diplomacy.

Freedom From Religion Foundation