First place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Bijan Parandeh

Raised in the Church of Costco

By Bijan Parandeh

FFRF awarded Bijan $3,000 for his essay.

Religion has always been foreign to me; I was part of neither the club that went to church nor the one that went to temple. When my second-grade classmates asked me where my family went on weekends, my answer was natural: My father takes us to Costco.

I have matured into a committed supporter of the Church of Costco. I worked there for a year during college and even have my own executive card now. Although as a child I was not able to appreciate how witty my answer was, as I grew older, going to Costco on the weekends actualized itself into a rejection of religion in its entirety.

My distaste for religion started early because as a child I could not understand believing in something or someone imaginary. I always loved animals and nature documentaries. I would go to the beach and see and touch the same animals I saw on TV. But how could I have that same experience with something hocus-pocus like God?

The discourse at my family’s dinner table was frequently far outside the range of a typical household. Sex, politics, philosophy ­­— I remember one dinner my grandparents discussed whether or not bisexuality could be considered a fetish.

To me, debating confusing or questionable issues was natural, but I learned at school that other students looked to a book to tell them how to think. I never understood how my best friend could be more confident after an explanation from his priest than after debating it for hours at my dinner table. Questioning everything primed me early for atheism.

One major justification for my atheism is political philosophy. I spent my first year of college living with my great-aunt and uncle in California, both of them Iranian leftist activists in the 1970s. Witnessing their discussions with friends, most of whom they had met through political networks in the 1970s, taught me how useless religion is at a political level.

During the Iranian revolution, many intellectual critics of the shah, like my great-aunt, were jailed. Others were executed. Religious leaders were often seen as too sacred to be imprisoned. This allowed them to establish themselves quickly and take advantage of a dissatisfied and religious populace.

The Islamic dogma became a façade for a political system, and its repercussions are seen in Iran’s current human rights abuses. The Islamic system in Iran mirrors that of all religions and the destruction it has created throughout history.

A passion to fight this mentality motivated me to become politically active for the first time with the campus club “Left Alternative.” We campaigned for better quality classrooms and lower tuition. As a club revolving around socialist tenets, a secular mentality was critical in order to believe in our message.

My atheist convictions also influenced my decision to finally come out as gay last year. My belief in science and disregard for religious explanations of homosexuality pushed me to confidently say that it is an innate part of who I am. If I were religious, I may have never come out as gay.

I was most nervous to come out to my 80-year-old Iranian grandmother. Although she was not religious, she was from a different generation and culture, and I was terrified she would be disappointed. But as a doctor, she responded in the most loving way anyone could. She told me with elegance, how as a doctor, she knew it was something out of my control and I should never be ashamed of it.

As an ophthalmologist, she treated all her patients with equal dedication regardless of their backgrounds. This is an excellent example of how secular humanism expands your compassion and love for other people. Perhaps this mentality is what motivates me to become a doctor.

This is epitomized in the statue of Louis Pasteur in front of the Cook County Hospital in Chicago, where I walk to work in a pathology lab studying cancer prevention. The statue reads, “One doesn’t ask of one who suffers what is your country and what is your religion. One merely says, you suffer. This is enough for me. You belong to me and I shall help you.” (Louis Pasteur)
As ridiculous as turning Costco into a religion sounds, it illustrates how absurd organized religion is. Both are essentially exclusive clubs. You can’t shop at Sam’s Club with a Costco card, and who would want to anyway? You have to pay monthly dues to become part of a group that touts itself as better than the rest.

For my family, Costco was a place to see our friends and other members of our community, just like a church is. I choose to live my life without religion because dogma limits my thought process, my compassion for others and, ultimately, my happiness.

And I don’t need a book to tell me what happy is. Bijan Parandeh, 21, was born in Vancouver, B.C., and is a senior majoring in biology with a premed focus at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “I love lifting weights, yoga, playing the tombak (a Persian drum), swimming in the wetlands of Illinois and researching cancer in the lab.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation