Second place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by David Andexler

Checking a box marked ‘atheist’

FFRF awarded David $2,000 for his essay.

By David Andexler

It was unusual for a question to bother me in the way that this one did. Ostensibly, the question about my religious affiliation was fair, though possibly irrelevant, for a university application, but my answer would be symbolic of the identity I would assume as I entered the next stage of my life. At that instant, the question had the power to bring my pen to a halt.

I was mildly amused that my inquisitors had been kind enough to provide me with a list of the four most common and, perhaps, the four most acceptable answers. At the not-so-tender age of 18, I was tasked with the minor feat of determining the eternal fate of my soul with nothing more than a checked box. Pick the one that best describes you: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish.

Since birth, I’ve had ceaseless exposure to evangelical teachings. I was given the name David, after a biblical character idolized as a paragon of religious virtue, “a man after God’s own heart,” and it soon became clear that expectations for me were high. Twice a week I would be whisked off to spend my evening memorizing bible verses and talking to Jesus. Based on what I was told, he was a pretty decent guy. The dialogues I had with Jesus began to seem more like monologues as I became suspicious of their one-sided nature.

I voiced my concerns to the group leader, who promptly brushed me off with a vague response that temporarily satisfied me.

My religious fervor was matched only by my passion for science. I spent every free minute immersed in a science book, learning all that I could about the mechanisms that drive the natural world. My parents went to great lengths to support my scientific education, something for which I’m inexpressibly thankful, despite simultaneous emphasis on religious education.

My grandfather also played a significant role in my scientific education by fostering my love of books. Though he was not formally educated, he was a well-read and intellectual man. Some days he would talk to me about science, about the beauty of the natural world and the sense of awe that we should feel as we observe it.

Religion began losing its hold on my mind when I was able to recognize that significant tension existed between the tenets of my religion and the discoveries made by the scientific community. After a conversation with my grandfather, this tension couldn’t be ignored any longer.

When I was about 11, we were sitting opposite one another in his home, quietly reading our books. “David,” he began, “What are you reading today?”
I handed him my book. Something else was on his mind, for he looked at the cover briefly before speaking again.

“Do you know the most important question that can be asked?” he said. I shook my head. “The most important question that can be asked is the question of ‘Why?’ If you can give a good answer to that question, that’s how you know that what you believe is true. That’s why science works. It tells us why the natural world is the way it is.”

In that moment he affirmed, perhaps not intentionally, what I refused to acknowledge on my own: The fact that what I believed about religion could not stand up to this fundamental question of “Why?” Science, which advances through the systematic evaluation of evidence for a particular claim, must make a rather large exception for the claims of religion if the two are to exist in harmony. I couldn’t justify making that exception.

In the years that followed this intellectual awakening, I maintained the outward appearance of a Christian, fearing social repercussions and a lingering sense of eternal damnation. For years I was haunted by the phantasms of hellfire, despite knowing, intellectually, that I had no reason to fear such torment.

It wasn’t easy wearing the Christian disguise; after all, it wasn’t easy to gloss over the horrific morality of the bible, the conveniently silent nature of God and the terribly convoluted revelation of a supposedly omniscient being.

I knew that prayer was a crapshoot, often being far more effective as an act of assurance for other believers than as an actual agent of change. I found myself growing tired of crafting excuses to rationalize my beliefs.

But as I sat on the cusp of higher education, I was no longer content with donning the trappings of make believe by masquerading as a Christian, a religion whose adherents desperately wanted to stifle my dissent. I looked down at the four choices listed on my university application, picked up my pen and began to write.

Like my namesake, I made a decision to fight against the proverbial Philistine threatening to conquer that which I hold most dear: my intellectual integrity. On that day, I chose to remove the mask that I had worn for so long, when, in blue pen, I wrote in the word “atheist” with a checked box next to it.

David Andexler, 21, was raised in the rural community of Rootstown, Iowa, and is a senior at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He will graduate in 2015 with a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in history. He is vice president of academic affairs for Duquesne’s Student Government Association and vice chair of external communications for the Pittsburgh Student Government Council and belongs to the Secular Student Alliance.

Freedom From Religion Foundation