Sixth place (tie): Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Anvita Patwardhan

Refusing to shut up and believe

Anvita received $400 for her essay.

By Anvita Patwardhan

One day in class as we were discussing the afterlife and salvation, I asked my eighth-grade Baptist Christian teacher this: “What happens to people who die who have never heard of Jesus? Are they all going to hell?”

She gave me a look that delicately informed me that she thought it was one of the most idiotic questions she’d ever heard. Her eyes scanned the room as though hunting for answers in the air before slowly answering, “Anyone who reaches a certain age will know about him.”

What a cop-out, I thought. I pressed, “What if they die as a baby?”

Pause. Another look of loathing. “I don’t know everything,” she spat.

With that, the conversation died, but the atmosphere was nuanced by a message that remained very much alive: I should just shut up. Never question what is taught, because it might shake my faith. So naturally, as the year proceeded, I did exactly the opposite. Needless to say, I wasn’t too well-accepted. The teacher told parents that I was arrogant and believed myself to be better than everyone else.

I spent most of my life in a private school that taught me to hate. I should hate homosexuals, the poor, transgendered people, Democrats, feminism, but above all, anyone who dares to question the truth of the Gospel. So the ironic statement arises: Why can’t I question it? That question lingered with me until the end of eighth grade, when I was selected as one of the top three in my class.

I was given the privilege of delivering a graduation speech, an opportunity to show a voice that I’d never expressed, a voice of rebellion. I was not explicitly an atheist at the time, just a skeptic, and while I would have loved to have given a speech peppered with expletives before marching out of my eight-year hellhole, I went with a subtler approach.

My speech consisted of nonreligious quotes about saying goodbye, what we can expect in the future and, most importantly, the significance of rationality. “Above all, question everything. Question, else fall victim to gullibility. Question, even if you can’t find the answer, but if only to challenge yourself,” I concluded.

Questions are the bane of religious fundamentalism. This was my coming out. Perhaps it wasn’t as explicit as when I was 16 and decided to tell my Twitter feed that I wouldn’t be going to church anymore when I could just attend its spitting image: my school’s mythology class.

My transition from skepticism to atheism was sparked by the coming out of my friend as a bisexual, a fact I undoubtedly found hard to accept. True to my education, I wondered if she was only doing it for the attention. She showed me a pie chart that proved to me that humor can sometimes be the most persuasive tool in one’s arsenal. It was titled “Consequences of gay marriage” with five sector labels in its legend: “Russia invades, Judgment Day begins, Families are destroyed, Ice caps melt, and Gays marry.”

Through my laughter, I realized that gay marriage harmed nobody, but that condemning it was an act of immoral discrimination.

Anywhere I could, I spoke out for those affected by the immense, adverse impact of religion of which my teachers never taught, such as the denial of science in an attempt to change school curriculum and restricting condom use and spreading HIV in Africa. I spoke out for the women, homosexuals and transgender people oppressed by religion. I spoke out for the millions of children paralyzed with fear at the idea of burning for an eternity. Now I understand why my Baptist teacher was so angry with my questioning. It wasn’t her religion I was questioning — it was her identity.

That dialogue was the catalyst to foster my growing skepticism, which molded my identity to make me the award-winning debater I am today and the law student I aspire to be.

My coming out gave me a voice, a resounding cry of acumen and freethought that indelibly sculpted and cultivated my identity.

Anvita Patwardhan, 21, Newark, Calif., attended Chabot College before transferring to UC-Berkeley, where she’s a junior English major.

Freedom From Religion Foundation