Second place: High school essay contest, freethinkers of color by Ananya Garg

Lifting the religious curtain

FFRF awarded Ananya $2,000.

By Ananya Garg

At my public high school, I was often afraid to speak about what I believed (or didn’t believe). In freshman English, I had a teacher who was religious and vocal about it. When she discussed her religion in class, I felt as if there was something wrong with me. It made me feel very alone. My classmates who shared her views tended to be her favorites.
In this class we read Peace Like a River, a book that has religious allusions, including obvious references to the bible and a character equivalent to Jesus. When I was brave enough to share my thoughts on topics such as free will and questioning whether a higher power exists, I was assailed for my disbelief. My classmates told me I was attacking their religion and being disrespectful, when all I wanted to do was question what the book was really about and see past the religious curtain.

When people ask me why I’m an atheist, I want to ask, “Why aren’t you an atheist?” I prefer to believe things based on evidence and facts. For example, 2 + 3 = 5 is an objective truth whether you are a Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Now, take an example of something that’s not an objective truth: race.

Someone considered “black” in the U.S. might be considered “white” in Brazil, where race is more complicated. The idea of race changes from culture to culture, showing that it is a social construct. This is how religion works. People have come up with their own versions of gods and religions, complete with customs, rules and rituals.

People often think of atheists as immoral. How are we supposed to know what to do if we don’t have a book to tell us? The answer is that I’m a decent human being. I don’t need a book to tell me that hurting others is wrong. Do you really need a commandment to tell you not to kill other people?

Most people have never met an atheist, and they only have preconceived notions of what atheists are. Nonbelievers often don’t feel safe coming out as atheist because of these preconceived notions. We should encourage more people to be open about their atheism. Despite discomfort at the beginning, we need to take the first step and declare our atheism. I proudly tell people I’m an atheist and do my best to answer their questions.
At my high school, I had a meeting with my college counselor. After we talked, she gestured at the statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god on her desk. “That’s my little Ganesha,” she said, assuming that I’d take an interest because of my Indian heritage. I told her that I was an atheist. She was surprised.

“Are you a Hindu?” I asked her. “No, I just love the energy he brings me,” she answered.
“Do you know the story behind Ganesha?” I asked her, again, already knowing the answer.
So I plunged into the story of Ganesha, whose picture adorns my mother’s dresser. Long story short, Shiva (Ganesha’s father) gets mad at him and chops off his head. Once he realizes his mistake, he orders his subjects to go out and bring the head of the first baby they see. This happens to be an unfortunate baby elephant. The men bring the head and Shiva uses his god magic to fuse it to Ganesha, bringing him back to life (now with just a bit more of an affinity for peanuts, perhaps).

My counselor was horrified by this story, just as anyone would be. There are disturbing stories like this in all religions. It’s just that we hear them from childhood and never question them.

By lifting the lovely curtain that hides the true colors of religion, we can help people see reality.

Ananya Garg, 18, Woodinville, Wash., will attend the University of Washington-Seattle. She is undecided about her major but envisions pursuing a Ph.D. She likes art and discussing politics.

Freedom From Religion Foundation