First place 2016 Michael Hakeem Memorial College: Cathedral flame grows dimmer by the day: By Adam Simmons

FFRF awarded Adam $3,000.

By Adam Simmons

I remember staring at it. The moon lay shrouded behind a trail of clouds, which cast streaks across the grey stone as they passed. On either side, towers loomed over the face of the courtyard. I remember looking up at its broad, Gothic windows and fixing my attention on what appeared to be a single candle that flickered on one of the upper floors. It reminded me of my youth — the days where I would sit quietly in church, listening to the pastor deliver his sermon on the grace of God and crucifixion of his son.

I never liked church as a boy; I could never wrap my head around the concept of salvation. In truth, there was little to nothing I could wrap my head around. It all seemed so foreign and complex. God creating man, setting up the perfect scenario for him to sin, then condemning all of his progeny to eternal damnation, saving only those few whom he had predestined. Why punish them for something they had no control over? Better yet, why create a hell in the first place and why make it eternal? But as the mind of a child is vulnerable to the slightest impressions, I became the mold of my parents’ desires.

I was sent to a Christian “school,” where I was limited to Christian “science” and was forced to attend daily chapel services and take bible classes. Like a rat in a glorified Skinner box, I was taught what to say, what to do, and, most importantly, what to think. And when the evil demon of rationality came in to “test my faith,” I was warned of the fire and brimstone that was to face me if I continued to question The Almighty.

So, with the threat of hell always at my side, I took it upon myself to understand the bible. Sure, my parents had me read through all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments by the time I was 9, but I had yet to learn of the philosophy. In consequence, I read everything from Aquinas to Kierkegaard, still driven by Pascal’s Wager to elude my fate. Yet even this was not enough to convince me. The arguments were unsound, and the evidence was as solid as the communion wine.

A few weeks later, as the pastor began one of his polished sermons that I had heard at least 20 times before, I came to a realization. I recognized that even if I spent my whole life going to the seminary and the most prestigious divinity school in the United States trying to rationalize a belief in God, it would always be just that — a rationalization stemming from nothing more than a fear of hell. It would be a life founded upon confirmation bias and voluntary ignorance.

I realized that even if I “devoted my life to Him” and at the end of it all I still felt that I didn’t actually believe — that the holy spirit had never entered me — then I would just end up in hell anyway. After relating these thoughts to my pastor, he told me that I simply had to wait for the Lord to reveal himself to me.

“So,” I said, “all I have to do is wait until I am so desperate that I begin to tell myself that he has shown himself to me and eventually, through self-fulfilling prophecy, become so deranged that I actually come to believe it.” I broke out in a loud laugh and continued. “And even if I could convince myself through years of self-abuse and conditioning, the faith would still be false and I would still be destined for hell.” The laugh turned into a cathartic cry. I had finally disencumbered myself of religion.

The flame had grown a little dimmer now in the cathedral, and I wondered if it would ever die out. What has kept it alive for so long? After years of thought, we are no closer to proving the existence of God. All the arguments — cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral — merely derive God as a necessity from false premises and circular claims. Yet the flame burns on a brittle wick.

Adam, 19, was born in Nashville and attends the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He enjoys reading and writing poetry, short stories, aphorisms, novels and philosophical treatises.

Freedom From Religion Foundation