Fourth Place 2016 Michael Hakeem Memorial College: My wishes have changed for the better: By Leah Kennedy

FFRF awarded Leah $750.

By Leah Kennedy

When I was in second grade, my teacher gave the class the following journal prompt: “If you had three wishes, what would you do?”

I wrote that I would use the wishes to ask for more wishes until I had as many wishes as there are people in the world. Then, I would wish for each individual person to be “saved,” I stated.

In other words, as a 7-year-old, I wanted to make the entire world Christian. As I was in a conservative Christian school located in the South, my teacher wrote a note on the assignment about how sweet my thoughts were.

I was raised as a nondenominational evangelical Christian, and prior to the age of 16, I never would have imagined that one day I might question the beliefs that I had been taught. I considered my faith to be the foundation of everything I knew. It was my duty to bring nonbelievers to the light of Christ.

I’m embarrassed to admit that each atheist, agnostic and gay person I knew was put on a list that I read in my prayers every night. My intentions were never evil; I simply hated the idea of any person going to hell and wanted to prevent it through prayer.
Midway through high school, my perspective unexpectedly shifted. I was struggling with depression, and rather than finding me the help I needed, my mother insisted that it was a spiritual problem and told me I was influenced by demons.

My relationship with my parents began to crumble, and during a philosophy class, I found myself faced with alternate ways of thinking for the first time. As I began to think more critically, however, I realized that I did not know for certain that God existed. I struggled with my doubts for months, until finally, I began to call myself agnostic, first in private and then publicly.

At first, I thought this was a temporary “crisis of faith.” I had realized that my beliefs came solely from indoctrination. Surely God was real, and by wiping my slate clean and entering the world with no beliefs, I was giving God a chance to reveal himself to me. I figured that God would send me a sign that would lead me back into the faith stronger than before. No signs ever appeared to me, however, and I have now been an atheist for six years.

In truth, I like myself better as an atheist than I ever did as a Christian. As a Christian, I constantly felt inadequate. I was raised to be humble, but this translated to denying any sense of self-esteem as pride. My straight-A report cards and artistic achievements were brushed aside as gifts from God rather than the result of my hard work.

In the specific brand of Christianity in which I was raised, there was a sense of impending doom that seemed to justify inaction. Although I felt passionate about many issues of social justice, I rarely took action because I thought that Jesus would soon return and end this “broken” world.

As an atheist, however, I have assumed the responsibility to fight for social justice.

In college, finally away from my family, I took on projects to fight human trafficking, labor rights violations, sexism and homophobia. I became empowered and passionate about empowering others.

Because I am all too familiar with evangelical mindsets, I do not try to convert those around me to atheism. I do, however, try to set a good example of what an atheist is by working with people of diverse beliefs in order to bring about social change.

I have met Christians who are empowered by their faith. I have also met atheists who do harm to the label through their rudeness to those who are religious. Although my experiences led me to atheism, I ultimately believe that a person’s worldview, whether secular or religious, should empower them. That is my only wish.

Leah, 22, was born in Baton Rouge, La., and attended the University of Oklahoma, where she graduated as the Outstanding Senior of the Weitzenhoffer Family College of Fine Arts. She is now studying at NYU’s prestigious Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. She is active in labor rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, anti-human trafficking and women’s rights.

Freedom From Religion Foundation