Third Place 2016 Michael Hakeem Memorial College: Following the path of my moral compass: By Katherine Gramling

FFRF awarded Katherine $1,000.

By Katherine Gramling

Growing up in the Deep South, I was expected to be an observing, unquestioning Christian. As a young freethinker, I was criticized for my nonbelief. This social norm of Christianity is a large reason I traveled north and went to college in Minnesota.

When my family moved to Georgia in 2006, we started attending church, which was something we had never regularly done before. I became very involved in the Methodist church, eventually attending multiple Christian youth groups a week, participating in a Christian club at my high school, and even working in the church nursery for two years. This intense exposure to the Christian faith was at first fulfilling, but as I grew older I started questioning the things I once accepted as truth. I began on a freethinking journey that would end in atheism, all the while finding more certainty and happiness along the way.

Since I had been very involved with the church in my younger years, I had ample exposure to modern Christian theory. As I got older, I started questioning several biblical themes that preached misogyny, genocide and slavery. I could not rationalize these atrocities. Christians are supposed to love and rejoice in the fellowship of all people, yet I often felt there was an undercurrent of distaste and misunderstanding toward nonbelievers. My feelings were greatly intensified as I started to identify less with the church and more with nonbelief.

There were several times throughout my high school experience when I felt ostracized for being a freethinker. At one point, I was completely excluded from my high school swim team for declining to pray with them before a meet. It was an extremely public display. Bleachers of parents and friends watched as one girl sat alone, apart from her team, while everyone else participated in a communal prayer that blurred the line between church and state. These exclusionary practices repel not only nonbelievers, but everyone who is not a Christian, and therein lies a huge problem with religion in general.

When I look at our world today, I see a world in which religious affiliation merely serves to divide our people and extend modes of power and historical conflicts. Because of this destructive legacy, it was important for me to find a moral compass that does not carry thousands of years of hurt. I found that moral code within myself. Many religious people ask us atheists how we can be moral humans without a religious canon to abide by. I always answer that it is quite simple: We are rational beings who are able to distinguish right from wrong. Even when there are infinite shades of grey in the moral spectra, each person learns through both nature and nurture how to act in society, regardless of religious affiliation.

Religious concern for morality culminates in another common question, this one regarding the afterlife. As an atheist, I don’t believe in an afterlife. As a person of science, I know chemistry answers our questions on eventuality. Our very beings decompose to replenish the Earth in a natural cycle that allows humanity to sustain itself.

Yet many will ask how I operate without hope for an afterlife. I do not need the looming promise of an afterlife in paradise to be a good person. I do not need the threat of eternal damnation to act humanely. I also do not need either of these promises to ease my fears of death. When nothing is there, there is nothing to be afraid of, and that’s a freeing feeling.

Despite the comfort I have found in atheism, atheists are labeled as one of the most distrusted minorities in America. As a happy freethinker, this is a sobering thought. Therefore, my goal is to enlighten others so that they may see that we are not immoral beings, but simply those who have found a moral compass outside the divisive reigns of religion.

Katherine, 19, grew up in Warner Robins, Ga., and is a student at the University of Minnesota. She is a member of Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) at the U of M and enjoys walking, movies, swimming and science.

Freedom From Religion Foundation