2017 Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest First Place By Max Stinson 

The most reliable form of morality

FFRF awarded Max $3,000 for his first-place essay.

By Max Stinson

As an African-American child growing up in the Bible Belt, I was given only one option for a religion to follow: Christianity. The amount of Jesus-related instruction I received was suffocating; people of other religious groups (or those without religion) were demonized both in my church and at home.

At the age of 7, I began asking questions, something that was strongly discouraged in my church. By age 11, I decided there was not enough evidence for the “truth” of the bible, or the existence of the god therein. By age 17, I realized that there wasn’t enough evidence for the existence of any gods, and declared myself an atheist.

During my freshman year of college, an on-campus organization held an event called “Destereotyping Day.” They handed out T-shirts with the words, “I am . . . but I am not . . .” with blank spaces after the ellipses, which were to be filled with a minority group and a stereotype associated with that group. Mine read, “I am an atheist, but I am not a moral reprobate.”

I wore the shirt to my classes the next day. When I sat down at a desk in my psychology class, the girl in the seat next to mine read my shirt and promptly moved to the other side of the room. This was a girl with whom I’d conversed and even had a few study sessions. Why was she suddenly so repulsed?

At lunchtime that day, I spotted her, eating alone. I took a deep breath and sat at her table without asking permission. She seemed nervous, fumbling with her fork in one hand and fidgeting with the cross dangling from the chain of her necklace with the other. I wasted no time with pleasantries.

“Why’d you run from me this morning?” I asked, attempting to make eye contact, but failing to capture her shifting gaze.

“I didn’t run,” she said in defense. “I just kinda . . . well, you know, I’m a Christian. I just can’t hang out with someone who has no morals.”

“I have plenty of morals,” I responded, fighting to keep my temper under control. “You can be moral without having a religion.”

“I mean, sure, you can.” She finally let her eyes meet mine. “But there’s no basis for it. Mine is based on the bible. Yours is based on what feels right to you, and that’s just . . . unreliable.”

I pondered that statement that night. I thought about my morality, the things I considered to be wrong and the things I considered to be right, and why I held those opinions. Eventually, I figured it out.

My morals are based on treating people like people — that is, treating people in the way that causes the least harm and the most good. Morality should be based on a recognition that all people intrinsically deserve the right to life, liberty, property and health care; thus, murder is wrong because it violates a person’s right to life, and volunteering to charity organizations is good because it helps to secure the rights of others.

This type of morality, one that is based on people rather than a book, is superior to one that is based on a religious text. Slavery, rape, and child abuse are deemed immoral by our society, but are permitted or even encouraged in the holy books of countless religions worldwide. Following the basis of what is fair has no downside, except to those who wish to oppress.

The purest morality is one that is based on fairness, and this is the moral code to which I subscribe. America has a history of stripping people of their rights based on things as trivial as skin pigmentation, gender, and sexual orientation, and those centuries of oppression were justified by using the bible.

An equality-based moral code is one that disallows such injustice, and therefore is the most reliable form of morality.

Max, 19, is from Spartanburg, S.C., and is a sophomore at the University of South Carolina Upstate. He is a member of the Upstate Freethinkers Club, president of the university’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a tutor in the Writing Center, and a published poet. He is looking to publish his first novel within the year. After graduation, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in English.

Freedom From Religion Foundation