2017 Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest Fourth Place (tie) By Gabrielle Goldworm

Empathy, not God, is basis for morality

FFRF awarded Gabrielle $750 for her essay.

By Gabrielle Goldworm

It is not an exaggeration to say that my father and I were likely the only “true” atheists in my town. I grew up in a red state — one of the reddest, in fact. Idaho was one of only four states that would have still gone red had Millennials voted en masse, and like most deeply red states, life there comes with a healthy dose of guns, gumption and God.

There were two big groups in my tiny town of Sandpoint: the Mormons and the Mennonites, though the Jehovah’s Witnesses could give them a run for their money.

Then there was the odd Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, or pseudo-spiritual hippy dippy church that housed all the noncommittal folks scattered across the landscape. In Sandpoint, even if you weren’t religious, you were spiritual.

My parents moved to this picturesque town from the East Coast, bringing with them a cynicism that made them stick out like sore thumbs and that made me come off as just a bit odd to my spiritual, western classmates. I was born there; I grew up in the pretty incubator that was Sandpoint, Idaho, but growing up different admittedly made it hard.

Growing up atheist made it even harder.

I can remember in shining detail what it felt like at age 6 to tell my classmates that I didn’t believe in God, and have them look horrified or confused. I can remember what it was like to have missionaries show up on my doorstep every other weekend and ask me if I was sure I didn’t want to just change my whole perception of reality.

I remember sitting in class in third grade, refusing to apologize to a girl who claimed that a joke I had made had been attacking “her God,” and having my parents called because of it. I can remember my first boyfriend, a Mormon, dating me because I was a form of rebellion, and knowing that his parents hated me, even though they would never say it.

Kids hate feeling left out, and nothing makes for a less attractive friend then someone who doesn’t even perceive the universe in the same manner as you.

One would think that all this would have worn me down. Actually, it was quite the opposite. I firmly believe that growing up in that environment reinforced my conviction that you don’t need God to have morals, and you certainly don’t need to be a nonbeliever to lack them.

The Mennonite men in my town walked around in modern clothing, smoking, drinking and swearing all they liked, while their wives and daughters trailed behind them, dressing and speaking like something out of “Little House on the Prairie.” Many of the Mormons in my high school were hardcore potheads, who smoked and snuck out to eat coffee ice cream at the beach as their own form of teenage rebellion. Many of the Mormon men in my town had converted in order to marry hot women who wouldn’t sleep with them otherwise.

Many of the most staunch believers were former abusers, drug addicts or basic misanthropes who found themselves at rock bottom and climbed onto the pedestal of organized religion so that they could look down on the nonbelievers, those still “fumbling in darkness,” and shake their heads.

I never did drugs in high school. I never stole, never bullied and never treated someone differently because of what they believed. I cannot say the same for most of my God-fearing peers. My morals come from empathy and a deep desire to see the human race succeed and better itself, influenced by my family and close friends.

I do not “hate” the concept of God; I consider myself ambivalent. But I didn’t need God to be a good kid, and I don’t need him to be a good adult.

Gabrielle, 19, is from Sandpoint, Idaho, and attends Seton Hall University, majoring in international relations. She enjoys writing and reading fiction and nonfiction, especially regarding atheism. After graduation, she hopes to work in the field of national security and travel around the world. She is a member of the Secular Student Alliance.

Freedom From Religion Foundation