It Began With a Question: Andrea Nostramo

College Essay Contest – Third Place (Tie)

The following essay was one of two essays that tied for third place in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2008 college essay competition. The prize for third place is a $500 cash scholarship.

by Andrea Nostramo

My lack of faith is just as important to me as believers’ faith is to them. I look to it for guidance, cling to it for strength, and lean on it for comfort. My lack of faith has a long history, but mostly it began with questioning–something everyone should do, always. Without questions there can be no answers, no discoveries, no growth, and above all else, no truth.

I was raised by two devoted and loving parents, of two very different religions. My mother is Jewish, my father Catholic. I thought that religion was kind of like nationality–you simply were what your parents were. I was in grade school when someone asked me what religion I was, to which I replied, “Half-Jewish and half-Catholic.”

“You can’t be half-Jewish and half-Catholic,” the person replied snidely. “Those are two different religions. You either believe Jesus is your personal savior or you don’t.” He then added, “And if you don’t believe that Jesus is your savior, that makes you a heathen.” I felt very confused at that moment. I had never heard the word “heathen” and I had only seen Jesus in framed pictures on the walls of my aunt’s den.

That night I asked my parents what religion was, and they said that it meant believing in God.

“Is Jesus my savior?” I asked my mother.

“I am Jewish,” my mother explained calmly. “Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the messiah. Your father is Catholic, and Catholics do believe that. You’re our daughter so you can be both, and your father and I both love God . . . and you.” My mother looked satisfied.

I wasn’t.

“But which is true?” I asked. “If each of your religions makes opposing claims, how can I claim to be both? I can’t believe that Jesus is my savior, and not believe it, all at the same time.” My parents were impressed with my ability to rationalize, but they didn’t agree with my logic.

“This is just what we believe,” my father added. “We’re not religious. I don’t go to church; your mother doesn’t go to temple. We celebrate Christmas and Hanukah, and Easter and Passover, and that’s about it.”

“But which is the right religion?” I asked.

“There is no right religion,” my father said, looking uncomfortable. “But,” my mother added, “it’s important to always respect other people’s beliefs.”

It was at that moment that I realized just how little my parents knew about their own religions. I had never seen them look at a bible, or pray, or anything like that. The holidays we celebrated were traditions that were based in religion, but they weren’t religion. The closest they’d ever come to being religious was when I’d say, “Oh my God” about something, and my mother would tell me not to take the Lord’s name in vain.

I felt very conflicted after that conversation. I didn’t know that religions could have such seriously differing concepts. How could people be satisfied simply growing up following the religion of their parents when there were so many other different and differing belief systems out there? Didn’t everyone wonder which one was right? I was flabbergasted to find out that no, they did not. People who belonged to–and followed–a particular religion, all seemed to kind of collectively think that they were right. My mind raced with questions but no one seemed to have answers. I tried to dissect the bible, but found it profoundly boring. I was too young to do much else. I just gave up. When somebody asked me what religion I was, I’d answer, “My mother is Jewish and my father is Catholic,” never admitting that I was actually anything. Because the truth was that I didn’t really know what religion was, or what it was for. I couldn’t understand how someone could just adopt an entire belief system without really knowing what else was out there, simply because they were born into it. It seemed unfair to teach children (who are too young to protest or know better) one particular religion and claim that that religion is the true and right path.

Once I was told there was no Santa Claus, I saw the whole world in a new light. I stopped believing in childish fantasies and stopped being afraid of the ghosts under my bed. But what was the difference between God as he is explained in virtually all religions and the Tooth Fairy, or a ghost under your bed? The answer, to me, seemed to be nothing. I stayed an uninterested, virtual nonbeliever all through high school.

Then I went to college and I took a philosophy class that changed my life. It was an online class and it was broken up into forums on the Internet. The textbook was fascinating. I read Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Freud, Kant. The professor was obviously either an atheist or an agnostic. He would propose questions to the class and beg them to answer. Questions like, “If God is supposedly omniscient and omnipotent, can he then create a rock that is too heavy for him to even lift?” I was overjoyed. He posed conundrums that caused classmates to drop out or be highly offended: If God created us in his image, does that mean that he has hands, legs, and feet? Why would he need them? Does God have sex organs? Why would he need them? It seems religious people would get very uncomfortable when you tried to reason. There were three people in the whole class–a boy, another girl, and myself–who seemed to understand what the professor was doing; we were also the only nonbelievers. Other students were offended by the attempt to dismantle religion. One student even said that he could not participate in the class if the professor was going to insult the pope. We learned about the contradictions in the bible and the original “proofs” that God existed, all of them ridiculous. That class gave me the knowledge which confirmed my previous belief: religion was contradictory, convoluted, and above all else, unnecessary.

Only one question remained. If there was no religion and alternately perhaps no God, then where did we come from? I realized that just because science cannot prove something doesn’t mean that it therefore must be God. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of things that science cannot prove. Some of those riddles will be solved in my lifetime, but most of them won’t. Much to many believers’ dismay, the insolvability of these scientific dilemmas does not denote supernatural involvement.

I became fascinated with religion and its ability to create prostrating obsequious sheep out of ordinary citizens. I read books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I read the bible. I took courses in it, reading it both as a religious text and simply as literature. Slowly but surely, the picture came into focus. Religion doesn’t seem necessary now, but surely it must have been thousands of years ago. But, as the planet evolves, so must its inhabitants. Religion–in my opinion–retards this process. It discourages people from thinking for themselves, instead handing them a book and saying, “Here, this book will tell you what to think, believe, and feel.”

When you face reality, the truth of religion is startling. If I were to run around claiming that “God” is a magical unicorn who believes in tax evasion and greenhouse gases, they’d throw me in the looney bin faster than you can say the Lord’s Prayer. All that separates what I’d say from what religion says is religion’s many followers. It seems that if you can create followers–especially followers in large numbers–you are a “faith” deserving of respect. If you have no followers, you’re simply crazy. Apparently, the difference between genius and insanity is success. At this point in my life, I simply find religion to be unnecessary. The most important thing we can embrace is truth. Truth leads to knowledge, and knowledge combats ignorance. In the end, an intelligent society must choose a troublesome truth over a comforting lie.

“My name is Andrea Nostramo and I’m currently a student at Queens College in New York. I have one semester left before I graduate and then I plan to pursue my doctorate in English and teach on the college level. I love reading, writing, and learning new things.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation