Taking the Road Less Traveled: Stephen Utschig-Samuels

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 Stephen Utschig-Samuels

A lemming is a small rodent, usually found near the Arctic Circle. Often the only reason people know of lemmings’ existence is for the very shocking yet humorous behavior they sometimes display. Lemmings are driven by strong biological urges to migrate when their population becomes too large. They will continue to follow their pack regardless of what dangers their leader may lead them into. Lemmings have been known to go so far as to jump off cliffs or swim until they drown because that’s what the rest of their pack is doing. It is the ultimate “blind faith” of the animal kingdom. Because of this odd behavior, lemming-suicide is often used as a metaphor for poeple who go along unquestioningly with popular opinion, even if it results in dangerous or fatal consequences. People of organized religion are the lemmings of human society.

I first heard of lemmings when I was young, perhaps only in second grade. I remember being read a book about lemmings and this odd behavior of theirs. The story was about a lemming that stood out from the crowd, asked questions of his leader’s decisions, and tried to get other lemmings to listen to him. He was ridiculed for not trusting the leader and was pressured by the other lemmings just to go along with the pack. The story ended with the rest of the pack trying to cross a river and drowning while the lone lemming lived. The moral of the story was to be a leader and not to do something just because everyone else does. Most of us children laughed at the lemming pack that followed their leader to such an ill fate instead of listening to the lemming that stood apart from the pack. How could they all be so stupid as to follow that blindly? I laughed and mused about that topic, then, but I would probably have laughed even more had I realized the irony that we were being read this story in a Catholic school.

I was born and raised Catholic. At a very young age I was indoctrinated and taught the ways of the Church. At such a young age it was very easy to make an impression on me. Young children, much like lemmings, have biological instincts as well. Children will believe anything that their elders tell them. After all, they know nothing of the outside world and adults are the only beings they feel the urge to trust. As a result, there was no way that I could have prevented myself from believing everything I was taught about religion or the world by my school and family while I was a young child.

Catholic school served it purpose, and by the time I was in the fourth grade I was even convinced that I wanted to become a priest. For middle and high school I went to public school, however, and I started to think outside the narrow, rigid box where religion had packaged me. I wondered if everything I had learned was real, and whether or not I had just been told to believe something regardless of what was real. It was around the time I was 13 that I started voicing these questions to my classmates and parents. Apparently this was a mistake. Just as the questioning lemming was ridiculed by his peers and forced into counseling by his leaders, I was too.

My parents made an appointment with our priest so that he could “lead me down the right path.” After listening to him for an hour or so, I was still unconvinced. I was not permitted to ask questions during this time, so I simply sat there and nodded, pretending to understand and agree. I still had unanswered questions, but apparently questioning was not in a proper Catholic’s agenda. I was told that faith is a complicated thing, and that I just needed to believe; I would understand everything when I got to heaven. This particular conversation left me speechless. After that meeting I had very little faith left. How could I even pretend to believe in God and Catholicism when a messenger of God’s word, a priest, wouldn’t even answer my questions? Somehow believing blindly did not sit right with me. I would never forget that day and my experience being “enlightened.”

Despite what I had been counseled to do, I continued to ask questions and challenge what I was told to believe. The more questioning and research I did, the more horrified I became, the more I wanted to distance myself from religion: 9/11, genital mutilation, homophobia, genocide, tyranny, etc. The list went on and on. For religions that claimed to be peaceful and caring, I saw little of it throughout the world. It was amazing what evil could be claimed as “God’s work.” I tried to find solace in the religion that I was still associated with, but to no avail. Instead, in my Catechism class, I learned that, “gays go to hell,” “women are the root of all evil,” and even minor things such as tattoos and piercings would land me in hell. We were no better than the rest of the world at all. Still trying to make sense of all this, I continued to question. All of my questions ended up with the same result: being told to believe.

Under decree of my parents, I was to complete my Confirmation or face losing my car. By this point I was thoroughly fed up with religion and all of its intolerances and contradictions. I decided to make my last year a little more interesting by openly challenging the points of view we were taught. My newest teacher did not find this at all amusing, so I was often sent to talk with our newest priest. Apparently, questioning my Catechism teacher in front of class was considered disrespectful. But who would not question the statement, “Women are the root of all evil”?

I had made several class interjections concerning rubbish as this. Every class period we would learn some new intolerance or radical point of view that I couldn’t help but question, or at least raise an eyebrow. It was after my last conversation with the new priest that I took the bold step from curious agnostic to atheist. I did not want to be associated with religious ideas, and I definitely did not want to be taught to believe these things either. Just as the lemming in the story eventually stepped away from the pack and watched them continue to follow blindly, I, too, removed myself from the mainstream belief, despite what societal consequences it had. There wasn’t another feeling to compare to this day, that day in which I finally realized I could fully reject religion. As silly as it sounds, I had become the lone lemming from the story. By constantly questioning and thinking for myself, I had, in fact, saved myself from the cruel fates that blind-faith delivers: ignorance, intolerance, and misunderstanding the world in which we live.

In an interesting study done by the University of Minnesota called American Attitudes Toward Atheists & Atheism, it was found that atheists are the most distrusted and despised minority, and that they are also the last group of people that Americans are willing to either vote for or marry. It’s very apparent that atheists are the “black sheep” of America, but I like to think of an atheist as a lone lemming.

What is it about freethinking and veering from the mainstream that people are so afraid of? Even in the lemming story, the lone lemming that chose to stray from the more traveled road was ridiculed and distrusted. Ever since I started my questioning, my own family has forbidden me from speaking my opinions on religion and politics with my younger siblings for fear of corrupting them. I was even blamed for “poisoning” my younger brother’s mind because he is asking his own questions, even though I am not at home to influence him. It is amazing just how feared something as small as a question can be.

Ever since that day I first had a talk with the priest I have begun to grasp and understand the world we live in. I cherish every second of life I have, now that I believe life is finite instead of waiting for an afterlife. After that day I became a more tolerant, open and intelligent person. I now take it upon myself to express atheist ideals in my own life, in hopes that my actions can help change the face of atheism in America so that atheists in the future do not become ostracized the way I was. It is ironic that I was sent to speak with a priest so that he could “lead me down the right path;” it seems as though he led me down the right path after all.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost,The Road Not Taken

“My name is Stephan Utschig-Samuels and I am a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am majoring in checmical engineering and I plan to go to graduate school to study environmental chemistry and engineering. I hope to one day work in the research and development field of desalination and water quality. I currently have an internship in the City of Sun Prairie waste water treatment plant so that I can start getting experience in these fields of study.

“I am also involved in a student conservation competition sponsored by the EPA. My favorite experience this year was hearing Richard Dawkins speak at my university and meeting him afterward. My interests include: traveling, camping, philosophy, research, reading conservation, sports and spending time with family, friends and girlfriend. I was an agnostic at age 13 and have been an atheist since I was 17.” 

Freedom From Religion Foundation