Honorable mentions: High school essay contest

Below are excerpts of  6 of the 10 honorable mention winning essays in FFRF’s annual competition for college-bound high schoool graduates. All were awarded $200 from FFRF, plus a $50 bonous provided by Dean Dorea Schramm. The top winning essays appeared in the August issue.

Resisting religion, promoting progress

By Gabriella Johnson

There’s a great deal of undeserved disadvantage that comes packaged with being a young person: We can’t vote, we have curfews and our parents can legally hit us in some states. In addition, many older people find us less credible and don’t really respect our opinions.

Then, if we come up with some “wacky” progressive ideas that diverge from those accepted in “the good ol’ days,” our freedoms of thought and speech are further suppressed. As I embark on this new journey called college, I recognize that I will face many more challenges to my freedoms, especially since one thing I’m passionate about is gay rights. I foresee much resistance to that advocacy because of major opposition from many churches.

Young freethinkers face huge challenges. As Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, set in the theocratic Republic of Gilead, illustrates, religion can act as an enormous barrier to freethought and progress.

A situation that stands out to me from high school was when I heard about the Tennessee lawmaker who wanted teachers to report students’ “gay activity” to their parents. Apparently, if “the gay” is caught early enough, it can be effectively treated and cured. This is completely absurd and an infringement on identity. The premise that “gay” is a disease is rooted in religious conservatism.

It shows the way that previous generations try to dictate to youths how they should think and act. It’s paradoxical that something that is supposed to free the soul and spread love, like religion, is used to teach hatred of certain groups. In this way, I see past influen-ces pervading the present, oppressing freedom of thought and new ideas and creating the world that Atwood warned us about.

One of my responses to this issue was to sing a protest song for my English class. I was also involved with my school’s Gay/Straight Alliance and engaged in debates with others about homophobia and its roots in religion.

I will continue to resist all of the challenges to my freedom of thought and hopefully prevent a regime like Atwood’s Gilead from ever becoming our reality.  


Gabriella Johnson, 18, Milwaukee, is attending Stanford University. Her academic interests include African and African-American studies, premed, chemistry and music. In high school, she was a National Achievement Scholarship recipient, scoring in the top 1% of African-Americans on the PSAT.


Flying in the
face of faith

By Darby Oldham

As a transgender boy at a Catholic high school, I have not enjoyed a warm and welcoming environment. While I’ve only received one detention and have never had my “knuckles bruised by a lady in black” (“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie), my school has not been a safe place for freethought, rationalism or atheism.

Most blatantly infuriating were the weekly mandatory chapel services. Then came a day in my junior year when I had had quite enough of chapel, which earned me a lecture from a teacher pretty quickly, as it was seen as a lack of respect for the teachers and the school itself, instead of as a lack of belief, despite my protestations to the contrary.

It was more than chapel. Advanced placement biology was taught by a monk who had actually taught one of my classmates’ fathers 30-some years ago. While he saw no issue with expounding upon his ideas about God’s hand in the creation of the universe, whenever I tried to express my view, I was promptly told that this was biology, not philosophy.  

This semester, English has primarily consisted of us being lectured about how rationalism is insufficient to explain the world and then being instructed to come up with examples from our own lives to support that notion.  There was one class discussion wherein I expressed the idea that a world where people did not rely on religion to guide their thinking would be a better place.

The teacher and my classmates were shocked and rushed to tell me why my atheism was offensive and wrong, and while it wasn’t suggested that I kill myself, I was treated in a hostile manner and certainly not taken seriously.

I have done my best to defend my expression of dissent, but have been met with a fair bit of scorn. In response to this onslaught of dogma, I have turned (as is so typical for my generation) to the Internet.  

I have been unable to have much in the way of genuine intellectual conversations in class, because of the way the eyes of my teachers and classmates are so clouded by Catholic tradition.

But even the teacher who told me off for not standing up in chapel has said that my actions and words have been thought-provoking. So despite the negative responses that I have faced, I think that at least some of what I have said and done has made an impact.


Darby (Darbus) Oldham, 17, Los Gatos, Calif., is enrolled at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and is interested in engineering, psychology, Japanese, history and linguistics. He was on the robotics team for four years (qualifying for the world championships his sophomore year), took part in 11 theater productions and was a National Merit finalist.


Asking ‘why’ as
well as ‘what’

By Marianne Fuentes

Religion has never played a noticeable role in my life. I was raised by two nonreligious parents who grew up in religious environments. My mom attended a Catholic boarding school, and my father was raised with strict Catholic values and traditions.

Both had a skeptical nature, though, and struggled with unanswered questions as well as apparent gaps in logic that religion offered and eventually split from religion altogether. They still imparted these values to my sister and me by teaching us to be good people, yet believed these values should be taught not out of fear of a higher power but as common sense about what is right and what is wrong.

My father encourages me every day to be a critical thinker and question everything, and I am proud to say that I am a caring, just person without being religious. Having a god in your life does not necessarily make you a better person.

My personal beliefs on religion are based mostly on reason and logic. If I hear a so-called fact, I need to have evidence to back it up. Otherwise, how do you know if anything you hear is true?

But I live in a small town in New Hampshire that has a high religious population, and I’m friends with many people who think differently than I do. Oftentimes, the “what” is good enough, and the “why” seems irrelevant to them. I often wonder why my friends settle for the easy answers to things, instead of having the confidence that comes with evidence.

This simplicity of thought permeates my town but has never deterred me from the logical side of things. If anything, it has made me strive harder to be a rational freethinker and hopefully to show my friends along the way that asking “why” is just as important as asking “what.”


Marianne Fuentes, 18, was born in Montreal and grew up in Bedford, N.H. She will major in psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and hopes to eventually earn a doctorate in clinical psychology.


Fighting against discrimination

By Lindsey Foster

There is no shortage of challenges that come with being a freethinker. We are reminded every day that we are not like most of the people around us. Some of us are forced to pray at dinner time, some feel left out around the holidays, none of us stands a chance at becoming president, and we all have “In God We Trust” scrawled across our currency.

Once I even got a phone call from a stranger criticizing my beliefs. He told me to find Jesus and said that I would burn in hell, among other vile and inappropriate curses. The caller must have seen that I was atheist from some social media site, or maybe it was a former friend.

I struggle more with religion at school than anything. Every day for 13 years, I had to stand, hand over heart, and recite “one nation, under God.” Living in the bible belt, I also had to watch my tongue in class, careful not to

Freedom From Religion Foundation