Fifth place (tie): High school essay contest – Morality is inherent in human beings by Sasha Rogelberg

FFRF awarded Sasha $500.

By Sasha Rogelberg

Years ago, my Jewish grandmother said that she would rather vote for a Christian presidential candidate than an atheist, as a religious individual would have higher moral standards than a nonbeliever. This statement, despite being delivered by a dear loved one, just did not feel right to me.

As I processed and reflected on this to make sense of my discomfort, I soon realized that this moment marked a turning point in how I view the relationship between religion and morals. Ultimately, I believe morals are not at all dependent on faith.

My lack of faith in a god stemmed from the realization that my desire to treat people with compassion was not motivated by fear of judgment by a deity. One should not be a loving human because someone tells them to be that way; one should love because one wants to live in a world that is loving. An individual should be motivated to be kind because they want to bring others happiness and support.

When I perform an act of altruism, I do not consider a higher power; instead, I consider the feelings of another human. Religion provides extrinsic motivation for others to be kind, the promise of happiness in an afterlife, but being free from religion implies a more genuine motive: a motive rooted in just the need to be an excellent citizen of the human race.

As an agnostic, I’ve questioned the origins of morals. While many believe that morality derived from the Ten Commandments or other religious documents, I believe that morality is inherent in human beings.

Philosopher John Locke insisted that humans are born with the potential to be good. Psychologist Michael Tomasello observed toddlers interacting and found that they were likely to pick up dropped items or assist their peers without prompting. Tomasello attributes this kindness not to culture but to something natural. He even goes so far as to say that this kindness cannot be socialized and does not exist among any other species in the same way it does in humans.

This research suggests that positive, kind behaviors cannot be attributed to social constructs such as religion. It supports the finding that without religion, humans still have a strong moral foundation based on love and altruism. As secular individuals it is our job to reaffirm this foundation.

Rather than spreading the intended messages of love and peace, contemporary organized religion seems more concerned about making judgments and spreading dogma antithetical to messages of love and acceptance. For example, some Christians seem to judge homosexuality as morally wrong and an “abomination” and send their children to gay conversion therapy rather than accept them as one of God’s creations.

Radical Muslims have used their doctrines to justify genocide of differing denominations of the same religion. These examples demonstrate hypocrisy in religion and speak to how religion can turn humans against each other, thus rendering the core tenets of their religion not only useless but harmful.

In order to combat oppression and stigmatization from religious institutions, nonbelievers must continue to be upstanding citizens and make their identities clear. Secular individuals must continue to show tolerance, kindness, compassion, love and acceptance to demonstrate that morals are a manifestation of being human, and that people can, indeed, be good without God.

Sasha Rogelberg, 18, graduated from Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C. She will attend Bryn Mawr College to major in psychology and minor in philosophy. In high school she was active in speech and debate and the school newspaper and was an officer in her Gay-Straight Alliance. She plans to continue her social activism as well as her hobbies in art and writing.

Freedom From Religion Foundation