FFRF awards $10,000: Four earn Catherine Fahringer scholarships

FFRF is pleased to announce that it has awarded $10,000 in scholarship awards in memory of Catherine Fahringer to four students chosen by the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, an African-American atheist community-based group.

The scholarship is part of the First in the Family Humanist Scholarship program, which focuses on undocumented, foster care, homeless or LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college.

According to BSLA founder Sikivu Hutchinson, “Secular African-American youth disproportionately come from religious backgrounds and communities. These youth are often marginalized in K-12 and higher education due to their non-conformity. This scholarship program provides a platform for their voices and experiences.”

Fahringer was a San Antonio feminist and freethinking activist who ran a long-lived FFRF chapter and served on the executive board for many years. She was especially interested in nurturing the next generation of freethinkers. She died in 2008.

Here are excerpts from the winners’ essays.

By Dia Brown

Humans have constantly cooked up new ways to explain what they perceive in the world. When there are things they can’t explain, they let it stew in their heads and eventually a way to explain it is served. One of those ways is religion. Religion has been used to understand and to moralize since the earliest days of humans.

But of those ways to solve problems, religion is only an optional ingredient.

For me, I have always been passionate about the environment. My mindset for caring is that there is an aesthetic value to keeping the Earth clean. It is also a concern for public health, and I concern myself with the well-being of the people and animals on this planet. When passion is mixed in with action, a healthy serving of effective change is made.

When I tell people I am atheist, they often ask how I got that way. It started when I was 5 years old. I was sitting in a local Baptist church with my family. People in the church were dancing and shaking as they “felt the Lord.” My sister exclaimed, “I feel him; I feel the Lord,” and in that moment, I realized I didn’t. I waited. Waiting turned to wondering. In that moment of isolation, I decided. From then on, I never went to church unless I had to, and I stopped reading the religious books. As a young mixed girl in a conservative county, I kept this hidden from everyone. When I was called rude names for the color of my skin, I just thought of the good in people because in my eyes, “everyone means well,” as my late grandfather would always say.

I had faith in humanity, but I had no faith in God. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was an atheist. This past year I helped to start an interfaith group and made sure that my voice as an atheist was heard. Despite my beliefs — or maybe because of them — I have an appreciation for religion because it is like a leftover soup. For me, I didn’t care for all the extra ingredients and went straight for the broth, and I enjoy it just the same.

Dia graduated from Huntingtown High School in Huntingtown, Md., and now attends the University of Vermont.
By Lydia Mason

I, like many people, had abused religion to excuse my immoral behavior and inaction in the face of injustice. When I did things that were unjust, I convinced myself that God had forgiven me. When I turned a blind eye to all the wrong in our world and sat by idly, I convinced myself that if I simply prayed or waited patiently enough that God would fix it, even if I did nothing.

But there came a day when I got tired of waiting for a god to fix the world for me. I realized that I had the ability to set my own standards for the kind of person I wanted to be, and that I had the responsibility for upholding those standards.

As I entered high school, I embraced humanism wholeheartedly, and began fighting for justice for all people on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, and the like.

I started the first high school Black Student Union in my city, through which I organize numerous vigils, protests and forums. I started a mentoring program between my school and the Boys & Girls Club.

I also have been chairperson of the Mayor’s We Day/Give A Day Board, through which I raised over $30,000, collected more than 60,000 personal care items for refugees, and organized a Compassion Walk with over 3,000 in attendance. I have done multiple speeches about the way that poor sex education disproportionately harms people of color, queer people, and people of lower incomes. Furthermore, I started a club devoted to the inclusion and empowerment of people with disabilities, and hosted a fundraiser for that club which raised over $40,000. Lastly, I started the first Girl Up chapter (a United Nations Organization dedicated to empowering women and girls globally) in my state and raised thousands of dollars for girls seeking education and healthcare in Guatemala.

If I had not chosen to embrace humanism and take responsibility for my morality rather than leaving it up to religion, I likely never would have become the activist I am today.
Lydia graduated from duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky. She is attending New York University and plans to major in politics and economics She was the first-place winner in FFRF’s 2017 Essay Contest for Students of Color, announced in the August issue of Freethought Today.

By Sydney Steward

A little girl sat at her desk and crafted a paint-splattered masterpiece. The other children chatted about the little things that consumed the common sixth-graders’ attention: who was crushing on the cutest boy, the latest shenanigans of the class clown, and hopes of the cafeteria serving ravioli for lunch. But she was different, and she knew it. So she remained quiet, consumed in her own mental world.

She continued filling the spaces of her existence with pastels just as bright as her mind. Then, she overheard comments of a deeper context. “I love Jesus.” “I go to church every Sunday!” “Do you read the bible?” She twitched. She silently cringed. She felt dangerously brave.

I looked up and said, “God isn’t perfect.”

During my youth, I attended a church that often left me feeling empty inside. Sermons were boisterous, beautiful in the way that hymns captivated the broken souls sitting in the pews.
I sat and watched people pour their problems into a mysterious being. The same god who claimed to promote peace and love desecrated the lives of millions of people every day.
Confusion and anger plagued my conscience. With every Sunday that passed, I realized a raw truth: Blind trust is intoxicating.

When asked the question, “Do you believe in God?” I awkwardly reply, “I don’t know,” or “I am trying to figure that out.” Rarely am I asked, “What do you believe in?”
I do not live without a moral compass. None of us do; the human propensity consists of the need to delineate good and evil.

Why attach divisive religions to this natural phenomenon? Good and evil mingle inside each and every one of us.

With empathy as my fuel and passion as my road map, I navigate life fiercely fighting for all that I think is right. What truly warms my soul, I get to define that. Not society, not a deity, not a centuries-old tome, and certainly not a little kid sitting across from me in art class. I am free. My morality isn’t based in blind trust; instead, my morality is simply, utterly and beautifully, mine.

Sydney graduated from Loomis Chaffee High School in Windsor, Conn. She is attending the University of Pennsylvania with plans to major in nursing.
By Elijah Willig

As a child, I attended weekly church services with my parents, two progressives who, while not self-righteous churchgoers, believe in God and support religious institutions.
As I started to learn more about poverty, racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia and the many atrocities that occur across the globe, I began to develop an identity as a nonreligious person.

I not only grew up in rural Iowa as an agnostic, I grew up as a gay, African-American male.

It was not uncommon for me to see, hear and feel firsthand how my peers used religion as a means of stigmatizing and sometimes excluding those whom they deemed to be living an unholy life — namely gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

Naturally, my lived experiences have shaped my views on social issues and the world. More so, they have taught me much about the work that humans must do to ensure equality for all. Working to ensure social justice for everyone, particularly those most vulnerable in our society, is of critical importance to me.

Recognizing that human action is the only means for creating social change, I have worked hard to make contributions that can help make our society more just. My primary contributions have come through my service as co-chair of the Diversity Alliance and as a student council class representative in my high school. For instance, this spring, I led a collaboration between the Diversity Alliance, Student Council, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that was designed to address the post-election rise in hateful comments by students in my school. These efforts culminated in a week of activities called “Own Your Words Week” that helped to educate students about the impact that derogatory language can have on others. Additionally I helped support and run the Invisible Closet, a secret thrift store that low-income students could visit on campus to obtain needed clothes free of cost and stigma.

In all, I have tried to abide by the principles of humanism, acting each day with full knowledge that, if our world is to become a site of justice and equality, it is I, along with others, who must take the steps to make it so.

Elijah graduated from Grinnell Community Senior High School in Grinnell, Iowa, and now attends Middlebury College, where he plans to major in sociology and study Spanish and Portuguese.

Freedom From Religion Foundation