Catherine Fahringer Black Skeptic Awardee 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