I was a chubby kid. Since I looked like a marshmallow with arms until the age of twelve, I made a habit of wearing baggy clothing. For all anyone knew, I could have looked like Cindy Crawford under my father's sweatshirt. It was a comforting notion. Organized religion blew my cover with the obligatory First Communion ceremony. Apparently, God only embraces girls who wear frilly white clothing, because I was forced to borrow a dress from a friend who was a third my size. Trying not to breathe as I accepted my stale wafer, it occurred to me for the first time that this humiliating ceremony was void of personal significance. After all, what sort of a god derives pleasure from watching rich gossips smirk as a pudgy 11-year-old struggles to keep her clothes on?
My reluctant affair with Catholicism was not so easily terminated. Despite my arguments that church was boring, that my weekly consumption of red wine was illegal, and that I am half-Jewish, my father insisted that I be exposed to Catholic dogma. My mother, though a non-practicing Jew, supported my father because she believed that a religious upbringing could potentially benefit my brother and me. However, she managed to convince him that Sunday services were unendurable for youths. . . .
I am currently a sophomore at Vassar College, recently rated the number one campus for atheists in the United States. At Vassar, I have been encouraged to objectively reflect upon religion's impact on humanity. Throughout history, religion has been responsible for more bloodshed than any other cause. . . . After studying and thinking deeply about these devastating conflicts, I fail to understand the advantages of religions that foment unjustified hatred, intolerance and violence. . . . I do not believe that murder is justified because it is imputed to a specific god or holy doctrine, and I am deeply disturbed by the recent atrocities attributable to religious wars.
Additionally disheartening is the immoral conduct of religious officials. Why should I place faith in the teachings of priests who have committed sexual crimes and other heinous illegalities? It seems irrational to believe in a faith when its main proponents do not respect, believe or practice what they are preaching.
It is my sincere belief that people would benefit more from true free thought and a willingness to embrace life as a joyful, unpremeditated journey than they do from the misleading security offered by organized religion.
Jennifer Hope Clary graduated cum laude from the Hockaday School in Texas in 2001. She is currently a sophomore pursuing a double major in film and drama at Vassar College in New York.
The Only Logical Choice
By Joanna Elrick
I cannot declare with certainty the moment at which I first consciously embraced atheism. My rejection of religion came about as the result of a gradual process of observation, reflection and the manifestation of rebellious tendencies during my childhood. My familial religious background was a mixed bag--my mother was, for all outward appearances, a dedicated Roman Catholic (though I believe her mind was not wholly entrenched in the miasma of mysticism and self-delusion); my father was an agnostic who teetered toward the atheistic side of the fence. Now, this is not to say that I was raised in a liberated household, in which I was given free rein over my philosophic choices. My parents did their best to indoctrinate me into the collective superstition of our culture, dragging me to Sunday Mass and squandering a large sum of money on parochial school.
In retrospect, however, I believe that they were motivated by the middle-class American mindset that only religious individuals, or at least those who are superficially pious, can attain respectability and virtue. I am proud to say that in my instance, logic won out over the herd mentality, and I am ceaselessly perplexed by the prevalence of religious belief in a society that has attained such glorious heights of scientific and technological achievement.
Regardless of the piety-saturated environment in which I currently dwell, my chosen philosophy of atheism is a source of pride. To me, the term not only connotes "one who does not believe in God," but it also identifies someone as a courageous individualist and an adept thinker. I am not "angry at God," as many of my well-meaning theist associates would attest: I hold no more spite toward God than I do for the Man in the Moon, the Easter Bunny or Puff the Magic Dragon. (Isn't it hilarious how a declaration of atheism will instantly turn even the least formally educated Christian into an armchair psychoanalyst?) To the contrary, I am firmly convinced that my lack of religious belief endows me with a healthier outlook on life. I do not go about fretting that a preternatural entity is observing my every move and recording every lustful, base or selfish thought that runs through my head. Admittedly, theists may imagine that they have a better lot, believing that their consciousness will never end, that an omniscient being is guiding and protecting them and that there is a transcendent form of justice in the universe. However, that ignorant reverie comes only at the price of one's intellectual freedom and grounding in reality, and that is a price I find too extravagant to even consider.
Joanna is a sophomore at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, where she is majoring in English. Upon completion of her Bachelor of Arts degree, she intends to pursue a career in writing. Besides attending classes on a full-time basis, Joanna is employed as a customer service agent. In her scant leisure time, she enjoys reading classic and modern literature and spending time with her eight cats.
Of the Wide World I Stand Alone and Think*
By Daryl J. Olszewski
I spent a lot of my eighth-grade year in the hallway. My teacher did not know what else to do with me, so I sat there alone rather than in the classroom. I asked too many questions. Or maybe they were just the wrong questions. I was taught throughout my educational career that questions were important whenever I did not understand something, but that rule did not seem to apply equally to all classes in eighth grade. While I generally needed no clarification in the traditional subjects, in religion class my hand was always in the air.
I spent 12 years attending Catholic schools and as I grew, I became progressively more uncomfortable with the faith I was fed. By my eighth-grade year, I was confident that despite my upbringing, I did not believe. I had so many questions but no one could offer me answers. And worse than admitting that she did not know, my teacher sent me to sit in the hall when I asked difficult questions. Alone in the hall I had nothing else to do but sit and think, and I spent a lot of time thinking about why my teacher sent me there.
I learned how much some people guard against the vulnerability of their religious beliefs. Some will go to the limits of their power to suppress the views of others that conflict with their faith, regardless of the reasonableness of those opposing views. I believe that my teacher's goal was not so much to punish me, but rather to silence me. She did not want to run the risk of having my peers or even herself hear my questions and acknowledge the validity in what I was saying. It is quite difficult for a person to question what they had been told their entire lives to blindly believe. My teacher's power was limited to kicking me out of class, but my experience caused me to think about what could happen when similar views existed in people who possessed powers far greater than sending an eighth-grader into the hall. What would happen when that same guarded attitude toward differing religious views was possessed by people of far greater power, such as those who have the power to make laws or send citizens off to war?
In May of 2003, Daryl graduated summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, with a double major in political science and social change and development. He plans to become a lawyer.
*Title is taken from "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be," by John Keats.
By Ashley Simmons
. . .The whole concept of Christians being the only ones who get to go to heaven seemed absurd and unfair. A person who grows up in the middle of India with a Hindu family hardly has the same opportunity for becoming a Christian as the daughter of a preacher in Missouri. Why would the Indian go to hell for being in an inopportune location where God placed him from birth? People at bible study tried to convince me that every person gets their chance to "feel the Holy Spirit" and that God is hurt when people choose to ignore it. The way they were describing it, God seemed like a jealous attention-craved child. I couldn't conceive of pledging my soul to Jesus only to look at all my nonChristian family members as hell-bound sinners. Would I start being as pushy and tactless to them as my friends were now to me?
In one last-ditch effort, I went to church with a new friend who didn't spend his time trying to pressure me to go. I figured this would be a comfortable experience. I ventured out with Josiah to the Redwood Assembly of God and all was well until the youth service portion. The minister began a lengthy sermon about the ill-effects of sex before marriage. It was sinful, would spoil any future marriage, and shame our poor, forlorn families. Following numerous cryptic bible passages, he then passed around these yellow slips of paper cut into crosses. He explained that we all should sign our pledge of celibacy until marriage on two of these slips. One copy would be for us to keep and the other would be kept on this bulletin board in the church so everyone could see how strong we were.
I was absolutely aghast. The church seemed to want to count up its virgins like some of the perverse booty counts of biblical wars. The concept of having a declaration about my sex life hanging for everyone to see was positively humiliating. I was finished being timid, my faith ship was sunk, and I didn't care who knew. Within seconds I found myself marching right out of church.
Ultimately, I decided my search for answers about the nature of life would be a personal one. I don't want to look at people as hell-bound sinners just because they don't believe in Jesus. I can't look at wonderful people who are atheists, like my grandfather, and say it's OK with me for them to go to hell. I'm just going to live this life the best that I can. Common sense tells me that living a good life should be enough.
Ashley is entering her sophomore year at California State University, and is double majoring in teledramatic arts (emphasis in theatre) and human communication (emphasis in women's studies). She is active in student government and has performed in several plays. Other interests include writing, swimming and croquet.
Diversity, Tolerance and Freethought
By Jennifer Chien
My grandparents are Buddhist, my closest friend of 13 years is the president of the Muslim Student Association at her university, my hometown is one of the largest Mormon settlements in California, every school that I have attended (certainly not excluding Duke) has been overwhelmingly Christian--and I am an atheist. Without a doubt my fascination with--and ultimate rejection of--religion stems from my lifelong immersion in a multitude of faiths that believe anything ranging from God is an elephant, to heaven is a planet. . . .
But today, when I walk past the newsstand and see that the latest Newsweek has dedicated its entire issue in praise of President Bush's "New Vision for the World Under the Guidance of Christianity," I begin to understand that I can no longer afford to be indifferent about how deeply intertwined church and state have become in what is supposed to be a secular society. It becomes critical for me that I no longer watch passively as I once did as church and state become inexorably entangled in our government's domestic and foreign decisions. To be sure, allowing government policies to be influenced by religion devastates both personal freedoms as well as freedom around the world. I realize this more and more every day.
Jennifer is a sophomore at Duke University in North Carolina. Her major is biology, and she currently is working on a genetics research project.