College essay contest: second place

God save the teen: From holy high school to secular college

Clarke received a $1,000 cash scholarship from FFRF for her essay.

Finding fellow nonbelievers and critical thinkers has been one of the most difficult tasks of my young life, though curiously, reaching my position of polyatheism was the easiest and most natural of experiences. My parents raised me on values of self-reliance, skepticism and kindness — no cross loomed over our kitchen table. I never set foot in a church and for that gift, I’m infinitely grateful to my parents.

While my parents accepted and encouraged my disbelief, my deviant stance on the “god question” brought me much trouble with my mostly Christian and Mormon classmates. A friend in sixth grade asked me what church I went to and then gaped when I said I slept in on Sundays. Horrified, she renounced our friendship. I hoped she would come around and accept our differences, but she never did.

An unhappy truth revealed itself when I was only 11: Many of the devout are rigid and intolerant hypocrites, and following logic secured my place on the outside.

I feel neither a cosmic blanket nor the touch of god.

While I was distraught at the time, the experience catalyzed some of the most important growth of my life. I’m someone who takes the more socially painful route that helps me stay true to what I hold dear: rationality and human decency. This realization helped me overcome the disappointment religion brings early on, and it fed further introspection, analysis and thinking about faith.

I frequently contemplate religion, its consequences and its absence in my life. When I rise early in the morning to run, I don’t pray for a blessed day but revel in the sunrise and the beauty of nature’s rhythms and chaos. Is there a better feeling than meeting reality, seeing its awesomeness and realizing we awake to it every day? I feel neither a cosmic blanket nor the touch of god, and consequently, I feel more alive and responsible for my actions.

Simple and arrogant explanations that our universe sprang up because of god never satisfied me intellectually or spiritually. I celebrate reality and rejoice in an existence for the here and now, not the later and “better.” I feel blessed to have shelter, a loving family and access to education, but I realize my “blessings” came from the labors of my parents, the framework of our government and the sheer luck of being born in an affluent country. I wish we had more people of faith who practiced reason.

Nation of nonbelievers

The more I wonder about religion in the U.S., the more I am dismayed, alarmed and desperate to change our attitudes and international image. In a high school history class after the 2008 election, I was shocked that some of my peers were offended by President Obama’s statement that we were a nation of nonbelievers as well as believers.

Are we any less patriotic because we don’t say “under god” during the pledge? Are we un-American because we don’t ask god to bless our nation? Are we traitors because we exercise our right to freedom from religion? The hypocrisy of religion — to exclude and demonize what is different — contradicts our founding principles. I cannot align myself with such a value system.

During my senior year of high school, I wrote a research paper about vitalism, the notion of a mystical “life spark” that distinguishes the living from the dead, i.e., inorganic. I delved into the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as articles from Friedrich Wöhler’s research that showed inorganic material could transform to organic (vital) material, which provided the death blow to vitalism.

I saw how the crutch of god deprived many of freethought and expression, and many more of their lives. I can’t forget how the church schemed and lied to the public, decried scientists like Galileo and Darwin, all in the name of religious “truth.” Through my research, I saw that “truth” is merely our visceral constructions from a time when we had few tools to objectively understand our world.

Though religious people portray faith as anything from panacea to harmless tradition, the crimes against humanity carried out in god’s name show me it is poisonous to our society and a threat to the lives it claims to save. These insights into religious history make me eager to challenge its future role.

Luckily, I attend a liberal arts college where I’ve been exposed to more atheists, agnostics and skeptics. To be understood, challenged and accepted is a profound relief and a great source of hope. We may be alone on our singular warm rock in a vast universe, but we do not have to be alone in society, nor do we have to accept religion’s current preponderance in our culture and government.

If there is any true cosmic justice, nonbelievers’ passion for reality and goodness will be a force for, and the source of, our salvation.

Clarke writes: “I will be a sophomore at Smith College this fall. I’m still undecided about my major, although I’m intrigued by chemistry, anthropology and architecture. My passions include running, crew, traveling, conversation, doodling, flossing, writing and reading and logic puzzles like Sudoku. I was born and raised in Henderson, Nev., a suburb of Las Vegas. I turned 19 on July 21 and celebrated the day I was not brought into the world by god with a large chocolate cake and candles.”

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