Freethought Today · September 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

First place: Michael Hakeem Memorial Award

Breaking chains, welcoming change

laila shalikar ffrf portraitFFRF awarded Laila a $3,000 scholarship. 

 By Laila Shalikar 

 I let out an exasperated sigh as I stare at the mound of photos scattered at my feet. I had been jumping up and down in the storage closet, struggling to grasp an umbrella when I knocked down an old cardboard box filled with hundreds of family photos spanning 20 years.

“Laila! Hesus Maryosep! Do you always have to be so clumsy? Pick those up — quick!” my “Nanay” hollers at me. I grimace and bend down to collect them, but stop as one catches my eye.

I blow the dust off of it and hold it up to the light. It is me, standing in front of the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on the day of my First Communion 12 years ago. I chuckle at my poufy white dress and the ridiculous garland of artificial flowers crowning my head.

But there is more to this photo than just how silly the 8-year-old version of myself looked. Scrutinizing it further, it is clear I did not exude the same happiness as the rest of my classmates. I note the slightly sullen expression in my eyes and my close-mouthed “smile.”

Until seven years ago, religion had always played a large role in my life. My very first trip out of the U.S. was at age 3, when my mother abruptly spirited me away to her native Philippines so I could be baptized into the Catholic faith without her disapproving husband’s knowledge.

Upon returning home, instead of attending the elementary school with my neighborhood playmates, she sent me to a Seventh-day Adventist school an hour away. Classmates gawked at me for eating meat and suggesting we study evolution.

In third grade, I went to a Catholic school for the sole purpose of receiving my First Communion. That year was absolute torture. I did not have the slightest clue about the Seven Sacraments or the countless prayers the nuns forced me to memorize. I never had a say in any of this. I was brainwashed at an early age before logical, rational thought even had a chance to develop.

On the other side, my father’s Afghan family pressured him to make me attend Islamic classes at the local mosque, which he staunchly refused to do because he never appreciated people forcing their religion down others’ throats.

Whose god is right?

Being pulled in these two polar opposite directions filled me with endless questions and turmoil. Whose god is right? Is it all arbitrary? Then my father stepped in.

Now a freethinker, “Baba Jan” was raised a practicing Muslim. Not until his first year of college was he exposed to evolutionary theory and other scientific views that directly contradicted his religious beliefs.

He then rigorously examined his faith and subsequently abandoned Islam. When I was 13, he told me I was mature enough to find my own way, a notion that delighted me because I was tired of simply going through the motions. The idea of conforming just because others did repulsed me.

My curiosity and skepticism peaked at this age. I wondered how men in the Old Testament lived to be 900, when in this day and age of advanced science and medicine, many people are lucky to reach 90.

Why do fundamentalists oppose contraceptives and stem cell research with solutions to many of our world’s ills? Why do people proclaim war in the name of religion when its tenets preach peace? When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck Asia and killed 250,000 people, I stared in disbelief at survivors on TV fervently thanking God for sparing their lives. Why did God send a tsunami in the first place, especially to such a poor region? But the only response I received was, “It’s God’s will. His reasons are such that we cannot comprehend.” Dissatisfied with such vagueness, I turned to something I can always count on: education. I devoured various books investigating monotheistic texts and was shocked by the often violent, oppressive history of religion. It blew my mind that the sacred books I spent hours poring over as a child were simply man-made compilations of unverifiable fairy tales and unfounded “facts.”

My research and discoveries were liberating. I was freed from the chains of convention, dogma and disillusion. It struck me that I had outgrown religion, just as I outgrew Barbies and Britney Spears. It has nothing to offer me. It stands in the way of progress, inadequately explains the nature of life and is the main source of many global conflicts today.

One day, as I stared at Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” picture from Voyager 1 showing Earth as an infinitesimal blip against the vastness of space, I realized how fragile life is. I am sure that this is the only life I have. This is the only world I have. Now is the only time I have.

Now, instead of wasting time questioning beliefs others forced upon me and feeling incomplete, I embrace free thought and reason. The process of abandoning my childhood faith made me develop as an individual, changed the way I see the world and is an integral part of my identity.

 

Laila Shalikar, 20, Riverside, Calif., is in her third year at the University of California at Berkeley pursuing majors in political science (international relations emphasis) and media studies. She’s traveled to 34 countries already and says: “I have had a vested interest in humanitarian efforts and foreign service in the global community, especially in my father’s homeland of Afghanistan, which is sadly a nation utterly ruined by the noxious influence of religion. The Philippines, too, is struggling with extreme levels of poverty, mainly caused by overpopulation due to the Vatican’s barbaric aversion to contraception.”

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