FFRF awarded Avery $3,000.
I was 14, and my religion was on an IV drip. While my friends sang proudly at Sunday service, heads upturned and eyes closed in reverence, I stared straight ahead, reading the lyrics in silence. These hymns were nothing new. After all, I had been home-schooled in the faith. But by now, the melodies were losing their hold on me. Even the Christian apologia that I'd been subjected to over the years now seemed out of tune. The watchmaker argument, the cosmological argument, the supporting chords of intelligent design — for years I belted these hymns to unbelievers and whispered them to my own doubts.
After 14 years, I stopped whispering.
For the time, I believed in a god, but the god I now saw defied religion. This god was unprovable. Though he may have heard our hymns, the hymns themselves were hollow arguments, fumbling at an untouchable truth. Yet, the crowd expected me to sing them. As an assignment for my "Christian worldview" class, I was to give a speech and argue that unarguable question: Does God exist?
My friends answered the same way I had for years. They rejected evolutionary theory and the Big Bang, while claiming the cosmos, the Earth and the soul as God's fingerprints. They chorused those familiar arguments, voices lit with certainty and, in that certainty, comfort that their childhood beliefs still stood unbroken. But their hymns were no longer my hymns, and their god was no longer my god. I had to give my answer, and so I did.
"There are no fingerprints," I said. "We can't prove God."
The room offered up polite applause and awkward glances, but words would wait until Sunday. Then, in a quiet hallway, between the sermon and lunch, the pastor's wife had to talk to me for a moment. She told me that my speech was inappropriate, that I should not have played "devil's advocate." Others told me that I was rebellious, wrongheaded, just looking for a fight.
For years, my religion had been the heartbeat of my friendships. Now, that heartbeat flatlined. Since then, I have become familiar with that voice of reprimand, the voice that says, "Sing the hymns. Stay the path. Do not wander." The voice comes from well-intentioned friends and from the back of my head — a voice that tells me the worldview I was born into is the only one I will ever need.
But this same voice tells Galileo to forget his telescope for the sake of his church, and tells French revolutionaries to forget their ideals for the sake of their king. It is the voice of a stagnant world, whose countless ideas are left unexplored, like a field left uncultivated, all to preserve a more familiar ignorance. I ignore this voice when it calls for me, the so-called prodigal son. When I was 14, I left myself to wander, to disown comfort, to sing my own hymns and find my own truth. And today, I am still wandering.
Avery Boltwood, 19, lives in The Colony, Texas, where he recently graduated from The Colony High School. He will be attending Duke University in Durham, N.C., with plans to pursue a degree in public policy. Avery's interests include writing, debate, music composition and "Star Wars."