FFRF selected 11 essays from the high school students essay contest it deemed worthy of honorable mention status. Each of the following students received $200 from FFRF. Here are edited excerpts from each of them.
Fear holds you back
By Tori Roberts
If I could say one thing to my family members who are still strong believers in Christianity, it would be that their fear of the unknown is what holds them back. I am not a Christian despite being raised in the middle of the "Bible Belt" under strong Baptist beliefs. Most of my family remains in this religion and follows it closely and, as a result, our relationship has become strained. Politically, we cannot agree, as they will elect whichever candidate is the biggest Christian, with little regard for their actual beliefs or stances on any issue. They will not accept the fact that I am both an atheist as well as gay, and refuse to speak to me over these issues. It is almost pathetic that someone would allow religion to take oveR their family, but the devotion is too strong for some people and they cannot break free from it.
Religion is the result of fear of the unknown. Homophobia is the result of fear, voting with little care is the result of fear, cutting family off is the result of fear. They are terrified of losing their "salvation," and having to face the fact that perhaps we just die. Instead of facing this and learning to accept it, they choose to stay locked in their religion and oppose anything that challenges it. Fear holds you back, and that is the one thing I wish my family would truly understand.
Tori, 18, graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, Calif. She will be attending California State University-Stanislaus and hopes to have a career in science in research or forensics.
Religion is not innately good
By Alexander Hernandez
Religion has long claimed that it is not only helpful, but needed for social and moral progress. This of course is easily disputed by the persecution of "sinful" people who had done nothing wrong besides believing in another religion. The most famous example of this behavior is the Crusades in the 11th to 13th centuries.
One of the biggest challenges that I have faced as an agnostic atheist is to explain to believers that religion is not inherently good or required for morality. Taking orders on morality from a 2,000-year-old book is absurd. Society has changed significantly since then, in spite of religion, not because of it. Religious texts have not changed in the last 2,000 years for the most part, yet our societies have exhibited tremendous social and moral progress. This includes the abolition of slavery, the acceptance of homosexual people, the equality of races, and the equality of the sexes. All of this has happened despite religion's attempts to maintain the status quo that keeps them in power.
The advances of science and technology have thankfully helped the development of freethinkers grow exponentially. Thanks to organizations such as FFRF, religious control in our governments and society will diminish over time and disappear. I am proud to be a freethinker and on the right side of history as people everywhere learn to look past religion's lies and move to acceptance and celebration of all people regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation.
Alexander, 18, graduated from high school in Coral Springs, Fla. He plans to study political science in college and become part of the solution against religious control of our government.
There's a clear divide
By Hannah Hanson
I remember trying to pray, but never understanding what I was praying to, only that everyone else did it and it was something I was supposed to do to go to heaven. People told me that I needed a relationship with God if I wanted to be happy, fulfilled and have a purpose. They told me that I would be going to hell, especially after I came out as gay. They were a constant reminder that some people hated me for what I was. I decided, after a long time of not knowing where I stood with God, that I wasn't going to worship anything or anyone.
Rejecting religion has made me see things clearer and helped me come to terms with myself, in terms of who I am. I find it so much easier to rationalize and make sense of the world without it. I listen to facts and what I feel, not what I am told by a religious leader.
Personally, I feel like religion does a better job dividing us as people rather than uniting us. I find that it's hate that gets amplified the most.
All I ever saw was a bunch of people praying to something that may not exist and shaming others for being different. Religion has never given me anything good; it has only made me hate myself. It creates a divide and if you're not on the right side, you're in danger.
Hannah, 18, graduated from Lawrence High School in Fairfield, Maine. She will be attending Berklee College of Music in pursuit of a vocal performance and music education double major.
Freethought bolsters progress
By Aya Keller
This past summer, I worked at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University as a research intern. Throughout my stay, there was not a single meeting in which I presented my research proposal without rounds of questions, doubts and unconvinced faces. I learned to accept these challenges and use them to my advantage, constantly rethinking, reorganizing, reinventing ideas until a solid scientific question had been posed. Had I become defensive and dismissed my skeptical colleagues, as many fundamentalists do, I would not have made the progress that I made.
Just like science, participation in society requires an open mind. As the president of my school's Secular Student Alliance, I often receive comments from believers questioning the purpose of our club. At each event where we advertise, I embrace any person who seeks to poke holes in my foundation because they permit me to answer questions about my beliefs and ultimately reach an even more meaningful conclusion.
To me, uncertainty paves the way to exploration and knowledge. When we close our minds off to doubt, we trap ourselves in a dark cave of ignorance. Religion exemplifies the effects of firmly held convictions; as the world changes in a wonderful progression of scientific breakthroughs, the ancient notions stay deeply rooted in people's minds. How can we delve into our individual moral philosophies, thus embarking on the quest to ultimately understand our existence?
Aya, 18, graduated from Foothill High School in Pleasanton, Calif. She co-founded the Foothill Secular Student Alliance and has been president for the past two years. She will be attending the University of California-Berkeley to pursue a degree in neurobiology.
To admire the view
By Phoebe Greene
My mom is a Southern Baptist born and raised, and she raised me the same way.
As I grew, I began to explore other religions and branches of thought. I eventually told my mom that I did not believe in the Christian God, but she couldn't accept it. I still don't think she has.
I struggle to explain my views to her. It is like we are both looking at a sunset, but we can't let each other admire it in our own way. Mom has to explain to me where it came from and why it is beautiful and what it means. I try to tell her that I can enjoy the majesty of it without knowing how it relates to its creation, just as I can enjoy my life without knowing exactly why I exist.
If her belief gives her some peace, I don't begrudge her of it. Belief is a powerful thing. I choose to believe in the innate good of humanity, in the beauty and chaos of life, and above all, the pursuit of happiness.
There are many things I wish I could say to my mom, but in the end, I know they would only cause her pain and worry. I can only continue to hope that some day she can let herself see how happy I am to look at the sunset, not because of a God behind it, but because of the woman I love and admire who sits beside me.
Phoebe, 18, graduated from Caldwell Early College High School in Hudson, N.C. She will be attending the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where she plans to continue her involvement in film-making, theater, writing and music-making.
Do not think I am inhuman, immoral
By Alisha Griffin
Do not think that because I am a nonbeliever that I am inhuman. My identity as a human being has not changed simply because I lack faith. I am no less of a person than you because it is vacant in my thoughts.
Do not think that because I am a nonbeliever that I am immoral. I treat people with more respect than I sometimes think they deserve. In a conversation, I make sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinions and thoughts. I humor people, even if I think they are ridiculous, just to see people smile.
Do not think that because I am a nonbeliever that I have been swayed by devils and demons. My lack of faith came as a result of my broad studies and interests. I am fascinated with foreign cultures and religions and ideas and philosophies and traditions and beliefs. Human beings are not swayed by demonic things, but our own wants and needs and thoughts.
Do not think that because I am a nonbeliever that I lack beliefs. I've learned that in one way or another, everyone's beliefs are truth and in one way or another, everyone's beliefs are fiction. I've learned that I can never completely understand another person. In that way, I have gained a sense of respect for others.
I am still kind. I am human, same as any of you. Nothing will change that.
Alisha, 18, graduated from Rahway High School in Rahway, N.J. She enjoys writing fan fiction, original short stories and short plays, and plays video games, reads, and makes and watches YouTube videos. She will be attending Bucknell University and plans on double majoring in animal behavior and anthropology.
By Audrey Godwin
I was raised in a devout Christian family. The doctrines under which I was brought up were not simply the best option, but the only option. I learned atheism was a dirty word. When, after years of internal conflict regarding my own beliefs, I revealed my own lack of belief in a higher power, I was met with scorn. My religious identity is not discussed or acknowledged by my family.
I have been ever the inquisitor from a young age, but when it came to religion, I was discouraged from asking questions. It felt as though in this area of my life I was being encouraged not to expand my knowledge of the universe, to suspend my own disbelief, to put aside all factual evidence and remain willfully blind to the glaring inconsistencies in logic.
In my experience, religion encourages individuals to think within the established lines of a group rather than form their own opinions; this enables complacency and closed-minded traditionalism. Additionally, it opposes change and progress, both of which are crucial to the improvement of society.
I resent that I was placed into a metaphorical box before I possessed the intellectual maturity to even comprehend what was happening, and I resent that I was subject to such disdain for breaking out of that mold once I did. However, these experiences have only served to strengthen my convictions, and I have emerged from this journey a proud atheist.
Audrey, 18, graduated from Kent Place School in Summit, N.J. She is interested in politics, philosophy and economics. She writes poetry and prose, creates visual art and sings in a music groups. She qualified for the Chinese National Honor Society. Audrey will be attending Vassar College.
Love to love
By Donald Fasce
Being raised in rural upstate New York, I know that skeptical and agnostic thought is a rare virtue among the local population. Just about everybody is a Catholic or Protestant, with maybe a single percent of the community being "other." To the massive majority, this group of "others" is made up of freaks and geeks, the lambs led astray. To them, a Sikh, Muslim and atheist will all burn in the same hell.
My dad was the main believer in our family. After he and my mom divorced, I opened myself to different and new information.
My mother was the first person to find out about my beliefs. She was accepting, yet apprehensive. My father believes it's a childhood phase. Similarly, my extended family members are just straight appalled or in denial. They can't believe a boy who did so well in school could have done it without faith. They think that I can't possibly have morals if I don't have a book to tell me what to do.
I've learned that morals are beyond belief. I've learned those who have to be told to act based on a book rather than on their respect for others are missing the point. My extended family preaches about their charity and compassion, but judges and hate anybody who believes anything slightly different. I hope that one day they will learn to love others for the sake of loving others, not just because their god told them to.
Donald, 18, graduated from Livonia High School in Livonia, N.Y. He is a longtime volunteer and computer aide in his community and helped set up a recycling drive and robotics competition at his school. Donald will be attending Franklin and Marshall College and plans to study and eventually teach astrophysics.
I do not need your God
By Lindsay Philcox
I tried to be religious for a long time. I went to church on Sundays and sang hymns next to my grandmother. But there was always something within me that doubted what I was trying to believe. I took more interest in doodling on the prayer request cards in the pews than I did the Sunday sermons. Yet, even through my doubt, I desperately wanted to be religious. I wanted to fit in. I wanted God to be a safety net for me. But he never was.
To the believers, I say, I do not need your God. Go right on believing. I don't mind. You do not offend me with your belief as I offend you with my lack of it. I have discovered a world of freethought, outside of the walls of the church. I have found my own set of beliefs, which do not revolve around an all-knowing man in the empty sky, looking down upon me with judgment and a predestined map of my life's course. I believe in energy — a positive, soulful energy — within us that neither has, nor needs, any name. I believe my life will go where I direct it, based on each and every individual choice that I make, and that no one has already decided those choices for me. I believe in myself, and my own power to bring change and good into the world, more than I ever did when I believed in your God.
Lindsay, 18, graduated from Ponte Vedra High School in Ponte Vedra, Fla. She works at a family-owned eatery. During high school, she was involved in several theater productions. Lindsay will be attending Brandeis University, where she plans to study psychology and theater arts.
Living in the present
By Taryn Waite
I woke up with a start and opened my eyes. I fumbled around in the tent until I found the zipper, then stepped out. A faint glow enveloped the ridge around me, so I looked up and abruptly forgot all about my full bladder. The sky was speckled with millions of sparkling pinpricks of light, forming a blanket that extended as far as I could see in every direction. It swallowed me up in its quiet grandeur. I was floating, suspended in this moment of time, on this mountain ridge at midnight, under the stars, far from all that had ever bothered me.
To some, this experience would stir a spiritual or religious response, strengthening their belief in God and heaven. For me, however, it meant something entirely different. In that moment, I existed entirely in the present. All that mattered as I looked up at the night sky was the here and now, and all at once I felt calm, invincible, and truly free.
When people ask me why I don't believe in God, my answer is simple. While I'm alive, I don't want to worry about what happens after death. Instead, I want to work on living life to its fullest while I am here. I don't need something after death to live for. I just need myself, the people I love and the beautiful world around me.
Taryn, 18, graduated from Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass. She swam competitively throughout her youth and plans to continue swimming in college. She enjoys hiking, skiing, traveling, origami and teaching swimming lessons. Taryn will be attending Colby College, where she plans to study neuroscience.