FFRF awarded $200 to each of the honorable mention winners. Their essays are excerpted here.
Reason can solve moral problems
By Christopher Bednarcik
Asserting that one's morals should come from God requires a person to first believe that God exists, and if so, believe that God actually cares whether we're moral or not.
Most followers of religion, especially in the United States, believe that God does exist and that he communicates his rules for appropriate living through the bible. However, upon personal examination, I've determined that the bible is not an acceptable moral compass.
I think the best source of morality is human reasoning, structured around skepticism and a scientific approach to solving complex ethical issues.
We should focus on outcomes of our behavior — the consequences. Rather than seek solutions through a revealed religion, we should ask ourselves whether our actions are just and fair. Who, if anyone, will be harmed by my actions?
When I encounter a tough decision, I take a cost-benefit approach. I ask myself if my actions would violate any of my personal virtues, and if not, I apply a variety of other frameworks, such as utilitarianism or individual rights. By taking a broad approach, I try not to harm others.
I'm an atheist because following a revealed religion based on the existence of a deity that I cannot prove exists doesn't make sense to me. I'm an atheist because religious texts don't hold up to reasoning and science. Mathematics describes the world the way it is. We don't need the god of an ancient text to guide us.
Christopher, 19, is from Lockport, Ill., and attends North Central College. He is majoring in mathematics and plans to be a high school math teacher. He is an Illinois State Scholar and a member of the National Society of Leadership and Success.
The truth about morals set me free
By Michael Brown
I was told that all were equal in God's eyes, but I was despised for my mixed heritage. I was told that God's plan shouldn't be altered with medicine or vaccinations, yet when the pastor needed a triple bypass, it was found to be within both God's will and the church's pocketbook.
By the time I was removed from my home, placed in the foster care system and ultimately emancipated, I had realized that morals are inherently human creations. I stripped away my religious upbringing and sought to form my own code of conduct, without the threat of eternal damnation.
When we attach morals to godliness, the interests of a single perspective take on a divine, generational immortality and proliferate absolutist ways of thinking as a dominant social force. This allows antiquated ideas to stunt social development for centuries, leading to oppression of minority populations.
It became clear to me that religious codes are genuinely inadequate to direct society because their perversion of morality convolutes the "moral" course of action, and fundamentally deals in absolutes that do not allow for diversity of thought.
I discovered agency, embraced empathy, and leveraged my experiences with racism, homelessness, and trauma to create a moral code that put humanism and compassion above any ethereal, imagined restrictions on who deserves to be treated as a human being.
Michael, 21, is from Hanover, N.H., and attends Dartmouth College. He had a tumultuous time growing up in the foster care system, but overcame those struggles and is now seeking a degree in biology. Eventually, Michael would like to earn a degree in osteopathic medicine.
Choose the Right
By Catherine Evans
Choose the Right. CTR.
Those three letters held a significance to me growing up, whether I was singing about them in Mormon children's songs or wearing them around my finger on a child-sized green ring. A daily reminder that God was always watching, blessing me when I was obedient and taking notice when I chose the wrong.
Choose the Right was confirmation that my lifestyle was dictated by the words of God, while everyone else was choosing the wrong. My decisions had already been made for me, and I just needed to follow the plan.
Over time, though, CTR started to lose some of its weight. I started to question what it was that made an action "right" and what made my non-Mormon friends' actions "wrong." I started to realize that my friends based their decision-making on similar grounds, yet they ultimately came to different conclusions.
For example, I was taught that homosexuality was wrong, and it was not until I met people who identified as queer that I began to recognize the moral ambiguity of this belief. My "Choose the Right" moral compass is always present, but it evolves when I meet people who cause me to question my ideas of right and wrong.
Morals come from within, shaped by experiences and interactions. They evolve through feelings of empathy and guilt, imbued by the society of which we are a part. They guide decision-making, though our ideas of right and wrong vary dramatically.
Though its meaning has changed, and will never stop changing, the phrase "Choose the Right" still reflects how I strive to live my life.
Catherine, 20, is from Herndon, Va., and attends James Madison University. She is involved with the university's College Democrats organization. She is majoring in rhetoric and technical communications and will graduate a year early from the Honors College at JMU.
Helping as a matter of course
By Nicholas Giurleo
One day, two female missionaries had approached me, trying to hand me a pamphlet. I noticed one of the women, as the other was talking, had very noticeably and suddenly become pale. She took a step back and seemed extremely disoriented. As I asked her if she was OK, she collapsed onto her knees.
Her companion immediately panicked and backed away in fright. I knelt down and lifted the woman's head up. She didn't lose consciousness, but she seemed very weak. I reached into my bag and offered her water and a granola bar. I stayed with her until two police officers arrived.
"Thank you. It is so comforting to know that there are good Christians like you in the world who go out of their way to help their brothers and sisters in need," she said.
I smiled and said, "You're welcome, ma'am, but I have to say, I'm no Christian. I'm just a guy with a conscience. Hard to believe an atheist could do something good for a stranger?" Before she could respond, I turned and disappeared back into the flow of Boston's pedestrian traffic.
Regardless of who you are — the staunchest nonbeliever or the pope himself — it was morally right to help. I do what I perceive is morally right because I place value in acting unselfishly and helping those in immediate need.
Nicholas, 20, is from Medford, Mass., and attends Tufts University. He is studying international relations and hopes to attend law school to study international law. He is a member of the Model United Nations team, and actively involved in the History Society and Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services. Nicholas has interned at the United Nations Association of Greater Boston and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate.
Plasticity helps tune our morality
By Jordan Green
In the study of neuroscience, there is a concept called "plasticity." Plasticity refers to the brain's ability to change and rewire itself — even through adulthood — through new experiences and learned skills.
I think experience can influence not just a few of the trillions of synaptic connections in the human brain, but whole people. From my own life, I can say that my morals do not come from a god, but are shaped from a conglomerate of experiences including the family in which I was brought up, places I've been, books I've read, and more.
Religious belief is not needed for morality, and the world around us proves it: Countless nonbelievers exhibit good morality through their everyday treatment of others and charitable work. Additionally, most modern theists will reject at least a few tenets of their respective religious texts (like slavery, marriage laws, cruel punishments), indicating that they have some set of morals independent of the religion that compels them to do so, even if they don't explicitly recognize it.
For all my neuroscience books and deliberative discussions and philosophy classes, I have yet to find some evidence compelling enough to merit religious belief.
I think the best thing nonbelievers can do to combat negative stereotypes about their morality is to do good, and be seen doing it. Providing positive examples of secular morality might compel others to look at nonbelievers and form new opinions — and new (synaptic) connections.
Jordan, 20, is from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and attends the University of Arizona. She is studying for two degrees: neuroscience & cognitive science, and creative writing. She has traveled to several countries and is planning to study abroad at some point during college. She hopes to earn a graduate degree in neuroscience and have a career as a scientific researcher.
'Good Book' clearly a misnomer
By Melissa Juarez
I was an active Jehovah's Witness, better known as the person who knocks on your door at 9 a.m. on a Saturday to preach to you. My life was highly regulated by the cult-like organization, so naturally I believed everything I was taught until I actually started reading "The Good Book."
In my reading of the bible, I discovered, to my dismay, that Jehovah was the bad guy. This discovery triggered an onslaught of research on my part, which led me to discover scientific and logical impossibilities, other immoralities, and a multitude of contradictions all found in what I thought was God's perfect word.
By age 15, I realized that I was an atheist.
However, for most of my life, I was taught that religion possessed a monopoly on morality and that you couldn't be an upstanding person without God. Consequently, when I realized I was an atheist, my new mission was to find out why we are viewed as such immoral people and to truly accept that my own morals do not come from God, but from someone who is very real — me.
Although it was lack of evidence that made me select the terribly stigmatized word "atheist," I will never forget what made me start questioning: My morality clashed with the very book I was supposed to be getting my morals from. Trying to reconcile my morality with the teachings in the bible felt like trying to mix oil and water. It just couldn't be done. So, I removed the oil and now flow freely as water, thanks to freethought.
Melissa, 21, is from Madera, Calif., and attends the University of California-Fresno. She was raised as a Jehovah's Witness until she became an atheist at 15. She is seeking to become a registered nurse and then hopes to become a nurse practitioner for women's health or pediatrics.
One nation, under Voldemort
By Anne Mickey
One day during my junior year of high school, it occurred to me that standing for the daily Pledge of Allegiance went against my beliefs as an atheist because I had to pledge to the nation "under God." The next day, I continued sitting while the pledge was recited and was immediately reprimanded by my teacher.
My teacher took offense at my (non)action, believing I was being disrespectful toward U.S. troops, which was absolutely not my intention. I took the issue to the school administration, which threatened me with discipline if I continued to sit during the pledge.
When I was making my case, I asked them how they would feel if the pledge instead said "one nation, under Voldemort," referring to the villain from the Harry Potter series. My point was that they would likely feel uncomfortable standing up, putting their hands over their hearts, and pledging their allegiance to the Dark Lord Voldemort — a fictional character who's downright evil — day after day, and that this was how I felt.
In the end, I reached a compromise with my school that if I stood for the pledge for the rest of my junior year, I would be placed with a fourth-period teacher during my senior year who would allow me to sit without punishment.
So much immorality (and even amorality) has been rooted in religion that I find it ridiculous to believe that morals originate in any sort of belief in a higher power. The fact that I'm a good, kind and fair person is not in spite of my atheism; rather, it is at least partially because of my atheism.
Anne, 20, is from Scottsdale, Ariz., and attends Arizona State University. She is passionate about civil rights and many consider her a "social justice warrior." She hopes to serve in the AmeriCorps Public Allies program after graduation before having a career as an advocate for marginalized people and communities.
I don't need a god to help someone
By Chenoa Off
When I was a child, my mother had a painting on her wall of her savior; he had light hair and a crown of thorns that caused blood to drip down his face. Next to him, she had a photo of the Buddha, and on her bedside table was a little statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.
In my room, I had my saviors: Charles Xavier of the X-Men, Doctor Who, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. With them stood their people — some women, some men, some blue, each one unique. These were my heroes, the ones showing me how to fight discrimination, to value education, to understand friendship, to cherish life and listen to my own moral compass.
My mother is a very spiritual person, and when I told her I was a nonbeliever, her eyes grew sad. She seemed to think that because I am an atheist that I could not see the astonishing beauty of our existence. On the contrary, I marvel every day at the immensity of the universe, at the complexity of living organisms.
I've seen religion bring a community together through hard times. But I have also seen religion throw my gay friend out on the streets. I have had religion tell me what decisions I cannot make for my own body. I have seen religion start fights over the name of the man in the sky. Religion is the world's greatest oppressor.
My most beloved moral is truth. I don't need a god to know hurting others is immoral. I don't need a god to know what kindness and charity is. I don't need a god to help someone.
Chenoa, 19, is from Crestone, Colo., and attends Russell Sage College. She enjoys traveling, singing jazz, skiing and river rafting. She plans to be an occupational therapist and working with special education school children.
Falling into the dogma trap
By Mackenzie Schneider
Contrary to popular belief, I am not an atheist because I'm angry with God. I don't believe in God; how can I be angry with an entity that I don't believe exists?
Also, nothing traumatic happened to me that caused me to lose faith in God. And my atheism wasn't motivated by my sexuality nor did anyone's death cause me to question God.
I considered the fact that since Christians are able to so easily dismiss every other religion in the world, I ought to be able to dismiss Christianity just as easily. So I did.
At 16, I dismissed the "necessity" of religion, and decided I would live my life how I see fit and follow the morality that I decide upon. In the years since then, I have developed a working definition of morality.
Morality for me means doing my best not to harm others and providing empathy and understanding.
The issue with religion is that it relies on dogma to maintain strength. This dogma allows hatred for people who are different to fester. It's why the Westboro Baptist Church believes that its members' behavior is moral.
However, atheists are not exempt from falling into dogma, either. I have met atheists who are so firm in their beliefs that they actively try to make theists feel like idiots.
Perhaps the first step in reversing negative stereotypes about nonbelievers is combatting our own dogma. Recognizing the value that someone's beliefs may have for them and being willing to admit that you may be wrong can help facilitate a more peaceful and tolerant environment for all.
Mackenzie, 21, is from San Antonio and attends Smith College. She is an English and philosophy double major. She has served two years on the Smith College Social Justice and Equity Committee. She enjoys painting and drawing.
Morality without hypocrisy
By Omolola Smith
The idea of a person without a god or some gods was entirely incomprehensible to me growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. Such persons were vilified by others in my society.
In 2014, Mubarak Bala was forcibly drugged and committed into a psychiatric institution in Kano, Nigeria, for expressing his lack of belief in a deity. This launched a wave of inquiry within me that no religious book or organization could answer adequately.
Later that year, I boarded my flight headed for the Home of the Free, where I would be introduced to a human right I did not know I was denied: freedom of thought.
Still, every Sunday, I found myself suspending reason for the sake of the church and its teachings, which remained an important part of my routine and identity. With each passing around of the flesh and blood of God, I knew I was being untrue to myself.
Then I said it out loud for the first time in a phone call to Kudzie, my childhood friend. "I just don't believe this sh*t," I said.
He let out his familiar bubbly laugh and confessed his own recent loss of faith. We spent the next half hour nervously laughing at each other for all the things we once believed.
When I ended the phone call, the lightness of our conversation was soon followed by an existential crisis. I spent the next week mourning the faith I had possessed my whole life.
I realized I could either give up or relearn how to exist. Within me was the hope of finding fulfillment without delusion. I looked internally for what remained after religion was taken out of the equation and found true morality without hypocrisy.
Omolola, 22, is from Lagos, Nigeria, and attends the University of Vermont. She has lived in England, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States. Omolola plans to become a civil engineer and eventually would like to pursue a doctorate in physics.
Morality attainable to all
By Katelynn Thompson
Growing up in a small town, where God is great and Jesus is the reason, it was hard to admit to atheism.
For me, atheism was less a choice than a realization. Religion is a purely cultural construct, and wields only as much power as its society allows it.
After a while, I started to refrain from mentioning my beliefs at all, dreading the expression that seems to curtain every face when the word "atheist" is mentioned. No decent, God-fearing soul wants to spend too long with a heartless nonbeliever.
To people like this, it seems that the only thing keeping humanity from depravity, crime and death itself is a centuries-old doctrine housed in a leather-bound book. They harbor the cynical belief that the only thing keeping humankind from doing wrong is a fear of retribution. Personally, I prefer being a decent person just for the sake of it, and I don't need the threat of eternal damnation to keep me out of trouble.
Perhaps it's unfair that the onus of proving morality falls to nonbelievers, but people have always disliked things that they don't understand. Therefore, it is important for atheists and nonbelievers to try to show by example that morality is not synonymous with piety.
Morality is not the watchful eye of a god weighing one's every decision on a scale of righteousness. Morality is independent from any one creed, and equally attainable to all.
Katelynn, 24, is from Hanover, Pa., and attends the University of Georgia. She is seeking her second bachelor's degree, this one in linguistics and comparative literature. Her first degree is in anthropology. She is a writer and aspiring novelist and hopes to have a career in language conservation.