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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

3rd place — Grad student essay contest: Sebastian Leon

Sebastian Leon

FFRF awarded Sebastian $2,500.

By Sebastian Leon

“Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security” — Jeremiah 33:6

 As the world is ravaged by an ever-evolving virus, my mother would listen to her church’s livestreamed service while I studied for my virtual final exams. “Jesus will protect you. If you believe, Jesus will keep you safe,” said Father Mario, my mother’s favorite priest.

I couldn’t help but remember the news coming out of Italy, one of the most Catholic regions in the world, home to Rome and the Vatican. As of this writing, Italy has suffered 2,733 deaths per million due to Covid-19. Similarly, Brazil — the most Catholic country in the world — has suffered 3,119 deaths per million, totaling 662,964. The list goes on. To me, it was clear that religion, and belief in any specific deity, was no remedy for viral pathogen. 

As a scientist that specializes in biomedical nanotechnology, I have observed a clear and disturbing trend that is mostly concentrated, but not entirely exclusive, to the religious political right wing of the United States. The denial of science through scriptural justification has resulted in over 300,000 excess deaths in the United States alone, solely for SARS-CoV-2 and has allowed for the reemergence and deaths of preventable diseases, such as measles. This anti-vaccine rhetoric has a history dating back to the 18th century, when religious figureheads referred to vaccines as “the devil’s work,” which is ironic as vaccines have saved countless lives since their inception and mass distribution. More recently, the infamous congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, known for her delusional commentary and infatuation with conspiracy theories, called the vaccine the “mark of the beast,” alluding to biblical scripture and demonizing one of humanity’s most effective tools in preventing death. She is not alone in this endeavor, as many RNC and GOP officials have followed the flock. 

Christopher Hitchens was right when he claimed that religion poisons everything. For centuries, religious leaders and their followers have made claims contrary to the demonstrably true objective reality we share. From vaccines and abortion to climate change, religion repeatedly finds a way to interject and limit human progress. This unfortunate interjection has been observed as early as Galileo and as recently as May 2022. The Catholic Church has played an integral role in delaying science and adding to unnecessary human suffering as many Catholics claim religious exemptions for vaccination. 

What possible solutions exist? 

Education is the only possible answer. 

While I do believe some people can be convinced to get a vaccine, or convinced to believe in climate change, what evidence can one provide to convince someone who disregards all evidence? No evidence exists that could persuade a person who values faith over evidence, and this — in my view — is the root cause of most of humanity’s issues. If this generation cannot be convinced, the next one might. There is hope from recent surveys by Pew Research that religiosity is on the decline, and that the belief in science is increasing. This trend will only continue and possibly increase in rate as we advance in technology and would rise exponentially if we increase funding for education. Over time, Americans are learning that the best mechanism for finding solutions at our disposal is science. Religion has not produced a single useful technology and has instead, on too many occasions, acted to inhibit rather than to progress. This regressive, or conservative, nature of religion has pushed the next generation away from its lack of inclusivity, strict practices and hateful ideologies. 

As the Earth rises in temperature, new pathogens emerge, and new challenges come to light, the best chance we have is education and science. While praying may help relieve some stress and add hope to an individual, it is through intense study, thorough investigation, and peer-reviewed science from which hope, and solutions truly emerge. 

Sebastian, 26, attends the University of Central Florida with plans to get a master’s degree in nanotechnology.

“I am a graduate student researcher and teaching assistant at UCF studying biomedical nanotechnology with a focus in neurological injury, as well as cancer, anti-microbials and agricultural nanotech,” Sebastian writes. “I have served as a graduate research mentor, personal training mentor, held various teaching positions at UCF and was co-coordinator and education chair of the Central Florida Brain Bee, which aims to bring neuroscience to local high schools at no cost.”