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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

3rd place: High school essay contest 2022 — Patrick McDonald

Patrick McDonald

FFRF awarded Patrick $2,500.

By Patrick McDonald

You may think that I am irredeemable, corrupted, depraved. You may think, because I don’t share your beliefs, that I can never act righteously. That I can never act with compassion. That I can never be good. But what does it mean to be good? What does it mean to act morally?

If I were to pose these questions to ancient civilizations, they would likely recommend human sacrifice to the gods. The Romans, I assume, would advise bravery, while people of the Renaissance would encourage education. Different cultures define morality in different ways. 

Society determines its own morality; humankind dictates its own standards.

Our culture’s concept of morality is easily recognizable: People should not kill, rape, steal, cheat or lie. They should be prudent, gracious, charitable and fair. Your religion might recommend some or all of those. But please don’t act like it discovered them. Society had reached consensus on most of these rules long before your favorite holy book was even written.

Since their inception, these standards have reflected societal agreement, not religious doctrine. Society’s concept of morality is always evolving. That means your holy book is antiquated, anachronistic, old-fashioned. It was written in ancient times and reflects ancient moral theory. Death to anyone who dishonors the Sabbath? Really? How could that be moral? You know it’s not. You must know. But on what grounds? On what basis do you determine which commands to follow and which to ignore? Why are some parts of your book valid, but not others? What standard are you using to make such a delineation?

You are using your own moral intuition. Something within you recognizes that following certain commands would be abhorrent. And thus, you reject them. But what gave you this intuition? Your parents? Your friends? Other people you admire? Yes! All of them. And plenty others besides. The people in your life instilled within you the values you hold dear, just as those same values were instilled within them. With each passing generation, the values change. Usually, it’s for the better. But it’s not your holy book that is improving. It is us, and our understanding of the world in which we live.

With the passage of time, our values more completely reflect the best interest of humankind as a whole, for that is our common goal — to maximize happiness for human beings.

That is something we can all agree on — that the world would be a better place if suffering were alleviated. As such, as time progresses, that goal takes shape and defines our moral standards.

I believe that maximizing happiness and reducing suffering are our most sacred responsibilities. This belief drives me to act with compassion, charity and kindness. I do not believe this because I have extensively consulted ancient religious texts. I do not believe this because a deity told me to. But I believe it, nonetheless. Because I can see the good in other people all by myself. And I know that it’s worth fighting for.

Patrick, 19, is from Mashpee, Mass., and attends Hillsdale College, where he plans to major in politics and math. He enjoys playing sports and traveling.

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