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5th place: College essay contest — Aaron Hill

My own shelter in the storm

FFRF awarded Aaron $1,500.

Aaron Hill

By Aaron Hill

The Ten Commandments, the Upanishads, the Muslim schools of Fiqh, the Gospels and countless other religious scriptures and traditions offer widely varying moral codes. I feel that no moral code can be held as absolute when so many exist, and in which none is evidently superior to another. Moreover, choosing a religion relies on one’s own conscience, and is not evidently superior to following that conscience to begin with. For these reasons, I am agnostic.

For the purposes of a philosophical thought experiment, let us assume the Christian faith and bible hold true, though this test works across countless traditions. Upon one’s death, most Christians agree that a final judgment is rendered that determines one’s eternal salvation or damnation. Herein dilemmas arise: Of the countless denominations that claim to be Christian and hold the bible as ultimate truth, each sect has varying and often conflicting codes that determine one’s everlasting fate. As an example, many denominations still condemn the use of contraceptives as a sin, but Presbyterians no longer do. Unless decisive revelatory evidence has been hidden from me, there is no way to distinguish Presbyterianism from Catholicism as closer to a divine truth, especially to someone raised outside of either tradition. Therefore, if after reading the bible or attending a particularly compelling sermon I ascribed absolute moral authority to Christian doctrine, how could I choose a denomination? This example ignores the even greater difficulties of choosing Christianity over, say, Sikhism. Choosing a religion or denomination to follow would therefore come down to my own moral compass determining which tradition best suited me, defeating the very purpose of choosing a religion to guide moral decisions in the first place.

This is not to say that I do not abide by any moral philosophy; I do. The ideas I live my life by are flexible over time, though strictly followed at any given point. While I have lived my life and bettered my understanding of humanity and the world, even my most closely held ideals have shifted and will undoubtedly continue to change.

This is the other critical reason I do not live my life by any religious doctrine: When I find my own views on any subject to be flawed, I can adjust them, but if I found my views to be out of sync with my adopted faith, to shift them would be heretical. For a concrete example, many faiths find homosexuality to be immoral, largely because of their pre-modern and cultural roots. As my understanding of human sexuality has shifted in my adolescence, so have my opinions on this subject.

I prefer this to mentally clashing with religious doctrines each time my ideas evolve. Simply put, no religion is likely to perfectly match my ideology and no religion will be able  to be flexible enough to change with my own shifting beliefs. In the end, I’d rather light my own path with the blazing wisdom of countless philosophers and prophets than by the flickering light of a single faith. 

A Muslim parable from antiquity reasons that any religion is like a room with a leaky roof in a thunderstorm. Each has its own problems, yet offers great benefits. To switch to another would mean suffering through the rain and mud of faithlessness before settling in again to the equally leaky room of a new religion.

While that analogy concludes that one should be loyal to their faith, I see it applying to my life in a different manner. I have not settled for the inevitably leaky shelter of any religion, nor am I caught unprotected outside without guiding principles. I stand in the flawed chamber of my own morality and can slowly patch the holes in my own roof.

I need not accept my moral flaws as immutable truths of a religion. I can amend them.

Aaron, 19, is from Forest Falls, Calif., and attends the University of California-Berkeley, majoring in history with a minor in public policy. Aaron has been a writer and editor for the Berkeley Political Review, an activist in the campus chapter of the ACLU, and a campus coordinator for the Pete Buttigieg campaign and currently for Joe Biden’s campaign. Aaron hopes to attend law school and become a civil rights attorney.