FFRF’s 2022 BIPOC essay contest winners
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 11 top winners and 18 honorable mentions of the 2022 David Hudak Memorial Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color Student Essay Competition.
FFRF has paid out a total of $19,350 in award money for this contest this year.
BIPOC students were asked to write a personal persuasive essay about “How atheism/humanism makes me a better person.”
Winners, their ages, the colleges or universities they are attending and the award amounts are listed below.
Jujuan Lawson, 18, Loyola University, $3,500.
Aiden Kong, 18, University of Toronto, $3,000.
Sylvie Leyerle, 18, University of Illinois, $2,500.
Marcus Brown, 17, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, $2,000.
Luke Ortiz-Grabe, 19, Colorado College, $1,500.
Claudia Moses, 19, Stanford University, $1,000.
Elayna Whiteman, 19, University of Chicago, $750.
Mary Musa, 19, University of Delaware, $500.
Torrie Boykins, 17, Michigan State University, $400.
TENTH PLACE (tie)
Riya Bhargava, 19, Yale University, $300.
Vaishnavi Nayak, 18, Ohio State University, $300.
HONORABLE MENTIONS ($200 each)
Anika Becker, 20, University of San Francisco.
Vanessa Bien-Aime, 19, University of Maryland.
Alexandria Calloway, 18, Duke University.
Tenaya Coward, 19, Portland State University.
Austin De Nijs, 18, Savannah College of Art and Design.
Dystanee Foy, 18, University of Denver.
Landsay Frankoer, 19, Stockton University.
Whisper Johnson, 21, Bowling Green State University.
Jordyn Jones, 20, Kennesaw State University.
Elayna Kash, 19, University of Michigan.
Tiffany Lin, 18, University of Michigan.
Zyon Loiseau, 18, University of Wisconsin.
Mary Membreno, 19, Roanoke College.
Daniel Ogunwale, 18, Swarthmore College.
Christopher Rodriguez, 20, Texas A&M.
Amani Turner, 17, University of Texas-Austin.
Jordan Wilson, 18, UC-Santa Cruz.
Liam Wisner, 18, Oklahoma State University.
FFRF thanks Lisa Treu for managing the details of this and FFRF’s other student essays competitions. And we also would like to thank our “faithful faithless” volunteer and staff readers and judges, including: Dan Barker, Bill Dunn, Kate Garmise, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Ricki Grunberg, Dan Kettner, Gloria Marquardt, Brent Messer, April O’Leary, Andrea Osburne, George Pevarik, PJ Slinger, Mandisa Thomas, Karen Lee Weidig, Sarah Weinstock and Casandra Zimmerman.
This contest is named for the late David Hudak, an FFRF member who left a bequest to generously fund a student essay contest.
FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010, one geared explicitly for students of color since 2016 and a fifth contest for law students since 2019.
FIRST PLACE DAVID HUDAK MEMORIAL AWARD
Doubt begets thought and a chance for growth
FFRF awarded Jujuan $3,500.
By Jujuan Lawson
To become an agnostic in a world that holds the existence of the supernatural as axiomatic, one must, by the very nature of such defiance, doubt society, doubt the world and doubt themselves. This is the principle from which my agnosticism is formed. A doubt — perhaps, more accurately, a refusal of certainty — toward the way things are and how they “should be.”
Doubt begets thought: If one cannot fully accept the way something is said to be, is it not logical to form one’s own opinion? If something may be wrong, what might be right? Does “right” exist? Instead of relying on “truths” delivered by a God, inscribed on texts passed down from those who came thousands of years before me, I decide to forge my own beliefs and challenge them in an endless cycle of moral creation and destruction, day by day, decision by decision.
Each circumstance in which I meet a new moral challenge is a chance for growth. An opportunity to ask, “Who am I? What do I value?” Every day, who I am is ripped apart: My choices are inspected, doubted, corrected, or supplemented. I am a collection of thousands of decisions — proven and disproven opinions — each one informing the next. With each moment, I become more of “myself,” more “truthful,” more “just.” This is my morality: ever-evolving and always mine.
Adopting a religious, moral system removes your responsibility in providing thought to substantiate your moral beliefs, but more importantly, it opens the possibility of allowing others to make those substantiations for you. Even if God exists and is omnibenevolent, because its moral communication cannot be proven to have actually occurred in a clear, literal manner, then “justice” is an interpretation pulled from hearsay. When you have faith in a doctrine, you must also have faith in its proper transcription and interpretation — that your examination of the text is one made without error. Perfection is antithetical to humanity. Therefore, you must ignore the motives of those who transcribe and interpret, allowing those motives to become impressed upon you.
Instituting group morality is one of the best means to regulate and control members of society. You can manufacture systems that hold the individuals whom you support in positions of power and make those you dislike suffer. When someone interprets a religious text, they inherently insert their biases and personal viewpoints into the analysis: even if the intent is not malicious, the original message is altered.
And, so I doubt, as I must. If I cannot entirely trust the intentions and statements of those who create and those who interpret, then I will not risk the lack of moral cognizance caused by giving up my own self-reflection. I do not need God, or a priest, to “teach” me how to be kind. I am good not because I am told to be, but because I choose to be. My love is purely mine, internal, and I express it with each of my decisions.
Jujuan, 18, who is from Gwynn Oak, Md., and attends Loyola University, writes, “I work primarily to educate others on class, race, gender, sex, sexuality and a host of other issues that plague my school environment. I’ve racked up over 100 service hours working in food pantries and with environmentalist groups. I’ve received awards for writing and creating/ participating in safe spaces for LGBTQ+ and Black students on my high school campus.”
I’ll pray for you
FFRF awarded Aiden $3,000.
By Aiden Kong
When times are tough and when others are going through hardships, many religious people offer their thoughts and prayers to the less fortunate. While these people mean well, what is the true impact of prayer? Does sitting in silence while talking to the sky to a force no one truly knows exist help others in the long run? How do people know when their prayers have actually helped others?
My mother grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, attending Catholic school her whole childhood. For years, she studied bible scriptures, attended daily Mass, and prayed to Jesus for a better world. However, while in her devout Catholic community, she noticed a trend of inaction among the other churchgoers. They saw church as a safeguard from immorality and accountability, choosing to attend Mass and pray for others instead of helping themselves and others. Many of them argued that they were good people because they went to church, not that they were good people because they carried out good deeds. This dissonance between the beliefs and actions of people in her religious community led my mother to become less religious and allow her children to form their own opinions about religion; I chose to be an agnostic.
I gravitated toward agnosticism for a few reasons. For starters, as a person who believes in science, observation and evidence, there is no concrete evidence that shows whether there is some type of higher power. Moreover, there are thousands of religions in the world that have all evolved over the centuries, so the idea that one is “correct” and all of the others are wrong seems illogical to me. Lastly, as an agnostic, I feel more compelled to become a better person through a wide scope of philosophies and teachings rather than the limited scope of one religion. Furthermore, nonreligious people do not have religion to hold onto as a crutch for their moral ego. Since I don’t believe in a higher power or that I’m serving some type of god, my perspective focuses on believing in the power of people and helping others as much as I can.
Instead of hoping and praying that a god will come to help me and others, I choose to take matters into my own hands and improve the world myself. From tutoring others and donating the profits to charity to volunteering with my Scouts BSA troop to help nonprofits in need, I have been able to make a positive impact on the world, just like so many other nontheists.
“I’ll pray for you,” say so many religious people to the families of victims of the Uvalde school shooting. This phrase has gotten the United States nowhere in helping to secure the safety of school children across the country. If we continue to hope and pray that things will get better, then they never will. The world doesn’t need prayer — it needs action.
Aiden, 18, is from Pinecrest, Fla., and attends the University of Toronto. “Throughout high school, I immersed myself in science and math competitions, student tutoring, and badminton,” he writes. “I’ve also been involved in Scouts BSA for six years, reaching the rank of Eagle Scout. I have always been interested in STEM, from mixing concoctions in a science kit to building bridges out of basswood. In the future, I wish to combine my interests in STEM and service to pursue an M.D. or Ph.D. and conduct cutting-edge research on Alzheimer’s disease.”
The sin of freethought
FFRF awarded Sylvie $2,500.
By Sylvie Leyerle
The undeniable message of Psalm 53:1 is that people who do not believe in God are “corrupt” and “abominable” — that, among atheists, “There is none who does good.” As a nonbeliever who is, nevertheless, an ethical and loving person, I know this pronouncement is ignorant and slanderous. Furthermore, I would never pass uninformed judgment on another person in this manner.
Right out of the gate, I contend this makes me a better, not a worse, person. Acceptance of differences is an admirable trait, and there are other good traits that go along with my freedom from religion. Far from being an abomination, independent thought is beneficial and even essential for humans to survive and thrive, and I refuse to consider it a sin.
As an immigrant from China, I am all too familiar with the sense of “otherness” that goes along with the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes. I am well acquainted with stereotypes, and they make me bristle. Perhaps that is why I have resisted all attempts to indoctrinate me into any religion, preferring to make my own decisions regarding justice and morality. I already feel judged by strangers, so I have never broadcast my lack of belief in any religion. I have feared being viewed as even more of a heathen, even more of an irreligious, uncultured and uncivilized outsider — despite the fact that I have lived in the United States since I was a toddler and have grown up as an American.
It is my perception that most Christian Americans look down on people from China, which is officially an atheist state. China is not, and has never been, perfect, but it is an ancient civilization that has bestowed numerous gifts upon the world, including papermaking, printing and the compass. Independent of organized faith systems, Chinese inventors have enriched and improved the world with ingenious ideas that facilitated communication and interaction among people across the globe. Science and ingenuity, not superstition and religion, were the driving forces behind these vitally important manifestations of human effort and creativity.
I am not religious, but I am principled, honorable and honest. I try to be a logical and independent thinker with an open heart and mind. I believe many Christians think atheists reject a belief in God because they don’t want to be restricted by the moral constraints contained in the bible, but I think most people become atheists because the existence of God is not supported by evidence.
Psalm 53:1 is saying nonbelievers are bad solely because they do not believe, but I reject this foolish and unfair characterization and point to my own good character and behavior and the achievements and good works of other nonbelievers as evidence that freethinkers make the world a better place. If forming my own world view and allowing it to guide my actions is a sin, just call me a sinner.
Sylvie, 18, is from Champaign, Ill., attends the University of Illinois and plans to major in studio art. “I was born in China in 2004 and adopted by American parents when I was 13 months old, and I have an older sister,” Sylvie writes. “I am an artist who enjoys exploring my birth culture through my art. My status as a woman, an Asian immigrant, and a member of a multiracial household shapes my work, as does my experience as a person with a hearing impairment.”
The morality of my nonbelief
FFRF awarded Marcus $2,000.
By Marcus Brown
There is a prevalent viewpoint that having a strong sense of morality is exclusive to those with belief in a higher power. Throughout my own life, I have grown in my understanding of just how mistaken this link is. The reliance on faith to live a moral life is a confirmation that one is simply an immoral person. Despite popular sentiment, belief in a higher power has no significant effect on how selfless a person lives their life. Personally, being humanist provides me with a greater respect for our Earthly life.
Regardless of background, class, virtue or decency, every person simply experiences one mortal life. It is entirely up to the individual to use their single opportunity to lead a noble life that positively contributes to the state of the world. All religions undermine this fact by trusting in an existence beyond Earthly life, thus making mortal life less significant to believers. Conversely, my lack of belief in an afterlife pushes me to work toward improving the state of the only world that I know of. Having no belief in life after death means that I have no incentive to selfishly work toward an afterlife for myself. The morality I live by, throughout my limited time here, is entirely dictated by me, instead of by teachings that do not necessarily improve the world. This means that any moral actions that I take come directly from me alone. Unfortunately, religion causes people to burden themselves in many decisions that they make, strictly out of fear of judgment from a higher power. However, strangely, religion has hardly prevented the carrying out of immoral actions. In fact, religion has been used to justify evil since the beginning of humanity. The absence of religion in my life gives me absolute freedom to do what I believe is ethical, rather than fixating on following the teachings of a particular belief. In my own practice, this means pushing for universal health care instead of being concerned about a woman’s choice to have an abortion. This also means advocating for gun control legislation instead of worrying about same-sex marriages.
There is an endless list of genuine issues that are overshadowed by the non-issues fostered by the members of a particular religion. Leaving it up to myself to determine what is right and wrong leads to grounded decisions on how I can leave behind a better world than the one that I was born into. Avoiding faith when making decisions has caused me to lead a more altruistic lifestyle that is more centered on improving the tangible well-being of others.
Marcus, 17, is from Yonkers, N.Y., attends Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute and plans to major in mechanical engineering. “I was born to an immigrant mother from Belize and an immigrant father from London,” Marcus writes. “I like playing basketball, table tennis, painting and working with children. I enjoy volunteering at a local soup kitchen and New York Blood Center.”
Agnosticism benefits community involvement
FFRF awarded Luke $1,500.
By Luke Ortiz Grabe
Through embracing agnosticism, I have strengthened my moral values and gained a commitment to community involvement and service. Though theist spaces often boast about their community service, my agnosticism leaves my dedication to service unimpeded by external motivations. As I analyze why I engage within my community, I discover that it is not because some deity has commanded that I go and serve others or that I wish to spread the word of my faith. Instead, my agnosticism has strengthened my sentiments of compassion and has sparked a desire to engage within my community because I have the privilege, resources and ability to do so. As an agnostic, I know that I must do more than prayer and religious practice to help those around me. Through thoughtful, efficient action, I can go out into my community and make it a better place for all those who reside within it.
Further, secularism’s growth has sparked the proliferation of nonreligious organizations that are more attuned to fighting systemic inequality within our communities. Utilizing a naturalist perspective on the world, I realized that our social systems and hierarchies are human-constructed. This perspective admits the guilt of humankind in the suffering that exists in our world today and argues that it will be through the action of humanity, not a higher power, that will eradicate these unequal systems. When engaging within my community, my agnosticism encourages me to utilize the power that I have to change the systems around me, not to defer to a god in hopes they will solve the problem. Through strengthening my agnosticism, I rid myself of external motivations for community service and realize that it will be only through human action that we can eradicate these unequal systems from our society.
Finally, as a Mexican-American, agnosticism has allowed me to develop an objective view of the harm that religion continues to create within my community and how I can help resolve this through service. When discussing the issue of colonization with my community, I have realized that we have not dealt with the communal trauma from our forced conversion to Christianity. However, my journey through my agnosticism has allowed me to realize the harm that religion has created within our community. Realizing the faults of Christianity and reconciling moving away from Christianity inspires us to reconnect with the culture that we lost and not deflect to a higher power when confronted with the current problems stemming from colonization. Agnosticism has given me knowledge of what lies beyond the confines of religion for the Mexican-American community, and through my engagement efforts, I can bring this knowledge to others and help fix the problems from which we suffer. Through the knowledge agnosticism has given me, I cast aside the defamation of believing that there is “none who does good,” and use my newfound agency to rectify the problems within my community, easing the trauma of the past while paving a bright path for our future.
Luke, 19, is from Highlands Ranch, Colo., and attends Colorado College, majoring in international political economy. “I have a strong passion for community engagement, focusing on uplifting LGBTQ+ and Latinx experiences,” he writes. “I am currently working to increase health equity for LGBTQ+ people in Colorado Springs, serving on my institution’s Antiracism Commitment Committee, and participating in various community engagement efforts as a Bonner Fellow.”
Categorical opposition of religion and progress
FFRF awarded Claudia $1,000.
By Claudia Moses
It is widely accepted that, with every generation, society’s standard of living improves. Health is better, food is better, and all of it can be attributed to advances in science. And while science and religion are not necessarily mutually exclusive (and plenty of scientists themselves are religious), it holds that, throughout history, religion has often served as a hindrance to scientific progress.
As an aspiring scientist, I feel fortunate to have the clarity to see that I need not be religious to find guidance in my science. The problem with religion is that it argues that our driving force — for innovation and for life in general — is external. This causes numerous problems. It allows for outside opinions to influence decision making, which muddles critical thinking. It also prevents us from using inner motivation to innovate.
Humans are naturally inventive, and even religion itself was an invention intended to provide comfort in times of desperation. As humans innovate, we discard older technologies that have become obsolete. Typewriters were replaced by laptops, landlines were replaced by cell phones. As science itself padded the hardships humanity faced, the need for religion as a source of comfort faded. It was an invention whose need was replaced simply by ingenuity. However, because it was politically and financially beneficial, religion was not discarded.
In my belief, this is why religion puts up a mighty battle to remain relevant. It is inherently threatened by any shred of scientific progress, because with every forward stride and every improvement to human life, it becomes more and more unnecessary to be religious (and hence the world becomes less religious with every generation). Unfortunately, the fact that religion is juxtaposed with science means that religion argues against humanity’s progress. And that is why nontheists’ values are improved by naturalistic views.
So, how are my moral values improved by the fact that I am not religious? Simply by the fact that I am intrinsically motivated to improve and to innovate, and to do so for everyone. I intend to apply my degree in data and computational science to create solutions to the energy challenge — to develop sustainable energy technologies and to combat climate change. I intend to do this not because I am influenced by some deity, but rather because I am interested in the betterment of our collective world. I do not have an external pressure to remain stagnant, and that is my moral strength. I want to improve collectively, not just for the brethren of my religion, but for everyone.
Ultimately, it is not impossible to want to improve the world and to be religious at the same time. But being both categorically creates a moral conflict of interest, and it is for this reason that nonbelief has driven all positive change throughout human history.
Claudia, 19, is from Eagan, Minn., and attends Stanford University, where she is majoring in data and computational science.
“I have been heavily involved in state and local politics in the Twin Cities,” Claudia writes. “In 2020, I was elected as a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. At Stanford, I interned at the Precourt Institute for Energy. It is here where I found my life’s passion: the development of sustainable energy to facilitate our global transition away from polluting energies to green ones.”
Aligning my compass
FFRF awarded Elayna $750.
By Elayna Whiteman
“I’m lost, Mr. C! I have no idea where I’m going,” I sobbed. We were in the backpacking unit during camp, and my counselor was trying in vain to teach us how to use a compass. I was shocked to find out I couldn’t just walk the direction the needle was pointing. We were supposed to follow a 10-step scavenger hunt using the compass and specific instructions. But by step three, I was so twisted around, I somehow ended up in the parking lot. In hindsight, it seems obvious; of course, not aligning the needle with true north doesn’t work. But in the moment, I just assumed the compass would lead me to the prized treasure chest Mr. C had hidden. I never got there.
Without aligning the compass with north, you cannot properly use a compass. And using a religion to align your own personal navigation discounts using your life experiences and evaluation of facts around you to figure out your fundamental beliefs.
In almost all religions, there is some sort of doctrine that is the result of hundreds or even thousands of years of accumulating information and stories. But many of these writings are riddled with antiquated ideology from a time when things like earthquakes needed to be explained by incorporating gods.
The explanation of everything under the sun by religion comes from a time before the scientific method was developed. But in the last 500 years, science has been butting heads with religion. From the Enlightenment to Copernicus, religious leaders trying to impose the dogmas of people who walked the Earth thousands of years ago on anyone of their time prevented the progression of science.
It’s hard to imagine just how much faster the Western world could have adopted the heliocentric universe if religious leaders in the Church didn’t blindly follow the idea of a Eurocentric solar system, or if bloodletting wasn’t a cure-all solution for every illness. There is no problem with having religious beliefs. However, issues arise when we only use religion to govern our lives and ignore science and facts. Because as we progress, our world is more and more ruled by science, rather than mythology.
Being nonreligious affords me the opportunity to only use my own perception of reality and intake of facts to build my own morals. I’m not concerned with following the mistranslated and misremembered moral dictations of those long gone. I took up debate during high school, and have spent hundreds of hours poring over readings and crafting arguments based on facts. I can determine my own morals based on consuming a variety of perspectives and evaluating them based on how I have come to understand the world, or how they challenge what I believe. I’m more able to adapt to changes since my own values, the ideas and concepts that make me me, aren’t contingent on just a couple thousand pages.
When I choose to be an atheist, I choose to align my own true north.
Elayna, 19, is from Glencoe, Ill., and attends the University of Chicago, with plans to double major in economics and sociology.
“I interned for a representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, competed in Congressional Debate, led my school’s Mock Trial Club, and helped tutor students in English,” Elayna writes. “I hope to one day work in the public policy sector trying to help change people’s lives using solvent legislation.”
Goodness for the sake of goodness
FFRF awarded Mary $500.
By Mary Musa
From as early as I can remember, Catholicism has dominated my life. In the Catholic schools I attended and in the Catholic community around me, a person’s religious beliefs or lack thereof were always equated with the strength of their morals. Religious people were almost always viewed as good, while nonreligious people were continuously vilified.
I was a voracious reader as a child, and by the time I reached middle school, I realized that this narrative was false. I questioned everything I had been taught about Catholicism. As I matured and started to form my own sense of morality and learn more about world issues and the history of Catholicism, I no longer wanted to identify as Catholic. I was young and still unsure of my religiosity, but I felt a fundamental disconnect with my Catholic faith on many issues. By the time I left middle school, I identified as agnostic, which has improved my moral values and passion for social justice in many ways.
Identifying as agnostic has undoubtedly helped me develop a better sense of morality. In Catholicism, nonreligious people have often been painted as lacking a sense of morals. However, I believe nonreligious people, including myself, have a stronger sense of morality and firm moral values, because the component of a “reward” in an afterlife is not a motivation for performing good deeds. In Catholicism and many other belief systems, there is an underlying sense that good acts should be performed with a goal in mind: to appease a higher being, and to earn a place in heaven. To me, this belief has always felt hypocritical and contrary to the image that many religions try to portray. I question why the motivation for being a good person is driven by the fear of punishment, or the promise of a reward, rather than an understanding that it is the right thing to do. Thus, many religious people’s motivations for kindness, and basic human goodness, can be inherently selfish.
Since I have begun to identify as agnostic, my motivation for helping others has become more humanistic and less focused on the needs of a god. I developed the belief that human kindness should not be centered around one’s concern about divine punishment, but rather on improving society and the lives of others. Furthermore, I became less afraid to advocate for issues impacting women and women’s health that Catholicism opposed.
Nonreligious people have improved the world in countless ways, including through human rights activism. Andrei Sakharov, who was a Soviet nuclear physicist and lifelong atheist, worked tirelessly for human rights and free speech throughout his life. He faced exile and persecution at the hands of the Soviet government, yet continued to advocate for his beliefs. His lack of belief in a god did not preclude him, as it does not preclude other nonreligious people, from having a fundamental belief in improving human life and upholding their moral values.
Mary, 19, is from Townsend, Del., and attends the University of Delaware, with plans to major in materials science and engineering. “Some of the places I have been fortunate to visit include Aruba, Canada, Sierra Leone and the British Virgin Islands,” she writes. “I have worked as a K-12 tutor for over two years and one of my passions is helping people who are struggling in school. I eventually hope to start a makeup and skincare company that caters to the unique needs of black women’s hair and skin.”
Because I am good
FFRF awarded Torrie $400.
By Torrie Boykins
If the purpose of religion was for the betterment of all and brought out only the best of people, then I’d have no problem with it. Instead, religion often brings out the worst in people. It brings out the ugly, the bad, the rotten. KKK meetings, the Holocaust, 9/11, the Crusades — all events rising from an ideology that is meant to provide humanity more good than bad, but has mostly done the opposite.
For example, look at my people. For us, religion has never been used for good. The very same religion that was used to justify shackling and bonding us in chains was the same religion that was forced upon us so heavily that we eventually believed it was going to save us from our misery and suffering. And today, it is the religion we use to condemn our LGBTQ+ children and brothers and sisters and ignore the painful origin of our belief in it. Black people deserve better than that.
That is not to say that only Black people face homophobic discrimination, but to highlight the overwhelmingly dark presence of it in the Black community due to religion. But, in fact, religion is used to discriminate against all groups of people. It is written with and rooted in misogyny, homophobia, hatred for nonbelievers or other religious groups, bigotry, the criminalization of sex, and racism. I — and we, as a people — deserve better than that and can do better than that, which is why my faith is not in religion, but in myself.
I can be good without religion because I value people and the heart and sake of them more than I value blindly giving myself up to a persecuting god.
Religion has made people lazy. It gives them the false impression that their “thoughts and prayers” are enough in dire situations of injustice. Well, it’s nowhere near enough. And that’s why I want to do more. I can be good because I will take the actions to make the world a better and more equitable place, even if that means speaking out against principles of various religions. I want to help people who are underprivileged, underrepresented and marginalized — not further oppress them like religions often do. And, I don’t need to have a reason to do these things or an incentive of being granted to heaven. I can be good because I am good.
Torrie, 17, is from Southfield, Mich., and attends Michigan State University with plans to major in humanities in the pre-law program.
“I am very interested in social justice,” she writes. “I enjoy reading, journaling, planning, shopping and baking. My goal in life is to be able to fight for human rights and help change laws/systemic principles that harm people.”
TENTH PLACE (tie)
There is no inherent value in suffering
FFRF awarded Riya $300.
By Riya Bhargava
Is there an inherent value in suffering? The short answer is no.
One need not look far to find examples of human suffering. As a girls rights’ advocate, I have documented the stories of girls and young women fleeing violence on rotting boats and rafts, or those who have lost their families, homes and sources of livelihood in forest fires or floods. Some of us are more intimately familiar with personal loss, grief or disease.
A few years ago, I would have turned to religion to seek comfort, where I would have been told that such gratuitous suffering may have a “divine purpose,” like “atonement for sinful behavior” or as “a test of faith.” Religion ascribes value where there is none, and reverses the cycle of cause and effect into effect and “divine purpose” or a “mysterious” justification for perfectly quantifiable human misdeeds.
The world’s great evils, such as poverty, tyranny and hatred, are very much caused by human actions, and to me, blind belief in a “divine purpose” seemed detrimental to how I sought accountability and for injustices in a globalized world. My disillusionment with religion was gradual, and grew the more I understood the nature of conflicts throughout history.
Religions of the world — which theoretically espouse peace and harmony — are also commonly connected with intolerance and violent aggression. Detaching myself from a religious position allows me to better understand how political conflicts use religious identities, traditions and martyrdom to sanction violence that profits them, as seen in the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar or the xenophobic social anxiety growing across the world.
As a nontheist, it is easier for me to see how the brand of religion is used to give moral certitude and legitimacy to “just wars” and militarism, and later, “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the same.
The final straw which made me realize the pitfall of associating morality with religion is the inevitable dilemma of accountability versus freedom of religion, that is, how to hold religious leaders accountable when their irrational ideas turn harmful. A majority of people who oppose abortion as a fundamental reproductive right cite religious reasons for doing so; willful ignorance of the rights of queer people translates into conversion therapy being seen as “basic, faithful” religious service.
In cases like these, faith is the negation of reason, and only when one acts out of their rationality, as a thinking and observing creature, is one capable of acting morally.
There are atheists, agnostics and humanists like me who lead moral lives every day, guided by principles of reason, honor and justice. For a long time, prescribing morals has been a fundamental function of organized religions, and it is difficult to comprehend how this force that has the capacity of being seemingly ethical in times of abundance, changes face in times of austerity. This is because people change in crisis, and religion is so much more about the people refusing to reason than any divine entity it may claim to worship.
Riya, 19, from Lucknow, India, attends Yale University with plans to major in biomedical engineering. “As a published scientific researcher, award-winning student of philosophy, and an international advocate for digital equity, I have always worked at the intersection of many different areas of studies, effectively combining them to produce research and projects that further scientific curiosity and innovation, and positively impact the society at the same time,” she writes.
TENTH PLACE (tie)
An ethical analysis of atheism
FFRF awarded Vaishnavi $300.
By Vaishnavi Nayak
When talking about the moral worth of a person — evaluating their actions as being relatively good or bad — the first thing to come to my mind is ethics. Ethics, being the study of morality, can be used to prove why my atheistic beliefs make me a better person in my everyday life through an evaluation of the three main sectors of ethics: deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics.
First, let’s assess my atheistic beliefs through the lens of deontology. Deontology judges morality through the perspective of intent. An action is deemed moral when the intent behind the action is moral, regardless of the consequence. Every day, I act morally — volunteering at my school, spending time with my family, trying to be more sustainable — because I genuinely have the intent of helping others. I do not act morally because I intend to get into heaven or save myself from a horrifying fate in hell. I do not care about moral dessert. My intentions, whether good or bad, are at least pure. Moreover, atheism has made my intentions more grounded in reality because it has made me realize the futility of reality. There is no eternity in the afterlife, and this makes life seem so much more valuable. I intend to make use of every second of my fleeting existence to make a difference in the world because I realize that I do not have an eternity to make up time.
Now, let us look at consequentialism. Consequentialism, as implied by its name, argues that an action’s moral worth can be determined by its consequences. There is an endless list of atheists whose actions have created lasting good in this world — Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Rosalind Franklin, to name a few. These nonbelievers changed the world, regardless of their nonreligious nature. However, even looking at a smaller scale, atheism has made me a more empathetic, accepting person. For one, I do not judge people simply for believing in different gods because my nonreligious beliefs do not compel me to characterize every person with a dissimilar belief as a heretic. Secondly, my atheistic beliefs have caused me to have a more subjunctive view of morality. I understand that morality is more fluid than I realized and that each person’s experience leads to their actions. Atheism led me to become more open-minded and made me a better person, even from a consequentialist viewpoint.
Finally, let’s look at virtue ethics. Virtue ethics focuses on the person doing the action instead of the intent or consequence of said action. For example, a generous person would always act generously. By making me more empathetic, more caring and kind, atheism has imbued within me virtues that make me moral.
Morality is often a complex combination of these various philosophies. However, as I have demonstrated, atheism has made a better person regardless of the philosophy one employs.
Vaishnavi, 18, of Highland Heights, Ohio, attends Ohio State University with plans to major in biomedical engineering and history.
“I have been a highly involved student in high school as a member of seven different clubs,” she writes. “I’ve competed in the Academic World Quest competition, and earned a trip to Washington, D.C., for nationals. I was also an officer of the Science Olympiad team and the treasurer of our high school’s Science National Honor Society. I’ve been a two-time state qualifier for Science Olympiad and placed third in Fossils at the state level.”