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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

First place — High school essay contest: Ava Bertolotti 

Ava Bertolotti

The prophets of doom have data

FFRF awarded Ava $3,500 for this essay.

By Ava Bertolotti 

Since I first read Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark in middle school, Sagan’s observation that “it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring” has become my debate catch-all. 

Science should be the bedrock of debating: It is objective, it is logical, it is evidence-driven and evolves with the facts. Especially in the emotionally fraught, combative political sphere, science clears the water rather than muddying it. Science is a self-correcting, self-critical process that professes no claim to perfection, unlike some religions.  

Climate change used to keep me up at night. Praying — in English, in Arabic, staring at the ceiling, as branches were whipped past my window by the near-90 mile-per-hour winds of Hurricane Sandy — did not make me worry less about a tree crashing through the walls at any moment. 

In my half-Catholic, half-Muslim family, religion was more often a source of conflict than of comfort. We visited my extended family in Turkey in 2018, two years after a violent coup attempt. Turkey’s 2017 ban on teaching evolution in schools was nearly as heavy a blow to my faith in the stability of its secular democracy as the 2016 press crackdown.  

I trust in science because it can explain the disconcerting changes I see in ecosystems: As mulberry groves and giant Turkish snails wither in the heat of record-hot summers, as frogs disappear from the pond behind my high school in New Jersey, I find that cataloging for citizen science databases feels more productive than wringing my hands. 

In seventh grade, I surfed Science News, only to plunge into debates over vaccines, abortion, stem-cell research, evolution and climate change in the comments sections. I could understand — not empathize with — moral objections to certain issues, but the religious climate-change deniers confounded me. They were impervious to facts and figures. Some invoked God’s will to justify their nonchalance; some argued my laptop use was an electricity-sucking sin; some touted the coming of Judgment Day. They didn’t bat a virtual eyelash when I cited distribution maps that showed U.S. emissions wreaking havoc on Global South countries, the Majority World that contributes almost nothing to the crisis. They vociferated about sin but said nothing about justice. Internet trolls are not the worst offenders in the denial-sphere. Fossil-funded inactivists make the same arguments in Congress.  

Prayers might make some feel better, but out of politicians’ mouths they are complacent platitudes. Science is a springboard for action; it is the best tool we have to combat climate change.  

Ava, 17, is from Springfield, N.J., and attends Northeastern University.

“I’m a half-Italian-American, half-Karachai-Turkish climate justice and scientific literacy activist,” Ava writes. “I will be majoring (possibly on the pre-law track) in international affairs and environmental studies at Northeastern University next year, with minors in anthropology and sociology.”