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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Honorable mention — Cameron Zahner: Religion’s effects on human behavior and thought

By Cameron Zahner

“Good morning, please stand for the morning prayer.” Every day for four years in high school we were greeted with this announcement in homeroom. Despite being an un

Cameron Zahner

abashed atheist, I attended a private, Catholic high school because my parents believed it would offer me a better education.

In fact, Catholicism was a powerful force in my childhood. My great-aunt was a nun and my grandmother is heavily involved in her local church. Entering high school, I was already a proud atheist who was ready to take on an onslaught of opposing opinions for the next four years. At the time, I simply rejected the notion of a god. The idea of an all-powerful and all- knowing being was absurd to me. I never critically thought about other facets of religious doctrine beyond the belief in a god. In fact, I operated under the assumption that religious groups were harmless communities that occasionally took on service projects. I quickly realized how wrong I was and how religious concepts, such as hell, had immense negative impact on society and promoted uninformed and dangerous thinking.

This realization was sparked by the lessons in theology class and the rituals outside of the classroom. The overarching theme was selfishness. Sports teams were “blessed” every season, in a very odd ritual, not only to ensure the health of the participants, but also to ensure God’s favor and victory. Deaths were mourned with the inane platitude, “He/she is in a better place now.” Lessons were focused on arriving at the pearly gates of heaven while avoiding the transgressions that would condemn sinners to hell. It was a zero-sum game of winners and losers. All that mattered was whether YOU went to heaven or hell. This selfish behavior is created by organized religion. Religion is a psychological tool used to convince the masses that they must act accordingly or they will be punished and sentenced to hell. It teaches individuals to act in a humane, moral, and civil manner only as a means to an end. Religion promotes self-centered attitudes and behaviors that undermine the supposed values of these community-based organizations.

Religion puts restrictions on an individual’s actions, and more importantly, thoughts. The concept of hell is a particularly potent tool to eradicate free thought, specifically for those introduced to religion at a young, impressionable age. Religion puts an end to critical thinking. It does not allow the mind to explore to its fullest potential. When people are preoccupied with the notion of heaven and hell and are convinced that there is a god who must be pleased by their actions, all aspects of thought are restricted. Intellectually, religion puts mental handcuffs on its adherents. Just imagine a world in which all people accepted the fallacy that the Earth was created only a few thousand years ago by a divine, all-knowing entity. What a miserable place it would be, devoid of science and discovery. We would all be prisoners to a fantasy.

This artificial construct creates a world of mindless sheep. Life is amazing, and every day should be lived to its fullest. What truly frightens me would be to live a life that is not its own reward, that serves the sole purpose of satisfying an imaginary deity.

Cameron, 20, is from Melrose, Mass., and attends Harvard University. He is majoring in economics and interns for InnerCity Weightlifting, a nonprofit that aims to end gun violence in Boston.