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Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Kavitha Kannanunny

Kavitha Kannanunny

Paradise in a steel dome​

By Kavitha Kannanunny

Imagine if the entirety of human scientific understanding had stalled somewhere around the Industrial Revolution. Consider the implications to society if we were frozen to a system of theories and philosophies that claimed to explain our physical world, while plugging every anomaly and disparity with hypothetical constants and ethereal constructs.

If that seems like an absurd work of fiction, it should defy belief that we would base the understanding of our origin, our culture and values on ancient works of metaphors and parables. Yet religion remains a fundamental human ritual. Perhaps it’s because there is a primal and emotionally gratifying appeal to even a magically consistent interpretation of the cosmos that promises cultural identity and community. Unfortunately, this blind acceptance confronted with any differing worldview induces such a violent cognitive dissonance, that it is simply easier to brand any opposition as abnormal and amoral. Cultural identity devolves into tribalism and conformity. Until we acknowledge this aspect of our social evolution, it is impossible to mature past it. Yet the need to address this deficiency is more pressing now than ever. Humanity faces a multitude of social, environmental and economic upheavals that relate intimately to each other. Social progressiveness threatens old doctrines and pre-convictions. Alternate sexual orientations are now receiving increased acceptance and support. Buying into an organized belief system is no longer a leading prerequisite for morality. Many nations — including the United States, with the First Amendment and its Establishment Clause — have enshrined secularism and the separation of church and state as guiding principles. Our laws need to acknowledge our changing priorities and ideals as a species, adapting forward-looking solutions that unite us.

Sadly, the United States today is facing an uprising of religious fundamentalism at a time when progressive ideas are so crucial to its progress as a nation. Right-wing Christian groups work tirelessly to normalize the idea of Christian sovereignty and ratify the United States as a Judeo-Christian nation, rejecting its very roots and guiding principles. Oblivious to the cognitive dissonance of their position, their defense against what they view as an invasion against their tradition and culture is a campaign for their right to suppress others. Science and reason, seen as a menace to traditional beliefs, are rejected. Desperately needed legislative measures are hamstrung in deference to religious sentiments that no longer reflect our stance as a civilization.

Examples of this range from clandestine to blatantly audacious. Religious expression has been used to justify dehumanizing LGBTQ+ minorities, as in ​Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission​. Project Blitz, a recently uncovered, chilling legislative assault by the Christian Nationalist Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, aims to reshape the country through a succession of legislation that promotes hardline Christian conservative views and destroys the separation between church and state. It details increasingly invasive strategies starting with injecting God into national language and enforcing mono-denominational prayer in public schools, to discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation in healthcare and parenting, and access to public services.

Perhaps most worrying is the support for these hardline views in government. Project Blitz lists more than 600 politicians as members in state legislatures. Reproductive health and organizations such as Planned Parenthood are attacked as anti-Christian and have undue restrictions placed on them even at the federal level. Representatives in Congress mask their intolerance behind those that elected them to office. In truth, they recognize the emotional reaction that threats to religious and cultural identity can elicit, and so are able to play to those fundamental fears, projecting themselves as sole savior and defender. Positioned in this way, they are free to inflict archaic morals that fracture communities, pulling them into a regressive civilization where the prerequisites to surviving the future have been outlawed as immoral.

Ultimately, any attempt to rectify the status quo is met with vehement opposition and claims of religious persecution. As legislators continue to pander to religious sectarians, we are forced to shutter many avenues that promise real progress. Yet, the last bastion of true change is still in the hands of the voters. It is only by rejecting regressive politics propped up by fundamentalist endowments, and understanding the totality of what our vote represents, do we demonstrate our true values as a nation.

Kavitha, 25, is from Jersey City, N.J., and attends the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“My decision to pursue a master’s degree in computer science was motivated by a desire to immerse myself in a competitive and challenging environment. With a data science specialization, I wish to work in an organization where I can analyze and generate valuable insights from business data.”