Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

First place — High school essay contest: Aline Pham

Vol. 36 No. 06 August 2019
Aline Pham                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

FFRF awarded Aline $3,500 for her winning essay.

Working hard beats meaningless prayers

By Aline Pham

“God makes no mistakes.” Personally, I think he set the oven temperature too high when he cooked up Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, when he stirred Jewish bodies in Nazi Germany, when he sprinkled some cockroaches in the Rwandan genocide. A god did not do that. Humans did. Instead of singing “hallelujah” and talking to the sky, we should hold ourselves accountable for such atrocities and prevent history from repeating itself.

Vietnamese Buddhist funerals are very peculiar. For hours on end, monks recite prayers repeatedly, slurring their words so much that no one — not even the most fluent Vietnamese grandparents — can comprehend. My mother tells me the murmuring chants will allow my grandfather’s soul to leave his body and move on. I nod my head just to humor her. He’s dead. His body has been cremated. His body is gone, but his memory lives on. We don’t need monks or altars or burning incense to recognize that.

I refused to cope with Grandpa’s death by reciting meaningless prayers in front of Buddha statues, and instead vowed to carry on his memory by working hard in school and being kind to others. Three years after his death, I have healed and still continue to fulfill my promises — without the help of a god.

After the Parkland shootings, the smell of social activism lingered in the air as my school led its own student sit-out for common-sense gun control. While I protested in honor of the 17 victims, some of my peers refused to participate, convinced that their “thoughts and prayers” would suffice to heal all wounds. As comforting as they may be to some believers, prayers cannot heal bullet wounds — or social wounds caused by mental health issues, faulty legislation and prejudice. These prayers are merely temporary solutions and encourage individuals to unproductively wait around for the “man upstairs” to solve their problems.

Rather than throwing baseless words at victims, we should address problems like gun violence by introducing new laws and electing different politicians. The same students who offered “thoughts and prayers” likely use the bible as their sole “evidence” for discriminating against LGBTQ classmates. I often wonder if they realize that such baseless claims contradict the “Love thy neighbor” principle. Religion gets in the way of so many things and is a root cause of many social wars we fight today.

I draw conclusions about our world using evidence provided by Bill Nye, not the bible. I have always been fascinated by science — biology, in particular. During my first year of high school, my passion and drive for biology class paid off when I was recognized as my teacher’s top biology student at my school’s award ceremony.

Intending to compliment me, my friend exclaimed, “Aline, you’re so lucky and blessed!” To my surprise, my teacher corrected him. He said matter-of-factly, “No, she’s not. She worked hard to earn it. No luck or blessings needed.”

Looking back, I realize he was right. In biology, I participated in class discussions, led group projects, and created unique experiments. It was my work that earned me awards, not prayers.

Aline, 17, is from La Mirada, Calif., and will be attending UC-Irvine, where she plans to be an education sciences major and would like to be a teacher, principal and eventually superintendent. She was valedictorian of her high school class and president of two community service clubs. “I like to call myself a tree-hugging feminist,” Aline writes. “My senior class voted me ‘Most Likely to Fight for a Cause,’ and separation of church and state is one of them.”