Fifth place — Persons of color essay contest: Yeh Seo Jung
The mathematics of religion
FFRF awarded Yeh Seo $1,500.
By Yeh Seo Jung
The line is always clear in religion, always delineated between harsh contrasts. Eternal punishment and eternal life, black and white, heaven and hell, right and wrong. Church taught me these dichotomies with a gentle hand and a bible. Absolutes were familiar and easy to understand when I was young, and I counted morals and actions like mathematic calculations at school. A lie got you closer to hell, while helping someone brought you a step closer to heaven. Justifying actions was simple as one, two, three.
It made sense. Sins like stealing and lying were inherently bad actions. Everything abided by the golden rule — treat others the way you want to be treated. That recursive proof echoed across my parents’ Christianity and my grandparents’ Buddhism, as well. After my grandfather died, I asked my Sabbath school teacher if he would be waiting in heaven for me, even though he was Buddhist. The teacher shifted his eyes before reluctantly saying no. He wasn’t Christian and would have no access to salvation. That didn’t add up. If the church posited that good actions led to heaven, then my grandfather should be there, safe and sound. That discrepancy caused the equations of good and evil to shift in my mind, and the edge between black and white began to blur.
Then, my church community splintered around the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case. I watched as my Sabbath leaders, pastor and even my parents condemned homosexuality as an unforgivable sin. I stared helplessly at my community and searched through my calculations once more. If this was truly a logical equation, then I would be classified as an error because I identify as bisexual. The divine postulate of absolutes called me blasphemous and a sacrilege. I felt lost in the line between contrasts, and this great and sudden change isolated and terrified me. Religion was meant to be a palliative, but instead, it turned into something that alienated me away from my community. Moreover, that loss also meant a loss for me in terms of my Korean community, which was almost entirely centered over church.
Yet, in that space, I found something better. Nothing was as rigid or absolute as I originally thought. There were shades of gray — rather than just black and white — to every issue, and I could come up with my own theorems instead of relying on pre-established ones. I left the set parameters I used to know and embraced uncertainty by accepting myself. I connected with other LGBT members at my school and in online communities, and I followed other passions involving sciences, whether it be in the intricacies of genetics or engineering pursuits aimed toward the skies and stars.
Despite the errors scattered throughout the mathematics of my religious experience, I still miss the community I once knew. Perhaps, in the future, I will be able to connect with them in a space that does not need divinity to form a bridge between us. We can coexist in a secular space and bond over our shared culture and heritage, whether that be communal kimchi making or celebratory yutnori games for the new year.
But, for now, I know that in their world, religion and cultural identity are so closely intertwined, and I, as an outlier, don’t fit in between that space. They may never accept who I am, but they reshaped me into a person able to see all sides without the bias of religion, while constantly creating new equations to express what I discover. And in the end, I would rather have that liberation instead of being tied forever to static parameters in the field of religion.
Yeh Seo, 18, is from Camas, Wash., and attends Swarthmore College, where she is studying biology and history. She was born on Guam and immigrated to the continental United States after a typhoon ravaged Guam. In high school, she won national medals in Science Olympiad and Knowledge Bowl and also founded a sustainable farm initiative at her school. Yeh Seo hopes to become a doctor specializing in diagnostic radiology or endocrinology.