Honorable mention — College essay contest: Sam Christenson
By Sam Christenson
“As one of the strongest rocks, granite is one of God’s most impressive creations.” This blurb underneath a rock sample in my local library’s geology exhibit was one of my earliest encounters with religion where it did not belong. Being only 6, I did not yet understand the complex interactions between faith and science. Still, I knew that this claim was out of place, and I indignantly reported it to the librarian. As I grew up, this passion for the truth would bring me into conflict with organized religion and lead to my identification with atheism.
I was raised in an interfaith household where we celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays. We would visit my father’s side of the family for Christmas, then my mother’s for Hanukkah. This was great, not only because it meant nine days of presents, but also because it gave me opportunities to determine my own beliefs. I was taught from a young age that the practitioners of different religions are equally valid. This is an important lesson of tolerance that all children should receive, but it also confused me. How is it possible for two people to believe different things yet both be right?
After reading the Percy Jackson series in elementary school, I became enamored with the concept of a pantheon of deities, each controlling different aspects of human life. As I read about Greek mythology, and memorized all the major deities and their dominions, I began to wonder why it was deemed “mythology” in the first place. Books talked about the gods as if they did not actually exist, with a superior manner that would surely cause outrage if used to describe the Abrahamic God. Why were these stories discussed so differently from more modern religions? What made the belief systems of the ancient Greeks, Norse, and Egyptians inferior to those of Jews, Christians, and Muslims?
I quickly realized that I would never get a satisfactory answer to these questions. Favoring one religion over the other cannot be logical, because it ultimately depends on a faith in the unobserved. The sources available for use in these debates are unreliable, with countless contradictions both in the texts themselves and in our interpretations of them. When I saw that the rules supposedly created by God are picked through and selectively followed, religion seemed increasingly like an illogical human imposition on the world. As a scientist, this lack of logic makes it impossible for me to believe in the teachings of most major religions, as I am unable to commit to such a far-fetched hypothesis without proof.
I understand the importance of religion in human history. In the absence of the scientific knowledge we have today, people needed explanations for how the world around them came to be and why things happened the way they did. When widespread societal problems made life unbearable, the promise of an idyllic afterlife motivated people to keep working and accept their situation. Faith provides order that the human brain craves and facilitates the social
relationships integral to a society. However, I also understand that religion has been a tool of oppression and violence, and continues to be used as such today. Spirituality is ultimately a personal issue, and there is no reason for the beliefs of an ever-decreasing portion of the population to affect laws regarding issues such as abortion, marriage and education. Religion no longer needs to explain the inexplicable or vindicate itself with library geology displays, and we should aim for a secular government and society that reflects this.
Sam Christenson, 18, is from Rockville, Md., and attends the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology with minors in sexuality studies and early medieval and modern studies.