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

Sixth place: College essay contest — Nikola Velimirovic 

Vol. 38 No. 08 October 2021
Nikola Velimirovic                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

A family divided

FFRF awarded Nikola $1,000.

By Nikola Velimirovic 

Often presented to people all around the world as a unifying force, religion tends to lead to quite the opposite. By fostering an “us versus them” mentality, many religious institutions support a kind of rank tribalism, which is based on one’s membership in a group. 

Perhaps more damaging to the people living in accordance with religious dogma in such communities, however, is the way religion can shape one’s view of the “outsider.” By castigating those who do not follow the same religious teachings as strangers, much of religious dogma creates a split between people who, in both a cultural and historical sense, tend to be quite similar. This is perhaps most true of the Abrahamic faiths, which have caused religious strife among themselves throughout the centuries, though their teachings tend to be quite similar.

From the ongoing conflict in Israel, based on a religious claim to land, to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s in my native country of Bosnia, the ability of religion and religious institutions to separate people based on arbitrary lines is unparalleled, and has caused a lot of pain and suffering for many in the process. 

Though the application of secularism (especially in regard to government) may not rid the world of all problems, it certainly will prevent many religious claims from governing public policy, and hopefully, save lives from being ruined by the unfounded claims of religious mystics, in the process. 

Perhaps somewhat anecdotal, but equally as powerful, the reason I reject religion is because of the stories which my mother and grandfather have told me about their experiences during the Yugoslav Wars. 

One story which cemented my rejection of religion was told to me by my grandfather, in which he explained how he was approached by the Yugoslav People’s Army during the beginning of the war in Bosnia, and was told that he either had to join the Serb Orthodox military forces — and fight against his brother (who was a Muslim) — or leave his home as a deserter and never come back. My grandfather decided to leave, along with his brother, and went to Germany, although he was unable to take the rest of his family with him. On his way out, however, his car was blown up by the Mujahedeen (who were fighting against Serb forces). Though he survived, he was left mostly blind in one eye, and lives with painful memories of that time. 

As a result of his denial to fight for religious extremism on any side, and because he believed in a secular government, the rest of my family was kicked out of their hometown in Bosnia, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers, and often sheer luck, to survive a bloody and brutal conflict, which was supported by many religious extremists at the time. Though my family story is just one example, it is perhaps indicative of what can happen once a nation rejects secular government in favor of religious doctrine and religious claims to land. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum stands a nation like the United States, which is indeed a secular nation (though some may beg to differ). For me, this secularism represents a freedom from the fear of religious extremism running the government, and dictating policy. Although the United States is not perfect, it does allow hopeful immigrants like my family to live in peace with people of all faiths, without the possibility of being targeted for having different religious beliefs in one family. The main strength of secularism is that it does not propose any ideology, aside from a lack of involvement in religious matters, a doctrine which seems like a dream for many people living in nations that often face religious strife. In order for the world to prosper in a greater peace, religion must have no say in government matters. 

Nikola, 21, attends the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and is in the English and German Studies programs and hopes to go to law school after graduation. “What I am passionate about is learning from other cultures, and I am currently working on a translation of a memoir from the pre-World War II era, from German to English, for the Undergraduate Research Department at UNLV,” Nikola writes.