High school essay competition

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the numerous winners of the 2018 William Schulz High School Essay Contest.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.

High school seniors were asked to write a personal persuasive essay based on this prompt: “Why I believe ‘They who live on love and laughter, don’t mess around with the hereafter.’” The slightly irreverent lyricist Yip (“Over the Rainbow”) Harburg wrote the above line.   

After carefully reviewing more than 250 essays, FFRF awarded 10 top prizes and 14 honorable mentions.

Winners are listed below and include the award amount and the college or university they will be attending. FFRF has paid out a total of $13,000 in award money for this contest this year.

First place

Anh Quoc Nguyen, University of Texas ($3,000)

Second place

Sarah Almstrom, University of  Massachusetts ($2,000)

Third place

Andreanna Papatheodorou, Bryn  Mawr College ($1,000)

Fourth place (tie)

Mackenzie Brown, Arizona State University ($750)

Aisha Galdo, University of Florida  ($750)

Fifth place (tie)

Matthew Bergosh, University of Southern California ($600) 

Sam Mathisson,  University of  Michigan ($600)

Sixth place (tie)

Trevor Jansen, University of Maryland, Baltimore County ($500)

Alden Lecroy, Clemson University  ($500)

Seventh place

Ariana Menjivar, Montgomery College ($400)

Honorable mentions ($200 each)

Fatima Bartel, Ramapo College

Nick Bellizzi, University of Illinois

Meghan Cashell, University of Missouri

Haidee Clauer, Pomona College

Amber Cocchiola, Kent State University

Amber Fehrs, Brown University

Kenneth Gonzalez Santibanez, Princeton University

Mitchell Griffin, University of Iowa

Damon W. Jordan, Ohio State University

Maddy Malik, Vanderbilt University

Benjamin Manzo, Ashland University

Haven Morris, Armed Forces in Germany

Jonathan Obeda, University of California-Riverside

John West, University of Minnesota

The high school contest is named for the late William J. Schulz, a Wisconsin member who died at 57. He was a mechanical engineer and cared deeply about FFRF’s work, leaving a bequest that funds the award.

FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $13,000 reflects those bonuses.

The students of color essay winners will be announced in the September issue, the college student essay winners will be announced in the October issue and the grad student essays will be announced in the November issue.

Honorable mention — Nick Bellizzi: On the hereafter

By Nick Bellizzi

Nick Bellizzi

“They who live on love and laughter don’t mess around with the hereafter.” Many people, however, fervently prepare for the end of their lives by spending the majority of it in devotion to some belief system that provides an afterlife. At first glance, this is quite understandable — death is an uncomfortable topic, and to reject religion leaves people with a cold, nihilistic view of their cosmic role. However, just as nihilism can be too easily conflated with cynicism, it can also provide us with comfort in knowing that we can choose to spend our lives however we’d like.

Religions, in essence, provide too reductive a view on life. First comes the question of Why this religion and not the other? Most people are naturally embedded into the religion they are born into, but from a clean slate, why should humans fret about choosing one of over four thousand religions, hoping they’ve got the right one? It quickly becomes a game of

trade-offs. Do I choose Christianity for the large domestic following, or Islam for the houris (heavenly virgins) promised to faithful believers? Perhaps I’ll roll the dice and go with the Greeks hoping to get at least the Asphodel Fields if not Elysium. In essence, concepts of the afterlife may be comforting to some, but too often is it used as a tactic to increase a following. Go to church? Great. Don’t attend? Have fun in an eternity of swimming in infernal fire pits.

Aside from that, religious leaders use threats and attacks on morality to encourage others to join a religion, causing them to worry for a lifetime about how they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife, even though they can act reasonably virtuous in their own right. Followers claim that religion gives them morals, though further analysis raises questions on how ethics might be derived from a deity. Take, for example, the Euthyphro dilemma from Plato’s dialogues. Basically, it goes something like this: Are things morally good because God says so? Well, no, because he could just as easily declare murder to be good though we know that’s definitely not the case. So, does God consider things to be pious because they are inherently morally good? Well, wait, that can’t happen if our morals come from God. He’s supposed to have the final say. Thus, we’re stuck in a loop and morality never clearly comes from religion. We act upright because we want to.

Overall, I cannot simply accept religion just because it promises an afterlife (or else suffer in pain for perpetuity). I just feel it logical to consider what I can know to be true: I’m here, living, though have no clear, definite reason to believe life will continue after the last breath. Earth is the only guaranteed chance I have to make life worthwhile, so I’ll spend it here in all the enjoyment I can, with plenty of love and laughter.

Nick, 18, graduated from Harry D. Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Ill. He was active in several clubs, including Interact (Rotary-sponsored), National Honor Society, and Peer Jury. He’ll be attending the University of Illinois with the plan to major in computer science. He hopes to become a theoretical computer scientist or software engineer.

 

 

Honorable mention — Meghan Cashell: The hellishness of the promise of heaven

By Meghan Cashell

Meghan Cashell

With all the advanced technology we have today, it seems unbelievable that we would be unable to find proof of something as heavily researched as the existence of a god. Scientists have put men on the moon, split atoms in two, and grown human cells, yet they still have failed to find evidence of a higher power. It is my belief that this is because there is nothing to find. However, despite the complete lack of evidence of a higher power, people still let their entire lives revolve around what they must do to be proper members of their religion and make it to heaven.

People sacrifice many forms of happiness in order to meet the requirements laid out by their respective faiths and even allow what they eat, who they marry, what they wear, and what they do with their lives to be dictated by the rules of their religion. They give up so much for the promise of an afterlife for which there isn’t even evidence I, however, am not one of these people. I feel no need to “mess around with the hereafter.”

We have absolutely no guarantee that there is an afterlife. Living your whole life a certain way just to “make it to heaven” is like spending all your savings on a house that doesn’t exist. I believe that the promise of an afterlife causes people to not fully enjoy their lives. So many people make heavy sacrifices so their soul can live in peace after death, but really they are suffering for nothing. This life is the only one we have, and we should be present for it, not worrying about how things will be post mortem. We should enjoy it while we can and be thankful for the time we have. Life is not a waiting period before the “big event,” it IS the big event.

Not only does the promise of an afterlife stop people from enjoying the time they have here, it stops people from making changes while they can. So many people see pain and suffering in the world that could be changed, but fail to help. After all, what do a few years of suffering matter when you have a “lifetime in heaven” waiting for you? However, this is not the case. If

we all lived like this life is our one chance, we would do considerably more to help people. Only when people realize that this life is all they have do they really start to make changes in the world. If we get our heads “out of the clouds” we can focus on helping the poor, the needy, and the prosecuted. With a simple change of perspective, the lives of millions could be bettered. In general, the promise of an afterlife does not work as an incentive for a life well lived, but a as distraction from making the most of things while you can.

Megan, 18, attended Park Hill South High School in Riverside, Mo. She will be going to the University of Missouri where she plans to major in biology. She hopes to go to vet school after earning her bachelor’s degree.

 

 

Honorable mention — Fatima Bartel: The finality of death despite religion

By Fatima Bartel

Fatima Bartel

Death is a very important part of life, yet the discussion of it is extremely stigmatized. It is unavoidable and happens to every living thing at one point or another, but it is still something people largely fear. Because of the general human fear of the unknown, the thought of death is sometimes chilling. No one knows what happens after we die, and so it is often left up for interpretation by the living. Many religions promote the “afterlife” as one of the interpretations.

Whether they be as concrete as Christianity’s heaven and hell or as ambiguous as Judaism’s immortality of the soul and resurrection of the dead, most prominent religions have some sort of ideology about what happens after death. Most Christian denominations, to use Christianity as an example, have some sort of heaven and hell system whereby the saints live in paradise and the sinners suffer for eternity. Based on multiple religious texts, hundreds of seemingly inconsequential acts are classified as sins, such as wearing assorted fabrics or eating seafood. In addition, some absolutely normal parts of life are also classified as sins, such as being gay or getting remarried. In a system where so many minuscule acts are considered sins, where is the line drawn? If all sins are equal, as some religious individuals believe, then what separates casual white liars from murderers and rapists?

For this reason, many people fear death because of the possibility of going to hell, and think of God always in the hopes of saving their souls. Instead of worrying about their current lives, they focus more on ensuring their afterlife. Concerning yourself with death and the afterlife is a waste of time. As people we have very limited time on Earth, sometimes even shorter than we may think. We only have one life to live and we have to make the best of it. Instead of dreaming about a post-death scenario of paradise, people should instead focus on making their own lives a paradise.

This is the world that matters because it is the only one we are certain about. From what humans know, once we die, we are gone from this world forever. No one knows what happens to our “souls” once we die, and there is the likely possibility that nothing happens at all and we just cease to exist with no afterlife whatsoever. Because of this, I strive to make my life as enjoyable as possible, not concerning myself with what comes afterward. By using just my moral compass, I can differentiate right from wrong and work to always be a better person, and at the end of my life, I’ll know that I lived a satisfying, good life, free from unnecessary worry.

Fatima, 18, graduated from High Tech High School in North Bergen, N.J. A straight-A student through high school, she earned membership in the National Hispanic Recognition Program. She will be attending Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., where she plans to major in business administration and management. After graduation she would like to start an international aid organization to help people and animals escape dangerous situations.

 

 

Honorable mention — Kenneth Gonzalez Santbanez: Nurturing the Garden of Eden

By Kenneth Gonzalez Santbanez

Kenneth Gonzalez-Santibanez

The concept of death is one that instills fear in us. Our arrogance is displayed through the anthropocentric belief that our existence is rooted in permanency, a belief perpetuated by religion. We’re under the illusion that we can escape the inescapability of death through supernatural means, often through the religious promise of the afterlife. The ceasing of one’s own existence is incomprehensible to many, let alone acceptable. To accept the inevitably of death would mean breaking the illusory spell cast upon many from birth. To accept one’s mortality would lead to the devastating realization that life on Earth is the only life that humans have. Religion serves as an existential cushion to the harsh realities of the human condition. Religion is humanity’s version of blinders, for devotee’s narrow pursuit of heaven prevents them from seeing Earth’s potential as paradise.

As a son of fundamentalist Catholic parents, I have often heard hear that “this life is meaningless because the true life is found in the afterlife.” This suggests that the brevity of this life is nothing compared to the eternity of life after death. However, the implication is that our lives on Earth are essentially meaningless. When meaning and significance are pushed to life after death, happiness and worldly-improvement are neglected in life before death. For example, instead of enjoying his current life with his family, my father instead devotes nearly his entire leisure to the church, leading to feelings of desertion among his children. When my mother approaches him to criticize his paternal neglect, he exclaims that he is trying to “save his soul” by “loving God above all,” implying that his family is inferior to his “Divine Father.”

Unfortunately, this neglect for worldly affairs is found in policy issues, especially climate change. Approximately one in 10 Americans believes that Congress shouldn’t attempt to enact policy to fight climate change because “the end times are coming.” These Americans would rather keep their illusion of the afterlife intact than improve the world around them.

Ironically, many claim that atheists have nothing to live for. As the actor Ricky Gervais points out, it’s quite the opposite. Atheists have nothing to die for. Hence, they have everything to live for. Atheists are the most motivated to make positive changes in this world because we believe that this is the only world we’ll ever get to experience. While theists are trying to find paradise in the afterlife, atheists are actively trying to nurture their own “Garden of Eden.” I don’t “mess around with the hereafter” because I’m more concerned with the “here.” While I’m not sure of the “hereafter,” I am sure about the life I live right now. The awareness of our own mortality is the source of meaning in our lives. I know that my days on this Earth are finite, so I am determined to make the most out of them by making a positive influence on this world.

Kenneth, 17, graduated from Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas. He was named a National AP Scholar, and also won five district championships in University Interscholastic League Academics and a regional championship in BPA Business Law and Ethics. He will be attending Princeton as an undergrad and then plans to go to law school with the hope of someday becoming a federal district judge.

 

Honorable mention — John West: Here and now

By John West

John West

Here are two questions among many that any atheist or otherwise areligious individual is sure to encounter: “Isn’t life pointless if there’s nothing afterward?” and “How can you be moral without the certainty of an afterlife to make you?”

These questions, however, are fundamentally flawed. Life is far from meaningless in the absence of an afterlife. To the contrary, it is vastly more meaningful in that it is all we have, and, to be frank, anyone who bases their morality entirely on a fear of postmortem punishment is not truly ethical to begin with. Questions of this sort can be far more than a mere annoyance, and they may be detrimental to us all in many ways, some of which are not apparent at first.

The persistence of archaic ideas has the unfortunate consequence of devaluing life. It seems that all too often people focus on the next life they anticipate, all the while forgetting the one they are in at the moment. Only when life is viewed as a fleeting oasis in the dark sea of perpetual unconsciousness does its true value become overwhelmingly clear. It is unfortunate that this is so often ignored. When people forget the immense value of their own life, how can they be expected to value of the lives of others? In a similar capacity, this way of thinking paradoxically increases selfishness in the world. People go to great lengths to ensure, or at least assure themselves, that they get into the “right” sort of afterlife, the one wherein they are rewarded rather than punished. This mentality leads people to prioritize their own salvation first, often coalescing in disingenuous acts of service or volunteerism. This is perhaps best exemplified by the historical practice of the church selling indulgences, essentially monetary payments in exchange for the forgiveness of sins. Avoiding punishment was the paramount concern; genuinely helping others was a mere afterthought. While this practice has luckily fallen out of common use in modern times, the mentality it represents still lingers.

Whether you anticipate an afterlife or not, you must acknowledge that your current life is a certainty and any existence beyond that can only be speculation. To that end, is it not most logical to enjoy the life you already have and help those around you to do the same rather than spending inordinate portions of your life clawing your way into heaven? I think the answer is clear, and if everyone were to think likewise, we may yet get our heads out of the clouds, focusing on the here and now instead of the hereafter.

John, 18, attended Cambridge High School in Milton, Ga. John will be attending the University of Minnesota with plans to major in microbiology. He greatly enjoys astronomy and has worked in retail, which he writes, “will give anyone a healthy dose of skepticism and cynicism.”

 

Honorable mention — Maddy Malik: Here and now

By Maddy Malik

Maddy Malik

When I was 16, my father introduced me to a story from Martin Buber’s Tales of Hasidism Vol. 2 to teach me a lesson about helping others, one I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

The lesson opens with a student inquiring of his master, “Why, if God created everything with meaning, did God create atheists?” The master responds, explaining that atheists do not help others to satisfy the whims of their religion. When an atheist does good, he does it not for a God, but because he believes it is moral and just to do so. His own sense of righteousness is not tied to any arbitrary religious compass, and instead comes from within. The lesson drawn from this tale is that when an individual is in desperate need of aid, we must imagine no God exists to help them, as an atheist would, and take it upon ourselves to better that person’s life. In other words, become the atheist, and derive morality from the compassion in your heart, not the scripture in your mind.

I have encountered many individuals who do good deeds because religious figures have ordained them to do so — their charity is a means to an end, and they glean no personal satisfaction or joy in improving the livelihoods of the disadvantaged. In a way, their endless chase for the virtue of the “afterlife” wholly prevents them from appreciating the role they play in helping others. The very connotation of the phrase “hereafter” insinuates that once an individual’s time on this Earth has passed, they are endowed with a second chance to do the good they neglected to accomplish before. By clinging to the existence of an afterlife, we often fail to seize every chance to help others in our waking lives. What purpose would it serve to help others to the fullest extent when a simple prayer grants you access to rapture in the hereafter? In my own experience, the friends I have met and the lives I have changed in this life are worth more to me than any afterlife.

Personally, I believe that religion and morality can be mutually exclusive. The ability to “live on love and laughter” without the ulterior motive of reaching an afterlife is incredibly important to bettering this life while we all still have the chance. Like Yip Harburg, I have made the choice to reject this rat race, and instead race for a new purpose: not the hereafter, but the here and now.

Maddy, 18, graduated from Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tenn. She is a self-proclaimed Muslim of Pakistani immigrants living in Tennessee. She was a member of the Science National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Rho Kappa, National Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society. She will be attending Vanderbilt University with the goal of eventully becoming a physician.

 

Honorable mention — Jonathan Obeda: Now

Jonathan Obeda

By Jonathan Obeda

One word is lost in the rush of life, one word escapes the minds of those preoccupied with the future, a concept taken for granted in our post-industrialized world, “now” is as foreign a concept to some as epistemics is to the majority of Americans. As Emily Dickinson so eloquently put it, “Forever is composed of nows.” We as a society have lost sight of this ideology, you cannot expect to look toward the future without existing in the moment. Life isn’t a contest, life isn’t a race, and there is no prize at the end of the journey. What really matters in the dark and indifferent cosmic void our speck of rock inhabits are the journeys, the people, the knowledge, and, most importantly, the moments we forge in our fleeting lives. For that reason, I wholeheartedly reject the notion of an afterlife and cry “murder” to those who indoctrinate others into believing its farce. We do not exist but of our own volition and shall not and ought not be deprived of our glorious, albeit short, lives.

But why, you may ask, would you call the lie of an afterlife murder for those believers? Nihilism provides us with a simple answer for this query — there is no afterlife. To tell women, children and vulnerable individuals that the here and now isn’t important, isn’t the end goal, isn’t the reason for existence, is misleading and coercive, ultimately leading believers down a path where their heads are in the sky and not grounded in the humility of insignificance. If we tell everyone that eternal happiness is waiting for them at the end of the journey, at what point do you stop and think about what’s going on right now? Eternity in paradise is a hard standard to beat and, by extension, life pales in comparison. We ought not unduly tarnish the earthly wonders of our planet. The human experience is the best experience we have available and to tell

individuals that it isn’t the case robs them of any chance at true happiness in this lifetime. Under this lens of analysis, life becomes so much worse than it truly is. Everything from rags to riches becomes a meaningless aspiration when, in the end, eternal paradise beyond worldly description is promised.

While Yip Harburg takes a light-hearted approach to criticism of the hereafter, I do not mince words when saying that its promises are vile and vitriolic to the point of poisoning the minds and lives of those devout believers. Humanity is not so fortunate enough to have a divine protector, we toil and wile through the grit and realism of own lives forged through our own choices. We laugh, we cry, we die and in the end, we are all just food for worms, part of an endless indifferent cosmic cycle of which we cannot hope to perceive or understand. Live in the here and now for that it is the only truth that is noble.

Jonathan, 18, attended the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. He finished high school ranked sixth in California for parliamentary debate. He is seeking a degree in philosophy at the University of California-Riverside.

 

Honorable mention — Amber Cocchiola: Look beyond the pasture

By Amber Cocchiola

Amber Cocchiola

There is a reason race horses wear blinders. Jockeys don’t want them to look for themselves but follow a specific path to achieve one specific goal: crossing the finish line. Religion, in a similar way, puts blinders on people, causing them to obsess over the finish line of their lives. I don’t have to look to the finish line, though. I don’t have rules that dictate the way I prepare for death, so I choose to not prepare but instead to absorb every living moment instead. I don’t need an afterlife because I am happy with the life I have.

I cannot imagine living my life for death, yet those who wear religious blinders obsess over it. To them, this life is simply a stepping stone to another life. Even if people did have a second life after death, what kind of excuse is that to ignore your first life? To spend every waking moment thinking about what you need to do to so that when you cross your finish line, you’ll be sent to another race?

One of the things that makes the world, and life, interesting is that it is made up of moments — both good and bad. In one moment, a bird could find the final twig for its nest. In another, a child’s sand castle topples over. I can see these moments because I am free to look around me. Race horses are not free to look at the good and bad, however. At the end of their lives, all they will remember is racing toward the finish line instead of the sight of the cut grass next to the track or the colors of the spectators’ hats. If people took off their blinders, they could see everything they’ve experienced that led up to the moment they are in. With blinders on, people think their life started in order to move onto another life.

Instead of worrying about preparing for their own finish lines, people could look around and help make this moment the best moment it could be. People could make time for love and laughter because they genuinely want to, not because they think love will give them a better afterlife. If the philosophy of living here and now was adopted by the masses, it would make people kinder. People would help each other not because they fear a fiery finish line, but to improve this life. People would take time to look beyond their pastures. People would start to care.

Amber, 18, attended Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown, Ohio. She presented at Battelle Headquarters for the Governor’s Opioid Challenge and attended the Women in BioScience Conference in 2015. She has performed with her choir at such prestigious settings as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and National Archives Building and the Chicago Natural History Museum. She will be attending Kent State University.

 

Honorable mention — Mitchell Griffin: Reality

By Mitchell Griffin

Mitchell Griffin

Have you been suffering from religiosity? If you have experienced any of the following symptoms such as delusions of cosmic importance, wishful thinking, speaking to deities, irrational dehumanization of women, or fixation on the afterlife, you may be suffering from this disease. You are not alone. Many people acquire this early in life and go decades without knowing it.

This disease may be hard to detect on the surface, but a closer look will reveal many tell-tale signs. Do they show undue reverence to an ancient Roman torture device? Do they congregate with friends and family every Sunday to discuss the same book over and over again? Some experience profound anxiety stemming from the condition that causes them to become paranoid that omniscient deities are watching their every move. Not everyone suffers the same way; some people will appear perfectly sane in all other aspects of life, but those with a more severe form, fundamentalism, may be more recognizably in need of help.

I once was trapped by religiosity, too — again, you aren’t alone. I was so worried about the next life that I was forgetting the value of the life I had right in front of me.

But then I found Reality. It’s a new prescription drug made by Secular Pharmaceuticals that let me live my best life. I was no longer consumed by worries about life after death or what God thought of me and I was finally able to be my true self. All it took was a single dose of Reality and I was cured.

Being free from my disease was very bittersweet. At last I could see the world as it is and be liberated, but my friends and family still couldn’t see they needed help. I talked to my doctor, and she told me that those with the disease are sometimes so afraid of what their new life could be like because they have never known anything else that they will refuse treatment. I wish I could get them to see that there was more to life than the Big Dude Upstairs, that our existence is a beautiful fluke in a vast cosmic landscape. That’s why I decided to start my own group for reaching out to those in need of a real revelation, Godless and Graceful. If you or a loved one needs help, call

1-800-THIS-LIFE and a god-free representative will arrange a meeting with a healthcare professional to find the proper dose of Reality. The pills may be hard to swallow, but the results are worth it.

Mitchell, 18, attended Treynor High School in Treynor, Iowa. He will be going to the University of Iowa in the honors program. He plans to study political science and journalism and hopes to someday become an investigative journalist.