Honorable mention — Amber Fehrs: Cult of complacency

By Amber Fehrs

Amber Fehrs

In May of 2017, when asked about his thoughts on climate change, U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg claimed, “If there’s a real problem, [God] can take care of it.” This opinion is shared by a majority of the religious people I know. Climate change isn’t a problem to them because they believe that God would never allow the Earth to become unlivable, and even if God did, they’ve still got heaven to look forward to. This blasé dismissal of a legitimately pressing issue represents one of my main problems with religion: Religious dogma, especially belief in the idea of an afterlife, encourages complacency.

Growing up in rural Nebraska, a no-man’s-farmland filled with mostly well-meaning Lutherans and a few less well-meaning Westboro Baptists, has allowed me to spot a sort of pattern in the religious people that surround me. No matter what problem someone might be facing, the same advice is doled out ad nauseum with a holier-than-thou smirk: “You shouldn’t question God’s plan. He takes care of everything if you trust in him.” Most of the people in my small, hyper-religious community are entirely convinced that God will take care of every one of their problems so long as they are patient enough to wait for him to act.

Even before I became an atheist, when I was still an intensely devout Lutheran, I struggled to accept this line of thinking. I often found myself cornering my pastor after church services to ask apparently taboo questions like, “Why should I wait for God to solve my problems if I can do it myself faster?” I would always receive the same non-answer: “Just relax and trust in God. He’s in control.”

I personally reject religion and its promise of an afterlife because I do not want to “just relax and trust in God.” I do not want to be complacent in my life. I want to have agency, I want to work to solve my own problems, and I want to leave the world a better place than it was when I came into it. I’m driven to protect the environment because I know that there is no paradisal world waiting for me if humanity destroys the one we’ve got. I value the life of myself and the lives of others more than any religious person can because I know there is no life after death. I strive to make the most out of the time I have on Earth because I know it is inherently limited. To put it simply, I reject religion and its promise of an afterlife because, where religion breeds complacency, atheism inspires action.

Amber, 18, graduated as valedictorian from Norfolk Senior High School in Norfolk, Neb. She will be attending Brown University and plans to double major in physics and applied mathematics.



Honorable mention — Damon Jordan: The afterlife dilemma

By Damon W. Jordan

Damon Jordan

Possibly the most common piece of advice given to us graduating high schoolers is to enjoy every moment of the upcoming years. Those speech-givers tell the mass of graduating teens that every second counts, and to make the most of what time we have on Earth. And yet, this advice is completely contradictory to the idea of an afterlife. So why is that piece of advice so common? After all, what are a few decades in the face of an eternal afterlife? And yet, it is this line of thinking that would cause me to lose sight of the most important times of my life. Our time on Earth is the most important time, and the concept of a time after death lessens the gravity of our limited lives.

Ignoring the fact that no hard proof about the existence of an afterlife has been found, it’s not too hard to see why we should strive to do good in our day. The average life expectancy is around 79 years. While this may seem short in the face of eternity, consider how long the next generation will live. My children and grandchildren will live further into the future, until each compounding generation’s years approaches times we cannot even comprehend as humans. Humans have already existed for thousands of generations, and it is highly unlikely that we will cease any time soon. Therefore, I already have an afterlife to look forward to: the lives of my sons and daughters.

Our job while living on this planet is to ensure our children can live on it, too, and our children’s children after that. The reason we research science and technology is to improve the future, not just the present. The generations before us created vaccines so our life expectancy would rise, and it’s our job to continue improving that or our children. Those who work only for themselves — because they believe what happens after they die doesn’t matter — are incredibly selfish. The human experience has always been about helping fellow humans, including those who come after us.

Therefore, it is important to live like there is no afterlife, because there very well may not be. The average human is only given 79 years on this rock, and it’s important to make the best use of them, not only for our benefit, but for our children’s as well. The world will continue to exist even when I leave it, so it’s vital to make that future world the best it can possibly be, by rejecting the idea of afterlife. Otherwise, what’s the point of me living here at all?

Damon, 17, graduated from Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, Ohio. He was a member of his school’s marching band and gave free private lessons to local elementary school students. He’s done extensive traveling and enjoys reading science fiction and playing games with friends. Damon will be attending Ohio State University and hopes to become an English teacher.


Honorable mention — Haidee Clauer: Life is not a dress rehearsal

By Haidee Clauer

Haidee Clauer

Dress rehearsals have a notorious tendency to disappoint. No matter how much hard work has gone into memorizing lines, cues and blocking, and regardless of the hours spent building sets, sewing costumes and programming lights, something always seems to go wrong. The first time I acted in a play, the shock of the final run-through, with scenes — that once flowed like clockwork — suddenly stopping and sputtering chaotically, surprised and terrified me. As my peers quickly assured me that this was a reliable phenomenon, I learned that a rough dress rehearsal is often irrelevant to — or even indicative of — a seamless performance.

To some people, this sounds like a sound metaphor for a perfect afterlife.

Indeed, entropy teaches us that in the natural laws of the universe, everything — not just that dress rehearsal — tends towards disorder. The lights might not glow as you hope; your outfit might not fit as you want. We find ourselves fumbling for words and grasping for a sense of where to go, and sometimes it feels as if our entire surroundings are crumbling around us.

However, life and all its flaws are not a dress rehearsal for the afterlife.

What doctrines comprise the illusion of an afterlife? If we worship an afterlife, craving infinite life, wealth and power, we are held hostage by greed. Conversely, if we subscribe to the fear-mongering idea of hell or purgatory, life may easily become overwhelmed by the agonized uncertainty of the imperfect dress rehearsal. Caught between these two extremes, every word, step, and action becomes infected with fear or thirst for immortality. When we live with the expectation that an afterlife will gift us with limitless joy, and when we focus our vision on the narrow road to get there, we lose sight of the salience of living.

I reject both presumptions of an afterlife not out of disdain for these unproductive, even selfish, motivations, but instead out of immense appreciation for the alternative: Life as the ultimate performance, not the dress rehearsal. Rather than pretend that the entropy, adversity, and issues around me will resolve themselves in an afterlife, I am driven to use all of my abilities to make this world a better place. Without a constant need to maintain a perfect appearance in the spotlight, I work to shine light on those overlooked or unrewarded by society and use my voice to advocate for others. I maintain deep gratitude for my community, friends and family while learning how to direct my life with creativity and independence. When situations leave me disappointed, I don’t wait to learn from them and grow with the fuels of compassion and hope. I am able to create and relish a life overflowing with “love and laughter,” and for that, I love living in the present.

Haidee, 18, attended Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kan. She played varsity soccer, cross country and basketball, and worked at a smoothie shop, and also as a tutor and guitar teacher. She was her school’s newspaper editor, student council president, and four-time actor in the annual play. She will be a freshman at Pomona College, where she plans to study molecular biology and journalism.


Honorable mention — Benjamin Manzo: Why isn’t there a ‘sinner’s heaven’?

By Benjamin Manzo

Benjamin Manzo

I personally reject the Christian idea of the afterlife because the concept of “believe in me or you’ll go to hell” is incredibly facile. There are many contradictions in the bible itself, mainly concerning hell and what happens when you go there. I don’t quite understand why a guy (some would call him Satan) who disagreed with God would be allowed to rule hell, would be willing to torture those who disobey God, and would still want to mount a holy war against heaven. Seems to me he would rather create a sort of “sinner’s heaven” for those who disobeyed God rather than punish them. Wouldn’t he want to reward those souls who thought the way he did?

Instead of worrying about getting into an afterlife that may or may not exist, we could be spending time working toward a brighter future. Organized religion has really messed things up on this planet. Thanks to religion, we had a dark age that set technology back about a thousand years. Science could have progressed much further, much faster, and we probably could have colonized the moon or Mars by now.

The idea of an afterlife is counterproductive to enjoying life because people, instead of doing things they could actually enjoy, will spend their life trying to get into an afterlife that may or may not exist by following a strict set of rules that may or may not result in their happiness or the happiness of those around them. Following those rules will also likely prevent us from improving this world. For example, missionaries in various third-world countries will provide food to those who need it, but only to convert them to the missionaries’ religion. They are coming to help the “poor people,” but really coming to help them become part of “organized religion.”

This reminds me of the way schools are so concerned with standardized tests. Teachers spend a good amount of time “teaching to the test,” basically cramming information down the kids’ throats that they will need in order to pass the test. What about all the rest of the information the kids could be learning — the really helpful information that could spur them on to someday find the cure for cancer or the way to world peace?

Are not all people of who believe in an afterlife doing the same thing — living their lives just to “pass a test”? The Ten Commandments are now Cliffs Notes for getting into heaven — not!  It’s an opportunity cost and it doesn’t balance out. People are giving up the things that they want to do, or could do, to do those things that they believe they “have” to do. That’s what has kept humankind from evolving to achieve all those things that are possible for us. Does an afterlife exist? Who knows for sure? But our life right now does exist and we should focus on that.

Benjamin, 18, graduated from Elyria High School in Elyria, Ohio. He has volunteered at a local animal shelter and for the past three years has volunteered at a summer camp for kids who are on the autistic spectrum. He will be attending Ashland University and is enrolled in the journalism and digital media production program. His goal is to work as an editor on film and television shows.


Honorable mention — Haven Morris: Speculating psychology and morality in the hereafter

By Haven Morris

Entertain a brief contrast of hypothetical scenarios.

In the first, a young person in a religious family suggests accepting an alternative or nonexistent faith for themselves. The reaction is misfired chemical: spontaneous and combustive. Voices combine to insist on an eternal paradise, and its opposing pit of fire and everlasting agony. They say that the faithful are moral and, thus, deserve the former, while the unfaithful are wicked and deserve the latter.

Haven Morris

In the second, a young person in a religious family asks whether humankind is inherently good. The reaction is nil; stumbling, perhaps, and uncertain, of these large inquiries suited better for lecture rooms and dialectics.

Entertain that these two scenarios are, subtextually, one and the same. The question of an afterlife, especially one with such stark dichotomy between reward and punishment, takes the place of a conversation about intrinsic morality. Ultimately, to give a choice between heaven, a gilded carrot hanging on a sanctimonious string which guides someone to morality, or hell, a fiery stick clapped threateningly and eternally on an open palm, is not to give a choice at all. It is the authoritarian parent saying, “my way or the highway.” It is a mobster offering a bribe or a set of cement galoshes.

Similarly, it suggests that without reward or punishment consistently present, no one would conform to a “good.” This system of morality is akin to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s concept of pre-conventional morality, wherein a child only learns to do what they are rewarded for, and avoids doing what they are punished for.

This was a morality that ancient people, the people of Hammurabi’s Code, could adhere to. They were, in a sense, children, simultaneously frightened and smitten with the world, with few philosophical constructs. It worked; we advanced. However, our morality didn’t follow. This child’s view of reward vs. punishment, good vs. evil, black vs. white, maintained itself for centuries, and still affects us today. To believe in an afterlife is to stagnate in moral development. It is an infancy created by authority figures and later self-imposed.

My aversion to religious interpretations of the hereafter lies within this principle, that a juxtaposition of utter bliss or utter suffering is necessary to motivate basic human kindness, and as a tool to cultivate a following. The hypothetical authoritarian parent frequently raises unstable, dependent children with no intrinsic motivation. The axiomatic mobster rules with fear, breeding resentment and conflicts within his colleagues. Promises of divine afterlife accomplish the same results of both, tenfold.

Entertain the idea that religion has prevented the evolution of our collective moral fiber. Entertain the broad theory that humankind is only moral through self-discipline. Entertain the litote that the world does not fit into two cups. But for heaven’s sakes, don’t entertain the afterlife.

Haven, 17, attended Stuttgart High School in Stuggart, Germany. He is a published poet and has lived on four continents. He plans to major in psychology and minor in film.




Seventh place — Ariana Menjivar: You might go to hell, Ariana

By Ariana Menjivar

Ariana Menjivar

When I was 4, my mom introduced me to a man I couldn’t see. She said his name was God and that he would always be present in times of need.

When I was 13, I told my mom that I didn’t believe in God anymore. She told me it was OK because I didn’t understand. I told her that she didn’t understand and that she would never understand.

When I was 17, my co-worker’s mother said to me, “You might go to hell, Ariana; it’s sinful to reject the Lord.” I asked her why. She told me that it just was. I then said to her, “Well then, I guess I’m going to hell.” It was a joke, but she got mad.

To be blatantly honest, I never understood religion. To a certain extent I also feared it; especially as a young child. The mix of fear and the frustration I had, along with the inability to understand the answers given to me in response to the questions I conceived about religion, bred anger in me and tore my young mind apart.

Christians, Catholics, Muslims, etc., all have their own beliefs about the “afterlife.” As a former Catholic, I was introduced to three options: Heaven, hell and purgatory. They were all equally terrifying to me. Hell and purgatory were terrifying for obvious reasons. Heaven just sounded too obnoxiously perfect. I didn’t want to live an eternal life in a place that didn’t challenge me.

My former religion implanted the idea that I was born solemnly of sin and that following my birth, the entirety of my life would consist of sins. It also taught me that as long as I confessed my sins, worshipped God, and was a good human being; I could still go to heaven. I would often contemplate whether the only reason people want to be good in life is to avert the possibility of burning in hell. Religion seemed too much like a scare tactic.

I became an atheist because I got tired of trying to abide to principles I didn’t agree with and pretending to believe in something I didn’t. I don’t live fearful of any possibility of what is beyond life because I no longer believe in any possibility. I’m a morally adept being and this is certainly not due to religion. I choose not to live in fear of an uncertain or nonexistent life. I live for the now.

There is humility in admitting that you aren’t certain about life after death. We have a scientific understanding of why we’re here. It’s in our best interests to create our own meaning to life. I have one life, I want to do what feels right to me, and what will benefit me while I am alive and well on Earth. Honestly, if you really think about it, in a sense we are all atheists about any God we don’t follow.

Ariana, 18, graduated from Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, Md. She has been performing martial arts for 10 years and have been teaching it for four years. She enjoys watching horror and sci-fi movies. Ariana will be attending Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., and hopes to become a criminal investigator.

Sixth place (tie) — Alden Lecroy: Life, death and Jehovah’s Witnesses

By Alden Lecroy

Alden Lecroy

Only two things are certain in this life: death and Jehovah’s Witnesses showing up at your door. They come with their promises of fellowship, eternal paradise — and an endless supply of magazines. And while all of these things may seem desirable to some, something just does not add up. I have found that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. The idea of an afterlife is no exception.

Sigmund Freud believed that religions were created as a form of wish fulfillment. The idea of an afterlife is especially indicative of this idea. We all want to think that we have a nice, warm paradise waiting for us after we die. This idea, however, only serves to steal present joy. After all, how can we enjoy this life if we’re too obsessed with where we’re going after it? Life is much too rich to spend memorizing bible passages and praying to an absent deity. To me, life is meant to be spent fulfilling personal goals and doing the things that produce happiness. There are too many idyllic, cascading waterfalls and decadent chocolate desserts to worry about divine judgement and eternal Armageddon. But why don’t I mess around with the hereafter? Personally, I find satisfaction in playing piano. I find that it is the only thing that can tie my hectic life together.

I do not reject religion because I dislike going to church on Sunday. Nor do I reject it so I can sin without consequence. I reject religion for one simple reason: There is no proof. I believe that evidence is the way in which truth is discovered. It strikes me that so many people can so adamantly believe in a higher power without the slightest morsel of verifiable data. If such a large percentage of people accept outrageous religious teachings, such as talking snakes and tremendous floods, what are we teaching the younger generations? Are we effectively suspending the faculties of critical thinking? Are we making the world a more gullible place?

But it’s more than that. Many people’s lives are negatively affected by religion. One of the more deplorable religious practices of late is seed faith. In many mega-churches these days, religious leaders ask followers for donations, or “seeds.” The religious leader then “sows” the seed; he or she asks god to bring fortune on the donor. Proponents of this practice promise “hundred-fold returns” on donations. Donors often expect miracles to happen to themselves or loved ones. Religious snake oil salesmen may then spend seed money on lavish private jets and opulent mansions. All the while, devoted followers choose to seed money instead of paying for chemotherapy, rent or medicine.

The idea of an afterlife is one that religions constantly exploit in order to control the followers of religious ideologies. If people realized that our religious leaders promised an impossible product, this world would be a much more enlightened place.

Alden, 18, graduated from Seneca High School in Seneca, S.C. He enjoys playing piano, practicing martial arts, cooking and learning French. He has won three grand championships at international martial arts tournaments. Alden will be attending Clemson University in the fall, with plans to get a degree in mechanical engineering and eventually become a petroleum engineer.

Sixth place (tie) — Trevor Jansen: Enjoy life, go to hell

By Trevor Jansen

Trevor Jansen

The afterlife is truly the perfect carrot on the proverbial stick for any religion. It promises pleasure and happiness beyond anything attainable on Earth, guarantees that those who believe in it will do whatever it takes to get there, and, best of all, it cannot be refuted or shown to be less than what was promised since it only comes after death. The afterlife is how every business wishes it could reward its employees — an empty promise they have no obligation to keep in exchange for a lifetime of loyalty.

The intrinsic problem with the promise of an afterlife is the fine print. There’s plenty of extra conditions in religious texts that ensure only the “right” people get to be happy when they die. No gays, heathens, bastards, blasphemers, freethinkers or mixed-fabric wearers are getting into the Christian heaven. Obviously, they get to suffer eternal torment in the pits of hell, but only because God loves them.

Noticing these stipulations was a big wake-up call to me, and should be to others as well. Why does God punish homosexuality when he created it? Why did God give us free will, but sends us to hell when we decide to question him? What happens to people who worship different religions and don’t even know Abrahamic religions exist? Ask these questions of any religious practitioner and you will no doubt hear a litany of their characteristic mental gymnastics and cop-out answers.

The real reason you should be opposed to the presented idea of an afterlife is the damage such an idea causes. By trivializing death to the point where being dead is actually (supposedly) better than living, you create a mindset where believers have no reason to care for their health or happiness on Earth. With the promise of heaven in front and the threat of hell behind them, people will make themselves miserable by denying sexual urges, accepting primitive conditions, abstaining from pleasurable activities, and even killing and dying for a meaningless cause. Cults like Heaven’s Gate and The People’s Temple get all the bad press for convincing their members to die to reach heaven, when Christianity and Islam do the same thing on a much larger scale.

Promising an afterlife encourages people to ignore the life they already have in pursuit of some goal that is always just out of reach. Being pious and reaching heaven is antithetical to living your real life to its fullest and experiencing everything it has to offer. Frankly, if all the religious people are in heaven, I’d much rather go to hell.

Trevor, 18, attended La Plata High School in La Plata, Md. Trevor also enjoys travel, as he has been all over the United States, as well as France, England and Spain. He will be attending the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, where he plans to study biology and hopes to become a pathologist.

Fifth place (tie) — Sam Mathisson: A strange day in kindergarten

By Sam Mathisson

Sam Mathisson

I can only remember getting in trouble once in kindergarten. That spring, my grandma had died. I was too young to process it properly, but I knew I would never see her again. When I returned to kindergarten, the girl sitting next to me asked where I had been.

“My grandma died,” I told her matter-of-factly. Elizabeth was horrified. She shrieked, “You can’t say died! You have to say ‘passed on,’ because people’s souls go to heaven, and we get to see them again.”

“That’s not true,” I remember saying forcefully. Elizabeth started crying.

This attracted the attention of my teacher, who asked what was wrong. After Elizabeth tearfully explained what happened, the teacher pulled me aside.

“Honey, I’m very sorry about your grandma. But you can’t go around saying people died, and that there isn’t a heaven. It upsets the other kids. Now go apologize to Elizabeth, and then you can play with blocks.”

I refused to apologize, and the teacher just put us on opposite sides of the room.

It would have been easier if I had apologized to Liz. The teacher would have smiled and Liz would’ve stopped glaring at me. But I didn’t go along with it then and I still don’t.

As a kindergartener, I only knew what my own family thought — and so did Liz. Since then, I’ve had time to develop my own views. I’ve spent years studying history and learning the impact that religion has had on our world. Religion is depicted as a comforting blanket, meant to console us when our grandmothers die. Reflecting on that day in kindergarten, I saw the truth: Religion divides people. It breeds conflict. And it causes rifts in even the smallest of communities.

It would have been easier if I had apologized. It would have been easier to say “passed on.” It would have been easier to have a belief that God will provide, to believe that everything is meant to happen. But I don’t believe. I don’t have faith. Religion has been a destructive force for too long, and I won’t be a part of it.

Religion prevents people from addressing the world’s problems today by shifting the focus to an eternal tomorrow. This perpetual focus on the afterlife detracts from the immediacy of today. It makes our life and the work we do on Earth seem inconsequential. This results in a type of global apathy. Missionaries focus on saving souls rather than saving lives. It doesn’t matter if their flock dies from preventable causes; their blessed souls will still go to heaven. And if all you must do to reach the pearly gates is repent on your deathbed, why live a virtuous life? People believe God can forgive their transgressions, but God’s forgiveness is a false forgiveness.

We, not religion, must provide comfort to those around us. We have a responsibility to each other — to our families, our communities and the human race. And even to our classmates, however misguided they may be.

Sam Mathisson, 18, attended Rye High School in Rye, N.Y., with his twin brother (David). He enjoys writing and often contributed to the school newspaper and literary magazine. He was captain of his school’s cross country team and has participated in cross country and track (mainly pole vaulting) for four years. He’s worked at a bike shop, a summer camp, and as an English and history tutor. Sam will be going to the University of Michigan with the goal of majoring in history.

Fifth place (tie) — Matthew Bergosh: The beautiful game

By Matthew Bergosh

Matthew Bergosh

Growing up, I never gave religion a second thought. Even though I attended a religious preschool (for economic reasons), religion was never more than a fairy tale to me. It was Santa giving every single kid on Earth a present on Christmas, the Easter Bunny going around and hiding treats for us, and Jesus breaking bread and fish into enough pieces to feed everyone. Noah’s Ark was a nice coloring book scene, and the Nativity was a fun story to enact, but that’s all it was. A story for those that couldn’t accept death.

I struggled accepting death, too. It’s kept me awake and brought me to tears on many a night when I was young. But then I had an epiphany, and it may seem small, but it profoundly changed my life: You don’t know you’re sleeping, so why would death be any worse? And then the realizations kept coming: Don’t be nice for a potential reward after death, be nice because it feels nice. Don’t spend a second of your time thinking of death, because that’s a second you wasted from life. Help people in this life, don’t tell yourself they’ll be rewarded in the next.

I also noticed that people rely on religion for strength and they looked down on my lack of faith as if it were a handicap. But I finally understood that I was the stronger one because I “manage” to be a good person without the threat of eternal torture.

That’s what atheism means to me: strength, wisdom and freedom. I denounce religion and accept the cold, uncaring universe. I choose to focus on this life with wisdom and enjoy the freedom that this choice grants. To elaborate, I reject religion for several reasons. First, I simply do not believe. That seed was not planted in me when I was young. By refusing it, I clear my mind for logic and critical thinking, which I would much prefer over comfort and faith. Second, there is far too much suffering in this world for there to be a good God, and if God is not good, why believe? Third, too much of this anguish is in the name of religion for me to find it attractive.

I live my life as if it was a soccer game: I’m on the clock from beginning to end (with a break in the middle for my mid­life crisis), fully enjoying every moment because I never know when the game ends for me.

Matthew, 18, attended Vilsech High School at APO, AE in Germany. After moving numerous times because of his father’s military career, he and his family settled in Germany. Because his mother in German, Matthew is a dual citizen legally, linguistically and culturally. He will be attending the University of Southern California in the fall.