FFRF awards $20K in Students of Color Essay Contest

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 30 winners of the 2019 David Hudak Memorial Students of Color Essay Competition for College Students.

FFRF has paid out a record total of $20,850 in award money for this contest this year. FFRF 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 reflects those bonuses.

College students of color were asked to write a personal persuasive essay about “How being nonreligious has enhanced your life and how the secular community can better engage people of color.”

FFRF also thanks “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of this and the four other student essay contests and, of course, our “faithful faithless” volunteer and staff readers, including Don Ardell, Linda Aten, Dan Barker, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Judi Jacobs, Dan Kettner, Katya Maes, Gloria Marquadt, Dave Petrashek, Lauryn Seering and PJ Slinger.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010 and one geared explicitly for students of color (this one) since 2016. A fifth contest for law school students debuts this year.

This contest is named for the late David Hudak, an FFRF member who left a bequest to generously fund a student essay contest.

Winners, their ages, the colleges or universities they are attending and the award amounts are listed below. 

First place

Nicole Li, 18, Yale University, $3,500

Second place

Kea Ravi, 19, Ohio State, $3,000

Third place

Donovan Henderson, 18, Georgia
Institute of Technology, $2,500

Fourth place

Mika Kat, 20, Nova Southeastern

University, $2,000

Fifth place

Yeh Seo Jung, 18, Swarthmore

College, $1,500

Sixth place

Colleen Avila, 17, Washington

University, $1,000

Seventh place

George Olea-Romo, 18, UC-San

Diego, $750

Eighth place (tie)

Adonis Logan, 19, Centre College,

$500

Anagha Sreevals, 18, George Mason

University, $500

Ninth place (tie)

Leyma Hernandez, 18, Arizona State

University, $400

Elisa Nicolini, 20, Virginia Polytechnic

and State University, $400

Tenth place (tie)

Javohn Dyer, 18, Michigan State

University, $300

Kimberly Perez, 21, Duke University,

$300

Honorable mentions ($200 each)

Camryn Beaco, 19, DePaul University

Raimundo Farmer, 19, Claremont

McKenna College

Evan Flemming, 19, Fisk University

Jessie Garcia, 18, Rutgers University

Kenneth Gonzalez Santibanez, 19,

Princeton University

Tea Floyd, 18, Columbia College

Jamiah Hawkins, 18, University of

North Carolina at Greensboro

Kathy Ho, 18, University of Tulsa

Asha Johnson, 18, Howard University

Nolan Mangal, 18, Baylor University

Kaylin Moss, 19, Marist College

Sarah Niles, 18, UC-Santa Cruz

Pari Parajuli, 18, UC-Berkeley

Isabelle Rosales, 21, Arizona State

University

Anoushka Shandilya, 17, UC-San Diego

Raven Yamamoto, 19, Loyola Mary      mount University

Essay contest

First place — Persons of color essay contest: Nicole Li

Empathy, compassion and redemption

FFRF awarded Nicole $3,500.

By Nicole Li

Nicole Li

It took me 15 years to realize that I was being systemically and nonconsensually indoctrinated. A decade of Sunday school had failed to instill a flicker of faith in me, and I began to question the legitimacy and pragmatism of “miracle” stories and weekly bible drills. I was sent to youth group as if it was day care, and was expected to blindly accept the lectured dogma.

Faith will redeem you, they said. Jesus loves you, they said. Assimilation felt like an obligation, and, at 12 years old, I finally surrendered myself on Baptism Sunday. All at once, religion was everything I knew and all that I didn’t know.

Three years later, I stopped going to church. The institutionalized hypocrisy appalled me (love thy neighbors . . . but only if they’re heterosexual) and the supremacist evangelism was evidently toxic. Religion was supposed to be used for love, not damage. Yet in the name of God, the churchgoers allowed their faith to become politically weaponized — an exploitative tool to condemn, marginalize and pity nonbelievers. Homosexuals were lost and sinful, they said.

Women seeking abortions were wickedly destroying God’s creations, they said. And up until that point, I believed them. Until that day, my worldview was a manufactured byproduct of family tradition and Christian ideology. My youthful curiosity was stifled and molded by an intangible, abstract force that I never understood. My conscience awoke.

Freedom from religion is just as much a sacred right as freedom of religion. Although my departure from the church was met with glaring eyes and guilt-tripping comments, I have since found significant solace in my work as a social activist. Whether I’m canvassing for reproductive rights or registering voters at the annual PrideFest, I now devote myself to reversing and compensating for the foolish bigotry that I had formerly accepted. I do not believe that Jesus condoned inequality, but it is clear that some of his misguided followers are fueling a prejudiced campaign of sexism and homophobia, a dangerous movement of division and intolerance. So, when protesters waved their bibles outside Planned Parenthood, shouting at the patients not to murder and instead to repent, I held the poor women’s trembling hands as they stepped out of their cars, escorting them to safety inside the clinic. When radical “Christians” used Romans 13 to justify the separation of immigrant families, I was proud to fight for human dignity and speak out against the unspeakable atrocities. It turns out that these efforts fulfilled, invigorated and empowered me more than any outdated scripture ever did.

In these valuable interactions, I came to know many strong leaders within the local secular community, yet oftentimes people of color were still vastly underrepresented. I believe that, in order to truly and productively engage diverse voices, we must guarantee them a seat at the table in all community-related discussions. Social change must be spearheaded by those most hurt by evangelism, which predominantly encompass LGBTQ+ communities and people of color. I observed that the most effective leaders were the ones who committed to spotlighting these often-marginalized voices, and I have made a promise to myself that I will be one of them.

Paradoxically, my experience growing up among white evangelicals and my conversion to atheism have catapulted me on an exhilarating journey of self-discovery, individualism and unapologetic existence. Today, I am thrilled to live in confident satisfaction knowing that all of my beliefs are self-rationalized and all of my achievements are mine, not God’s, to celebrate. For 15 years, I was lost, but it wasn’t “Amazing Grace” that I needed in order to find myself — it was just open-minded empathy, unconditional compassion and genuine redemption.

Nicole, 18, is from Memphis, and attends Yale University, where she plans to study politics and economics. She is passionate about civic engagement and has worked with March For Our Lives and Planned Parenthood to organize rallies against gun violence, canvass for pro-choice politicians, and direct a campaign to increase youth voter turnout. Nicole is also a nationally recognized poet.

Second place — Persons of color essay contest: Kea Ravi

Nonviolence, acceptance and freedom

FFRF awarded Kea $3,000.

By Kea Ravi

Kea Ravi

Throughout my life, I was often one of the only (now ex-) Hindus in the room. I felt a drive to defend Hinduism against false claims, to give it the same level of legitimacy as Christianity. During British colonization, my great-great-grandparents defied colonial and supremacist attitudes by retaining their Hindu faith and not converting to Christianity. Rejecting the religion of my ancestors seemed like a betrayal of my culture, the anti-colonial efforts of my forebears.

I realize now that I was thinking in an “us versus them” mentality — a mentality encouraged by my religious upbringing.

While my parents always taught me to be accepting of other faiths, a religious person cannot ever truly accept another’s eschatological views while harboring their own. Ultimately, I am right and you are wrong, a judgment not passed by facts but by beliefs. By pitting Hinduism against Christianity, I did not see the tragedies Hinduism has caused in its own right: its treatment of Dalits and perceptions of women. Socially conservative viewpoints exist in every religion, and, in another world, we could have just as easily seen ideas of Desi supremacy rather than white supremacy.

After examining my beliefs, I saw a contradiction. Hinduism, the religion that espouses ahimsa or nonviolence, was also violent, both physically and mentally. By forcing everyone to believe in an idea without any evidence, it executes mental violence in the form of cognitive dissonance and makes its followers pursue physical violence through the subjugation of women and people of lower castes.

Being nonreligious helps me achieve a greater, more nuanced understanding of the world around me. The absence of zealotry lets me engage with new philosophical ideas and grapple with old ones using an unclouded mind.

In fact, I became more interested in religion as a nonbeliever. I studied Buddhism as a researcher and read the bible for the first time. As an atheist, I did not try to disprove the claims inside religious texts. It is up to each individual to decide what works best for them.

Instead, I fully accepted and appreciated what the sutras and proverbs were for: a way of finding direction in life. Studying religion as a nonbeliever helped me form my own philosophy for my life without the outside pressure of faith. I did not have to reprimand myself for forgetting the words to a sloka. I could put that effort into helping others in more concrete ways than “thoughts and prayers.”

This journey would have been much easier if I did not feel the need to defend a faith I did not believe in. The secular community in the United States tends to be both white and relatively wealthy. As atheists, we agree that it is not reasonable to believe in a higher power which cannot be proven to exist. What often ends up happening in these spaces is a competition to see which religion is the worst. This is a pointless conflict. Demonizing one religion over another misses the point that all religions advocate unequal treatment between the believers and nonbelievers.

As a person of color, much of my community in the United States is based around religious groups and spaces. If the secular community emphasized its commitment to racial justice, more people will engage with us. The hardest part about leaving a religion is leaving a support system. If we build up our own systems, more people will achieve the liberation of thinking for themselves.

Kea, 19, is from Westerville, Ohio, and attends Ohio State University, where she is studying computer science. She hopes to attend law school after graduation. Kea enjoys reading, crocheting and rock climbing, and has worked as a florist.

Third place — Persons of color essay contest: Donovan Henderson

The divine white elephant

FFRF awarded Donovan $2,500.

By Donovan Henderson

Donovan Henderson

Religion. To many in the black community, this word invokes a divine feeling of hope and faith. To others, this word is simply a mask for the structured spiritual miseducation of our people.

Studies show eight out of 10 people of color identify as one of the many branches of Christianity. This staggering statistic shows that nearly all of the individuals of the colored community continue to be misguided by the trickery of our oppressors. We all know of the racial and social catastrophe that was slavery, but have you ever asked yourself who would we worship if we hadn’t been captured and traded?

Travel back in time to the start of slavery and you will notice the seeds of Christianity had not yet infected the lives of our ancestors as they worshipped their original African deities. However, while in the bondage of their tyrannical “masters,” our ancestors were taught and forced to adopt Christianity as their one true religion. Quite unfortunately, we as a people have not learned any better in the centuries since.

Enslaved people and colored people as a whole were never given anything to empower themselves, as this would ultimately lead to the demise of slavery. Introducing Christianity to colored people has done more harm than it will ever do good.

First, let’s address the divine white elephant in the room: Jesus. Christianity teaches our people — via our beloved religion — to love and praise and worship a savior who does not even look like us. This religion has subconsciously taught us to believe that white is right.

We can praise and worship Jesus every Sunday of our lives, yet we should accept that we are not like him and we will never be like him because we are imperfect sinners and he (White Jesus) is an all-holy and perfect being. This has contributed to a community-wide feeling of inferiority to our Caucasian counterparts. However, that’s OK, because Christianity also tells us that if we repent our sins and believe that Jesus is the one true savior, we just might make into heaven, where everything is perfect. All you have to do to get there is remain complacent during a lifetime of suffering and pain. What’s one lifetime to a possible eternal life, right?

Furthermore, Christianity leads us to believe that everything that’s unfavorable is either the work of the devil or not in “God’s plan.” This enters us into a cycle of excuses that discourages us from ever taking responsibility for a situation. This is why I refuse to become indoctrinated into this fallacious reality that is Christianity. I refuse to play my oppressors’ game. I refuse to forego taking responsibility for my actions in favor of believing that it was the fault of the red man with a pitchfork beneath me. Instead, I empower myself. Without the fallacies of Christianity guiding me into oblivion, I can truly make my life my own. I no longer am trapped in the slave mentality that grips the minds and souls of so many in the colored community.

Although slavery ended more than 150 years ago, its lingering embrace has plagued the black community religiously, mentally and spiritually for far too long. If we want to see an improvement in our societal standing, then we must make a collective and positive change. For religion to empower my people, it must start at the top. We as a community need to see our savior as someone whose image is not unlike our own. Religion must remove its emphasis on the afterlife and prompt the members of the community to better themselves while they are alive. I believe these are the changes needed to truly engage the colored community through religion. But not me. For I am free.

Donovan, 18, is from Hampton, Ga., and attends the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he plans to major in aerospace engineering. For years, he has been training and teaching martial arts. “I plan to use my education to empower myself and those around me, establish a career in entrepreneurship, and become a first-generation millionaire,” Donovan writes.

Fourth place — Persons of color essay contest: Mika Kat

The meaning of freedom

FFRF awarded Mika $2,000.

By Mika Kat

Free is an adjective, defined as “not or no longer confined or imprisoned.” But freedom is defined for me as the ability to live my life within the mandated rules, as being grateful for the different roles dictated by holy text, to worship without question, and stand in awe at the sheer perfection of what it meant to be a young woman in Islam. Freedom was to find joy in the caged world of Islam, while staying within the lines, never questioning the faith, and trusting in divine law because surely the god in question knew more than us mere mortals.

As I grew older, I discovered an alternative version of being free — one that meant I was allowed to be curious, to ask questions, to speak, to act and to live as an individual. Being free means I am no longer bound by esoteric rules that were seldom explained or justified. It means I make my own rules, I alone am responsible for my actions and decisions, and that I can create the life I choose to live.

The two alternate versions of freedom seemed mutually exclusive. The cognitive dissonance and mental gymnastics I used to justify my waning faith were exhausting. The more I looked into Islam, the more I realized that the inequalities present in the religion were incompatible with my emerging beliefs as a feminist. My cultural background had always taught me to tread softly, to never overstep the boundaries enshrined by the religious texts. Being an immigrant and woman of color were labels I already bore on my shoulders. Adding atheism could have meant ostracization within my community and my homeland. My whole identity was shaken.

Thankfully, liberation from the shackles of religion proved worthy. I

could indulge in the little freedoms enjoyed by my peers that I had been robbed of. I loved the way the sun kissed my skin as I stepped out, no longer bound by the dress code of sexist text. My life was finally my own.

Islam prides itself on being a totalitarian religion, with rules for every aspect of one’s life, enforced through the tools of guilt and shame. The relief of no longer feeling the shame of using my own rational mind, and the peace that came with opening up my thoughts to support my own actions, far surpassed the delusional comfort of religion.

Leaving religion and embracing atheism meant losing the piece of my identity that harbored my insecurities, shame, fears and regrets. It was time to carve my own identity, and step into the unknown world.

Although we are like-minded peers, I have always felt that I stand out in the secular community. While we share similar beliefs, my appearance and background are dramatically different.

Atheism is often a generational movement, but I believe I am part of the first major wave of ex-Muslims and have a new trail to blaze.

This contrasts with most secular-minded people in the West, who have a tradition of secularism and an identity that they can adopt. Being an ex-Muslim woman, however, involves navigating a new world and carving a new identity for myself. There are few role models or leaders to follow and look up to, and among the greater secular community, there exists this level of pity for those who have taken my path, there persists an idea that we “need saving” from Islam and its oppression. But change must come from within one’s own community. I have altered the ways that Muslims around me think, and a larger understanding of the issues that we uniquely face would greatly benefit the ways in which we can be better supported. Being an atheist has given me the courage and strength to tackle what this vast universe has to offer. I am no longer imprisoned, and no longer confined.

Mika, 20, is from Miramar, Fla., and attends Nova Southeastern University, where she is majoring in biology. She enjoys photography, reading, writing and traveling. Mika plans to attend medical school after graduation.

Fifth place — Persons of color essay contest: Yeh Seo Jung

The mathematics of religion

FFRF awarded Yeh Seo $1,500.

By Yeh Seo Jung

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.

Sixth place — Persons of color essay contest: Colleen Avila

Change and tradition

FFRF awarded Colleen $1,000.

By Colleen Avila

My father will take every opportunity to educate a person on the fact that potatoes are not from Ireland. They’re from Peru, I’ve heard him say countless times. They were stolen from indigenous land and transplanted in Europe, a perfect example of disremembering of history, in which the people like my father’s gran

Colleen Avila

dmother, born from the land, are given no chance to be heard. This is why my father doesn’t call himself Hispanic. Not because he’s not proud, but because he is proud — he is proud to be a brown man with Quechua blood, to be a father of first-generation American children who will extend on the opportunity he has given us past discrimination and hate. He speaks Spanish, but he is not Spanish. He calls himself Latino, Peruvian. He does not want to be associated with the white, Spanish conquerors who committed atrocities against our native peoples.

I have taken these lessons from my father and I have used them to guide my intellectual life. Thus, I am not just a nonbeliever because I simply do not believe. I am a nonbeliever because I do not agree with the systems of organized religion, which have historically been used to justify theft from and violence against indigenous peoples. The history of Western religions like Catholicism are inextricable from the history of imperialism and conquest. Being free from religion has enhanced my life by liberating me from those ties to oppression, allowing me to be especially critical of the Western norms and constructs that I see around me (many of which are derived from religious mores). So many unreasonable and even abhorrent things are enabled by the idea that we must adhere to the standards that have been laid out before us. This intellectual stubbornness fails to acknowledge two things: One, that perhaps the traditions of the past were not perfect in the first place; and two, that an evolving society necessitates evolving standards. By being nonreligious, I believe I am not only distancing myself from the doctrines that influence imperialist, antiquated thought, but I am distancing myself from the past itself, in order to learn from it and to look forward toward a society that is more just, open-minded and empathetic.

Yet despite its connections to colonialism, there is often great reliance on religion in communities of color. Particularly in black and Latinx communities, Christian and Catholic beliefs persist, deeply entrenched in our culture by time and need. But why should it make sense to use the religions forced on us by white settlers to help us cope with the problems the white settlers created for us?

There is a plethora of empathetic, change-oriented young people in our communities, who have seen their parents’ hardship and who crave a better life for themselves and their families. Our engagement in the secular community may be through learning our own forgotten history, and rejecting the religious tradition that has contributed to chronic social, political and economic strife among us. Just as we honor our culture and our families, we must learn to honor our resilience. We must think critically about our own history so that we can begin to pass the torch onto an educated youth, who are freethinking and poised to uproot the beliefs of our elders. We can hold respect for past ideas, but we don’t have to perpetuate them if change is needed.

Colleen, 17, is from Monrovia, Md., and attends Washington University, where she plans to study visual arts and neuroscience. She enjoys drawing and painting, and her art has received local and regional awards.

Seventh place — Persons of color essay contest: George Olea-Romo

Divine skepticism

FFRF awarded George $750.

By George Olea-Romo

I

George Olea-Romo

was born into a Catholic family. I was baptized early on and went through confirmation by age 3 (in Mexico). I remember feeling proud of my religious status. I took pride in being a “Católico Apostólico Romano,” thinking that the title was somehow supposed to impress others. I felt privileged at the thought that I had a reserved seat in heaven. At a much younger age, I was content with my religious beliefs. However, my interest in the divine led to questions, and eventually, I began questioning the divine.

I once thought that everyone believed something for good reason, so logically for me, I thought there must have been some kind of solid indication that the Catholic God exists. At around age 13, I asked my mother for this proof. I was dissatisfied with her answer: “Dios se manifiesta en los campos, las flores,” which means, “God manifests in the fields, the flowers.” I was expecting something less vague. I was hoping for more than simply elaborating on God’s natural abilities. After all, how does this indicate the Catholic god specifically? I expressed my dissatisfaction, implying that her response didn’t constitute as proof. My father got a little defensive and brought up the miraculous Virgen de Guadalupe painting, whose eyes supposedly reflected images of villagers. I felt reassured for some time in my faith until I decided to see these depictions for myself. All I saw were random, purposeless spots, no people.

Disappointed again with my parents’ responses, I figured that they must be wrong about the evidence. They probably don’t know what the real proof is. I checked online and found a page claiming that it had five ways to prove God exists. I would have been satisfied with a single valid point. I found no indication of a divine being from what I read and was disappointed with the website’s use of mental gymnastics and condescension of other views. Further investigation led to similar results. At this point I had to come to terms with my reality, since choosing “God” would go against what I saw as being logical. I became an atheist as a result.

The transition seemed malicious to me, at first. I felt like a traitor toward my Mexican culture that held the miraculous story of Juan Diego in high regard. I felt like I betrayed my parents by leaving Catholicism, especially since they expressed their discontent with my decision. However, these thoughts were eventually dismissed. I thought: Abandoning these stories do not disconnect me from my heritage, so why should I be tied to them despite their lack of credibility? My self-deprecating thoughts were expelled when I considered the soundness of my reasoning and took pride in my skepticism.

I believe many others, including people of color, should become part of the secularist community. However, one must remember that many people are deeply impacted by religion in their life and it’s something sacred to them, so one must tread lightly when making them consider secularist views. In order to engage other communities, we must communicate the message of skepticism, where one could objectively evaluate the validity of claims. We can spread the message of the burden of proof, not believing something until being given a defensible argument or reason. Skepticism doesn’t have to end at just questioning religion. It can be used to observe and criticize the actions of the government. Should a religious monument be built with taxpayer money? Should children be obliged to learn creationism in school? Should consenting adults be denied marriage due to their uncommon sexuality? Bestowing other communities with the word of skepticism gives people a chance to think with individuality and free from bias.

George, 18, is from Victorville, Calif., and attends the University of California-San Diego, where he plans to major in chemistry. He has been playing the flute since sixth grade and has been part of his high school’s full orchestra, chamber orchestra and college band. George received the National Hispanic Recognition Program award, given to the top 2.5 percent of Hispanics who took the PSAT. He would like to be a forensic toxicologist.

Eighth place (tie) — Persons of color essay contest: Adonis Logan

The catalyst

FFRF awarded Adonis $500.

By Adonis Logan

grew up in Jamaica, an island with the highest number of churches per capita in the world. Like most children in a black Carribbean household, I went wherever my parents brought me, adopted their beliefs and never questioned much. Church every Sunday was obligatory. I will admit, I never saw anything wrong with my family’s devotion to church because that was the Jamaican cultural norm. My own liberation is synonymous to committing social suicide in the black community. Despite these obstacles, like never truly being free to discuss my beliefs, I continued to pursue my liberation and journey toward becoming a nonbeliever.

I am a nonbeliever because I seek to move from a mindset of faith and belief into a freethinking realm of reason and rationality. My journey becoming a nonbeliever had two major influences. The first came when I immigrated to the United States at the age of 10. The experience of switching countries was the catalyst my family needed to begin questioning religious norms. Within months of moving, my family became busy and generally uninterested in the practices of the church. After witnessing our faith deteriorate rapidly, I realized that without the weekly “religious re-ups” of going to church, practicing faith is synonymous with taking drugs. Both give you a temporary high that allows you to relinquish your problems, but in the end, neither gives you the comfort or answers you seek. Coming to this conclusion was monumental mainly because it led to seeking out my second major influence.

Thanks to my newly developed freethinking mindset, I wanted to understand why others didn’t reject religion, as well. During high school, I informally interviewed religious leaders in my community, attended an Anti-Defamation League conference and different religious ceremonies. In my quest to understand others, I became aware of an even greater issue. Most, if not all religious people that I talked to firmly believed that their beliefs were the “best.” They were highly critical of all other beliefs except their own. I asked each of them, “Do you think your religion limits followers from thinking for themselves?” As if reading from a script, they said something along the lines of, “I know there is only one God. My God is the greatest. He is a forgiving God that lets people do as they wish, and, if we do as he wishes, one day it will lead me to (promised land, heaven, anointment).” After the 10th encounter, I could nearly finish their answers for them. I was disappointed to see adults create a dichotomy between their fellow believers and people who believed other things.

These experiences opened my eyes to the possibility of thinking for myself.

Adonis Logan

Now, as a sophomore in college, I am not limited by arbitrary religious beliefs. I recognize religiously based divisions and witnessed the natural deterioration of my family’s faith. I find that I am drastically less likely to discriminate against someone. Considering the current political climate and the bombardment of bad news across most media outlets, now is the most opportune time for the secular community to engage with people of color. People are more likely to explore thinking for themselves when society seems unstable. For me, getting involved with the secular community is an opportunity to determine truth and morality through reason and evidence, instead of accepting dogma. Most individuals don’t even realize thinking for themselves is an opportunity they are missing out on. I urge the secular community to interact with people that wonder about existential questions. I find these people are the most receptive to hearing other ideas.

Adonis, 19, is from Boston and attends Centre College, where he is majoring in environmental studies. He was named the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year in Boston and was awarded the Princeton Prize in race relations for the state of Massachusetts. Adonis writes: “My proudest accomplishment after completing my first year of college was receiving the Robert Dale Holmes Freshman of the Year award, which is given to a ‘member of the first-year class who, by the improvement of his or her work, diligence, and character, reveals most clearly the value of college training and the spirit of the college.’”

Eighth place (tie) — Persons of color essay contest: Anagha Sreevals

Breaking the chains of religious identity

FFRF awarded Anagha $500.

By Anagha Sreevals

Some of my earliest memories include praying with my parents at the temple. Even before I could talk, I was partaking in daily prayer and other rituals within Hinduism. My bedtime stories consisted of verses from the Vedas, a body of religious texts which date back to the origins of Hinduism. Although I didn’t really understand what religion was, I was very interested in it as a child. I saw

Anagha Sreevals

Hinduism as something connecting me with my parents more than a devotion to religious beings. I felt happiest when my parents commended me for reciting hymns from memory.

However, as I grew older, I started to resent parts of Hinduism that restricted my freedom of choice. As Hinduism is interwoven with Indian culture and customs, religious heritage proved to be crucial to one’s identity, especially ethnic identity. It was hard to separate religion with my culture — being Indian and being Hindu were basically the same thing. Being devout consisted of a duty to fulfill a predetermined role in society. Indian culture enforced a variety of gender roles and customs, especially when it came to arranged marriage.

My parents planned to marry me off when I was around 20 to a man I didn’t know. Before I had even started middle school, I realized that my life was set out for me already. If my parents wanted me to become a doctor, that’s what I would be. I would then go to college, get married immediately after, and have kids. If my husband was lenient enough, I could get a job. Although the situation isn’t so dire for everyone in India, just knowing my future was already planned was more than disheartening. I understood that religion could be a significant part of one’s life, but I didn’t want it to define mine.

After learning that Hinduism and Indian culture was controlling all aspects of my life, I grew to dislike both. I didn’t want my parents to choose everything for me, as my uncles and aunts had for my cousins. Through the years, I learned more about the world through my own eyes, instead of a religious and cultural lens. Cultural and religious experiences can be important in cultivating a more diverse understanding of the world, but in my case, I just wanted to learn about things my way.

After being exposed to different beliefs, I eventually took a liking to agnosticism. I’m not all-knowing, so I can’t certainly say whether there is a god or spiritual being, but whether there is or not, I didn’t want it to define my life or my choices. Soon after, I started studying everything I could, from economics to technology to sociology.

Eventually, I began college and chose my own career path. After finding agnosticism, I not only felt liberated from the chains of religion and my culture, I also felt empowered to live for myself — to think for myself.

In order to engage other students of color, secular groups need to be more present in communities. As I was growing up, I had no access to information about other religions or secularism until I had a computer. I had no one but my religious parents to ask these questions. However, they not only lacked the knowledge to teach me, but they also didn’t want me to stray from Hinduism. There has been much controversy that mainstream atheist or secular organizations that partake in the diversity “bandwagon” tend to exhibit tokenism. In these situations, these organizations are only showing a superficial interest in minorities, without ever regarding real minority issues. To more successfully engage students of color, secular organizations need to provide more easily accessible informational and financial resources. Secularism freed me, and with some help from the secular community, it can free others, too.

Anagha, 18, is from South Chesterfield, Va., and attends George Mason University, where she is studying global affairs/international development, with a minor in immigration studies. She has a specific interest in refugees and immigration in the Middle East. She volunteers with refugees, teaching English and providing help with employment.