Overheard (Nov. 2019)

I think Democrats have been a little allergic to talking about faith, and it’s largely for a very good reason, which is that we passionately believe that when you’re running for office, or when you’re in office, you have an obligation to treat people of any religion and people of no religion equally. It’s a basic American principle.

Pete Buttigieg, Democratic presidential candidate, speaking to Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.”

CBS, 9-5-19

I think it’s going to be a while before we figure out exactly how this is all going to fit. Religion in this country is shifting a lot right now.

Margaret McGuinness, professor of religion and theology at La Salle University
in Philadelphia, on the dearth of women seeking to become Catholic nuns. In 1970, there were 160,931 religious sisters in the country. In 2018, there were 44,117.

Columbus Dispatch, 8-26-19

[People] hate religion because, at a moment to stand up and be counted on the right side of history, religion is used as moral cover for despicable behavior.

Timothy Egan, in his column, “Why people hate religion.”

The New York Times, 8-30-19

We focus on sex and then we do not give weight to social injustice, slander, gossip and lies. The church today needs a profound conversion in this area.

Pope Francis, during informal conversations with Jesuit clergy in Africa.

Religion News Service, 10-3-19

The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with false promises of a warm bed and meals. Instead these victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, stripped of their identification, their freedom and their dignity.

U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer of the Southern District of California on how Imperial Valley Ministry took in homeless and vulnerable people, forcing them to turn over their money and welfare benefits, and to panhandle six days a week with 100 percent of proceeds going to the church. The church also took their identification and all of their personal belongings, so that even if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t, prosecutors said.

Washington Post, 9-11-19

I would underscore the concerns raised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation about the expansion of the Jesus Lunch to Memorial and Verona high schools. . . . Antisemitic slurs were offered to Jewish students; other non-participants were similarly singled out and felt harassed. . . . These and other consequences came about as a result of one group of people boldy asserting a constitutional right but not considering any of the effects that their actions have on others.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, in a letter to the editor, regarding high schools in the Madison, Wis., area having “Jesus lunches” hosted by parents.

The Capital Times, 9-25-19

In Japan, the seasons are treated with the sort of passion and reverence usually associated with religion. Every time the cherries begin to blossom, people flock into the parks because, in 10 days or so, the frothing pink flowers will be gone; and every time the maple leaves blaze in late November, my Japanese friends and family throng into temple gardens in much the same spirit that people of any faith may gather in temples or cathedrals. To be joined in a congregation; to be reminded of something larger than ourselves, keeping us in place; to catch moments of light in a season of mounting darkness.

Pico Iyer, “The beauty of the ordinary.”

The New York Times, 9-22-19

Instead of moving away from Gilead, we started moving towards it, especially in the United States.

Author Margaret Atwood, quoted recently in London.

The New York Times, 9-15-19

History does not often give the satisfaction of a sudden and lasting turning point. History tends to unfold in messy cycles — actions and reactions, revolutions and counterrevolutions — and even semipermanent changes are subtle and glacial. But the rise of religious non-affiliation in America looks like one of those rare historical moments that is neither slow, nor subtle, nor cyclical. You might call it exceptional.

Derek Thompson, in his article, “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?”

The Atlantic, 9-26-19

Knowledge is always power. If you’re afraid to take a course because you’re worried it’ll change your beliefs, that’s not a very good sign.

Nadia Muraweh, outreach director for the Muslim Students Association of Arizona State University, on students not wanting to take courses on religion.

The State Press, 10-4-19

Grad/‘older’ students essay contest winners

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 19 winners of the Brian Bolton Essay Contest for Graduate/“Older” Students. FFRF has paid out a total of $17,850 in award money to this year’s contest winners.

Graduate students up to age 30 or undergrad students ages 25-30 were asked to write a persuasive essay that uses at least one biblical passage to show how its influence continues to cause harm today to individuals, civil liberties or society in general. In an overview of all the entries received, the students selected 37 different verses from 15 books in the bible. The most-used verse in these essays (written about by four students) was Romans 13:1 — “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

This contest is generously and singlehandedly endowed by Lifetime Member Brian Bolton, a retired psychologist, humanist minister and professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. Bolton is also underwriting FFRF’s Bible Accountability Project to call attention to the continuing harm of the bible to society.

FFRF thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular group, student club or Secular Student Alliance. The total of $17,850 reflects those bonuses.

FFRF also thanks “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of the essay contests. And we couldn’t judge these competitions without help from our “faithful faithless” volunteers and staff members, including Don Ardell, Linda Aten, Dan Barker, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Kettner, Katya Maes, Gloria Marquadt, Dave Petrashek and PJ Slinger.

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

Winners, their ages, the colleges or universities they are attending and the award amounts are listed below. The winning essays are reprinted or excerpted in this issue.

First place

Skylar Christensen, 28, University of
Utah, $3,500.

Second place

Barbara Alvarez, 30, University of
Wisconsin-Madison, $3,100.

Third place

Joseph Sankowski, 27, University of
Toledo, $2,500.

Fourth place

Danyka J. Morgan, 25, College of
Western Idaho, $2,000.

Fifth place

Angela Wu, 23, University of
Pennsylvania Law School, $1,600.

Sixth place

Benjamin Stokes, 29, George
Washington University, $1,000.

Seventh place

Meagan McLendon, 28, University of
North Texas, $750.

Eighth place

Alexis Muschal, 29, Boston University-
Grad School of Medicine, $500.

Ninth place

Neil A. Heacox, 29, Cal Poly Pomona,

Tenth place (tie)

Sam Hyde, 26, University of Florida-
Levin College of Law, $300.

Tenth place (tie)

Jonathan Ortiz, 22, University of
Florida, $300.

Honorable mentions ($200 each)

James Bingaman, 26, University of

Kristina M. Lee, 28, Colorado State.

Amber Osborn, 29, Butler Community

Miranda Percy, 30, Texas Tech.

Chelsea Robinson, 30, University of
Southern California.

Samaya Shuput, 29, Roseman

Amber Wright, 26, The New School.

First place — Grad student essay contest: Skylar Christensen

The ultimate argument from authority

FFRF awarded Skylar $3,500.

Skylar Christensen

By Skylar Christensen

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” This passage at 2 Timothy 3:16 may, at first glance, appear to be benign compared to the homophobia in Leviticus or the sexism in Genesis and elsewhere in the bible. A short examination shows that it could be the most pernicious verse in the bible. This passage and others like it give the bible’s most destructive passages their epistemic authority and their rhetorical force.

The bible gives Christians the ultimate argument from authority. Arguments from authority are often considered valid when the authority supporting the argument is considered valid. What source could be more authoritative than the creator of the universe itself? To a believer, the bible is the direct word of an omniscient, omnibenevolent being. This belief forecloses the possibility of debate. A religious person cannot put the merits of the bible’s views up for discussion if those views originated from an infallible deity. That would be especially thin ice to tread on, given the jealous fire-and- brimstone God represented in the Old Testament. Never mind that concluding that the bible is unerring requires one to use the bible as the primary source, a circular argument which doesn’t slow down politically motivated Christians at all.

The bible not only forecloses debate on the basis of logical inconsistencies, but it also gives Christians unearned confidence in the righteousness of their views.  The confidence is the result of the belief that they are not quoting the ravings of a pre-scientific writer from the fifth century BCE, but the unerring word of the creator of heaven and Earth. This level of epistemic closure can only lead to authoritarianism. One who is so certain that they have the right answer to all of life’s questions will not tolerate debate or delay in acting on those beliefs. Worse, the bible contradicts itself repeatedly and can, therefore, be used to justify almost any public policy. The bible, for the last 2,000 years, has been regarded by a large portion of our society (and a larger portion of its lawmakers) as a divine and infallible handbook for living. This attitude has had terrible consequences for women, minorities and LGBTQ individuals.

For the first time in at least 100 years, a bible study group has been established for White House cabinet members. The teacher is a basketball player-turned-theologian who believes that legislators ought to be guided by a book that never shies away from referring to women as chattel or urging the killing of gay people. The pastor reveals his own sexism by agreeing with scripture concerning women teaching religion, but stops short of supporting the death penalty for gay people. Another bible group was started for U.S. representatives and has 50 members, according to recent reports.

One assumes that these government leaders are not studying the bible for purely personal enrichment. They aim to justify their misdeeds by reference to the authority of the bible — not a bad strategy given that, according to the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of Americans believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God. This gives a special force to arguments in favor of policies decimating the civil liberties of women, minorities and LGBTQ individuals.

Bible-thumpers are filled with a dangerous sense of righteousness and a firm belief that their ends must be achieved, no matter how evil the means. It is 2 Timothy 3:16 that gives all of the homophobic, sexist, racist and amoral passages in the bible their force. Without this passage, and others like it, the bible could be considered another book written by mere men whose ideas could be reformed and cast aside as society develops. Instead, we are stuck fighting reactionaries from our own time and from centuries past.

Skylar, 28, is from South Salt Lake, Utah, and attends the University of Utah, where he is majoring in philosophy. He earned an associate’s degree in business at Dixie State University. After that, he worked as a freelance photographer and helped his father build a commercial lighting company. He currently works as a photographer for a real estate firm in Salt Lake City while going to college. He plans to go to law school after graduation.

Second place — Grad student essay contest: Barbara Alvarez

The bible and abortion legislation

FFRF awarded Barbara $3,000.

Barbara Alvarez

By Barbara Alvarez

Even though we live in a country founded on secularism, interpretations of biblical verses permeate legislative decisions regarding abortion in the United States. Alabama has passed a near ban, and states like Georgia, Missouri and Louisiana have passed “heartbeat bills,” making abortion illegal once a physician detects a fetal heartbeat with no exception for rape or incest. These bans are constructed with pseudoscientific language to mask religious intent. Dr. Ted Anderson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, stated that the so-called “heartbeat” at the core of this legislation is “actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.”

Indeed, there is no scientific, logical or economical reason to ban abortions or restrict funding to organizations that provide abortions. And yet, politicians invoke biblical text to justify their legislative decisions to do so. One such bible verse is 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body.”

This verse exemplifies the abusive relationship between the bible and women’s bodies. To begin with, “you are not your own” justifies the subjugation of women. Republican Sen. Clyde Chambliss of Alabama mirrored this when he pontificated that “life is a gift of our creator and we must do everything we can to protect life.” But what about the life of the woman?

According to the bible (and the politicians who credit it), women do not and should not have bodily autonomy because they are in servitude to God and the world.

“You have been bought with a price” quite literally commodifies women’s bodies. In lieu of abortion, pro-natalist proponents encourage women to choose adoption on behalf of wishful parents. A woman’s own physical and mental health, as well as life goals and situations, are irrelevant. Instead, she is an incubator that delivers a product to meet supply and demand.

When available legally and readily, abortion is a simple and safe procedure. When restricted, it causes emotional trauma, physical danger, financial destruction and even death. Parameters such as waiting periods, lack of health insurance, and parental consent reinforce classism by making abortion inaccessible to the most marginalized of women who do not have the resources to take time off of work, travel to remote clinics, and pay for expensive procedures. On the rare occasion when science is referenced to drive anti-abortion laws, it is meant to shame and guilt women with mandated ultrasound tests and unfounded claims such as abortion reversal.

The United States extends this oppressive dogma internationally through the Mexico City policy, commonly known as the global gag rule. Initiated by President Reagan, the global gag rule denies funding to any nongovernmental health care organization that provides, or even mentions, abortion.

The consequences of this biblically inspired legislation are catastrophic and hardly save lives. In fact, the global gag rule does not curb abortions, but rather makes them dangerous. It also reduces funding to organizations that provide HIV tests and treatment, as well as crucial services for sex workers and members of LGBTQ communities. In the name of the bible, the global gag rule has resulted in 20,000 maternal deaths in 29 countries in just one year.

Yet to some conservatives like Rick Santorum and Richard Mourdock, women should “accept what God has given.” Even when resulting from rape or incest, pregnancy “is something that God intended to happen.” Some may argue that these statements are not representative of Christianity. But when a biblical verse says that “you are not your own . . . glorify God in your body,” it is a direct reflection of Christianity.

Legislation should embody science and logic, not religion. A secular nation should not allow biblical verses to infringe on women’s reproductive choices and representatives should not be permitted to cite them in their legislative decisions.

Until that becomes a reality, women’s bodies will never be their own.

Barbara, 30, is from Madison, Wis., and attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is working on a Ph.D. in library and information sciences with a minor in gender and women’s studies. Barbara is the author of the book, Embedded Business Librarianship for the Public Librarian. She received a Master in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois.

Third place — Grad student essay contest: Joseph Sankowski

An irrational shipwreck

FFRF awarded Joseph $2,500.

Joseph Sankowski

By Joseph Sankowski

Children raised in Christian homes are exposed to numerous apocryphal stories from the bible by an early age. Of all these tales, perhaps none is more preposterous — even to the mind of a young child — than that of Noah’s ark. This absurd fable is regaled to youth more frequently than possibly any other biblical story — spare the creation myth or the birth of Christ. For an unfortunate number of these youngsters, this fallacy is taught as fact. Misguided parents, teachers and ministers, who were often themselves erroneously led in their youth, preach this fabrication as the literal truth. Through repeated contact, children are desensitized to the glaring inexactitudes bursting forth from this story and are blinded to its ability to single-handedly sink the factual accountability of “the word of God.”

The gross inaccuracies of the creation myth might go unnoticed by children. So, too, might the implied incest in the lineage of Adam and Eve. However, not long after encountering the story of Noah’s Ark, many children will inevitably be left with questions that literal translations can’t legitimately answer. One of these is: “How were all of the animals able to get along without eating each other?” Many children are sure to receive the perfunctory “Noah kept them in separate pens” answer, but then what did the carnivores eat for 40 days? More inquisitive youth will undoubtedly ask about the size of the ark. Fortunately for them, the ridiculousness of this is spelled out because the ark’s dimensions are listed. If they inquire further as to what a cubit is, they’re left with the answer that the ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. It won’t take most youngsters long to realize that there are a vast number of species on Earth, and to fit two to 14 of each of them on a ship smaller than the U.S.S. Arizona is dubious, to say the least.

Astute children who realize these flaws and ask questions of them are met with the most dangerous response of all: “God made it so.” This trump card of ignorance seems to solve every discrepancy in the bible. Those who hear it used to account for one biblical illogicality are bound to hear it used for another. This sentiment is echoed through phrases such as “God works in mysterious ways.” This repugnant line of thought is the ultimate appeal to ignorance. To claim that “God” intervenes on the rules that “God made” in order to account for the bible’s numerous incompatibilities is a surefire way to nurture an irrational mind. These “miracles” are the only thing keeping literal interpretations of the bible afloat.

Children are routinely indoctrinated by this nonsense before they reach the age of reason.

With the age of reason these questions often arise. With these questions come the uninformed answers. Through repeated exposure to this material, many unfortunate kids begin to blindly accept the narrative and the explanations by adults whom they trust (and who should know better.) Those raised on a literal translation of the bible become a liability to a democratic society if these unfounded beliefs persist. The bible’s unreliable text has been used to justify legal stances on slavery, abortion, women’s rights, environmental issues, immigration, and just about every other matter that has come up in a self-governed society.

Children taught to interpret the bible literally have been dangerously misinformed of its proper usage. When understood as a work of poetry or a metaphorical-laden work of fiction, the bible is fine. But when taught as the irrefutable words of a supreme creator, the bible becomes a dangerous weapon in the hands of an irresponsible owner. No sane person would use the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter series as a flight manual. In the same manner, no sensible person should use the bible as an authority on ethics or the history of the Earth, the cosmos or humanity. Its credibility comes into question almost immediately after one begins to read it. Yet, every day, countless voters and lawmakers use it as the basis for their beliefs, decisions and policies. This puerile trust in a fallacious book should have sunk with Noah’s Ark.

Joseph, 27, is from Toledo, Ohio, and attends the University of Toledo, where he is majoring in middle childhood education as an undergrad. After some time re-evaluating his career path, he decided to go back to college at age 24 to pursue a career as a sixth-grade English and social studies teacher.

Fourth place — Grad student essay contest: Danyka J. Morgan

To question is damnation

FFRF awarded Danyka $2,000.

Danyka J. Morgan

By Danyka J. Morgan

The biblical myth of Eve in the Garden of Eden partaking of the forbidden fruit is one of the most prolific scriptural anecdotes within the Christian narrative. Eve’s tale transfixes the reader through relatable moral elements that sink its abysmal hooks into the psyche of the individual reader. This effect ripples into culture as individuals studying this ideology form communities that propagate obvious anti-feminine dogma. Such deleterious principles also encourage policies that are uninformed at the very least and often harmful to society at large. Most concerning, Eve’s punishment for the act of seeking wisdom through inquisitive exploration sends a clear message to its readers: Do not question. The religious objective is to provide humankind with a moral code decided upon by the leaders of this blind belief. Reliance on an external force to dictate a personal moral code halts the developmental process for the individual. Further, persecution over the pursuit of knowledge produces a society uninterested in the quest for truth and open-minded exploration of inquiry.

The biblical myth identifies Eve as both the initiating transgressor of treachery and the mischievous manipulator of her male counterpart. Superficial religious principles derived from this part of the myth — along with recurring anti-female themes throughout the bible — endorse patriarchal attitudes that suffocate the advocacy of feminism. A nation thoroughly influenced by Christian ideology is rife with pernicious policies that exclude female input and personal choice. This claim is corroborated by the century it took to gain women’s suffrage and is most currently observable in present policy dictating women’s reproductive rights.

This position has been comprehensively recognized and discussed at length throughout modern intellectual culture. More nuanced, however, are the implications of religious dogma that require its followers to consider personal exploration for “wisdom” as a sin.

The setting of the fabled Garden of Eden tale is analogous to the environment of an adolescent in the real world. The authority figure (God in the case of religion, guardians in the circumstances of a child) provide sustenance for the ward dependent upon the parental figurehead(s). In order to keep the maturing adolescent safe, those considered to have the “wisdom” set rules and boundaries for guiding the developing individual. As children grow, learn and explore, they begin to cross thresholds of development that require pushing against previously established boundaries. Children want to know why, to experience life, and to seek knowledge for themselves. In the allegory of Eve — and as with religion — questioning is not tolerated. Even more so, curiosity is punishable.

To hinder personal growth of a child in actuality would be considered abhorrent. In a religious setting it is normative. Those who poke at the incoherent — and often contradictory — veil of biblical “wisdom” are outcasts, nonbelievers, or in the very least, confused. One is required to believe without evidence, to obey without complaint. An environment that fosters healthy development promotes exploration of theory, encourages investigation and welcomes open-ended discussion. Religious dogma prohibits these examinations. The castigation of Eve warns faith followers that seeking wisdom is out of bounds. To question is to invite damnation, according to biblical text.

As the average adolescent progresses throughout life, guardianship will taper off until the individual has gained enough knowledge to govern their own actions responsibly. Entities that require staunch obedience to indisputable decree seek to gain positions of absolute unremitting authority. Under religious persuasion, individuals are led to believe they cannot be responsible for themselves. A moral code is provided for the faithful. Questions and answers are limited by governing sources. Self-gained wisdom is forbidden. One can fathom how such restraining regulations might suppress innovation and evolution.

While Eve’s biblical passage of defiance disseminates anti-feminist rhetoric in favor of patriarchal dominance, the extreme religious command to deny the pursuit of knowledge cannot be ignored within the text. Religion seeks to mediate inquiry and answer. To soothe quizzical minds into a mass religious psychosis reliant on an “all-knowing” hand to spoon feed personal morals and dictate capricious cultural boundaries. These arbitrary strictures foster stagnation of society through a culture shackled by religious constraints and stifled by an omnipotent authority that claims to reign supreme in knowledge. Instead, one should refute and reject religious dogma to inquire and explore beyond religious boundaries. To take of the forbidden fruit.

Danyka, 25, is from Meridian, Idaho, and attends the College of Western Idaho, where she is working on a master’s degree in social work. She is the mother of three kids who are being raised as freethinkers. Her interests include the human psyche and personal wellness.

Fifth place — Grad student essay contest: Angela Wu

The absence of great responsibility

FFRF awarded Angela $1,500.

Angela Wu

By Angela Wu

“Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the Lord your God must die” (Deuteronomy 17:12).

The bible has long been one of America’s most cherished works, and this remains true in the 21st century. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 26 percent of Americans believe the bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, while 47 percent believe it is inspired by God and should be taken somewhat literally. When taken literally, the verse above subsequently indicates the death of one who challenges the authority or wisdom of a religious leader. When taken figuratively, the verse nevertheless urges readers to implicitly trust the judgment of religious authorities, as these authorities are ordained, exceptional and representative of God himself.

However, in the words of a character from another cherished American work (Spider-Man), “With great power comes great responsibility.” Indeed, there perhaps exist few greater powers than the power to hold a subordinate’s unadulterated trust. Despite this, the responsibility associated with this great power has failed to consistently emerge among American church officials and religious institutions, resulting in detrimental consequences for individuals and society as a whole. This is particularly relevant in regard to clerical sexual abuse in the United States.

First, as the bible’s teachings imply literal or figurative death to those who question their priests, abusive behavior by members of the clergy go potentially unreported. This is because priests enjoy the presumption of infallibility on the basis of their priesthood. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, specifically states that ordained individuals are given “sacred character” by the Holy Spirit. This sacredness implies that priests and their actions are morally correct by nature, enabling abusive behavior to go unchecked or unnoticed. This has been particularly damaging for minors, but other populations are also vulnerable. All priests are, of course, not predators or morally corrupt, but the halo effect afforded to religious leaders has led to systemic patterns of abuse within American society.

In Minnesota, the Catholic archdiocese reported its clergy had sexually abused over 450 children. In Texas, approximately 380 members of the Southern Baptist Church sexually abused more than 700 individuals in its congregation. These instances of misconduct have all been in recent times, but evidence of clergy abuse also dates back hundreds of years. In fact, William Caxton published a book in 1483 specifically detailing clerical sexual misbehavior in medieval London.

Furthermore, verses like Deuteronomy 17:12 enable religious figures to be held above the law, even when survivors consult secular authorities. Historically, in England and the American colonies, clergy members were given exemption from capital punishment if they could produce letters of ordination. Such explicit judicial exemptions no longer exist in modern-day America, but religious institutions still enjoy many unspoken benefits that diminish legal accountability. Victims of clerical abuse may, therefore, run into substantial roadblocks when they choose to pursue their abusers in court. For example, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office issued a report noting how government officials stopped investigating cases of clerical pedophilia upon the request of a bishop, who “openly boasted about his influence over local office-holders.”

Additionally, church-led lobbying efforts can further impede victims of clerical abuse from seeking justice. In 2019, a report revealed that the Catholic Church spent $10.6 million over eight years “to lobby against legislation that would benefit victims of child sex abuse.” These lobbying efforts are perhaps unwittingly aided by the special privileges afforded to religious institutions in the United States, such as automatic tax-exempt status. These instances of special treatment make it more laborious for victims of clerical abuse to obtain justice, fundamentally infringing on the right every American citizen has to equal protection under the law.

Deuteronomy 17:12 is a biblical teaching that continues to give priests and religious institutions enormous privilege in American society, even in the face of obvious misconduct. This endangers individuals in church congregations, but it also endangers the civil liberties of all potential sexual abuse survivors through church-led lobbying efforts. As historically witnessed, priests and ministers have the potential to commit wrongdoing just as easily as the unordained, even as stringent readings of the bible continue to imply otherwise. As a result, in the absence of great responsibility, the civil liberties of vulnerable societal populations continue to suffer.

Angela, 23, is from Sparks, Md., and attends the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She graduated from the University of Maryland, where she majored in life sciences and sociology, with a focus on social psychology. She is also particularly interested in research and has previously published neurosurgical and ophthalmological papers with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Sixth place — Grad student essay contest: Ben Stokes

Christianity and welfare

FFRF awarded Ben $1,000.

Ben Stokes

By Ben Stokes

While some sects of Christianity preach generosity and compassion for the disadvantaged, others weigh more heavily on the “prosperity gospel.” This rationale espouses that those who work hard and put their faith in the Lord flourish, whereas the slothful and unrepentant do not. This can be seen in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, where a master gives three of his slaves varying amounts of talents, or property, to do with as they will while he is away. Two of them put their talents to work (in other words, they invest), while the third stows his talent away. The first two earn their master more talents and receive praise, while the latter is admonished as wicked and lazy.

The prosperity gospel, most clearly seen in evangelical and Mormon followings, largely rejects governmental remedies for impoverished communities in favor of faith and travail. Both groups are staunchly against welfare programs. In their eyes, using the welfare system creates a “mentality of dependency.” This prejudice perpetuates the myth that hard work and gumption alone cultivate success, while ignoring the harsh reality of systemic barriers.

Many evangelicals and Mormons further condemn the poor as eager for “handouts,” contributing to the stigma that they are not hard-working. A poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, compared to the nonreligious, white evangelicals were three times more likely to blame poverty on a lack of effort. Yet, empirical evidence from the Labor Center at University of California-Berkeley shows the contrary: The impoverished are often victims of circumstance and will do everything they can to improve their situation. However, most cannot simply claw their way out. Those struggling face many barriers, including health care costs, housing costs, transportation costs, education, adequate nutrition and childcare in order to be able to hold a job. All of these disadvantages could be overcome with the implementation of proper governmental policies. Yet, many Christians would rather focus on charity and eliminate these programs altogether.

If charities are the supposed solution to human misfortune and suffering, then it’s important to examine how donations to charities and religious entities play out in our communities. According to Christianity Today, from 2015 to 2016 there was a 2.2 percent rise in cash contributions, equating to a total of $12.6 billion, to evangelical ministries. At the same time, these very ministries decreased funding to education by 8.3 percent, rehab by 5.4 percent, community development by 2.6 percent, and relief and development by 1.2 percent. The areas with the largest increases in funding were literature and publishing (13.2 percent), adoption (11.4 percent), and camps and conferences (10.1 percent). An additional study by The Giving Institute noted that 32 percent of all charitable donations in 2015 went to churches.

Together, the aforementioned statistics indicate that much of the funding churches receive directly benefits the religious institutions themselves, rather than those vulnerable in the community. How, then, does this form of charity suffice to provide for those in need?

Regardless of efficacy, believing that giving to charity is the only way to help the less fortunate ought to correlate with increases in charitable donations, but it does not. In a study done by Nonprofits Source, Christians who donate give 2.5 percent of their income to charity. On the other hand, research by economists at Texas A&M University found that 61 percent of American households, not accounting for religion, gave 3.7 percent of their income to charity. These statistics suggest that adhering to a Christian belief system, including but not limited to concepts of charitability, does not ensure higher rates of donations.

Upon closer inspection, those who say they support charity over governmental interventions do not practice what they preach. Conservative Christian groups say they support charity and promote self-reliance in an effort to help those in poverty. However, these remedial avenues ultimately fail to adequately support the millions of impoverished and undernourished adults and children in this country. In truth, the antiquated ideology of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps serves only to demonize those who struggle to provide for themselves and their families as deserving of this fate because they are lazy and unrighteous. The true laziness, it seems, is in the hearts and minds of those whose words and actions charade as charity, but in reality, do little more than provide a false sense of superiority.

Ben, 29, is from Hillsboro, Ore., and attends George Washington University, where he is working on his doctorate of physical therapy. He was raised as a Mormon. “Once I reached the age of reason, things didn’t quite line up,” he writes. “With an open mind, I began evaluating the things around me and found them to be lacking. I no longer find fulfillment in blind faith, but instead in helping those around me.”

Seventh place — Grad student essay contest: Meagan McLendon

Bought at a high price

FFRF awarded Meagan $750.

Meagan McLendon

By Meagan McLendon

“Flee from sexual immorality.  Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  you were bought at a high price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.”

All across the internet,  one can find Photoshopped graphics of this verse pasted over images of piney woods, steaming cups of coffee or young women donned in flower crowns gazing upon a sunset. At first glance, these images are a fairly benign verse instructing young Christians to respect one’s body. However, behind a well-chosen cursive font and stock photo, one can find a host of problematic  issues facing American youth today, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Ultimately, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20’s focus on purity has shamed and emotionally stunted generations of women.

According to that verse, sexual immorality is to sin against one’s own body. And to sin against one’s own body is to sin against God’s temple. This particular bible verse is widely spread to Christian adolescents at home and church as a warning to flee from having sex before marriage and to remain “pure.” Focus on the Family, one of America’s most popular Christian ministries, directs its millions of followers to Jim Burns’ The Purity Code for sex education. The Purity Code is about remaining pure until marriage, and “those who don’t follow the Code will possibly give their bodies sexually outside of marriage. They may fill their bodies with unwholesome ingredients, including alcohol and drugs. They might even cut themselves and do other types of self-injury,” according to Burns.

Following the verses in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 is a dotted line to sign the purity code contract. There is no standard for sex outside of marriage that doesn’t include unwanted pregnancy, STDs, or suffering the judgment of God and fellow Christians.

Teaching adolescents to wait until marriage — or suffer the consequences — has influenced educational policy. Much like The Purity Code, abstinence-based education uses shame as a means of teaching students to remain pure until marriage. And the strongest tool in the abstinence toolkit is the virginity/object-based metaphor. In public schools, middle-school-aged girls are compared to unchewed pieces of gum or unused pieces of tape as a means of guilt-tripping young women away from sex. In the case of Jackie Kendall’s widely popular Lady in Waiting: Becoming God’s Best While Waiting for Mr. Right, girls are unwrapped gifts. “Have you ever secretly opened a Christmas gift before Christmas Day and rewrapped it, putting it back under the tree? But what about the ‘big day’ when the gifts were supposed to be opened for the first time?” Kendall asks. “Where was the excitement when you opened your gift? The gift did not seem quite as special because it had already been opened for the first time.” No matter the object, each scenario draws on the same conclusion: What man would want an impure woman?

But what does this do to young women? The pressure to be “pure” severely impacts self-worth and relationships throughout a lifetime. Feelings like shame and guilt “can make us feel small, powerless, and meaningless in relationship to other people” as well as “lead to dreary speculation about our place in the universe rather than an enthusiastic engagement with life.” Such negative emotions can also “make us question our own value” and “shake our confidence in life and cause enormous self-doubt and demoralization,” according to Peter Breggin, author of Guilt, Shame and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions.

Generations of women have been taught to place purity above strength, compassion or self-respect. As opposed to comprehensive sex education, churches and schools still teach the biblical standard and treat sexuality as shameful. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has donated thousands to Focus on the Family, and as long as conservative politics and religion are entwined, girls will suffer.

Meagan, 28, is from Austin, Texas, and attends the University of North Texas, where she is working on a master’s degree in library science. She’s a library assistant and wants to dedicate her life to the distribution of information.

Eighth place — Grad student essay contest: Alexis Muschal

Thank God I stopped believing

FFRF awarded Alexis $500.

Alexis Muschal

By Alexis Muschal

“For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” Genesis 3:5-7

Imagine growing up Catholic, hearing this verse and believing that women were the first true sinners. Try being a little girl who was taught that a woman’s period comes from woman’s first sin. Think about how this impacts a growing mind that is already faced with a myriad of lies about her identity: Women are the weaker sex, the fairer sex, and truly not capable of anything outside “God’s” role for her in the home.

Now imagine you are that little girl, and in addition to all that, you discover that on top of liking boys, you also like girls. But then you remember that the teachers and priests at your Catholic school have made sure you know that it’s wrong. You can’t like other little girls. It is not in “God’s” plan. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” — Leviticus 18:22.

I have heard misogynist and homophobic propaganda for years. For the first 17 years of my life during which I identified as religious, I bought this thinking. One day, I thought to myself, “What would happen if I didn’t believe? What if I chose wisdom of the tree over the arbitrary rules of the Church? What if I could love and be myself, guilt-free?” So, I stopped believing. I have been so much happier ever since.

There are still many moments when I feel like that little girl again. I see typically conservative politicians act in ways that are outright sexist and get supported by a large evangelical base. Misogyny that takes root in religious tradition springs up in political debate about women’s rights to join the military, women’s qualifications to be president or other esteemed offices, and women’s right to choose. Politicians and public leaders defer to the idea that women are unworthy or weak and cannot be trusted in this manner. They attempt to strike down affirmative-action laws which have largely supported women. They posit that we no longer need these laws because they themselves do not require such actions.

Even the vice presidency is wrought with bigotry, as the vice president refuses to even enter rooms alone with a woman other than his wife, hinting that it is the woman’s fault should he be “tempted.” This thinking is used to justify sexual assault and rape as is seen widely after the “Me Too” movement. Women’s “impurity” is to be blamed for all of these attacks.

As a bisexual, I see politicians passing laws that allow for religious freedom over my sexual freedom. Religious liberty laws openly allow for discrimination against LGBTQ members. While I am all for allowing people to believe as they will, I do not want those beliefs infringing upon my rights. It is none of my baker’s business who I chose to marry, and I don’t believe that person should be allowed to openly discriminate against me and my partner because of their beliefs, which, quite frankly, are none of my business.

I have many friends on the gender spectrum that identify as nonbinary or gender queer. I witness so many religious people claiming that “God” only intends for there to be women and men since that is what is indicated in Genesis. I have seen instances of non-binary and trans people being discriminated against over the use of bathrooms and told they don’t belong. I see pundits pushing for “bathroom laws,” claiming that anyone not strictly cisgender could be a child molester.

I feel like that little girl who had to hide from her own sexuality even a decade after she no longer believed the lies of Leviticus. I feel put down as a woman knowing that there are people out there who automatically disqualify me as a woman because of book written over two millennia ago. I am terrified that kids will learn to hate themselves and others as I did growing up. If this is how the bible is being used, I don’t think it lives up to its purpose. Or maybe it is.

Alexis, 29, is from Villa Park, Ill., and attends Boston University Graduate School of Medicine, where she is working toward a master’s degree in forensic anthropology. She also works at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where she volunteers teaching female colleagues how to build simple fighting robots.