Third place (tie) — High school essay contest: Jeremiah Brown

Jeremiah Brown

Religious obstruction of progress

FFRF awarded Jeremiah $2,500.

By Jeremiah Brown 

Religious institutions have hindered the spread of new ideas and knowledge for centuries. Catholicism wielded near absolutist power in Europe until the Enlightenment, crushing dissent, from science to schisms. Other religious institutions similarly fought against any ideas considered blasphemous. At its best, religion can motivate people to assist their community. However, at its worst, it can be used as justification to divide, subjugate or exterminate those who are deemed heretical. 

Science often directly conflicts with religious ideas, especially in the United States, where religion is used to attack vulnerable groups. Christianity was used to justify slavery. Mormonism, a Christian religious institution, used the concept of the “Mark of Cain” to discriminate against Black Americans. Similarly, religion has been and is still used to attack and control LGBTQ+ peoples, regardless of scientific inquiry into the normalcy of homosexuality. 

In addition, following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the theory of evolution, religion attacked and condemned the monumental advance in biological understanding. Religion in American policy has obstructed the natural progression of scientific understanding for the past century and longer. At every turn, religion has attacked advances in sociology, neuroscience and biology, due to conflicts with its teachings. 

Recently, regardless of public health guidelines and mandates, religious groups have attacked scientists and outright denied the existence of the global pandemic. From New York to Arizona, communities have had to face outbreaks from religious extremists who actively put others at risk. 

In the United States, there has been a growing trend among religious groups increasingly distrusting the medical community. The country has seen this trend weaponized by those who seek to spread disinformation. QAnon is a prime example. QAnon’s merger of religious and political ideals was used to oppose health measures and attack the U.S. Capitol in the name of a figure associated with God. 

Increasingly, religion is being used to dispose of facts and scientific data and to manipulate people and this is exacerbating the issues caused by the pandemic. 

Religious faith requires no backing for belief, no data, no evidence, no proof — which allows bad actors to hijack religion to manipulate people in the modern age, just as they have in the past. Scientific inquiry allows information to be gathered and disseminated to the masses for the betterment of society. Science exists to push humanity to a brighter tomorrow, while religious institutions have time and again sought to hold us in the dark. 

Jeremiah, 18, is from Evans, Ga., and attends the Rochester Institute of Technology. “I’m a military kid and have lived from Rhode Island and Maryland to Washington and Virginia,” Jeremiah writes. “While in high school I maintained a 3.7 GPA, took 10 AP courses, and lettered in both lacrosse and football. I was a member of Beta, NHS, FLAIR, Spanish Honor Society, Space Club, Model United Nations, Principal’s Advisory Council, and was vice president of Young Democrats.” 

Third place (tie) — High school essay contest: Elizabeth Getty

Elizabeth Getty

Truth and consequences

FFRF awarded Elizabeth $2,500.

By Elizabeth Getty

Truth. The desire for a universal truth, the yearning for answers to the unknown is a deeply human affliction, and people have found different ways to satisfy this gnawing hunger. 

I, for one, subscribe to science, as it has provided me not only with rational explanations to my queries, but also peace of mind, since the doctrines of science are universal and adaptable, unlike the strict, autocratic tenets of religion. 

We need only look to the Scientific Revolution to see the intellectually stifling nature of religion. At the forefront of scientific discovery and innovation was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who, with his letters on “the little creatures,” became known as the “father of microbiology.” His discovery of bacteria and protozoa was not accepted during his lifetime due to existing religious beliefs on the origins of microbes. Credence was given to the idea that disease was caused not by these unviewable specks, but by God’s wrath following sinful activities. 

Thus, Leeuwenhoek’s incredibly important discovery was dismissed, and it would take centuries for his work to be praised. If this scientific breakthrough had been lauded appropriately during the late 17th century, we likely would have seen further developments in the study of germ theory, with great benefits to humankind, like the earlier implementation of sterilization and bacterial vaccination. But religion stood in the way. 

The Catholic Church desired to remain in power, and that meant the defenestration of potential threats, one of the biggest threats to religious sanctity being the emergence of scientific pioneers. 

Rhazes (854-925 AD) was among the first to question the Church’s teachings and suffer the consequences. Persecuted and beaten to blindness for his medical teachings, Rhazes died disreputable and penniless. Similar abuse would be inflicted upon other scientists, including Ibn Zuhr, Andreas Vesalius and Michael Servetus. History is oftentimes cyclical, and there have been many instances of scientific discoveries being spurned by religious officials to keep the status quo. But I believe that in the modern world, power should be vested in the hands of those who have proven themselves time and time again — the scientists. 

From the discovery of bacteria to the shift from geocentricity to heliocentricity, the hard work of researchers has provided veracity in a world filled with unanswered questions. If we are to progress as a society, we need to put our trust in science, not the people that have violated their own commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” in order to silence the truth. 

Elizabeth, 18, is from Minneapolis and attends the University of Minnesota. Elizabeth intends on pursuing a double major in history and political science before moving on to law school. Among her many hobbies are playing the cello, cycling with her dog, and rock climbing.

Fourth place — High school essay contest: Adam Pierce

Adam Pierce

The strength of science is in change

FFRF awarded Adam $2,000.

By Adam Pierce 

Both religion and science require one to defer to those with more knowledge about the world. I, for instance, do not have a working knowledge of orbital dynamics. However, I still know that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Because of this, it is often argued that science and religion have the same epistemological validity. Both require “faith,” so why should one be trusted over the other? The answer is quite simple. Science is worthy of deference. Religion is not. 

A quote from the physicist Richard Feynman sums up the rationality behind this statement quite well: “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.” Religion claims it has all the answers. Science knows it does not. It is this constant pursuit of self-correction and change in science that leads to true progress. When we blindly have faith in any ideas, progress halts. 

The quintessential example of religious faith stopping science is Galileo Galilei’s house arrest by the Roman Catholic Inquisition when he began supporting heliocentrism (the Earth revolves around the sun) instead of the geocentrist views supported by the church (the sun revolves around the Earth). Religious faith is an unreliable way to understand the world, as it is resistant to change, and correction. Galileo was officially prosecuted by the church in 1616. It was not until 1835 that the book in which Galileo promoted heliocentrism was unbanned by the church. 

Science freely admits that it does not have all the answers. This is why it should be trusted over faith. Science has room to grow, room to correct itself, and room to be further proven by the brightest minds of the world. Religion, on the other hand, often views any contradiction to its beliefs as an affront to its very nature. This is not conducive to any sort of system that can produce truths about the world. 

Religion can have value in providing a unifying spirituality to communities. But when religion is extended to anything other than one’s personal spirituality, problems occur. When societies rely on religion rather than science to guide them, wars occur, progress is stalled, people are oppressed, and diversity is undermined. Faith cannot adapt, so conflicts occur. Science, meanwhile, is based on change, and questioning, and doubt. It can be proven false to allow for new theories, it can provide meaningful and current analysis to guide society, and it can give accurate ways to predict the natural world. Science’s strength is religion’s downfall: the ability to adapt. 

Adam, 18, is from Camillus, N.Y., and attends the University of California-Berkeley. “In high school, I was an activist, advocating for increased staff diversity, increased anti-racist professional development, more districtwide support for students of color, and more,” Adam writes. “I was the salutatorian of my class, a member of the National Honor Society and the Spanish Honor Society, an AP Scholar with Distinction and the concertmaster of my high school’s symphony.”

Fifth place — High school essay contest: Andrew Delaney 

Andrew Delaney

‘Brainwashed’ into logic

FFRF awarded Andrew $1,500.

By Andrew Delaney 

“Of course, you don’t believe in God. You’ve been brainwashed your entire life by your atheist father,” said a Christian friend of mine, with absolutely no recognition of any irony. Nonetheless, her comment made me wonder, “What is the difference between brainwashing and educating?” My conclusion? One is based on fact. 

While others attended bible camp, I watched science shows like “Myth-Busters” and “Nova,” and, from a young age, I would become entranced in scientific thought for hours. I became fascinated by science because principles would demonstrate themselves in reality, from realizing that crescent moons prove a spherical Earth to understanding that human tailbones insinuate evolution. Meanwhile, my Christian peers were convinced that a god created the universe in six days. 

Science not only encourages questioning but requires it. In contrast, when a Christian inquires about the existence of God, they are told they lack “faith.” As someone who grew up with the nickname “Mr. What-If,” the imperviousness of religion to curiosity was depressing to me, while its embrace by science was exciting. Thus, I chose to trust science. 

As I continue my education at the University of California-Berkeley, with a major in biochemistry, I am interested in a particular technology — CRISPR. However, I fear religion poses an obstacle to its success. CRISPR is a protein that acts as a gene-editing tool with the potential to cure nearly all genetic diseases. Despite its promising results thus far, CRISPR remains underfunded, and the public is widely hesitant. Much of this skepticism is because CRISPR does not fall in line with Christianity. A theist may argue, “God created his children to be perfect. Why manipulate God’s creation?” 

Yet, as is evident from the millions of people who suffer every year from genetic disease, humans are not without flaws. To provide an idea of the world’s priorities, in 2019, the Vatican’s net worth alone was 4 billion euros, while CRISPR Therapeutics, the largest CRISPR company by far, is worth 5 percent of that. This favoritism toward an outdated community spreading baseless claims about a technology that aims to save millions of lives is an example of just how irrational religion can make humans. 

At times, science is accused of lacking appeal, but the intricate complexity that science weaves every aspect of the natural world into is nothing short of beautiful. The idea that one does not have to defend scripture in the face of compelling evidence otherwise is freeing. In turn, such freedom allows individuals to act more logically in every aspect of life. 

My hope for the future is that science is understood not to be a field re-served for geniuses, but rather a beautiful story for the masses desperately in need of an ending. 

Andrew, 18, is from Chicago and attends the University of California-Berkeley. “I grew up with a quiet atheist as a father and a Catholic mother,” Andrew writes. “I never was religious, although I’ve only publicly described myself as an atheist for about two years. In high school, I was the president of student council, co-captain of the basketball team, and an active member of the math team.” 

Sixth place — High school essay contest: Alexis Martin

Alexis Martin

Thou shalt not mess with science

FFRF awarded Alexis $1,000. 

By Alexis Martin 

While living in a Catholic household and protesting on behalf of Planned Parenthood, I could never escape the discussion of religion vs. science. Every Christmas, my family and I would sit in our family room, adorned by small crosses on the banister, and watch “The Ten Commandments.” I always enjoyed spending time with my family and watching the remarkable journey of Moses, until I began to formulate questions that neither my family nor the film could answer. As I grew older, I learned that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and even princesses were all fairy tales, but how could I be so sure that Moses was not a fairy tale, too? I began to question the validity of the church’s teachings.  

Science provided me with hope that religion never could. At age 3, I survived Kawasaki disease, a very rare heart condition, and fully recovered with little damage. Whenever I ask my mother about that difficult time, she always begins with “By the grace of God . . .”  However, God did not rush me to the hospital, provide me with an emergency IV, or perform an emergency echocardiogram. God also did not diagnose me with the disease that, if left untreated for two more days, would have left my heart muscles enlarged, the rhythm of my heart wavering,  and prompted six words a parent should never hear: “You should prepare for the worst.” During that time in which I was in critical condition, I had the science behind heart monitors, IVs and my doctors’ medical degrees to thank. Unfortunately, a large portion of the U.S. population still chooses religion over science.  

Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which debates the right of women to have abortions after 15 weeks. Jackson Women’s Health is the only licensed abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi and is constantly inundated by people carrying crosses and shouting “Abortion kills, Jesus saves.” The religious defense argues that once conception occurs, the embryo was created by God and should be treated as a child; however, the embryo still has no brain function at 15 weeks. Science has undoubtedly proven the fetus is not yet a person, but the Supreme Court has agreed to listen to the religious standpoint nonetheless. If religion supersedes science, this case could monumentally set back women’s reproductive rights. I trust science not only because it provides material explanations, but has also provided safe abortions to women in need and saved my life when I was 3.  

Alexis, 18, is from Reading, Pa., and attends the University of Miami.

“I am planning to double major in political science and international studies on the pre-law track,” Alexis writes. “My career goal is to become a civil rights lawyer and avid activist. I am a member of MoveOn and have participated in protests on behalf of Black Lives Matter and Pro-Choice, and want to continue to do so in college.”

Seventh place — High school essay contest: Laura Streminsky 

Laura Streminsky

God is the virus

FFRF awarded Laura $750.

By Laura Streminsky 

In February 2020, I sat in a small Brooklyn studio apartment listening to a rabbi attribute the Covid-19 virus to progressive Jews. The virus, he said, is a sign of disapproval from God in response to the secularization of The Chosen People. His solution to the pandemic wasn’t masks or quarantines, but rather a religious awakening. I looked around the room expecting to find shared disbelief, but my fellow Jewish students didn’t seem at all fazed by the rabbi’s proclamation. 

When people are taught to believe in faith as unequivocal truth, suffering is inevitable. We saw this in 2018, when anti-vaccination propaganda resulted in a large measles outbreak in Williamsburg’s Orthodox Jewish population. Even if rabbis encourage vaccinations (and many do), teaching people that religion has more merit than science breeds a distrust of institutions meant to protect public health. Similar circumstances are occurring now with the Covid-19 virus’ disproportionate impact on Orthodox Jewish communities. Governmentally mandated precautions, like those regarding masks and social distancing, are repeatedly disregarded because insular communities function irrespective of federal or state law. They act based off of unfounded beliefs, even if those beliefs contribute to thousands of people dying. 

I’m fortunate that I wasn’t raised religious. My parents sent me to Hebrew school and synagogue for a few years, but they treated my early belief in God just as they had my belief in the Tooth Fairy. For my parents, Jewish schools were more of a free babysitting service than anything else. So, after I eventually outgrew my faith and my peers didn’t, it shocked me to learn that many of them accepted dangerous advice from our religious leaders. When I think of the rabbi’s words now, it’s hard not to think of my friends and family who followed their faith and then turned to God to heal their lungs. 

I trust science over faith because science didn’t cause Borough Park’s hospitals to overflow with patients. I trust science over faith because science learns from mistakes, faith perpetuates them. I trust science over faith because science doesn’t wait for anyone’s idea of god(s) to fix our problems. 

Laura, 17, is from Brooklyn, N.Y., and attends Boston University. “One of my biggest passions is animal rights,” Laura writes. “I will take any chance I can to fundraise for nonprofits that help neglected animals. As the leader of an animal rights club, I also advocate for environmentalism as part of my effort to minimize animal suffering. I hope to major in biology and eventually become a primary care physician.”

Eighth place — High school essay contest: Caleb Buell 

Caleb Buell

HIV and homophobia: Epidemics of a nation

FFRF awarded Caleb $500.

By Caleb Buell 

The phrase is brandished on almost everything of national importance. Currency, monuments, capitols — all of these bear the four-word phrase signifying our nation’s motto: “In God We Trust.” It’s meant to encapsulate our faith in an “all-knowing, all-powerful protector,” one that we believe will guide us to our fullest potential. And yet, in hypocritical fashion, our nation often finds itself blaspheming scientific advancements in an attempt to honor God. 

Take the HIV/AIDS epidemic, for example. Throughout the 1980s, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) ravaged the United States. This disease attacks one’s immune system, and if left untreated, goes on to become Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which then almost certainly resulted in death. By the end of 1984, roughly 8,000 Americans had contracted HIV, with approximately 3,500 succumbing to the disease. These numbers themselves are staggering, and it should have been enough to receive widespread attention and spark major efforts to find a cure. However, there was one problem: Most of the victims were gay. 

The timing couldn’t have been worse, as HIV wasn’t the only epidemic plaguing the country. So, too, was the epidemic of homophobia, one charged by Christian beliefs that were heavily prominent through the era. As a result, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was viewed as a punishment from God, one meant to discourage homosexual behavior and reinforce biblical values, and thus any attempts to bring the issue to national light never gained traction.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1985, four years after the epidemic began, that President Reagan spoke about HIV, and it wouldn’t be until 36 years later that major breakthroughs would be made regarding a vaccine. 

While some of this is certainly attributed to the period’s lack of scientific knowledge, there’s no doubt that efforts to find a cure would have been accelerated had religious homophobia not stood as a barrier.

And thus, the hypocrisy of “In God We Trust” is revealed. If we trust in an all-knowing, all-powerful God, then we should not have stood in the way of scientific advancements that had the potential to save lives, as such advancements must have been brought forth by “Him.” However, in a misguided attempt to follow “Christian” values, our nation allowed thousands upon thousands to die at the hands of HIV/AIDS. 

Therefore, I do not subscribe to the motto “In God We Trust,” because it serves as a grim reminder of my countless fellow LGBTQ+ members who lost their lives to the two epidemics plaguing this nation. Instead, in science I trust, because science is what has the power to end both of these epidemics, once and for all. 

Caleb, 18, is from Kingsport, Tenn., and attends the University of Alabama, where Caleb plans to study chemistry, with minors in research and liberal arts. Caleb hopes to attend medical school in order to pursue his passion for neurology. 

Ninth place — High school essay contest: Ashley Levstik

Ashley Levstik

Empiricism as gospel: A hymn against suffering

FFRF awarded Ashley $400.

By Ashley Levstik 

I remember the sticky thin paper, like pages from a bible, clinging to my face as I rested on my doctor’s examination table. I was 8 years old and had pneumonia. My dad, a devout Catholic, did not take me to a priest when my fever passed 104 degrees. He drove me to my pediatrician, who gave me antibiotics, which I could have died without. As strong as Dad’s faith in God was, his faith in expertly studied, repeatable, scientific solutions to ease my suffering was stronger. 

Religion gives people a sense of community; a valuable asset in a chaotic and isolated world. But it cannot adequately address issues of physical human suffering, making religion an unacceptable schema to operate within when making decisions to alleviate suffering. 

In fact, religion often suppresses our ability to help others in the name of blind faith in God and his edicts. Take, for example, embryonic stem-cell research, which uses stem cells from an embryo before they have set upon a course of development, a trait only present in embryonic cells. While the Abrahamic religions were being developed, knowledge about gynecology and fetal development was severely limited. Today, some religious groups, like the Roman Catholic Church, ignore modern knowledge in favor of tradition. They oppose embryonic stem-cell research because they believe its equivalent to infanticide. 

To apply uneducated ideas about a field of research which helps people with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns and cancer is just one example of how religious groups, who lack education and credibility in medicine, protest progress that would ease human suffering. 

A weak, unstable society resulting from miseducation also promotes human suffering. When we ignore current scientific information in favor of unproven religious ideas, we promote ignorance and a society vulnerable to fear-mongering. The Covid-19 pandemic exemplifies the failures of religious teachings applied to public health. Because of the misinformation coming from religious groups, stating that the pandemic was punishment for sin, it became very easy for people to blame Asian-Americans who supposedly brought the plague. Misinformation spread by the church was a contributing factor in the 150-percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, which caused many to suffer. 

While I believe religion can be a comfort to some, it is more important that we minimize human suffering by taking the guidance of credible scientists rather than uneducated religious groups or individual leaders who enable and promote suffering. To help others and ease their pain is an essential part of our humanity; denying our humanity for the sake of religion is self-defeating. 

Ashley, 17, is from Colorado Springs, Colo., and attends the University of Texas-San Antonio. “My interests include volunteer work for the group Too Little Children,” Ashley writes. “We sew and distribute menstrual pads to women and girls in developing countries so they can go to school. During high school, I made the dean’s list and president’s list for my academic performance. Outside of school, I work part time to support my family and my education.” 

10th place — High school essay contest: Alaina Adderley 

Alaina Adderley

It’s not ‘my time to die’

FFRF awarded Alaina $300.

By Alaina Adderley 

As a science-minded student, I can say without a doubt that I trust science over religion. I was raised to question the whys, hows and ifs of everything. Accepting something based on belief without proof goes against everything I am. Evidence and proof are key. Blind faith is mind-blowing to me. 

I come from a nonreligious family, so my earliest memory of religion vs. science happened when I was 6 years old. I was spending the day with a friend whose family was extremely religious and there were tornado warnings in the area. I have an extreme fear of tornadoes, so I was very scared. Instead of assuring me that we would be safe because of facts, like knowing that radar tracks tornadoes or that we would fol-low safety precautions by going into a safe room, the mother of my friend told me “It’s all in God’s hands . . . if it’s our time, it’s just our time.” That did nothing to ease my fears. I remember feeling scared that I was about to die because apparently “it was my time.” It made an impression on my young mind. Instead of focusing on ways we could be safe, religion encourages people to just trust that whatever happens is supposed to happen . . . don’t try to prevent it. 

Meteorology is a particular interest of mine and what I plan to pursue as a career, so when I read about how, for hundreds of years, people believed that any meteorological or geological event was because of angering deities, my scientific brain short-circuits. Knowing that this is the belief that many religious people have, I wonder how many lives could have been saved if only these people had taken more precautions or heeded the scientific warnings? I feel that any religious leaders who continue to promote religious works as explanations for natural disasters should be held to blame for the deaths. Teaching people that God will come for them when it’s their time and that nothing can be done to stop God’s will is reckless and dangerous. 

Impeding scientific meteorology with religious beliefs is a dangerous and deadly practice. Science provides us with all the tools that we need to understand meteorology and geology, and to prevent disasters from being worse than they already are. I hope that society will soon rely less on religious reasons for disasters and understand the science behind them. 

Alaina, 18, is from Buckfield, Maine, and attends Plymouth State University. “I’m a science nerd who plans to become a broadcast meteorologist so that I can combine my love of weather, performing and travel,” Alaina writes. “My family has traveled and lived all over the United States, predominately the Bible Belt, and have now settled in Maine, where I have found my place in a nonreligious area that fits me very well.” 

Honorable mention — High school essay contest: Ares Zhang

Duality

By Ares Zhang

Ares Zhang

To understand why the obstruction of science by religion is so significant in our modern age, we must first understand the religious context in how this type of thinking came to be. Religion was founded in a time where highly regarded storytellers and rather primitive social and scientific advancements were still ongoing. As the age progressed and hunter-gatherers slowly started living in towns and cities, history first saw the onset of pharaohs and kings; an unfortunate result of archaic beliefs in authoritarianism and religious rituals and tales.

I have a peculiarly depressing, yet realistic, view of humanity. Although we are born with much innate good, humans are also born with the desire to take control of others. This power dynamic, along with a blind following of religion, has resulted in countless cases of the manipulation of religion not as a belief, but as a tool, meant to be used by the upper echelons of society and the Church. In a way, science is the opposite. Defined by painstaking hypotheses rooted in fact, there is no judgment or variance in Newton’s Law or the periodic table. While religious leaders still struggle with uniting their respective followers over modern issues incompatible with the archaic beliefs of old, such as attempts to merge religion and evolution, science is universal throughout, with institutions of science across the world able to collaborate on the same theories.

The debate over Jesus’ existence or the proper way to interpret the Quran continues, but the works of Galileo and Einstein live on because science is rooted in recorded results and evidence, not stories and speculations. However, I have a much stronger reason for believing in science than a simple analysis of humanity’s gravitation toward godlike figures or mythological aspects. I believe that humanity’s ambiguous interpretation of religion can effectively be reduced to a self-reflection of ethics and moral integrity. Everything that we are innately born with — desire to adapt, learn and grow — is already natural to humans without necessitating a religion to insert an omniscient being or their supposed divine rules on how to live life and beyond. I plan to go into science, namely the medical field, because I know that I do not need religious doctrine to justify or explain the prosperity and welfare I hope to bring to humanity in the future.

Ares, 17, is from Camas, Wash., and attends the University of Washington-Tacoma. “I was an outreach director at a nonprofit for remote tutoring called YHIH, a varsity swimmer, a member of the Key Club, National Honor Society, and Green Team,” Ares writes. “I hope to channel my love for teaching and serving others into the health care field, where I plan to major in health care leadership, with the ultimate goal of becoming a physician assistant.”