2nd place (tie): College essay contest — Katherine Lance

I cede to no one, not even God

FFRF awarded Katherine $3,000.

Katherine Lance

By Katherine Lance

Since before I could even articulate the thought, I have philosophically opposed the idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent God. Most children do not wrestle with the problem of evil. However, being the victim of maternal abuse, I pondered evil daily and prayed to God nightly.

I read Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger when I was 10 — and everything fell into place. Armed with this philosophical knowledge, I came to rely only on myself, unable to place my fate in the hands of such a callous handler as God. No God ever came to save me.

When I was 16, I told my mother she was forcing me to parent her, so she kicked me out. God never came for my older siblings. They simply left. God never came for my younger sister. At 14, I was 95 pounds of pure desperation fighting an enraged grown woman. When it was time to write a testimony for court, I did not pray for God to give me strength. I relived all my worst memories alone in my head. And I got it done.

My grandmother’s death was the catalyst for my official break in faith. An impoverished Mexican immigrant, pregnant when she crossed the border and abused for much of her life, she was a victim of every obscene punishment life can offer. Despite this, she was deeply religious. My devout Catholic grandmother died enfeebled and in agony, wracked by cancer, despite her faith that God would save her. My mother called me stupid for not believing in God. I explained the problem of evil to her in this context and she never questioned my beliefs again. 

Others are not satisfied, citing intelligent design. Religions first existed partly as a way for humans to explain the unexplainable. As we make further advances in scientific research, we have no need to assign deities to what we now know to be natural phenomena with rational explanations. Intelligent design as a concept is similarly invalid. As a student of biology, I can show you the meandering path of evolution in many organisms — pointless vestigial structures, deer antlers being made of cancer cells, legs serving as makeshift antennae in proturan insects. Koalas eat what is basically poison, have an almost completely smooth brain, and cannot recognize eucalyptus leaves as food unless the leaves are still on the branch. Pandas are terrible at reproduction and parental care, leading to their near functional extinction. Sloths sometimes confuse their own limbs for branches and fall to their deaths. Even the human   skeleton is architecturally unsound. These are only a few examples of how evolution has taken place.

I will admit the natural rebuttal to that argument, which is that God only set the universe into motion and did not otherwise interfere — that there is no such thing as an act of God. I will allow this as a possibility, but I will never be religious.

As someone who grew up with an abusive mother who so ardently believed in God, I have a natural place in my psyche where faith should lie. It is filled instead with statements to the contrary.

Cormac McCarthy writes in The Crossing, “There is no order in this world save that which death has put there.” This is the truth the religious wish to deny. By seeking comfort in God, we can turn a blind eye on the senselessness of suffering. I choose to overcome obstacles rather than pretend they do not exist. I take an active role in my life rather pray for happiness. All of myself is my own. I cede to no one, not even God.

Katherine, 20, is from Cedar Park, Texas, and attends Tarleton State University, majoring in wildlife sciences, with minors in natural resource ecology and entomology. “I spend much of my time hiking and working on my insect collection, and I am also a visual artist and creative writer. I use these skills to run a blog advocating for the conservation of insects, which are often wrongly vilified in popular media.”

Honorable mention — College essay contest: Fatima Montero

No gods, no masters, no organized religion

Fatima Montero

By Fatima Montero

One of the earliest memories I can vividly recall included me staring idly up at the church ceiling, tracing the rib vaults with my eyes as my mother rocked me in her arms, a bottle in my mouth. I couldn’t have been older than 2, but for some reason, that memory has latched itself to my mind to this day. I spent a lot of time in churches, and growing up, my aversion to religion only solidified as I learned of the atrocities of the Catholic Church. I never had a good relationship with religion and I hated every second I was in that building. To me, religion is suffocating as much as it is damaging, and I want no part of the manipulation and subjugation that occurs there.

The rejection of organized religion as we know it is central to my politics and core beliefs. I have identified as a leftist for almost three years now, falling closer to anarchism than communism or socialism. I believe in complete human autonomy, free will, mutual aid and anti-fascism. A common phrase thrown around by anarchists, especially in the punk and metal scene, is “No Gods, No Masters.” Liberation lies not under the domineering suppression of God, but under the knowledge of our power and control over ourselves and our lives. I strongly believe that in order to secure basic human rights such as housing, food, water and healthcare, we must reject organized religion and reckon with the violence it has imposed on marginalized peoples. A removal of religion in our institutions would mean the liberation for women, queer folk, Black and Brown folk, indigenous folk and other marginalized peoples. The Catholic Church, in its hundreds of years conquest to conquer, plunder, convert, assimilate and decimate non-white peoples in the name of God, effectively labelled itself as the religion of genocide.

How can I worship and pray to a God who was used as justification for American Imperialism, slavery, witch-hunting, war, capitalism, homophobia, sexism, racism, transphobia, genocide, when I can believe in a mass collective effort to a better world for myself and others less fortunate than me?

Freethought and the rejection of religion is necessary to decolonizing our communities and selves. The years of repression and homophobia I internalized and projected to others is not easily overcome simply because I am an atheist or an anarchist. While these two have helped me come a long way in loving my masculine lesbian identity, I cannot speak for the millions of people who have been subject to European colonization and religious conquest. What about our indigenous population, who have been stripped of their land, freedom and rights? What about our LGBT+ population, who are stripped of rights by conservative policy makers and denied healthcare, service and life? What about our Black population, who still face the terrors of religious terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan and the police, and have yet to be paid reparations for the slavery their ancestors had to endure? Or our women, who are killed, raped, controlled and denied reproductive rights? Religion is not the remedy we need, but the cancer we must eradicate. Religion underpins most, if not all, systemic issues relevant to marginalized peoples, and its hand in colonizing and enslaving peoples is nothing short of disgusting. A liberation of the marginalized and the working class lies in the rejection of religion as we know it, as well as the institutions it plagues in our society. A better world is possible. We simply must believe in it.

Fatima, 18, is from Bethlehem, Pa., and attends Moore College of Art and Design. “I am a lesbian Mexican who loves heavy metal, anarchy and creating occultist art,” she writes. “I hope to become a successful freelance illustrator and use my art to advocate for anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-racism, LGBT+ rights, and many more.”  



FFRF: Justice, healing needed to halt racism

Thousands of protesters take to the streets in Miami on May 31 following the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. (Photo by Shutterstock)

We have all watched the horrifying video documenting a helpless African-American’s life being snuffed out by a pitiless and indifferent white police officer in Minneapolis.

African-American bystanders desperately tried to point out that George Floyd was not resisting arrest and then didn’t appear to be breathing during the horrifying 9 minutes officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. Other cops stood by watching indifferently as Floyd desperately gasped, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe.”

African-Americans and other minorities have long pointed out how they are imperiled in the United States, that “driving while black or brown” can get them pulled over by cops — and often much worse.

“Wearing a hoodie while black” can result in death, with the killer getting off scot-free, as when George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida in 2012.

“Jogging while black” was Ahmaud Arbery’s “crime” when he was murdered in February in Georgia at the hands of several white men who have since been arrested.

Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville police in her own home on March 13 during a bungled “no-knock” drug search intended for a home miles away belonging to men already in custody.

Even “bird-watching while black” led to a recent confrontation in Central Park, which fortunately did not escalate but could have endangered the life of Harvard grad Christian Cooper.

Black and brown Americans in the United States are continually aware of their vulnerability. As Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said after Floyd’s murder, “Being black in America should not be a death sentence.”

Our nation is already on edge. The pandemic is exposing glaring inequities and injustices in the United States. One in four Americans is unemployed, with African-American and Latinx communities disproportionately affected by the economic downturn. Black and Hispanic Americans are also disproportionately catching and dying of COVID-19. And it is a national shame that the Navajo Nation’s coronavirus infection rate has become the highest in the country, that many in the tribe do not even have running water on the reservation and that the federal response has been botched. This is another tragic way in which being a racial minority in the United States can become a death sentence.

Americans — white and black, religious or freethinking — must speak up and demand not only justice for Floyd, but a national reckoning with racial profiling, police brutality, vigilantism and institutional indifference and racism.

Fifth place — Law student essay contest: Nick Ormes

Nick Ormes

FFRF awarded Nick $750.

By Nick Ormes

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that marriages of opposite-sex and same-sex couples must be afforded “equal dignity” before the law. This clear command has not stopped many states from trying to curtail access to same-sex marriage, usually under the moniker of “religious freedom.” These religious refusal or conscience clause bills are aimed at restricting a variety of civil rights, but those aimed at limiting same-sex marriages are abundant in state legislatures.

One such bill was recently filed in the Texas Legislature, ostensibly to protect the religious freedom of state officials who can perform marriage ceremonies. The bill is currently in committee in both branches of the Texas Congress. The bills have nearly identical language, except that the House version allows recusal for “sincerely held religious belief or conscientious objection,” while the Senate version only allows recusal for “sincerely held religious belief.” Texas law authorizes any justice or judge of the state as a person able to perform marriage ceremonies. The Senate bill fails to strike an appropriate balance between the religious rights of state officials and the civil rights of those most likely to be affected by this bill:  same-sex couples.

There are three primary issues with the bill: It protects religious expression to the exclusion of the civil rights of same-sex couples, it targets same-sex marriages and provides no relief to any couple denied a marriage, and it raises the religious beliefs of elected judicial officials above current law.

Religious expression already enjoys broad protections under current law, including providing reasonable accommodations based on religious beliefs. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, the Texas attorney general wrote an opinion on the constitutionality of judges and clerks refusing to perform marriages based on religious beliefs. This opinion concluded that a judicial officer could refuse to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony if another authorized official was available to perform the ceremony. While this position fails to consider the civil rights of same-sex couples fully, it provides some type of accommodation between religious rights and civil rights.

The balance that this bill creates would significantly burden same-sex couples’ right to marry while granting far too much power to the religious rights of judicial officials. The bill gives no consideration to whether another official is available to perform the marriage. It would be entirely possible for Texas to have counties where no judicially overseen same-sex marriages occur. While this may be an extreme situation, the bill would clearly allow it. In fact, the bill would insulate judicial officials from paying civil damages if this situation did exist. It even would protect that judicial official from being subject to “a law, policy, or adverse action of [the] state” by claiming as a defense that it violates this bill. A judicial official can even bring a civil claim against “a law, policy, or adverse action” that would require them to perform a marriage ceremony.

Same-sex couples already face discrimination in other sectors of society, and this history of discrimination implies that this bill is meant to limit same-sex marriages.

There is a long history of discrimination against same-sex couples in Texas. The Texas House of Representatives once proposed legislation that would have stripped government employees who granted a same-sex marriage of their jobs and benefits. The state criminalized same-sex intimacy. Even the Texas attorney general’s opinion following Obergefell demonstrates this history. 

This bill’s true purpose is to limit same-sex marriages, not to protect religious freedom. The bill protects “sincerely held religious beliefs” without any consideration of countervailing interests. The bill requires a court overseeing a case brought against an official for refusing to perform a marriage to ignore the civil rights of a same-sex couple entirely. It denies judicial relief to same-sex couples.

If the bill’s main purpose was to protect religious expressions, then it could require a judge to provide reasonable accommodations to the couple. It could, at the very least, require that there was one official who is available to perform the ceremony if other officials refuse to marry same-sex couples. Instead, there is no protection offered to any couple refused by a judge.

The “religious protection” of these conscience clause bills creates a privilege unique to religious persons. Sticking with the Texas bill, if a judge refused to marry a same-sex couple based on the official’s sincere belief that civil marriage is restricted to a man and woman, that would be illegal. However, if that same official refused due to a belief that only marriage between a man and woman is proper according to some higher power, that would be legal. All of these laws provide a unique right to religious persons to refuse to comply with the law that does not exist for secular views.

Further, all of these laws grant a right to discriminate on religious grounds, sometimes in blatant violation of the law. These bills generally allow religious refusals for a variety of civil rights, usually targeting minorities. In addition to inviting discrimination against same-sex couples, the Texas bill adds a new subsection to existing Texas law. The purpose of this subsection is to guarantee that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is allowed. Sexual orientation is not a protected class under current law, but this bill is aimed toward encouraging religious persons to discriminate against same-sex couples.

In sum, the Texas bill would create an inequitable balance between the religious expressions of judicial officials and the civil rights of same-sex couples.

First, the bill would prefer a judge’s religious beliefs over a same-sex couple’s right to marry. Second, the history of targeting same-sex relationships in Texas and the lack of protection given to same-sex couples indicates that the thrust of this law is to limit same-sex marriages, not protect religious expression. Lastly, this bill and other “conscience clause” bills grant a dangerous religious privilege and empower religious persons to use religion as a weapon. 

Nick, 24, attends the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and attended Indiana University as an undergrad, earning a B.S. in psychology. He grew up in Crown Point, Ind., but said his move to the college town of Bloomington “really opened me up to other ways of thinking and people of different backgrounds.”

Photos, marquees, cartoons (December 2019)

Eighth place — College essay contest: Cora Womble-Miesner

Finding tranquility in godlessness

Cora Womble-Miesner

FFRF awarded Cora $500.

By Cora Womble-Miesner

My parents chose not to inflict a strict faith onto my brother and me, but hints of God remained from their own religious upbringings. So, for the early years of my life, I held the idea of a greater power in my head, one that was all-knowing and ever-present. It took me a while to realize that God was a source of anxiety for me: At the slightest glimmer of a sinful thought, I would become certain that I had put myself in jeopardy. God would undoubtedly know that I had conjured up indecent thoughts, and therefore I would be punished — not for actual actions, but rather for amorphous things that took place solely within my mind. The harder one tries not to think of anything evil, the more salacious thoughts crowd together, bouncing off one another and multiplying. I was certain that I was destined for hell, due to my inability to control the wandering of my thoughts.

Something struck me one day and diverted my unhindered anxiety: I realized that belief in a higher power was a choice, and if I did not believe in God, then I would not have to live in fear of his punishment. I can’t recall what catalyst prompted this abrupt loss of God, but it was a moment of elation. I was 10 years old and I felt this thought operating like a switch inside me. In an instant my thoughts were calmed, and I was so pleased with the remarkable inner change that I returned to the idea again and again. If God didn’t exist, then my thoughts could be wholly my own, impenetrable from the outside, a place for me to explore freely without fear of being spied on by an all-knowing entity who could decide my fate during life and after death. With the loss of a god, I also lost the concept of an afterlife. Death has a calming finality to it, devoid of the possibilities of punishment or reward.

In that same year, my best friend confided in me in the hallway at school: “Hell isn’t real,” she expressed excitedly. “It was invented to make people go to church.” The confidence with which she delivered this information struck me. It was then that I started to realize that religions operate largely based in fear and shame. To believe in God is to fear God, and so you construct your actions in a way that you will avoid his wrath. Religion is often falsely equated with morality, but if one’s good deeds are not for the benefit of others but rather to ensure a pleasurable afterlife for oneself, the integrity of these morals can be called into question. Without belief in heaven or hell, kindly acts can be truly selfless instead of self-serving.

Freed from the fear of a fiery inferno awaiting me post-mortem, I found that my quality of life improved. The mind of a middle-schooler is already replete with enough worries, trepidations and anxieties without the added concern of eternal punishment. Once I realized my thoughts were not being supervised, I no longer found my brain crowded with hurtful ones. I found instead that my mind was a safe haven for me to be alone, to imagine in solitude, and then return to the world unscathed and soothed. I conduct myself in a way I consider moral, not because of God’s watching eye, but because I care about humankind. My parents raised me to be empathetic and kind and I do not need the threat of hell to monitor my behavior.

Cora, 23, is from San Diego and attends New York University, where she is majoring in English. She attended community college for four years before transferring to NYU. Cora enjoys literature and amateur boxing, and volunteers at her local library and teaches boxing lessons to children at a gym. She would like to teach creative writing to incarcerated people.

Honorable mention — High school essay contest: Kaitlyn Cochenour

Is God a solution?

By Kaitlyn Cochenour

For years, people have turned to religion to solve problems rather than making changes that are within reach. No matter their beliefs, people should still rely on common sense, personal efforts and individual change to solve problems.

One example is the conflict between religious influence and the use of vaccinations. Vaccines are essential in a society in which social interaction is constant. These medicines protect not only the person who receives it, but everyone around them. One of the most common disagreements with vaccines has to do with religion. Some religious individuals and groups believe that God or another deity can solve this problem. But some invisible, all-knowing force will not save anyone from harmful and even deadly sicknesses.

Another example of using religion instead of practical problem-solving is the rehabilitation of addicts. Addiction is a painful and devastating force that needs to be addressed in an upfront and honest manner. Leading people to believe in something just to stop them from addiction is not an effective solution. A focus on religion in rehabilitation leads to the question, “If God wants me to recover so much, then why am I an addict in the first place?” Focusing on religion instead of practical solutions leads to empty promises, a loss of faith and lack of progress.

I have experienced this in my own life through my older brother. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Following his diagnosis, he fell into a life of drug abuse, alcoholism and great mental struggle. When all of these terrible things happened, I tried to tell myself that God would help him and that things would soon be better. Things only continued to get worse and I felt as though my family was a victim of God, rather than those who he cares for. I developed a host of mental issues in facing one of the most difficult challenges in my life. I kept seeking calm through religion in hopes that everything would go back to normal.

Eventually, my mind began to disprove the power of God. If he was so great, then why had he allowed all of this to happen to a young teenager and his fifth-grade sister? Through chemo, therapy and rehabilitation, my brother is making enormous progress. Practical, known solutions allowed him a chance for success and to be the best version of himself.

Kaitlyn Cochenour

Religion had no place in my progress, either. Humans can accomplish so much without using religion because humans are mighty.

Kaitlyn, 18, is from New Castle, Pa., and will attend Youngstown State University with plans to major in business administration. She was involved in track, varsity softball, travel softball, jazz band, concert band, marching band and art club. Following graduation, Kaitlyn hopes to own a tattoo shop.



Overheard (June/July 2019)

In this country, citing religious or spiritual convictions is often a surefire way to get out of doing something you’re required by law to do. . . . It’s time to stop giving believers a pass just because their beliefs happen to run counter to the laws of the nation they live in.

Margaret Renkl, op-ed contributor, in her column, “We are taking religious freedom too far.”

The New York Times, 5-6-19

Bring it, Bible Bullies! You are bigots, sexists, and misogynists and I see right through your fake morals and your broken values.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims, in a tweet, after confronting protesters outside Planned Parenthood.

Twitter, 5-5-19

It’s a uniquely American problem. No other country has this kind of carnage. We are not going to give thoughts and prayers, which to me is just bullshit.

Sen. Cory Booker, to David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,” saying that gun reform needs to be taken seriously.

CNN, 5-12-19

I think God belongs in religious institutions: in temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque — but not in Congress. What Republicans are doing is using God.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, after the House removed the phrase “So help me God” from oaths.

The New York Times, 5-11-19

Session after session, we end up entertaining legislation that sends a message to my LGBT staff members. . . .They feel they’re coming under attack for who they are. So, the question I have is: What do you say to them? Do you think Chick-fil-A needs more protection from us than our constituents who have a history of being discriminated against?

Texas state Sen. José Menéndez, during discussion of a religious liberty bill that would outlaw government retaliation against someone based on his or her association with or support of a religious organization. Proponents labeled the proposal the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” in reference to a provision that would allow the Texas attorney general to sue San Antonio for excluding the Christian-owned chicken franchise from its airport. The bill passed 19-12.

Texas Tribune, 5-15-19

The very fact that the Treasury Department and religious organizations claimed in their amicus briefs that “the survival of many congregations hangs in the balance” of the validity of the parsonage exemption is further proof that §107 functions as an active subsidy of religion.

Professors Bridget J. Crawford and Emily Gold Waldman of the Pace University School of Law, in a paper for the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law Online, on why the 7th Circuit’s unanimous judgment against FFRF was wrong.

The Friendly Atheist, 5-16-19

Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. . . . Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe.

James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, in his story “Abolish the Priesthood.”

The Atlantic, June issue

If we don’t want religious people on the right employing explicitly religious arguments for wielding power because of the separation of church and state, then why should we want someone on the left doing the same thing?

Justin DaMetz, graduate in theology and ethics from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in an op-ed on Pete Buttigieg’s faith and how it has taken center stage in his presidential run.

Washington Post, 5-20-19