4th place: College essay contest — Anna Miller

The easy answer

FFRF awarded Anna $2,000.

Anna Miller

By Anna Miller

“Why are you not religious?” 

I’ve spent much of my life answering this question, as if the default of our existence is believing a bearded man in the sky cares about our sexual practices and a malevolent being waits behind corners to tempt us into wrongdoing. Depending on the circumstance, I answer with varying degrees of honesty.

To the confused children I babysit, I am not religious because I wasn’t raised that way. I explain that I read about the Kingdom of Narnia before anyone ever told me about heaven, that in my world, Harry Potter had magic powers before Jesus did, and that thanks to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Death was my first experience with an omnipotent being, not God. It is the easy answer, but not the whole truth.

To my fellow nonreligious friends, I am not religious because the concept of God has never made sense to me. I tell them that I can’t believe in the benevolent God promised by so many denominations while witnessing the common sufferings experienced by both believers and atheists alike. I say that it’s never seemed logical that the creator of the universe might care about the thoughts and experiences of lowly humans, and I am often not alone in expressing doubt about the effectiveness of prayers when so many go unanswered. Many of my fellow atheists agree that we’ve experienced the most profound periods of growth in our own personal development while searching for meaning without religion, experiences that we likely never would have enjoyed if our search for purpose began and ended with serving a God. 

But it is with my religious friends that I am perhaps the most honest. I explain that I wasn’t raised in a religious household and that the idea of a God has never seemed logical, and with a defensiveness born of uncomfortability, they nearly always tell me that their beliefs are built on something stronger than any uncertainty: faith. They are surprised when I agree. If logic is the path to the center of a corn maze, faith is the bulldozer that razes the field. If critical thinking is careful tap dancing, then faith is a child stomping its foot. 

When asked why I am not religious, I tell my religious friends that I don’t stand with any idea or organization or group of people that asks for unwavering, unconditional faith no matter the circumstances. I tell them that I cannot willingly operate within a system that insists there are fundamental truths that one should never question.

I express my concern that this method of relying on faith doesn’t leave room for honest reflection and reevaluation of individuals or an often patriarchal, xenophobic system. I confide in them that I worry too much about being manipulated to ever subscribe to an organized religion. 

At this point, those religious friends who were trying to save my soul from eternal damnation realize that I’m a lost cause. We part ways amicably enough, both of us pitying the other in their ignorance. But of those who don’t depart immediately, I ask for more. I ask why they are religious, what prompted them to believe this particular story as the universal truth over all the other tales told around the world. I often find myself on the receiving end of an awkward shrug, an uncomfortable laugh, a confused expression. 

“I was raised that way,” they say. And I find myself hoping that they are only giving me the easy answer. 

Anna, 19, is from Bellingham, Wash., and attends Bryn Mawr College. “I am an avid reader and writer and I love exploring the beautiful outdoors in the Pacific Northwest. I play soccer for Bryn Mawr College and volunteer with Holisticare Hospice in Philadelphia.”