This is an edited version of the speech Aline Pham gave at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. She was introduced by FFRF Executive Board Treasurer Steve Salemson:
We brought the winner of FFRF’s William J. Schulz Essay Contest for College-Bound High School Students to speak today. The students were asked to write an essay based on this prompt: “Why we must rely on ourselves, not God, to solve the world’s problems.” Their insights give us nonbelievers faith in the future.
Our first-place essay winner is 18-year-old Aline Pham, an exceptional young woman from La Mirada, Calif., who is attending the University of California-Irvine. Aline was valedictorian of her high school class, and it says a lot about her that her senior class voted her “most likely to vote for a cause.” She told us that separation of church and state is one of those causes. She would like to become a teacher, then a principal and her ultimate goal is one day to become a superintendent.
By Aline Pham
This past summer break, while my friends were taking trips to San Diego and making the most of their last summer before adulthood, I sat in my room and applied for scholarships. But my mom is the real champion. She spent her days searching for scholarships and nagging me to apply. That’s how we found out about the Freedom From Religion Foundation and this scholarship. But unlike other essay applications, this prompt didn’t take me hours to answer. It came easily to me. So, I sat there and I thought.
I thought about myself in fifth grade, a 10-year-old girl fed up with the substitute teacher who went on a 30-minute spiel about God after introducing herself. She called attendance and praised every child whose name originated from the bible. But that’s not all. She rambled about how we, as children of God, must be grateful for the blessing of education and thank him every Sunday in church. Impulsively, but not regretfully, I raised my hand and said, “What if I don’t go to church?” I swear I could hear 30 students shifting in their seats awaiting a response. She replied something along the lines of, “Oh dear, well that’s OK, too.” But I could tell by looking in her astonished eyes that she thought this 10-year-old was going to hell.
I thought about 13-year-old me sitting criss-cross applesauce in the public library when a security guard approached me and firmly demanded that I take my feet off the chair. With his bulging eyes, he asked me, “Do you sit like that in church, miss?” At the time, I was too taken aback to call him out on his rude assumption. But now, I realize how wrong he was in imposing his beliefs on me, even though I shouldn’t have had my feet on the furniture.
I thought about ninth grade, when my friend (whom I get along with very well) asked me, “Wait, you’re Christian, right?” “Why would you assume that?” I asked him. I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s because I once helped him correct grammatical errors in his letter for a mission trip to Mexico.” But to my utter disbelief, he replied, “Well, I mean, I just figured because you’re nice and a good person.” I wouldn’t have hesitated to call him out on this obviously flawed logic, but the funny thing is that he seemed to recognize his mistake before I could point it out. This dangerous association of Christianity with good and anything else with bad is what spews ignorance and hatred throughout our nation.
So, I took all these thoughts (and many more) that had been roaming around in my head for years and put them onto paper. The result was this:
“God makes no mistakes.” Personally, I think he set the oven temperature too high when he cooked up Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, when he stirred Jewish bodies in Nazi Germany, when he sprinkled some cockroaches in the Rwandan genocide. A god did not do that. Humans did. Instead of singing “hallelujah” and talking to the sky, we should hold ourselves accountable for such terrible atrocities and prevent history from repeating itself.
Vietnamese Buddhist funerals are very peculiar. For hours on end, monks recite prayers repeatedly, slurring their words so much that no one — not even the most fluent Vietnamese grandparents — can comprehend. My mother tells me the murmuring chants will allow my grandfather’s soul to leave his body and move on. I nod my head just to humor her. He’s dead. His body has been cremated. His body is gone, but his memory lives on. We don’t need monks or altars or burning incense to recognize that. I refused to cope with my grandpa’s death by reciting meaningless prayers in front of Buddha statues, and instead vowed to carry on his memory by working hard in school and being kind to others. Three years after his passing, I have healed and still continue to fulfill my promises — without the help of a god.
After the Parkland shootings, the smell of social activism lingered in the air as my school led its own student sit-out for common-sense gun control. While I protested in honor of the 17 victims, some of my peers refused to participate, convinced that their “thoughts and prayers” would suffice to heal all wounds. As comforting as they may be, prayers cannot heal bullet wounds — or social wounds caused by mental health issues, faulty legislation and deep-rooted prejudice.
These prayers are merely temporary solutions that encourage individuals to unproductively wait around for the “man upstairs” to solve their problems and vanquish their worries. Rather than throwing baseless words at victims, we should address problems such as gun violence by introducing new laws and voting for new politicians. The same students who offered “thoughts and prayers” use the bible as their sole “evidence” for discriminating against my LGBTQ+ classmates. I often wonder if they realize that such baseless claims contradict the “Love thy neighbor” principle. Religion gets in the way of so many things and is a root cause of many social wars we fight today.
I draw conclusions about our world using evidence provided by Bill Nye the Science Guy, not the bible. I have always been fascinated by science, biology in particular. In freshman year of high school, my passion and drive paid off when I was recognized as my teacher’s top biology student at my high school’s award ceremony. Intending to compliment me, my friend exclaimed, “Aline, you’re so lucky and blessed!” To my surprise, my teacher corrected him. He said matter-of-factly, “No, she’s not. She worked hard to earn it. No luck or blessings needed.” Looking back, I realize he was right. In biology, I participated in class discussions, led group projects, and conducted unique experiments. It was my work that earned me awards, not prayers. It was my drive, not dogma.
The truth is, I have never written a piece like this — not one that expresses my raw feelings toward religion and faith, or lack thereof. I will be the first to admit that I was not always this confident about my secular stance. I always thought I was insecure growing up because all my friends were Christian while my family was Buddhist. But now I realize I was insecure because school was Christian, home was Buddhist, and I was neither.
A lot has happened since I wrote this essay. I started my first year at college and often find myself overwhelmed by the new people, environment and expectations. A few days ago, I even thought to myself, “How nice would it be to sit here, hold my hands and pray? All my worries would be washed away.” But is that really the mentality we want to teach our kids? To deflect our problems toward God? To slap a Band-Aid on a gushing wound? No. I have to take responsibility for my mistakes: procrastinating on an assignment, not keeping in touch enough with friends and family, and so forth. I must have drive, not dogma.
So, I would like to sincerely thank FFRF for giving me the opportunity to do so, and for making this convention possible for me to attend. Thank you to my mom, who has always encouraged me to speak up and exercise my First Amendment rights, whether she agrees with me or not. And lastly, thank you all for listening to my story.