By Sam Mathisson
I can only remember getting in trouble once in kindergarten. That spring, my grandma had died. I was too young to process it properly, but I knew I would never see her again. When I returned to kindergarten, the girl sitting next to me asked where I had been.
“My grandma died,” I told her matter-of-factly. Elizabeth was horrified. She shrieked, “You can’t say died! You have to say ‘passed on,’ because people’s souls go to heaven, and we get to see them again.”
“That’s not true,” I remember saying forcefully. Elizabeth started crying.
This attracted the attention of my teacher, who asked what was wrong. After Elizabeth tearfully explained what happened, the teacher pulled me aside.
“Honey, I’m very sorry about your grandma. But you can’t go around saying people died, and that there isn’t a heaven. It upsets the other kids. Now go apologize to Elizabeth, and then you can play with blocks.”
I refused to apologize, and the teacher just put us on opposite sides of the room.
It would have been easier if I had apologized to Liz. The teacher would have smiled and Liz would’ve stopped glaring at me. But I didn’t go along with it then and I still don’t.
As a kindergartener, I only knew what my own family thought — and so did Liz. Since then, I’ve had time to develop my own views. I’ve spent years studying history and learning the impact that religion has had on our world. Religion is depicted as a comforting blanket, meant to console us when our grandmothers die. Reflecting on that day in kindergarten, I saw the truth: Religion divides people. It breeds conflict. And it causes rifts in even the smallest of communities.
It would have been easier if I had apologized. It would have been easier to say “passed on.” It would have been easier to have a belief that God will provide, to believe that everything is meant to happen. But I don’t believe. I don’t have faith. Religion has been a destructive force for too long, and I won’t be a part of it.
Religion prevents people from addressing the world’s problems today by shifting the focus to an eternal tomorrow. This perpetual focus on the afterlife detracts from the immediacy of today. It makes our life and the work we do on Earth seem inconsequential. This results in a type of global apathy. Missionaries focus on saving souls rather than saving lives. It doesn’t matter if their flock dies from preventable causes; their blessed souls will still go to heaven. And if all you must do to reach the pearly gates is repent on your deathbed, why live a virtuous life? People believe God can forgive their transgressions, but God’s forgiveness is a false forgiveness.
We, not religion, must provide comfort to those around us. We have a responsibility to each other — to our families, our communities and the human race. And even to our classmates, however misguided they may be.
Sam Mathisson, 18, attended Rye High School in Rye, N.Y., with his twin brother (David). He enjoys writing and often contributed to the school newspaper and literary magazine. He was captain of his school’s cross country team and has participated in cross country and track (mainly pole vaulting) for four years. He’s worked at a bike shop, a summer camp, and as an English and history tutor. Sam will be going to the University of Michigan with the goal of majoring in history.