Honorable mention — Kenneth Gonzalez Santbanez: Nurturing the Garden of Eden

By Kenneth Gonzalez Santbanez

Kenneth Gonzalez-Santibanez

The concept of death is one that instills fear in us. Our arrogance is displayed through the anthropocentric belief that our existence is rooted in permanency, a belief perpetuated by religion. We’re under the illusion that we can escape the inescapability of death through supernatural means, often through the religious promise of the afterlife. The ceasing of one’s own existence is incomprehensible to many, let alone acceptable. To accept the inevitably of death would mean breaking the illusory spell cast upon many from birth. To accept one’s mortality would lead to the devastating realization that life on Earth is the only life that humans have. Religion serves as an existential cushion to the harsh realities of the human condition. Religion is humanity’s version of blinders, for devotee’s narrow pursuit of heaven prevents them from seeing Earth’s potential as paradise.

As a son of fundamentalist Catholic parents, I have often heard hear that “this life is meaningless because the true life is found in the afterlife.” This suggests that the brevity of this life is nothing compared to the eternity of life after death. However, the implication is that our lives on Earth are essentially meaningless. When meaning and significance are pushed to life after death, happiness and worldly-improvement are neglected in life before death. For example, instead of enjoying his current life with his family, my father instead devotes nearly his entire leisure to the church, leading to feelings of desertion among his children. When my mother approaches him to criticize his paternal neglect, he exclaims that he is trying to “save his soul” by “loving God above all,” implying that his family is inferior to his “Divine Father.”

Unfortunately, this neglect for worldly affairs is found in policy issues, especially climate change. Approximately one in 10 Americans believes that Congress shouldn’t attempt to enact policy to fight climate change because “the end times are coming.” These Americans would rather keep their illusion of the afterlife intact than improve the world around them.

Ironically, many claim that atheists have nothing to live for. As the actor Ricky Gervais points out, it’s quite the opposite. Atheists have nothing to die for. Hence, they have everything to live for. Atheists are the most motivated to make positive changes in this world because we believe that this is the only world we’ll ever get to experience. While theists are trying to find paradise in the afterlife, atheists are actively trying to nurture their own “Garden of Eden.” I don’t “mess around with the hereafter” because I’m more concerned with the “here.” While I’m not sure of the “hereafter,” I am sure about the life I live right now. The awareness of our own mortality is the source of meaning in our lives. I know that my days on this Earth are finite, so I am determined to make the most out of them by making a positive influence on this world.

Kenneth, 17, graduated from Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas. He was named a National AP Scholar, and also won five district championships in University Interscholastic League Academics and a regional championship in BPA Business Law and Ethics. He will be attending Princeton as an undergrad and then plans to go to law school with the hope of someday becoming a federal district judge.