In people we trust
By Aline Pham
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag . . . one nation, under God . . . with liberty and justice for all.”
I recited those words that had been ingrained in my mind as early as the ABC’s. Unlike my classmates, however, I would quietly whisper, “one nation under God.” As the years progressed, I would not say them at all. More than two centuries after her birth, our nation finds her people divided amidst protest and pandemic — both of which expose the lack of “justice for all.”
I am a child of Vietnamese refugees. Like many immigrants, my parents sought the American Dream and were warmly greeted by the Church upon arriving in the United States. Perhaps that explains why religious Asian-American population converted to Christianity or retained their homeland traditions. So, even in public, supposedly secular, schools, I felt the dominating presence of Christianity. In second grade, my classmate pointed to a page in his history textbook with an appalled gasp. “Why are those kids kneeling to a Buddha statue? They’re going to hell.” We were 7. I became numb to such comments in school. It seemed as if I could not escape people imposing their beliefs on me. In fact, this isolation followed me beyond the classroom walls.
One summer, my family took a cruise ship vacation to Mexico. On a warm night, I mustered the courage to make new friends. I befriended two bubbly girls and we swam and played without a worry in the world. That is, until one girl asked, “Do you believe in God?” The other shook her head, and I, the “closeted” atheist child of Buddhist parents, kept my mouth shut.
She confidently explained: “Because my mom said I can only play with Christian girls, right, Mama?” as she glanced at her mother for a look of approval. I kept my silence for the sake of acceptance.
As an adult now, these flashbacks fill me with anger and self-disappointment. Why did I turn a blind eye? Why didn’t I speak up? Now, I recognize that intolerance evolves into hatred, forming a vicious cycle. Religion often becomes an obligation for children in religious households. But I refuse to worship a god out of obligation.
I reject religion because I do not need a God to tell me to be kind to others or the planet.
I reject religion because it is used as an excuse to deny people’s existence and human rights — from contraceptive care for women to the oppression of LGBTQ+ folks. They scream
“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” But as Macklemore sang, “We paraphrase a book written 3,500 years ago.”
I reject religion because it encourages passivity. Today, an ad popped up in my Instagram feed. The T-shirt read: “PRAY until something happens.” Enough said. Being a freethinker means confronting personal and community problems with logical, science-based solutions — to have faith in people rather than a higher power.
Although past experiences of isolation in a predominantly religious circle fueled self-growth and reflection, my only regret is that I took so long to use my voice and seek support from communities like FFRF. I had been trudging my journey to self-proclaimed atheism alone, until one year ago when I entered FFRF’s high school essay contest. It changed my life. I finally came face-to-face with my true beliefs. Sooner or later, I will come across yet another person who asks me, “You don’t believe in God?” And to that, I will reply, “I believe in people.”
Aline, 19, attends the University of California, Irvine, and is majoring in education sciences. “I aspire to become a teacher who engages her students in divergent thinking and problem-solving,” Aline writes. “Last year, I attended FFRF’s annual convention in Madison, where, for the first time, I truly felt heard and understood by fellow freethinkers.”