Sixth place — College essay contest: Isaac Jay Marcoux

My morality not motivated by cosmic carrot

Isaac Jay Marcoux

FFRF awarded Isaac $1,000.

By Isaac Jay Marcoux

I didn’t grow up in a religious household. My parents were born into religious families, but figured out that they didn’t have to live in fear of God or hell. They raised me with no indoctrination whatsoever in faith or dogma, only introducing me to the world as they saw and understood it.

They let me read books and watch documentaries about science, and I grew up learning that the world is to be understood through reason and methodical study. When I was in kindergarten, I was introduced for the first time to Christianity and religion. My reaction then, as it is now, was a feeling that I don’t think can quite be captured by words, so I will choose the three that best encompass my thoughts on the matter: “What the hell?

As a kid, every time I would talk about religion with someone, I felt like I was dipping into some alien world with goofy customs and beliefs. Why did people believe this? Why was religion a thing if we so clearly understood that its doctrines were factually wrong? Having grown up and learned more about people, I now understand why religion exists and continues to exist, but with these answers have come more troubling lessons. I’ve borne witness to and learned of some truly awful acts carried out because people believe in heaven and hell as real, tangible places one can be sent or sentenced to.

I attended a private school from the sixth to eighth grades, and the small community was mostly quite welcoming of virtually anyone. However, one particular student in my third year didn’t exactly embrace this mentality. Each chance she’d get, she’d spread lies about me, or pester me, or belittle me in any way she could. This came to a head when the school staff got involved, and I finally learned her reasoning behind this behavior: I didn’t believe in anything that scientific study could not prove.

How many people actually believe in religion’s superstition and rules to the letter? Many seem to, which is how they justified the kind of behavior I experienced. Looking back, I have learned an important though harrowing lesson from this ordeal: Anything is justifiable with religion. I was an atheist, so it was OK to make my life a living hell — at least, that’s how the bully saw it. Without heaven to aspire to or a hell to fear and blame things on, there’d be no way for her to justify treating me in a way nobody should ever be treated.

Around the same time I was getting bullied, I was taking piano lessons in middle school. While I was learning to play John Lennon’s “Imagine,” other kids were cooped up in church, learning to live by fear and a need for validation. Their families and communities taught them that morality came from God, and he would reward those who obey him and torture those who don’t. Meanwhile, I take care of animals, open doors for others, and try to add some goodness to the world because, as I see it, that has its own intrinsic value. And I feel better for it. I don’t live in fear and I’m not desperately clinging to a nonexistent reward; I’m doing good by my own choice.

Manipulation by dogma is nothing new. Evidence suggests that these traditions were even shared by Neanderthals and, thus, were shared by our common ancestor. Clearly, humans are just that easy to manipulate, and we always have been. As such, there is more merit to moral behavior when it’s motivated not by a cosmic carrot and stick, but by genuine empathy and goodwill. A life lived not in fear, but hope for a kind, tolerant future is a better life to lead and offers a better world to live in.

Isaac, 20, is from Oak Ridge, Tenn., and attends the University of Tennessee. As a youth, he was interested in science and then expanded into the creative realm, where he is now seeking a career as a writer. Isaac volunteers at his local animal shelter.