Winning "Good without God" scholarship essay

Robert Nickelson and Keeley Nickelson present the scholarship check to Ryan Andersen. Courtesy Photo

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Ryan Andersen Scholarship Winner   The debate over what comes after death has been ongoing for all of recorded human history. Yet we are just as far from a definitive, proved and tested answer as we have ever been. The search for this great answer means something different for everyone, but everyone confronts death and its implications at some point in their life. Despite our lack of information, we still feel the need to answer death’s questions. Most people find these answers in religion and although there are benefits to religious practice, there are also disadvantages. Religious belief systems present various assertions that are impossible to check scientifically and so require faith. For example, Psalm 103:11 says, “the heavens are above the earth.” However, we’ve been up there, we’ve gathered lots of data, and we haven’t found any evidence of, “the heavens.” Answering one of the most important questions that we face in our lives with faith may encourage us to make other decisions in our lives based on faith that may not be justified. For example, we are currently facing the harsh reality that we are going to have to find a solution to our environmental issues such as climate change and pollution which are threatening people’s health all over the world. In, “The impact of religious faith on attitudes to environmental issues and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies: A mixed methods study,” on, Aimie L.B. Hope and Christopher R. Jones write that secular groups in their study held stronger pro-environmental attitudes than religious (Muslim and Christian) groups. They explained that “For religious participants, there was an assurance that after they had done their best, they could rely on God to address the issues beyond their control…[whereas] the absence of belief in a benevolent deity gave the secular discussion a far greater sense of urgency.” This shows how misplaced faith can cause issues that hurt all of society. All objective evidence suggests that if we do not solve these issues, they will continue to worsen until irreversible. It is important that people recognize this because research is largely funded by government funding or private investment, which both depend on public support. Justifying claims with sources of questionable validity also presents a threat to scientific advancement because if people continue to trust questionable sources instead of verifiable evidence, there won’t be adequate support for scientific advancement. Research and development facilities require financial support from taxpayers and from consumers. Without this support, scientific advancement would grind to a halt and many problems that we are facing now or will face in the near future will go unsolved. According to National Geographic, “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity.” That’s nearly two billion people that will suffer from the scarcity of a resource essential to life as we know it within this decade. If crises like these went unsolved, billions would suffer. This threat is caused by people’s tendency to have faith in ideas that lack objective support. Some degree of faith is necessary in our lives because without faith, we would never be able to use the knowledge of others. For example, we trust that when we drop something, it will fall to the ground and in doing so we have faith in our interpretation of the force of gravity. In order to avoid being faithful to gravity, we would have to test and prove Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which most people don’t have the knowledge or the time to do. The difference is, Einstein was one of the most decorated physicists in history and still is regarded as one of the greatest minds in history. His work has also been checked and supported by multiple generations of mathematicians and physicists, so in this case, our faith is placed on a thorough application of the scientific method. The most prevalent religions, however, are only supported by ancient texts, some of which have been translated multiple times and were written by multiple different authors. This first raises the question of whether, after the multiple translations and contributions by different authors at different times, these texts even reflect their original intentions. Then we have to dig deeper and question whether the ideas expressed in these texts fit in today’s world. The world and our understanding of it has changed considerably since the conception of these texts. It is unlikely that their authors could even imagine parts of our lives that we have accepted as commonplace, such as automobiles or social media. We can’t be certain that the ideas that they wrote about still apply to our entirely different, modern world. Alternatively, scientific theories and principles are re-evaluated regularly by experts who check that these theories and principles still apply to the modern understanding of their respective field. This ensures that these theories and principles accurately reflect our experience so that we can actually use them to interpret our environment. It’s also important that we examine societal influence. Every decision that we make is influenced by our environment which includes the people around us and their judgments. The study, “Links between childhood religious upbringing and current religious identity,” by Pew Research Center claims that 84% of people who were raised by two protestant parents grow up to be protestant as well.  This shows that for those who are raised in religious families, it is extremely difficult to openly disagree with the beliefs of their families. This is in part because most religions have negative consequences such as eternal damnation for non-believers. Romans 2:12 says, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” This means that God will punish everyone for their sins, which includes being unfaithful to God. Naturally, many religious people want to protect the people that they care about and so they pressure them into faith to some degree. Some families may gently encourage adherence to their faith, while others may outright make the decision for their family members. A sense of community is also extremely important to most people, so it takes real strength to choose to be honest to their beliefs over being accepted by their loved ones. This is important because many people might not even actually be religious, but may instead be victims of a societal trap where they are told what they are allowed to believe against the threat of isolation. This neglects the individual’s freedom of religion because they are not free to choose their own religious beliefs without consequence. It is also a tremendous source of anxiety for those who feel trapped by this phenomenon because they are forced to deceive their loved ones in order to maintain their relationships and their social support system. It could be argued that religion is a part of a family’s culture, but cultural traditions can be practiced without religious obligation. Religion may have shaped one’s culture but does not entirely define it. We are born into families and cultures; belief systems are a matter of personal choice. I grew up with next to no religious pressure. I had only vague understandings of some common religious beliefs which I learned from my friends who were raised in religious families. It was all irrelevant hypotheticals until one of my close family members died suddenly. I began to investigate by talking to religious people that I knew, doing online research, attending a variety of religious services, and analyzing the world around me. I grew up without a religious path that I was expected to follow and it’s allowed me to gather as much information as possible on our reality and the human experience. I have used this information to form my belief system based on empirical evidence instead of other belief systems. My beliefs are not hard fast. They have changed and become more complex as I have learned more about the world and my place in it and I try to keep an open mind as I learn more and we learn more about the universe. I recognize that there are benefits to living with religion. Religion can provide a supportive and expansive community. In our increasingly divided and isolated society, the value of these communities cannot be understated. Some of the most influential social activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were motivated by religion, but too many people choose their beliefs based on what is the most convenient for them to believe instead of actually addressing the question and finding something that makes sense to them. It is important to keep an open mind. The world is constantly changing and if we wish to succeed in our world, we need to change with it. Even scientific theories are discredited and adjusted as we continue to learn more about the universe. Our understanding is a game of probabilities, we can’t say anything with absolute certainty, all we can do is weigh the probabilities and choose whichever option is best supported by valid evidence. It is also important to question your beliefs, because if you can’t explain why you believe something, then you don’t really believe it. So argue with yourself periodically. Pick something that you believe and explain why. Evaluate counter-arguments, recognize why you might have certain beliefs. Exploring religion at depth is a unique way to learn about ourselves and the world around us.]]>

  1. Excellent essay. Thoughtful, plenty of sources cited with solid arguments. I also like the presenters!

  2. Excellent essay. Thoughtful, plenty of sources cited with solid arguments. I also like the presenters!

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