Good Without God Scholarship gets off to rocky start

Benefactors struggle to give away atheism-themed scholarship.
Sarah Hagy (center) is congratulated by Robert Nickelson (left) and Keeley Nickelson (right) upon winning the $4,000 Good Without God Scholarship, which was presented at the Winters High School awards night on Tuesday, May 22. Courtesy photo

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Imagine that you wanted to give away $4,000 out of your own pocket and were having trouble finding any takers. Such is the situation Robert Nickelson and his family found themselves in while trying to establish their Good Without God Scholarship, which offered opportunities to graduating Winters High School students willing to write an essay on the merits of being a secular humanist or non-theist.

Nickelson originally offered a $2,500 scholarship in Dec. 2017 for the student writing the winning essay, which he’d planned to have published in the Winters Express for public consumption.  The essay prompts included:

~  Being good without a god

~  Secular versus theist issues

~  Humanist thought and why it’s superior

~  Non-faith living

~  The benefits of keeping religion out of public policy

~  Any related ideas educating and promoting a non-theist or secular society

Given the respectable amount of money being offered, Nickelson expected lots of applications, but come March, there weren’t any. So, he raised the scholarship to $4,000, to sweeten the enticement.

“I wanted it to be the biggest scholarship,” says Nickelson. However, still nothing but crickets.

On March 22, he contacted the high school principal, Nicole Reyherme, who told him that the high school could not announce or advertise the scholarship because she was “concerned that the application has language that can be controversial and may violate the expectation of separation of church and state.”

Nickelson says he found Reyherme’s response ironic because he believes that the very spirit of his scholarship is to support the concept of separation of church and state. Unsatisfied with Reyherme’s decision, Nickelson (who is a former Winters School Board trustee) approached Superintendent Todd Cutler in April and met with him to discuss the issue.

According to Nickelson, Cutler was uncomfortable with the piece of the scholarship involving publication in the Express and after some discussion, invited Cutler to make changes to the application. However, after reviewing the suggested changes, Nickelson and his family didn’t approve of them.

“Negotiation is over-estimated,” says Nickelson, who says he told Cutler the changes were “unacceptable, and informed him that he would next take the issue to a school board meeting to be discussed in public. After yet more consideration, Nickelson says Cutler ultimately decided to allow the scholarship to be announced at the high school and within a couple weeks, five students had written essays.

The winner, Sarah Hagy, was announced at the annual high school awards ceremony, held on Tuesday, May 22.

In the end, Nickelson says he is satisfied with the results. Not only was a deserving student given a scholarship, but both the scholarship and the discussion of it before it was awarded served one of Nickelson’s goals, which was to “make people more aware that there are non-Christians in the community.”

He emphasizes that the Good Without God Scholarship promotes the concept of non-discrimination, and that his ultimate motivation was that his family “had the funds to help somebody out.” As for those who recoil at the idea of promoting secular non-Christian values or ideals, Nickelson says, “If you think it’s in bad taste — there are a lot of things that are in bad taste.” Which seems to be another way of saying, “Just deal with it.”

All in all, says Nickelson, “It really shouldn’t have been a big deal at all.”

The Nickelson family intends to continue offering the Good Without God Scholarship each year.

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