We judged the RI Atheist Society essays and picked a winner. I thought that the right thing to do was to write to all the non-winners personally. One guy wrote back, and I responded to him. I think it’s a good conversation, so I’ll share it here.
His question, for me, cuts to the quick of the matter: I consider religious diversity more than a matter of unhappy toleration while we wait for old people to die. I don’t insist that everyone agree with me, merely that we set up our society in a way that we can all live together happily.
Modern atheism is going severely off track when it insists that everyone agree with it. That’s not how the world works. There is one gravitational constant, and one speed of light. There are many ways to live a good and happy life. There are a lot of different sorts of people in the world – and for some of them religion is the best path.
I’m writing to notify you of the results of the RI Atheist Society essay
contest and scholarship.
While you are certainly a strong student and a talented writer, we did not
select your essay for the scholarship this year.
Your emphasis on the balance between individual rights necessary in society
touches on what I consider the heart of the issue: Living in a free and
democratic society requires a balance, and my opinion is that we must err on the
side of personal freedom. Your comments about the freedom to express one’s
faith are well taken. This is a critical point that is all too frequently
neglected … we are free from the imposition of religion, not its existence.
We intend to offer the scholarship in an expanded form next year. I encourage
you to apply again.
This evening I got a response from K, which says:
Thank you for taking the time to read my essay. With such a personalized response I think it would be foolish not to apply again next year. I appreciate that you actually took my essay into consideration and actually took the time to respond to my own specific essay which is certainly a first in the dozens of essay contests I have applied for and made me feel good knowing that my essay was not simply a chore for a scholarship committee to glance at.
I just have a couple of questions that I would like to ask if you would be so kind to answer. First off, I was wondering if being atheist is a prerequisite to applying for the scholarship. I think based on my essay you have noticed that I am not one but that I agree that there should be a seperation of church and state. Secondly, I was wondering if future essays will be open-ended as this year’s was, meaning that the essay topic could be agreed upon regardless of the applicant’s religion.
I was feeling talkative, so I said this:
Maybe it’s because I’m new to this scholarship / essay thing, but I figured it was only polite to read all of the submissions. Perhaps over time I’ll become jaded and just glance them over looking for something I agree with – but I hope not. It was a hard decision. Given the effort I know all the applicants put in, I felt that a personal response was the least I could do.
Your question came up a couple of times as we were setting this up. My clear and forceful answer is that there is absolutely no requirement that you be an atheist in order to receive our scholarship. If we were looking for a deserving atheist, we would have said that up front. Frankly, I rejected a couple of essays out of hand because they were too cloyingly sycophantic. I didn’t ask for 1,000 words on how cool the RI atheist society is – I asked about the separation of church and state.
One of my professors in school told me that the hallmark of a good ethical question is that you won’t be able to resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction. If it’s that simple, it’s probably not ethics. My dream is that if I do this for a few years, I’ll eventually be convinced enough by one of the applicants to change my opinion about something. That essay would win in an heartbeat. Your essay and this conversation give me hope that I’m on the right track.
I know that I’m an odd duck in modern atheism … but I think that the world’s major spiritual traditions have tremendous value insofar as they provide comfort and strength to billions of people. So long as we can build good fences and good laws … and learn to live without killing each other … I’m a big fan of religious diversity in the world.
Perhaps I’m just a “non” theist rather than an “a” theist.
In any event: Keep up the good work, and I hope to hear from you next year.