Secularism And Religion Essay Contest

, the eminent Harvard biologist, has a new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” that criticizes religion as “stultifying and divisive” — but also argues that religion offered a competitive advantage to early societies. Faith bolstered social order among followers and helped bind a tribe together, he writes, and that is why religion is so widespread today. And he tips his hat to the social role of faith:

“Organized religions preside over the rites of passage, from birth to maturity, from marriage to death,” Wilson writes, adding: “Beliefs in immortality and ultimate divine justice give priceless comfort, and they steel resolution and bravery in difficult times. For millennia, organized religions have been the source of much of the best in the creative arts.”

Jonathan Haidt, a professor, also focuses on the unifying power of faith in his new book, “The Righteous Mind.” Haidt, an atheist since his teens, argues that scientists often misunderstand religion because they home in on individuals rather than on the way faith can bind a community.

Haidt cites research showing that a fear of God may make a society more ethical and harmonious. For example, one study found that people were less likely to cheat if they were first given a puzzle that prompted thoughts of God.

Another study cited by Haidt found that of 200 communes founded in the 19th century, only 6 percent of the secular communes survived two decades, compared with 39 percent of the religious ones. Those that survived longest were those that demanded sacrifices of members, like fasting, daily prayer, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, or adopting new forms of clothing or hairstyle.

“The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship,” Haidt writes.

The latest wave of respectful atheist writing strikes me as a healthy step toward nuance. I’ve reported on some of the worst of religion — such as smug, sanctimonious indifference among Christian fundamentalists at the toll of among gay men — yet I’ve also been awed by nuns and priests risking their lives in war zones. And many studies have found that religious people donate more money and volunteer more time to charity than the nonreligious. Let’s not answer religious fundamentalism with secular fundamentalism, religious intolerance with irreligious intolerance.

The new wave is skeptical but acknowledges stunning achievements, from Notre Dame Cathedral to networks of soup kitchens run by houses of worship across America. Maybe this new attitude can eventually be the basis for a truce in our religious wars, for a bridge across the “God gulf.” Let us pray ...

Earlier this year, I reported on Lady Gaga’s campaign against bullying and learned that increasingly the Department of Education sees bullying as a serious problem. So I’d like to consult the real experts — American teenagers — by holding an essay contest for students ages 14 through 19. Please help spread the word by encouraging young people to apply by writing an essay of up to 500 words about bullying, being bullied, witnessing bullying or ideas about how to address this issue. Teenagers, help us understand the problem by sharing your experiences and insights. I’m holding the contest in partnership with The New York Times Learning Network and the national magazine Teen Ink. The only prize for the winners is eternal glory: I’ll publish excerpts from the best submissions in my column or blog. To apply, go to .

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Scholarships for Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Freethinkers

Free Money for Free Thinkers

The values you believe in, or do not believe in, may not be the first thing you turn to when thinking of your qualifications for college funding, but think again. If you define yourself as an atheist, secular humanist, or otherwise “free” thinker, there are benefactors who will support both those beliefs and your way through college.

You may believe in no god at all, or think of yourself as a secular humanist and absolutely reject any supernatural beliefs since you believe that people must take responsibility for their own lives. You may be a free thinker who holds these beliefs or who has rejected religious dogma and believes that opinions must be based on reason. You may be an agnostic, not knowing whether god exists or not.

All these varying views serve to set students apart from the rest of the collegiate body, and many who hold them are convicted and outspoken. No matter where you align yourself on this spectrum of belief, or unbelief, you may be eligible for some awards and monies based on these values. Note that several of the following awards are specifically targeted towards gay and lesbian free thinkers.

Scholarship Programs

American Atheists, Inc.

American Atheists, Inc. offers two scholarships in the amount of $2,000 and $1,000. These award are available to both high school seniors and those currently attending college. A GPA of at least 2.5 is required. The winner of the scholarship is determined by evaluating the individual’s activism with respect to the atheist viewpoint.

A second scholarship in the amount of $1,000 will be awarded to an outstanding gay or lesbian atheist.

The related Secular Student Alliance is also a fantastic online resource for information, articles, awards, news, and networking for those who hold its beliefs. Both the American Atheists and the Secular Student Alliance hold annual conferences to garner support and further the field’s research.

Pfund Scholarship

The Pfund foundation is devoted to the support and furthering of LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) individuals in the upper midwest area of the US. Atheist Minnesota residents or those planning on attending an institution of higher learning in Minnesota and who are either themselves LGBT or have a family member who is can apply for funding under the Pfund Scholarship. Two scholarships for atheist students are offered: the Atheists for Human Rights Award and the Byron Thayer Award given to a gay or lesbian atheist/humanist.

Preference is given to high school seniors when awarding funds, which can be used toward educational expenses at colleges, universities, trade schools, or technical colleges. Applicants will submit written answers to a series of questions about their career and educational goals, the challenges they have overcome in life, leadership abilities, and activism. Official transcripts and two letters of recommendation are also required.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

Over $4,000 in cash scholarships are awarded to the winners of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s annual essay contest. A set topic for the essays is announced each year, and students are asked to respond specifically to it using their best writing skills.

Silverman Secular Humanist Scholarship

The Silverman Secular Humanist Scholarship is available to students who are secular humanists studying at the the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Successful applicants will be devoted towards ethics and morals based on rationalism and humanism. Both academic achievement and financial need are taken into account when considering applications for funding. The scholarship is renewable, provided the recipient remains a full-time student with a GPA of at least 3.0.

Note that applications for this scholarship are not accepted every year because by college regulations in years when the previous recipient continues to be eligible it is automatically renewed.  Therefore, it is recommended that you check with the Office of Financial Aid or by writing to to see whether a new recipient is being selected for the following year before completing the application.

James Randi Educational Foundation

The James Randi Educational Foundation provides funding for the Critical Thinking Educational Scholarship Awards every year. One undergraduate and one graduate award are given, both in the amount of $1,000. Applicants are asked to send in an essay along with their application. The award money may be used only at US institutions of higher education.

The foundation is dedicated to promoting critical thinking through distributing accurate information about paranormal and supernatural events, and the award is meant to promote the extension of this belief through a deserving student.

Additional Benefits for Free Thinkers

Since free thinkers often have to stand up for themselves against the majority’s belief that is contrary to theirs, they can be very outspoken, well-versed and certain of their beliefs. Make sure this conviction level comes across in your essays and applications for any of the above scholarships. It can make the difference between a memorable application and a forgettable one.

Atheist, agnostic, humanist and free thinking students have the additional advantage of being able to use local hubs of their beliefs for scholarship resources. For example, check with your local atheistic or free thinking organization for further grant opportunities of which you are unaware. These beliefs, held thoughtfully and openly, are powerful and may put you one step closer for paying for your college career.



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