The Ethical Dilemma: Should I Talk About My Religion When Applying for Scholarships?

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Mentioning Religion on Scholarship Application: I’m applying for a scholarship and it asks, “Tell us about a significant experience, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Should I talk about my religion, and how?

—Money For Nothing

Dear Money,

Ever hear the advice, “Never discuss religion or politics”? Although I don’t accept that in all situations, this is a situation where it’s wise for you to heed it.

Although I advocate being openly secular as an honest and useful thing to do even when it may entail some risk, discomfort, or backlash, I shy away in situations where it is more likely to do damage without much chance of benefiting anyone. This is one of those.

Don’t talk about religion at all. You’re asking for money, and you want a decision in your favor. You don’t want to unknowingly put off anyone who has a say regarding your application. Unless the scholarship is from an explicitly nonreligious (not just neutral) secular organization such as AHA or FFRF, there’s a good chance you will lose “points” or be eliminated outright if you mention you’re a nonbeliever (assuming that you are). Although the scholarship organization may state they don’t discriminate on the basis of religion (or lack thereof), you can’t be sure there isn’t someone involved in the decision-making who has a conscious or unconscious bias against certain faiths or un-faiths. So why take the risk of blowing your chances?  And if the scholarship is underwritten by a religious organization, any discussion of religion would need to be pro that one, or at the very least pro some kind of belief in a higher power, if you hope to be given a grant.

The key thing is that the instructions say “or,” so you need to pick only one of the categories, not all three. You don’t have to discuss an ethical dilemma at all and certainly not a religious one (there are plenty of ethical dilemmas that have nothing to do with faith). Come up with something else to talk about. Search your memory for an experience or dilemma or risk you have taken that has nothing to do with religion (or politics). This is not the time to risk expressing personal views that may work against your overriding goal of financing your education. Keep your eye on the prize, and save airing your religious views for an audience where there’s more upside than downside. Good luck!