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Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,
I am an atheist and I attend a state funded university. My family is not poor, nor are we rich, we are just in the middle. My mom has inherited too much money for us to qualify for any financial aid or scholarships. I went through an existential breakdown in high school causing my grades to not deem me fit for any “good student” scholarships or anything of that nature.
My mom however is a devout member of her Methodist church. I had been in the same church my entire life, never fully understanding or believing, just going because it was what I had always done. I went to church camps for the fun and games and never even gave two thoughts about the Christian message, it was just silly to me. I went to church only when my mother forced me through taking away activities or groundings if I skipped out (now I only attend Christmas just so my mom does not completely hate herself). I was sure of my non-beliefs early in high school, but never “came out” to my mother as a non-believer until later. When I did about three and a half years ago, she cried her eyes out. Now she thinks it is a phase and tries to grasp my non-belief but never can. She thinks it has something to do with my father dying when I was 13 or some gripping experience of that nature that “took me from God” instead of my just lifelong skepticism.
Even with all of that, our (her) church has always been there for my family. When my father died and my mother started a homosexual relationship they were there (although some disapproved most never judged). Most of them are great people I have loved my entire life; I have connected with them just never spiritually, so my question to you is it wrong for me to accept scholarship money from this church my mother attends and I theoretically still belong to?
Morally perplexed,
Brent

Dear Brent,
I love people who have moral/ethical dilemmas. It means that they really want to do the right thing. Many ethical decisions hinge on the biggest word in the world, “if.”
It would be wrong for you to accept scholarship money if you did so by deception or false pretenses. If the church is offering you a scholarship with the requirement, or expectation, or assumption, either stated or implied, that you are a believing member, in essence, a Christian, and if you were to misrepresent yourself either actively by lying, or passively by failing to make your non-belief clear to them, then it would be ethically wrong to take their money. It’s about honoring the spirit in which the gift is given, if you will excuse the expression.
To be thoroughly ethical, to be deeply ethical you must not think only in legalistic terms, trying to dance nimbly around technicalities to get what you want, perhaps rationalizing something like, “Well they didn’t write down any requirements that I have to be a believer, so I just won’t tell them.” If they want to give it to a bona fide Christian, then failing to tell them the truth would not be honoring the spirit in which the gift is offered. That would be deceitful and disingenuous. Defer to not just the “letter of the law,” but also the intention of the giver.
So it is important for you to find out if there is any stated or unstate expectation, or preference, or if it is required for you to be a believer in order to receive this money. You might try to ascertain this discreetly, so that you can decide what course to take. If it’s required that you be a genuine Christian, then drop the matter right there. If it makes no difference to them, then just apply for the scholarship. But if it is expected or preferred that the money should go to a believing member of the church, then to ask for it in a thoroughly ethical way would require you to reveal your lack of belief at least to the people who would be making the decision. Then you will have to decide if “outing” yourself to them will be worth having only the chance of getting the money, and what social effect, if any, revealing that might have on your mother.
Yes, being ethical can sometimes get complicated because there can be so many “ifs.”
If you see that it is ethically necessary to let them know where you stand, and if you think it’s worth a try, you have a pretty good template for talking to or writing to them right here in your letter. I rearranged some of it into a suggested statement:

You and the congregation have always been there for my family, and I am very grateful. When my dad died, most of you were supportive and not judgmental of my mom when she reached out to another woman for companionship. That shows how big your hearts are. You’re great people. I have loved many of you for my entire life, and I feel a very close human connection.
But I have never felt a spiritual connection. Since I was very young, I have never believed in God or the Christian message. This has nothing to do with your actions, and nothing to do with any rebellion or traumatic experience of mine. It is only due to my lifelong skeptical nature.
I would very much like to accept the scholarship, and I certainly do need it, but I want to be completely honorable and honest with you, and to be sure that you really know the person you are helping. I have a strong moral and ethical instinct, and I am practicing it right now by telling you these things. I hope that knowing all this, you will still consider me for the scholarship. Regardless of your decision, I sincerely thank you.

Brent, whether you take my suggestion or not, one way or another I’m confident that you’ll get your education completed. It might take longer than you’d prefer, but if you’ve done it entirely in an honest and above board way, then you will be someone who uses the knowledge and the credibility that your education gives you to make the world around you a little better. Perhaps a lot better. We don’t really need more professionals as much as we need more deeply ethical people, people who are champions at doing the right thing. I wish you the best, and I have a feeling that you’ll be among the best.
Richard
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