Stephanie Kirmer attended high school in Kansas in the late 1990s, around the time the state was embroiled in a battle over teaching Creationism in science classes. She wrote letters to the editor of her local newspaper and testified in front of her school board to oppose the state Board of Education’s removal of evolution from the high school science curriculum. It wasn’t a very popular position for a high school freshman to take.
A few years later, when she joined the board of a fledgling organization called the Secular Student Alliance, she knew she wanted to focus on helping high school students. Not far removed from high school herself, she knew what it was like to become an atheist and feel like you were the only non-believer out there. She remembers the emails she received from students who, like her, didn’t know there was a growing movement for non-religious people. They would send her messages reading, “Oh my god, you guys exist! I’m the only atheist in my town!”
In response, Stephanie would send them reading material — books or magazines written from the atheist perspective. What surprised me was the way she prevented the potential problem of parents discovering the packages:
“We sent plain brown envelopes. I’m not making that up … There was no labeling on the outside to indicate what was in there. And if kids couldn’t receive it at their house, we’d send it to a friend’s house… It made a big difference for a lot of kids who didn’t otherwise have an outlet.”
In other words, books and magazine promoting science, critical thinking, and the idea that God doesn’t exist were treated no differently than issues of Penthouse.
Today, learning more about atheism is nowhere as difficult as it used to be. Between the bestselling books by the New Atheists readily available at your local library or downloadable on your Kindle, the pro-atheism billboard campaigns waged by many national atheist organizations, and (of course) the Internet, our viewpoints are ubiquitous. A young atheist could be sitting in a pew at church with his family while reading about how wrong his pastor is on a smartphone.
But the availability of the atheist perspective doesn’t mean it’s any easier to be a high school atheist.
When writing my book, “The Young Atheist's Survival Guide,” I found example after example of non-religious students who faced obstacles simply because their beliefs were those of an unpopular minority.
Brian Lisco just wanted to start an after-school Secular Student Alliance club at his high school in Sugarland, Texas. His principal told him she would allow the group to form only if Brian changed its name and promised not to affiliate with the national SSA. (Rules that didn’t seem to apply to the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.)
Brian refused to back down, though, and the school relented only after a reporter from a national newspaper asked the principal for comment on why she was opposing a perfectly reasonable request from a student.
That’s not nearly as bad as the principal who opposed the formation of a Secular Student Alliance group because it was, in his words, a “school-led hate group.” Even the faculty member who promised to sponsor the club was told by her superiors that it would be a “bad career move.”
Then there are the public schools that support non-denominational prayers at graduation (likely to appease a predominantly Christian population), despite the fact that courts have repeatedly ruled against that action.
In 2011, South Carolina’s Laurens County School District 55 attempted to circumvent the law by allowing the (mostly Christian) students to vote on whether or not they wanted a prayer. It took an atheist student, Harrison Hopkins, to realize the problem with this method and stop the vote by alerting the legal team at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. For his efforts, Harrison received threats of violence on Facebook. (The threats were thankfully never acted upon.)
Even something as innocuous as sitting down during the Pledge of Allegiance (rather than standing up and saying that we are one nation “Under God”) has been a contentious issue for many atheists. Chelsea Stanton, a student from New Jersey, faced multiple detentions for her refusal to stand during the pledge. Knowing she was within her legal rights not to stand, she contacted the New Jersey Law Revision Commission — as well as the local media — and got the school to overturn its policy. Instead of receiving praise for challenging her school’s illegal ways, Chelsea was kicked out of her parents’ house the day she graduated. They told her they didn’t want an atheist living with them.
It shouldn’t have to be this hard for non-religious students. But, with an eye to how LGBT students have made tremendous headway in how they are perceived in high school, things can get better.
Imagine how much better things would be for young atheists if their own parents supported their right to discuss faith openly and with a critical eye (even if they didn’t agree with their child’s decision).
Imagine how much easier things would be if Christians who respected separation of church and state took a stand against the illegal actions of some school administrators instead of letting atheists go at it alone.
And, for all the talk of this generation’s apathy toward religion, imagine how much more seriously students would take the subject if they were given the opportunity to talk about their beliefs with students who disagreed with them. That’s the sort of forum groups like the Secular Student Alliance and Center for Inquiry On Campus want to provide their affiliates at high schools and colleges across the country — and the sort of forum that is frequently opposed by religious administrators.
Young atheists don’t want special treatment, they want equal treatment. And the law is on their side. Yet, for all their efforts, they are often met with derision from their community and family as well as social ostracism. We can’t let that keep happening. The situation will only get corrected if more young atheists speak out and they get the support they need from the people around them. Even if you disagree on matters of theology, surely we should be discussing and debating our different perspectives, not stifling unpopular ideas.