Why Are There So Few High School Atheist Groups? October 12, 2010

Why Are There So Few High School Atheist Groups?

This article in the Columbus Dispatch makes me wonder why high school atheist groups aren’t as abundant as they ought to be. Considering how many atheists say they first got rid of their faith at around the age of 14-15, they seem like they would be more prevalent:

The students in the group discuss belief systems, science and politics in after-school meetings on Thursdays. They’re planning community-service work, possibly with a Christian club at the school, and considering field trips.

This high-school chapter of the Secular Student Alliance has been around for six years and is advised by Earth-science teacher Jeff Bakunas.

Nationally, the Secular Student Alliance has 228 chapters, with 12 at high schools and 216 at colleges and universities.

The Secular Student Alliance has been contacted by high-school students who want to start a group but can’t find a teacher willing to advise. Taking that role can hurt an educator’s career in some places, [SSA Executive Director August] Brunsman said.

And, of course, you can’t have a nice article about atheists without finding someone religious to offer ridiculous resistance:

To Christian educator Chris Joseph, principal of Gahanna Christian Academy’s middle and high schools, such freedom [to develop your religious beliefs] is dangerous. Teens who think they can be “good without God” miss out on a relationship with Jesus that will offer them salvation, he said.

Hmm… I abstained from some Jesus-loving all throughout high school. My religious celibacy was fantastic.

In the battle of salvation versus reality, it’s no contest. Many teens see right through preachers’ lies.

As Jesse mentioned on this site a couple weeks ago, the Stiefel Freethought Foundation gave the SSA a $50,000 grant to start up high school chapters. We’re in the process now of putting that money to use, so I hope this is only the first of many high school atheist groups you’ll see in the papers 🙂

But there are obstacles. One of the hardest things is finding a faculty member willing to sponsor such a group:

Jeff Bakunas, the sponsor of the group featured in the article, perfectly shows how to handle the role:

At Hayes, Bakunas takes a hands-off approach to group discussions, occasionally interjecting with a question or to challenge a statement.

That’s what you need. A devil’s advocate. Someone who can make you think, without necessarily steering you toward his or her point of view. That type of thing might work in college, but you don’t want to “give away the answers” in high school. Let the kids figure it out for themselves.


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  • mouse

    I wish we’d had these when I was in high school (early 90s). Granted, I was going through the beginnings of my Wicca/American Indian/pagan phase but I still would have been attracted to such a group. Pretty much anything non-Christian would have been a delight to me at that point (and I went to school in very leftish University town in California).

  • SkeptiMommy

    I’m on the same page with Mouse. I was in a Wiccan phase in high school. But certainly would have joined a group like this for the freethought aspect. Perhaps I would have been able to “find myself in atheism” sooner if this sort of thing had been available.

  • Steve

    Freedom is dangerous. One of the core principles of organized religion

  • Jake

    I go to a gifted magnet school in florida, so there’s a large amount of atheists and agnostics that I would assume would be at a regular high school. I’ve been trying to start an atheist group since my freshman year (I’m a senior now), but to no avail.
    I ordered that starter kit think from the SSA, set up a facebook group and have many interested peers, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a faculty sponsor. It’s been for two main reasons: the atheist teachers are either lazy or busy, or in one case he was worried about getting fired.
    I tried to reassure him that if he were fired he would have an amazingly easy 1st amendment case that Americans United and the ACLU would jump all over, but to no avail.
    I’ve got about 7 and a half months left, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get this thing started before I leave for college.

  • keystothekid

    I think it’s important to let teens know that life is good without god. I think many adults get solidified in their ‘relationships with god’ because it gives them something (no matter how imaginary) to rely on in tough situations. Teens are just starting to face tough situations and how they handle those situations, who they talk to for answers and help at those times, must have a huge impact on their religious beliefs further on down the road.

    I know when I was in high school that I took refuge in visual art, music, and literature, not church groups. And look at me today, a perfectly happy and emotionally healthy atheist 🙂

  • p.s.

    jake,
    I’m an (somewhat) recent alumni from a magnet school in florida. If you don’t mind me asking, what school do you go to?

  • p.s.

    *a somewhat recent alumni.

    how silly of me

  • catherine

    I suppose another big obstacle would be parents who would be less than thrilled to find out that their teen is in an atheist club. And, I can imagine some parents pitching a fit about the existence of such a club even if their own child wasn’t involved.

  • Siamang

    I’m looking forward to the time when articles about Christians merely attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights have an obligatory paragraph from ANY competing religion or secular group criticizing their beliefs.

    I mean, let’s have an article about a Catholic bake sale, then ask a local Muslim what he thinks about Catholic theology. DUMB.

  • Daniel

    I’d say the problem goes the other way, too. I am a high school teacher who would be happy to advise an atheist group. However, I’m not about to start announcing during class that I want someone to start such a group. A few students have spoken to me about religion after school and I have expressed my personal views of religion, but none have ever approached me about starting such a group. I could start mentioning the possibility to students I know are atheists, but would far rather it be their decision to start such a group than to feel like I pushed them into outing themselves, as most who spoke to me are still at least somewhat closeted.

  • Todd

    I’m with Catherine on this one. The parent factor is a big part of this. Just think of all the responses Richard Wade has written to students struggling with telling their parents that they are atheists. Once you get to college, you are not nearly as obligated to deal with or live constantly with a potentially negative response.

    Clearly, the situation sucks, but it is what it is.

    Also, consider the differing social dynamic. High school is a place where it’s difficult to escape potential ridicule from a certain set since you can’t really leave. Most colleges don’t have that problem. And dare I say, colleges, with their higher intellectual capacity and mandate of open mindedness, offer a particularly safe environment for the display of unpopular ideas.

  • Brian Westley

    Hemant, have the SSA check with the ACLU or AU; public schools cannot deny the formation of a club simply because no teacher is willing to sponsor the group.

    In such a case, the school must assign a teacher. Students can’t be denied a club simply because it’s unpopular with all the teachers, that’s just another case of viewpoint discrimination, which public schools can’t practice.

  • Kelley

    USC Pastafarians are trying to help start up an SSA group at a local high school (the one I graduated from)… I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

  • Ian Welch

    As it has been said before, I think the lack of High School atheist groups has a lot to do with the families; I was born and raised Catholic throughout my high school years and attended Catholic schools exclusively from K-12th grade. I started to have my doubts when I was about 16-17, but I know that if I would have told my mom about this she would have told me I wasn’t old enough to make such a decision… when I became 18-19 and was in college, I began to express some doubts, and when I was 21, I finally told my family I was an atheist… I think they accepted it more because I was older and could make my own decisions- but because of family pressures and the Catholic school enviroment, I couldn’t take that final step. It’s the act of going to college and beginning to “live their own lives” that I think we are better able to express our certain beliefs. Plus, high schools (at least my own) are INCREDIBLY political…

  • Siobhan in Vermont

    Why so few such groups in high school?

    1. Parents have a lot more to say about what goes on in high school than they do at a college.

    2. You’re talking about precious children with delicate minds who need protection (according to their parents, anyway). They get downright vicious if they find you the least bit threatening, even if you’re not really being threatening in any way.

    3. While many people start eschewing the faith they were brought up in when they are in their teens, they still aren’t sufficiently independent (emotionally or financially) to tell their parents about it. Just look at how many letters get posted here of kids who want to come out to their parents, but can’t for one reason or another. The advice often revolves around “if you’re dependent on them, be careful how you proceed” when discussing coming out to one’s parents when one is a teen.

    College is (usually) all about learning new things, growing up, challenging your ideas, learning about other people, other ways of thinking, etc. (and if you don’t like that, then you can go to one of the myriad christian schools where they offer the lock-step degree programs). Parents who send their kids to the usual sort of college -expect- them to come up with some “whacky” ideas, and the students are usually less under their parents’ thumbs, so they can explore more, and express themselves in ways they can’t at home.

  • SecularLez

    Have you read Bowling Alone? I think that can KIND of explain it.

    In high school I wanted to be involved in different groups but once I started working, it was really hard to attend meetings.

    Sure the students could meet at lunch and all that jazz.
    At my high school, a lot of groups were not important. They were mainly see as a way to get your picture in the yearbook a lot. Ha ha. Just being honest.

    I also think atheist kids and LGBT kids have a lot in common. They don’t necessarily want to advertise their “otherness” for fear of bullying, ostracism, etc.

    I was pretty out about my atheism AND my lesbianism in high school. I was more known for being a lesbian than “that atheist chick.”

  • Grumpy Mr. Gruff

    When I was in high school about 10 years ago, we (the more vocal nontheist students) briefly talked about starting such a club.

    There were two issues:

    First, none of the faculty were particularly interested in mentoring it (though there were a couple who might’ve been talked into it).

    More importantly, our brainstorming never led to many activity ideas. It was the cat-herding dilemma. While the nontheist students were all friendly with one another, we had a small intersection of interests. Beyond weekly book/media discussion and snarking about religion, there wasn’t much that we all wanted to do. Most of us were already part of volunteer clubs and it didn’t make sense to start another service organization just to tack on an atheist label.

    In the end we shelved the idea. In retrospect, it would’ve been interesting to see how parents in the (suburban Midewestern) community reacted to the formation of such a club.

    It may’ve been for the best. Many of us were pretty rabid on the topic of religion (having been united by the shared experience of evangelizing attempts by our peers) and none of us were as well-studied as we could’ve been where religion and skepticism were concerned. (There weren’t as many web resources out there ten years ago and our local library certainly didn’t stock any nontheistic books.)

    The club may’ve provided a useful forum for such study, but I can easily imagine us responding to religious parents’ criticism with snark instead of reasoned rebuttal. We probably would’ve succeeded in making ourselves look pretty dumb.

  • Sarah

    miss out on a relationship with Jesus that will offer them salvation

    i could never get my mind wrapped around this concept.

  • Richard Wade

    catherine, Todd, Ian, Siobahn and others have said it for me: Parents, public, and peers. To join a high school atheist club, teens would have to tell their parents that they are atheists, and given the horrendous risks, that eliminates most of them right there. Then even if they get past that, often their parents will not want it to become general public knowledge in the community, so no joining any evil atheist group. What would the neighbors and the pastor say? Finally, peers can make life miserable for anyone who doesn’t conform to the majority, and it’s basically open season on bullying atheists.

    High school is generally an ordeal to survive. Getting through it with even half of your mind and your individuality intact is quite an accomplishment.

  • pennstatejoe

    We have a Christian Seekers club, an Eastern Orthodox club, a Muslim Student Society and at least one other non-secular club, and I would love to have a club that could be a voice of reason. I would be more than willing to be the faculty advisor to an SSA chapter or some other such group, but I’ve always been under the impression that any club needs to be student-initiated. If that’s not the case, sign me up. I know there are many kids at my large, public, Brooklyn high school that would find an SSA chapter interesting. If it is the case that it needs to be student-initiated, how could I go about helping the students initiate it?

  • Rebecca

    This is in my hometown. I am completely shocked that this high school has a SSA. I didn’t go to this high school, but it would be one of the last places in Ohio that I would guess that SSA existed. This actually gives me a tiny bit of pride for where I’m from.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @SecularLez: A lot of other people have mentioned parental outrage (from one’s own parents or others’ parents) and herding cats, but your answer was so obvious that I can’t believe that it wasn’t suggested immediately, or since:

    I also think atheist kids and LGBT kids have a lot in common. They don’t necessarily want to advertise their “otherness” for fear of bullying, ostracism, etc.

    To reiterate, the answer is obvious: high school kids have to put up with enough shit from other kids without voluntarily painting targets on their backs.

  • Jake

    p.s.:
    Pine View

  • stogoe

    To reiterate, the answer is obvious: high school kids have to put up with enough shit from other kids without voluntarily painting targets on their backs.

    So your solution is to hold the closet shut until college? That doesn’t seem like a safe idea, especially since bullying because of perceived (or actual) sexual or religious orientation will continue regardless. Denying high schoolers a safe space because “that’s just the way things are and nobody can change them” is just going to end with more death by bullying.

  • Man, I wish there was an SSA at my old high school… I really hated being the ONLY vocal atheist out of 600 kids. would have been nice to have some school-related support. granted, it was a catholic high school, so it NEVER would have happened in a million years…

  • Maybe because Atheist parents like me think religious clubs of any ilk shouldn’t exist in public schools and that the way to fight the ones that do exist is not by going out and doing the same damned wrong thing!

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @stogoe: Hell yes! At the very least you should not out yourself before college, if you out yourself at all.

    If you’re at a big enough school and don’t live on campus, being out is no big deal since hardly anyone knows you anyway.

    Or you can out yourself on the Internet under a pseudonym where it won’t come back to haunt you, like it would in real life.

    If you’re already an outcast I guess there’s nothing to lose by outing yourself; I think its the people who have social standing who have everything to lose and nothing to gain by coming out.

    So the solution is obvious here too – if college bullying worries you, don’t come out in college, either.

    People keep secrets and politicians lie habitually for good reason – telling the truth only hurts you.

    As the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Give some hitchhiker a ride and end up getting stabbed. And so on an so forth.

    Happy thoughts!

  • Matthew

    There are several reasons.

    1) Finding an advisor – Student groups cannot exist without a faculty advisor. Getting one to advise an atheist group is extremely hard. Getting a teacher to discuss religion, much less admit atheism is extremely hard. Those that do decline for other reasons. For instance, when I started having idea about a high school atheist club, I went to teachers, but they all told me it would hurt their jobs to advise such a club.

    2) Parental influence – Most high school atheists do not come out until college. In high school, a student is dependent on their parents. In college, there extremely little interaction with parents (omitting commuters). It is easier to shield involvement in an organization from parents in college than in high school (especially if your parents are anything like mine and will disown you for atheism).

    3) Fellow students – High schools are famous for their cliques and the clique’s nastiness when it comes to dealing with outsiders. With high school there really is no escape, you are stuck with these people. In college, you choose who you encounter to a much higher degree than in high school. You do not need to encounter the bigots, should they even exist.

    At college, there is a higher intellectual average than pretty much anywhere else on the planet. Such people are very accepting of alternate viewpoints. It allows people to “come out” as atheists with minimal emotional distress.

    4) Administration – College administration is very focused on inclusiveness and diversity. They encourage it, and they actively seek it out. College administrators are very much focused on the student life, and seek to promote student groups at every opportunity. High school administrators on the other hand are much more concerned about drugs in the bathroom, cell phones in class, and other such behavioral nonsense that high school brings. They could not care less about student groups (except the football team).

  • jason

    I attempted to start an atheist club in a Pennsylvania high school back in 2003 and I know why there aren’t many atheist clubs in high school! First you’ll be ostracized and made an outcast. Christian students will make lies about you. My parents were told by a christian student that I was attempting to start a “satanist club” which made my home life miserable since my father was a catholic. After my parents found out I was kicked out of the house because he didn’t want an atheist living in the house and then I couldn’t get a sponsor for the club. So if you are thinking about starting an atheist club be prepared and well organized because religious people have no mercy on the secular community.