Junior High Atheist Talks About His Segment on Nick News April 21, 2011

Junior High Atheist Talks About His Segment on Nick News

Nickelodeon, a channel for children, recently aired a faith-focused episode of Nick News.

Host Linda Ellerbee did a fantastic job of introducing kids to what a variety of people believe — and debunking the falsehoods we often hear (like the notion that we’re in any way a “Christian nation”). It’s almost too balanced — they have Pat Robertson spewing bullshit, but at least they also interview Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to set the record straight.

There are also lots of young people from various faith backgrounds sharing their stories.

The episode is called “Freedom to Believe… or Not

The “Not” in this case is Duncan Henderson, an atheist in junior high school who’s having trouble starting a Secular Student Alliance group at his school (his segment begins at the 14:17 mark).

For being so young, he admirably represents the atheistic viewpoint — and his father is *so* incredibly supportive of what Duncan’s doing… how refreshing is that?!

Picture courtesy of Marty Toub, Nick News

I asked Duncan if he’d write a guest post regarding the show — What else do we need to know about his story? What was it like getting interviewed for this episode? What are his plans for the future? — and he graciously sent this back:

I’m Duncan and I was recently interviewed for Nick News with Linda Ellerbee. Hemant asked if I would give everyone some insight on everything that has happened with our group here in Auburn.

I’ll just start off with talking a little bit about our group. Here in Alabama, I (with the help of a few friends) have been trying to create a secular student group at our junior high school.

When we first put in our request near the end of the first semester, we were informed that we could not have a group like this on our campus.

A week later, we sent our administration a copy of the laws that say we have a legal right to secular student group. This time, we received a slightly different response: “Well, you can have this group if you get a sponsor.”

So we did. The teacher we asked ended up having to back out of the sponsor position because of some “problems” (I don’t know enough about them to elaborate). We waited for another sponsor to come along — I even sent a letter to every teacher in the school — but no one spoke up.

At this point. we had nearly run out of confidence and ideas. Just as we starting to give up, Nick News came to the rescue. They had sent out a request looking for students to interview for this particular episode, and Dale McGowan, the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, suggested they speak with me.

I must say having a large camera sitting right in front of you is pretty intimidating for the first few minutes. The guys who came were a lot of fun and really helpful. The first thing they did that morning was take a lot of pictures of my dad and me.

When the interview began, I answered all the questions they asked and made sure the crew heard exactly what I wanted to say. I remember the three main questions they asked me: 1) “Is this a christian nation?” (Of course not.) 2) “What is an atheist? and 3) “How does being atheist affect your life at school?” Altogether, the interview lasted over two hours. As I write this, I haven’t seen the final product, but I hope that it sheds light on people everywhere that atheists are normal people and that you shouldn’t be scared to be outspoken about your beliefs.

In case you’re wondering, my parents are fine with this attention — like I said, my dad was even interviewed for the segment.

My group still hasn’t been formed yet, but I hope that will change soon. I don’t know if it’ll be any easier, though. But the people I know who are going to watch it are quite excited and the episode is creating a positive buzz throughout school.

— Duncan

Even if Duncan doesn’t get a group started this year, I have no doubt he’ll get one started in high school (and beyond).

If there’s anything I didn’t like about the piece, it’s the ending in which several kids (age unknown) say, “I’m a(n) [fill-in-your-religion] and I’m an American.” It’s a nice idea in theory, but having children say “I’m a Scientologist and I’m an American” just brings to mind Richard Dawkinsconsciousness raising about labels applied to the young. Are all those children in the segment old enough to really understand what they believe? (That goes for the non-theists, too.) At the very least, I hope they came to those decisions on their own — there are non-theists in the bunch — but you have to wonder how many of them are just pushing the beliefs their parents taught them without thinking critically about it.

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  • Caleb Daniel

    I’m glad you added the last part regarding Consciousness Raising. That’s the only thing I could think about while reading this. Even though it’s nice when these things correspond to my own beliefs, I still don’t think children can label themselves as ‘atheist’, much less [fill-in-your-religion].

  • DeafAtheist

    The segment you blog about here came on while I was visiting my mother The Nick channel was on cuz my 2 year old son was watching it. When this segment came on I wanted to watch it but unfortunately my mother changed the channel so I wasn’t able to see it. She’s a remote hog and refuses to watch anything that doesn’t interest her.

    Regarding end of your post here although I too am an atheist I have to play Devil’s Advocate here… What you say about the religious believing children possibly not being old enough to understand what they believe… couldn’t the same be said about atheist kids? Perhaps atheist kids are also following their parents beliefs without really understanding religion.

    Despite that I DO agree with you tho that teaching ANY worldview to a child regardless of what it is is wrong… even atheism. As parents we need to guide our children but to ultimately let them choose their own beliefs for themselves. If my son grows up to be a church minister I’d be just as proud of him as I would be if he grew up to be an atheist activist as long as he came to it on his own without being spoon-fed any particular ideology or propaganda.

  • asonge

    DeafAtheist: I think the problem isn’t teaching a world-view. Not teaching a kid any world-view at all would be practically impossible, it will pollute, so why not teach him a coherent one in terms she can understand? That said, you should always allow room for disagreement. If the child shows interest in thinking of things in a different way, this shouldn’t be stifled, but encouraged.

    It seems to me that by the time a kid can make sense of the question of world-view or religious identity, they probably know enough (rudimentarily) to answer that as well as some adults I’ve met (the unexamined beliefs of a 22 year old are just as unexamined as that of a 10 or 12 year old).

    In any event, my only dogma is cited in Inherit the Wind: the mind is the only sacred place.

  • I’m an atheist dad and there is one thing I have found: One needs to be confident in their doubt. I tell my kids that God is an immaginary friend that people have, because, well, God is an imaginary friend that people have (at least all evidence points that way).

  • This is awesome! A Freethought group in a junior high school would be such a score. Our movement is really coming of age.

    Regarding whether someone this young can be expected to understand all of these deep issues, I believe it’s the same as with most adults. Some can, most cannot. Most people in general simply parrot the beliefs they were taught to believe. Some folks have thought about it more than that, and can get a bit original or even critical of what they were taught to believe.

    But some people are different like that, from a very early age. Whenever a young Christian is interviewed and asked about their beliefs, it’s usually word for word the same rhetoric we hear from Christian adults. Young Freethinkers on the other hand, seem more competent about their position, as if they have spent a lot more time studying it, and understanding it. So their honesty comes across as more real and heartfelt.

    Of course it always helps to be on the side that isn’t making wild and foolish claims that cannot be validated at all.

    Duncan rocks! 🙂

  • Bruce H

    …you have to wonder how many of them [children] are just pushing the beliefs their parents taught them without thinking critically about it.

    The same applies to adults, of course.

  • MP

    I just wanted to point out the (understandable) bias that can sneak into our thinking about the beliefs of kids. Notice how easy it is to believe that a young person is an atheist – because that thinking makes perfect sense right? And when a young person claims to be religious they’ve probably just been trained to believe that! But I think we should keep in mind that believers will see the situation in an exactly symmetrical but reversed way.

    Regardless of all that, having the statements of belief come directly from the kids is the best way to show other young people watching that they can choose to believe in different things.

  • Parse

    I’m working off memory here, but I thought that if no teacher volunteered to help with a club, that one had to be assigned. Otherwise, you end up with situations like this – where the administration can effectively ban a group by intimidating the teachers.

    And, after some searching, I’ve found a relevant quote from from this excellent Greta Christina article:

    [JT] Eberhard adds that a common tactic is to tell students they need a faculty adviser to form a group — a requirement that is, in fact, flatly illegal — “and then to make sure the group cannot find a willing one.” (The legal principle that high schools must give all students equal access to forming extracurricular clubs, with or without a faculty advisor and regardless of the purpose of the club, has been well- established… and it’s a principle that has been applied to religious groups, and was in fact strongly lobbied for by them.)

  • If you want to write to Nickelodeon and tell them thank you for featuring such a great segment on their Nick News show here are some contact links:


    The first link goes to Nickelodeon directly but looks like it is designed for kids while the second link goes to Viacom which owns Nickelodeon. I think either or both will get to them.

  • Greg Henderson

    Regarding Parse’s post above, this all exactly right. The only thing I can add is that the wheels are in motion in this particular situation… 😉

  • tennismom

    Thank you Hemant! After missing a couple days of school this week, Duncan was excited over the reaction he was receiving at school about the Nick News segment. He had very positive feedback yesterday and most of it came from religious kids he knows at school. There are big changes underway and we will update everyone as soon as we are free to do so! We’ll just say it is positive steps forward! I know he is going to love reading all the replies. 🙂

  • Justin Miyundees

    Here’s an acid test for everyone. If you ever feel like a trained parrot, you should rethink your position. As you do, I think (therefore I am) people will turn away from dogma and toward free thinking.

    “Under Gawd! Under Gawd!! BAWWWK!!! ONE NATION UNDER GAWDD!! BAAAWK!!!”


  • plum grenville

    What a mature and articulate kid! Grammatical writing too, which is becoming a rarity at any age. He’s got a great future ahead of him – how about as the first openly atheist governor of his state.

  • grumblekitty

    I think I have done a very good job teaching my child about the major religions–I didn’t have a lot of choice. We live in a pretty diverse area, and a lot of people’s religious beliefs are fairly apparent by their clothing choices here, so we got a lot of questions from an early age. In addition to that, we have friends from a variety of religious backgrounds, so we at least make a passing note of most of the major holidays as they come up, and have had to explain them to our son. But, I also am of the opinion that in order for him to make an informed choice, he has to have the information, so I have made a concerted effort to educate him.
    At the same time, I feel it is my right to be free with my opinion–especially in my own home. I’m a pretty open and out atheist in general anyway, but when my kid asks me a question, I answer it. I try to remember to specifically form my answers in “I believe…while some other people believe…” terms.
    He is 7 and has happily identified as atheist for at least two years. *shrug* I figure at this point, it’s a very flexible thing. I give him enough credit to know that he understands what he’s saying, but not necessarily all of the social ramifications at this point, plus he’s certainly young enough to change his mind many times, and he probably will, especially as he goes through his teen years, and looks for ways to differentiate himself from us.
    I think I have made it clear to him that my love and affection for him do not hinge on his beliefs matching mine, and honestly, I can’t imagine being anything but proud of him as he makes his way through figuring out what he believes, because he’s curious and goes after information to help himself make decisions.
    I would say give those kids at the end a break. They’re just doing what the rest of us are: trying to find a place in the world.

  • smittypap

    Linda Ellerbee has been my hero since the 80’s. One of the most fair, balanced and witty newscasters ever. I sure do miss those days, err…nights.

  • Sean Santos

    I like that they were actually willing to do this at all. There’s such a tendency not to risk talking about religion in any potentially controversial way, especially with kids. People really should be exposed viewpoints other than those of their parents and community from a young age. I would never compel my kids to be an atheist; I’m never planning to be dishonest about my views on religion, but I’m not afraid of kids being exposed to it. It’s the social pressure, the sheltering of kids from any dissenting opinion, and the coercive nature of religious indoctrination that are the problem.

    I don’t think I quite agree with this thing about not labeling kids. I think that there’s a serious problem with saying that parents have a right to compel certain religious beliefs from their children, or with supposing that people are somehow born with a religion (the idea of a Christian toddler, or whatever).

    But I think with older kids, the labels can be accurate. In my case, I certainly understood all the major tenets of my church by age 8 (they were pretty simple), and was going to the main services (not Sunday school) by 10. I was a Christian child and I knew what that meant (and was even starting to understand the problems that arise within that worldview). I’m glad that I was exposed to religious skepticism at a young age, and it would have been a great disservice if people had tried to shield me from that, but I don’t think it would have been wrong to acknowledge that I had already formed definite beliefs at that age.

  • ursulamajor

    Yes, my son is an atheist like me, but I have told him many, many times, “Religious belief is not inherited. It is up to you to explore all the options and make up your own mind.” He knows he will be taken to any house of worship he wants and has a pile of books addressing the world of religion, atheism, and ethics.

    Duncan, you rock.

  • Gail

    I do agree that labels for kids under 12 are not great, whether the label is religious or atheist, but I think that around 12-15 is when a lot of kids start figuring out religion (case in point: Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret). At 12, I was quite devout and incredibly active in my evangelical church, and I understood the principles of Christianity better than a lot of adults. The problem was that I had been indoctrinated a lot, had never been exposed to other cultures or given the option not to believe. Doubt settled in periodically and I was non-religious by 15, although I had to hide it from my parents (couldn’t own any reading material that would mention atheism, never would have been able to visit a website like this). So the labels aren’t great, but nothing could be more relevant than this show for kids around age 12-15 or so. A lot of kids by that age can comprehend things as an adult would, so naturally that is when a lot of religious thought creeps in.

  • elricthemad

    How does Nickelodeon have a better newscaster than the entirety of Fox News? I agree with the objection several here (and Richard Dawkins) have stated to children declaring their membership in various belief systems they are really too young to understand. Overall, however, i thought it was a terrific segment and i am frankly amazed it got aired by a major cable network for kids. I would love to have heard what the stereotypes for Atheists were from that exercise by the interfaith group. Kudos to Nickelodeon and all the producers, and kudos to Duncan as well.

    Non substantive, but i love that Linda Ellerbee was rockin’ the orange Chuck Taylors.

  • Thanks to Nickelodeon for giving everyone a voice during this segment.

    Thanks Hemant for the positive post.

  • Thanks for posting this story! I was pleasantly surprised to come across the program the other day, and I was happy that atheism was portrayed positively. Nick News has a good track record of tackling controversial social issues in a balanced, even-handed way.

    If there’s anything I didn’t like about the piece, it’s the ending in which several kids (age unknown) say, “I’m a(n) [fill-in-your-religion] and I’m an American.” It’s a nice idea in theory, but having children say “I’m a Scientologist and I’m an American” just brings to mind Richard Dawkins‘ consciousness raising about labels applied to the young. Are all those children in the segment old enough to really understand what they believe? (That goes for the non-theists, too.)

    It’s a fuzzy line, but I think almost all of the children interviewed were, if not yet teenagers, very close to becoming them. In my mind, that’s old enough to make a positive declaration of belief or nonbelief. In most cases, the beliefs may have been passed on and reinforced by parents, but at some point children should be able to claim their beliefs as their own. Certainly I think it would be wrong to deny a teenager the ability to self-label. By 12 or 13, most children have the mental capacity to be able to think critically about these issues and evaluate evidence, even going against familial and social pressure.

    Personally, I’m a lifelong atheist, although I doubt I would have been able to articulate or defend my nonbelief clearly before the age of 11. This view was not passed on to me by my parents; I was simply never indoctrinated in any religion and never started believing in deities. I would not have had a problem self-identifying as an atheist (if I had known the word) even in elementary school. By middle school, I was confident in my atheism and had no problem letting other people know that I didn’t share their beliefs.

  • Jennifer

    I wonder if the kids referring to IGWT on money and ‘under God’ in the pledge could be presented in court to prove that it really is about the xtian god and not at all generic as has been decided by courts in the past.

  • NotYou007

    I can’t wait to show this to my daughter. I really enjoyed it even though parts of it made me cringe.

  • I am from Auburn and have spoke to many of the 9th graders who attend Auburn Junior High and most have said they do not support Duncan’s beliefs at all.They are frankly in shock. They are shocked that a atheist group would be allowed to meet at school. They also said that most of them do not say anything against atheist because of the angry reaction that they may get from the atheist. It is also because of their Christain up bringing to “turn the other cheek.” This doesn’t mean they support the thought of a atheist group in anyway. As far as not getting a teacher to sponsor the group. I have to believe most are Christian. For those teachers who are not Christian, they may not be Atheist either and decided sponsoring a group no matter “how fair it may be” isn’t in the best interest of the Students.
    I hope those who are Christian pray for you and those like you.

  • Sliperslap

    I went to college at Auburn and am both surprised and proud to see such a great example of atheism coming from the deep south. I am also, like the commentor before me, skeptical of the reception this has had in Auburn, AL, but I hope everything works out for this kid. Duncan, stay true to your values and you have support from us all. War Eagle!

  • Rieux

    All other issues aside, Duncan is awesome.

  • Rich Wilson

    @kris dowdell
    As Voltaire didn’t actually say:

    “I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

    Defending Freedom isn’t about sticking up for your rights, it’s about sticking up for the rights of someone you may disagree with. You recognize that the vast majority of your students are Christian. And you say they don’t want to speak up because of an angry reaction. Can you imagine what the backlash feels like when you’re in the minority?

    Your Christian students are in no danger of being silenced in this society. The voice that is having trouble is Duncan’s.

    I hope that when you pray for Duncan, you pray that he is afforded the right to peaceably to assemble. You know, like it says in the Constitution.

  • cat

    Three cheers for Duncan! And the parents who raised him to question, organize, and advocate for what’s right. The world is a better place with Duncan in it.

  • tennismom

    @sliperslap…Are you aware that Auburn University now has an official Secular Club on campus? It was approved a year ago by the SGA.

    And you are right majority doesn’t agree with the non-believers here, but even with that said there are many that understand the laws and respect those that stand up for their beliefs whether they agree or not. It is much easier to be quiet on this subject down here, but what others can’t seem to understand when someone does speak out that they are NOT asking them to agree, change their belief system,or even understand but to respect that it’s their choice to make. They just want to be allowed the same rights the constitution affords them of free speech and freedom to believe or not. Belief or non-belief is a personal choice and not something that the masses have to agree on.

  • I still don’t think children can label themselves as ‘atheist’, much less [fill-in-your-religion].

    What do you call someone not affiliated with any religion nor any god?

  • Nice, this motivated me to contribute to the Freedom From Religion Foundation:


  • Payton

    I am an atheist and i agree with what Duncan tried to do for his community. At my school, some how- the word got out about my religious views and everyone was making fun of me for months. It still comes up every once in a while.

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