High School Atheists Don’t Want to Stay Silent Any Longer May 13, 2011

High School Atheists Don’t Want to Stay Silent Any Longer

When I was in high school, it took me a while to come out as an atheist to even my closest friends. That got easier over time, but I wasn’t about to announce it to the world at that age.

Walker Bristol, a student at Tufts, felt the same way. But his younger brother, a sophomore, is about to start a high school atheist group and Walker is amazed at how effortless it seems:

So when, a few weeks ago, my younger brother Dawson, now a sophomore at my alma mater, told me that he and his circle of friends felt the need for a Secular Student Alliance (SSA) chapter at their school, and had already drafted up a constitution and approached their principal with the idea, my eyebrows shot more than a little ways upwards. Students like Dawson have excised the fear of peer judgment and social exile for a belief in the importance of creating a like-minded community of secularists, like the many that exist and excel around the country already. His work is inspiring; but not yet triumphant. The next step, of encouraging his non-theist classmates, many of them closeted to their families or peers, to openly join the movement, is still to come, and will certainly be no easy task.

It’s really the beginning of a trend where atheists are coming out at a younger age — they don’t care if their beliefs offend anyone else, but they’re not being dicks about it. It’s about having an open discussion about who you are and not hiding from your peers what you might still have to hide from your family:

Walker summarizes it like this:

I don’t see the low (although certainly rising) number of secularist organizations in American high schools as a result of student immaturity or irresponsibility, but rather of the perceived anti-atheist and anti-humanist sentiment that is all too present among younger populations. At a younger age, not only are your peers more likely to treat you unjustly simply due to a part of your identity, but high schools students are far more likely to find themselves under the heel of religious parents and family members, as they predominately still live at home.

We need secular students to be willing to stand unfettered by peer exile or parental disapproval. At the high school age, it may not always be best to suddenly and forcefully reveal your lack of belief to your friends and family. Nevertheless, if secular communities become as strong in high schools as the religious communities they might find themselves at odds with, the humanistic or atheistic student will find herself a part of a meaningful fellowship, welcomed and protected in the face of unfounded bias. High school is, in the end, very short; relationships built in communities like these, however, can last for a lifetime.

If you want to help this trend continue on its upward trajectory, make a donation to the Secular Student Alliance. The SSA supports these groups better than anyone else out there and I know the high school groups are going to just explode this coming school year.

(via The New Humanism)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Gail

    “We need secular students to be willing to stand unfettered by peer exile or parental disapproval.”

    SSA groups are great, but I wouldn’t encourage closeted atheist students from very religious families to come out to their parents. I’d say from experience that waiting until you are independent, especially financially, is the best way to go. No, it’s not ideal pretending to be religious, but for a minor in a very religious family, admitting that you’re an atheist can create a volatile, possibly dangerous situation. I’d hate to see these groups encouraging students to come out to their parents when it could possibly cause them harm. No, it’s not ideal, but that’s how it is sometimes; I’d love to see religious parents accept their children’s different beliefs, but some parents are never going to come around and can make life very difficult for kids who admit to being atheist. For those types of students, allowing them to participate in the group while at school could provide great support, as long as they don’t have to tell their parents.

  • Cindy

    Somewhat OT…my sophomore son came home and told me that they had a Drunk Driving presentation today (which I knew about) and that it ended with a prayer. I just called the school and spoke with the VP about it. He told me that a pastor led the prayer…that it was just a general prayer for safety, blah blah. I asked if students were given the option to leave before the prayer and was told that no one knew a prayer was going to happen.
    So, what are my options? I’m not one to make a big stink about it, plus I’m hoping that my phone call lets the administration know that some parents are not happy about this kind of thing happening and maybe they’ll ask more questions of pastors before letting them speak. Should I take this further?

  • Kamaka

    @ Cindy

    My assumption is that a drunk-driving presentation includes photographic or videographic depictions of horrific car wrecks. So we have young adults who have just been exposed to intense and frightening images and are in an emotionally vulnerable state. What better time for a “pastor” (read: sheep-herder) to indoctrinate the kids?

    This is the business of religion; create a state of fear, then soothe with a prayer to a kind and loving god who will protect them from the evils of the world.

    I’m not one to make a big stink about it

    This is a public school? And the school is allowing this sheep-herder to do indoctrination on the kids after applying fear tactics in an attempt to change their behavior?

    This is not some innocent “general prayer for safety”, this is proselytizing to young folks when they have just, purposefully, had the “hell” scared out of them.

    This is religion at it’s presumptuous, bullying worst. It has no place anywhere in a civilized society, much less in a public institution that coerces our children to attend by force of law.

    Is it making a “big stink” to call out public officials who egregiously violate the law of the land?

  • He told me that a pastor led the prayer.

    What in the world was a pastor doing there in the first place?

  • Elle

    So, I’m an Atheist high school student from Indiana. Any tips on trying to start an SSA? I’m not even sure I could get a sponsor, let alone permission. If not that, is there anything else I can do?

  • Zac

    My parents have known I was atheist since I was seven, so they didn’t really have a choice but to deal with it.

  • Betty


    This is religion at it’s presumptuous, bullying worst. It has no place anywhere in a civilized society, much less in a public institution that coerces our children to attend by force of law.

    Do suspect everything in life to be a religious conspiracy, or just education?

    Also, I feel like letting kids know the dangers of drunk driving is necessary. They should be scared enough not to engage in it. No, it probably shouldn’t have been followed by a prayer but let’s be real. There was not an association of school administration masterminding a plan to force religion onto students. If they were like most high school kids they probably brushed the whole thing off anyway.

  • Walker Bristol

    @Gail: I certainly agree- every situation is different, and every student knows his or her own situation best. If right now it seems like your life will grow much more difficult by coming out as an atheist to your religious family, you should probably limit your involvement in the movement until a later time when you are, perhaps, out of high school and able to support yourself. One of the points I really wanted to make with the article, though, was that religious communities in high schools have a remarkable sense of fellowship that can, in many cases, feel like a family of its own; I am delighted to see this beginning to take form in secular high school communities, and look forward to seeing the upward trend continue in the future.

    Also, big thanks to Hemant for the post! Keep up the great work here and in your own high school endeavors.

  • Betty:

    If you have never read of teachers and administrators bringing religion into the classroom, then you obviously do not follow the news. I don’t know what you call school prayer if not an attempt to influence the “spiritual” beliefs of children. You don’t seem at all to understand principle or precedent, that when one school is given latitude to overstep its boundaries in this fashion, others will find encouragement to do likewise.

  • Cindy:

    Contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation (http://ffrf.org/legal/report/).

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