Standing Up for Young Freethinkers

This is another story that broke while I was away in Spain, but I wanted to write about it. I’m sure it will no longer come as news, but it’s definitely worth commenting on.

Greta Christina sums it up on Alternet, but in brief: A Louisiana public high school student, Damon Fowler, objected to a prayer that his school planned to have at the graduation ceremony. What followed was a flood of hatred, harassment and violent threats from seemingly the entire town. A teacher at his school openly demeaned him in a newspaper interview, saying that “this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything”. Damon’s own parents, proving themselves to be the biggest bigots in the entire mob, disowned him and kicked him out of the house. (He’s currently living with his brother in Texas. One of the most amazing parts of this is that such an intelligent and principled young man could come from a house where hate and resentment clearly reign supreme.) And to top it off, at the graduation, the school had the prayer anyway.

Damon Fowler isn’t the only student activist who’s faced a backlash for standing up for the Constitution. In Rhode Island, a high school sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist has spearheaded a campaign to get a large and blatantly illegal “School Prayer” banner removed from her school’s auditorium. When the school board refused, she agreed to be named as a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit. Again, the response from both students and teachers (not to mention the mayor) was predictable:

The morning after the press release, I walked into homeroom. The first thing I was greeted by were my classmates gossiping about how “mad retarded” I am for doing this. These students mind you, do not speak to me. Here they are passing judgment on me and what I believe without having talked to me for even a second. As I sat down, I said “good morning” to a couple of my peers who did not return the friendly gesture or even acknowledge my existence. During the pledge that morning, the students in my homeroom turned and yelled “Under GOD!” at me. The teacher said and did nothing.

Friendly Atheist has a series of posts about the Rhode Island church-state controversy and Jessica’s involvement, including a video interview.

I’m not really surprised that student activists like Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist are bullied, harassed and ostracized by their peers. Most teenagers are insecure and conformist, and they’ll take any excuse to punish someone who stands out or acts differently from the crowd. But what’s truly disgusting is that the teachers, the parents, the school officials, and the community – the people who are theoretically the mature adults in these situations, the ones who are supposed to know better – joined wholeheartedly in this immature, high-school-esque insulting and belittling of anyone who doesn’t conform to arbitrary community standards of expected behavior. At least for them, their obnoxiously public religious beliefs haven’t improved their moral sentiments, only multiplied their viciousness toward those who won’t wear the expected marks of tribal conformity.

So far, none of this is new – there have always been students and families who bravely stood up to religious imposition in schools, and who were bullied, assaulted or run out of town for it. Just look at AU’s roll call of church-state heroes and the backlash they faced from small-minded bullies:

Abington High School’s principal… actually wrote a letter to officials at Tufts University, where Ellery had been accepted, labeling him a troublemaker and urging them to deny him admission.

But what’s different now – in cases like Damon Fowler’s, or Jessica Ahlquist’s, or Eric Workman’s, or Constance McMillen’s, or Matt LaClair’s – is that there’s a secular community standing behind them. The FFRF has offered Damon a $1000 student activist award, his Facebook page has attracted over 15,000 supporters, and a donation drive on Friendly Atheist raised an astonishing total of over $30,000 to help him pay for college.

This is the most important function that “out” atheists can serve. Many freethinkers, especially the young ones, face unimaginable hatred and hostility just for having the courage to assert their rights. And we can’t stop all of it, but we can stand in solidarity with them and let them know that they aren’t alone. We can provide a safety net for those who are weighing whether to declare their identity, and by so doing, make them more likely to take that step and further expand and strengthen our community. What the religious bullies want is to force conformity – to make everyone think and behave like they do – and, I have to admit, I enjoy nothing more than the vicarious thrill of showing them that they can’t make us bow to them!

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.