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!

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
On the Importance of Firebrand Atheism
Weekend Coffee: March 28
New on the Guardian: The Peaceful Side of Atheism
About Adam Lee

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

  • Ritchie

    Does anyone know if Damon Fowler did actually contact the ACLU, seeing as the graduation prayer went ahead? Enquiring minds, and all…
    It seems to me the law can’t be anywhere other than on their side here, surely?

  • joy

    Ah, but the Christians have god on their side – of course that means they are in the right. After all, doesn’t god trump man-made laws?

  • Steve Bowen

    I followed this story closely and as far as I can tell no legal challenge was actually made. It would seem to me(bear in mind I’m not American)an easy win. The girl who offered the prayer without interference from the staff did exactly the same at the rehearsal so it should have come as no surprise. As I understand it, and with it being on you tube and everything, it’s an open and shut case.

  • Andrew T.

    What strikes close to the bone about these cases (for me) is that I could have easily wound up in the exact same shoes. Suffice to say, being a closeted atheist high school student in a seemingly-homogeneous conservative and religious place is not a fun situation to be in…

    It’s truly heartening that the Fowler case was able to galvanize such a positive response from the atheist community. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are many other situations just like Fowler’s and Ahlquist’s that slip through the fingers of popular attention. Our host floated the suggestion of college scholarships for atheists from religious families in a piece a few months ago, and I’m starting to think more and more that that’s a good idea…

  • LindaJoy

    This story also illustrates how sick religion can make people mentally. To throw your own child out for taking a legal stand just to prop up your religion or the religious view of the community pretty much says it all… especially about these parents.

  • kagerato

    The root of the problem, I think, lies in the excessively authoritarian structure found in some schools. When you say that a small hierarchical group of people will make decisions as to school policy and practice, a gaping hole for abuse and intimidation opens up.

    I often find it interesting how the public schools will be criticized by reformists for this trait. The reason being that typically, what the reformists want is replacement with private schools. Yet the private institutions are no better overall regarding that issue; it’s merely that the enforced policies are different. Far too many are fans of authoritarian systems just so long as its their viewpoint which is the norm.

  • BJ Marshall

    The atheist community is doing an awesome job supporting these students … after the fact. The problem I see is that, when these students actually took a stand for the legal separation of church and state, these students did not know (least of all, expect) that so much help would come from the atheist community. I’m sure Damon wasn’t thinking, “All the internet atheists will rally behind me,” though we certainly have. Cart before the horse type of thing.

    Is there a way that we can get more proactive and encourage more students to stand up for the legal separation of church and state? Not only that, but is there a way that we can more clearly tell students “If you want to rock the boat, we will support you as best we can”?

  • themann1086

    Maybe a bigger push to get the SSA into more high schools would help there?

  • Penguin_Factory

    Is there really this much prejudice against atheism in America? Where I live something like this would never happen. I’m shocked.

  • BJ Marshall

    Where do you live? Perhaps I should move there.

  • DavidD

    #10 – Haven’t you seen the statistics? America is the most religious country in the western world. Myself, I’m learning German so I can make a getaway if I need to.

  • J. James

    This is nothing short of ASTOUNDING. His parents did WHAT?! I mean, what the fuuuuck, people!? This has passed completely from my comprehension. I literally cannot grasp this actually happening, but apparently you just can’t make this shit up. This poor kid has fallen into some sort of nightmare realm where horseshit like this passes for reality. Get him a lawyer. Better yet, get him a loving family. I am so ashamed that I share a country with such mouth-breathing inhuman insensitive imbeciles. I hope these people get sent the fuck to Iran and see how they fucking like it.

  • vjack

    I agree completely that this is yet another vital reason why we need a strong and organized secular community. I continue to be troubled by the resistance to this idea I see among my fellow atheists.

  • Andrew T.

    Yes, there really is this much prejudice against atheism in America…and it’s a sad indictment of our society that I don’t get surprised whenever a headline like this crosses my eyes.

    Personally, I feel a sensation of jealousy and frustration whenever I read comments that state how much better the disposition of atheists is outside of the US, without offering constructive suggestions for improving our circumstances here. It’s tempting to view relocation as a solution to local problems…but many of us are confined by our circumstances and don’t have the means to easily move to a different city; much less the other side of the globe.

  • Eurekus

    Is this a joke? In the land of the free. Perhaps atheists, American or other, are more ‘American’ than most.

  • kennypo65

    My son is 11 years old. If he were to “get religion”(unlikely, he is the most freethinking person I know), he would still be my son. My parental responsibility to him wouldn’t change just because we believed differently. These people are despicable. I mean, this is your CHILD for Pete’s sake. I doubt very much that he asked them to change their beliefs; he just wanted them to have his back. It never ceases to amaze me how much damage religion can do.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    Hah, sweet, go Tufts! I spent a wonderful four years there, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they wrote a nasty letter back to that pathetic little school.

  • Le Grolandais

    Although I live in North America since 3 years, it is still hard to believe people are such idiots with religion.
    In part because these stories don’t come openly in Europe, even if European think generally that American are religious people. But all of the cases described here would be only plausible from muslim zealots, the pression put by some muslim families on children are very strong, but very few people in Europe can imagine that christian can have the same behaviour, specially in a country like USA, more or less still considered as a land of freedom.

  • TextsOnRevolution

    Religion should be taken out of schools just as smoking is banned at the hospitals.