Why Atheists Should Care More About Education

I’ve been reading this post on Skepchick by Debbie Goddard, about why education should be a higher priority to the secular movement. As Debbie puts it:

I am frustrated that we-the-movement only seem to get involved with public education when a teacher puts Bible quotes on the walls of her classroom, when a football coach leads his high school team in prayer, when a science teacher spends time promoting intelligent design, when an administration prevents a student from starting an atheist club, or when a high school graduation is scheduled to take place in a church. Then we swoop in with our science advocates and Wall of Separation to make everything right…but don’t seem to worry about the fact that the high school’s graduation rate might be less than 50% and the shared science textbooks are older than the students.

Debbie cites an article by Walker Bristol on the Huffington Post, which takes an even harder line:

The atheist movement, in composition and purpose, has in the last decade failed to demonstrate a meaningful dedication to fighting economic inequality and building a safe space for nontheists regardless of their socioeconomic class. Despite all their talk of building a better world and upholding diversity, contemporary atheism and humanism’s most prominent authors and leaders have been suspiciously silent on the topic of poverty.

Now, the point is well-taken that atheists need to care about the quality of education in general, not just when creationism erupts into the classroom. A good science education makes people more rational and more skeptical; a good liberal-arts education exposes people to different cultures and different perspectives, which helps banish the fallacy that society as it exists is the immutable natural order of things. Both these trends work in our favor, and the statistics bear this out: on average, more educated people are less religious. We do need to turn back creationism or voucher schemes, but even if we accomplish all of that, it’ll do little good if public schools remain underfunded and their students underserved; they’ll still be easy prey for every streetcorner holy-roller who wants to snap them up and fill their minds with ignorance.

That said, I think Bristol’s charge that atheists don’t care about poverty or class issues is inaccurate. For instance, if we’ve been devoting most of our attention to fighting creationism, it’s not because we’re all wealthy elitists; quite the opposite. It’s because until now, the secular movement didn’t have the resources to do more than that, and often not even that. Groups like the NCSE have long chronicled the sorry state of textbooks and curricula across the country, but while the law is on our side when it comes to keeping religion out of the classroom, creating better schools in general is a far tougher structural problem, and one where we don’t have nearly as much leverage.

Now, you could say that we should be doing more, and I probably wouldn’t argue. But it’s false to say that atheists don’t care about class or that we’ve done nothing to address it. The Foundation Beyond Belief has had anti-poverty and pro-education charities as beneficiaries since the beginning, and the FFRF has been awarding scholarships for a long time. The atheist lending team on Kiva is the largest and most generous on the site. The atheist group Responsible Charity was founded to help the poor of Calcutta, and closer to home, Austin has Atheists Helping the Homeless. The American Humanist Association has an entire section devoted to humanist education, and the Center for Inquiry has online continuing education seminars and science-oriented youth camps. Doubtless there are more examples that haven’t occurred to me.

But this is a huge, pervasive problem, and there’s always more work to be done. That’s why I was pleased that Debbie’s post also linked to a scholarship fund set up by Black Skeptics Los Angeles, which is intended to help pay tuition costs for young students of color in the Los Angeles region who are the first in their immediate familes to go to college. This is an excellent idea, and it’s just the kind of thing atheists should be doing. I’ve donated some money towards it, and I encourage you to do likewise. Here’s the link:


Setting up scholarships, lobbying for school and library funding, organizing for better textbook and curricular standards – these things are hard, unglamorous, and rarely end in clear-cut victories. But in the long run, to bring about the success of the secular movement and a more rational society, they’re essential.

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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.