What’s It Like Running a High School Atheist Group?

Devin Leaman runs a high school Secular Student Alliance affiliate group in California. Perhaps you think it’d be easy for him to do that in a state like CA but, as this email shows, it’s much harder than it seems.

Devin starts by referencing the idea that it’s tough to find a teacher willing to sponsor/advise the group:

[That] is sadly very true. I say this because I’m a senior at Redlands High School and the President of the SSA club at my school. When we were starting it up this year we needed a faculty advisor and we couldn’t find anyone willing to do it. We talked to three different teachers before the final one finally pointed me in the direction of one of the few (if not only) Atheist teachers at my school. We went to him and he loved the idea.

Even after we started the group we faced quite a bit of hostility from people. Many people consider our school a very conservative school because the majority of the kids who attend happen to have parents who are deep in their faiths and their kids are beginning to follow it. We had made the club official with the school and everything was going great. We had planned on meeting three weeks later so we had time to plan things and spread the word of the new club. We are actually the very first club of this sort at my school from what I have been told, and it shows.

On the first week we took the flyers that the SSA had sent us as part of the packet they send out with our information on it regarding our contact information about meetings and such. We posted them the morning before school and easily had 100-150 flyers up before school had started.

By the end of the day, only three remained.

We knew it wasn’t just people tearing them down as a joke; we found pieces of our flyers all over the campus. A funny thing actually happened before we began to meet and that was everyone in the school — and I literally mean EVERYONE — knew about our club; but no one knew who the teacher sponsoring it was or who the president/vice president was. So I would sit in class and listen to kids talking down about us and laughing to one another when they would say, “Yeah, I tore a few of their flyers down and threw them away. They need to leave us alone.”

Then, I would inform them that I was the president and that I would appreciate it if they would quit tearing them down because they aren’t free. I’m a bit of a big guy so they tend to stop tearing down our flyers. After we began to meet, and things became a routine, the amount of vandalism of our flyers began to come down. We still hear quite a bit about people wanting to get us filed as a hate group or sent out of the school because we’re idiots and going to burn in hell (I’ve heard quite a few students say this word for word). But thankfully, our advisor is a smart guy and knows they have no reason to ban us from proceeding or doing anything. If things were to go down that path, we’d be more than willing to stand up for our right to have this club.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up as an atheist in high school, especially when you’re coming from a conservative area. I’m impressed by what they’ve done so far just to get the group started. Can you imagine the impact of a dozen groups like this? A hundred?

We need more young student leaders like Devin willing to put themselves out there so that other atheists can find them.

It also raises another question: What would you advise groups like this to do during their meetings?

Keep in mind that the rules/restrictions are much more stringent in high school than in college.

  • Jon

    This article highlights the current cultural paradigm in America: Victimology. Everyone’s a victim and if you have a story, perhaps it will garner some attention and support.

    I.e., I’m a victim, this is the story of how I’ve (in this case we) been victimized. Look, see! Look at how they tear down our flyers! Look at the comments they make behind our back!

    No doubt, Christian groups do this as well. You could switch out “atheist” in this article with “Christian” and it would still be coming from the “victimized” standpoint.

    So maybe you guys have more in common than you think.

  • venus

    Jon, he’s stating facts. There was not a bit of whining, it was stating facts about how difficult it had been. He stood up for himself and his beliefs, in spite of the nastiness he got in return. I don’t get a victim vibe at all…. from him…. but the line “they need to leave us alone” SCREAMS victim.

  • JM

    Completely beside the point, Jon, and maybe not even true. My high school had the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and prayers by the flagpole before school started and nobody did anything to them as far as I know. (The prayer group was only about twenty students but the FCA was one of the largest.) They had a ton of faculty support, appearances on the morning announcements, presentations at assemblies, etc. But when one of my friends started a Gay/Straight Alliance, the only group that would be similar to an atheist club, you saw different treatment. Same thing with the posters torn down, the mockery and outrage, even a few students plotting to stand outside their classroom and take down names. She told me the principal received some letters from upset parents and community members. She wasn’t allowed to have pictures in the yearbook or a table with the other extracurriculars during sign-up day. But it’s not victimology because like Devin, it made them more resolved. He’s not crying about it on FA. He’s just noting that he’s found wonderful support from a teacher and encountered only a few closed minds. Honestly I would’ve expected a bit more negativity (that’s what I get for living in Ohio) so I found his story very hopeful.

    Of course, when Christians think they’re being attacked these days, it’s usually because they’ve been prevented from attacking someone else. And the Bible says they’ll be hated for the faith so it’s all self-fulfilling and self-serving.

  • KeithLM

    Jon, the minority group here is being called a hate group and people are attacking them just because they exist. The ones pretending to be victimized are the Christians who are attacking them because the very idea that someone thinks different from them somehow hurts them.

    It’s the same with the billboards, Christians are being offended by something that’s not even directed at them and doesn’t mention them.

  • sc0tt

    What would you advise groups like this to do during their meetings?

    1 – some charitable function like volunteering at the food bank, or helping with an adult literacy program.

    2 – some academic function maybe to help students with their government / civic / citizenship projects.

    3 – some school pride function like painting an outbuilding.

    I think they should be careful about any event that depends on the participation of students outside the group (dance, blood-drive) because the other students might be unwilling to associate themselves with the SSA and then the lack of participation would be seen as a sign of the group’s failure.

  • Denise

    These kids have my full support and I admire their bravery. In high school settings, the pressure to fit in can be overbearing, I wish more kids were like this and willing to stand up against the grain. It’s easy to side with the popular attitude and go along with what everyone else says but it takes guts to stick to your own beliefs in the face of prejudice.

    Viva critical thinking and free thought!!

  • JD

    I don’t see where this is some kind of victimhood situation if any of the facts are true.

    Christians seem to be the #1 group that uses special pleading. Atheism is not a hate group and the existence of atheists is in no way a threat to people that believe something else. One student quoted in the article complains about the SSA needing to leave them alone, but a flier about a voluntary even isn’t meddling with anyone’s lives by any stretch of the imagination. Heck, tearing down fliers is some kind of internally justified form of vandalism, like the billboard examples, where you get Christians that think it’s OK to break the law or harass people because they’re on the “right” side.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    “They need to leave us alone!”….by what, not existing?
    Can these kids not even FATHOM that someone else has right to their own religious beliefs?

  • KimchiGUN

    Go SSA! Good for them!!

  • Siamang

    Some proposed activities:

    Reading group… pick a book by someone like Sam Harris or Dawkins or Hitchens or Mehta, and have folks read along and discuss.

    Or if these books aren’t available in sufficient numbers at the local library for everyone, have people take turns and give oral book reports on a book, followed by discussion of the issues brought up.

    Current events report. Allow anyone to print out a current event in the news of interest to the Atheist/Agnostic/Skeptic/Freethinking/Secular community, and bring it up during current events time. Discuss issue. For example: Church/State issue with a Christmas display on state property in Washington.

    Personal story reports: Give people ten minutes to report on their deconversion story, their backstory in skepticism, or any personal experience or run-in with religious family members etc. This could be funny, sad, touching or just sharing for support.

  • Jon

    I suppose I was looking too much for the article to fit what I was thinking they (the Redlands SSA) thought of themselves.

    BUT, I mean c’mon, what if the content of the article was shorter than the title?:

    “What’s It Like Running a High School Atheist Group?”

    “Oh, it’s easy.”

    The End

    My point is, is that it’s easy to substitute perspectives and have the same resulting themes of persecution, perseverance, and courage. Go on a Christian blog, you will find very similar stories and yes, they WILL be just as valid, except that it’s from another standpoint. Perhaps, with the US being predominantly Christian (I have no statistics, sorry), we do have more stories of Atheist groups having more difficulty starting up. But that doesn’t negate my point of switched perspective.

  • Silent Service

    BlueRidgeLady,

    No, in fact, they can’t. I encounter that mentality all the time. I’ve met thousands of Christians who believe that it is not actually possible to not believe in their god. That’s where the, “Why do you hate God?” concept comes from. They can’t comprehend you not believing in their imaginary friend because that imaginary friend is very real to them.

  • Ben

    It has to be difficult to run an “atheist” group because atheists don’t believe in a god and by defintion that’s it. The SSA seems to not only be an atheist group but also a political and social group. Atheists are not a political nor social monolith.

  • Silent Service

    Jon,

    No, it looks very much like you’re pigeonholing a story into your preconception. Especially since Devin pointed out how things have gotten better since they got the group off the ground, “After we began to meet, and things became a routine, the amount of vandalism of our flyers began to come down.” That’s hardly taking a victim stance. Nor is pointing out things people are saying that are rude and hurtful. Devin did not claim that people have been active against his group; only that they have been talking about it. That’s free speech and they have a right to complain if they don’t like us.

    Victim blatherers claim that action is being taken against them when no suck action exists, or claim that an action that does not directly affect them is having a negative effect on them. That’s why they complain about things like the Bus Campaign or Atheist Billboards. They feel like the existence of such things harms them when it in fact does not. That would be claiming to be victimized.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @Ben: I’ve never seen such insightful wisdom expressed so succinctly!

    @sc0tt: I would advise the group to plot to sue every public institution that gives meaningless lip service to God – get that shit chiseled off the buildings! That would perform a constructive social service that would immediately win friends in both the school and the surrounding community. Go team curmudgeon!

    As for your other suggestions – charity, tutoring, school spirit – no one gives a shit about those. People want something with shock value. Without it they’ll just change the channel.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    Jon’s arguments make no sense.

    i like the idea that the group do selected readings from atheist classics, as well as current events review. there are plenty of stories about how religion negatively is affecting our society right now, and these kids should raise awareness not only in themselves about that, but their fellow believing students as well. would that be hard? of course. but i bet there are more doubters in the school than just the kids brave enough to join the SSA. i also like the idea of challenging on of the school’s religious orgs to a debate. heh, i remember back in Div school, my (atheist) advisor took on the Bible Study group, all of them at the same time. he wiped the floor with them, it was hilarious. but i would imagine a debate on a topic like “does god exist” using the old fashion and civilized style of debating (no shouting, fact based arguments, equal time, that sort of thing) would be tremendously successful and controversial in the good way, at a school like this.

  • Ben Zalisko

    I have started and led two SSA’s as an undergrad and graduate student for a total of 4 years of activist atheism. I have always been an atheist, as is my family, and I’m about as outspoken as they come.

    However, I couldn’t imagine being a part of an SSA in highschool. I grew up in southern Illinois, a democrat stronghold, but also strongly Christian. Throughout my entire life there, I never admitted to being an atheist out of fear of persecution. That didn’t stop the jeers, rejection, and even intimidation that resulted from my non-christianity. If pressed I strongly denied being an atheist (my conscience winced painfully) and called myself agnostic or unitarian because no one knew what they meant. In the toughest of binds I would even call myself “presbyopian”. Look it up.

    I think that highschools are the frontlines of oppression. Students have neither the ability nor the freedom to organize against school action that is seen on colleges. Socially, majority-rule peer pressure is an unstoppable force when it comes to impressionable minds.

    I wish I had more concrete suggestions, but I think college SSA’s need to focus on helping highschool atheists come out, get organized, and address oppressive school policies.

  • LeAnne

    I’d suggest using the idea that atheists can be moral people, too. I think it’s a great idea to work off of, considering most people think that we’re ‘devil worshippers’ (kind of hard to worship the devil when you don’t believe in him, eh?) or that we’re horrible human beings. Work off of the idea that you don’t need church to be moral and make good decisions (obviously.. considering the church folk are the ones vandalizing the fliers)

  • LeAnne

    Also, I REALLY wish there was a group like this at my high school. If there were resources like this, I may have come to the conclusion that I was an atheist way sooner.

  • http://kpharri.wordpress.com/ Keith

    A crucial activity for any atheist group in a largely non-atheist setting is to raise awareness about what being atheist really means.

    There are many activities that can do this. Hemant’s practice of speaking at meetings of Christian groups is an excellent idea, which is easily translatable to the high school context, i.e. get in touch with a Christian student group and organize a get-together. A more direct debate format, if properly moderated, might be a good idea too, since it is educational on many levels.

  • Jon

    @SilentService

    I think you were commenting on my first post, hopefully, I think I had the consciousness to correct myself enough, hence my beginning statement in my second post:

    “I suppose I was looking too much for the article to fit what I was thinking”

    @ChicagoDyke

    I explained my argument, I think some people may agree with that. The numbers may overwhelmingly be against atheists, that does not make my point any less valid. You did not explain why my argument did not make sense.

  • tennismom

    Completely understand where Devin is coming from! We are still in the beginning phases of getting a club started at my son’s Jr High. It’s very frustrating, but there are two tenured teachers that he has found that might be able to sponsor them. One he has spoken with the other has told him to come see him before school when he has a chance (hopefully next week). We have made it clear to the teachers, that it’s ok if they don’t agree with our philosophies on issues as long as they agree to support the kids in the venture and be there as an adviser without being judgmental of their beliefs or lack there of. The principal is the one that is blocking the progress, and there was a teacher who wanted to sponsor them but is not tenured so had to step back for now. This teacher has promised to step back in and help once everything is approved and going. The principal gave us no real reason for not approving them, except to say “Not on HIS Campus”. We have given him enough time to understand the legality of this, so time to move to the next phase. We did find out that the school was already under investigation by the ACLU for an incident last year, so I think this will get more interesting before it’s resolved.

    I wish more kids were willing to stand up for what’s right, and fortunately my son has found that some of his Christian friends do stand up and tell others when enough is enough and support their friends in their right to have this club.

    I know it shouldn’t, but it still amazes me how many take offense with another’s beliefs (or lack of) and turn it into a personal attack on those they don’t agree with.

    ** Thank you Hemant for your suggestions, support, and for chatting with us recently! Keep up the good work.

  • tennismom

    Oh forgot to answer the question…
    Community Service such as helping at the Humane Society, Food Bank, offering to volunteer at a State Park.

    Also of course a major goal would be to teach tolerance through actions.

  • MammaG

    I agree with the suggestions for activities. We need to challenge the misconception that good deeds are not possible without being organized or inspired by deities.
    We can be (and are) good without gods.

  • Someone

    The most important part is, I think, to make this club do social events that bring people together. It’s been pointed out many times – there’s overwhelming peer pressure. So, in addition to doing some explicitly atheist-themed things, there should be a healthy dose of things that have mostly social value for the people that attend, and are explicitly a way for the club members to get to know each other.

    Specific suggestions for events – movies and later discussion. Any sort of topic that tangentially involves religion or atheism works – it doesn’t have to be something as direct like Religulous.

    Community-service things (blood drive, charity, etc.) are a good idea too.

  • John

    Play youtube videos like “an atheist call to arms” by Richard Dawkins or other debate videos – even some videos about the fact of evolution and proofs that counter christion creationism like the foundational myths of creationsim by aaron ra

    also of course outreach organization for the homeless and hungry as well as donations toward any of the various causes – everyone ought to find those things admirable

  • Derek

    I also run an atheist group at my school, and it has been a bit difficult. My school doesn’t allow any fliers for clubs except in one special glass case, so vandalism isn’t a problem. The biggest challenge was finding an adviser, we must have asked at least seven teachers. The one who finally agreed isn’t even an atheist, but an agnostic leaning towards belief in god. We have only a few members, and we have a hard time finding more because even the students who aren’t religious don’t care enough to join a club. Our adviser is also worried about several things including our very religious principal, and he doesn’t know what we can and cannot talk about (I told him that there shouldn’t be a problem, but he still wants us to look into it). I am worried that once we become more well known, we will face hateful contempt from many of the students as we are in a town in Utah with a high Mormon population, but so far it hasn’t been a problem.

  • ASD

    Do volunteering stuff. If you’re feeling a bit gutsy, pick the same volunteering activity as the nearest Christian group.

    Always have a backup communication system. Email is good, but don’t keep the adresses where people can find them. Word of mouth is better if you can rely on people to remember. Always be prepared to make last-minute changes to meeting times and places.

    Always have a backup meeting place, preferably one that no student can interrupt (e.g. book a classroom you know will be unused, or choose an area of the school grounds that is well within sight of teachers).

    Always know who the highest authorities in the school are. Be prepared to have to jump over student’s and teacher’s heads to go to them with complaints.

    Lastly, any chance you get to speak at the school, go for it. Even if you don’t get to, the fact that you’re making the attempt shows initiative.

    And don’t let other students intimidate you. They have no authority over you. They have no power either. (Don’t let teachers intimidate you either – you might need backup from your parents there though.)

    It would’ve been nice to have had a proper atheist group at my high school, but my friends and I never really got to it. I was only there for three years anyway, and it would’ve died out as soon as we’d left, I think.

  • http://littlelioness.net Fiona

    I just want to wish him good luck!

  • TychaBrahe

    You think this is surprising in California? You don’t know much about California. It’s not all Hollywood/San Francisco/Westwood/San Diego.

    Redlands is in the Inland Empire. It’s about 30 miles from the Cabazon Dinosaurs, home of a Young Earth Creationism museum, and sixty miles from Saddleback Valley Community Church, the sixth largest megachurch in the US, with a congregation of over 22,000, and only 20 miles from Harvest Christian Fellowship, with a congregation of 15,000.

    Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were from California. Current politicians include Darrell Issa, Mary Bono, Tom McClintock, and Dana Rohrabacher.

    Barbara Coe and Glenn Spencer are from California. So was Carl Karcher. Susie Carpenter MacMillan is based out of Orange County. Jim Gilchrist started the Minutemen in San Diego County.

    There are a heck of a lot of very, very conservative Christianist Republicans in California.

  • http://reanhouse.blogspot.com Sarah

    I love the irony of them calling the club a hate group. Beautiful.

    Good luck Devin!

  • Ben

    Maybe someone can clear me up on this thought: why is it necessary for this group to mention anything about it’s atheism? Hear me out. Theists do good works because their religion tells them to do so. To me this implies that theists wouldn’t do the good works if they weren’t compelled to by gawd. The SSA isn’t doing the good works because of their atheism but presumably because of their humanism. Why not call the group “Random of Acts of Kindness?” (There is a group called this at my school where I teach.) In other words, how is their atheism relevant to them doing good works and deeds? Just asking.

  • Michelle

    Like any other group the first order would be to have clear goals and purpose. I agree with the idea of doing useful things. If and when they feel it would be beneficial an ‘interfaith’ conversation may work very well. Some people are not worth bothering with, but others are open to grown-up conversations and would build a stronger network of people who can work together even when they don’t agree on why they are doing it.

  • Ishin

    My daughter is trying to get an SSA group started at her high school. The adminstration has been supportive but she cannot seem to find an advisor. The one of the first teachers they apporached backed out after saying yes. They are still trying. But on the good side they got a good response to the existence of their facebook group with over 20 students signing up.

  • Ishin

    Ben one of the reasons to have a group that is openly atheist is to empower the kids to feel good about their beliefs. Also it lets kids who have not come out yet know that they are not alone. Community service is only part of what such a group could be involved with.

  • ewan

    how is their atheism relevant to them doing good works and deeds

    Who said they were going to be doing ‘good works’ in the first place? This group could serve a valuable and perfectly valid role simply as a self-help mutual support group for atheists.

  • Hannah C

    There’s an SSA group at Redlands High School? I live a town over, and I am impressed! :D
    The Inland Empire definitely isn’t known for it’s openness when it comes to religion, and that definitely trickles down into our high schools. I’m VP of the Gay Straight Alliance at my school, and while things have mostly settled down, it was extremely hard to start up just a few years ago. I don’t even know how my school would react to a club like this… Hmm…

  • Maseca

    TychaBrahe and Hannah C said what I was going to. Not all of California is a liberal haven. A fairly small part of it is.

    The Inland Empire is very conservative, and very religious. I’m not at all surprised to see these problems in Redlands.

  • Ty

    How exactly do you go about setting up a SSA club at a school?
    I’ve been toying around with the idea of starting an atheist club at my high school, but I’m not sure how to get things going.

  • tennismom

    @Ty…find out how many members your school requires to start a club, for instance our school system requires only 3 members to get things underway, but the catch is that you must have a teacher willing to sponsor the club. The thing we learned is your are much better off to make sure you find a tenured teacher to fill this role. The SSA website also has great info to help out in starting a club.
    My son has 8 ready to jump in running, but our hold up has been getting a tenured teacher to sign on…a couple good leads though and he will talk to one of them next week. We have already told his principal that the boys will canvas the campus until they find someone tenured to fill this role. I posted above about a little of what my son has been dealing with in his venture to do this, but he is determined, as are the others that want this club and I know it will happen (just a matter of when). Good luck in your ventures of looking into and possibly getting an SSA started at your school.

  • icebiker

    kudos to the teachers willing to take on the potential career risk associated with running the atheist group. There are few environments as petty, vicious, and political as a local public school system.

  • http://cultwords.blogspot.com/ P.

    Here’s an idea: among other things, secular community service. Imagine what it would do to people’s perceptions of the “militant atheist” to hear about a bunch of high schoolers who just happen not to follow religion doing awesome things in the community and for charities.

  • Xan

    My friends and I have been thinking of forming our own atheist alliance at our school, and I have to say, this article was helpful and inspiring. Thanks for posting it.


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