How a High School Activist Fought School Prayer and Became an Atheist Along the Way

Earlier this year, students at Indiana’s Greenwood High School voted — VOTED — to have a graduation prayer. A judge told them they couldn’t vote on such things at a public school. School officials responded by saying they wouldn’t screen student speeches beforehand (*wink wink nudge nudge*).

But one of the required speeches was from the school’s valedictorian, Eric Workman, a strong supporter of church/state separation. Here’s the transcript of his graduation speech.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation awarded Eric its Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award (along with a $1,000 scholarship) for what he did. A couple months ago, Eric accepted the award and gave a speech at FFRF’s annual convention. That speech is now available online and it’s worth a read.

During this entire process, I was of the Christian faith. This was not so much a religious issue for me as it was a legal one. The Religious Right, however, tried to turn it into a personal, religious issue. People would say to me, “The United States was founded by Christians,” or “You just want to attack Christianity,” or finally, “There is nothing wrong with prayer.”

After facing so much disdain from the vile Christian population of Greenwood and other religious persons throughout the United States, I began to deeply question belonging to a religion with such loathsome followers. Knowing that most individuals are born into a particular religion, I saw it as being illogical for one religion to be correct and for all others to be wrong, having their believers be eternally damned due to the circumstances of their birth.

Besides the loss of faith (and the gaining of reason), there’s another happy ending to Eric’s story:

After all this, I decided to settle with the School Corporation. We agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice under the conditions that I be paid nominal damages of $1 [a check, not “godless” currency] and the ACLU of Indiana be paid legal fees and court costs of $14,500.

I will be framing my check soon.

Aren’t high school activists the best? :)

  • Pony

    The great thing about doing that as valedictorian, is you don’t have to go back to that school afterwards.

  • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

    My favorite quote:
    “After facing so much disdain from the vile Christian population of Greenwood and other religious persons throughout the United States, I began to deeply question belonging to a religion with such loathsome followers.”
    No pulling punches there! :-)

  • Digitus Impudicus

    I like this quote:
    “Out of fear, I held firmly to this belief and had an imaginary friend with multiple personality disorder until last summer.”

  • http://littlelioness.net Fiona

    Glad his speech wasn’t screened :D

  • Richard P.

    I like the way people take positions to defend religion and it only drives people to away.

    Keep up the good work guys. Your doing a great job for us.

  • Richard P.

    Off topic…

    Just to mention this for those in North America where the sky will be clear, There is a lunar eclipse to night. The first lunar eclipse in 372 years to be fully seen in North America on winter soltiice. Around midnight tonight, when the earth fully hides the moon, the moon will turn red.

    I predict we will be hearing a lot about end times signs in the next few days.

    For those covered in clouds I hope to try out my new HD video for this, I will hopefully get some video and some pics for you to see.

    Pray for me to get clear skies okay…
    Hahahaha….

  • Nakor

    That would be awesome Richard, since I’m suspecting cloudy skies. As for this article, I love hearing the positive stories! Hopefully over time more and more turn out this way.

  • Epistaxis

    Dummy, you can’t deposit a check if it’s in a frame. And then the FFRF’s checkbook won’t balance. This is why they should give him a plaque or a certificate or a trophy in addition to the check.

  • sil-chan

    I think he is framing the $1 check…

  • Madame_Furie

    It was separation of church and public school that drove me away from the “faith” finally and for good. The youth leader at the (very liberal) church I attended sent out via email a screed bemoaning the lack of prayer in school written by Ben Stein.

    Shocked, I sent an email back, saying even though we are people of faith, we have no right to call for prayer in public schools because we live in a secular society that welcomes all beliefs, including lack of belief. I asked for an apology and for such intolerance not to be preached/sent out from the parish again, because that’s not the kind of parish I wanted to belong to. I never heard from the youth leader or the rector of the parish about it.

    I soon realized the problem was “faith” itself: demanding subservience to an amorphous, invisible being whose characteristics depend on the person doing the describing of said being, rather than the being itself, which has absolutely no objective reality. How absurd!

    As a person of faith, I had always believed that to try to proclaim with such certainty what “god” wants or what “god” is like is the height of arrogance. How obvious that one’s definition of “god” is subjective to the point of irrelevance. How obvious then that “god” is a human construct.

    That was it. I stayed in the church for a while for the gorgeous music – I still love sacred music – but it is human – not divine. And that is enough for me.

  • Kimpatsu

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation awarded Eric it’s Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award…
    Agghhh!!!
    Hemant! In an earlier post you said you are finicky about spelling, but what about apostrophe abuse?!

    (Hemant says: I just swore very loudly. It’s a typo. I promise I know my apostrophe rules!

  • Jeanette

    That’s so cool! What a badass kid. I love that he took the unfair/illegal policy and completely inverted it to make his far superior point. What a smart guy! I warmly welcome him to the atheist community :D

  • Hannah C

    Makes me proud to be a high schooler… for once. :D

  • Claudia

    I wonder how many religious people are aware how hateful antics drive many people away? Of course, claims about god either make sense or they don’t independently of the behavior of the faithful (or faithless), but nothing like being like a piece of shit for questioning the status quo to make you take a long hard look at your previously unquestioned assumptions.

    Kudos to Eric for taking a principled stand as a person of faith and welcome to the community :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 Donna Hamel (muggle)

    our remarkably doltish administration

    That phrase alone was priceless. What guts! It was heartening that he took a stand as a Christian but while I’m glad he’s left superstition behind, it is somewhat sad that it was the venom of his own group that got him to question. Not that I can’t understand it taking that… Of course, he showed an ability to reason even as a theist so it may have been inevitable anyway.

    What is it about religion that is so, well, mean? Even in the absence of its dying a natural death, I’m glad to see more theists taking a more principled stand. Stephen Colbert did a scatching report on the war of Christmas that very aptly called out the hypocrisy of it.

    Richard P, if your video came out I would love to see it. Please link it here!

  • P. Coyle

    While I am in hearty agreement with most of what he said, the following struck me as odd:

    The First Amendment, which states in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” implies that no entity, agent or facet (however subsidiary) of the government is to ever endorse, promote, or encourage any form of religion or religious doctrine.

    The First Amendment may imply a number of things, but surely one of the things that it does not imply is that a local high school in Indiana is a “subsidiary facet” of the Congress of the United States.

  • http://www.bluefrogdesignstudios.com/thebluefrogsays/ The Big Blue Frog

    Kudos to him for using his opportunity to address his school and the public to support church/state separation.

    The choice not to screen the speeches backfired on the school in this case.

  • heironymous

    I thought you highlighted the wrong part:
    Knowing that most individuals are born into a particular religion, I saw it as being illogical for one religion to be correct and for all others to be wrong, having their believers be eternally damned due to the circumstances of their birth.

    This was my start down the path away from Catholicism.

  • Craig

    I can throw in as another whose first steps away from faith were the realization that we were all born into a religion, and I had no place to tell a Muslim or Hindu that MY birth religion was true and theirs were not.

  • P. Coyle

    I thought you highlighted the wrong part:
    Knowing that most individuals are born into a particular religion, I saw it as being illogical for one religion to be correct and for all others to be wrong, having their believers be eternally damned due to the circumstances of their birth.

    This was my start down the path away from Catholicism.

    But not, I hope, down the path toward Calvinism :)

  • Nick Andrew

    It’s one weapon in the atheists’ toolbox of arguments against religion, but it seems most effective when the religious think of it themselves.

    Christians can easily retreat into circular logic … “all religions can’t be true, but mine is cause the bible says so”, and “the bible’s true cause it’s the word of god, it says so right here in 2 Timothy 3:15-17.”

    To break this chain we need to teach Christians that circular logic is not valid and that the bible contains many contradictions, condones atrocities, relates events which cannot logically have occurred and is the only source of many of the claims of their particular religion.