New York Times Profiles High School Atheist Group

There is a wonderful article in Monday’s New York Times by Michael Winerip in which he profiles a high school atheist group.

It’s rare to see a group like that discussed in print, and probably rarer to see it in a positive light, but that’s what you have here:

Club members discussed what to do about Faith Week. Rutherford High’s two Christian clubs will be sponsoring a series of before-school prayer circles around the flagpole this week, and several of the atheists felt a need to respond in some way. “We can set up informational tables near the flagpole and do our own speeches,” said Mr. [Michael] Creamer, who suggested waiting a few weeks. “Remember, we’re not trying to be confrontational; this will be a counterpoint.”

Mr. Creamer, 47, an English teacher and longtime atheist who grew up in a family of Free Will Baptists, is constantly urging club members to “be friendly, put on those smiles — people don’t expect that from atheists.”

A lot of the story focuses on the faculty members who sponsor the atheist and Christian groups — it shows the importance of having interested, active faculty sponsors at that level. (I only wish there was more information about the students joining the atheist group.) Still, Creamer seems like a good guy to lead a group like this.

Long before there was an atheist club, Mr. Creamer was open about his atheism. And yet as Joshua, the Christian club president, says, “He lets you know what he believes, but I’ve never seen him try to convert anyone.”

Mr. Creamer teaches his students that if they are going to stick out their necks for unconventional ideas, they better not stick out for any of the wrong reasons. “Mr. Creamer told us, as an atheist, you have to be on your best behavior,” said Nick Machuca, a junior.

The interaction between the heads of the atheist group and one of the Christian groups is probably my favorite part of the article:

Joshua Mercer, a senior, who is president of Ignite, a Christian club, and Jim [Dickey], the atheist president, are close friends. They love comparing philosophies, and giving each other a hard time. “We like to go to Taco Bell together,” Joshua said.

Still, he worries about Jim and the other atheists. “If they don’t accept Jesus Christ as a savior, they will definitely go to hell,” said Joshua, who rises at 4:30 each morning to read the Bible with his grandmother.

At least he’s honest…?

Makes for great conversation, I’m sure. But that’s really what you want to stress in high school. The students are finally at an age where they can “find” themselves, discover who they are, and decide what they really think about some of the beliefs they grew up with. You want them interacting with people who have different points of view. It won’t be long before inflexibility sets in for many of them…

The article mentions how the Christian group’s faculty sponsor opposed a dialogue between the two groups because it might “turn into a debate.” That’s unfortunate. You can have a respectful debate. Those are the dialogues faculty sponsors should be advocating, not opposing. Go have them. Moderate them. If students get uncomfortable because their religious (or non-religious) views are challenged, that’s a good thing.

Of course, I’m thrilled that the Secular Student Alliance is mentioned in the piece:

There have long been college atheist clubs, and at present there are an estimated 240 nationwide, said J. T. Eberhard, 29, of the national Secular Student Alliance. But recently they have been springing up at high schools. In the last three months, the number has risen to 21 from 12, Mr. Eberhard said.

The alliance, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, provides support services to atheist organizations. Several months ago, the Stiefel Freethought Foundation donated $50,000, enabling Mr. Eberhard to organize full time at high schools. His target is 50 clubs by year’s end.

Go, JT! Since he was hired only a couple months ago, its very impressive the number has almost doubled. Just wait till the fall arrives, when he can make a push for groups to form at the beginning of the school year.

There’s also a nice quick explanation in the article about why these groups are even allowed to exist in the first place. (Thanks, Christian Right!)

The federal law permitting extracurricular clubs to use public schools before and after hours was passed in 1984 after lobbying by conservative church groups. Bible study clubs grew fruitful and multiplied, replenishing the Christian faith throughout the land. Then things took a turn to the left. The law required equal access, and gay-straight clubs started popping up.

And now this.

So, to all the high-school students at public schools nationwide, there’s nothing stopping you from starting an atheist group of your own. If you want to start a group, you can. If the administration stands in your way, the SSA will help you deal with that.

Side note: It’s nice to see some of the female atheist group members in the picture accompanying the article (and chromosome images on the wall)! But, again, I wish the students were in the foreground and not the background.

***Update***: There’s a better picture in this version of the article:



  • Lauren S.

    I think it is troubling that highschool students must be under the added stress of representing all atheists. while many people will make generalizations about atheists based on one person they meet, it is exhausting having to be the face of anything.

    If you’re having a bad day, you shouldn’t have the added burden of having to “smile” so that people know atheists are friendly.

    the point should not be that atheists are good people, but that they are people. And just like everyone else we have flaws. some are jerks, some do great humanitarian work, and some do humanitarian work while being jerks. People are complex, and while we should strive to be the best people we can, we must acknowledge that no one person can represent a movement, and it is ok to be flawed.

  • http://pedagogic-verses.blogspot.com/ Luc Duval

    “And now this.” Heavens, no! Definitely a positive article. Nice review, too.

    I hope that high schools catch on to the idea of having moderated discussions (like Hemant prefers) instead of debates. Public dialogue about these things are valuable.

  • Kenny

    I could never be in any of those “good behavior” atheist clubs. Someone tells me I’m going to hell I’ll tell them they are a stupid delusional dickface.

  • dauntless

    “We like to go to Taco Bell together,” Joshua said.

    Is that a euphemism?

  • http://people.tamu.edu/~kbean1988 Keri

    I am merely commenting at the irony of the “Mid-America Christian University” as the ad on the top of the page for this…

  • Richard P.

    Our goal,” she said, “is not to confuse anyone.”

    Aww… A little confusion to make the kids think.

    No!! we wouldn’t want to have that. I think it’s best if we just tell them what to think instead.
    Damn atheists….

    “If he will accept Jesus in his heart, he has a free ride to heaven.”

    Now, isn’t that really what it’s all about. The free ride.
    Damn Christians….

  • Daniel

    Heh. Female, ROTC, Atheist High Schooler in the photo.

    So many atheist stereotypes broken at once. 😀

    My best friend in high school was also very religious, and we maintained our friendship in spite of a multitude of fights.

    He’s also now an Atheist.

  • Kate

    Okay. So I’m a senior in high school and I’ve found these recent articles about atheist clubs extremely interesting. I’ve been thinking about it and am interested in maybe doing something similar – a humanist club. I toyed with an atheistic or secular humanist club for awhile, but I honestly want to involve people from secular *and* spiritual backgrounds and involve them in honest discussions geared towards learning/mutual understanding as well as community service and awareness events. So I’m sort of wondering how to go about all this. I don’t have much time (I’m in several clubs/organizations and can’t attend as often as I’d like), so finding a sponsor/time to meet before the year is out could be difficult. At the same time, my school doesn’t have anything of the sort and I know several people who would benefit/be interested. So it seems important to get it started. Would anyone be willing to provide some advice as to how to go about this? Especially in the event a faculty sponsor can’t be found. I tried to form and Amnesty International group a couple of years ago and none of the faculty were willing to help. Thanks. 😀

  • maddogdelta

    Boy, working in a school district with a union that won’t let you get fired for being an atheist is pretty sweet…

    School districts in Texas, OTOH…..

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Positive press is good.

    “If they don’t accept Jesus Christ as a savior, they will definitely go to hell,” said Joshua

    This kind of comment makes me wonder why they worship such a deity. They are acknowledging that the being that they believe in is cruel to his creations without any good reason. Do they then worship this god out of fear? I just don’t get it.

  • http://considertheteacosy.wordpress.com Consider the Tea Cosy

    I’ve gotta say, I found this very telling:

    “My reaction is faith in Jesus Christ is not at all logical,” [Harrell] said. “When your beliefs are based on faith, you’re believing something you can’t see. Being able to prove that scientifically in a debate — it could be hard to win.”

    Scared of losing your members, eh? 😉

    But also, this is so fantastic! High school can be such an isolating time for people, it’s great that these groups are being formed. But as for the advice that the kids were given to be friendly- I can see where he’s coming from. When you’re a member of a minority and have to deal with misunderstanding and stereotyping, you spend an awful lot of time walking a tightrope between expressing yourself and being even more stereotyped. It’s a difficult one, but teaching kids to counter stereotypes with a friendly face is a hell of a good strategy.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    The picture from the NYT article is better. A student is in the foreground with other students and the advisor behind her. The caption is pretty cool. She originally participated in the atheist and a Christian club. She stopped going to the Christian club around Christmas.

  • Claudia

    @Consider the Tea Cosy, that was my favorite part. She’s clearly afraid of the superiority of the atheist arguments. She says she doesn’t want to “confuse” anyone; i.e She’s afraid her arguments for faith won’t stand a chance against rigorous scrutiny.

    I love the accompanying photo. Not only are all three atheist students young women (myth dispelled: Atheism is a guy thing), one of them is wearing a ROTC uniform (myth dispelled: No atheists in foxholes – and she’s a cadet leader!) and they have chromosomes in the background (yay science!). Very well constructed.

  • Claudia

    @Kate, the Secular Student Alliance exists for students like yourself. They can help you get started.

  • Jenea

    I’m pretty sure that’s a “K,” not a chromosome. Still. :)

  • http://www.meetup.com/GrassrootsAtheism/ Chris McLaughlin

    Why is it that every time that a story is written comparing an atheist organization to a Christian organization, of all the things that the author chooses to publish, they ALWAYS feel obliged to include some version of this:

    “If they don’t accept Jesus Christ as a savior, they will definitely go to hell,” said Joshua.

    But never does the author provide some version of a counter-argument, for instance, that living with a false belief, such as Christianity, has negative consequences in life, such as being a waste of time and effort(Joshua wakes up every morning at 4:30 am to study the Bible).

  • shen

    Side note: It’s nice to see some of the female atheist group members in the picture accompanying the article (and chromosome images on the wall)! But, again, I wish the students were in the foreground and not the background.

    It would make a better picture too. Give it more focus. Also make it more symbolic. As an advisor, he should be in the background supporting them. Good article though.

  • Blacksheep

    Hover,

    This kind of comment makes me wonder why they worship such a deity. They are acknowledging that the being that they believe in is cruel to his creations without any good reason. Do they then worship this god out of fear? I just don’t get it.

    As you know, we don’t worship God based upon whether or not His actions seem fair to us, we worship Him because we believe He is real. What If we had 100% certainty that the God of the Bible existed, yet he seemed cruel? Would we choose not to believe in Him? There are different ways to debate truth, but how likable or pleasant something is has never been one of them.

  • Blacksheep

    (myth dispelled: No atheists in foxholes – and she’s a cadet leader!)

    For that myth to be dispelled she’ll have to at least leave the library first…

  • mike

    “who rises at 4:30 each morning to read the Bible with his grandmother.”

    I would have left that part out if I were him. That is soooooooo lame. Let’s see which club do I want to join?: the atheists with the chicks and the cool faculty advisor who looks a little like Alec Baldwin, or the christians with no nightlife and early morning bible readings.

    I actually tried joining a bible study group when I was 17. But waking up at 6:00am to attend bible study before school was the epitome of uncool, and I was(am) a nerd so I know what uncool is.

  • ACN

    For that myth to be dispelled she’ll have to at least leave the library first…

    MAAF would like to have a word with you…

  • Blacksheep

    MAAF would like to have a word with you…

    I buy that one. I wasn’t buying uniform-in-library as proof of much.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Blacksheep

    As you know, we don’t worship God based upon whether or not His actions seem fair to us, we worship Him because we believe He is real.

    Actually I don’t know that. I really have no idea why you worship a god at all. I believe that plenty of unpleasant, violent, cruel things are real. I see no reason to worship them.

    What If we had 100% certainty that the God of the Bible existed, yet he seemed cruel? Would we choose not to believe in Him?

    There is a difference between belief and worship.

    There are different ways to debate truth, but how likable or pleasant something is has never been one of them.

    Luckily I’m pretty sure that gods of any kind aren’t real and the evidence isn’t against me. The problem is yours and not mine.

  • Karen

    Fantastic story – I was so psyched this morning when I read this.

    I think we need to get the faculty advisor (described as the Atticus Finch of atheists) to speak at some of our conferences. He sounds like a terrific guy.

    Definitely the Christian faculty advisor is scared of her group debating the evil atheists. (Cackle, cackle …). I’m just astonished that she admits it so freely!

  • Blacksheep

    Hover,

    Luckily I’m pretty sure that gods of any kind aren’t real and the evidence isn’t against me. The problem is yours and not mine.

    I never said I had a problem – I was responding to your statement, in which you appear to have a problem with our choice to worship God:

    This kind of comment makes me wonder why they worship such a deity. They are acknowledging that the being that they believe in is cruel to his creations without any good reason. Do they then worship this god out of fear? I just don’t get it.

    I only disagreed with your premise that God needs to behave in a way that we find acceptable in order to be worshipped. We don’t believe that what God does is “without any good reason” – we believe that we don’t always understand what God does.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Blacksheep

    We don’t believe that what God does is “without any good reason” – we believe that we don’t always understand what God does.

    Hae you thought of asking him? Aren’t you supposed to have a “personal relationship”?

  • http://www.humanistnotes.com Kevin

    @Lauren S. I agree that the added pressure to represent an entire group of people is an unfair expectation, especially when in high school. However, I think that is the reality of having an identity that is in the minority.

    These young people are gaining valuable experience of having to represent thousands of people daily, by their actions and words. It isn’t fair but it will serve them well as they graduate form high school if they plan to continue being active and out as atheists.

  • Anonymous

    You know, I was on the main website and saw the words “Rutherford Secular Student Alliance” and thought to myself,”Nahhhh…not in my hometown, not right under the solid brass buckle of the Florida Bible Belt….” But I felt compelled to chase it down…and to my surprise….In light of finding this out, I am proud to say 2 things: I am from Panama City, and I am a 1979 graduate of Rutherford High School.  Wow! Good for the young people, and my hat is off with profound respect for MRr. Creamer…Mary Ellen Mayo, class of 1979…GO, RAMS!!!