The Challenges of Starting a High School Atheist Group

JT Eberhard is a Campus Organizer and High School Specialist for the Secular Student Alliance.

He recently gave a talk at the American Humanist Association conference about the unique challenges facing high school atheists.

It’s an incredible talk — JT’s a fantastic public speaker (and he’s available to speak to your group! And he wants to speak to your group!) — and it’s an issue you probably haven’t heard much about in our community. Bloggers don’t write much about it, New Atheists don’t write books about it, and the media rarely covers it (the recent New York Times article is a notable exception).

Watch it here:

Some highlights:

Around the 6:00 mark, JT says that when he took the job back in January, there were only 12 high school groups. And two of those groups’ leaders had to lead in secret because their parents couldn’t know. That meant no packages from the SSA could be sent to them. (Just FYI, there are currently 22 high school affiliates.)

Around the 10:00 mark, JT talks about the difficulty of finding a high school faculty sponsor — in some cases, the sponsors are told by administrators that taking on that role would be a “bad career move.” (He later explains why you don’t always need one.)

Actually, there are several more highlights, but I really don’t want to give away the whole video. Go see it. You’ll appreciate it. I watched the entire thing last night thinking, “Why hasn’t everyone heard this message yet?” They need to.

I should also add I have an obvious reason to watch this video: I work in a public high school. I want to help alleviate this problem.

As it turns out, a couple weeks ago, a student asked me if I would sponsor a Secular Student Alliance group at our high school. It’s something that I had to think about because I want to be sure my private life (all the atheism stuff) doesn’t get in the way of teaching math (my career). I also thought about many of the things JT talks about in this video — things he’s talked about for months now.

When I considered all that, how could I say no?

I signed the paperwork last week.

The group hasn’t been approved yet, but I have yet to hear otherwise. The responsibility of running the group would still be on the students — I’d only be the faculty sponsor — but I’ll be able to help guide them during their meetings and that’s a role I’d relish. If approved, the group would probably not form until the beginning of next school year, but I hope we can say at that point there is a safe haven for atheists on our campus.

  • http://www.xanga.com/zerowing21 JT Eberhard

    Thank you, Hemant.

    We now have 23 high school groups. Of those 23, 4 of their leaders must lead in secret.

    This job has changed my perspective and it has changed my life. My new blog will launch shortly and I plan to write extensively about the problems in high schools.

    Glad to have you as an ally.

    JT

  • http://www.secularstudents.org August E. Brunsman IV

    Hemant,

    I’m so happy that just as your time on the Secular Student Alliance board has come to an end, that you’ve found yet another awesome new way to stay involved in student secular activism.

    I’m so proud to be working with you and JT!

  • Larry Meredith

    Christian faculty sponsor of Christian student groups. Why would it be a problem for an atheist faculty to sponsor secular student groups?

    As long as you’re not pushing students into anything, there’s no reason for anyone to object your sponsorship of it.

  • http://www.centerforinquiry.net/oncampus DebGod

    Quick note: before the Campus Freethought Alliance became CFI On Campus, there was also a program sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism called the Young Freethinkers Alliance:

    “An international association of high school student groups interested in promoting freethought, skepticism, and secular humanism.”

    That was about ten years ago, but I still see the names of some of the students involved pop up here and there as activists and writers.

    Starting and running groups at my high schools (and losing my scholarship at a Catholic high school for having a club that asked the wrong kinds of questions) set me on the path of freethought and secular activism. My experiences taught me how important free inquiry and academic freedom are in education and how much of an impact such groups can have. Like JT, I am proud to be able to support and assist nonreligious and skeptical high school students who are organizing similar groups, and I am glad to see more leaders in the movement dedicated to supporting the efforts at high schools.

    Debbie Goddard
    Campus Outreach Coordinator
    CFI On Campus

  • http://brickwindow.wordpress.com Brick Window

    I loved this talk, but, man, that dude cries more than my husband!

  • Alt+3

    This tactic of needing to find a willing faculty member to oversee your group must be written in a handbook somewhere. My friend and I faced the exact same thing when trying to start a GSA at my high school. First the principal demanded that the club need at least one straight member before he’d allow it. This is where I got recruited, I had been previously uninterested in joining any extracurricular group, but my friend said her group would fall through without me. This also had the effect of shooting me straight to the top of the groups leadership. I had to give up my lunch period almost every day for just under a month to talk to the principal.

    After we got a straight member (which my principal felt the need to confirm through a series of extremely inappropriate questions [Have you ever had sex with a girl? Have you ever had a girlfriend? Have you ever kissed a girl?] That he tried to deny me because at the time my answer to all three was no.) my principal said we needed to find a willing faculty member. This was, on the face of it, an easy assignment. My mothers cousins then boyfriend (now husband, yay Canada!) worked at the school teaching special needs kids. He took little convincing to get on board with the project. The principal said at first that my uncle couldn’t do it because we were related, we pointed out that this was possibly the least relevant objection he could have made. The principal then said that he didn’t count because he worked with the special needs kids and that wasn’t really part of the main student body (he backed down on that after we threatened to go to the local newspaper with our story [and that comment]).

    After he finally accepted our faculty member choice, he said he would have to check with some “higher ups” about whether or not a “sex club” (his exact words) would be appropriate in a school. We finally told him we didn’t want this to turn into a lawsuit and he caved.

    This was all for a club that was meant to curb bullying, provide companionship, and educate amongst the student body. I can’t imagine what an atheist club would have to go through.

  • Sean Santos

    What this reminds me of is a conversation that’s been going on in the gay community for some time.

    Up until the 90′s, the gay rights movement was really focused on adults. In the 90′s and really strongly in the 00′s, it became apparent that we’d done so well that all these kids were coming out in high school. Because there were positive gay messages in the media, they were more likely to figure themselves out early on, more likely to feel entitled to have the same sort of lives as everyone else, and felt safer about the prospect of being accepted by at least some part of their communities (even when coming out was still scary). Even if they didn’t come out in a general sense, they would often tell friends, and ran bigger risks of being found out (for example, by dating, by joining GSAs, by looking at gay sites on the internet…).

    And the really closeted kids from fundamentalist families, the kind of people who, in the 50′s and 60′s, might have stayed in denial until college, they were more likely to figure out their sexuality earlier, and had to deal with this internal conflict at an earlier, less secure, less emotionally stable point in their lives.

    And this highlighted a bunch of problems with gay youth. Problems with bullying. Problems with parental rejection. Higher rates of depression, suicide, drug use, and homelessness. (This last problem, by the way, probably doesn’t get a proportionate level of attention with respect to other LGBT issues; homeless youth are disproportionately LGBT, and religious charities are often not equipped or not willing to deal with those issues.)

    And I think that we’ve had a growing realization that, in some sense, these are our kids, the kids that are part of our group, that share our struggles, and that are like how we used to be, or would have been if we’d understood at that age what we understand now. These are the people who are going to take this movement over from us one day. And this is what one can also see, looking at atheist high schoolers.

    And so the question becomes, if we’re going to encourage people to come out, and if we are going to play up how great that life is, and how positive it can be, and to an extent even compel people to come to realizations that they might otherwise have been able to avoid, if we can do all that, does that then mean that we have some responsibility also to take care of these kids who have taken those messages seriously? Insofar as we want to protect children who are in difficult situations, and also want to assist people who are like ourselves, we have a double interest in these kids.

    Greta Christina has talked about the importance of providing a “safe place to land” for people who deconvert. In Denver, David Eller (who is no apparent relation to the sex offender of the same name) has stressed the importance of broadening our independent atheist culture with positive values, which is not just about having a bunch of people complain about religion, but provides a comprehensive way of living without religious interference from the cradle to the grave. I think that supporting and ensuring the security of young atheists and free thinkers really should be in our top priorities.

    This is not to say that young LGBT people and young nonbelievers are in the same boat, by the way (because I KNOW that someone will come along and feel that they have to point this out). Being LGBT seems to be in large part a biological fact, while disbelief is more likely to happen to people who have a way to handle it (people who have irreligious friends and family, or people who are confident in their own personal ability to discern the truth). The stigma is also different, with LGBT people being seen as somehow inferior, confused or subnormal, whereas atheists are seen more like a dangerous or potentially violent opposition. So bullies who are just looking to make a power play, are more likely to find LGBT people as the easy target, whereas people who have a serious and aggressive commitment to traditional religion might have a stronger, more systematic objection to atheists. At the same time, I suspect that gay people fit better into the liberal conception of a minority, while atheists may not get the same kind of sympathy from people who don’t think we’re bad enough off to worry about (or who buy into the whole “atheists are just like fundamentalists” line).

    All that said, as we see an increase in young atheists, it’s not an unrealistic concern that we’ll also see more of the same problems as we see in LGBT youth. So we need to start considering which of these problems are going to be the most serious, and what we can do to help, or even head off some of those issues.

    [Note to self: Find more stuff to do until your new job starts, because you are writing comments that are even more excessively long than usual.]

  • http://youratheistmuse.blogspot.com/ Lina Baker

    What an amazing speaker! You don’t really miss that you can’t see the Powerpoint. Would be great to have a transcription of this!

  • Larry Meredith

    why does it cut out at 12:09 when he’s talking about Jessica Ahlquist?

    Great speaker, but I couldn’t help but notice the incorrect statements about Jessica’s case.

    She never brought up the issue herself. She didn’t have adults bring up the issue for her. And she didn’t call to have the ACLU bring up the issue. The ACLU was involved before Jessica was. That must have been a weird eyebrow raising moment for Jessica I would think.

  • Larry Meredith

    @Alt+3

    LOL@ “Sex Club”
    Sounds like your principal was looking at it as a bunch of kids that wanted to borrow a classroom to have a big orgy.

    and thank you JT… for reminding me how much I hate salesmen. I sometimes like to fuck with them by asking about a product that I know has major flaws and watch them try and tell me good things about it. The really awful people are the ones who do it with a glimmer in their eye and smile. They act real nice but they know they’re selling you something faulty and they don’t care.

  • http://www.centerforinquiry.net/oncampus DebGod

    Ben Conover did an interview with Jessica Ahlquist on “Atheist Soapbox” which gets into the beginnings of her involvement with the case. She’s an inspiration!

  • Larry Meredith

    @DebGod
    agreed. There’s also a great interview with Jessica Ahlquist on “Philosophy On The Ground” that goes into much more detail about the case and Jessica’s personal feelings about it all.

    That segment where JT talks about her case is weird though because it misconstrues the facts. Not sure if that was intentional or not, but it must have been weird for Jessica, who was sitting in the audience.

  • Alt+3

    @Larry Meredith

    Yeah, I’m not sure exactly what he thought a gay-straight alliance was exactly but I think he thought we were just going to be discussing and practicing the best forms of anal sex. He kind of lost interest after we got off the ground. I think because we just did what you’d expect us to do, discussed bullying and ways to curtail it, presentations on safe sex (so he was kinda right) and we had a “Best Drag Queen” contest in one assembly.

    The biggest part of it for me was being put into the shoes of a gay student. I always knew that they had been bullied but I got a taste of what the day-to-day on the ground stuff was like. It’s awful, going to school knowing, for certain, that it’s going to be seven hours of having your peers de-humanize you. I never faced any physical confrontations, probably because I’m a giant, but I was afraid of one and one of our members got jumped at the bus stop and had to get a plate in his face.


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