What Can We Do To Help High School Atheists?

Jessica Ahlquist, the student who is leading the charge to take down a religious banner hanging in her high school, has some inspirational words about how her life has changed over the past year:

When all of this started, everything changed. I went from being afraid to even tell people I was an atheist to saying it on national television. And, despite being incredibly shy, I find myself surrounded by attention at school… the negative kind. But most of the change is for the better. I’ve become more comfortable with myself as a result. I’ve met people more like me, with similar interests and ideals. I no longer have to hide my geekiness! (Doctor Who and superheroes <3) I’ve also discovered my voice and my passion.

Her advice to all of us regarding how we can help high school atheists is spot on — it’s also one of the main things I’ll be talking about the Secular Student Alliance conference next weekend:

I think that there are probably many, many, many more secular students, but they are too afraid to speak out. Specifically high school students…

… It seems like an impossible mission, but there are definitely things we can do to help and support them. We can start by telling the world we exist and making sure that we are easy to contact. We also need to be patient and understanding. Let’s not forget that most high school students are minors and risk losing everything they have.

It’s not just high school. A lot of college atheists are risking a lot by coming out, too. But the suggestion that Jessica offers — making ourselves publicly known — will benefit closeted atheists of any age. It’s arguably the most important bit of activism any of us can do.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Jdatty

    If promoting religion is child abuse, then denigrating it could be a form of child abuse, if it should cause emotional turmoil.

    I see law suit possibilities!

    • rhodent

      Could you please explain what relevance your comment has to the post?  I see nothing in the post suggesting anyone denigrate religion.  Perhaps your misconceptions of atheism caused you to see something that wasn’t there?

    • http://www.facebook.com/graey42 William Crook

      I don’t see promoting either religion or non-religion as child abuse, as long as it’s not force-fed and done to an extreme. I know some would view it as such, but there’s no reason a family should not be able to raise their children with whatever religion or philosophy they want, as long as there’s no physical or psychological harm. Some might say that any religion is psychological harm, but you can’t just outlaw religion. That’s what half of what the principle of separation of church and state is about.

      That said, I hope your comment was tongue in cheek. ;)

    • Jennifer K.

      You again……shouldn’t you be in church?

    • P. J. Reed

      If molesting children is child abuse, then prosecuting child molesters could be a form of child abuse, if it should cause emotional turmoil.

      Now how much sense does that make?

    • Derp

      Your comment makes no logical sense, though I shouldn’t be surprised. Put your claim next to the story of a Catholic priest molesting children. Which is more emotionally damaging? Of religion I can sum it up as that all was of little value.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-Burrows/582758031 Stephen Burrows

    I am amazed at the bravery of these kids.  I’d like to see the SSA possibly guide teachers on how to encourage students to form groups.  Yup, this is really walking the line on church/state separation.  I never mention my atheism to a student, but I’m sure they are aware of this (they are observant).  I believe some guidance on where to lead them without crossing the line may be helpful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Gotta love her blog post title.
    “High schoolers need love too”
    Sounds like something a person being charged with statutory rape would say.

  • KDM

    I was a high school agnostic (now an atheist in my 20′s) and I was way too scared to ever say anything. Most of the people I was friendly with were (and still are) members of a fundamentalist church and they took it very seriously. I also supported gay rights and was pro-choice, that was almost enough to set me out on my own regardless. I would have loved to have some kind of help feeling more comfortable or accepted back then, but my graduating class only had 40 students and the full (7-12) school less than 400. This was in Connecticut by the way, not some overly religious red state. I didn’t really have help from my family either, they avoided the topic of religion almost altogether so I made my own decision when it came to being agnostic at the time. 

    Major props to Jessica for standing up, high school can be so rough!

  • Trace

    She is indeed very brave to publicly admit she likes Dr. Who :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=548046204 Lanie Stevenson

    I became an atheist at 16, after very publicly struggling with the idea of faith with my high school friends. Since this was suburban Georgia, I should have been more careful, but for some reason, my atheism came fairly easily. The ONLY problem I encountered was with a “friend” who suddenly decided to invite me to church services AFTER I’d realized my atheism. I had no fear, no hesitation about coming out to my friends. The only fear I had was coming out to my parents, which took me two years of hiding to do upon turning 18.

  • http://twitter.com/EffectualAgents Marc Barnhill

    Thanks for highlighting this, Hemant.  Jessica’s message and your own addendum deserve to be widely disseminated and adopted.

    I teach at a community college with a predominantly African-American and Latino student population, and the cultural pressures faced by our freethinking students both in their communities and on our campus around the issue of religion are immense.  On occasions when it seemed appropriate for me to mention my own lack of belief (usually precipitated by some unfair generalization during a class discussion), students often approached me afterwards and expressed a sense of tremendous relief simply to have a visible reflection of their own perspective.  Subsequent conversations with these young men and women led me to act as faculty advisor to a new — indeed, the college’s first — club for nonreligious students, and I’ve tried to remain visible for precisely the reasons mentioned here (via email, fliers, and participation in club fairs and interfaith campus events), and I’ve also shared some faculty guides for supporting nontheistic students.  This kind of mentoring and activism-by-example has become a vitally important part of my professional life, and I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the “value of visibility” to young people.

    Best of luck at the SSA conference, Hemant.  Wish I could be there.

    - Marc at EffectualAgents.org

  • Emma S.

    I am an atheist in middle school, and it’s good to see people around my age to stand up for what they believe in. (Or don’t believe in.) We kids are getting braver. =D

  • Emprotornj

    I began to think the church was wrong after I went to sunday school, (being told dinosaurs didn’t exist was soul-crushing) I’ve always never believed, i just didn’t think there was anything else until recently. now i’m a high school student who still argues with his fundamentalist friends. i dont dislike them, i just disagree with them.

  • http://slrman.wordpress.com James Smith

    I “came out” as an atheist at 13 in 1956, but mostly only to my parents.  We lived in the bible belt (Virginia and Alabama) most of the time until I graduated high school.  Because I had taken an incredible amount of verbal abuse from my parents, I left home the night of my graduation.  If I had been a known atheist to the other people around me in that time and place, I sincerely believe I would have been killed.  The world is changing a little, I hope.

  • Booyah

    I am a 16 yr old atheist and I admire her deeply for standing up and speaking out so eloquently about atheism


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