The Challenges for High School Atheists

This is a guest post by Sarah Henry, a high school student from Indiana. Sarah spoke with leaders of several high school atheist groups for this post.

Over the past few years, high school and university students have started up their own freethinking safe havens by way of Secular Student Alliance groups. According to Lyz Liddell, the SSA’s Senior Campus Organizer, affiliate groups are growing exponentially. Young people are identifying more and more as atheistic or agnostic.

Unfortunately, freethinking students often face a lot of adversity when beginning their groups. I spoke with several high school students from around the country who told me some of the pressures they faced with their groups.

Cyrus Tahmourpour, the leader of his SSA group at Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole, Florida, said that he had to deal with a lot of challenges when setting up his group. The principal of his high school was “wholly against the idea” and the assistant principal insisted that religious groups were not allowed on campus… even though a Christian group at the school met weekly and was led by a pastor.

Thankfully, JT Eberhard, the high school specialist for the SSA, was there to help. For Cyrus’ group, after the initial pushback from the administration, JT sent a letter to the principal explaining the situation and why the atheists deserved (and were legally allowed) to have their own group, Eventually, the group became official. JT even referred them to a great t-shirt designer in their city.

In many cases, students don’t have problems with their administrators, but they have a hard time dealing with their fellow students and teachers. Ross Cunningham, the founder of a Secular Student Alliance group in Georgia, said that people at his school were very negative at first. One teacher called them the “Satan-Worshipper’s Club,” and another tried to get them shut down.

Lauren Alvermann, from Pennsylvania, had the same experience. Kids at her high school were hateful and rude when she began her group, she said, but it has helped her develop “a thick skin.”

Thanks to these students, though, others at their schools are now more comfortable “coming out” to their parents or friends. Students in Alverman’s group have said that they talk about things they could never talk about with their parents — one student said that her mom would be furious if she found out she belonged to the SSA group.

One way to make things easier for other atheists is to take that first step and begin an SSA group at your high school. If you’re interested in doing that, just click here.

About sarahh

I'm a 16 year old high school sophomore, raised in an atheist family, and now living in a predominately Christian rural area.

  • Elan

    When I was in high school I was told I couldn’t have a group because all clubs needed a teacher sponsor. There were teachers willing to head religious groups, but not secular ones. If only I knew then what I know now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jt.eberhard JT Eberhard

      That requirement is actually against the law.  Sadly, most administrators are unaware of that fact.

      The courts have decided without qualification that that students be given “equal access,” not that the School’s internal rules be administered uniformly.  For instance, a rule against wearing hats in the school building, perfectly and consistently enforced, might deprive Jewish students of equal access to after-school facilities for shared religious observance.  A rule that students must wear shoes at all times enforced across the board would prohibit the formation of a yoga club.

      Likewise, insisting that clubs find a *willing* faculty adviser prejudices groups with mainstream views over others.  That is not equal access.

      The most well-known example is Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990), when SCOTUS ruled a high school violated the Equal Access Act when it denied a student permission to form a Christian club.  The Court held that the club must be allowed by the school, even though the student’s proposal called for the club to “have the same privileges and meet on the same terms and conditions as other … student groups, except that the proposed club would not have a faculty sponsor” as required by school regulations.  Id. at 232.  The Court pointed out that, at most, “the Act permits the assignment of a teacher, administrator, or other school employee to a meeting for custodial purposes.”  Id. at 253.

      It needs to be said that student groups always fare much better if they can find a willing faculty sponsor.  Most of the time students are surprised to find that they can.  But if they cannot, the school *must* allow the group’s formation and appoint a faculty member to oversee it.

  • Kate Donovan

    What a spectacular article! I enjoyed the perspective from HS, as I haven’t interacted much with younger affiliates.

    I did want to point out that the lovely Lyz spells her name with a ‘y’ though :)
    (http://www.secularstudents.org/staff)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Fixed!

  • http://nagamakironin.blogspot.com/ Michael Mock

    On a related note, I recently helped create a Facebook group for atheist or agnostic children of Christian parents. (There’s also a corresponding group for Christian parents trying to figure out how to cope with their offspring’s loss/lack of faith.) It’s just a teeny little group right now, but I’m hoping it will grow into a useful resource for “mixed-faith” families. There’s no particular age group, either; some of the atheist “children” are married and have children of their own. If you’re interested, or know anyone who’s interested, it’s here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/406543069389528/

  • Gone Apostate

    Here in Arizona, we have started 3 new university SSA’s and one HS, in the last few months. We really want to help get more high schools up and running! There are local community groups ready and willing to give support to students facing this kind of opposition! JT, if you know of any looking into getting up and running (whether it’s a contentious situation or not) please let Serah and/or I know! We will be there to help and celebrate them! Thanks for all you and Sarah, and all the student organizers are doing!
    -Brian Wallace (gone.apostate@gmail.com)

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    There’s a clear increase in the set of athetists or agnostics, but the GSS data used above overstates the case.  Many of the people in the US who self-identify as not religious or having no particular religion still believe in God. The other GSS data on religious questions make that clear- many of the no religion people are weak theists or deists. Moreover, there’s other data which shows that demographically those with no religion, (“nones”) look different from the atheist/agnostic population. See for example this Pew survey 
    http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx  of religious knowledge levels. Atheists and agnostics perform as one of the most knowledgeable groups about religion, whereas the nones don’t perform well. 

    The percentage of people who are atheists and agnostics is increasing, but they aren’t nearly as common or as fast growing as the nones. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

      In the GSS data, the fraction of Atheist, Agnostic, and “Nothing in Particular” (deist to theist range) among the “Nones” appears to be roughly constant across all cohorts and time frames. ARIS and Pew data roughly line up to the GSS results. It’s in the rough neighborhood of 2:3:15 ratio or so, depending on how measured. So, the reason they’re growing more slowly is because A/A’s are a smaller population; in terms of growth time-constant and starting population, they’re growing at the same rate.

      Further, there is one anomaly: the 2012 PRRI/Georgetown study on religion in the Millennials found a roughly 1:1:2 ratio, which Pew saw no sign of in 2008. If that’s not an anomaly or a transient, it’s a demographic shockpoint.

      • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

        That seems like an accurate analysis. 

  • JamesNCleveland
  • http://www.facebook.com/groups/256326347754063/ Cyrus Tahmourpour

    Thank you for this post Sarah I hope it shows others out there who want to start a Secular club at their school that it’s their right to do so and nobody should stand in their way :]

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, orphan

    i love charts like these. they make me feel more confident that my theory is correct. the internets will kill off a lot of religion. it’s really that simple. young people who understand how to use technology are much less vulnerable to those who don’t. most young people know a great deal about google. and harry potter. and the fact that other faiths, and lack of faiths, exist than the GG or boomers did when they were young. it’s also totally unfashionable to hate things like dinosaurs and queers among the young. we’re winning, people. send a link to an atheist website to the young people in your life today. 

    • LaceyNichole

       Why does it have be about winning?  How does trying to make people believe or not believe the same way you do make you any different from any overly pressuring religious organizations?  By the way, I think the groups are a great idea.  Young people have a hard time already and any support they can get from like minded individuals should be encouraged.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

      Actually, the Internet per se seems to have hardly made the slightest damn bit of difference in the GSS data. The trend by cohort seems a logistic curve (time constant ~27 years, ~2007 cohort midpoint) for the unaffiliated fraction, and is pretty well-developed even in the 1970s data, and without major kinks from (say) the opening of the WWW. Most of the other major studies on religiosity (Pew, ARIS, etc) tend to line up with the GSS results.


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