Jessica Ahlquist and the Struggles Young Atheists Face

Reporter Kellie Kotraba spoke with Jessica Ahlquist during last weekend’s Skepticon event and discovered what so many of us have known over the past year: Jessica rocks.

In January, she won a lawsuit against her high school after it refused to take down a Christian prayer banner that had hung for decades from the wall of the school auditorium. The months-long ordeal cost her friends and brought criticism to her family. People she had known since elementary school wrote nasty tweets about her. A state representative called her an “evil little thing” – a phrase many atheists now wear with pride on T-shirts.

On Saturday (Nov. 10), she stood before an audience that was anything but hateful. She shared her story with more than 700 people at Skepticon, an annual skeptics convention held here in the heart of the Bible Belt. Afterward, audience members — many of them atheists — crowded around her.

“I just wanted to shake your hand,” one person said.

“You inspired me to stand up,” said another.

That may be the biggest dichotomy in Jessica’s life right now — she’s reviled back home but a hero everywhere else she goes. She handles it gracefully, though, and that’s not easy for anybody, much less a high school student.

Kotraba also captured the most touching part of Skepticon for me:

You can’t tell but I’m sooooo sick in this picture (Kellie Kotraba – Columbia Faith and Values)

After Mehta’s talk, a mother and her 13-year-old daughter asked for his advice. They asked that their names not be used because they fear the repercussions in their small Missouri town. The daughter already gets cruel messages from classmates — her friends tell her she’ll burn in hell — and the mother doesn’t want her atheism to affect her new job.

But the daughter, an outspoken eighth-grader, wants to start an atheist club when she enters high school. “I don’t want her to have to be someone else,” her mom said.

I wish I could tell you these conversations were rare, but I have them all too often. It’s part of why I’m excited the new book will be coming out soon — it’s hopefully more of an opportunity to have these discussions.

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