Introducing the Secular Safe Zone

In the past few years, even though surveys have shown that more young people are losing their religion, there are still many young atheists who choose to remain in the closet. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to lose their friends, or they want to hide the secret from their parents, or they’re worried about getting bullied and harassed by other students (it’s happened before).

In any case, it has a chilling effect.

Students are afraid to start secular groups where they can meet other atheists and explore their own (non-)religious identities.

Students stay silent even as they see illegal promotion of Christianity around them because they don’t want to rock the boat and draw any negative attention.

Students stop themselves from thinking too critically about religion out of fear that they may not like where the answers lead them.

Students are unable to help fix the untrue and unfair stereotypes about atheists — that we’re not trustworthy or electable. While things are getting better overall, there are still many pockets of America where it’s neither easy nor safe to publicly proclaim your atheism.

So taking a page from the LGBT playbook, the Secular Student Alliance has launched a project intended to help curb that problem. It’s called the Secular Safe Zone:

The Secular Safe Zone program trains and educates allies who will create safe spaces in which secular students can question, criticize, and discuss topics and issues important to them. By establishing Secular Safe Zones all around the country, this program will curtail the effects of discrimination, bullying, and social isolation faced by many secular students — especially high school students — in our society. The Secular Safe Zone provides the training and tools necessary to help allies understand and assist secular students on their way to establishing confident secular identities, who will in turn help build a more accepting and just society.

The Secular Safe Zone aims to support secular students by providing safe spaces and opportunities to explore their developing secular identities, free from the ostracization and harassment that often accompanies such a process. Secular Safe Zone Allies act as mentors and role models to secular students in a variety of settings, from classrooms to residence hall floors to interfaith offices and more.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this project. It’s geared toward anybody who works with secular students and it’s not limited to atheists. Similar to LGBT allies, religious people, too, can support secular students. They can help dispel myths about secular people when they come up in conversation. They can help students find the resources they need to further develop their own views.

And just to be clear: This is not about “deconverting” students — it’s about letting students know you’re not going to judge them for having an unpopular view of religion.

So what can you do to help?

Read the Resource Guide (PDF) and register to become an official ally.

This is one of those projects that will only work if enough of us sign up. I already have. I hope you’ll join me.

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.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    Students are afraid to start secular groups where they can meet other atheists and explore their own (non-)religious identities.

    The Chess Club? The Science Club? The Photography Club?

    These seem to be some of the many possible secular groups where students can explore their own identities.

    I don’t think there should be any prohibition on an Atheist Club, but that would be a club where what is in common is something that they don’t have. I prefer a club related to something that they do have in common.

    • lisa

      But being non-religious and questioning is a connecting factor and a powerful reason to gather and share. To state otherwise is dismissive to the struggles of one’s faith.

    • Greg G.

      But what if the Chess Club, the Science Club, and the Photography Club are filled with religious bullies?

      • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

        For me, we played Chess, talked about science, and shared experience in using the school dark room. Religion never came up. (That was before digital photography).

        • Michael W Busch

          And if someone wants to talk about religion/irreligion without having to deal with proselytizers?

        • Monika Jankun-Kelly

          I’m glad you had that positive experience. Others don’t.

    • ZenDruid

      “…something that they do have in common.”

      Threats from Talibangelicals.

    • Michael W Busch

      Something these students do have in common: wanting to learn about religion/irreligion in a place where one particular religion is not being forced upon them by their peers / teachers / family.

    • viaten

      One thing they might have in common is society’s view of people like them and how to deal with that before and after coming out if and when they choose to. Another might be analysis of religions, or how to make societies more secular.

    • Gus

      Thank you for telling us what you prefer.

      Meanwhile there are lots of people who prefer to get together with people who face similar problems with discrimination against atheists, with ostracism by their communities and even their own families, with dealing with proselytizing room mates or class mates, or even teachers. People who want to do something about religious people’s attempts to slip their religious agendas into public education or into government generally. People who have strong doubts about their former religious beliefs, strong beyond wanting a religious person or priest to dissuade them, strong to the point of wanting to discuss them with atheists. Maybe even people who just want to discuss religion without the assumption that they believe it.

      This is for them. Not for you. I take back my thank you. No one cares what you prefer. It’s not about you.

    • katiehippie

      Do you know what atheism is? For sure it’s something you can have in common with someone else.

    • Goape

      Really, taking issue because religion is “something they don’t have”—what an outrageous and patently absurd position to take. How do you get to this point of valuing belief so much more than disbelief?

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Thank you, Hemant, for an informative post, but especially for giving me hope that there are practical things we can do.

  • UWIR

    “Similar to LGBT allies, religious people, too, can support secular students. ”

    I really don’t think you’re using the word “secular” correctly. “Secular” is not a synonym for “atheist”. People who support SOCAS are secular (or, more precisely, secularist), even if they are religious. It’s a common tactic of anti-secularists to try to link atheism and secularism, and to claim that supporting the latter constitutes “imposing” the former on religious people. We shouldn’t be aiding them in this equivocation.

    • Gus

      This is actually a pretty interesting point. Secular, in general use, means not having a religious purpose or basis. When applied to schools or government generally, this means simply that they are without religious purpose, that state and church are separate, and it has nothing to do with atheism.

      But when you apply the word “secular” to an individual person, a person without religious purpose or basis is pretty close to a definition of atheist. So a secular student is a student without religion.

      There may well be a problem with atheists intentionally conflating secularism and atheism then. I share your concern. But I also tend to think that the SSA is not well known enough for this to be a serious problem. I don’t think it’s something that anti-secularists can use to convince anyone who’s not already an anti-secularist. But if the “secular safe zone” spreads, could that change the equation?

      What is a “secular” safe zone? A “secular” student alliance? It seems to me that there can be a problem with the SSA being an atheist, anti-religion group. I fully think there should be such a group, I just wonder if it should be called SSA. That name seems to me to be appropriate to a group that focuses on freedom of religion and separation of church and state, but not one that is intentionally antagonistic towards religion. In both cases I think the word “secular” has been chosen to avoid the negative connotation of atheist, or because the earlier inception of the SSA was less antagonistic and more just about secularism.

      I’m not saying there’s absolutely a problem here, but I think it’s at least something worthy of discussion.

      • TCC

        The SSA is not an anti-theist group. You are simply mistaken.

    • TCC

      This is an extremely puzzling comment. Secular means “non-religious” in the context of students; it does not mean secularist in the sense of supporting church-state separation. Religious people and secular people are, by definition, mutually exclusive groups. So while you are correct that secular does not mean atheist (one could be a non-religious theist, for instance), your criticism of the above quote is false.

      Edit: I should note that the SSA does cater to nontheistic students in particular, but “religious” and “nontheistic” do tend to be labels with very little overlap.

  • Michael Harrison

    I have this mild fear that putting a Safe Space sticker on my office door would make targets out of kids coming to ask for help on homework.

  • ShoeUnited

    I like this and I wonder if it’s possible to create pins or something with that pattern so that students can know it’s ok. Then the teacher themselves are walking safe-zones. Understandably, not all educators etc. would be about to wear one. But the ones that could may work as a reaffirming symbol that anywhere can be a safe zone if there’s proper time and space to make an ad hoc council/counsel.

  • GeorgeLocke

    I don’t understand what the program does. It trains people to “create safe spaces in which secular students can question, criticize, and discuss topics and issues important to them”, but I have no idea what such a space would look like. What exactly is a “secular safe zone”?


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