The Necessity of Secular Safe Zones

The Atlantic‘s James Hamblin published a wonderful piece yesterday about the Secular Student Alliance’s Safe Zone program and why it’s necessary:

Earlier this year, while no one was looking, Gage Pulliam took a photo of a plaque that listed the Ten Commandments, as it hung on the wall of his Oklahoma high school’s biology classroom.

Pulliam emailed the photo, anonymously, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They then sent a complaint to the school district, which asked Muldrow High School to take down the plaque.

The protesters began speculating as to who was responsible for the instigating photo. Speculative whispers became cries. When some of Pulliam’s friends — who were among the cohort of openly areligious students at Muldrow High — started feeling heat, Pulliam outed himself on an atheist blog. Sacrificing himself to so that he might save others, Pulliam admitted that he was the one who sent the photo.

Pulliam later said that in the wake of his confession, his mother worried for his safety. She also worried that his teachers might grade him differently. His sister, an eighth-grader, said other students wouldn’t look at her, and “in one instance she couldn’t even get a class project done because her group members refused to talk to her.” Other students “told Gage’s girlfriend that he should stay from them or else they’ll punch him.”

That’s the sort of antagonism atheists can encounter in certain schools in many states. That’s what the program is designed to counter. That’s why I’m a supporter of it.

Even as the number of students with no religious affiliation grows, the ease of coming out hasn’t really changed (at least anecdotally).

(via the Pew Research Center)

One of the more unique challenges young atheists face is that, in addition to overcoming the wrath of other students, they often have to overcome administrators hellbent against their organizing. The SSA’s Jesse Galef addressed that in the piece, too:

“We see a lot of pushback and stonewalling from administrators at the high school level,” Galef says, “which is flatly illegal. But that’s why we’re here: to send polite phone calls and emails — and eventually less polite phone calls and emails — to remind them about the Equal Access Act. Secular student groups can’t be discriminated against based on their viewpoint; they can’t be required to jump through hoops that other groups don’t have to jump through.”

The article includes some comments from me as well. Check it out. As I write this, it’s the most popular article on the Atlantic‘s site — hopefully that kind of exposure will lead to more groups being formed or at least more awareness of the struggles many atheist students face.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.