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.

  • 3lemenope

    When I went to high school in the mid 90s, Gay-Straight Alliance and safe space groups were just gaining steam, and they were crucial for the students who participated in them.

    Same idea, different group, sounds like a plan.

  • the moother

    I find that figure of 30~34% of millennials intriguing… I also find the gap of 9 points between X and Y encouraging too.

    The best part of it all, though, is that many of these kids are still young and their brains are still soaked in the religion of their upbringing… This probably means that, of the remaining 66% that are affiliated, possibly half of those will end up dropping the nonsense in their lifetimes.

    My estimate is that unaffiliated millennials will hit the 50% mark within a dozen or so years.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      There appears to be an ongoing logistic curve shift of increase in the unaffiliated versus generational cohort — time constant of 27 years, midpoint circa the ones born in 2007. However, the curves within cohorts are relatively flat over multi-decade spans; while Gen Z is likely to be more irreligious still, it would be surprising for Gen Y to shift all that much, though it should shift some as the later and more irreligious parts of the cohort start coming into the sample space.

      • the moother

        Fair analysis. But I’m hoping for a tipping point once they start hitting 40. Once their parents have started dying off and their young kids assert that god is no more real than santa claus… Wishful thinking perhaps…

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          It’s possible, but the trends in existing data do not yet support that.

          • James

            Simply put the trend will rise considerably with the current teen generation, we have people whose lives have been dominated by instant access to information, ability to see multiple different viewpoints at once and willingness to question what they are told.

            Questioning is the foundation for atheism.

            • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

              A plausible conjecture; however, I repeat: the trends in existing data do not yet support that.

              Furthermore, I’ll note that instant access to information also entails instant access to misinformation, which potentially has corresponding drawbacks. More directly, I’m also not aware of empirical data to support a claim that the current teen generation has any increase over previous teen generations “to see multiple different viewpoints at once” or “willingness to question what they are told”; can you point to a suitable longitudinal study that would support such assertion?

  • Steve UK

    I just find this incredible, for all its faults, at least we don’t find this in the UK, all students, regardless of religion or non religion can study in relative safety, their academic achievements are the only criteria. Frankly, this would not be tolerated.

    • Artor

      To be fair, you don’t have a separation of Church and State in England. I do recall seeing a few stories of mind-boggling religiosity over there too.

      • Stev84

        A lot of European countries that don’t have a formal separation of church and state are far more secular than the US will ever be (despite some horror stories to the contrary). It’s a nice principle on paper, but nicer when actually practiced.

  • Rip Van Winkle

    It baffles me that anyone would think making threats to someone who doesn’t believe the same shit you do would even occur in an adult’s mindset. You’d think we would’ve grown out of pointless temper tantrums over disagreements once we got past our Terrible Twos.

  • Lindsey Stock

    Christ, some of the comments on that article are just depressing. How dare those atheists oppress those poor christians by not letting them shove their beliefs down every one else’s throats?!

  • kaydenpat

    It’s a shame that in the land of the brave and free, Pulliam and his sister have to be going through such nonsense. Straight up persecution.

  • Erp

    Remember that ‘no religious affiliation’ is very far from meaning ‘atheist’. There are religously affiliated atheists (UUs and Jews have a large number but according to one Pew survey they show up in a lot of denominations). And many nonaffiliated have religious views (Christian, New Age, etc.) but just aren’t formally in a denomination.


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