Nearly a third of Americans under the age of thirty have no religious affiliation, the highest in any recorded generation. In this growing segment of “nones” are many young Atheists who have faced prejudice in their high schools and communities for standing up for their constitutional right of freedom from religion.
This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re featuring a new book addressing this issue by one of Patheos’ most popular Atheist bloggers, Hemant Mehta, aka The Friendly Atheist. The book is called The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide: Helping Secular Students Thrive. We caught up with Hemant this week to ask him a few questions about his new book and who he hopes read it.
I’ve been a high school math teacher and an atheist blogger for about six years each and these two areas of my life have intersected quite a bit. There have also been a number of stories — inspiring stories — of young atheists fighting their administration and communities over the past year, so it seemed like the right time to write about this phenomenon and how the rest of us (regardless of our backgrounds) can help these students out.
Have you always been an Atheist? Do you think it’s harder being an Atheist now, than in the past?
I’ve been an atheist since my freshman year of high school, about 15 years ago. I think it’s still difficult to be an atheist, especially if you live in the South or really conservative areas, but there are so many more resources available now than there were when I was in school. The Internet alone has changed the way atheists learn and communicate with each other, so even if you think you’re the only atheist in your community, rest assured you’re not the only atheist online.
As a high school teacher, what are you noticing about the freedom of religion (or non-religion) in schools?
I work at a school that says the Pledge of Allegiance and has a Moment of Silence every morning. While both of these things seem innocuous, the Pledge requires students to say we’re a nation “under God” and the Moment of Silence law in Illinois was originally proposed as a Moment of Silent Prayer. I don’t think most people see either event as a promotion of religion, but when you’re an atheist, it’s very clear how people just assume everyone believes in God. It’s very tough to be a student who doesn’t stand for the Pledge or opposes the moment of silence.
On the whole, though, I think administrators and students are better aware of their rights. At most public schools, atheist clubs are perfectly legal and the administration can’t stop you from starting one. If they oppose it unfairly, the atheist students have access to free legal help — not to mention many journalists who want to break the story — on their side. It’s all good for the students and bad for the administrators opposing them — if they know what their rights are. I feel obligated to educate people on those laws.
I wrote it for students, teachers, parents, administrators, and anyone who wants to learn more about what young atheists are going through and how we can promote the questioning and discussion of religion at an age when students are first exploring these issues. We should all be in favor of that, religious or not. This isn’t about getting all students to lose their faith. This is about promoting a discussion that many religious people don’t want students to have.
If you could choose three people to be in a book club together to read this book, who would they be and why?
Oh boy…. Richard Dawkins, because I think he’d agree with the basis for the book and advance the ideas in them. Rick Warren, because I feel like he’d find a reason to oppose the idea of atheist student groups or kids trying to eliminate prayers at high school graduation (etc.) and I’d love to hear his reasons why. And Rob Bell, because he seems like he’d be a good moderator between the two.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
I hope that everyone who reads it, especially religious people, come away with an understanding of how important it is to support young atheists, whether they’re starting a group, fighting for church/state separation at school, or just exploring their beliefs.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book? The easiest?
It was so hard to hear firsthand stories of atheists getting discriminated against from the students at the center of the storm. They’ve had to deal with so much harassment and bullying at the hands of religious peers, parents, and faculty members that I’m in awe of how well-adjusted and intelligent they’ve turned out to be. The easiest part of writing the book, unfortunately, is the other side of the coin. I thought it would be hard to find examples of atheists who were prevented from starting a group at school or who were alone in their fight against an administration trying to push religion into the school. It wasn’t hard at all. It happens all the time, in all parts of the country.
What will you, personally, take away from this book?
I have a lot more respect than I used to for teachers who sponsor high school atheist groups. It’s not just hard for the students who start the groups. It’s also hard for the teachers who sponsor them, having to defend them and sometimes putting their own careers in jeopardy as a result.
Do you have a next project in the works?
I have a few ideas that need to be fleshed out more, but the focus of the next six months for me will be on my own math students and the competitive Speech Team I coach.