Hemant Mehta – the Friendly Atheist – is one of the most stalwart activists in the atheist movement: he’s been blogging and speaking and working on atheist issues for years, and his experience shows in the fluid and funny delivery of his presentations. He begins with a story he’s told before, describing two pictures drawn by an 8 year old boy depicting what a Christian and a non-Christian looks like. The results are predictably awful: a smiling, well-dressed, cross-carrying Christian is juxtaposed with a tattooed, angry, smoking, drinking, raggedy atheist cursing the name of God.
This leads into a discussion of the situation of high-school atheists – a subject Hemant is writing a book about. He told the story of Nicole Smalkowski, who was kicked off her school basketball team for being an atheist and choosing not to participate in a post-game prayer and was subjected to extreme bullying from students and staff for the rest of her career at the school. The video of Smalkowski being excluded from the prayer circle is extremely affecting, giving a crisp visual reminder of the exclusion many atheists face in American society, and recalled Jessica Ahlquist’s experience in Rhode Island.
Hemant stressed that the support systems now in place for atheist students are much more robust, but also noted that there are many students struggling in silence with the knowledge that their beliefs are unacceptable to their sports teams, clubs, societies and schools.
He then told a similar story of exclusion from the 80s, demonstrating that these problems are neither new nor resolved. For decades there have been struggles to infiltrate the public school classroom with worship, and Hemant’s description of Michael Chandler’s case against an Alabama school which blurred the line between church and state showed how many different ways school officials attempt to evade their responsibilities under the Constitution.
Hemant then moved to celebrating the recent surge in high school atheist groups spurred by the Secular Student Alliance, and encouraging Skepticon attendees to help start atheist groups in high schools in their area. “Come out!”, he pleaded, hoping more atheists who work with kids would be honest about their beliefs.
Hemant’s book, The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide, will be out before Thanksgiving – consider buying it as a gift!