Jessica Ahlquist, the tiny giant

Jessica Ahlquist is the high school student fighting her school’s administration to have a Christian prayer banner removed from the gymnasium at her school.  I first met her in April, at the American Humanist Association’s national convention in Boston where Jess received a standing ovation from all those in attendance.

Yesterday Jess wrote about the one-year anniversary of this whole ordeal, mentioning the beginnings of our association.  For those of you who only know the activist side of Jess, I’d like to familiarize you with what I have learned of her.

She is small.  She is very short and has a meekness to her that mirrors her lack of height.  She is extremely kind.  She is very quiet, generally not speaking unless she has a purpose to speak.  In short (pun intended) she is the very last person on Earth you’d expect to have the adamant backbone of a giant.

But she does.  When Jessica speaks, other people stop.  When this tiny, sixteen year-old student opens her mouth, you can expect something relevant to come out.  I don’t believe she started this way, but fighting over the last year, long past the point when virtually anybody else her age would have quit, has awakened this quality in her.  She has become a leader the way leadership was meant to be: by example and through deep, personal strength.

She talks about how I have influenced her positively, but I must say the feeling is mutual.  Here is a person with everything running against her.  She is a shy personality in an extremely Catholic community.  She is in a public school environment where acceptance and popularity are everything, where she is frequently beset by her peers verbally.  Even some of her teachers have made her life difficult.  And yet she has not only continued to fight, but has done so admirably, calmly, and without letting the tribulations of such a daunting tribulation make her bitter or mean.  This fact removes whatever excuse the rest of us might have.

You want to know why my job as high school organizer at the SSA means the world to me?  Because through it, I get to touch every other atheist organization.  The students in high school right now will take the reigns of the atheist movement right as it is becoming, for the first time in history, a mass of the citizenry backed financially.  These students will be the next Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America.  One of these students will one day replace David Silverman at the helm of American Atheists.  This will be true of every atheist organization and all the new ones that spring up as our movement continues to become more powerful.  And yes, one day one of them will take my job – a job through which I get to literally touch the future of the cause about which I care so much.

Meeting people like Jess and knowing there are others out there like her waiting for the opportunity to apply their incredible character to equality, reason, and the elimination of irrationality not only moves me to throw myself into this job in full, but it reaffirms that this fight is one we cannot help but win.  And it makes me content with the prospect of ceding the future of our movement to them.

The best of our movement is not Richard Dawkins, or Sam Harris, or PZ Myers, or myself, or the SSA.  The best of our movement is the coming generation that will stand on the shoulders of giants.  I have no doubt they will be led by Jessica Ahlquist.  If you want to support a future where religion and bigotry are on the ropes, support her.

Every day I am proud of Jessica, and Harrison Hopkins, and Zack Kopplin, and Duncan Henderson, and Damon Fowler, and every other high school student out there fighting for a better world in an environment far more harsh than any that we adults have to endure in the process.  The sooner we hand them a seat at the national activism table, the better off our movement will be.

In short, Jess talks about how much working with me has changed her life, but the feeling is mutual.  I cannot express how meaningful it has been to meet Jess and how much my life has been changed on account of it.  It is good to be beside her on the front lines.

  • Stephen B

    JT,
    Love the idea of high school students seeking guidance/aid/comfort, but is there any way the SSA could support/guide teachers to assisting without violating church/state. It is a total battle every day to keep my beliefs to myself without imposing. Thanks for the blog.

    Stephen B
    High School Math Teacher.

  • JT Eberhard

    Stephen B,

    Yes! We are working on a listserv for such teachers and the SSA, around the beginning of September, is going to unveil a program directed at teachers just like you!

    JT

  • http://daftdepaul.blogspot.com Brandi

    Please keep me updated on that list. Rural New Mexico isn’t the friendliest place for an atheist. :)

  • David

    For a partial list of questions that could be used by teachers and students to critically examine and evaluate evolution, see:

    Evolution: The Creation Myth of Our Culture
    http://www.trueorigin.org/evomyth01.asp

    eg.

    How do geologists and paleontologists explain microfossils of pollen, spores, angiosperms, gymnosperms, and at least one winged insect, in Eocambrian (Upper Precambrian) rock?

    • Aquaria

      Take your bullshit and shove it, you lying fraud.

    • Drakk

      Disregarding that your comment has nothing to do with the post, the scientific explanation you are looking for is most assuredly not “teh gawd”.

  • Volizden

    David – You are citing and argument for an article published in nature from 1966, over 40 YEARS OLD.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v210/n5033/abs/210292a0.html

    Any NEW links referenced today are of Christian sites trying to continue this as a valid talking point against evolution. which is simply not the case. When contradictory data like this appears it is heavily scrutinized for flaws or validity. In the case of this argument (that you presented) it was discounted as erroneous testing.

    BUT in the future for your information, when data like this comes up in the field or lab the most common reasons for this type of error are as follows:

    1) The pollen dating is confounded.

    2) The radiometric dating is confounded.

    3) This particular sediment has been created from parts of very differing ages; in other words, it is a conglomerate.

    If you have any further questions about this look up more information from EDUCATION sources NOT Christian sources as MOST LIKELY they are going to be biased toward the Biblical support side of the argument.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    @David: Does any respectable University have a Creation Science department? Oh wait, no, they don’t.

  • Benito Ramirez

    Never mind that the city of Cranston was founded by Protestants. Never mind that this “unsightly” prayer that just “had” to be removed was written by a 13 year old, as a gift nonetheless. Never mind that the prayer itself portrays the desire to do your best and grow mentally and physically. Never mind that the prayer challenges an individual to be kind, helpful and honest. Never mind that it implies to teach good sportsmanship and friendship.

    Jessica Ahlquist stopped believing in God at age 10, and we’re to then assume that she is an atheist. She subsequently, sought to remove a prayer sign several years later from the walls of her school. So other than the 100% ostensibly positive nature of the message, she probably gives issue to the specific words “prayer”, “heavenly father” and “amen”; if you read the sign, you’ll see those are the only words with any religious implications. It takes a special type of person to seek to exclude an entirely positive message just because they disagree with less than 5% of the words used.

    The trouble with Jessica’s quest to remove this prayer from public view is that it completely invalidates her “belief” or lack of belief in God. Jessica fails to realize that by increasingly giving voice to her non-belief by removing messages of belief, simply gives others an alternative reason to choose religion.

    Is she worried that others might choose religion because they read this sign? If that is the case then the act is pointless. If there is no God or heaven, then it doesn’t matter what religions other people choose to believe in. Therefore the sign is meaningless from a religious standpoint. Removing it simply accentuates is defining purpose.

    Is she is worried because it conflicts with her direct sensibilities? Then she is simply an obtuse person who refuses to acknowledge or accept that other people may have an alternative viewpoint to her own. Maybe she should seek to display a message on the walls of her school that she created herself that she can put a positive spin on. Rather than putting a negative spin on something somebody originally created to be positive.

    People who are disquieted by positive messages can only be expected to try and cause the same feelings of uneasiness and lack of peace in the people around them. So to all those who are outraged by her persistence, understand that, in hindsight, it was simply a foregone conclusion stemming from personal unrest; not about some words on a wall.

    • Forbidden Snowflake

      Never mind that the city of Cranston was founded by Protestants. Never mind that this “unsightly” prayer that just “had” to be removed was written by a 13 year old, as a gift nonetheless.

      You are correct, none of this actually matters.

      Never mind that the prayer challenges an individual to be kind, helpful and honest. Never mind that it implies to teach good sportsmanship and friendship.

      Given the reactions she has received, the prayer wasn’t working, so who cares?

      So other than the 100% ostensibly positive nature of the message, she probably gives issue to the specific words “prayer”, “heavenly father” and “amen”; if you read the sign, you’ll see those are the only words with any religious implications. It takes a special type of person to seek to exclude an entirely positive message just because they disagree with less than 5% of the words used.

      Actually, I believe she suggested that the school just get rid of the religious words, and the school refused. I guess the words that make the message into a prayer are really important to them, and your attempts to minimize them as “5% of the words used” are bullshit.

      Is she worried that others might choose religion because they read this sign? If that is the case then the act is pointless. If there is no God or heaven, then it doesn’t matter what religions other people choose to believe in.

      Because society and the impact that religion has on it don’t exist unless jebus exists? That is some mighty dumb reasoning.

      Is she is worried because it conflicts with her direct sensibilities? Then she is simply an obtuse person who refuses to acknowledge or accept that other people may have an alternative viewpoint to her own.

      Making up falsehoods about her motives is bearing false witness against your neighbor. I heard that some religions have some kind of problem with that, so take care.

      Rather than putting a negative spin on something somebody originally created to be positive.

      Because something created with a positive intention cannot possibly have a negative effect?

      Also, I wonder why you would even make all of those ugly speculations about Jessica. After all, the judge was the one who ruled that the banner has to go. So maybe you should take your bullshit two-bit psychology up with him.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard
  • Aquaria

    Never mind that the city of Cranston was founded by Protestants.

    WTF does this have to do with–anything?

    Hey! The Native Americans who lived there before them were pagans! Let’s ask them what they want on the walls!

    Oh–wait–you christards wiped them out and stole their land.


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