Religion wins through fear, students lose

The other day I posted this link on my facebook.  It talks about the FFRF scoring a victory in two counties, one in Mississippi and the other in Kentucky.  In those counties, sectarian prayer before sporting events will stop.  Rock on.

Immediately I started getting emails from people telling me of the same problem elsewhere, and how their kids must falsely pray with the others.  To each of them I wrote back and said to get a recording of it and to bring me in and it will stop.

Every single one of them said their son/daughter did not want to do anything for fear of losing their spot on the team/playing time, etc.  The students are certainly uncomfortable, but feel they’d be made more uncomfortable if they spoke up.

While I understood, it made me sad.  This is how religion wins – not by having the best arguments, but through ideological bullying.  And it works.  We have students unwilling to stand up for their rights and to defend the Constitution because those who claim the moral high ground are spitting on it, and to tell them to stop would result in repercussions such as losing the athlete’s spot on the varsity.  Not through any lack of skill and ability or for being disruptive, but purely because they won’t kowtow to the majority religion.

And so religion continues to bring people together, just as religious people tell us it does.  For some, like the unbelieving students in the huddle, they are brought in through emotional blackmail.  While the devout are busy telling us what a wonderful thing the unifying force of religion can be, they somehow always miss just how exclusionary it is.  When you’re only bringing your own kind together and then forcing the hands of others through threats (eternal torture, ostracism from a team you’ve worked hard to make) and punishing the out-group, that’s not bringing people together.  We may as well prop up wars for their ability to drive cohesion.  And when you’re emotionally blackmailing teens, whether or not you think you’re saving them from an eternity of suffering, far from being a pillar of morality you’re actually fucking despicable.

This is one of the many reasons to keep church/state separate.  Religions are divisive.  Christianity is sectarian by its very nature.  Our government officials, including teachers, coaches, and administrators, must work for true inclusion, and this simply cannot happen when they’re allowed to wear their religious views on school property.  What good person would honestly see a student they believe is bound for eternal torment and not try to subversively save them?

What pisses me off even more is that some atheists still believe that situations like this do not represent the outcome of religious thinking (as they unquestionably have for the whole of human history) – that these scenarios are somehow isolated and rare and that most religious people are capable of accepting the existence of a hell for unbelievers while simultaneously working with us.  Those people are wrong on an order of magnitude similar to that of young-Earth creationists.  This kind of thing happens all over the place.  When a group wants to create a Secular Student Alliance club at their high school (right next to Ignite, Campus Crusade for Christ, FCA, etc.), more often than not (by a long shot) they must fight and claw, cite their legal rights repeatedly, and often bring me into the loop directly in order to make it happen.  Sometimes they must even bring lawsuits.  PZ, Greta, Jen, myself, and a host of others can (and do) write multiple blog posts every day about religion’s malicious impact on society.

The type of discrimination experienced by these students is just one facet of the problem of religion, and it is the norm, not the exception.  We shouldn’t try to coexist with religion and hope that these incidents go away in their own time.  This is how religion has maintained its dominance since its inception and there’s no reason to believe anything will change.  As the FFRF has shown in winning this decision, and as the SSA has shown in forcing administrations to allow secular clubs, is that we must fight to make the world a better place.

I’m proud to be in the middle of it swinging.  I hope one day my job as High School Specialist at the Secular Student Alliance will become superfluous, but that day is a long way off, sadly.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • LawnBoy

    On last night’s episode of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”, they mentioned that the public school graduation (coming next week) is going to have a student-led prayer, with the student picked by the school.

    Of course, this is a fictional show so there’s no real violation, but it really unnerved me that they’re implying that such a plan is acceptable.

    Then again, the show is from the same people who did the very religious “7th Heaven”, so I guess it’s not a surprise.

    And I only watch the show because of my wife. I swear. Really.

  • John Eberhard

    Well said.

  • John Eberhard

    “To each of them I wrote back and said to get a recording of it and to bring me in and it will stop.” They need to know that providing the recording to you doesn’t mean they have committed to personally step forward. They can provide the evidence but still remain anonymous.

    Just the fact that you have the evidence and can cite legal chapter and verse to the administration will SOMETIMES be enough all by itself. We poker players call this “bluffing”, but it works surprisingly often, especially when you are showing big cards.

    Granted, if the administration elects to push back and the student will not then step forward, you are dead in the water. That’s the breaks. Nobody hits a home run every time.

    I think even when you are bluffing enough of them will think, “Jesus Christ! It’s JT Eberhard! We know better than to fuck with him!”

    Hey….you don’t have to win EVERY pot. You will come out ahead in the long run if you win MOST of them. FWIW

  • Beaux

    Kick Ass JT! FYI: If you ever hear anything like that in the MS Gulf Coast area please let me know. I’ll do what I can. FFRF already sent a letter of complaint to the HS here in Pascagoula, Ms, where I live. It followed an organized prayer at the HS. I’ve made my criticisms known to the Pastor on his blog and YouTube channel. I will follow up with it the best I can.

  • Conrad

    What a failure to their duty and their kids that these school employees think they can subvert public secular education for their own whims and with their own completely unproven beliefs. Praying in a school is the most arrogant, unpatriotic thing someone can do.

  • robert senatore

    We run into the problem all the time about people who won’t speak up for atheism. OK… If you’re in any public school that takes Title IV money or any federal funding, THEY MAY NOT DISCRIMINATE ON THE BASIS OF RELIGION. Which means, they may not prefer those WITH religion over those WITHOUT. I suggest an anonymous phone call to your local department of justice and a phone call or e mail to the FFRF. Check out the DOJ’s website in regard to that issue:
    bob senatore,
    FLorida Atheists and Secular Humanists FLASH

  • Gordon


    You can have a recording of the prayer, with recognisable voices leading it and that wouldn’t be enough evidence?

    I really don’t see why you’d need to reveal the source of the tape. The fact of the prayer is captured on tape. Isn’t that enough?

  • Shak

    “We shouldn’t try to coexist with religion and hope that these incidents go away in their own time.”

    Perfect. Whenever someone tells me religion isn’t the problem so long as they don’t evangelize, I remind them that it takes a special kind of sociopath NOT to evangelize to a person who you sincerely believe is going to be tortured for eternity.

  • Carol Eberhard

    I agree with Dadoo…good post.

  • Gordon

    It also doesn’t help that they shift the “evangelizing” goalposts. I’ll bet that the people leading these prayers see them as “voluntary” and, like the teachers at Damon Fowler’s school, will claim “nobody ever complained before”.

    Who knows how many students through the years have not felt safe standing up to the mob.

    I’m sure they’ll claim not to be a mob (“we aren’t hurting anyone, just expressing our faith” they might say, before moving on to “I respect everybody but I was raised to believe in GAWD”), but as the recent batch of well known students show they can go from prayer to mob at the drop of a hat.

    I am in awe of the brave students who took a stand. I wish I’d been as smart and as principled. And, since I wasn’t, I’d be a massive hypocrite to expect every student who contacts you to be willing to stand in front of the horde. But I’m glad they have you and I really hope you can help them.

    I still think if you have evidence (ie recordings) then you shouldn’t need to identify the student or students who provided it.

  • John-Henry Beck

    I think the identity thing becomes an issue if it gets to the lawsuit stage. You have to have a plaintiff to go on record.

    There’s also the issue of the student trying to record it. Even if they can do it without being noticed, it still might be guessed who did. So there’s still risk there…recordings don’t appear magically.

  • Gordon

    Yeah, but a whole team was at the prayer, with some hangers-on. Someone definitely recorded it. Possibly more than one person.

    Do you need a named person whenever there is a crime?

    Doesn’t the US have laws against crossing the street in the wrong place? Who is the named person there?