The War of the Mind is Being Fought by Teens

“…we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Cor 10:5

Legally, adults cannot proselytize in public schools, though they certainly try and sometimes succeed even though the administrators know a lawsuit could sap their entire budget.  But the goal of converting kids to Christ is so important (mostly because they’re less inoculated against bullshit than adults), and Christianity is such a lousy impediment to sleazy behavior, that believers keep looking for ways to skirt the law.

The new big push is peer evangelism.  Whereas you’d think public schools are for education first, these people seek to use the students at these schools to turn them into a bastion for ministry.  This is the message of the major web site for this push: Every Student, Every School.

Of course, even though they’re being used by adults who are perfectly willing to distract their children from their education with important tasks like telling everybody within earshot that some weirdo dude rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, it’s still the student’s right to do that.  So what can we do?

Part of the problem is that unlike our opposition, we’re not willing to treat young people like pawns in the culture war.  We’re willing to help them form secular clubs to achieve solidarity.  These clubs are essential in their defense living in the atmosphere of disdain crafted by religion in the public school environment.  I would tell high school students to ignore the proselytizers and focus on their academics.  But that’s easier said than done?  Can we do anything?  Should we do anything other than trust secular students to be able to push back if they feel so inclined?

I went to the apologetics part of the web site.  It’s just a video talking about how they have all the evidence on their side.  Yeah, just like a hobo has all the money.

The whole mess is run by a guy named Sean McDowell who was/is a high school teacher.  He’s also an abject loon (the article is hosted on Conversant Life, a site I tussled with way back in my xanga days).  He’s the one in the video talking about how Christians have all the evidence on their side (of course, he doesn’t mention any of it).  It would never happen since McDowell would have everything to lose and nothing to gain, but I sure wish I could get a crack at him and let him and see how his *ahem* evidence holds up.

I say we use this to our advantage.  We’re content to go about our daily, scholastic lives, but if they want to engage us?  Awesome.  We can prepare young atheists with the rebuttals to the lame arguments they’re bound to hear from peer ministers.  Pascal’s Wager?  Shred it to ribbons and laugh.  First Cause Argument?  Reduce it to powder and watch them stumble and choke on it.  They may be outnumbered, but fortunately all the evidence, literally all of it, is in our hands, and it is a weapon that can be turned back at the indoctrinated minds of the faithful.  We can tell high school secularists that the religion discussion is fine, but the purpose of schools is for education and that discussion should always take a distant backseat.  However, once a believer opens the door that the atheist student is free to walk through as far as they wish…or to tell them to piss off before hurrying to their biology class.

What about you guys?  What is the proper response here?  This is my job, so good ideas are welcome and appreciated.

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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.

  • Mike de Fleuriot

    For a secular high school group, get the members of it, each to choose one rebuttal and learn it well. Have them all know which member has which rebuttal, and if they come across a question/claim that their rebuttal does not cover, get them to bring the claimant to the person in their group who knows that particular rebuttal.

  • Dhorvath, OM

    Are students allowed to sell products to one another at school? Proselytizing is a sales strategy, they want support and they will get it via social pressure if they can’t via the product itself having worth.

  • ahs ॐ

    We can tell high school secularists that they’re not at school to change anybody’s mind about religion, but that once a believer opens the door that the atheist student is free to walk through as far as they wish…or to tell them to piss off before hurrying to their biology class.

    In almost every larger high school, there are a few students who opt to start conversations by proclaiming that there is no God and no Jesus. I don’t know whether it’s that devil music or concern for their fellow students that makes them do it, but

    please be careful that you don’t word this in such a way that might discourage the few who do actively try to share what they believe is an important message. (I think it would be discouraging if you just “tell high school secularists that they’re not at school to change anybody’s mind about religion”.)

    • JT Eberhard

      You’re absolutely right. I should phrase that as “that’s not what school is for, so it should always take a backseat to education.”

      And will do so right now.


  • Raging Bee

    Students who wish to resist religious indoctrination, and help others do so, need to learn about the manipulative tactics behind the godbots’ arguments. Specifically, they need to understand how evangelists work from carefully designed scripts, and how they distort whatever their opponents’ say so it fits their script and they can pretend to refute it.

    Students need to learn facts and reasoning; but they also need to learn how dishonest and irrational people undermine reasoning.

  • Brandon

    I vote that they bring it. Hard. I agree with JT, we’ve got the evidence and the philosophy on our side. The faster their arguments crash against us like raindrops on a mountain, the faster we end the bullshit idea that Atheism is intellectually untenable. Imagine the next generation growing up unable to make the claim, in ignorance, that Atheism isn’t founded on evidence and reason because as children they talked to young Atheists and learned that there was a lot more to Atheism than childish rebellion.

    Yep, let them bring their best arguments. We’ll equip young freethinkers to handle them and we’ll allow them, the next generation, to really effect the social change we want to see.

  • crayzz

    I was always kind of disappointed that there were no evangelists in my high school. Agnosticism/atheism/deism was the majority, by a huge margin, so they didn’t really have a base to start from. They had no foothold. There were a few creationists (Some of my best friends actually. Crazy ideas, but nice people.) and we argued, but the attempts at evangelism were half-hearted. The thing is, I enjoy arguing. A lot. So I always felt like I was maybe missing out a bit, and I kind of had to look for the fights. But, if they want to bring the fight straight to us? Fuckin’ bring it. There’s a reason that many christians homeschool their children. They can’t compete with us on even turf. Any teenager, as long as they understand evidence and epistemology will wreck the slew of childish, asinine arguments that come their way.

  • Rowan

    In my high school I used to take great delight in engaging with a pentecostal kid, although at the time I wasnt really an full on atheist, or had looked into a lot of religious arguments.

    All I know is I found a bible, read parts of it, laughed (seem to remember getting a kick out of Judges in particular), and asked him why if it says that you MUST put homosexuals to death, why doesnt the pope put a turret on his pope-mobile and roll down the streets of San-fransisco blowing up any Mazda Miatas he sees?

    It was just so easy and fun to turn any argument he made and any point in the bible on its head and use it against him, and it made him so flustered.

    • Rowan

      Oh, and forgot, at some times his pastor or whatever from his church would come by during lunch to visit him, and he’d sometimes join in.
      Was really fun to have been arguing a point of biblical stupidity, where the kid was swearing up and down the bible couldnt possibly say anything like what I was suggesting, and then having his pastor say that I was actually right.

  • savoy47

    This reminds me of the Christians that managed to get “bible study clubs” into public schools. They were riding high on their horse until the Secular Student Alliance took advantage of that opening. They are now popping up in school after school all around the country. Now those same Christians are upset that,”these godless heathens are taking over our public schools”. Sometimes Christians turn out to be best allies in the fight. We should take advantage of it wherever we can.

    When one of these kids come home and says that Johnny said there is no god, or, I want to join Mary’s Religion because it sounds like more fun than ours, you will see some real Christian outrage.

  • Surgoshan

    C’mon, JT, he doesn’t need to say what the evidence is. It’s all on his side! All of it! Because god made all of it! Even the stuff that indicates that the earth is, like, WAY old and that there were dinosaurs and junk. That’s all put there to test your faith. And god put it there and so it’s all on his side even though it looks like it isn’t. Sort of like that picture of a duck where if you squint your eyes and tilt your head sideways, a big guy can sneak up behind you and hit you and tithe your money for you. Just like that.

  • Greg Brahe

    I agree with you 100% that once the door is opened, the opportunity has presented itself for a freethinking student to run through it and destroy the arguments being brought to the table. I refuse to believe that this is any less productive use of school time than it would be for the student to sit in a lesson, no matter how well prepared, on the standard curriculum.

    I would argue that education is more valuable as a series of teachable moments and as intellectual interaction between students as well as educators. Discussion can lead to controversy and other issues, yes, but it is also something that should be encouraged in every case. Secular students should be free to consider the priority the conversation at hand before the standard curriculum, if for no reason other than the fact that intellectual debate and discussion is often far more valuable than the days lesson in English class.

    I have started a website, ( that is dedicated to this very idea. The questions that people avoid the most are often the most important, and civil discourse on an intellectual level is crucial for anything to be accomplished and possibly the most valuable skill a a person can hone after they have become sufficient at the three R’s.

  • Sastra

    Greg Brahe #10 wrote:

    The questions that people avoid the most are often the most important, and civil discourse on an intellectual level is crucial for anything to be accomplished and possibly the most valuable skill a a person can hone after they have become sufficient at the three R’s.

    I agree.

    A retired philosophy professor of my acquaintance likes to argue over the existence of God in book and internet. When people ask him why he chooses this particular topic, he replies “it’s where the action is.”

    And so it is. In order for an atheist to defend naturalism against religious challenges the atheist has to develop a fair working knowledge of epistemology, ethics, logic, science, and what it takes to discuss all these subjects intelligently. That’s a lot of work — but the payoff is huge.

    If nothing else, it will eventually allow you to relax when you hear some proselytizer make a really bad argument or appeal to emotions. You not only know that they are wrong, you know why they are wrong, how they got to be wrong, and how to address the problem and try to persuade them (or interested bystanders) to change their mind.

    It will also help you understand what you believe and why you believe it. It will force you to understand the other side — not just where you disagree, but where you don’t. I think a large part of the appeal of religion is that it has the appearance of deep thought about it. It resembles philosophy. Suddenly you are asking Big Questions and it sounds like you are getting Big Answers to them — answers which take you out of the mindless stream of consumerism, status, and pleasure-seeking which can be thin gruel for a thoughtful student.

    But their answers are small and ours are better. We will never get rid of the stigma against atheism if the majority always feel smug about their faith-based views being so reasonable and atheism being perverse. So yes, I think atheist students should be prepared to respond to direct challenges (assuming they want to.)

    But they’re also going to have to be prepared to go down in flames now and again. Not because they’re wrong, but because getting a fair working knowledge of epistemology, ethics, logic, science etc. is a fair amount of work. Expect to get your ass kicked before you can really kick ass — and always keep that in mind. Be humble: it’ll screw them up.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    I would say that it could be a good idea to only engage when an evangelist is attempting to proselytize to others kids outside of the SSA groups. I say this because it may be unlikely that they’ll change the mind of the proselytizer but they could help the would- be proselytizee. This would also help redirect the predictable accusations that the SSA is trying to proselytize or what not right back at the believers.

    Otherwise, the believer can be told they simply have nothing the SSA member wants. That could get the proselytizer to really want to focus on the SSA members more than anyone else. As annoying as that would be for the club members it could end up keeping them absorbed in an activity that would only waste their time.

    Of course, engaging in private could give the SSA member a chance to get used to defending their position outloud, making them more effective when there’s an audience that includes potentially open people. Also, in my teen years I knew plenty of kids that went the full Jesus route that I don’t think were really all that into it. Instead they did so because it was expected of them, or at least they thought it was. Those are the ones that it may be best to talk to in one- on- one sessions but, admittedly that can be hard to tell.

    So bascially, this is a long- winded way of saying I have nothing. Any approach would be good depending on the situation at hand. I guess the best thing to do is to confer to the students what each method is and how to determine which is best for the circumstances.