Why we need to help young atheists

Mark Gail THE WASHINGTON POST Atheist messages hanging on the tree decorated on the lawn of the Loudoun County Courthouse … Continued

Mark Gail


Atheist messages hanging on the tree decorated on the lawn of the Loudoun County Courthouse on Dec. 10 ,2011 in Leesburg, Va.

Stephanie Kirmer attended high school in Kansas in the late 1990s, around the time the state was embroiled in a battle over teaching Creationism in science classes. She wrote letters to the editor of her local newspaper and testified in front of her school board to oppose the state Board of Education’s removal of evolution from the high school science curriculum. It wasn’t a very popular position for a high school freshman to take.

A few years later, when she joined the board of a fledgling organization called the Secular Student Alliance, she knew she wanted to focus on helping high school students. Not far removed from high school herself, she knew what it was like to become an atheist and feel like you were the only non-believer out there. She remembers the emails she received from students who, like her, didn’t know there was a growing movement for non-religious people. They would send her messages reading, “Oh my god, you guys exist! I’m the only atheist in my town!”

In response, Stephanie would send them reading material — books or magazines written from the atheist perspective. What surprised me was the way she prevented the potential problem of parents discovering the packages:

In other words, books and magazine promoting science, critical thinking, and the idea that God doesn’t exist were treated no differently than issues of Penthouse.

Today, learning more about atheism is nowhere as difficult as it used to be. Between the bestselling books by the New Atheists readily available at your local library or downloadable on your Kindle, the pro-atheism billboard campaigns waged by many national atheist organizations, and (of course) the Internet, our viewpoints are ubiquitous. A young atheist could be sitting in a pew at church with his family while reading about how wrong his pastor is on a smartphone.

But the availability of the atheist perspective doesn’t mean it’s any easier to be a high school atheist.

When writing my book, “The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide,” I found example after example of non-religious students who faced obstacles simply because their beliefs were those of an unpopular minority.

Brian Lisco just wanted to start an after-school Secular Student Alliance club at his high school in Sugarland, Texas. His principal told him she would allow the group to form only if Brian changed its name and promised not to affiliate with the national SSA. (Rules that didn’t seem to apply to the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.)

Brian refused to back down, though, and the school relented only after a reporter from a national newspaper asked the principal for comment on why she was opposing a perfectly reasonable request from a student.

That’s not nearly as bad as the principal who opposed the formation of a Secular Student Alliance group because it was, in his words, a “school-led hate group.” Even the faculty member who promised to sponsor the club was told by her superiors that it would be a “bad career move.”

Then there are the public schools that support non-denominational prayers at graduation (likely to appease a predominantly Christian population), despite the fact that courts have repeatedly ruled against that action.

In 2011, South Carolina’s Laurens County School District 55 attempted to circumvent the law by allowing the (mostly Christian) students to vote on whether or not they wanted a prayer. It took an atheist student, Harrison Hopkins, to realize the problem with this method and stop the vote by alerting the legal team at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. For his efforts, Harrison received threats of violence on Facebook. (The threats were thankfully never acted upon.)

Even something as innocuous as sitting down during the Pledge of Allegiance (rather than standing up and saying that we are one nation “Under God”) has been a contentious issue for many atheists. Chelsea Stanton, a student from New Jersey, faced multiple detentions for her refusal to stand during the pledge. Knowing she was within her legal rights not to stand, she contacted the New Jersey Law Revision Commission — as well as the local media — and got the school to overturn its policy. Instead of receiving praise for challenging her school’s illegal ways, Chelsea was kicked out of her parents’ house the day she graduated. They told her they didn’t want an atheist living with them.

It shouldn’t have to be this hard for non-religious students. But, with an eye to how LGBT students have made tremendous headway in how they are perceived in high school, things can get better.

Imagine how much better things would be for young atheists if their own parents supported their right to discuss faith openly and with a critical eye (even if they didn’t agree with their child’s decision).

Imagine how much easier things would be if Christians who respected separation of church and state took a stand against the illegal actions of some school administrators instead of letting atheists go at it alone.

And, for all the talk of this generation’s apathy toward religion, imagine how much more seriously students would take the subject if they were given the opportunity to talk about their beliefs with students who disagreed with them. That’s the sort of forum groups like the Secular Student Alliance and Center for Inquiry On Campus want to provide their affiliates at high schools and colleges across the country — and the sort of forum that is frequently opposed by religious administrators.

Young atheists don’t want special treatment, they want equal treatment. And the law is on their side. Yet, for all their efforts, they are often met with derision from their community and family as well as social ostracism. We can’t let that keep happening. The situation will only get corrected if more young atheists speak out and they get the support they need from the people around them. Even if you disagree on matters of theology, surely we should be discussing and debating our different perspectives, not stifling unpopular ideas.

Hemant Mehta is a national board certified high school math teacher from Illinois and a blogger at FriendlyAtheist.com.  He is the author of the new book
“The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide

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  • one nation

    The supreme law in the USA is the Constitution where as all Americans have the right to practice or not to practice a religion. Any type of a religion must not be taught in a public school. The motto, IN GOD WE TRUST applies to any God. Those that push one religion on others are not in step with the Constitution.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    I had a similar history to the kids described in the article, but I must say I do not share the author’s angst.. In my senior year of Catholic high school I discovered/decided that I was an atheist. And I actually stayed an atheist for many years until I converted to (gasp) evangelical Christianity at the ripe old age of 40 something.

    I learned some valuable life lessons from the high school atheist experience. Most valuable was that we all grow up in intellectual bubbles of one sort or another. There is life outside your current bubble. Very important for a kid to learn. There are also other, different, bubbles that you can hide in. If you break out of, say, the Christian bubble, going immediately to hide in some athieist bubble is not the wisest course of action. There is also the possibility of standing outside of the various bubbles, or at least as many of them as you can break out of. Also, we never quite break out of all of the bubbles that we are trapped in, do we?

  • Stephen Butler

    I’m a chemist and a failed atheist. I can’t see any empirical reason to believe in the God that was presented to me in the Christian bible, but I keep talking to her anyway.

    The atheists are not wrong. There is a lot of pressure placed on them to conform to the religious beliefs of their families and communities.

    However, if protections are required from this pressure then it needs to be offered to everyone in the same boat.

    If you come from a Baptist family in a southern community, see what happens if a teenager decides to become Catholic or the other way around.

    Look into what happens to a teenager in a Mormon community in Utah who decides to believe anything differently.

    If your family is atheist, see what happens if a teenager converts to Christianity.

    If your family is Islamic, see what happens to a teenager who decides to follow any other faith at all.

    If your community is Christian see what happens to a teenager who decides to follow Buddhism.

    Protect one, protect all.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    Would it not be a good idea to teach kids the life skill of how to resist peer pressure, think for yourself and be proud of it? We could all benefit from having the ability to swim determinedly against the stream when we believe it’s right and appropriate, and how to do so while maintaining the social graces.

  • Fosl

    Life in the 21st century (so far anyway) is all about conformity. Political correctness isn’t going away.

  • ex-Navy

    young atheists do need our help in finding a supportive faith community so they don’t grow up to be old atheists.

  • ex-Navy

    reading the comments it’s sad to see how close minded atheists are unable to comprehend something greater in this world or that there are some things we can’t fully understand, yet they exist.

  • ThomasBaum

    Those that “push” any religion on anyone are not in step with God either.

  • purpledrank

    Of course there are things we don’t fully understand that we know exist. There are physical laws that define our universe, but we don’t have a unified theory of how they work. We know pi exists, but we don’t know all of its digits. Deities, on the other hand…I don’t know that they exist. But I’m open to being proven wrong.

  • vzepijdu

    Your goodness makes you good while your badness makes you bad. Good is good and bad is bad. Good good bad bad good.

  • mpace77

    @Fosl, political correctness isn’t about conformity, it’s about respect. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with someone else’s views or positions, just do it in a respectful manner and know when to agree to disagree.

    Note: this is my view as an atheist.


    Our minds are open, we just keep some portion closed so our brains don’t fall out.

    Like yours obviously has.

    “Greater power” does not mean an invisible sky daddy. Prove the invisible sky daddy hypothesis first, then you can make the case for its action on the world at large.

    Now math – that is so cool. Much cooler that paleolithic dieties.

  • Dog555

    Wed, 11/21/2007 – 17:52 — Arthur Cristian
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    Page 1 of 14 – Untitled 2 24 2006 8 12 21 38 3:38 AM Posted: 03 April 2005 at 9:10pm | IP Logged

    Listed are only events that solely occurred on command or participation of church authorities or were committed in the name of ……. (List incomplete) Ancient Pagans

    * As soon as Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire by imperial edict (315), more and more pagan temples were destroyed by Christian mob. Pagan priests were killed.

    * Between 315 and 6th century thousands of pagan believers were slain.

    * Examples of destroyed Temples: the Sanctuary of Aesculap in Aegean, the Temple of Aphrodite in Golgatha, Aphaka in Lebanon, and the Heliopolis.

    * Christian priests such as Mark of Arethusa or Cyrill of Heliopolis were famous as “temple destroyer.” [DA468]

    * Pagan services be

  • sideswiththekids

    I grew up in the days when every public school student said the Lord’s Prayer every morning. My school also had a tradition of gathering in the halls between Thanksgiving and Christmas to sing Christmas carols. And in junior high I was part of a “choral reading” group that did choral readings, as part of school assemblies of various poems and, at Christmastime, the Bible.

    The latter didn’t bother me. The words were handed out to us before we started. What frightened me in 1st grade was the assumption by the school that we all entered school knowing the words to the prayer and the carols. I remember standing among my classmates, wondering why everybody but me seemed to know what we were doing, and, after only 3 months of school, afraid to admit I didn’t know the words.

  • mqpham

    As a “non-religious” person, I’ve never felt isolated among the “religious.”. However, I’m not surprised that an “anti-religious” person would feel treatened. Afterall, the threat is goes both ways. It’s just that there’s more “regious” than “anti-religious” people. There is, however, a big difference between the “non-religious” and the “anti-religious.” Those two should not be conflagrated.

  • mqpham

    Atheist are as bad as the theist. They are both just beliefs, albeit in opposing directions. There is no proof for either belief. Theists believe in God. But there’s no proof that God exists. Theists believe God does not exist. But there’s no proof that God doesn’t exist either. Not sure why atheists somehow believe they are more rational than the theists. The fact is that they aren’t.

  • sideswiththekids

    I have a friend who, when asked his religion, states “apatheist.” He says by the time the questioner works out that the root word is “apathy” instead of “theism” and he means he just doesn’t care about religion, the conversation has moved on and it saves him a lot of arguments!

  • shred11

    Awww, those poor young athiests. Who knew they were so troubled?

  • shred11

    cuz lots o’ folks (esp. those horrible Christians) will just go right up to you and argue, right?

  • tj23112

    Atheism is actually the exact opposite of belief, it is the lack thereof. It goes nothing past the rejection of deities. The burden of proof lies firmly in the theist court, otherwise you’d have to prove to me the evidence that unicorns, Santa Claus, and Zeus don’t exist

  • Sadetec

    You really don’t understand atheism.

    Atheism is not the absolute assertion gods don’t exist. We can’t say gods don’t exist, like we can’t say the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist or Santa doesn’t exist. But we *can* say there is no rational reason to believe these things exist — and that is why atheists consider themselves more rational.

    Now quite often people might say “Santa isn’t real”, but that doesn’t mean they have proof he isn’t real, it is just a shorthand to avoid needing to say “there is no evidence to suggest Santa is real” every time.

  • Sadetec

    Douglas Adams once says that given how wonderful our garden is, isn’t it a shame how some people want there to the fairies at the bottom of it too.

    Our planet, and our universe, is dripping in interesting stuff. Science is an exploration of this vast vast ocean of amazingness, it never ceases to throw up intriguing questions and mind blowing answers. But so many people turn their backs on our universe, they deliberately seek to remain ignorant of the rich complexity it has slowly acquired over its many billions of years of existence. They know nothing of the stars, of our planet, of ourselves. They raise their hands towards an imaginary heaven and proclaim “there must be something more than this, there must be something more!”

    Too busy chasing fairies to see the natural beauty all around them. Very sad.

  • Sadetec


    Christian evangelism doesn’t exist where you live? Hmm, interesting…

  • Sadetec

    It does sound like you live your life on the rebound, lurching from one idea to the next, based upon what you’ve recently rejected.

    It’s a common complaint.

    While I understand what you say about being trapped in bubbles, you have to understand not everyone is like you. We learn and we grow as we acquire new experiences, but we don’t feel the need to label ourselves quite so vehemently (I was X, and now I’m Y, and tomorrow I’ll be Z) as we go on this journey.

    Labels are useful as a shorthand, but if you feel yourself being defined by your label (trapped in a bubble of its making) you really should shake off that digital way of thinking, where things are either one thing or the other, and consider a more analogue approach where you’re at an intersection created by various sliding scales. Sure, it may be useful to say “I’m a Christian” or “I’m an atheist” as a tag, but that shouldn’t trap you within a given ‘camp’ (or bubble), because in reality no such definitive ‘camps’ exist.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    Modern atheism is not simply about not believeing in god. It is a self-identity narrative which goes something like: “We are the intellectually superior ones because we believe in Reason, Science and Evidence, not like the religionists, who are intellectually inferior because they need the crutch of a Skydaddy.” This is the pitch in their web sites and blogs.

    Now it seems to me that if you claim to be intellectually superior and you also claim to believe in evidence, it is reasonable to ask you to provide the evidence your intellectual superiority. Evidence might include patents, widely cited peer-reviewed scientific papers, recognized academic awards or prizes, acclaimed books or novels, etc.

    Sadly, no member of an athiest club or organization whom I have met has ever been able to provide such evidence for himself. He may invoke Einstein, but he then proceeds, unwittingly, to make it clear that he himself is no Einstein.

    Hence I doubt the truth of the atheist narrative.

  • Eppur1

    Um well DJ in addition to having greater levels of education than the religious, atheists are over represented among scholars (Ecklund & Scheitle, 2007) and at elite schools (Gross & Simmons, 2006). they also have higher IQs than the religious (Lewis, Ritchie, & Bates, 2011; Reeve, 2009) and they have greater analytical thinking (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Pennycook et al, 2012). So… what is your evidence to the contrary?

  • Eppur1

    I’m sorry, i left out more evidence of higher IQ among atheists such as Kanazawa (2010) and Lynn, Harvey, & Nyborg, (2009), higher SAT scores (Sherkat, 2010). Anyways you were talking about evidence or something?

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    Ah, but you miss my point. I don’t want to see population means, I want to see YOUR personal accomplishments, if any.

    My assertion is that the person who buys into the atheist narrative is specifically the person who has no remarkable accomplishments OF HIS OWN, but is trying to prove his worth by association with an abstract group. Studies such as you cite are part and parcel of that narrative, They allow a person to impute accomplishment to himself by the fact that he belongs to the group that does not believe in god, when in fact the belief/disbelief in god is a correlate, not a cause, of any accomplishment being measured in the studies.

  • Rongoklunk

    We usually believe whatever our parents tell us to believe. We usually believe whatever they raised us to believe. Folks who are raised to believe the Islam message will believe it. Folks who are raised to be Catholics will usually end up believing what Catholics believe. Folks who are raised to be Hindus or Mormons or Janes or whatever will end up believing what they were taught.

    So obviously if any of us were raised elsewhere – we’d believe something else. Doesn’t that say something about how we acquire our beliefs? And doesn’t it say how we act like robots once the beliefs are digested – no matter what faith we were raised in? Yes it does. It says that our “deeply held” beliefs are no better than entirely different beliefs- which we don’t believe in – because we weren’t raised to believe them. But IF WE HAD BEEN raised to believe them – we’d believe them.
    Our beliefs are meaningless. We are simply robots reacting to nothing more than what daddy & mommy tell us is true.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    At any rate, the studies you cite have to do mostly with standardized test scores and access to elite schools, which are not the same thing as intelligence and achievement. Many good people don’t have the access, and standardized test scores, very controversial what they mean if anything.

    But flawed studies serve the narrative just as well as good ones would.

  • itsthedax

    DJ, please google “straw man fallacy”, then try again. But try to be a little less hysterical and shrill next time.

  • Rongoklunk

    As far as we know there are no gods and never were any. If you hadn’t been raised to believe what you believe – you wouldn’t believe it. If you had been raised in Utah by Mormon parents you’d almost certainly believe what Mormons believe. Ditto if you’d been raised in Calcutta to Hindu parents, or if you’d been raised in Dublin of Catholic parents. And yes, if you had been brought up by atheist parents then you’d almost certainly be an atheist. Look around you…look around the world. That’s how belief (and nonbelief) works. It has nothing to do with truth, but everything about what we were “taught” to believe.

  • itsthedax

    So, anything you don’t understand isn’t worth investigating and learning about? After all, why bother with learning about anything when you can just raise your hands and say “It’s a divine mystery!”

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    Speaking of logical fallacies… Studies that correlate “representation among scholars,” “representation at elite schools,” and, most famously, IQ scores, also show substantial differential between whites versus other races. Misusing these same factors to differentiate atheists versus believers is just the same fallacy.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    Rongo – My father was an atheist. Does that help your theory?

  • itsthedax

    OK, now google “Non sequitur”, and try again.

    You’re really bad at this. Maybe you should take a few undergraduate courses in logic, as well as comparative theology.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “You really don’t understand atheism.

    Atheism is not the absolute assertion gods don’t exist. We can’t say gods don’t exist,”

    You might not but some do.

  • ThomasBaum

    Just as some theists, including but not limited to Christians, try to shove God down other people’s throats there are ateists that do just the same.

    All one has to do is read some of the comments on here to see that.


    But we can LEARN different.


    Death threats from christians will do that.

  • Rongoklunk

    The bubbles are always religious, and indoctrination is essential to getting inside the bubble. Atheism is being outside the bubble.

  • Rongoklunk

    Of course…

  • Rongoklunk

    I certainly do. The very idea is absurd. Besides, the 3500 gods that the ancients made-up is pretty good evidence that all gods are.
    They are mythical by definition. Inventing them, naming them, explaining them, and worshiping them is what the ancients did all the time. It was a major preoccupation. And thousands of real people were often sacrificed for these pretend gods. And life must have been absolute Hell.

  • Joel Hardman

    I don’t think your distinction between anti-religious and non-religious applies to any of the stories in the column. Do you?

  • cs9243

    If you are a non believer in God, creation stories, hell and heaven, that makes you so bad and make you an atheist , how about some of the Eastern religions like Buddhism and Jainism , they don’t belive in a creator God or creation stories still they have a religion to practise, that is compassion and service. Any religion should be subjected to crtical thinking in this modern age.

  • Deborah M

    Stop being so parochial. The MAJORITY of the world’s population are atheist, they are atheist children brought up by atheist parents, in an atheist dominated society. Far from living “outside the bubble” they are well and truly living “inside the bubble” and to state otherwise is absurd. So if you grow up in Mecca you are likely to be religious (muslim) or in Rome (Christian), how much more so if you grow up in Beijing, Pyongyang, Havana, Bangkok, Hanoi, or if you grew up in past years in Moscow, Budapest or Sofia. MORE people living in the world at this moment were brought up atheist than anything else. What rebels you are – not!

  • LibertyFirst

    Is your view of religion narrow-minded? or intolerant? just asking since you said, “…that we wouls finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.” You sound just a little intolerant.

  • Sisifo

    Ah, God does exist, but only in people’s heads. The only thing that is totally and absolutely provable about God is that He exists in people’s heads. All this talk, for example, proves it. The problem with God is not WHETHER He exists or not but HOW He exists. For atheists, God exists a concept; for believers, God exists as Super Daddy.

  • Sisifo

    How about the Crusades? lots of killing there, all in the name of the Christian God. I figure all monotheistic religions go through a killing phase (like being a teenager) about 12 centuries, give or take one or two centuries, after their prophet shows up on the planet. Muslims are in the middle of their religious “teenage” killing phase. Christians had their Crusades. I don’t know the Jewish dates, but there’s a lot of killing in the Old testament. I can’t wait for the Mormons to go for it around the year 3200. But don’t worry, it’s just a phase…

  • Sisifo

    God does exist, but only in people’s heads. The proof of this is that we are writing about God. God must be in our heads in order to write about Him. That’s all we can prove. The rest is… well… unprovable…

  • Sisifo

    Well, humans are not perfect. Their intelligence (sentience) works against them. The key is fear. Deer can neither remember nor imagine fear. They just react in fear when threatened. Us humans not only remember and imagine fear, we magnify it. Add death to the equation. Death is the ultimate unknown, thus the ultimate source of imagined fear. How do we avoid it? God, of course. We imagine God will save us. Phew! that was close. So we organize religion A to strengthen God’s imaginary protection of us. Then those fools from religion B come tell us that religion A is no good and plunge us right back into fear. Obviously, the only way to get rid of the fear is to kill those religion B fools… and let the killing start…
    The great advantage of atheism is that atheists are not afraid of death and therefore they don’t need to kill anybody to keep themselves form being frightened… that’s where atheists are intellectually superior… atheists are adults, believers are children…

  • mgasgw

    Not intolerant, just very observant.

  • FuchuBH

    So you choosing to read comments on a news website constitutes atheist shoving non-god down your throat? A bit self-pitying, no?