Religious topics have long been a touchy subject in public schools and none of them touchier than atheism.
For young people though, the taboo surrounding unbelief appears to be disappearing. Recent surveys have found that younger Americans are the least likely to be religious. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 29 percent of 18-29 year olds are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 15 percent of the population as a whole. And a 2006 Pew Research poll found that 1 in 5 young people said they have no religious affiliation, nearly double the proportion of the late 1980s.
The Secular Student Alliance, a national group that supports non-theistic students, says that this demographic change has not translated into many secular groups at the high school level so far. For the last four years, the number of high school groups devoted to atheists, agnostics and other unbelievers has been stuck at a mere 12. But recently, interest in forming new ones has picked up a bit. Five groups have been founded in the last month alone, and another 30 schools have expressed interest.
It’s likely that more groups would have formed by now. But they’ve run into a tough obstacle: school administrators. An Oklahoma principal recently called the proposed secular organization at his school a “hate group.” Other school officials have shown their hostility through foot-dragging and behind-the-scenes sabotage.
An organizer for the Secular Student Alliance says that many groups get caught in a predictable pattern:
"1) Interested student gets everything in order, finds a faculty sponsor, and applies for their group; 2) administration stonewalls them; 3) students push harder; 4) administration crumbles, but faculty sponsor withdraws. I've seen this exact same scenario play out almost double-digit times in the six weeks I've been here."
This kind of hostility helps explain why secular students feel the need to form clubs in the first place. According to a 2006 survey by the University of Minnesota, unbelievers are the ultimate outsiders in American life. They are more disliked and mistrusted than immigrants, gays and lesbians, conservative Christians, Jews or Muslims. “Americans are becoming more tolerant of racial and religious diversity,” said Penny Edgell, who led the survey. “But those who aren't religious fall outside the range of tolerance.”
And unbelievers live “outside the range of tolerance” in part because attitudes about them have been shaped by stubborn stereotypes.
One of the most powerful of those stereotypes is that unbelievers are intellectual dilettantes or cowards. This attitude is embodied in the common joke, “There’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.” Unbelievers tend to respond to it in two ways. First, they point out that atheists are no strangers to foxholes. Second, they ask people to imagine how they’d react to a joke like, “There are no blacks around when the work gets hard.” The foxhole joke—and the attitude it represents—is that offensive.
But easily the biggest of all stereotypes is the notion that unbelievers have no reason to be moral. Many religious people consider this a fact and not a slur. If it were true though—if unbelievers really couldn’t see the wisdom of the Golden Rule—you would expect atheists to be overwhelmingly criminal. Yet countries like Denmark and Sweden, which have large populations of non-believers, are better off than the highly religious United States on issues like crime, drug abuse and helping the poor.
For young people, “coming out” as an unbeliever can be very difficult. It’s been compared to coming out as gay or lesbian, and with good reason. Family and friends often lash out at teens who announce that they are atheists or agnostics. And many public rituals, like saying the Pledge of Allegiance or singing God Bless America at ball games, put these teens on the spot.
Meanwhile, the ignorance-fueled hostility toward unbelievers seems to be everywhere. Billy Ray Cyrus, the father of Miley Cyrus, recently equated atheists with Satan worshipers. And last year, Pew Research found that while “interracial marriage is now widely accepted by Americans of all racial groups . . . there is one new spouse that most Americans would have trouble accepting into their families: someone who does not believe in God." That kind of prejudice is as intimate as it gets.
Of course, there’s no good way to compare the pressures on LGBT teens with those on non-believing teens. As atheist writer Wendy Kaminer put it, “In general, closeting your lack of faith is probably easier and a lot less stressful than closeting your sexuality.” But the fact is that students shouldn’t have to closet either one. Unbelievers should be able to come together and state their lack of faith without having a principal brand them as a “hate group.”
Federal law says that any school allowing one non-curricular club must accept all. That means more secular clubs are coming. Teachers should educate themselves about the many common stereotypes that plague unbelievers. More importantly, they should help support unbelieving students. Accept them for who they are, and show them by example that no one falls outside the range of tolerance.
Price is managing editor at Teaching Tolerance.