Atheist Students Come Out of the Closet

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.


It's not just difficult for

Submitted by Margaret Gutenberg on 21 March 2011 - 9:56pm.

It's not just difficult for students to come out as atheist, it can be hell on teachers, too. I once made the mistake of admitting to a student that I don't go to church because I'm an atheist. I was harassed by students and guardians for months. My principal not only allowed this, but nodded along. Admin blew me off and AFT wouldn't even acknowledge my concerns. This wasn't even a rural school--this was the largest district in the state!

Two years later I'm at a much better place, but I'll never risk coming out again (I'm not even posting with my real name). Certainly not at a school that sings the Lord's Prayer at its Christmas program.

Great post! Here's a post I

Submitted by Zack Ford on 15 March 2011 - 11:57pm.

Great post! Here's a post I wrote at the end of 2009 posing the question of when higher education will start supporting atheist students the way it supports other marginalized groups:

As a lifelong secular

Submitted by Daniel on 15 March 2011 - 2:35pm.

As a lifelong secular humanist from a northern, progressive state currently teaching in the Bible belt, I have a rule in my class against proselytizing. When my students press me, I'm very open about my politically progressive positions on issues from gay marriage to abortion. However, when pushed on my religious beliefs, I say I'm a not very religious Jew, (I'm ethnically Jewish, and identify as such). A couple of my students have openly announced their atheism, and I am very protective of them and quick to crack down on any person who might start threatening them with impending hellfire, but it wouldn't be worth the classroom management fiasco to come out as an atheist myself. My kids have a hard enough time grasping the idea that I trust science over the bible, without explaining the extent to which I really do. Moreover, my administration and school in general embraces the Christian religion to a ridiculously illegal extent, and I don't feel like having to deal with their stigma should a kid approach them saying I'm atheist.
I liked this post reasonably well, but I just wanted to say that I and other atheist friends and family of mine have never found the atheist in foxholes bit especially offensive. Sure, there's an implication of cowardice there, but I think it's more intended as a darkly humorous commentary on what war does to people. I really don't see that it can be equated with blatantly bigoted stereotypes.

To clear up a common

Submitted by Michael on 11 March 2011 - 1:57pm.

To clear up a common misunderstanding, Christians and other believers in God that know what they are talking about are not claiming that atheists cannot be moral. Atheists can be very moral. What Christians are stating is that without God there is no objective moral standard. Its just your opinion against Hitlers opinion for example. We in fact all know what we "ought to do". We have all lied and we all have a conscience that tells us "we ought to tell the truth" even though we often ignore it. Who or what is telling us its wrong to lie? If there is no God there is no objective moral standard is what Christians are saying. But there is an objective moral standard. Therefore God exists if the atheist believes in God or not. Just like gravity exists if you believe in it or not. An objective truth does not require anyones belief to be true. As a Christian the Bible tells us that God has written the essential requirements of the law on every persons heart, even the non-believer. This explains whay they too know right from wrong. If any one thing is objectively morally wrong than God exists. Is it objectively morally wrong to torture children for fun? If so, God exists.

First off, let me second what

Submitted by Sean Price on 14 March 2011 - 10:38am.

First off, let me second what Gabe said.

Second, I'm afraid you're wrong, Michael, about the accusation commonly hurled at atheists when it comes to morality. Religious believers frequently say flat-out that unbelievers have no reason to be moral. For example, here is a quote from a recent column by Billy Graham (or the person writing in his name, anyway):

"a true atheist has no real reason to believe in right and wrong or to behave sacrificially toward others."

I think you'll find this attitude is widely shared.

Third, saying "without God there is no objective moral standard," as you do, is only superficially different than saying "atheists have no reason to be moral." The two statements might generate slightly different conversations. But they lead religious believers to the same prejudice: Atheists cannot be trusted.

The fact is that whether someone is Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Sikh or Hindu or Buddhist, you have to take people as they come and judge them by their actions. Unbelievers are no different.

I have a general comment

Submitted by Scott on 16 March 2011 - 3:14pm.

I have a general comment about whether morality is dependent on belief in a god or gods.
I belief that it does not.
My belief is that all sins are transgressions against other beings (nonhumans included).
It's as simple as that. If you are doing something that hurts another, it's a sin.
Sometimes, you have to pick the lesser of two evils, and most of us eat meat and pollute the air and water. I believe that for us to be non-sinful, you have to try your hardest to not do those things, but it is hard. I eat meat, and drive a car that pollutes, and am not always nice to the people around me, but I strive to be better.
What is not a sin is having sex, "swearing," loving someone who is the same gender as you, having different beliefs than someone else.
An aside on having sex: It's not sex in and of itself that is sinful, but inflicting pain on someone else, by rape, unwelcome molestation, especially on children or others not capable of saying no and enforcing their wishes.
Does any of that require a belief in a god? I don't see how it could make any difference whether I believed one (or many) or not.

Michael, You make some good

Submitted by Gabe Harper on 13 March 2011 - 6:20pm.


You make some good points here, but there are a couple of problems with your argument. Firstly, there are in fact very few objectively wrong moral actions, if any. Lying? Hardly-many persons commonly lie and feel no guilt as a result. Murder? Our society routinely kills criminals via capital punishment. (Or for the conservatives, what about women who have abortions and feel no shame ?) Morality is in fact mostly subjective, taught to us by our parents and society. The not torturing children thing is actually about as close as you can get to a universal moral principal. Even there, the revulsion most people feel may me more evolutionary than divinely inspired. As in "Children should be protected to forward the tribe's interests" rather than for a cosmic good. And even if you could prove that there is a God-directed universal ethos, you've presented no evidence that Christianity represents the true wishes of that God.

With respect, Gabe, reasoning

Submitted by Keith Moore on 14 March 2011 - 3:14pm.

With respect, Gabe, reasoning that there are few if any objectively wrong moral actions because what is objectively right is regularly violated makes no sense. A standard exists whether you follow it or not; for an electrician, the NEMA standards for rating electrical devices and properly wiring them exist, even if the electrician does not obey them. In other words, in electrical contracting, there is an objectively right way to act and this would be true no matter what an individual electrician believed or how they acted.
A similar pattern occurs with morality and is embodied in a principle called "moral causitry". This principle, coming out of the writings of Thomas Aquinas and others, is that there is an objectively correct standard that, whether by human weakness or pressing need, is violated without altering the fact that the standard exists. It is commonly held, for example, that killing another person is objectively morally wrong... yet a soldier in war deliberately kills another human being and we regard this as morally correct so long as certain standards (the jus in bello laws of war) are adhered to. We also regard it as morally correct for the state to deprive someone of their life by due process of law if a jury of their peers conclude, and various appeals courts concede, that their crimes amount to a forfeiture of the right to live. Yet in both of these cases, the fact that it is objectively wrong to kill another person remains unaltered and both war and lawful execution are set aside as exceptional-circumstance deviations. There are variations on precisely what these exceptional-circumstance cases are but that there is a universal standard that can be embodied in "Thou shalt not kill" is indisputable.

Keith, I think you missed my

Submitted by Gabe Harper on 14 March 2011 - 10:13pm.


I think you missed my point. I was not trying to argue that deviations from a moral code render that moral code invalid. I was suggesting that there is in fact no external basis for morality outside of the human mind. You bring up "thou shalt not kill" as an example. It is true that no society would allow people to randomly murder one another on the streets. Such a society would not exist for long. But as you noted, there are many exceptions to this supposedly universal rule (abortion, capital punishment, self-defense, war, etc.). In fact, we only respect human life so long as it is convenient for us to do so. If we feel threatened by criminals, we kill them. If we feel threatened by another country, we bomb them, killing women and children. If I feel threatened by an intruder in my home, I can kill him. And if we accept the pro-life position, if a woman feels threatened by a pregnancy, she can kill her own child. When so many exceptions are allowed, it is ludicrous to suggest that the prohibition on murder is a universal moral truth. Human life only has value when a society chooses to grant it such.

Here's another myth I wish

Submitted by Tom Hagen on 8 March 2011 - 6:43pm.

Here's another myth I wish could be added to your list:

Ateists are all left-wingers.

Nonsense; there are many unbelievers who have right-leaning tendencies. Log in 'Conservative Atheist' & see what pops up; it's quite suprising. Many atheists are Goldwater-Reagan Republicans. Robert Ingersoll, well-known 19th-century nonbeliever, was a big free-market-type Republican. So was freethinker H.L. Mencken, libertarian Ayn Rand, & others.

If I might offer a touch of

Submitted by Keith Moore on 8 March 2011 - 4:35pm.

If I might offer a touch of personal perspective into the equating of atheism with evil/immorality/etc: I think that those who hold this attitude do not do so because they think of atheism as an inherent evil but as a creed that provides no constraints against bad behavior unless you're an exceptional individual. This is more cynicism about humanity than malice towards atheists, more assuming that humans are incapable of being moral without God than assuming that disbelief in God is itself immoral. In other words, they hold that humanity is not good enough to be atheistic and still remain good.

I don't believe in god and my

Submitted by Amanda on 8 March 2011 - 9:33pm.

I don't believe in god and my children have never set foot in a church. But, you'd be hard pressed to find better children or a more loving, good family. When asked about stealing, my children will gasp and say, "Well, how would YOU feel if somebody took YOUR things?" It just makes common sense for them to live right. No magical, talking snake needed. They don't know about sin or hell or any of that and I've not even had to spank.

I'm so proud of my children and so very sure that goodness radiates from within - not above.
I've seen some poor behavior from my boys too, of course. They can fight with each other and pout about chores like any other children. We talk it out.

Straight A's - both of them.

And they've not once stepped foot in a house of worship or read a bible passage. They are good without god because it feels good to be treated well and it feels even better to see the smile of someone "you've" treated well.

Secular Soccer mom :)

Amanda, I am a Christian, and

Submitted by Peter on 11 April 2012 - 5:24pm.

Amanda, I am a Christian, and as such (and not despite that fact, but because of it) I fully support and respect your right to not believe in God. As an American, I also support and respect your right to that belief as a fellow citizen. As a fellow human being, however, I do not respect you personally, because of the way you have written some things in your entry, which I find other atheists often do as well (and which I interpret as being quite disrespectful by them too). I am referring to your spelling of "God" as "god," and your spelling of "Bible" as "bible."

The Bible is a published book, and that is its title, which means it should be capitalized. Referring to "god," obviously you do not believe in God, or you wouldn't be an atheist; however, I find it quite disrespectful for you to not spell it as "God," as a sign of respect for those who do believe in God. In fact, I interpret this as your trying consciously to be disrespectful of the beliefs of those who hold such beliefs. As a God-believing person who wants to support your and other non-God-believing persons' right to that belief, it would be so much easier to do so if I didn't feel like I was being spit on and disrespected in the process. Another way of thinking of it: I bet I feel the same, when I see God referred to as "god," as I suspect you would feel about my referring to you and your children as "Godless." The connotations go beyond the basics in each case. (Another possible comparison: it's how many Democrats feel when some Republicans impolitely say that they are in the "Democrat" Party, rather than in the "Democratic" Party.)

At the end of your entry, you speak of your children being good: "They are good without god because it feels good to be treated well and it feels even better to see the smile of someone 'you've' treated well." When you write "god" and "bible," I simply cannot smile, because I feel you are not being good to me or treating me well--to use your terms--as a fellow human being, and again, I find I cannot respect you personally for that reason, as stated above. Respect works both ways, which I definitely believe is a part of "Teaching Tolerance," which is what this site is all about.

I agree with you 100%. It's

Submitted by Shawsha on 23 September 2011 - 1:10pm.

I agree with you 100%. It's indoctrinated into many to believe that one cannot be moral or good without having a fear of a God or some sort of divine consequences. My daughter has been raised non-religiously and is very observant of what is right and wrong based on how it makes others (as well as herself) feel. Our family is very religious and it's hard to discuss the topic without someone getting offended, so we generally do not discuss it. Also, living and teaching in the Bible Belt raises several questions with students when they ask me what church I attend, and I reply, "none." My daughter faces the same challenges with her religious friends, who often try to convince her of her wrong ways. I will admit, being raised in a Christian home, it is hard to "un-learn" the guilt and fear that is put into you early in life. I'm glad that I am able to raise my daughter without that pressure!

I liked what you said. I

Submitted by Rosario on 29 April 2011 - 12:54am.

I liked what you said. I agree completely.

Beautiful statement. I agree

Submitted by Jo on 15 March 2011 - 2:38pm.

Beautiful statement. I agree completely, and raised my children (who are now ages 30 and 32) to live by exactly the same principals. They learned about all major religions and attended many different kinds of religious services as interested observers, but not as believers. This kind of education taught them that all major faiths have the golden rule in common, and that's all anyone needs to know.

Before we can discuss the

Submitted by Robert Hagedorn on 12 March 2011 - 5:03pm.

Before we can discuss the talking snake and something called the tree of knowledge of good and evil we must first know exactly what these terms mean. Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.