As more schools implement policies to prevent and address bullying, more educators are educating themselves about the many forms bullying and harassment can take. Aggression against unaffiliated or secular students (those who do not subscribe to an organized religion) is not always obvious but is actually quite common. The Secular Student Alliance (SSA)—a nonprofit organization that supports non-religious students and promotes critical inquiry—has launched a new program to make schools safer for non-religious students: Secular Safe Zone.
“Religious bullying and anti-atheist discrimination, that happens a lot,” says Jesse Galef, communications director for the SSA. “It can be as extreme as death threats … [But] even subtler things like … asserting that atheists are bad people or that they don’t belong in the school—microaggressions happen all the time against atheists. I think because society is so overwhelmingly Christian, [people] don’t even realize they are doing it. And that’s why we need allies in schools to speak up and create safe places.”
The Secular Safe Zone program identifies areas where secular students can ask questions, seek guidance and explore topics they feel uncomfortable discussing elsewhere. The program provides materials and training to staff at schools and other youth-friendly organizations who can serve as allies to religiously unaffiliated students. Allies might support young people pursing separation of church and state issues or who just need safe environments in which to explore their secular identities.
According to Galef, Secular Safe Zone is not intended to promote atheism or condemn religion or religious people. It will, however, be a much-needed resource for kids like Gage Pulliam, a young man in Oklahoma who experienced threats and harassment against him and his family after he protested his school’s practice of displaying the 10 Commandments in every classroom.
“I think having allies in the school who know what to look for—but more importantly for students to know who they can turn to when they face discrimination and violations of their rights—would go such a long way,” says Galef.
“We do know a lot of religious people who want to make sure we can all live together and they want to fight bullying too. We welcome religious allies who want to stand up for secular students. It really is about creating neutral, nondiscriminatory space where anybody can feel welcome and accepted.”
Are you a teacher, coach, administrator, librarian, counselor, clergy member or mentor who wants to support secular youth? Visit secularsafezone.org. The website offers access to resources and training as well as a place to register your classroom or office as a Secular Safe Zone so area students can find support.
For more information on challenges facing secular students and how to help, see our feature story, “The Unaffiliated Unite.”
van der Valk is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.