High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened
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There are rants about religion to be had here as well. There's the level of not only hostility, but panicked hostility, when entrenched religion gets its privileged status threatened. There's the way that religion relies on social consensus to perpetuate itself -- and how, when that consensus is threatened, it commonly reacts by smacking down dissent and expelling dissenters. There's the idea that the unverifiability of religion -- the beliefs in invisible, inaudible, intangible gods promising an afterlife nobody can know anything about -- means that the harm done in its name has the unique capacity to spin off into the stratosphere... since there's no reality check. There's the image of religion as a colossal fortress protecting a house of cards: powerful, massive structures and institutions staunchly buttressed and hotly defended to ensure that nobody ever examines the ideas inside and sees how flimsy they are.
And of course -- duh -- there's separation of church and state. There's the principle that a public school should not be sponsoring prayers at graduations. What with that being a government establishment of religion and all, and thus being -- oh, what's that word? -- unconstitutional.
All of that is important.
But there's something else important going on here.
And that's the way the atheist community has stepped up to the plate.
Damon Fowler has been embraced and welcomed by the atheist community. Atheist writers have been all over this story from the moment it broke: it's been covered on Friendly Atheist, Pharyngula, BlagHag, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Atheist Revolution, The Thinking Atheist, Atheist Underworld, WWJTD, Rock Beyond Belief... the list goes on. Several atheist organizations are applauding Fowler for his courage.
American Atheists said of Fowler, "This kid deserves mad props for letting his principal know on no uncertain terms that ACLU would be contacted if the prayer wasn't canceled. Good job, Damon, you speak for the freedoms of people who are trapped in the bible-belt!" JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, said, "Despite the vile threats, bullying, and hatred his community has given him, we recognize Damon for what he is: a brave student speaking up for religious liberty and inclusion." Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke about "his courage in speaking out for his and other students' rights."
And it's not just the atheist thought leaders. It's the on-the-ground community. Fowler has received an outpouring of support from atheists around the country and around the world. The "Support Damon" group on Facebook has over 10,000 members as of this writing. The Reddit post from Damon and his brother Jerrett discussing these events has been loaded with expressions of empathy and outrage. Atheist forums and blog comment threads about Fowler all over the Internet have been extensive and passionate. And many atheists have written letters to the Bastrop High School administration expressing their support for Fowler's position and their opposition to the prayer.
This support isn't only emotional, either. Emotional support is not trivial, of course; it's hugely important, especially when you're being ostracized, targeted with a hateful smear campaign, and driven from your home. But a tremendous amount of practical and financial support is coming from the atheist community as well. Many atheists have offered Fowler transportation, legal advice, meetup groups, places to stay, physical protection, connections with others who could provide additional practical help, and more. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has given Fowler a $1,000 college scholarship.
And perhaps most dramatically, Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has established a scholarship fund for Fowler, so he can attend college despite being cut off financially by his parents -- and the response has been overwhelming. As of this writing, the atheist community has donated over $15,000. Essentially filling the role that his parents have abandoned.