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Atheist Students Confront Bigotry, Establish Secular Clubs in Schools

Atheist clubs are on the rise in public schools -- but those who seek to establish them often battle deep prejudices as they "come out" as non-believers.
 
 
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Neil Carter of Ridgeland, Miss., is about to take a leap of faith—based on his lack of faith.

In a state where 91 percent of residents say they believe in God “with absolute certainty,” according to the Pew Research Center, Carter began “coming out” recently to friends as an atheist. The 41-year-old special education teacher is also exploring interest in sponsoring a Secular Student Alliance at Ridgeland High School.

“This is way beyond the bounds of what’s acceptable around here, ” said Carter, who’s a former Christian with a seminary degree.

Based on the isolation he’s felt, Carter believes some of the 900 kids at Ridgeland High may be likeminded—perhaps not atheists, but not Christians either.

“I can’t even have a conversation with my family and friends without feeling alienated,” Carter said. “They’re not being mean to me, they just don’t get my perspective. I know these kids have the same problem.”

One state away, in Bastrop, La., Damon Fowler found out what it’s like to be one of those kids. His troubles started two years ago when he realized he was an atheist. Damon hid it well, continuing to attend church with his family.

But last spring, he began to tell a few people. Then a couple of weeks before graduating in May, he sent an email to the superintendent reminding him that a planned public prayer at the ceremony was against state and federal law.

“No one else wanted to stand up for their constitutional right of having freedom of and from religion,” Damon wrote at the time. “I was also hoping to encourage other atheists to come out and be heard. I’m one of maybe three atheists in [Bastrop] that I currently know of. One of the others is afraid to come out of the atheist closet.”

Classmates shunned and threatened Damon. A teacher badmouthed him in the local newspaper, saying “What’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their [sic] classmates.” At the graduation ceremony, there were boos when Damon’s name was called— and a prayer.

The Ultimate Outsiders

In many ways, people like Neil Carter and Damon Fowler are considered the ultimate outsiders in American life. According to a 2006 public opinion survey by the University of Minnesota, atheists are more disliked and mistrusted than immigrants, gays and lesbians, conservative Christians, Jews or Muslims.

Even so, the fear of being identified as an unbeliever is gradually easing. More and more young people are identifying themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and other types of non-theists, says Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance. The Columbus, Ohio-based group provides support services for unbelieving students and their groups.

“More people are talking about what it means to be non-religious,” Galef said. “There’s still bullying, but it’s enormously better than 10 years ago.” Indeed, recent surveys have found that younger Americans are the least likely to be religious. According to the 2008 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.

This transition has made groups like the SSA possible. Two years ago, the organization had 143 student-affiliated groups. That number is now 262. In the 2010-2011 school year alone, 12 high school groups joined as affiliates as of January 2011. By June, the number had doubled to 25.