US High Schools refusing to allow student atheist groups

Panel 1: a man with a cross is hitting another man (wearing a t-shirt saying ATHEIST) with it while screaming invective. Panel 2: the Atheist has taken the cross and is about to break it, the Christian objects
Blind Idiot! Rat Fink! Pervert! Commie! Blasphemer! Immoral Creep and Scum of the Earth!
Hey, let’s have a little RESPECT here!

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The level of bigotry against atheists in the USA frequently appals me; this article by Greta Christina lays out one of the less obvious ways it is expressed. In general, US voters are less likely to vote for an atheist than any other minority group, and atheists are more distrusted and disliked than blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians. That hate against atheists frequently flies under the media’s radar.

Freethinking teens who are “out” are already bullied in many schools, why wouldn’t they want a support group just for that reason? Of course, despite the oft-repeated “why would anyone want to sit around talking about what they don’t believe in?” sneer, there’s more: what atheists especially do want to talk about is alternative forms of community in environments where church communities dominate the social scene. So many atheists right now are going along to a church just to have the social shield of belonging to a congregation, and they resent having to pretend simply in order to avoid discrimination.

In other words: Atheists — including high school atheists — form groups for the same reasons anyone does. Support in the face of hostility. The pleasure of spending time with people who share your ideas and values, and who like to do the same things you do. Greater visibility in the face of myths and bigotry. A more effective platform for getting your ideas into the world. A more effective platform for doing good work. Just plain fun. Humans are social animals. We like to hang out with other animals we have things in common with. Especially when other animals are being mean to us.

So why are so many high school administrators opposed to it?

High School in the USA is only three or four years depending on district (junior high schools seem to have more restrictions on student groups generally), so it’s easy for administrators to delay and obfuscate until a student graduates and the problem is shelved for a while. The Secular Student Alliance is offering advice and materials to help students counter these blocking tactics.

Student groups work differently here, of course. We don’t get formal academic credit for extracurricular activities, so student associations are far less regulated, and since our school administrators are career bureaucrats rather than elected officials, they are less concerned with voter blowback from the bigots. Going from my own memories of thirty years ago, there was mostly no need for a faculty sponsor or a formal application – if we wanted to meet in a classroom during the lunch hour we just asked. But I was a goodie-two-shoes swot – maybe it was more difficult for other kids. There still would have been nothing to stop them meeting under a tree in one of the quadrangles or by a playing field, although I would hope that such a decision wouldn’t be made purely on the basis of (lack of) religious faith.

Obviously, the more others are exposed to young atheists who are not evil caricatures and who actively band together to do good for themselves and others, the less bigotry against atheists there will be. This seems to be at least part of what many US school administrators are afraid of.

Categories: culture wars, education, ethics & philosophy, religion

Tags: , ,

10 replies

  1. I’m USian and attended high school about (gulp) 10 years ago. I wouldn’t have dreamed of having an atheist group in school. Our school had a hard enough time getting a sponsor for a gay-straight alliance (but the Fellowship of Christian Athletes sure got support).
    FWIW we don’t get academic credit for extracurriculars unless they’re also integrated into a class (for example we got graded for marching band, which was technically extracurricular, because we also had a band class during the day; if you didn’t want to march you had to learn the music and sit in the band room while everyone else went outside). However, extracurricular clubs must be sponsored by a teacher and have permission from the administration to use school property. When we finally got a teacher willing to sponsor the GSA, the administration told us that the group was “too exclusive” because it was “just for gays” and they couldn’t allow a group like that. Even though the word “straight” was right there in the name.

  2. Really interesting post, tigtog.

    • @chickwithmonkey, thanks for the more accurate information. I suspect it mostly comes down to the elected vs appointed officials then. The elected officials allow themselves to be bullied by electoral pressure from intolerant believers.
      I like your comparison with the difficulties face by the gay-straight alliance. Greta Christina has a lot of experience in LGBTQI activism and it’s a comparison she draws all the time, with how freethinkers need to borrow some of the successful tactics for anti-bigotry and inclusion that the LGBTQI lobby have used to build more social acceptance for atheism as a valid moral/ethical worldview.
      @blue milk, for the ordinary secularist/freethinker/agnostic/atheist in Oz, one who doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time discussing irreligion online, the level of antagonism in the USA towards atheists saying anything at all about their right to hold and express their opinions or to peacefully assemble with those of like minds is really startling and confronting. Simply existing is taken as an affront.

  3. Another USian who graduated from highschool almost 13 years ago here. We didn’t get academic credit for extracurricular activities but they counted as a plus on college applications (Here’s a really simplified example: If they had two students of similar GPA & SAT scores then they’d look at extracurriculars to decide who got in).
    Anyway, I was going to say that I remember our school having issues with *any* club having to do with religion due to the separation of church and state issue. I daresay they would have included an atheist group in that category. That’s not to say religious clubs didn’t exist. They just weren’t officially recognized or given a room in the school to use after school hours.
    Having said that, though, the school did allow the religious wingnuts to stand *just outside* of official school property and hand out Bibles to students as they left for home. *eyeroll*

  4. Simply existing is taken as an affront.
    The same meme exists in the UK, to a lesser degree. Pagans get a similar level of disdain, but aren’t generally presumed to be attacking Christianity by existing at all.

  5. When I did time, I didn’t care about a support group. I simply clenched my fists and beat the living shit out of any demon-ridden idiot that insisted on giving me shit because I wasn’t willing to kiss Jesus’ ass. There are too many kind, gentle, reasonable atheists in the United States. If believers think that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, then they don’t know what militant needs.
    Atheists need a Stonewall Riot of their own.

  6. As an FYI to anyone who comes across this article and gets discouraged a faculty sponsor likely cannot be REQUIRED for the formation of a high school club in the US per the precedents cited at
    You will likely be in for a fight with the school administrator but there is precedent in the law.
    SCOTUS has ruled that a school requirement for a sponsor can lead to de facto suppression on first amendment rights, therefore students can organize a club and the school must provide a monitor if the group uses school facilities…

  7. Another USian here, this time still in high school. Even living in a fairly liberal area, it has been hard to create anything close to an Atheist group because of the faculty sponsor requirement. I was able to get around it by forming a Philosophy Club (yes, it sounds cheesy as shit, but whatever), and it just so happens that most of the people who care about that kind of thing are also Atheists, or at least “freethinkers”. Presto: one de-facto atheist community under another name.

  8. If believers think that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, then they don’t know what militant needs.
    Though I will say that being told I’m a willingly stupid and evil for not being atheist doesn’t impress me any more than being told I’m willingly stupid and evil for not being Christian. (It’s not Dawkins who said that, but the “militant” is what reminded me of it).

  9. Thanks for this post. I’m USian and appalled at how atheists are treated.

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