Atheism grows among youth, high school students


While religion has found itself in a nationwide downturn, with 15 percent of the American people saying they don't follow any particular faith, the trend is far more pronounced - nearly double, with a corresponding figure of almost 30 percent - among young people. And, despite pressures from parents and school districts, these youth are coming out.

For the past few years, atheist and other freethinker groups have been putting advertisements on subways, buses and billboards across the country and across the world. Now, the Secular Student Alliance, which already has chapters on 200 college campuses nationwide, announced that it would work to help high school-aged free thinkers express themselves.

The SSA received a grant in 2010, and used the money to hire organizer J.T. Eberhard to help with SSA's new effort, which would start with establishing local chapters at 50 high schools across the country.

Eberhard pointed to the case of Skyler, a secondary student in Maryland, as one reason why groups like the SSA need to be on high school campuses.

"I've been called an idiot for not believing in God, which is quite rude, since that's my opinion," Skyler wrote in an email to SSA. "I've gotten death threats. One person said he wasn't scared of me because he's a 'crusader.'"

A group of students attempting to organize an SSA chapter in Oklahoma City was called to the principal's office and accused of attempting to form a "hate group," a label quite incongruous with SSA's policies.

According to the "minimum standards" for groups affiliating with SSA, they must be "civil rights minded - we cannot support groups that promote denial of liberties in areas such as religion, speech or equality under the law." In addition, "We cannot affiliate with groups that bar members from joining on the basis of their creed or worldview. We also cannot affiliate with groups that discriminate on the basis of race, color, sexual orientation, national origin, sex, age, handicap or veteran status."

So where does the "hate group" concept - which isn't limited only to Oklahoma City - come from?

"I think it's that religion has had such a privileged position in society," Galef explained. "There is this idea that morality comes from religion, and when people say, 'No, you can be moral without it,' then that is seen as an insult, an assault ... We stand up for the rights of religious groups, though."

Especially in extremely conservative religious areas, people who question religion or disbelieve in God commonly voice feelings of isolation. Students need SSA-like groups, says Galef, for "the same reason [they need] Christian groups. There's a need to find like-minded people. They need to talk about good values, talk about what it means to be a good person. They also have the urge to help community, make friends, do service. Without a religious text, these students need to discuss what all that means. Particularly in more oppressive religious climates, they need to find friends and not be stigmatized."

This, Galef says, explains the seeming paradox of SSA's popularity in more conservative areas, especially Texas and the South.

Eberhard's job is different than other SSA organizers in that he will focus only on high school issues. "He can specifically answer questions high school students face," said Galef. "Administrations tend to give more pushback at the high school than the college level. One thing he does is work with administrations to let them know exactly what the law is."

Some administrations, even some dominated by the very religious, would be happy to allow students the right to organize such groups, Galef said, but are fearful of legal action by people on the religious right. Some are dominated by people who simply don't want secular groups. "In extreme cases, [Eberhard] sets students up with lawyers."

SSA points to the Equal Access Act as helpful in allowing students to express their first amendment rights. Ironically, the religious right first pushed the EAA in the 1980s. They argued and won a sound constitutional case: if a school permits any extracurricular groups on campus, it should therefore not discriminate against religious groups also trying to organize. Since then, GLBTQ alliance groups have won the right to campus presence because of the law, as well as others.

The group is specifically non-political, though, says Galef, "For any politician who claims to be a crusader, or a holy warrior, we object to that."

The Alliance also refuses to allow its local organizations to endorse any specific economic policy. Right-wing Ayn Rand supporters - objectivists, as they call themselves - are as equally accepted as Democrats, Keynsians, Greens or Communists, so long as they all respect each other and stand for democracy and a separation of church and state.

The idea behind this, as well as the group as a whole, is that better ideas arise when people meet and discuss things rationally, says the Alliance.

Photo: Members of the Secular Students Alliance at UMBC. Courtesy of


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  • I come from Indonesia, sorry i is constrained in communicating using English, so I just use my google translation but it all morbidly decided my desire to learn more about atheists, want it to know more about the school wanting even atheists about atheism, thanks.

    Posted by moh. safir, 11/15/2013 12:04am (1 year ago)

  • A previous commentator said this: "If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood, or persuaded of afterward, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it...the life of that man is one long sin against mankind."
    -- William Kingdon Clifford --

    I feel the need to point out that this advice can also support conversion to theism. I grew up in a nonreligious household -- never saw my parents pray or go to church or prayed myself, and became an ardent atheist in my twenties. But today, thanks to actually researching Christianity myself and serious arguments for belief (rather than the straw men atheists often tout), and being around other Christians who studied theology and philosophy, I believe firmly that there is a God. So be careful what you wish for if you want people to take the advice in this quote seriously. Paradigm shifts can go both ways. There really is no more knockdown rational argument against God's existence than there is for it. Everyone starts with unsupported foundational assumptions and argues from there. Foundational assumptions are never based on logic -- that goes for atheistic foundational beliefs, too. They are based on considerations like "which foundation feels more comfortable;" or "which foundation are the people I respect holding" or "which foundations will let me do what I want" or "which foundations will resolve the conflicts with my sense of who I am?" Having been on the other side of the paradigm shift, I can say that life without God was a dull veneer, a great poem taken literally and thus denied of all its meaningful content. Nothing science or logic propose are inconsistent with belief in God, either. To suggest otherwise is to be disingenuous.

    Posted by Dan, 09/13/2013 11:27pm (2 years ago)

  • Atheist don't push there ideas we push our logic and reasoning. Logic you can't deal with.

    Posted by nate, 08/25/2013 9:49am (2 years ago)

  • "If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood, or persuaded of afterward, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it...the life of that man is one long sin against mankind."
    -- William Kingdon Clifford --

    pax vobiscum,

    Posted by archaeopteryx, 12/19/2011 12:45pm (3 years ago)

  • Power is in numbers.
    I am so relieved to read this article. When I attended high school (just four years ago), there may have been 20 peers who shared the same non-beliefs as myself. Still, as a junior in college, I have yet to meet another fairy tale rejecter. Most claim they are religious moderates and that they hold a belief in a god whilst espousing most religious dogma. I hope they have simply yet to 'come around'. ;)

    Posted by Nessa Jane, 08/29/2011 5:05pm (4 years ago)

  • I hate people that push their ideals on other people, Atheists, you are included in this.

    Posted by FogHorn, 05/15/2011 9:44pm (4 years ago)

  • It is so nice to read of young people free of religious contamination. It is a very hopeful sign for the future.

    Posted by Sinjin Smythe, 05/15/2011 4:17pm (4 years ago)

  • Plenty of good people were/are Christians. And plenty of good people were/are atheists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so on. Saying "This good person was a Christian, therefore Christianity is the only good path." is just closed-minded.

    Posted by annie, 05/14/2011 6:46pm (4 years ago)

  • Mrs Fannie Lou Hamer was a Christian --end of story

    Posted by robert alpert, 03/28/2011 4:19pm (4 years ago)

  • Manuel, I fixed your diatribe for you:

    "There are two main hard and fast rules for anyone who would like to become a "Christian." If you are tempted, beware. It's not an easy thing to do.

    The first rule is to see design in nature. Unfortunately, you will have trouble finding it anywhere. Everywhere you look, you will find perfectly reasonable natural explanations for everything.

    Now here's the hard part. Ignore your common sense. Be uncompromisingly adamant that everything in nature came from an imaginary man in the sky. Once you have set aside your acumen to do this, crown yourself as being intelligent. Very. Then find other Christians and they will confirm to you that you are indeed, intelligent.

    The second rule is to "believe." This is very important, because if you let doubt in, it will let in fear, and that can be a scary thing when the issue at stake is a place called "Hell."

    Believe that creation is indeed true. Believe that it's scientific. Believe that "missing links" are evidence for creation, and believe that evolutionary biologists have no idea what they're talking about.

    Believe that you are not an ape, that you are only morally responsible because God will punish you if you are not. Believe that your conscience was given to you by God, and not by an innate sense of right and wrong.

    To grow as a Christian, you will need to learn believers' language--phrases like "missing link," "irreducible complexity," and the powerful "you can't prove there's no God." Learn the fine art of cutting and pasting, and responding with "Straw man!" That means you won't have to respond to anything challenging.

    All this will give perceived intelligence. Never question religion, and don't think for yourself.

    Do these things, and you will be able to call yourself a Christian. How cool is that! Well, I should say, as much of one as you can be called one. No one can be a true theist because you need "absolute knowledge" to say that is definitely a God. So until you are omniscient, you will just have to do with pretending to be one."

    Posted by BizarroManuel, 03/03/2011 2:55pm (4 years ago)

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