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 secularstudents.org.