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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  • Here's a book that I think would be helpful. I would provide copies to any ssa group

    Posted by burt, 02/27/2011 3:57pm (4 years ago)

  • It's about time. Don't expect old people to turn to atheism so easily, because they learned all their lives how to believe, not how to think.

    Atheism growth is just a question of time and a new generation now that we have free thinking with technology within the society.

    Posted by Deckard Cain , 02/27/2011 11:18am (4 years ago)

  • In other news, studies show that 99% of sunburn cases occur during day, and having an umbrella outside lessens the chance of you getting wet.

    Posted by Patches, 02/25/2011 1:07am (4 years ago)

  • I grew up in an extremely right-wing town with well over 90% of my classmates coming from exceptionally pious households. It was a dismal existence, and I'm glad to see that my underclassmen won't be as alone as I was.

    Congratulations are in order!

    Posted by Jay, 02/25/2011 1:04am (4 years ago)

  • Interesting.

    Posted by Heron, 02/24/2011 5:23pm (4 years ago)

  • This may sound paradoxical, but as a believing and practicing Roman Catholic I'm glad to hear about this group and its growth. I'll take a caring, thinking atheist over a blindly unthinking devotee of religion any day—and so, I think, will Jesus.

    Posted by Hank Millstein, 02/24/2011 12:43am (4 years ago)

  • I'm happy to see these young people standing up for their rights.

    In college, the Marxist Reading Group I started was affiliated with the Secular Student Society. We worked with the Brights (Dawkins atheists) and the Philosophy Club to raise money for atheist and materialist speakers. Good times!

    Continue to organize -- their are others like you!

    Posted by Jean Paul Holmes, 02/23/2011 11:37am (4 years ago)

  • Atheism grows among youth, high school students

    Good! Having invisible friends is only for preschoolers.

    Posted by Damien, 02/23/2011 12:19am (4 years ago)

  • I totally feel for what this organization is trying to do. Even in the north (Minnesota) I felt a lot of ostracization for my beliefs from a variety of sources and a group like this would've helped a lot. I wish we had a chapter at my college (MSU Mankato)

    Posted by Patrick Earley, 02/22/2011 9:11pm (4 years ago)

  • Wow, I wish they had this at my college. Of course since I live in a small Texas town, I doubt it will happen.

    Posted by bri, 02/22/2011 8:30pm (4 years ago)

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