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


Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • 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 (5 years ago)

  • Wow!! This is Great!! I only wish that they'd had a presence in my high school. I would not have felt so COMPLETELY alone. Thank you for moving the world forward!!!

    Posted by Jake M, 02/22/2011 7:01pm (5 years ago)

  • WONDERFUL news. Demographics will kill conservatism and soon. See ya old white male. Bid your society goodbye.

    Posted by Ma'at, 02/22/2011 6:35pm (5 years ago)

  • I'm so proud of them! For many it takes a lot of courage to come out as an atheist. In time I hope to hear more stories like this.

    Posted by Godless, 02/21/2011 5:05pm (5 years ago)

  • When I was in high school, the mee thought of Atheism boiled my blood. Since then I have learned the truth - that "God" only exists as a metaphor for the unknown. I am so happy to see so many high schoolers shedding their religions so early.

    Well done people. Keep up the good work.

    Posted by Geoff, 02/21/2011 2:25pm (5 years ago)

  • My heart goes out to those young people trying to help others get through some of the most critical thought and emotional processes a young person can be afflicted with. I achieved a break with churches, as I knew them, at the age of 13. I didn't hear the word "atheist" for the first two years, and didn't meet another one for 15 years. Those were difficult times for me and left me so resentful that I couldn't really talk about the better side of religion for 50 years or more.

    Special thanks to Margolies for this excellent article!
    --jim lane

    Posted by jim lane, 02/21/2011 12:55pm (5 years ago)

  • Fantastic!

    However, I think the high school groups need a more generic-sounding name, like the omnipresent Christian group, Young Life.

    Something that refers to friendship, fun, learning, and perhaps community service.

    Posted by Dawn, 02/20/2011 7:36pm (5 years ago)

  • Great post! However, the students in that photo are from University of Maryland, Baltimore County an we're called the Secular Student Alliance. :-)

    Posted by Kim, 02/20/2011 7:14pm (5 years ago)

  • This is great! I wish they would have done this when I was in high school.

    Posted by Ron Jonz, 02/20/2011 4:48pm (5 years ago)

  • This is great to see younger people throwing off superstitions in favor of science and logic. May their numbers grow!

    Posted by Harvey Smith, 02/20/2011 12:34pm (5 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments