High School Atheists Are Organizing — Why Are Schools Pushing Back?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

High school non-theist groups are finally getting dedicated support from a national organization. Why are high schools resisting — and what does this mean for the future of atheism?

School busHigh school student Brian Lisco just wanted to form a student club. A senior at Stephen Austin High School in the Houston suburbs, Lisco wanted to meet with like-minded students; students who shared common interests, who could talk about ideas they found interesting, who could give one another support.

But his efforts were consistently thwarted by the administration at his high school. His requests to form a club were stalled for months, and obstacle after obstacle was put in his path.

Why?

Because the group he wanted to start was an atheist group.

And his story is being repeated, with variations, around the country.

Ssa logo Atheist student groups have been organizing in colleges and universities for years, and their numbers are climbing at an astonishing rate. The Secular Student Alliance, an umbrella organization supporting non-theistic student groups, passed 250 affiliates this month — a number that has doubled in just two years. (Conflict of interest alert: I’m on the speaker’s bureau for the Secular Student Alliance, and am colleagues/ friends with several people in the organization.) And for the most part, atheist groups at colleges and universities meet with little resistance, and in many cases get a fair degree of support, from school administrations — who are familiar with the laws in such matters, and often have clear diversity policies in place.

Jt eberhard But in high schools, it’s a different story. Resistance to atheist groups from high school administrators, while not universal, is depressingly common. According to JT Eberhard, Campus Organizer and High School Specialist for the SSA, “Most of them seem to elect to try and drag their feet until the interested students either lose interest or graduate. The ‘objections’ are varied. I’ve heard ‘it would be too controversial’, ‘all clubs are secular’, ‘other groups already do the same thing’, and a whole host of other lame reasons.” Eberhard adds that a common tactic is to tell students they need a faculty adviser to form a group — a requirement that is, in fact, flatly illegal — “and then to make sure the group cannot find a willing one.” (The legal principle that high schools must give all students equal access to forming extracurricular clubs, with or without a faculty advisor and regardless of the purpose of the club, has been well- established… and it’s a principle that has been applied to religious groups, and was in fact strongly lobbied for by them.)

“A predictable pattern has actually emerged,” he continues. “1. Interested student gets everything in order, finds a faculty sponsor, and applies for their group. 2. Administration stonewalls them. 3. Students push harder. 4. Administration crumbles, but faculty sponsor withdraws. I’ve seen this exact same scenario play out almost double-digit times in the six weeks I’ve been here.” In a particularly vivid example of these tactics, an Oklahoma high school student who tried to form an atheist group was accused of trying to form a “hate group”… and when it became clear that the student knew their rights and was not going to back down, the faculty sponsor they had lined up withdrew under pressure, saying she had been told that sponsoring this group would be “a bad career move.”

But at the beginning of 2011, the Secular Student Alliance began a program specifically devoted to supporting high school atheist groups. With the help of a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, they hired Eberhard, co-founder of the nationally- renowned atheist conference Skepticon (and of the Missouri State University Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Skepticon’s official host), as their dedicated high school campus organizer.

The efforts have been paying off. It took four years for the SSA to get just twelve high school groups affiliated with their organization. According to SSA Director of Campus Organizing Lyz Liddell, “We’ve had around 4-6 HS groups for most of the time we’ve been around, but there’s been no consistency or sustainability until recently.” But in just the first month since their dedicated high school program began, they have gained five new high school affiliates.

August brunsman And while the SSA primarily supports its college and university groups through financial assistance, organizational advice and materials, access to a speaker’s bureau, and so on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that support for high school groups will need to be more aggressive. Gentle reminders about the law. Repeated gentle reminders about the law. Somewhat less gentle reminders about the law. Mediation. Media attention when the law is being defied. Possibly even legal action. It hasn’t yet come to this last option, and the SSA hopes it won’t have to. As SSA’s Executive Director August Brunsman said, “While the law is certainly on our side, we would rather have social understanding than legal victory.” But if legal action becomes necessary, the SSA is prepared to support atheist students, and their legal right to form clubs in high schools.

So why are students forming these groups, anyway?

Usa_today_logo1 The need for high school atheist groups — or indeed, for atheist groups of any kind — is baffling to many people. When USA Today ran an article about Brian Lisco and the SSA’s new high school program, it was met with a barrage of hostile comments… partly in the hysterical “Satan is trolling for the souls of our youth!” vein, but largely with puzzlement and snark, along the lines of, “Why would anyone need a club to talk about what they don’t believe in?”

But the powerful resistance these groups have encountered makes the need for them all too clear. The reality is that atheists are the most distrusted and disliked of all minority groups — more than Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians — and polls show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than they are for a person in any other minority or marginalized category. And this hostility can have serious consequences, in the form of harassment, bullying, ostracism, vandalism, alienation from family, loss of jobs, and more — especially in more religiously conservative parts of the country. Says Eberhard, “I can tell you that when I started here we had two leaders out of twelve that had to lead in secret. For instance, we have to send them blank packages and sometimes to other locations. Since then I’ve had a group-starting-packet request from another such student. I also have another group considering forming, but there is concern for safety.” As an example, he quotes an anonymous contact who’s interested in starting a group, but is fearful of the fallout:

We have a few families with high school students in our [atheist] group, but none of these students are “out” at school. I also have several High School teachers in the [city name redacted] Freethinkers, but almost every single one of them is afraid of anyone finding out they attend our [group] lest they lose their jobs; I’m having trouble imagining we could find a faculty adviser for students here.

And:

I do want to make sure that SSA would be prepared to support kids who might face some serious consequences should they be willing to bravely take on leadership. I am fully confident SSA will do its homework on the legal side of things, but I’m more concerned about things like anonymous vandalism or family conflict and the kind of toll that might take on kids in a pretty isolated, rural environment. I deal with this all the time with local LGBT teens, but there aren’t exactly 24-hour crisis hotlines for teenage atheists who get thrown out of their homes, etc. Since forming the Freethinkers, we’ve had several incidents of vandalism; I get hate emails all the time.

Atheist cartoon Countering anti-atheist myths is important even when the bigotry isn’t overtly threatening or grotesque. Myths about atheists are widespread, even among more moderate and progressive believers. Countering those myths requires visibility — and visibility is more effective with organization. Groups can provide emotional support to people who are coming out when they face opposition and hatred… and groups can make visibility easier to accomplish. As Eberhard points out, “One of the best ways gay students have acquired a greater level of acceptance is by ‘coming out’, so that many people are now realizing that they not only know gay people but that they like gay people. So it must be with atheists. We need to encourage non-believing students to be proud of who they are if the social stigma is to ever be dissolved.”

And even in the absence of overt anti-atheist hostility, and the need to band together for sanctuary and support in the face of it, there are plenty of reasons why atheists want to congregate — in high schools, or anywhere else. For many atheists, atheism is more than simply not believing in God: it’s a positive humanist philosophy, valuing reason, compassion, evidence, ethics, and social justice in this world. These atheists want to congregate with others who share their values: for social support, to do charity and social justice work, or just to eat pizza and hang out. What’s more, many atheists are actively engaged in countering religion and trying to persuade people out of it. As Eberhard, says, “Some view the conclusions of religion to be maladaptive and seek to generate public dialogue about the failings of faith.” They want to change the way people think — and organizing makes that more effective.

Holding hands 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?

“Fear of their communities is probably one thing,” says Eberhard. “In many areas the superintendent is elected, and allowing an atheist group that is bound to get local attention is something that’s bound to worry them. However, in most situations it seems like it’s just their own personal aversion.” Unsurprisingly, high school administrators have their own religious beliefs, and their own fears and misunderstandings about atheists. When coupled with fear of controversy, these beliefs and fears can generate resistance, stonewalling, delay tactics, outright intimidation, and the hope that if the problem is ignored for long enough, it will just go away.

But it’s hard to escape the notion that, at least in part, high school atheist groups are meeting such strong resistance because — when it comes to atheism gaining ground in society — they could change the game.

Lyz Liddell For one thing, as high school atheist groups become more common, the atheist presence in colleges and universities is likely to become stronger. As Liddell says, “Having high school groups will train leaders who will be able to step up and grow as leaders at the college level, adding awesomeness and sustainability for our college groups. I also think that it will further the growing expectation that there will be a secular group for them in college (after all, if they had one in high school, why wouldn’t there be one in college?), and in the cases where there isn’t yet, it will encourage them to start one (after all, it would sure have to be easier than it was in high school!).”

But the power of high school atheist groups to change the game goes beyond colleges and universities. As Liddell points out, “For an awful lot of people, high school is the last educational system they’re in. If all our groups are in colleges, then only college students will be exposed to freethought as a ‘normal’ worldview. Having these groups in high schools will go a long way toward raising awareness of our worldview, both among the students who go to school where these groups are and in the communities in which they are located.”

It isn’t surprising that people who are fearful about atheism in general would be fearful about atheist high school groups in particular. And since high school groups are so vulnerable, it isn’t surprising that they would meet with stubborn opposition.

But what does this mean for Brian Lisco — and other high school atheists trying to organize?

For Lisco and his group, the news has been good. After eight months of stalling and delay tactics, his school abruptly gave him the SSA club… shortly after USA Today contacted them for comment on the matter. For other groups, who won’t be able to count on national media attention to aid their cause, the battle for their legal right to organize without intimidation may be more uphill.

But they won’t be fighting it alone.

For more information on the Secular Student Alliance high school program, visit the Secular Student Alliance website, look at their educator’s guide for high school non-theist groups, or contact JT Eberhard, [email protected]

Atheism, Sex, and Sexuality – Greta Interviewed by Gay Calgary Magazine

Gay calgary magazine_mar11 There’s a really cool interview with me in the most recent issue of Gay Calgary magazine! I’m going to be giving a talk on “Atheism and Sexuality” at CFI Calgary on March 12 (as part of a speaking tour that also includes Edmonton and Urbana-Champaign in Illinois), and Evan Kayne at Gay Calgary Magazine invited me to do an interview to promote the talk. We spoke about atheism, sexuality, how religion and atheism intersect with the LGBT community, what it’s like to be a queer atheist in both the atheist and the queer movements, and lots of other interesting topics. Here’s how it starts:

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This month, the Center for Inquiry will bring in a speaker who is both atheist and queer. What she has to say is just as important to the LGBTQ community as it is to the atheist community.

Greta Christina was recently ranked by an independent analyst as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers. As a regular atheist correspondent for AlterNet, the online political magazine, she has been writing about atheism and skepticism since 2005. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including Ms., Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the anthology Everything You Know About God Is Wrong.

As well, Greta has written for years on topics including sexuality and sex-positivity, LGBTQ issues, politics, culture, and whatever crosses her mind. On March 12th, that will be atheism and how it can impact sex and sexuality.

This is important as most of us with a religious background contend with traditional religion’s sexual morality, which tends to be based on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have, rather than being based on solid ethical principles. While the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it often still frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience.

However, according to Greta it still shouldn’t be. Instead, as she told me, “our sexuality and our sexual ethics need to be reality based.” It’s similar to, but an expansion on sex columnist Dan Savage’s concept that sexuality between two (or more) consenting partners need be “good, giving, and game”. It speaks towards our core ethical values and how it impacts our sex life.

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To read more, read the rest of the interview. Enjoy! And if you want to hear more of my ideas on atheism and sexuality — and you’re in/near Calgary, Edmonton, or Urbana-Champaign in Illinois — come hear me on my upcoming speaking tour, March 10-13!

Greta’s Speaking Tour — Urbana/Champaign, Calgary, and Edmonton, March 10-13

Cfi poster

If you’re in Illinois or Alberta — specifically in Urbana/Champaign in Illinois, or in Calgary or Edmonton in Alberta, Canada — come hear me speak! I’m going to be doing a mini speaking tour, March 10-13, in these three cities. My stops will be at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the University of Calgary; and the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

I’ll be speaking on the topic of “Atheism and Sexuality” to all three groups. Here’s the summary:

The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?

I’ll be doing Q&A at every talk, so come prepared to grill me, ask me that question you’ve always wanted to ask, or just say howdy. The tour is being sponsored in part by the fabulous Secular Student Alliance. Here are the details:

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Issa 1LOCATION: UIUC, 319 Gregory Hall
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality
DATE: Thursday, March 10th
TIME: 7:00 – 8:00 pm
SPONSOR: Illini Secular Student Alliance, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
DURATION: 45 minutes, plus Q&A
COST: Free

CFILOCATION: University of Calgary, Earth Sciences building, Room 162
DATE: Saturday, March 12th
TIME: 3:30 – 5:00 pm
SPONSOR: Centre for Inquiry, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality
DURATION: 45 minutes, plus Q&A
COST: $10 general admission, $5.00 for students, free for Friends of the Centre for Inquiry and U of C Freethinkers

CFILOCATION: University of AlbertaETLC 2 – 001 (Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex, 2nd floor, room 001) (here’s a map — accessibility is with elevators through the front entrance on the right side, for those who may need them)
DATE: Sunday, March 13th
TIME: 2:00 – 3:00 pm
SPONSOR: Centre for Inquiry, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (here’s their Facebook page and meetup page)
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality
DURATION: 45 minutes, plus Q&A
COST: $5.00

Hope to see you there! And do check out the amazing poster they put together for the Calgary talk. It’s the image at the top of the post. Click to enlarge. I am so proud I could bust.

Free Speech for Evil, Hateful, Repulsive Nutjobs? You Betcha!

The Supreme Court just overturned the verdict against Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, and upheld their right (in limited circumstances and with reasonable restrictions) to picket funerals.

It therefore seems like a good time to reprint this piece, written in 2007 when the original verdict against Phelps came down… explaining why, with great personal revulsion and reluctance, I agree with the Supreme Court.

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Fred_phelps_5Never, in the worst of my worst nightmares, did I think I would ever have to write anything at all defending Fred Phelps.

But it looks like I do.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Fred_phelps_2Quick precis, for those who don’t know the story: You know Fred Phelps? The evil, hateful, repulsive nutjob who pickets the funerals of prominent gay people, with signs saying things like “God Hates Fags”? Who lately has been picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war, on the grounds that their deaths are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality? (I told you — evil, hateful, repulsive nutjob.)

He — or more accurately, his church — was recently ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages, in a civil suit filed by the father of a soldier whose funeral Phelps picketed. The suit was won on the grounds that the picket constituted “invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.”

And I’m finding myself very disturbed by this.

Don’t get me wrong. I am feeling a certain amount of visceral Schadenfreude about the decision. I won’t deny that. As Molly Ivins once said, “Mama may have raised a mean child, but she didn’t raise no hypocrites.” But as much as I personally enjoy seeing the bastard suffer, I am far more disturbed by the extremely chilling effect that this decision could have for freedom of political speech and expression.

For all of us.

And that’s a whole lot more important to me than my personal Schadenfreude.

Fred_phelps_1According to the reports I’ve read, this was not an Operation Rescue type of deal. There was no disruption of the service, no getting three inches from the mourners’ faces to scream at them. The plaintiff himself said at the trial that he didn’t even see the protesters or their signs at the funeral: in fact, he didn’t know they’d been there until he saw news reports about them later. They kept their hateful, repugnant protest a reasonable distance away. So the invasion of privacy thing seems to be pretty much bullshit. It’s the “intent to inflict emotional distress” that’s the real core here.

And when it comes to political and religious speech, I think the infliction of emotional distress is — and should be — a guaranteed, First Amendment-protected right.

Take a look at my Atheists and Anger piece. And take a look at the deluge of comments. 749 comments as of this writing, and still climbing. [Update: 1653 comments as of 3/2/11.] Almost half from people who were very emotionally distressed indeed by the piece. I knew when I wrote it that the piece would inflict emotional distress on a lot of people (although I didn’t quite expect the deluge)… and I wrote it anyway.

I want to be able to write like that again without being sued.

Not a perfect example, I’ll admit. People come to my blog voluntarily (although some of them seem to have forgotten that fact), so it could be argued that I didn’t inflict anything.

ChurchSo let’s use a different example. I want the right to picket church services with a sign saying, “How’s Your Invisible Friend Today?” To picket the opening of a new steak restaurant with signs that vividly describe slaughterhouse conditions. To picket George W. Bush’s eventual funeral singing, “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead.” I probably wouldn’t do any of those things, since I’d consider them in bad taste; but I think I should have the right to do them.

And if this ruling stands, I might not.

FirstamendmenttshirtFree speech is a human right, one of the central foundations that this country was built on. And that’s not just true when the speech in question goes the way we want it. The First Amendment does not exist to protect popular speech. It exists to protect unpopular speech. That’s the whole point. We don’t need Constitutional protection for our right to publish apple pie recipes or pictures of cute puppies. We need Constitutional protection for our right to say things that make people flee in horror… from “God Hates Fags” to “Gay Is Beautiful,” from “Stop the War” to “Bomb Them Into The Stone Age,” from “God Wants Our Soldiers To Die” to “God Does Not Exist.”

Bill_oreillyAnd the more I think about this case, the more I think it’s bad strategically as well as ethically. And for much the same reason. I think this case can and will be used by the Right to argue that queers are demanding “special rights.” “Sure, they want First Amendment protections for themselves,” they’ll say. “But they sure are quick to get off their First Amendment high horse when it’s someone they don’t like!”

And they’ll be right to do so.

I mean, I think that. I’m saying that right now. And I’m queer.

If you want to make an argument that this ruling doesn’t violate the First Amendment, then I’d be very open to hearing it. I’m the first to admit that I’m not a legal or Constitutional scholar, and it’s possible that a reasonable case could be made that the Phelps protests are not protected speech under the First Amendment.

But I’ve seen too many arguments on this topic that say, “Free speech isn’t an absolute right, there are limits, look at libel laws, fraud laws, etc.”… without making any argument for why this particular case should be one of those limitations. Other than just, “The speech is hateful.” So far, nothing I have read on this particular case suggests any interpretation other than, “the plaintiffs are getting $11 million because they were upset by the content of Phelps’s speech.”

Deeply upset, and rightfully so. I get that. But again, that is exactly the sort of situation that the First Amendment is meant to protect.

And I’ve seen too many arguments on this case that essentially say, “First Amendment, Shmirst Amendment — I wanna see this bastard go down.” I would respectfully like to suggest that that is one lousy argument. The First Amendment is not to be casually tossed aside when it happens to protect a repulsive creep who we want to see fry.

Fred_phelpsA lot of progressives, people who are normally all over the First Amendment/free speech thing, are unusually willing, even eager, to drop their love of the Amendment in this particular case. And I understand the impulse. This particular case — this particular person, this particular group — makes people profoundly angry and upset. It makes me profoundly angry and upset. There’s a part of me that would love for some Constitutional scholar to come up with some legal loophole in the First Amendment, just so I can feel good about watching this bastard go down in flames.

But once again — that’s the whole point. The First Amendment to protect speech that makes people profoundly angry and upset.

StatueoflibertySee, this case is not just about a delicate legal nitpick. It’s not just about practical political strategy. It’s not even just about the pragmatic, enlightened self-interest desire to protect other people’s First Amendment rights so our own will be protected. This case is about the basic ethical principle of free speech. And it’s about whether we care enough about that principle to defend it, even when it hurts. It’s about whether people have the legal right to say what they want, no matter how vile or upsetting we find it… simply because they do.

Fred_phelps_3So do we really have to defend this guy? Do we really have to stand up and say, “Yes, Fred Phelps has the right to go to funerals and carry signs saying ‘God hates fags’ and “Thank God for dead soldiers’?”

Yes. We do.

We have to stand up and defend anyone who’s trying to communicate an unpopular message that profoundly upsets people. That includes a lot of horrible, evil people with repulsive ideas. But that’s the whole point of the First Amendment. It doesn’t exist to protect popular speech. It doesn’t exist to protect Cute Overload. It exists to protect speech that makes us want to vomit.

Sorry.