This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
When a high school atheist tried to stop prayer at his graduation, he was ostracized, threatened, and kicked out of his house. But the atheist community stepped in.
Whatever you think about atheists — good, bad, mixed, indifferent — this story should seriously trouble you.
Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler — knowing that government- sponsored prayer in the public schools are unconstitutional and legally forbidden — contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school — at first, anyway — agreed, and cancelled the prayer.
Then Fowler’s name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. And, as a direct result:
1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.
2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.
3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.
4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.
Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.
Before we get into the details of all this, let’s be very, very clear about the facts and the law here: Nobody — not Fowler, not the ACLU, nobody — is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can’t pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school- sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the “establishment of religion” bit and all. And it’s a law and a Constitution that protects everybody — not just atheists. If you wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government- sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government- sponsored Christian prayer.
Okay. I hope that’s clear.
So here’s a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.
1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.. He’s become the center of what he terms a “shitstorm”: he has been harassed, vilified, targeted with insults and name-calling and hateful remarks. He’s been told that he’s the Devil. He’s been told, “Go cry to your mommy… oh, wait. You can’t.” (A reference to him being disowned by his parents.) He’s been told that he’s only doing this to get attention. A student’s public prayer at a pre-graduation “Class Night” event was turned into an opportunity for the school and community to gang up on Fowler and publicly close ranks against him — teachers as well as students. (Here’s video). And people seen defending him have been targeted as well.
As just a taste, here are a few comments on the Bastrop Enterprise news story about the controversy: “I personally see him as a coward.” “I hope they [Christians] put enough pressure on this kid to convert him and save his soul from the fire of hell.” “The kid was likely a recluse and apathetic about most everything until now.” “If he don’t want prayer at graduation he can stay at home and not come to graduation.” “Afterall, that’s what she or he wants isn’t it to be singled out! This just makes me ill.” “I hope that the little athiest is offended.” “What he is really doing is trying to shove his views down people’s throats.” “Why does this student only now decide to get engaged in what is happening at the school? Is it nothing more than our own self-destructive human nature to break down anything of which we may not approve?” “That student should just have to have his/her one man graduation ceremony all alone.” “Satan continues to prowl and is deceiving many in this world.”
2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him. From the story in the Bastrop Enterprise:
Mitzi Quinn has been on the staff at BHS for almost 25 years, much of that time as a senior advisor. In the past, Quinn said there have been students who were atheist, agnostic and other non-Christian religions who “had no problems” with the prayer.
“They respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” Quinn said. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”
Throughout her time working with the student, Quinn said they never expressed their personal beliefs or that they had any problems with other students’ Christian faiths.
“And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates,” Quinn said. (emphasis mine)
In other words: Because the majority of students want an unconstitutional prayer at their graduation, therefore they’re in the right. Because nobody’s ever had the courage to speak up about this before, therefore the law was not being broken, and everything was okay. (After all, it’s not like anything bad happened when Fowler spoke up… right?) And because Fowler hasn’t “contributed anything” — other than, you know, a model of risking safety and security to stand up for a principle he believed in — therefore his basic legal right to not be targeted with religious proselytization by his public school is irrelevant… and he deserves to be publicly derided by one of his teachers.
4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the porch.
Let’s be very, very clear about this one. At a time when their son was being bullied, threatened, publicly pilloried, and ostracized from his school and his community, his parents joined the party. Their initial response was to hold him in their house against his will, take his cel phone and cut off his contact with the outside world, and even cut him off from contact with his older brother, Jerrett. Their more recent response has been to cut off financial support, kick him out of the house, and throw his belongings onto the porch.
Fortunately, Damon isn’t entirely alone. His brother Jerrett is assisting Damon, and will help put him through college; and as of the last report I’ve seen, Damon is currently living with his sister, also in Texas. And Damon is fortunate enough to have the backing of the atheist community, who are providing encouragement, emotional support, practical assistance, and even a scholarship fund. (UPDATE: The scholarship fund is now closed. Info on where you can make donations is at the end of this piece.)
More on that in a moment.
Since that’s a lot of what this story is really about.
There are a lot of hot-button issues in Damon Fowler’s story. There’s the depressing fact of how common this kind of story is: the fact that, despite the law being unambiguous on the subject, public schools around the country are continuing to sponsor prayers and otherwise promote theocracy, in flagrant violation of the law… apparently in the hopes that nobody will want to make waves and speak out against it. There’s the lack of understanding in the United States about fundamental civics: the all-too-common belief that “majority rules” in every situation, and the all-too-common failure to comprehend the principle that the minority has basic civil rights. There’s the ugly reality of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination across the country — especially in high schools. According to JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, “In Alabama, Auburn High School is refusing to allow an SSA affiliate. In Cranston, Rhode Island, a public school is facing an ACLU suit for refusing to take down a sectarian prayer [a banner posted in the school gym]. In Texas we had a student who was told he could have a secular club if he called it a philosophy club and didn’t affiliate with the SSA. The list of similar situations is a mile long and these are only the ones I’ve become aware of in my first four and a half months on the job. The Fowler incident is much closer to being the norm than the exception.”
There are rants about religion to be had here as well. There’s the level of not only hostility, but panicked hostility, when entrenched religion gets its privileged status threatened. There’s the way that religion relies on social consensus to perpetuate itself — and how, when that consensus is threatened, it commonly reacts by smacking down dissent and expelling dissenters. There’s the idea that the unverifiability of religion — the beliefs in invisible, inaudible, intangible gods promising an afterlife nobody can know anything about — means that the harm done in its name has the unique capacity to spin off into the stratosphere… since there’s no reality check. There’s the image of religion as a colossal fortress protecting a house of cards: powerful, massive structures and institutions staunchly buttressed and hotly defended to ensure that nobody ever examines the ideas inside and sees how flimsy they are.
And of course — duh — there’s separation of church and state. There’s the principle that a public school should not be sponsoring prayers at graduations. What with that being a government establishment of religion and all, and thus being — oh, what’s that word? — unconstitutional.
All of that is important.
But there’s something else important going on here.
And that’s the way the atheist community has stepped up to the plate.
Damon Fowler was ostracized by his school, his town, even his parents. But he has been embraced and welcomed by the atheist community. Atheist writers have been all over this story from the moment it broke: it’s been covered on Friendly Atheist, Pharyngula, BlagHag, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Atheist Revolution, The Thinking Atheist, Atheist Underworld, WWJTD, Rock Beyond Belief… the list goes on. Several atheist organizations are applauding Fowler for his courage. American Atheists said of Fowler, “This kid deserves mad props for letting his principal know on no uncertain terms that ACLU would be contacted if the prayer wasn’t cancelled. Good job, Damon, you speak for the freedoms of people who are trapped in the bible-belt!” JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, said, “Despite the vile threats, bullying, and hatred his community has given him, we recognize Damon for what he is: a brave student speaking up for religious liberty and inclusion.” Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke about “his courage in speaking out for his and other students’ rights.”
And it’s not just the atheist thought leaders. It’s the on-the-ground community. Fowler has received an outpouring of support from atheists around the country and around the world. The “Support Damon” group on Facebook has over 10,000 members as of this writing. The Reddit post from Damon and his brother Jerrett discussing these events has been loaded with expressions of empathy and outrage. Atheist forums and blog comment threads about Fowler all over the Internet have been extensive and passionate. And many atheists have written letters to the Bastrop High School administration expressing their support for Fowler’s position and their opposition to the prayer.
This support isn’t only emotional, either. Emotional support is not trivial, of course: it’s hugely important, especially when you’re being ostracized, targeted with a hateful smear campaign, and driven from your home. But a tremendous amount of practical and financial support is coming from the atheist community as well. Many atheists have offered Fowler transportation, legal advice, meetup groups, places to stay, physical protection, connections with others who could provide additional practical help, and more. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has given Fowler a $1,000 college scholarship. And perhaps most dramatically, Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has established a scholarship fund for Fowler, so he can attend college despite being cut off financially by his parents — and the response has been overwhelming. At the closing of the scholarship fund, the atheist community had donated over $31,000. Essentially filling the role that his parents have abandoned.
Why am I bringing this up?
One of the chunks of mud that’s most commonly slung at atheists is that we’re selfish. Amoral. That without a belief in God and the afterlife, people would have no moral compass, and would just act to please themselves, without any consideration for others. That without a belief in eternal punishment in the afterlife for bad behavior, eternal reward in the afterlife for good behavior, and a supernatural authority figure refereeing it all, people would have no reason to be good people, and no reason to avoid doing terrible things. That without religion, people would have no compassion, no sense of justice, no empathy, no desire to see society running smoothly… and would just do whatever we wanted to do.
But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.
If atheism means we just do whatever we want to do… then apparently, what we want to do is take care of each other. Apparently, what we want to do is help people who have been injured. Apparently, what we want to do is speak out against wrongdoing. Apparently, what we want to do is put a stop to injustice. Apparently, what we want to do is make sacrifices for people in need.
A whole lot more than the Christians in Bastrop, Louisiana.
I’m not saying that atheists are morally superior to religious believers. I don’t think that, and I’m not saying it. I’m aware that many religious believers are good, compassionate people with a strong sense of justice. I’m even aware that many religious believers, indeed many Christians, are appalled by what’s happening to Damon Fowler, and oppose it with every breath in their bodies. And I’m aware that many atheists are hostile, self-involved schmucks. (Believe me… I’m aware of that.) That’s not my point.
My point is this: Human beings don’t need God to be good. Human ethics seem to be wired into our brains, through millions of years of evolution as a social species, and every human being who isn’t a sociopath has them. Some of us act on them better than others… but we all have them. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Rastafarian, Wiccan — and atheist.
And my point is this: The next time someone tells you that atheists are selfish and amoral? Remember Damon Fowler. Remember the religious community that bullied him, harassed him, ostracized him, and drove him out.
And remember the atheist community that took him in.
Damon Fowler’s scholarship fund is now closed. If you’re inspired by this story to make a donation, Damon has asked donations to go to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the Secular Student Alliance… “any will do. As long as it’s going toward students, secularization, or teaching critical thinking over superstition.”