February 22, 2011 | High 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.
Because the group he wanted to start was an atheist group.
His story is being repeated, with variations, around the country.
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.
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 students knew their rights and were 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 12 high school groups affiliated with their organization. According to SSA director of campus organizing Lyz Liddell, "We've had around four to six 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 for 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.