Monday, January 17, 2011 Login

Hope For Young Atheists

Were you an atheist, agnostic, rationalist, humanist, or other type of non-theist during your early to mid teenage years?

Did you feel isolated? Alone? Alienated? Shunned?

Did you ever find yourself wishing that there was a group of like-minded people you could hook up with for mutual support and enlightenment?

Alas, no such groups existed when I was a teen.

Fortunately, that finally seems to be changing.

Here’s a recent story with a few of the details:

Secular Students Share Disbeliefs (Meredith Heagney/The Columbus Dispatch; Oct 8)

Delaware [Ohio] group one of 12 chapters in alliance at high schools in U.S.

The kids in the Secular Student Alliance say, only half-joking, that some people think they worship the devil.

The students are well aware that questioning the validity of faith can have consequences.

But questioning is a key component of this small group at Rutherford B. Hayes High School in Delaware [a town of about 25,000 people about 20 miles north of Columbus].

The students in the group discuss belief systems, science and politics in after-school meetings on Thursdays. They’re planning community-service work, possibly with a Christian club at the school, and considering field trips.

This high-school chapter of the Secular Student Alliance has been around for six years and is advised by Earth-science teacher Jeff Bakunas.

Nationally, the Secular Student Alliance has 228 chapters, with 12 at high schools and 216 at colleges and universities.

The umbrella group is based in Columbus and exists to support students who are “non-theists” in this religious, majority-Christian country, said August Brunsman, the alliance’s executive director.

The goal is to “normalize being an atheist or an agnostic or somebody who doesn’t have a belief in God,” Brunsman said. “It can sometimes be a pretty lonely place to be as a freethinker in certain high schools.”

People who identify as atheist or agnostic are a small but growing minority in the United States, totaling about 3 percent of the population, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who serves as a senior researcher for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[For other estimates of the number of atheists in the US - as well as a brief analysis of the many problems associated with coming up with any estimate - see the entry I posted on Feb 20, 2005.]

But the group of Americans unaffiliated with any religion is rapidly growing, estimated to be as high as 15 percent. The group includes those who believe in God and those who don’t.

The generation younger than 30 is less religious than their parents were at their age, Green said.

In the next couple of decades, the younger generation could mature without ever seeking religion, leading to a rise in the numbers of atheists and agnostics. Or the young people might follow the Baby Boomers and find church when they marry and have children.

Either way, Green said, being a nonbeliever has become more socially acceptable, though the term “atheist” is still off-putting to many. In polls, atheists are often more unpopular than Muslims and Mormons, two groups that are traditionally viewed unfavorably by the American public, he said.

The Secular Student Alliance has been contacted by high-school students who want to start a group but can’t find a teacher willing to advise. Taking that role can hurt an educator’s career in some places, Brunsman said.

Bakunas and Hayes Principal Brad Faust said they haven’t encountered resistance to the group, though the members say some teachers and students are uncomfortable with the concept.

Faust welcomes the group, saying that high school is “an opportune time for them to be developing their thoughts and beliefs.”

To Christian educator Chris Joseph, principal of Gahanna Christian Academy’s middle and high schools, such freedom is dangerous. Teens who think they can be “good without God” miss out on a relationship with Jesus that will offer them salvation, he said.

“It might distract people from actually developing a faith,” he said. “It’s obviously eternally damaging to some people.”

[Long-time readers of this diary as well as close observers of the news media will note that this is yet one more story about atheists in which the reporter felt it necessary to seek out and include the highly predictable comments of a theist. Stories about Christians and other theists, in sharp contrast, rarely include comments from atheists. Even worse, perhaps, is that the comments of these sought-out theists are rarely allowed to be directly questioned or countered by the atheists at the heart of the story. If the atheists I know had been given that opportunity, they might have pointed out to Mr. Joseph and others that raising a child as a Christian can be a dangerous thing to do in that it often seems to distract children from developing their critical thinking skills - something that can cause long-term damage not only to that child but to the society and the world he or she helps shape as an adult.]

At Hayes, Bakunas takes a hands-off approach to group discussions, occasionally interjecting with a question or to challenge a statement.

He has a rule that students stay positive and avoid bashing anyone.

[Do Christian high school groups have a similar policy? Is it really fair or appropriate for frequently attacked minority groups like atheists to be told that they can't say anything negative about those who attack them?]

Not all the students who participate are atheists; many have not attached a label to their world views yet.

At the Sept. 30 meeting, Bakunas, two senior boys and a 2010 alumnus who formerly served as president were in attendance.

The group often starts small at the beginning of a school year, Bakunas said, but has grown to include as many as 15 students.

Those at the meeting talked about why people believe, with Forest Wilson, 17, pointing out that religion gives people hope that “there’s more to life.”

Seth French, 18, said the government shouldn’t be able to use religion to challenge the teaching of evolution or to forbid gay marriage or the construction of a mosque near ground zero.

Timothy Hyatt, 18, the 2010 graduate, said he used to call himself an atheist but doesn’t anymore. He said everyone should be allowed their own idea of “God.”

“To me, personally, God is whatever’s going to give you that level of motivation and satisfaction to get you through the day,” he said.

[Do you agree or disagree with Timothy?]

French, who does identify as atheist, says it’s important for nonbelievers to be accepted by broader society, especially in a “conservative Christian town” such as Delaware.

“Barriers need to be broken down,” French said. “I know people who are atheist and agnostic, and they can’t be open about it or tell their parents because they would be rejected.”

So there you have it – a brief glimpse of how young Ohio atheists are trying to clarify their thoughts and find a home in the social landscape of a predominately Christian culture.

Some readers might be struck by how few their numbers are and how great the obstacles they face seem to be.

As someone who has lived in Ohio a very long time, I am most struck by the fact that at least a few young atheists here finally have a club in a public school and now have had a story about them appear in one of the state’s most important newspapers.

Progress *is* being made, though it can seem at times to be painfully slow….

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Originally posted at: Atheist Under Ur Bed

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