Bullied for Not Believing in God

Despite secularism and atheism being on the rise, some areligious students feel discriminated against—at times violently. Now teachers across the U.S. are creating Secular Safe Zones to "curtail anti-atheist bullying, discrimination, and social isolation."
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(SalvatoreLaporta/AP)

Earlier this year, while no one was looking, Gage Pulliam took a photo of a plaque that listed the Ten Commandments, as it hung on the wall of his Oklahoma high school's biology classroom.

Pulliam emailed the photo, anonymously, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They then sent a complaint to the school district, which asked Muldrow High School to take down the plaque.

The taste of justice was, for a moment, sweet on Pulliam’s godless tongue. Until students protested . By later in the week, his peers had compiled hundreds of signatures on petitions to save the Commandments plaque. The Muldrow Ministerial Alliance began giving away shirts that bore the Ten Commandments, in support of the protest. Parents got into the fray, too. Denise Armer said taking down the plaque was "going too far ... What happened to freedom of religion, and not from religion?"

The protesters began speculating as to who was responsible for the instigating photo. Speculative whispers became cries. When some of Pulliam's friends–who were among the cohort of openly areligious students at Muldrow High–started feeling heat, Pulliam outed himself on an atheist blog. Sacrificing himself to so that he might save others, Pulliam admitted that he was the one who sent the photo.

Pulliam later said that in the wake of his confession, his mother worried for his safety. She also worried that his teachers might grade him differently. His sister, an eighth-grader, said other students wouldn’t look at her, and "in one instance she couldn’t even get a class project done because her group members refused to talk to her." Other students "told Gage’s girlfriend that he should stay from them or else they’ll punch him."

Pulliam's justification for taking the photo in the first place: “I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion. This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”

You'll See the Sign, and You'll Know

The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) is an educational nonprofit advocacy group. They have 393 affiliated student groups on U.S. high school and college campuses. That number has doubled in the last four years. Their stated purpose is to “organize and empower nonreligious students” and “foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.” This month they launched a program, primarily in high schools, intended to counter situations like Pulliam’s, which they say are commonplace.

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(Pew Research Center)

The Secular Safe Zone initiative is designed to create “safe, neutral places for students to talk about their doubts without fear of religious bullying.” That’s done by recruiting "allies” and training them to recognize and respond to anti-atheist bullying. The initiative is modeled off of Gay Alliance’s LGBT Safe Zone program, which was started several years ago, in that it allows mentors at schools to explicitly demarcate spaces where “students know that bullying won’t be tolerated.”

School faculty members who affiliate with the program never have to say a thing; they hang the yellow, green, pink, and blue emblem, and students come to them.

“It's shocking how often people tell secular students that they don't belong in America,” Jesse Galef, communications director for the SSA told me. “Sometimes there are threats of violence against students who openly identify as atheists … We’re calling on supportive role models nationwide to stand up for these students." That can include “teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, RAs, even chaplains, who want to create safe places for people to discuss their doubts and be open about their identities.”

The SSA offers training for the volunteers, including modules on how to “identify and understand secular students and speak up against discrimination.” The standard-issue Resource Guide for Allies is an interesting read that contains a lot of interesting facts about secularism, for example, "Common Myths About Secular Students":

  • Nontheists are just angry at god.
  • Nontheists worship Satan.
  • Nontheists have no morals.
  • Nontheism is the product of a personal tragedy.
  • Nontheists are arrogant.
  • Nazis were atheists.
  • Nontheists love sinning too much to give it up. 

It also succinctly defines subgroups of secularism (atheism among them), and advises, "It’s important to approach the questioning student in a neutral manner. As Secular Safe Zone allies, we are not here to push either religion or nontheism."

Bearing such knowledge, an ally posts his sign.

Is This Really Necessary?

A Pew Research Center survey recently found that the number of Millennials reporting doubts about the existence of God doubled in five years—now around 31 percent. More people in the United States identify as nonreligious than any time in the past 30 years; and those numbers are steadily increasing, especially among young people. Is the climate for “coming out” as an atheist still that hostile?

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(Pew Research Center)

The SSA acknowledges this data, but Galef counters with a survey by the German non-profit Bertelsmann Stiftung that found that 50 percent of Americans consider atheism to be threatening . As he puts it, “In a society that is still overwhelmingly religious—atheism is on the rise, but the vast majority of Americans are still religious–that puts a religious tint on everything. People still assume that everybody is religious, or that if you're not religious you're not a good person. That's where a lot of the bullying starts.”

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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