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.
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?
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.”
Pulliam’s story in Oklahoma is echoed by cases in the news like that of Jessica Ahlquist in Rhode Island—a high school student who challenged a prayer banner in her school and was later called an “evil little thing” by her state congressman—and Damon Fowler in Louisiana, who got his school to cancel plans for a prayer at his graduation ceremony and was kicked out of his house by his parents.
"Sometimes the bullying is active and intentional," Galef says, "but a lot of times it’s passive assumptions that atheists are bad or immoral. And those assumptions filter into their language in hurtful ways.”
Galef shared with me some of the anonymous feedback on discrimination that he has received from a few of the SSA-affiliated student groups around the country.
While most of our campus is respectful, people are typically shocked to find out we are atheists. When we first formed the group I received death threats through email and also the typical ‘you're going to hell’ rhetoric.
We've had our flyers torn down and defaced on a regular basis. Additionally, we've had Christians attend meetings to tell use we're going to hell, we need Jesus, we're seeking truth and they're there to provide it, etc. We finally had to kick them out and almost had to call public safety because everyone was so uncomfortable. Additionally, almost all of our group members have faced harassment from family members, ‘friends,’ and others on a personal level.
Our administration put up a huge fuss when we started this group. They progressed to ignoring our requests for school wide announcements, calling President and Vice President out of class for discussions, refusing to answer our questions, and docking our teacher sponsors evaluation so low that she would lose pay. We also had almost 100 signs torn down with little to no administrative response, even after we requested it.
We get threats written on flyers and [are] generally harassed.
Our flyers have been torn down. Our members have been insulted. However, school administration is very supportive of our organization and backs us when these things happen.
Extremely religious students have harassed some members in the past about their involvement and have occasionally removed promotional flyers from hallways.
The whole school, teachers including, have a slanted view of the group and some of the more judgmental religious people here have harassed the open minded religious people who just like to come to meetings. Everyone assumes it's the ‘atheist club’ even though we have a good mix of atheists, Christians, and people who are just curious. The Christians that are interested in discussion and debate are criticized for even being involved. The harassment is just the verbal attack of the group, nothing physical, thankfully.
The Secular Student Alliance is quick to reprimand schools that illegally discriminate against student groups. SSA began on college campuses and continues to have fewer issues at that level, where it’s usually expected that there will be a secular student group. “We see a lot of pushback and stonewalling from administrators at the high school level,” Galef says, "which is flatly illegal. But that’s why we’re here: to send polite phone calls and emails– and eventually less polite phone calls and emails–to remind them about the Equal Access Act. Secular student groups can’t be discriminated against based on their viewpoint; they can’t be required to jump through hoops that other groups don’t have to jump through.”
Galef notes that the Equal Access Act “was originally championed by the religious right to allow Bible study clubs after school, and then gay-straight alliances started growing under the same law. Now secular student groups are growing under this law.”
As One Ally Sees It
Hemant Mehta teaches math at a high school in Chicago. He has long been involved with SSA as a mentor. “One student whom I worked with last year in a tutoring center emailed me earlier this year," Mehta told me, "because he wanted to start an SSA chapter. I directed him to the SSA and told him to be in touch when he had questions or needed me to sign paperwork as a potential faculty sponsor. Obviously, I want to stay as hands-off as possible so that no one can accuse me of trying to indoctrinate students with my beliefs. My role is simply to support them in their own journeys.”
Mehta also signed on early to be a Safe Zone mentor. “While I haven't yet had students come to me yet because of the Safe Zone program,” Mehta told me, “many students know I'm very out about my atheism outside of school.” (Mehta writes and curates the website Friendly Atheist.)
“I hope teachers realize how important it is for them to be someone that young atheists can talk to about their beliefs. The Safe Zone is a way to show you're an ally without needing to say as much during class. Hell, you don't even have to be an atheist to be part of it.”
Mehta sees the next step as publicity. “I hope that some of the groups get publicity through volunteering/charity projects, (friendly, organized) debates with religious students, and the interesting questions they raise—and that other students at other schools are inspired to begin groups, too.”
Even when potential volunteers do hear about the program, Galef says, there are barriers to actually taking part. Not only does the volunteer training talk about how to help students, but there’s also a section on how to deal with pushback from the community. Galef say that’s borne of cases where advisers “have gotten flack from co-workers or bosses. We’ve had cases where teachers have wanted to sponsor a Secular Student Club at their high school, and the principal told them it would be a bad career move.”
Ultimately, Galef hopes that Secular Safe Zone allies will normalize nonbelief. "We have a long road ahead of us," added Galef, "but this is another step toward acceptance."