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Atheist Groups Expand in Unlikely Venues

This month the New York Times published a piece profiling a high school club in Panama City, Fla. The reason that the Times took such an interest in the club’s formation was that it was comprised of non-theistic or secular students who sought a venue in which to discuss their shared values.

There is not much that is unusual about this club --  a group of students gather around a common interest, voice their opinions, raise awareness about their beliefs and engage in healthy social activity with like-minded peers. What makes it newsworthy is that it is a secular group in the heart of Christian territory.

Atheist clubs have long existed at colleges, but at the high school-level they are quite rare. Either students are too nervous to “come out” as atheists while living with disapproving parents or they fear being ostracized by judgmental classmates, or both, making it difficult to stand boldly for a secular worldview.

Perhaps the most unusual and exciting aspect of the club profiled in the Times is its location: northern Florida, sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt.” The club, pioneered by a beloved English teacher, Mr. Creamer, whom the Times likens to Atticus Finch, seeks to break through stereotypes about atheists more commonly held in Bible country than anywhere else in the United States.

The Times article’s comparison of Mr. Creamer to Atticus Finch alludes to the civil rights movement and the dangers of standing up for African Americans during an age of racism. This comparison underlines the level of opposition that atheists face in the conservative Christian community and the risks those defending secular ideals face from the religious right.

High school students in Florida aren’t the only ones breaking through these barriers. Perhaps the most Christian of the non-religious institutions in our country is the U.S. Military, and secular members of the armed forces are organizing their own groups and seek formal recognition for their activities. One such group that has garnered much attention, Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH), seek to overcome the isolation associated with being in such a small minority.

It appears that the Military has made some strides since an atheist soldier filed a lawsuit alleging that he was denied promotions and suffered abuse from superiors because of his refusal to participate in Christian religious prayers and other gatherings. According to the MASH group, they have experienced no such overt abuse, but the attention their group has received in the media and among military officials is telling.

The most striking part of the national coverage of these two groups is that the coverage exists at all -- it is still newsworthy that people with secular values organize themselves into meaningful groups of like-minded peers. The idea of atheists seeking to engage in mainstream activities that in the past were associated with religious groups is a source of serious discomfort for many Americans. I look forward to the day when establishing an atheist club in a high school is no longer an extraordinary event. In the meantime, we should fully support those who are brave enough to come forward in the name of their beliefs.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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