This entry is a recap of Hemant Mehta’s Freethought Festival 2012 presentation as observed by me as an audience member. Shitty writing or misinterpretation of the presenter’s material is completely my fault. If you think I got something wrong, please let me know in the comments or feel free to email me at bio_dork(at)hotmail(dot)com.
Hemant Mehta opened his talk with a story about an eight year-old child who was asked to draw what a Christian looks like, and what a non-Christian looks like. This is what the child produced:
Kids are often introduced to this idea through one venue or another. As Hemant points out there’s no philosophical underpinnings for why this kid thinks that Christians are happy, clean-cut, and nicely dressed, while a non-Christian is angry with messed-up crazy hair, booze in one hand, cigarette in the other, tattoos all over the place and raggedy clothes. He just knows that he knows this.
This blind, unthinking prejudice is what young atheists are up against. If you are known to be a non-believer in your school, you have a good chance of being an outcast.
Hemant showed a video of Nicole Smalkowski’s story from 2006 (I think I found a slightly longer cut of the interview that was shown during his presentation here on YouTube). At that time she a 13 year-old girl who loved to play basketball. She joined the team at her high school and opted out of reciting prayers with the rest of the team. Not long after she was told that she was bad for morale and was kicked off the basketball team. She dealt with harrassment and suspicion from her schoolmates and even her teachers. In the end her parents ended up pulling her and her siblings from the school to be homeschooled. Nicole abandoned basketball and focused her energy on music.
Hemant cited an observation made by Katherine Stewart in her newly released book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. She notes that “Membership in the Fellowship for Christian Athletes has climbed to 1,447,881—up from 100,000 in 1999” and that “Many students on public school sports teams feel that they must ‘pray to play.'” This means that even if they don’t believe, they feel like they need to bow their heads in order to blend in.
We as a growing and internet-connected atheist community have the resources to bring to light and support students who face discrimination like this.
Hemant is a former chair of the board of Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a group that works to “organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics.”
He put up slides showing that the number of SSA chapters has been growing. This is due to an increase in SSA resources and a focused effort to assist high school and college students who are trying to start chapters in their areas. The media has started to take an interest in teens who stand up for their lack of faith. Hemant brought up the story of Brian Lisco, a student who wanted to start an atheist club at his school. Lisco experienced months of push-back from administrators, and the SSA contacted USA Today with the story. When the school was contacted by USA Today for comment, administrators suddenly changed their minds and Brian Lisco got his club.
Hemant recounted Crystal Myers’ story. She wrote a piece for the the student newspaper entitled, “No Rights. The Life of an Atheist”. When the school refused to run her story, she contacted the Knoxville Sentinel, which was very happy to run the story for her.
Prejudice and bigotry don’t look very nice splashed across the pages of local, national and world-wide publications.
We’re now seeing non-belief portrayed in the mainstream media! Hemant showed the video clip from Glee (“Grilled Cheesus” episode) in which Kurt asks his classmates not to pray for him because he doesn’t believe in God.
We’re reaching young atheists. We’re organizing and informing ourselves on the issues that young atheists are facing. Groups like the SSA are growing. In closing, Hemant urged us all to continue to support students and support student atheist groups.