Freethought Today, January/February 2000

1999 Recipient--Ruth Jokinen Memorial Student Activist Award

Atheist Under Siege Starts Atheist Club

This speech was delivered on November 6, 1999, before the 22nd annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, St. Anthony Hotel, San Antonio.

Micah was named the 1999 recipient of the "Ruth Jokinen Student Activist Memorial Award," underwritten by Foundation Life Member Richard Mole of Louisiana. The award is a $500 cash grant in recognition of special achievement.

By Micah White

Before I begin let me just say, I am extremely happy to be here. It is quite an honor to get this opportunity to speak to this organization, and I am also honored to receive this award.

I just got back from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State conference in D.C. When I first arrived there I was wearing the coat I always wear around school, and in public--a coat which has a patch that says, simply, "Atheist." When I met one of my friends from the Council for Secular Humanism outside the hotel, he told me that most people within the AU conference wouldn't enjoy it. I was surprised to find that there were only a few atheists within the conference, and while writing my acceptance speech, for an award I got there, I realized the strain I was under not to offend any theists! Well, here I am at the Freedom From Religion conference, and I have no doubt that I don't need to worry about offending any theists.

I am in the unique position of being one of the few high schoolers to start an atheist club, so I'd like to give you a breakdown of what happened to me, and what I have learned. It is my hope that after this speech you will have an intimate view of how I formed a high school atheist club, what sort of things a club like mine does, the responses of the community and my idea of what the future holds for teen atheists.

But first let me tell you a little background about myself. I was raised a very liberal Catholic. Both my parents have had extensive education in the Catholic faith. My mom attended Catholic schools for 16 years, and my dad joined the seminary with the intention of becoming a priest when he was a teenager.

However, religion was never a big part of my life, and I would say I never had very strong beliefs in god, in fact I don't think I invested much thought in god at all.

What started me on the path to atheism was probably Ayn Rand. My brother suggested I read Fountainhead when I was in 9th grade, and I did. I went on to read as much of her philosophy I could. Luckily with my brother's urging, I also went on to read other philosophy--preventing me from becoming an objectivist.

So my so-called conversion to atheism wasn't very eventful. It was the end result of my inquiries into the basic assumptions by which I lived. When I came to my assumption that god existed, I realized I had no reason to believe so, and it was discarded.

Our family moved two years ago to a conservative city in Michigan--Grand Blanc. During 10th grade I was new, so I didn't talk much. But near the end of the year a student wrote an op-ed asking for creationism to be taught in science class. I responded with a well-written critique of her argument, and in turn became interested in exposing people to a nonreligious way of life.

It was in 11th grade that I formulated the idea to form a high school atheist club, in response to the already established student bible club. My first step was to find out what the laws were concerning student clubs, since I knew that my club would most likely face opposition from the administration.

While surfing the internet I stumbled across a guide for students who wanted to form bible clubs. The site referred to the Equal Access Act, which reads: "It shall be deemed unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings."

This was exactly what I was looking for. Since my school already had a bible club it would be illegal for them to stop my club simply because it was atheist. Armed with this information I approached my principal and asked what I had to do in order to start a student club.

He told me to find a teacher sponsor, and to talk to our vice-principal. I approached the most liberal teacher I had and asked him if I could use his room in order to hold the atheist club meetings. He agreed.

This would later become a sort of controversy because the school tried to convince him that by allowing us to meet in his room, it would be his name on the club, which is untrue.

I approached my vice-principal that week, but after showing his immediate distaste for the idea he told me that our club could meet within the school but we wouldn't be able to solicit members. Meaning, we would not be able to use the PA system or put up signs--two options the bible club used quite often. I showed my immediate objection, and told him about the Equal Access Act. At which point he told me: "Stop worrying so much about the law, and worry about what Grand Blanc High School allows." I was so shocked that I sort of laughed. He then told me he was busy and I'd have to come back on Monday. Luckily, two months later my principal did confirm in the local paper that American law applied to Grand Blanc High School.

On Monday, I went to the office to see my vice-principal, Mr. Chittle, about four times. Each time he avoided me, each time I left my name and each time the office said I would be called down when Mr. Chittle was free.

However, I was never called down--his administration made it completely impossible for me to talk with them. However, after coming into the office all day long, I lucked out at the end of the day. I walked in, and he was standing there, right behind the front desk behind some people. I looked directly at him, and he said something to the effect of "damn," when he saw me. I don't remember the exact word but I remember I was shocked, and thought for a second that he might be talking about something else. I mean why would the vice-principal show obvious unwillingness to meet with a student--shouldn't he at least pretend?

So he comes around the desk, and is about to leave, completely ignoring me. I am standing at the door and I say, Mr. Chittle, can I speak with you?

I am being sure to be respectful because I assumed that he would just take me into the office and reject me there, then I could show my evidence. That isn't what happened. Instead he said, you need to come here with your sponsor, before I will speak with you.

The following is the dialogue that occurred.

Chittle: "All three of us need to talk and we will set up some restrictions."

Micah: "Restrictions? What kind of restrictions? You can't set up restrictions."

Chittle: "I can set up any restrictions I want."

Micah: "Well, can I at least show you my evidence?"

Chittle: "What evidence?" (he begins to walk out of the door)

Micah: "Evidence why an atheist group should be allowed."

Chittle: "No, you need to get your sponsor down here and we will talk then. This isn't a club, you haven't done the official process."

Micah: "What process? What do I need to do?"

Chittle: "You haven't signed a contract . . ." (voice trails off) "Also you aren't a religious group.

He begins to move down the hall.

Micah: "All I want is equal access, can't we talk about this!"

Chittle: (speeds up, slides in between people, slipping away) "Talk to your sponsor!"

I stop, I'm upset, I just got completely blown off, he wouldn't listen to anything I said. Monday was supposed to be a meeting and instead I chase him down the hall. I'm frustrated, my hands are shaky.

I will stop the story here. By now I am sure that you realize it was going to be impossible for me to form the club without help. In the following month that I continued to try and establish the club, more meetings were canceled and I was even told I would be suspended if I continued to try and schedule such meetings. I refer to these appointments as meetings, but before I made each appointment he said it was only on the condition that I would not argue about anything--in other words he would only meet with me if I did what he said. One of the points I could not argue about was the name of the club. Mr. Chittle wanted to force me to change the name from "Atheist Club" to "Alternative Religions Club."

While all this was happening I was keeping a journal, and after I had had enough I sent it to both the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Americans United responded promptly.

They agreed to help me form the club, and two letters were sent to my school threatening to sue on my behalf. Our case was simple. One, changing the name would be a change to the actual nature of the club. And two, we didn't need a teacher-sponsor because to require one would limit equal access. It is, of course, impossible to find a teacher sponsor for such a controversial club.

The second letter set a deadline of two weeks after it was received as the deadline after which we would be filing a lawsuit. A few days before the deadline I was called into my principal's office, and told I would be allowed to form the club--I had won!

The first meeting of the club was covered on the front page of the local paper with the headline: "Student wins fight for atheist club."

Response from the community was quick. The paper was flooded with letters to the editor, and the debate concerning my club lasted around a month. During this time the Religion section of the paper ran a column asking two Protestant pastors the question of whether atheist clubs hurt the faith of students within a school.

Although both answers were pretty much what you'd expect from fundamentalists, one pastor did give these words of wisdom: "This is the time for Christians to arise and not be intimidated. The facts are atheism does not work. It is failing in Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and many other places, because the spirit of man longs for its creator. The Bible declares in Psalms 14:1 and 53:1, 'The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.'

"The word fool means one who lacks sense or judgement, an idiot. God made man to be an intelligent being, but Satan does his best to belittle the creation of God. To say you are atheist is to say you are a fool or idiot. That is not a name tag to boast about."

Based on that response which was printed in the paper, it's pretty easy to see the mindset of the community in which I live. Signs announcing atheist club meetings were ripped down within the school, and those that were left up were written on with such nice things as "burn in hell."

However, I ignored all these behaviors and instead continued to run the atheist club until the end of the year.

Let me tell you a little bit about some of the things my atheist club does. My main mission in running the club is to educate its members and the school body. To do this the club has donated a dozen philosophy and science books to the school library with the help of supporters nationwide. Also, every week I hand out a packet of about 10 pages containing atheist philosophy, such as Dan Barker's "Dear Theologian"--which is very popular, or god debates. This has been a pretty successful way to educate members, and keep the atheist club from becoming simply a "rag-on-religion club."

Finally I'd like to talk about what I see as the future of atheism in America. Based on my experiences I truly feel that the atheist movement in America must be firmly grounded in youth. As a teen I have been given amazing access to the media, such as my New York Times op-ed, an appearance on "Politically Incorrect," several radio shows, and even a profile in an issue of Teen People Magazine.

Reporters love reporting on controversies, but they will only do it if it seems like the student is intelligent. That is why, I think, my story has gotten so far. It is impossible for the local community to simply write me off as a quack, or a bad kid--because I visibly am not. So to gain wider access to American media I think it is paramount that older atheists begin to cultivate younger ones. Find a way to meet up with high school atheists in your community, and talk with them. Have them form clubs, and encourage them to write op-eds for the paper. If the average American is never exposed to young atheists, they will slowly begin to think that good kids are Christian, and the bad kids are not. One way in which I have tried to help support teen atheists nationwide was to co-found the Young Freethinkers Alliance, an organization supported by the Council for Secular Humanism.

The Young Freethinkers Alliance, or YFA, is an organization which hopes to unite high school atheist clubs across the country. Currently we have about half a dozen high school atheist clubs. It is difficult to find students who are willing to spend so much time on something that may leave them with fewer friends. It was easier for me because I was a new student the year before I formed the club.

The only way to balance the social stigmatism students may receive for being an "out" atheist is to really show your support. The awards, emails, and donations I have received really keep me going. If you hear of teen atheists in your community write them a letter or call. Even if they don't respond it means a lot.

I'd like to finish this talk by reading my June 21st New York Times op-ed ("Atheists Under Siege" by Micah White):

"We hear it everywhere, from churches to Congress: we need to allow religion back in the schools if we want to avoid another tragedy like the one at Columbine High School.

"Groups like the Christian Coalition say there has been a moral decline ever since the Supreme Court banned school prayer. They were disturbed by the story of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine student who was killed after saying she believed in God. [Micah noted that this story was later debunked.] And they make demons out of all atheist students, as if they had anything in common with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

"As a high school junior in Michigan, I am very concerned with the national trend of blaming 'godless teenagers' for school violence. As an atheist, I feel I have endured persecution for my beliefs. I believe that the only outcome of any increase of religion in the schools would be an increase in anger directed against those students who are either not of the dominant religion or lack religion at all.

"Last fall, I tried to form an atheist club in my high school as an alternative to a Bible study group that already existed. The school made it difficult for me to do so, saying I didn't have a teacher-sponsor. I threatened to sue the school with legal help from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Only then did the school say I could not be prevented from forming the club.

"The reaction of some of my fellow students to the club was even worse. Immediately after I formed the group, a few of them seemed to take it upon themselves to intimidate me. Signs promoting the club were torn down, and people scribbled insults like "Burn in Hell" on them. Students would come to our meetings and yell, simply to be disruptive. And after the shootings at Columbine, a friend told me that a teacher had told his class that my club was the same thing as the trenchcoat mafia.

"All this negativity directed at my atheist group would seem to indicate that we do evil things. But all we do is meet weekly to discuss philosophy and talk about how to keep our school as secular as possible. We face opposition not because we are bad people but because our ideas are unpopular.

"If prayer in schools is allowed, what will happen to those students who are not Christian, but are Jewish or Muslim? What about atheists like me? Even though no law could require us to participate, this would further ostracize the nonreligious students.

"Countless students may already be feeling religious pressure as the school year comes to a close, since many districts still have prayer in their graduation ceremonies. I read about one student in Maryland who was detained by the police after he tried to re-enter his own graduation, which he had left because he was offended by the prayer.

"I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can show America that atheist students are not the source of the nation's ills. Through my club, I feel a lot of people have learned there is nothing to worry about. And if we can learn to accept all students, perhaps then we can find a way to bring an end to the violence and ostracism instead of increasing it."

On a final note let me say something about courage. A lot of people tell me that what I have done is quite courageous. But I take a sort of different look at it. It is by far easier to be a bold and vocal atheist, then one who seems ashamed. I have gone to school many times with shirts that say "God is dead" or "Sin is myth." Why? Because I am able and willing to defend my atheism. Christians may disagree, but in a way I think they respect that. I remember one time I was in the library talking to a kid about atheism, and a big jock stood up, looked at my friend and said "Hey! Are you that kid who started an atheist club?" My friend shyly responded and I raised my hand and said "No, I am." Who do you think they picked on? Of course my friend.

In other words never be afraid to stand up and say what you believe. Atheism is defensible and logical.

Micah White was born in Milwaukee in 1982, and lived in Columbia, Maryland through his 9th grade year, before his family moved to Grand Blanc, Michigan, where he is a senior at Community High School. Micah's op-ed piece, "Atheists Under Siege," was published by the New York Times last June, recounting the opposition he faced in starting an Atheist Club at his school. His first meeting was attended by more than 40 students. He had since done a series of media appearances, including ABC's "Politically Incorrect."


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