Daniel Koster is the recipient of the Thomas W. Jendrock Student Activist Award of $1,000. It’s endowed for 2013 by FFRF’s very kind member Thomas Jendrock.
By Daniel Koster
On Hug an Atheist Day, someone who I thought wanted a hug picked me up and tried to throw me in a garbage can. A crowd of jeering students encouraged him. For a moment this was amusing, but then it occurred to me that these kids might actually hurt me.
This was our club’s first public event, and I began to consider that everything we did might be marked by disapproval and threats of violence. I worried that I might be accosted after school or followed home. As much as secularism meant to me, I was not signing up to be martyred for the cause. I started Wekiva Atheist and Secular Alliance in January 2012 to gain acceptance for nonreligious students. My excitement that the administration had not blocked us, however, was short-lived. We put up friendly posters (with permission from the school) that reminded students with doubts about religion that they were not alone.
By the end of the day, all had been torn down. We later learned many were removed not just by students but also by a teacher. We know of no disciplinary action taken again the teacher.
Not to be deterred, we put up another round of posters, which disappeared even more quickly than the first. As frustrating as this was, I knew it only proved how important our efforts were. There was real prejudice in the school.
This year we had the chance to send a message not only to schoolmates but also to the school board. When a Christian group got permission from the board to distribute bibles in our high schools, the club monitored the distribution to ensure they were following the rules (they weren’t).
Then, working closely with FFRF and Central Florida Freethought Community, we planned our own distribution of atheist materials. Our goal was to show the board that if they let in Christian groups, they had to give the same opportunity to everyone, even atheists.
This process involved attending school board meetings, participating in conference calls, consulting attorneys, interviewing for the news and writing articles — things that can be hard to balance with homework but are always more fun. But it wasn’t all fun.
Delayed and censored
The school board kept postponing our distribution date. Once it was approved, they censored much of our freethought literature. At Wekiva High, administrators tried to apply rules to students that only applied to outside volunteers, even though they paid no attention to whether the Christian groups were following the rules. Freethought activists can expect every step of the process to be more difficult than it is for anyone else. Our goal is to get equal treatment for everyone.
Since coming out about my atheism, my relations with parts of my family have become strained. I am extremely lucky to have supportive parents, but even my mother fears (probably correctly) that what I do will cause some of the family to stop loving us. Though plenty of my religious friends still support me, plenty more have cut me off completely.
This was never my intention, but I know that these are the kinds of sacrifices every meaningful activist in history has had to make. Despite what I’ve lost, what I’ve gained has been spectacular. I have met the most wonderful people both in the local and national freethought movement and worked with them toward a goal we all believe in. I truly believe our work has had a real impact on how people at this school think.
Far from being a martyr for the cause, I have been able to live for it. I urge all those who believe in equality and secularism to join me.
Daniel Koster, 18, Orlando, Fla., will be attending New College of Florida in Sarasota to major in an undetermined as yet area of science. In high school he founded Wekiva Atheist and Secular Alliance and was active in other local freethought groups.