Your upcoming book is called “The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide: Helping Secular Students Thrive.” Who is this book written for? What ages of people qualify as “young atheists”?
This book is written for a lot of people—young atheists themselves, their parents, educators, administrators, and anyone else interested in knowing what that demographic is going through and how we can all help them out. For the most part, even though most studies categorize the young as people under 30, I focus on high school atheists. But the stories I heard from students are very similar to ones I’ve heard from older people, too.)
What prompted you to write this book? Why is it important for people inside and outside the secular movement (if it is)?
As a teacher working with high school students and someone who chronicles stories about young atheists across the country, this was a natural fit and a story I wanted to tell. There are so many things young atheists struggle with, even in states outside the Bible Belt, and we rarely hear about them. Those stories deserve more attention. Even if you’re religious, I would hope that you want students at that age to explore questions of faith and seek out their own answers. For most of them, high school marks the first time they’ve thought about these issues on their own. But many people don’t want to see them stray from the family line—and many parents and administrators go out of their way to block young atheists who want to question the very idea of faith. That’s the sort of thing we need to expose and put a stop to.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from the students you interviewed for the book? What takeaway would you want to share with the college and high school aged campus leaders that we work with here at CFI On Campus?
There are so many courageous, inspiring young atheists out there—and they could do so much good on their campuses if they knew they had support from their local and online community. Often, they feel like they are the only atheists out there. They’re not. There are teachers who don’t believe in god, classmates who doubt their faith, and online support for whatever issues they might be dealing with.
CFI On Campus students should know that they are part of a strong tradition of activists who challenge their communities in positive ways and often end up educating the adults in their community on issues of church/state separation. I hope they keep it up! And if they’re not already part of a student group, it is *so* worthwhile to begin one or join one.
Could you share your favorite story from the book?
One of my favorite stories involves a teacher who, like me, never used to talk about his atheism with his students. To me, that sounded like what all teachers *should* do, keeping their beliefs to themselves. But when students asked him simple questions like “Where do you go to church?” he never answered them honestly. He just tried to avoid the question or change the subject. What he soon realized, though, was that the Christian teachers at his school never silenced themselves about matters of faith when the students asked them about it. I’m not saying they were proselytizing to the students, but they openly replied that they were Christians or that they went to a particular church. They answered honestly and they never tried to hide it. So finally, this teacher decided to do the same thing. When the kids asked him about his beliefs, he admitted that he wasn’t religious and didn’t go to church. It was that simple, it was perfectly legal, and it wasn’t a big deal to his students. They still respected him after that and a few of them even felt comfortable enough to come to him when they wanted to start an atheist group of their own.
Imagine if all atheist teachers could be that forthright about their beliefs when asked about them. I think too many of us try to keep it hidden because we don’t want to discuss such a taboo subject in school or we don’t want to run afoul of the law — but it’s perfectly reasonable to answer students’ question about your religious beliefs if they ask. We don’t have to run away from the subject. Religious teachers rarely do.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I hope people get inspired by the students I talk about in the book to begin their own groups, join the ones that are already out there, and make a difference at their schools. You don’t need to be a student to have an impact and I talk about that extensively in the book. Christians have been doing this for a long time. Now, it’s our turn to take the lead.