For Atheist Students, Back-To-School Can Be Stressful

It’s that time of year—summer is reaching its end and children are anxiously awaiting one of the most stressful days of the year: the first day of school. When I think back to my school days, I remember the wave of worry that consumed my mind as I slowly made my way to the bus stop. “Do I look good? Is my outfit lame? I hope I have classes with my friends! What if no one sits with me at lunch?” It’s high in pressure for every student; school is a judgment battleground, and just one little mistake could change your reputation forever—well, at least until you graduate.

Bullying is a real problem in schools, and conflict management isn’t very prevalent in the curriculum. But while we readily recognize the bullying of someone for the way they look or dress or how much money they have, what happens when a student is bullied because of their core beliefs?

Earlier this week, David Niose, Director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the AHA, sat down with the Humanist Hour’s Bo Bennett to discuss this very topic. While discussing the realities of the unique pressure atheist students feel in returning to school (especially in the Bible Belt), Niose said, “Going back to school is difficult enough, but for atheist humanist children, there sometimes is an added stress that you’re going into an environment that just kind of permeates religion, unfortunately.”

By the time I was in high school, I knew I was a nonbeliever. I remember the many times I was told to turn my Bad Religion t-shirt inside out because it was “inappropriate.” I didn’t understand that response, but I didn’t know how to make a fuss about it, so I usually complied or spent a few hours in the principal’s office. Unfair as it was, I was lucky to not have been subjected to crueler treatment from my teachers and classmates about my nonbelief. Every year, more and more students are being chastised by teachers and peers for being nonreligious. Some students have been sent home from school, sent to detention, made an example of in front of their classmates, told to leave the class, and embarrassed by teachers simply for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

Last year, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) created a campaign called “Don’t Say the Pledge” where we encouraged students who do not agree with the words of the Pledge of Allegiance—particularly “under god”—to sit down during its recitation. From the day the campaign started, the AHLC received call after call and email after email from students and parents who were facing discrimination from their public school districts. It quickly became apparent to us that this behavior was quite common everywhere.

So how do you, as a student or parent, protect yourself or your child from this kind of abuse? The first step is to know your constitutional rights. It is easy for an evangelizing teacher to take advantage of a student. Many students are unaware of where and when they are allowed to stand up for themselves. According to Niose, not all instances of this kind of discrimination have to be dealt with in a court room: “Sometimes the best avenue isn’t necessarily a legal one. We can’t sue every single time we see a public school violating the law. A good way to approach these is to see them as an opportunity to be an activist to yourself. Speak out as a parent about it. A lot of these things happen in public schools just because that’s the way it’s always been done, and nobody knows any different. I think the administrators at the top probably know that they’re violating the law, but they just do things the way they’ve been done because nobody has complained.”

Second, organize! Students can make themselves heard and encourage other students to stand up for themselves. A good way to do this is to create an atheist club or student group at school, if the school allows it. It isn’t uncommon that a student might have difficulty creating such a group, especially in very religious districts. But if there is a Christian club or other religious school group, Niose says that “almost defiantly that means that you have the right as a student to establish an atheist or humanist club if you want to.” He continues, “If the school is allowing clubs and Christian clubs are among them, there is really no legal way that the school can say that you can’t have an atheist club. That would certainly be a constitutional flag—something that we’d want you to contact us about.”

Finally, if you have done all that you can to protect yourself and protect the rights of other nonreligious students, and no changes are being made or the school pressure has gotten worse, then it is time to call the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which has a team of attorneys to represent you and support your constitutional rights as an American who deserves to be treated fairly and equally.

School can be a brutal place. There is enough pressure on who you should be, what you should look like, how you should act—but there shouldn’t be pressure on your personal beliefs. You shouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed to stand up for those beliefs. The only time change happens is when one person stands up and says enough is enough. If you feel like that time has come, we’ll stand up with you.

Listen to Dave Niose’s full interview on the Humanist Hour Podcast for more helpful information and advice on how students and parents can stand up against nonbelief discrimination in the public school system.