Life in Kansas
This article was written by Andrew Stangl, the president of the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas and an SSA board member.
Allow me to begin by introducing myself. My name is Andrew Stangl, and I am both the president of a secular student organization called the Society of open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA) at the University of Kansas, and a board member for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA).
For anyone who attends school in the United States and identifies him or herself as any synonym for non-Christian or non-believer in a god or gods, few days pass without harsh reminders that the majority of students are hostile to your viewpoints. I attended high school in a small town east of Wichita, KS called Andover. It's a small, conservative town, with mainly white inhabitants. In fact, I still remember acts of racism perpetrated by members of both the town and school administration against blacks. That's how far Kansas has sunk, or rather, how little it has climbed over the last century.
During my four years at Andover High School, I took eight hours of classes every day and participated in almost every extra-curricular activity that wasn't related to a sport. By the end of my time there, I had friends in every grade and was known very well by both the administration and the student body. I played two musical instruments in three different bands, was the lead in my senior musical, sang in a choir, received medals in my school's Science Olympiad team, and maintained excellent grades. Despite my involvement in so many different activities, it became clear that most students were very religious and not only attended church on Sundays, but also participated in youth group activities once a week. Although my best friends were nominally atheists or blatantly anti-religious, the same was not true for my acquaintances who made up the student body.
For more than three years, I never discussed the subject of religion. I believed, and continue to believe today, that discussing religion was and is not a polite topic of conversation. Such an ideal no longer holds true today in America, and I found myself avoiding the subject, which was generally easy to accomplish. What often made me clench my teeth, came from teachers and the school administration: singing songs in choir that were almost akin to worship songs, special compensation for after school activities for kids involved in church youth groups, and a general atmosphere where being Christian was normal, and anything else made you a second class citizen.
The dating scene was almost non-existent, and fraught with extreme difficulty given my atheism. With my own wedding pending for the summer of 2007, I honestly can't care less about high school at this point. The complete ridiculousness of the entire situation is laughable now, but that certainly wasn't true while I was actually attending high school. For many of us, such periods shape who we will become in the immediate future, and the frustration can deeply effect us both in the short term and long term. Fortunately, college removed this problem for me personally, and I suspect for many others as well.
With a single semester remaining in my senior year of high school, I decided to test the feeling of anti-secular sentiment around my high school by starting and advertising for a freethought club. Although a few people actually had the courage to confront me directly, most people attacked from the shadows by ripping down fliers or defacing them. I still have two defaced fliers in my possession, as a reminder that anyone who feels so insecure in their own beliefs as to violate their own principles (i.e. by stealing or destroying property) simply isn't worth any real consideration. The administration dared not touch my little group, which outraged a number of teachers - the very people who should have been setting an example of respect and tolerance.
Every secular person in the United States will almost certainly experience some form of prejudice for their lack of belief. The prejudice and exclusion begins extraordinarily early in a person's life. Some parents have even informed me that children as young as five are beginning to establish some level of religious identity, as evident from conversations with their young children. There are even kindergarten teachers who fail to quell the situation by questioning parents about whether or not the child's "spiritual needs" are being met. This makes a secular person's social life difficult, challenging, and ludicrously unfair almost from the onset. Young children have little or no experience in arguing against the irrational forces of religion, and simply shouldn't have to deal with such a thing so early in life.
I've never encountered a group quite like the conservative Christians, who see no contradiction or problem with playing both the oppressor and the oppressed whenever non-religious people demand equality in society and under the law. About 90% of people in the United States believe in some type of deity or spiritual being. Almost half literally believe in the seven day creation story from the biblical account of Genesis. Less than 30% think evolution occurred without divine guidance, and it's impossible to enter a debate on domestic or international issues without religion entering as a figure in the decision of every politician in the United States. There are however, a great deal of people, both in the United States and abroad, who are confronting the menace of religion. It's difficult and sometimes dangerous to profess a non-religious worldview in America, but millions of Americans are willing to do just that, and many groups exist to bring such people together. Through these groups, we are able to draw strength and make a real difference in the world as intelligent, rational individuals.
This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 10 - My Struggle with Disbelief, Part 2.