Let me tell you guys a story.
I work with a group of amazing people. My coworkers are just phenomenal, and I have nothing but good things to say about any of them. A couple of them also happen to be atheists.
The school where I work serves a very specialized population, and we have rather narrow demographics in our student body and among our staff. I think it’s safe to say that everyone at my school lives in a culturally Christian environment. Still, the staff values diversity, and we actively try to teach our students that differences between people should be celebrated and respected. Sometimes the lesson just goes a little wonky.
At one point in the past year, we were working with our students, and to demonstrate the importance of diversity, we had all of the staff get together and do a demonstration where we divided up based on various personal factors. You know, stuff like how wealthy your family was growing up, what kind of home you currently lived in, what religion you were.
There was a slight hiccup with the religion question.
The staff member who was facilitating the lesson was giving us broad categories to associate with so that we wouldn’t have to get into specifics with our students, which was great. But when it came to the religion question, he said this:
“If you’re Baptist, stand on the left. If you’re Methodist, stand in the middle. If you’re nondenominational, stand on the right.”
Do you see the problem?
My coworkers and I laughed about it because we’re adults and it’s funny that we all ended up in the same category of not-Baptist-and-not-Methodist, but the incident’s problematic from the perspective of promoting diversity. We just reinforced in our students the idea that everyone around them is a Christian, and the minority views don’t rate consideration.
So, enter this news story where the valedictorian at a high school graduation in South Carolina tore up his pre-approved speech and recited the Lord’s Prayer in protest of a recent decision to no longer have officially sanctioned prayer at the school district’s functions. It’s similar to another incident that happened a few weeks ago where students in a Georgia school spontaneously left class to attend an impromptu prayer group in the school’s gym during class time. I’ve read about these incidents being hailed as students “standing up for God” in their schools. Well, okay, I get the narrative that’s going on there. A large number of American Christians have a tendency to espouse the idea that because we live in a country that values the separation of church and state Christianity is being stamped out by the government. The natural response to this perceived problem is to vocally protest the removal of things like sanctioned prayer from our school systems.
But take a look at this interview that the student of that first story gave on CNN. He’s quite respectful in how he responds, but when the interviewer points out that he got a huge positive response from the audience, he says it’s because of his community. It’s primarily Christian, so of course they would be supportive. She goes on to ask, if it had been a Muslim or an atheist student espousing their views would the crowd have cheered in the same way? He says that he hopes they would, but he’s doubtful that’d be the case, again, because of his primarily Christian community.
Assume there are students at that school who identify as atheists, and they feel constantly bombarded by the Christian culture that surrounds them. They disagree with their peers and their elders, but they don’t feel like they have a safe space to express their opinions. School’s the closest thing they can get, because no religion is officially endorsed there, so technically they’re on even footing, even though not really. Then a story like this breaks, and everyone cheers because a Christian within a community of Christians took it on himself to “stand up for God.” Those atheist kids don’t feel like it’s something revolutionary; they just feel like it’s more of the same from a group who thinks it’s persecuted when they don’t understand the meaning of the word.