Athe­ists find shel­ter from Chris­tian­ity in ‘sec­u­lar safe zones’

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY NATHAN PORTER

A 30-year-old fed­eral law cre­ated to pro­tect the right of Chris­tian stu­dents to gather now is be­ing used to pro­tect the rights of stu­dents with op­po­site be­liefs.

This school year, the Sec­u­lar Stu­dent Al­liance, a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion ad­vo­cat­ing the rights of non­re­li­gious stu­dents, has cre­ated “sec­u­lar safe zones” on 26 col­lege and high school cam­puses through­out the coun­try.

“Chris­tian­ity is so preva­lent in so­ci­ety that it’s taken as the norm … and to many athe­ists it’s off-putting,” said the al­liance’s spokesman Jesse Galef.

Mr. Galef said the safe zones — rooms or ar­eas set aside specif­i­cally for non­re­li­gious stu­dents — can help build com­mu­nity, fos­ter ser­vice projects and ed­u­cate in­di­vid­u­als about athe­ism. The safe zones are over­seen pri­mar­ily by stu­dent lead­ers and fac­ulty mem­ber al­lies.

In re­cent years, mem­bers of the les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der move­ment were the first to ex­ploit the Equal Pro­tec­tion Act to ex­tend pro­tec­tion to new cat­e­gories of stu­dents who were not nec­es­sar­ily Chris­tian.

“We’re tak­ing a page right out of [the LGBT] play­book,” Mr. Galef said.

The safe-zone phe­nom­e­non comes amid what de­mog­ra­phers say is a pro­nounced in­crease in the num­ber of non­be­liev­ers in the past four decades.

Since 1972, the num­ber of athe­ists glob­ally has nearly tripled, while re­li­gios­ity in the United States has de­clined from 73 per­cent in 2005 to 60 per­cent in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the poll Global In­dex of Re­li­gios­ity and Athe­ism.

The web­site Sec­u­larsafe­, in de­fend­ing the need for a stu­dent refuge, cites a 2006 Univer­sity of Min­nesota sur­vey that found con­tin­u­ing prej­u­dice and dis­trust of athe­ists, even as cul­tural cel­e­bra­tions of “diver­sity” ex­plode.

The tele­phone sur­vey of 2,000 U.S. house­holds found that Amer­i­cans rate athe­ists be­low Mus­lims, re­cent im­mi­grants, gays and other mi­nor­ity groups in “shar­ing their vi­sion of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.”

Athe­ists also were named as the mi­nori­ties most Amer­i­cans are least will­ing to al­low their chil­dren to marry.

“Athe­ists, who ac­count for about 3 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, of­fer a glar­ing ex­cep­tion to the rule of in­creas­ing so­cial tol­er­ance over the last 30 years,” said Penny Edgell, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Min­nesota and the study’s lead re­searcher.

Not ev­ery­one thinks the idea of the safe zone — a des­ig­nated area where a se­lected group of stu­dents can go to dis­cuss prob­lems, air con­cerns or es­cape bul­ly­ing — is al­ways a good idea.

Chris­tian scholar Craig Hazen, a pro­fes­sor at the evan­gel­i­cal Bi­ola Univer­sity in Los An­ge­les, has a sim­ple mes­sage for peo­ple seek­ing refuge from op­pos­ing views.

“Get out of the safe zone, learn your po­si­tion, go out into the quads and en­gage peo­ple,” he said.

Mr. Hazen said he rec­og­nizes that pres­sure can form in aca­demic set­tings where peo­ple have com­pletely dif­fer­ent be­liefs, but he also rec­og­nizes the pos­i­tive roles those dif­fer­ences can play.

“I did my doc­tor­ate work at a very hos­tile pro­gram, but I learned so much,” Mr. Hazen said. “It made me a bet­ter thinker and more tol­er­ant in the true sense of the word.”

Still, many within the Sec­u­lar Stu­dent Al­liance be­lieve that pre­vail­ing neg­a­tive stereo­types can pro­hibit pos­i­tive learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

“Peo­ple hear the word ‘athe­ist’ and they hear Satanism or they hear ni­hilism,” said Ben Zalisko, a vol­un­teer and sup­porter of sec­u­lar safe zones at Chicago’s Elmhurst Col­lege.

Mr. Hazen agrees that many athe­ists are of­ten wrong­fully stereo­typed as im­moral but also be­lieves Chris­tians are wrongly stereo­typed as peo­ple who en­gage in blind obe­di­ence to a re­stric­tive and ex­clud­ing ide­ol­ogy.

“I’d say 97 per­cent of col­lege cam­puses don’t need [sec­u­lar safe zones] be­cause it’s Chris­tians that are the mi­nori­ties,” Mr. Hazen said.

Sec­u­lar Stu­dent Al­liance of­fi­cials said the safe zones are in­tended not as places to per­suade stu­dents to be­come athe­ists, but as set­tings where in­di­vid­u­als can ask dif­fi­cult ques­tions about re­li­gion and phi­los­o­phy with­out be­ing scolded.

“One thing I know is that stu­dents don’t feel safe ask­ing tough ques­tions at home or at church,” said He­mant Me­hta, a high school teacher in Naperville, Ill., and a sec­u­lar safe zone spon­sor. “My goal here is to be a moder­a­tor and to help th­ese kids find their own path,” he said.

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