(RNS) The small sticker on professor Robert Schmidt’s office door isn’t just a decoration — it’s a beacon of safety for students who feel they are being singled out for their lack of religious beliefs.

Dr. Robert H. Schmidt

Robert H. Schmidt photo courtesy Utah State University


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The blue, green, yellow and pink rectangle signals that Schmidt’s office at Utah State University is a “Secular Safe Zone” — a place where students who are atheists, agnostics or just questioning their faith can go for advice about dealing with bullying, discrimination and other forms of aggression.

“Being an ally to ‘create safe spaces in which secular students can question, criticize, and discuss topics and issues important to them’ feels right to me,” Schmidt said from his Logan office, quoting the goals of the Secular Safe Zone program. “All students should feel safe on campus.”

The Secular Safe Zone program kicked off this fall after two years of planning by the Secular Student Alliance, a national organization for nontheistic students. The program enlists “allies” like Schmidt among faculty, administrators, counselors and others on college and high school campuses who are trained in the needs of nonreligious — or “secular” — students.

So far, there are Secular Safe Zone allies at 26 college and high school campuses in 14 states, including California, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, Illinois, Florida and New York.

The program is patterned on similar safe zones for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students now found on many college campuses.

Awareness that nonreligious students need a similar program was heightened by the high-profile case of Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island student who faced death threats and public ridicule after asking that a prayer banner be removed from her public high school in 2010.

“We heard too many stories of bullying and harassment from our students and looked around for something to do,” said Jesse Galef, SSA’s communications director. “This seemed like the logical next step, and it seemed like there is a lot we can learn from what the LGBT community has done.”

The nonreligious and LGBT campus communities have much in common, Galef said. Members of both may be closeted and want to “come out.” Both may feel cut off from family and friends because of their identities. Both groups face stigma and discrimination within the broader culture.

Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College professor of sociology and secular studies, said providing nonreligious students with a safe place to express themselves is vital, especially on campuses where religion is strong and pervasive.

“Unfortunately, many Americans fallaciously think that being secular is the same thing as being immoral or un-American,” he said. “So there is a lot of negative stereotyping that often emerges, and this can sometimes create an uncomfortable environment for secular students.”

At Utah State, where Schmidt teaches, many students are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“They have many shared experiences and traditions,” Schmidt said of the Mormon students. “I have heard from some students, certainly a minority, that they feel left out because they are not LDS, that they are subtly pressured to conform, and they are left feeling very uncomfortable talking about their own spiritual foundations.”

Schmidt noted that both religious and nonreligious students are “my students” and he feels protective of both. As an ally, he said, “I don’t preach, I don’t denigrate others, and I don’t promote one worldview over another.”

That is a core directive of the program, said Lori Fazzino, a graduate student instructor and secular ally at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“We are not trying to turn students off of religion,” she said. “It is important to be neutral so they feel safe expressing all their views, not just the ones I or SSA would agree with. We have to be all inclusive to be really and truly safe.”

This is not the first time nonreligious groups have piggybacked on lessons learned in the gay community. In 2011, “We Are Atheism,” a video campaign aimed at letting closeted atheists know they are not alone was launched, inspired in part by the “It Gets Better” video campaign started in 2010 for closeted and bullied gay teens.

Nor is it the only refuge for those who question their faith. Earlier this year, Recovering from Religion, an international support group for former believers, launched a 24-hour hotline staffed by volunteers for religious doubters.

Galef said SSA started the program after polling its members across their 393 chapters on college and high school campuses nationwide about the impact of bullying.

No one has reported anyone using a Secular Safe Zone yet; the program is only a few weeks old. But Sarah Henry, a 17-year-old high school senior in Indiana, said her school would benefit from one. When she and other students formed a club for nonreligious students, they were bullied, threatened, shunned and their clubs fliers were torn down.

“It is incredibly hard for students to feel safe and comfortable about coming out to their friends about their lack of religious beliefs in a place where that is unusual,” she said. “The Secular Safe Zone allows them to have peers and authority who know what they’re going through and can help them even if they just need someone to talk to.”

18 Comments

  1. I thought secular colleges and universities were in and of themselves “secular safe zones” as they are distinct from religious colleges and universities and as they are not allow to teach anything but a secular view. I don’t know of any secular school teaching Biblical creationism or any other creationism without a law suit.

    As a Christian I don’t regard atheists as immoral, though many atheists who have expressed themselves to me feel that they have much more sexual freedom and are not bound by any sexual morals.

    America is not nor has ever been a Christian nation but I hope and pray it is always a just nation. I am a Lutheran pastor and have never bullied anyone to believe in God nor is that even possible. True faith cannot be bullied. . No one who has ever been to my serves or Bible studies and have ever been bullied to believe or take part. In fact we ask them to refrain from the sacraments until they have gone through a class and only with a good conscious confess the Faith..

    We have aided tornado victims who are not religious and that aid is not dependent on them hearing any God talk. We offered religious material, counseling and prayer which they can turn down.

    As a Navy Chaplain I have defended Sailors and Marines who are atheist and assured them I will support their 1st amendment rights. I have even forcefully counseled zealous Christians who try to force their faith in places that it is not appropriate.

    Yet I do know what if feels like to walk into a bar with my collar on and being told you don’t belong here. I was invited in by a friend to join them there. 100,000 Christians are being murder each year for believing in Christ world wide (“Reporter” September 2013, reporter.lcms.org) I really wonder who needs a safe zone.

  2. Thank you for your comment, David. While I, too, question the need for secular safe zones at *most* secular colleges/universities, and even many with a religious affiliation, I disagree that they are not *allowed* to teach creationism. Creationism is unlikely to be taught in a biology department, because it really is not biology. It has made no contribution to biology and is, in fact, a religiously inspired “scientistic” criticism of biological science. If you take an honest look at the creationist literature you will find most of it to amount to scientific-sounding pot shots at various straw men, and much of what passes as creationist scholarship is simply wrong. Nonetheless, creationism might be a legitimate topic of discussion in classes in religion, philosophy or sociology, etc.
    Also, while I am no less disheartened than you about the cruel persecution of Christians in many parts of the world, I cannot help but suspect that the folks uncomfortable with your presence in a bar were Christians who felt uneasy drinking in the presence of a pastor. It would certainly never occur to this atheist that a man with a collar did not belong.

    • Stephen C. Meyer offers a purely scientific rebuttal to the charge that religionists have nothing scientific to contribute to the discussion of origins. Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt are the titles of his books.

  3. Peter S. Chamberlain

    Maybe the “seculars” need safe spaces in Utah, but the secular bias in many university faculties makes this seem strange. On the state university campus across from my home, among others with which I am familiar, it is the conservative Christians, not to mention the political conservatives, who need shelter and protection from bullying by faculty and those currying favor with them. Bullying, of course, should not be tolerated, whatever the impetus or excuse.

  4. Elaine Bondra

    I find it interesting that 2 of the 3 comments so far have chosen to defend their own point of view, which is different from the one presented, instead of embracing or examining the view originally expressed. Instead of attempting to put themselves in the writer’s shoes to attempt to know what her experience feels like, they are essentially ignoring her point of view and saying, “yeah, but I or others have experienced discrimmination too.” If you chose to comment here, why not express an actual opinión about what was written? Or were you saying her point of view isn’t valid somehow because her group is not the only one discrimminated against? It sounds to me like you haven’t actually heard what she has said or, worse, you are not really interested.

    • James Harbour

      “Instead of attempting to put themselves in the writer’s shoes to attempt to know what her experience feels like, they are essentially ignoring her point of view and saying, “yeah, but I or others have experienced discrimmination too.” If you chose to comment here, why not express an actual opinión about what was written? Or were you saying her point of view isn’t valid somehow because her group is not the only one discrimminated against? ”

      I’m an atheist who has been discriminated against and bullied by Christians as an atheist. And I was a Christian who still remembers what it was like to be bullied and discriminated against by secularists. As an atheist, I believe Christians receive far more discrimination in college than any other group.

  5. These safe zones may be needed out west where the norm is Mormonism or other sects. Anyone claiming the title of Christian ought to use their differences with non-Christians as an opportunity to show love to their neighbor rather than scorn remembering that the title “Christian” comes to them by free grace and therefore they are no better or deserving than their non-Christian neighbor. On the surface the idea of secular safe zone is silly, I must admit.

    • Why silly? I went to a state university and the campus was ringed by various religious safe zones: Newman Center, Hillel, Baptist Student Union, Islamic Cultural Center, Luthern Student Center, LDS Seminary, etc., etc..

  6. Wow. The comments here show exactly why these safe zones are necessary. When people act as if its silly that atheist and secular students might feel isolated on campus (something like 75% of the country is Christian), it’s clear that stereotypes and discrimination are still widespread against us.

    People living in liberal urban areas might feel like their religious views are in the minority, but that might also be the persecution complex that’s so effectively hammered into so many Christians from a young age. “They will persecute you for my sake….even when you run the country and outnumber them 10 to one.”

    And the mentions of “sexual morals” is just a weird tangent. Freud would have something to say about that.

  1. […] It’s disgusting that in this country, who’s very founding ideals was based on the freedom to believe as one wished without consequence, people would still face this kind of bullying just for their lack of faith.  Religious people always claim that believing in god makes you a better person; that you can’t have morals without divine guidance.  If that were true, why is it I so often have to hear about religious people treating everyone else like they’re dirt? […]

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