This year, the Secular Student Alliance has created over two dozen secular “safe zones” in high schools and college campuses nationwide, taking advantage of a 30-year old ruling that was originally designed to provide a safe space for Christians to gather without fear of harassment. In more recent years it was used successfully by the LGBT community for the same purpose.
The website Secularsafezone.org, 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.”
Prof. Edgell of the University of Minnesota summarized the issue particularly well:
“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.”
Some … not so surprisingly, in the evangelical Christian community … don’t seem to understand the point, assuming the locations are going to provide “refuge from opposing views” instead of places to share issues, ask questions that may challenge or offend the popular belief system, or even escape a hostile social environment.
[Christian scholar Craig Hazen, a professor at the evangelical Biola University in Los Angeles] 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.”
His suggestion to these students is to “… get out of the safe zone, learn your position, go out into the quads and engage people,” … which is pretty tough talk. It’s also just as equally naive, considering there’s little doubt that something like that has already been tried on college campuses and high schools throughout the country. In some places, it’s likely well-received; in others, like anywhere outside of a major metropolitan area in the Bible Belt, saying you’re anything other than a Christian makes you the target of harassment, ostracism, and possibly even violence. I’m pretty sure that if a tactic like the one he suggests were effective, this article would instead be about an public outreach program and have far more optimistic goals.
That’s not to say something like that isn’t in the cards a little further down the road, but I think the first step is to be viewed by the general public as having somewhat higher redeeming social value than your average career felon. Until such a time, I think it’s a good idea to establish more places like this so nonbelievers can work together in a safe environment and know they’re not alone. With luck, within a generation they’ll be obsolete.