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 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.”
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.
The Secular Student Alliance encourages collaboration with interfaith organizations. Although they say interfaith organizations do not represent their beliefs, they do think they can be helpful in advancing the conversation.
“This is going to be a boring club if we’re all atheists sitting around saying, ‘Ah, you’re right. Let’s just sit around and not pray,’” Mr. Mehta said. “If they are Christians, I want to make sure that they are for the right reasons — that they’ve studied the Bible and know what they believe.”
Mr. Hazen thinks the biggest problem between believers and nonbelievers is that both sides try to dominate the conversation. For this reason, he said, listening in discourse is imperative.
“I wish I could say I’ve seen [listening] done a lot. I haven’t,” he said.
Mr. Galef and the Secular Student Alliance agree that reasonable discussion and discourse are important moving forward. They also realize that secular safe zones are not the end goal for religious discussions. “I would love for the safe zone to be obsolete,” he said.
Both sides hope differing religious beliefs can be discussed in an open and healthy manner.
Although there is no concrete solution to the issue, Mr. Hazen said, it is up to Christians to take the first step and show kindness so that “the shield goes down and [individuals] are able to communicate better.”
“[Religious groups] should send over a stack of pizza to secular safe zones with a note on it that says, ‘Let’s talk,’” Mr. Hazen said.