The Genesis Of Alabama’s Only HS “Freethinkers” Club

16-year-old Duncan Henderson (center) in front of his family’s house with brother Brendan (right) and father Greg. They look like a typical suburban family, but there’s at least one way in which they’re very different from the majority of people in their community. Not pictured is Duncan’s mother, fellow freethinker Tish Duncan Henderson. Photo by Dan Carsen.

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It’s not exactly pioneering journalism to report that Alabama is part of the Bible Belt. Even so, there are  nonbelievers’ or “freethinkers’” clubs on college campuses around the state. But until recently — excluding one club that lasted just one year, from 1996 to 1997 — there were none at the high-school level. It makes sense: For better or worse, most kids that age want to fit in. Very few would publicly go against bedrock beliefs held sacred by the community around them. But  sixteen-year-old Duncan Henderson of Auburn is different.

“I had just ‘come out’ in seventh grade,” he says. “And I had a few friends that I knew were  non-religious. And as we got older, we started hanging out more, and I was like, ‘you know what? I really want a group for us to not be badmouthed constantly by the majority of the school. So, I really want to start a group.’”

So Duncan tried to start a freethinkers’ club two years ago at Auburn Junior High. He wanted a safe social space for himself and like-minded classmates. But Duncan and his family say a former principal stonewalled it, which the administrator — who’s now with a different school system — denies outright. Regardless, Duncan got death threats from fellow students:

“One threatened to shoot me and every other atheist with a shotgun.”

Duncan and his family ultimately decided it wasn’t a serious threat and didn’t report it. But then there was the time a classmate tried to choke Duncan.

“I kinda kicked him, and he never touched me again,” he says matter-of-factly.

It’s probably a good thing Duncan is a big kid with a disarming way about him. He’s now founder and  president of the Auburn High School Freethinkers’ Club, the only such high school club in Alabama. Things have calmed down and the club is established, thanks partly to principal Dr. Todd  Freeman, the club’s sponsor.

Freeman says, “Our kids have a right to meet. And they have a right to establish a club, and it’s not my prerogative to necessarily agree or disagree with positions of clubs, but it is my prerogative and responsibility to make sure they have the right to have the club. I could see where there would be resistance, but it’s not really a question because it’s law.”

Then Freeman, who happens to be a devout Christian, adds, “Duncan knows my particular spiritual beliefs as a Christian and so do his mom and dad, whom we have a great relationship with, and work very well with. They’re just very nice folks.”

Even if they didn’t get along, the 1984 Equal Access Act says any school club has to have the same access to meeting spaces and other resources as other clubs at a federally funded school. The law was originally promoted by religious groups who wanted prayer clubs and the like. Now, it also protects LGBT-themed organizations, freethinkers clubs, and more.

At Auburn High, that protection applies to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Student Outreach for  Christ, or any other of the school’s 54 clubs. But Principal Freeman doesn’t support the Freethinkers club  just to follow the law. He says he’s been impressed with the club’s “intellectually stimulating  conversations.” He adds, “One of things that was an affirmation to me is that it was not a club that had an intent to disparage or denigrate other groups, or Christians. If you really embrace whatever your belief systems are, there’s commonalities that we treat people respectfully. And I saw that in those meetings.”

Duncan says the club gives him and a half-dozen other students that kind of safe, respectful space. “We kinda just want a place that we can all talk, and talk about controversial things,” he says. “I mean, religion, science, just … all get a long and talk and have fun, without constantly being looked down on by other people. And on top of that, eliminate stereotypes.”

Duncan Henderson, 16, in his home in Auburn, Ala. Photo by Dan Carsen.

Including the one Duncan says is preached in a friend’s church — that atheists are manifestations of the Devil. Some former club members have had to bow out because of the stigma and pressure from friends and family. Duncan’s dad Greg Henderson chimes in with some thoughts on that:

“Most religious people don’t think they know atheists. And they have this idea in their head about … they’re horrible people, they’re immoral, they’re cruel. They just don’t act right. And, it’s … it’s just not true.”

What is indisputable is a rise in high-school freethinkers’ clubs all across the country: This time last year, there were roughly a dozen. Now there are more than 60. Not one of the religious scholars or church leaders I spoke with disputed the clubs’ legal right to exist. Some actually see the trend as a wake-up call and an opportunity.

According to Dr. Randy Brinson, chairman of the Alabama branch of the Christian Coalition, “We need to be more relevant in the communities. We’ve become more cloistered.  We do not have enough time to spend one-on-one to build relationships with people. People don’t even know who their next-door neighbor is. I think this in an indictment [of how we] Christians are interacting with our community at large.”

But for Brinson, the trend in young non-believers has bigger implications, too. “It speaks in Revelations about people turning away from their traditional beliefs,” he says. “I think  most people would believe, yes, that’s probably part of the end times and we’re very close to the end times.”

Brinson also worries that adults with agendas are partly behind the rise in youth freethinkers’ groups. Duncan has read some of the so-called “New Atheists” — Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins — and was getting advice from “Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta. And now, a national group called the Secular Student Alliance is supporting the club. But Duncan’s earlier influences were closer to home. Duncan’s father describes his own stance like this:

“I grew up very religious, and just over time, came to realize I just don’t believe any of  this anymore. But at the point where they’re going to Sunday school and being taught things that I just don’t believe anymore, I had to make a decision. I can’t be a hypocrite about this. I can’t just go with the flow.”

In April of 2011 Duncan was featured in Nick News’s documentary “Freedom To Believe, Or Not.” Duncan’s father and others see him as a trailblazer — someone shouldering challenges so a coming wave of less-religious students won’t have to. Duncan gets that. But mainly, despite the attention and the controversy, he thinks of himself as a regular, happy kid who loves lacrosse and tennis and playing with  his brother and his friends.

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12 Comments

    Great story. I hope the Auburn High Freethinker’s Club gets word of this post. I hope the group and their parents will read Giberson and Stephens The Anointed; about the problem bright kids raised in fundamentalist homes have with the enlightenment on their religious pilgrimage. The parallel universe many of the tea party here in Alabama and among Southern Baptists in particular just want do.
    Still there is lot to hold thinking people as Christians for a lifetime. I hope these “freethinkers” will continue to do just that. For starters they could look at the several essays of Pulitzer Prize Winner Marilynne Robinson and Diarmaid McCulloch’s magisterial recent history of Christianity. And bright kids they are engage the website religiondispatches.org.
    Hope some of them join this conversation. I’d be interested in responses.

    Nothing displays those old good old fashion Christian values like threatening to shoot someone with a shotgun.

      Isn’t it baffling how people would willingly want to ‘shotgun’ a high school student regardless of religious affiliation or creed? The few who condone this type of violence give the greater Christian community a bad name.

      Funny thing is, if a Muslim had made that threat, Homeland Security would be all over his ass.

    “I think most people would believe, yes, that’s probably part of the end times and we’re very close to the end times.”

    Maybe most of the people this “Dr.” Brinson knows. Lots of people used to believe in slavery, Bible-supported. Most people used to believe in mixed couples going to hell – also Bible supported. Most people believed the earth was flat – why? You guessed it, The Bible Tells Me So.

    The second someone utters “end of times”, and is not trying to be funny, they have undoubtedly jumped the shark and are pulling “facts” out of their posterior.

    “Brinson also worries that adults with agendas are partly behind the rise in youth freethinkers’ groups.”

    Like every religious group ever?

      My thoughts exactly.

      One wonders how Brinson would explain the fact that the vast majority of kids around the world hold the same religious views as their parents–be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and yes, atheist–if adult agendas were not involved.

    Every High School needs a freethinker’s club/organization. Mainly to try and undo all of the brainwashing these religious cults (and that’s what religions are – brainwashing cults with good PR agents) do to innocent children who need to realize it’s good to think through difficult questions for yourself and come up with considered answers rather than bible-thumping, knee-jerk ones that lead to threats and violence.

    I have.. so much respect for him. I’m a junior, and atheist in NC. I’d always loved to start a group but not only do I think there aren’t enough people to be in it, but people around here don’t play around. They’ll really do something to me/us.

    Jake Urquhart says:

    Its mind-boggling really. Christians claim to be such peaceful, calm people. And always calling atheists terrible people and preaching their religion all over the place. And then, in the most hypocritical way possible, they threaten to shoot atheists with shotguns when they merely tell people that they’re atheist, as well as choke them. The world is an awful place…

    Jacob Damkjaer says:

    I’m not American..I’m danish, so I’ve never had any of these problems before. I am one of those, as referenced by Christopher Hitchens about Pascal, who is so made that he cannot believe. I’ve never had religious faith in my life..not once and I can’t possibly pretend to comprehend how hard a time Atheists are having in the states and elsewhere in lesser educated places..But I say this – Good on you Duncan, don’t ever let anyone cower you into submission – Stand tall and never stop questioning things around you, because people like you are the ones who will truly mean something good for society in the long run.

    JustinWarEagle says:

    I wish I had the money to set up a scholarship for kids like this. Brave, brave young man.

    All my life I’ve heard about how much kids suck. When I was a kid, it was the same way. But then you read about kids like Duncan.

    Keep chopping wood, Duncan. People like you change the world.

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