The Friendly Atheist publishes a letter from a disaffected student at Lebanon High School

June 3, 2014 • 12:03 pm

Although my friend Hemant “The Friendly Atheist” Mehta has already lost his bet on the unconstitutionality of the Lebanon High School principal’s graduation speech, he refuses to admit it in his latest post. If he doesn’t pony up with the Islay malt pronto, I’ll have to start calling him “The Obdurate Atheist.”

But of more interest on that post is Hemant’s report of an email he got from a disaffected student at Lebanon High School—one who had to sit through Principal Lowery’s goddy speech. And she didn’t like that speech one bit. I’ll reproduce what Hemant published below, just for the record. She preferred to remain anonymous (a wise decision in that town!), and her letter was edited somewhat by Hemant.

I’ve lived in Lebanon, Missouri for all my seventeen years of life. I was raised in a very liberal, open-minded home, which I’d venture to say is different from 98% of the other students at my school. Neither my parents nor myself are religious, something that definitely stands out in this town. I’ve always been criticized for my beliefs (or lack thereof) so Lowery’s speech was not a first for me. Ever since I was young, I’ve been preached to, dragged to church by grandparents who were — and still are — convinced I’ll burn in hell for not attending, and bullied for being different. I’ve always stood firmly by my beliefs, and, quite frankly, I’m used to the discrimination.

As I sat and listened to my principal deliver the speech at my best friend’s graduation, I took it with a grain of salt and an eye roll. This is the same stuff I hear every day. While at first, I wasn’t deeply offended, I soon realized that the Muslim foreign exchange students probably didn’t like it very much, especially when their host families and classmates applauded the speech. For someone who is supposed to be a leader — a government paid leader at that — it sure was an arrogant and distasteful thing to do.

It wasn’t until I shared the link to the story on “The Blaze” to my Facebook page that I was truly bothered by the issue. My Facebook friends instantly started attacking me for my opinion.

(But don’t worry. It’s okay because their comments all ended with “I’m praying for you!”)

I’ll end this by saying thank you for bringing this issue to light. This town may be doomed to close-mindedness forever, but when there are people like you in far more accepting parts of our nation that are willing to take a stand, I definitely have hope for a better future. While I can’t say I’m a proud LHS student, I thank you for taking concern in my community.

There is more than one such student, and this, of course, gives ample grounds for a legal challenge—if those students are willing to act as plaintiffs (they are kept anonymous, even in those proceedings, as far as possible).  What’s equally important is that even in the God-soaked town of Lebanon, teeming with obstreperous believers, there are rational voices like that of this young woman. There is more sanity in her email than in all the nasty emails I got from Lebanon’s Christians. We have hope.


29 thoughts on “The Friendly Atheist publishes a letter from a disaffected student at Lebanon High School

  1. Despite what the Christians would have us believe in their responses in The Blaze, there are atheists in the south. They just don’t make themselves known because of all that Christian “love” they could get.

    1. Yeah, it’s amazing just how much “love” christians show to those who dare to disagree with, dispute, or just ignore their superstitions.

  2. Wow, what a refreshing email. Kudos to this intelligent, courageous woman.

    The best line being Its Ok because their comments all ended with I’m Praying for you.”

    I hope she knows she has a wealth of support, and not everyone is brain-washed in this world.

  3. I soon realized that the Muslim foreign exchange students probably didn’t like it very much, especially when their host families and classmates applauded the speech.

    There’s a real chance that those host families signed up to *be* hosts precisely because they wanted an opportunity to ‘convert a heathen.’ Which is a terrible abuse of authority and completely antithetical to the exchange program, but it happens.

    My parents hosted an exchange student, back when I was in college (y’know, when we all walked uphill to AND from school. In the snow. With no shoes). Wonderful experience…but one of the other exchange students was desperately unhappy because they got placed with an evangelical family that basically had that exact attitude; they forced religion on the kid, and saw hosting as an opportunity to bring some foreign kid to Jesus. Can’t remember whether the kid eventually found another family or came to some compromise with the original hosts, but either way, it was a potentially great, life-changing experience made disappointing, due entirely to some Christian evangelicals’ insistence that every person under their purview live life their way.

      1. Ugg, yes. But horrifically common. Remember that clown who tried to take 11 kids back to the USA from Haiti after the earthquake?

    1. Terrible, but in some ways I imagine, there can be no arguing with them (the evangelical hosts). If you truly believe with all certainty that this one path is the only path to paradise, and all other options lead to hell, well then they would be extraordinarily amiss to NOT do everything they can to get their guest and everyone else on that path. Anything else would be extremely negligent and cruel.

      bah, I don’t see things turning out well in the U.S.

      1. That was certainly Torquemada’s defense: of what significance is a few weeks of mortal agony compared with an eternity of damnation?

        It also demonstrates why the Golden Rule, as important as it is, must never take precedence over the right to be free from having others do unto you as you do not wish to be done unto.


        1. Torquemada’s Law
          “When you are sure you’re right, you have a moral duty to impose your will upon anyone who disagrees with you.”

      2. Count yourself a visionary.

        As the hopelessly mindless and low information citizen gain in numbers, the ability to adapt and adjust to all changing realities become increasingly difficult to impossible. The best example is resistance to the climate news. As the polar caps melt right before our very eyes and the rising shoreline threatens Miami and ‘Norlens we are heavily engaged in an argument with buffoons as to whetted or not reducing the burning of fossil fuels will make any difference, other than “destroy the economy.”

        There’s little argument that the tipping point we’ve reach was directly the result of cabal of ignorant, greedy, selfish, short-sighted capitalist morons coupled w/ the steady rise of fearful, low information, non-critical reasoning, drug-addled, Wally-Mart X-box shopper.

        This country is screwed. We all knew it was screwed after 8 miserable years of GW Beanbrain but we had no freakin’ idea how screwed we really were the first time we watched the dumbest gang of lunatics, assholes and idiots to have ever assembled on the National Mall – the TEAbaggers – the spawn of the Beanbrain era.

      3. Typically, exchange program administrators are supposed to interview potential host families and make sure they agree to be sensitive to the cultural differences that come with being a host family. IOW, there’s a good chance these parents lied at some point, to the program officials, about their intentions. If you, as a potential host, can’t willingly accept the rules and limitations of hosting, the proper response is to tell the program you’ve decided not to host a kid. You don’t go ahead with it and break the rules.

  4. JAC:

    While I agree with your assertion that the LHS Principal violated the 1st Amendment with his comments, I think you are – I suspect in jest – jumping the gun in your claim of victory as it pertains to the bet with TFA. Citing the letter from FFR is certainly rational but these are themselves assertions of opinion (albeit from an attorney). And just because you can cite legal cases in an argument doesn’t make it so. Hobby Lobby has cited cases in its arguments before SCOTUS and I would wager neither of us would find those compelling.

    Point being, I think you need to find an agreeable arbiter or metric for deciding the bet. Might I suggest either a legal entity’s ruling or the school backs down (one would assume it does so as a response to the likelihood of losing)?

  5. It’s like when people publish a comment on a post and offer their prayers. I take it with a grain of salt and just reply that although I am not a believer I understand their sentiment in that they are wishing me well. But it still does annoy me a bit as there is nothing on my blog that suggests I am religious of any sort.
    But then that’s the way they think. Projecting their beliefs onto everyone else.
    I am a strong supporter of separation of church and State and in the teaching of Primary Ethics as opposed to religion. Such teaching, in Primary Ethics, may teach kids to think critically. But then those from religious families will probably not even consider Primary Ethics over religious studies and so the pattern continues.
    Thanks for publishing extracts from the letter.

    1. When someone offers to pray for me I respond “Knock yourself out.” Sometimes they can tell that I mean it literally.

      1. When someone offers to pray for me, I reply, “Thanks, and I’ll try to flap my arms and fly.”

      2. I ask them to tell me exactly what they are praying for. That has a better probability than most of me getting my say.

  6. In Mr. Mehta’s defense, unconstitutionality is in the eye of a judge with jurisdiction to decide. As a lawyer with First Amendment experience, I think that you (and of course the FFRF) are correct. However, in the current judicial climate, I have less than total faith that the right outcome would be reached. Of course, I think the school district is quite likely to back down rather than risk prolonged litigation. Were I referee and being pedantic, I’d say the bet will likely never have a winner as a judge will never have to decide.

    1. The local judge may be elected, which virtually guarantees he/she won’t have the balls to make the right decision

  7. Dear student:

    There are a lot of us out here who both understand your situation and care about what happens. Best Wishes.

    PS: I presume you know about Jessica Ahlquist? If not, google her, or read her chapter in the book “Generation Atheist”.

  8. At my son’s public high school graduation last weekend, an overtly religious song was performed by the concert choir. I immediately thought of the LHS principal’s inappropriate remarks. I’ve been criticized by well-meaning religious friends as being “intolerant” for pointing out the wrongness of the song selection. Two school administrators have told me that they hope no one I the community files a complaint, as they know they’ll lose in court.

    1. Religious music isn’t automatically problematic. Especially for works including singers (choir or soloists), a great many of the masterworks and much of the rest is religious. Handel’s Messiah is the most obvious example, but there’s also all of the Bach cantatas and masses, masses and requiems by Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and Bernstein and many more, every Gregorian chant (by definition), many operas dealing with religious themes (Dialogues of the Carmelites, for example), all the great American Negro spirituals, and so much more.

      And that’s just the Christian music! I think there’ve been more operas about Orpheus than any other individual; there’s Wagner’s Ring cycle; many paeans to Apollo, most if not practically all Native American songs and chants and derived works, Handel’s Esther (the first English Oratorio and a decidedly Jewish work), and again much more.

      The criteria when it comes to music is generally, as usual, whether there’s a legitimate secular purpose in performing (or teaching) the work, and whether it is presented as a musical performance or as a vehicle for proselytizing. Performing Handel’s Messiah is just fine. So is mentioning in the program notes that he drew the texts from such-and-such Bible verses mixed with some lyrics of his own. Telling the musicians to perform in a joyful manner because the text says Jesus is coming is treading on thin ice, and telling them to do so because Our Lord and Savior will Redeem us is probably over the line. You don’t need to get liturgical to get the musicians to set the proper tone, and they certainly don’t have to believe in the truth of the lyrics, any more than they have to believe that Orpheus will welcome them into the Elysian Fields in order to perform selections from Orfeo.



      1. You really know your stuff when it comes to music! On each of your points I willingly concede, with the sole rejoinder that none of the works you cited were the ones performed by the choir. It was a fairly bland (although quite well-performed) “thank you Lord”-themed song. It wasn’t blatantly proselytizing, but it was pretty clear that the graduates should be grateful to a certain Deity. Maybe that was just me sitting next to my recently-announced atheist son being overly-sensitive, though 🙂

        1. What a shame that the choir wasn’t up to better repertoire!

          This is the traditional closing song my high school choir sang at the end of concerts. Sadly, the conductor asked us to pray before each concert and I went along with it because my family’s minister’s daughter was in the choir. Well, I bowed my head and glanced sideways to see who didn’t/


          1. That song was also performed, and it also is (apparently) traditional at the school. When my older son (the atheist) graduated four years ago I didn’t notice it being sung. It’s actually a nice touch for two reasons: one, they don’t ask us to pray as your conductor did 🙂 and two, as they repeat the verses several times the seniors in the choir walk off the risers and sit with their fellow graduates, leaving the juniors and sophomores to carry the song. Symbolic and as I said before they’re an excellent award-winning choir.

          2. Combined with the pre-concert prayer, I’d say that that one goes over the top. Something such as that as part of a performance of a mass would be kosher (assuming, of course, the mass itself wasn’t presented as proselytizing)…but the context, the isolation, the expression…yeah, that’s a bit much.


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