Education

SLO atheist group starts ‘Young Skeptics’ club at Harloe Elementary

A sign at Harloe Elementary School inviting students to the Young Skeptics after-school club.
A sign at Harloe Elementary School inviting students to the Young Skeptics after-school club.

Young Skeptics, an after-school program that organizers say offers an alternative to religious clubs, opened its first California chapter at Harloe Elementary in Arroyo Grande last week with Atheists United of San Luis Obispo.

“We are not teaching any kind of particular point of view,” Atheists United spokesman David Leidner said. “We were concerned about the proliferation of Good News Clubs at our county schools and wanted to offer students an evidence-based alternative.”

The Young Skeptics program, an incorporated nonprofit organization under the name The Better News Club Inc., originated at Fairbanks Elementary School in Churchville, New York, in 2015. At the time, it was founded because of concern over religious and what opponents called “fear-tactic” teachings of the Christian-based Good News Club.

We’re not telling kids what to think, we’re teaching them how to think.

David Leidner, Atheists United of San Luis Obispo

“We wanted to provide kids with a safe space to think critically, evaluate evidence and discover their own answers to questions they might have about the natural world around them — in stark contrast to the methodology of the GNC,” Young Skeptics executive director Kevin Davis said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that schools cannot prohibit a religious club or after-school program — specifically the Good News Club — from operating on campus purely because of its religious nature, because to do so “discriminated against the club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Since then, the Child Evangelism Fellowship (which manages the evangelical clubs) has won numerous lawsuits with school districts that shied away from permitting Good News Clubs on campus.

Darren Johnson, director of the Central Coast chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship, said there are about 30 Good News Clubs in San Luis Obispo County, including one at Harloe Elementary.

Nationwide, about 4,500 elementary schools have such clubs, and about 180,000 children are enrolled, he said.

The club focuses on Bible-centered lessons with the purpose to “evangelize children with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living,” according to the Child Evangelism Fellowship website.

We definitely respect the rights of different groups with opposing opinions. We understand and respect their decision to start (a Young Skeptics club) here.

Darren Johnson, Child Evangelism Fellowship

“We’re just excited for the opportunity to teach kids that God loves them,” Johnson said. “We definitely respect the rights of different groups with opposing opinions. We understand and respect their decision to start (a Young Skeptics club) here.”

The Better News Club shares its Young Skeptics program curriculum on its website, with lessons on evidence, reasoning and communication, skepticism and the scientific method. Many of the lessons feature experiments and games to cement the ideas, as well as worksheets and group brainstorming.

Leidner said the club won’t “teach atheism” — instead, it focuses on critical thinking skills and encourages students to analyze facts to shape their own beliefs. The organization believes discussion of religion should be done at church and at home, not in public school, and the purpose of the club is to help kids develop the skills to “make belief decisions for themselves,” according to its website.

“We’re not telling kids what to think, we’re teaching them how to think,” Leidner said.

Atheists United chose to host the club first at Harloe because the school is one of the largest elementary schools in the county, has a Good News Club and was near two of the volunteer Young Skeptic instructors’ homes, Leidner said. He said they hope to open more chapters at other schools in the area in the future.

The first meeting of the club was held Thursday, with five students in attendance, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. All students were enrolled by their parents via the school’s usual after-school program permission slip.

The maiden lesson was how to separate facts from opinion.

“We do think critical thinking skills can be taught at any age,” Leidner said. “We’re doing our best to make this fun and achievable for all ages of student.”

The club will hold its next meeting March 16.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

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