(RNS) A group of atheists in Rochester, N.Y., has bad news for the Good News Club, a Christian after-school club for children.
The group, consisting of atheists, humanists and skeptics, announced its own after-school program: a Young Skeptics club featuring science, logic and learning activities.
Young Skeptics is being sponsored by a volunteer-led group calling itself “The Better News Club.” Its members come from the Atheist Community of Rochester — the same group that offered the first atheist invocation before a town meeting in Greece, N.Y., after the Supreme Court ruled in May that public meetings could begin with sectarian prayers.
Both clubs are based at Fairbanks Road Elementary School in Churchville, N.Y.
The Better News Club and Young Skeptics operate under the assumption that “it’s more important to teach children how to make belief decisions for themselves, rather than accept claims presented to them without thinking critically about those claims,” according to its mission statement.
Young Skeptics is thought to be the first nontheistic after-school club for elementary aged school children founded as a direct response to the Good News Club. Kevin Davis, a Better News Club member, said the goal of Young Skeptics is not proselytizing for atheism.
“It isn’t atheism for kids; it doesn’t address debunking religion because they are little kids and we don’t want to use the same tactics as the Good News Club by telling them what to think,” he said in a telephone interview. “Our focus is on science-based critical thinking.”
Davis said Young Skeptics, which will launch next week, expects about 20 children to attend the first meeting, which requires parental permission. The Good News Club, a project of Child Evangelism Fellowship, had 4,225 clubs attended by 174,174 students as of 2013, according to its website. A spokeswoman for CEF said she was unaware of Young Skeptics or the Better News Club.
Rochester is not the first community to organize against Good News Clubs. In several communities, including Seattle, Denver and Portland, Ore., parents and other critics have lobbied school administrators to ban the Good News Club, claiming it conducts deceptive marketing, authoritarian conditioning, shame and fear indoctrination. In 2013, members of the Triangle Freethought Society in Raleigh, N.C., produced a film, “Sophia Investigates the Good News Club,” that was critical of club volunteers and their interactions with children.
“As parents, we want to be the ones who teach our children about spiritual matters,” Seattle parent John Lederer, a Methodist, said in an interview after a Good News Club was started in his daughter’s Seattle school. “I resent that there is an organization trying to go around me and recruit my child through her peers in her school to forms of belief that we do not share.”
Child Evangelism Fellowship has responded to critics before. “It is clearly explained on the registration form that Child Evangelism Fellowship sponsors the Good News Clubs,” CEF vice president Moises Esteves wrote in a 2013 letter to the Atlantic Monthly after it published an article critical of the Good News Club. “It should be obvious to any parent what the clubs are teaching and the parent can withdraw his or her children or continue attendance as desired.”
The pushback against Good News Clubs and Child Evangelism Fellowship, based in Warrenton, Mo., gained momentum after the 2012 publication of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children” by author Katherine Stewart.
Stewart, who was spurred to investigate the group after a Good News Club formed at her daughter’s elementary school, describes the organization as “pizza evangelists” — proselytizing children through parties and other recreational events — a tactic she thinks is sneaky.
“Good News Clubs focus on very young kids, in their first years of public schooling,” she said in a 2012 interview with Hemant Mehta on his blog, The Friendly Atheist. “A centerpiece of their program is the ‘wordless book,’ which can be used to convert children as young as 4 and 5 years old. Kids at that age simply aren’t able to distinguish what takes place in a school and what is endorsed by the school.”
In the same interview, Stewart said she thought it would be “a bad idea” for atheists to set up alternative “atheist clubs” because they, too, could be seen as proselytizing young children.
Regardless of the perception, from a legal standpoint, both types of clubs may be on solid ground. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Central School that when public schools open their facilities to after-school programs, they cannot discriminate against those programs based on the content of their speech.
YS/MG END WINSTON