Engaging and Understanding Nonreligious People

In this lesson, students learn about episodes of anti-atheist discrimination; and they develop ways to educate others about respecting nonreligious, as well as religious, diversity.
Grade Level


Activities meet the following objectives:

  • define atheism
  • recognize that atheists have been the targets of discrimination
  • read and discuss documents that protect the freedom of religious and nonreligious thought
  • understand that respecting nonbelievers is as important as respecting people of different religious faiths
  • learn about atheism and the rights of atheists
  • teach others about what they have learned
  • expand vocabulary by studying word roots
Essential Questions
  • What is atheism?
  • What kinds of discrimination have atheists experienced?
  • How can students promote respect for diverse religious believers and non- believers?


atheist [ āthē ist ] (noun) someone who does not believe in God or a universal spirit

agnostic [ agˈnästik ] (noun) someone who says that knowledge of God’s existence is unknown or unknowable

secular humanist [ sekyələrˌ(h)yoōməˈnist ] (noun) someone who does not believe in God, but who has a belief system characterized by reason, ethics, and justice

deist [ dēˈist ] (noun) someone who believes that the world was created and set in motion by a supernatural agent which then does not take an active role or moral interest in humanity

free thinker [ frē ˈthing kər ] (noun) someone who believes in the right to freedom of thought, and strives to build opinions on the basis of facts and logical principles, while rejecting dogma, religion, scripture, tradition, or experience



1. Choose a partner. Take turns reading aloud the facts on the Fact Sheet. With your partner, discuss how you feel about what members of this group have experienced.

2. With your partner, formulate a response to what you have learned. Prepare your response as if you are talking to a member of the group. Tell that person what you have learned and how you feel about it. Tell him or her what you would like to do about what you have learned and why. Have pairs volunteer to present their responses to the class.

3. Now watch this news report. It identifies the group you have learned about, and presents the experiences of people who have experienced the kind of discrimination you have just learned about. (Note: If you don’t have access to the report, students can read The Right of Unbelief—found at the bottom of the feature story "Belief in Action"—instead.) As a class, discuss: What is the definition of atheism? Are you surprised to find out the identity of the group? Why or why not? Have you heard about anti-atheist discrimination before?

4. Learn more about the rights of nonbelievers. The class should be divided in half. The first half should be assigned to read the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The other half of the class should read the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, General Comment No. 22. If you have read the First Amendment, complete the top half of The Rights of Atheists. If you have read the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), follow the instructions on the bottom half of The Rights of Atheists. 

5. Find someone in class who completed the half of the handout that you did not complete. Have each person take a turn explaining to the other person what she has learned about atheists’ rights in the document he has read. Then fill in the part of the handout your partner has taught you about.

6. If you haven’t already done so, read what an atheist has to say about himself in The Right of Unbelief, which can be found at the bottom of the feature story "Belief in Action."  Write down three important things you’ve discovered by reading this article. Share them with a partner. Then switch partners and share what you’ve learned with your new partner. Switch partners once more and share your ideas and opinions.

7. Now use what you’ve learned to teach others about respecting religious diversity and the right not to be part of a religion or believe in God. Use the resources you’ve studied (the news clip, the Constitution, the UN documents, the article) as well as other sources you may discover. Working alone or with a partner, create a tool that can educate others about the importance of respecting atheism as well as religious diversity. Some of the things you can do:

  • make a public service announcement
  • create a Web site
  • make a poster
  • compile an annotated bibliography of Internet resources on the subject
  • write a letter to students, parents, and local media outlets

8. Present your educational tool.


Language Arts and Reading/ELL

1. One way to expand your vocabulary is to look at the roots of words. In this lesson, you have been learning about atheism. Look up atheism in a dictionary. Read the definition. But don’t stop there. Read about the origin of the word. In what language did it originate? What do the two parts of the word mean: a and theos? Based on the word roots, what can you infer that theism means?

2. As a class, think of other words that have theo- as a root. (theologytheocracy) What do they mean?

3. If time permits, do the same exploration with the words deist and agnostic.

4. Write a one-paragraph summary defining the word roots you have learned and giving examples of how they have expanded your vocabulary.


Extension Activity

Political Cartoon

Political cartoons present an opinion about a topic or a person in the news. To help you think about this cartoon, start by listening to the song “Imagine.” Then look at the images in this cartoon and read the words. How does the woman in the cartoon feel when she hears “Imagine” on the radio? How does she respond to the first three lines of the song? Then how does her response change when the subject is religion? Given what you’ve learned in this lesson, why do you think she responds differently? What comment is the cartoonist making?

Reprinted with permission. Teachers may purchase individual cartoons for other lesson plans atPoliticalCartoons.com.

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