Being an Atheist in Blacksburg, Virginia

The Telegraph has an article about a student atheist group at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, which includes my friend Dan Linford. Part of the article focuses on the difficulty many of them face in hiding their atheism from their families and potential employers.

At first glance, the group of scruffy-looking students could be attending a meeting of any old debating club, but as they begin to speak it soon becomes clear that they all share the same secret.

A shy young woman is among the first. She admits she is still a long way from telling her parents the truth about herself. “My closest friends know,” she says, “but where I come from, I only know one other person like me, who was a teacher. I will tell my parents in the end, I can’t now; at least, not until I am financially independent.”

Going around the circle, each member shares their story and says whether or not they are “out” of the closet…

And yet despite the softening approach of the younger generation towards religion, in this fiercely Bible-minded corner of Virginia, many atheists and agnostics still feel they must live in the shadows.

In two days of interviews at least half of the avowed non-believers declined to be named in the Telegraph, citing fears they would be ostracised by friends, family, churches and even their employers…

Caroline – not her real name – is a graduate research chemist who is about to hit the job market and is afraid that her atheism will be held against her.

“I’m more concerned about getting a job than losing one,” she said. “I know they Google you and while I can’t hide my atheism, I don’t really want to advertise it.

“If the person hiring is a person of faith – which is more likely than not around here – that could easily be the difference between a job and no job. And I have student loans. I need a job.”

She is not alone in her fears. Another student who is applying for graduate school told how his father recommended he delete any references to atheism from his Facebook page in case it spoiled his chances. He rejected the advice on principle, but remains unsure what the consequences will be.

For others members, the biggest fear is being shunned at home. “I’ve lost a lot friends,” said John, a graduate student in his thirties who grew up being home-schooled by his Southern Baptist parents but gave up his faith after an intellectual rebellion against the church’s Creationist teaching…

Brian Farrell, a 22-year-old computer science graduate who grew up a Christian but is now an “out” atheist, said that for many of his age group it was easier simply to “go along with religion” than to risk being left out in the cold.

“The stakes are high,” he said. “Do I want to be supported by my friends and family, or am I going to risk being kicked out of clubs and organisations? It’s tempting just to avoid the whole issue. I would put 20 or 30 per cent of my friends growing up in that category.”

I’ve been very lucky in this regard. I’m obviously very public in my atheism and have never lost any friends or jobs over it.

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  • I’m obviously very public in my atheism and have never lost any friends or jobs over it.”

    Yes, but you did lose your salvation. But I have found that generics are just as good as name-brand. I use CVS Salvation and cannot tell the difference from 100% genuine Jesus Brand Salvation (TM).

  • sketchvac

    Like Ed, I too have been lucky. Of course, I am 50 now and don’t really give a you-know-what what others think. The worst thing I have to deal with is my Father being convinced that I am a Commie-Socialist-Muslim hell-bent on destroying the good ‘ole US of A.

  • Wylann

    I’ve lost a few friends over it, but none of them were close friends that I had known for a long time. My parents know, and my mom is cool with it, while my dad pretends not to notice.

    My wife refuses to allow me to (or herself) to be out about with her parents, though. I respect that and feel it’s her call to make. I think her sister knows, but she’s probably in denial about it.

  • cardinalximinez

    I’ve been lucky living on the East coast of Canada. Living in a urban family neighbourhood made up mostly of 30 and 40 some things, religion rarely raises it’s head. The odd time it does come up, I’d put the ratio of believers/atheists at 50/50.

    I’m usually more surprised when meeting people my age (early 40’s) that do believe than not.

  • rationalinks

    I live in the “bible belt” and I’m mostly out. My friends and family all know, but I keep it very much a secret from my boss at work and also clients (although some of my co-workers know). My boss is a very religious Catholic, if he knew I was an atheist I don’t think he’d fire me but it would definitely make for tension that I do not need.

  • Synfandel

    Wow! What a different experience!

    Where I grew up in Southern Ontario, most of the kids I knew didn’t go to church and it was generally understood that there was nothing abnormal about that. Religion was essentially a non-issue for most.

    In my undergraduate years, I would have been hard pressed to find a fellow student who would admit to believing in God. Religious belief was widely viewed as naive and a bit pathetic.

    I feel for these Virginia Tech students. They’re living in fear in a kind of totalitarian society—the kind of thing the Free World® is supposed to stand against.

  • Alverant

    My parents didn’t make a big deal out of it either. I haven’t lost any friends or had family members telling me I was evil. The worst I’ve experienced has been some relatives sending out chain emails whining and ranting about how christian privilege was being eroded and these are some of the older relatives who are getting senile (or got there years ago) and my Dad wants me to keep quiet to keep the peace.

    But at work it’s a different story. I’m positive my being an Atheist was a factor in getting fired from two positions. I can’t prove anything and the employers could site other reasons (and one of the employers went under over a decade ago). I’m sure I could “come out” here but I don’t see why it would make a difference one way or the other.

    In that respect, I have been very lucky.

  • mobius

    The Telegraph has a short video to go along with the story.

    Brought to my attention by the Friendly Atheist.

  • doublereed

    Wow, I’m in Northern Virginia and I don’t feel like that pressure at all. It’s practically Maryland over here. It’s weird how such worlds can be so close to each other.

  • pocketnerd

    I’d say this line from the Telegraph’s article is rather misleading:

    in this fiercely Bible-minded corner of Virginia

    I live in Blacksburg. It’s a lovely city, and it’s one of the most liberal areas in the state. Almost any other corner of the state is far more “Bible-minded” (NoVA and DC exurbs excepted).

  • Sastra

    From what I can tell I’ve personally had more people angry at me because I’m an “out” skeptic of alternative medicine than because I’m an “out” atheist. But then, religion doesn’t come up in normal conversation as often as health … and advice thereof.

  • Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    Where in Southern Ontario, Synfandel? St. Thomas ON, where I grew up, sounds a lot like Blacksburg. No part of the community was non-religious. We had a few flavours of Xtianity, with plenty of rivalry between them (and the Catholics, but they were going to hell!). But if there were atheists, they kept their heads down. I hid my atheism until I was packed and ready to move to Alberta. I was essentially disowned when I quit the faith, and I am persona non grata in my hometown these days.

  • Bob Carroll

    I’m not an atheist, although I regard this blog very highly. My son, however, considers religion to be a foolish waste of time. It is more than a generational difference, as far as I can tell. I warn my kids, “There are many places in this country where you simply cannot live.” Well, my son lives in Boston, and my daughter in NY City, so they are ok for now. But still, this topic reminds me of my all-to- often repeated remarks. I don’t think they would get along where I grew up, in upstate NY, for example, let alone Oklahoma or Kansas, or some enclaves of primitivism like those discussed herein. At least, I can tell my kids that there’s never going to be a conflict in the family about this.

  • Synfandel

    Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach asked:

    Where in Southern Ontario, Synfandel?

    That was Hamilton, Dave. Yes, I expect St. Thomas was more religious. I later went to grad school at the University of Western Ontario in London, which is pretty much attached to St. Thomas, and I found London a lot more religious that Hamilton. I used to joke about going from a Tim Hortons doughnut shop on every corner to a church on every corner. London (at least off campus) was controlled by old WASP families, old WASP money, and old WASP attitudes. Hamilton was not like that in my experience.

  • had3

    I too live in Northern Virginia (the occupied north as True Virginians TM call it) and I get very little blowback from my atheism. However, the politics of my profession means that eventually, if I want a job requiring legislative approval, my atheism may well disqualify me. Unfortunately, one of my best friends reminds me of this whenever I point out the inappropriateness of certain officials. Oh well, I too am 50 & unwilling to go through the trouble of actively hiding my atheism; but not yet comfortable enough to risk career suicide.