North Carolina Atheists Get Positive Press

***Update***: There was another article about the North Carolina billboard in today’s LA Times. They are on a roll. Excellent media coverage!

There’s a wonderful article in Sunday’s Charlotte Observer about the Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics, one of the groups behind the recently-vandalized “One Nation Indivisible” billboard.

Up to now, the 11-year-old Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics has been a pretty quiet bunch. But members thought it was time to raise their visibility and let Charlotte know that non-believers are also part of this community.

“We didn’t want anything aggressive,” says Molly, vice president of the group, which is part of a coalition that also put up billboards in five other N.C. cities. “We wanted a seat at the table. And we wanted people to know that you can be patriotic and not a Christian.”

What stands out in the article, though, is the fact that while the local group is growing fast, many of the group members — and officers — are afraid of being *too* public about their personal information:

Ask Molly or the others their last names or where they work, and there’s suddenly a palpable skittishness in the room.

These local atheists, it turns out, want a higher profile for their group, but not necessarily for themselves as individuals.

What are they afraid of?

Some say they fear the possibility of discrimination, that they’d be fired or ostracized if employers and co-workers knew they were atheist.

“I have to fear repercussions from people I work with,” says Rob, a member who will only say that he works in finance.

“Imagine being so different from everybody that when you reveal you’re an atheist, it’s like painting a big target on yourself,” [Jim] Craig says. “We hear: ‘You’re not welcome here’ and ‘We don’t want you here.'”

Adds 30-year-old Molly: “We atheists talk about coming out of the closet,” just like gays and lesbians.

Even the location of their monthly meeting isn’t mentioned in the article.

I don’t know if this is just an issue with atheists in North Carolina, atheists in the South, or atheists in general. But it’s not the first time I’ve seen atheists prefer to remain anonymous. Hell, there are atheist bloggers I’ve been reading for years whose real names I still don’t know.

This is what we’re up against and this is why consciousness-raising campaigns are so important. People need to know we’re here, there are a lot of us, and there’s no reason to single us out or stigmatize us.

The more of us who are public with our atheism, the easier it will be for others to follow.

There’s another reason it’s so important to have local communities like this one and reporter Tim Funk nails it on the head:

Finding out about Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics was such a comfort for some of the members that they say the group has become more of a family to them than their real, often disapproving, families.

“It’s so nice to be able to say something without looking over your shoulder,” says Craig. “I love these people.”

This is one of the key things I’ve seen while I’ve worked with the Secular Student Alliance. Many of our affiliate groups’ members were able to talk to other atheists for the first time in their life as a result of the group on their campus. They didn’t have to censor themselves. They could talk about religion-as-mythology without fearing any repercussions. It’s an incredible environment to find yourself in, especially when you’re coming from a church or a family where religious dissent is not tolerated.

This article just shows that it doesn’t get much easier when you graduate — atheist adults, too, have a need to talk to each other and congregate. And even they fear getting caught by their families or bosses.

More power to the Charlotte group for all the attention they’ve received from the billboard campaign. Surely there are atheists in the area who had no idea the group existed before but know all about them now.

(Thanks to William for the link!)

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  • Iztok

    About a year ago I proposed the billboard for CAA but people were against it. They didn’t see the benefit or were afraid of rocking the boat. So this is a progress.

    I just wish Charlotte had slightly more outspoken group.

  • http://www.jewelisms.com Jewel

    I grew up in Winston-Salem and I understand their reluctance to reveal too much about who they are. I am very happy to not live in NC anymore. I live in the DC area now and I don’t feel like I have to hide who I am. At all. Most people that know me know I am an atheist. For those that don’t know, it just hasn’t come up. I’m very open about who I am and I feel lucky that I am able to live in the open.

  • http://nigelpatel.blogspot.com Nigel Patel

    I cannot imagine being Atheist in The South. Sounds terrifying. My hat goes off to these brave Dixie Atheists.

  • JohnFrost

    I’m an atheist in NC and I definitely fear public knowledge of my atheism. I’ve slowly been coming out of the closet, first to my closest friends and family (the latter of which I’ve definitely felt antagonism from), and more recently to my “friends” on Facebook… But my wife owns her own business, and our finances and our children’s future depends very strongly on not giving potential clients a reason to pass us over when shopping for our particular services. We work in an industry where other business owners often flaunt their Christianity all over their marketing. I can’t say for certain, but I highly suspect that we have actually lost business from several clients when they found out about our atheism.

    I’d love to be “out and proud!” to help raise awareness, and I know that’s the only way things will get better for atheists in general… but can I sacrifice my childrens’ future to make a stand for an ideal?

  • Darlene

    I’m in NC and while I’m out to a few close friends, and I don’t deny it when asked, I have to be careful. My teen has lost friends over not going to church. And we homeschool, so most people automatically place us with the fundies! We travel an hour to find a homeschool group that was inclusive and didn’t demand a statement of faith to join.

    I’m in sales, and if I was way out no one would buy from me. Even the members of my local freethinkers group tell me to stay quiet!

    It says something that my active duty spouse is more comfortable being out at work than I am where we live.

  • littlejohn

    I worked about a dozen years in Charlotte and talking about my atheism would have been out of the question.
    That absolutely could have gotten me fired, or even beaten.
    And Charlotte is one of the more enlightened parts of North Carolina.

  • Eric

    Being Atheist in the south really depends how old your community is. I live in a growing bedroom community where a lot of drilling engineers and petroleum geologists raise their children. At my very large High School in Texas, it is pretty easy to find other secular students as well as the very religious. There isn’t very much diversity when it comes to race, but amongst the youth, one will find some a spectrum of beliefs. But once one gets outside this community, religion takes a very political roll. The town hall (my community is not a township, so we don’t have much of a local government, just planners)one will find a moderate-sized cross center stage.

    I am very open about my naturalist position, and because the open-mindedness of my peers, I have some very religious friends. Strangely, I even am asked by a Presbyterian Reverend to criticize his sermons (I point out some of his very confusing remarks. For instance, he once said the resurrection story was true because it was short. Despite that being illogical, what was worse is that he had told the flock last week that passion is the most emphasized/longest part of the gospels.)

    Now, I am going to Rhodes College in Memphis, a Presbyterian school with a large secular student body. The reverend is so happy about this (I did not know it was a Presbyterian school when I applied, I didn’t think it mattered). He telling me all about his friend who works in the church affiliated with the campus. It is a strange experience telling him that I don’t care about meeting another church. In my life, my fairly secular parents brought me to Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and currently Presbyterian churches, mostly did it out of tradition (being ex-catholics I guess). I am tired of church in my 19 years of weekly, as I saw it, story time.

    Sorry for the long post.

  • Autumn

    I live in eastern NC, and it’s worse out here. We have a large military presence and I always feel terrible for atheists who are stationed here. The closest “freethinkers” group is over an hour away.
    I identify more as agnostic. I think that sometimes southerners are more comfortable with agnostics because they feel like they still have a crack at converting them. I won’t lie if I’m asked about my lack of religious beliefs, but I usually feel people out before I say anything. For many Christians in the South it’s not okay to not belong to their specific denomination of Christianity, let alone not be Christian at all. If someone does find out and they have a problem, I typically point out that 1) I enjoy the freedom to believe in whatever I want to as an American citizen and 2) in reality, I only reject to one more religious philosophy than they do. This usually works.

    I get angrier when people tell me to move “back up North.” I’m from Eastern NC, and I’ve never lived anywhere else. I can’t help it that I don’t have much of an accent and was raised by parents who wanted me to use my brain.

  • http://deviatehulk.blogspot.com Keith

    I’m a New Englander by birth and cultural identity, but I’ve lived in Houston, TX for the last 8 years. I was in sales until recently, and awhile back one of my regular customers, a sweet old lady that I’d gotten to know quite well over a year or so, was making idle chitchat with me about something or other on her way out and said something to the effect of “Careful, you sound like an atheist!” It was in jest, and she giggled about it, and I said, lightheartedly, “Well, I am, so thank you!” This was someone I saw at least twice a week, and I never saw her again after that. I miss Massachusetts. Go Sox.

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    Yay! Those are my peeps. So proud of them.
    However, I don’t get involved as much as I should/would like to because of my kids. The fear of personal ramifications is real here, just read the comments.
    I don’t want my views to effect my kids’ education/social life here. It kills me to have to think about that, but it is a reality.

  • Robin

    Man, we should have a camp for grown-ups. A long weekend up here in the Northeast or something. NYC? Provincetown? Naked VT?

  • Don

    I’m always open about being an atheist. I’m proud of it! I’ve found that a large number of people I’ve told, also have no belief in any gods. I don’t think they would have ever mentioned it, if I hadn’t said something first….. but they usually seem like a small burden was lifted when they actually get to say it out loud, without any fear of what comes next…..lol. I do get the occasional responses from religious people…. either they don’t understand, or they look at me like I’m doomed…. whatever. Very rarely have I had anyone attempt any preaching. When I HAVE been preached at, it’s been very mild, or the type where the person simply blindly repeats the usual drivel that’s been drilled into them for their whole life, with a blank look on their face. They seem to be speaking for their own reassurance, rather than mine, and they could easily be talking to a wall. The couple times that I was pushed, were hilarious! I’ll go toe-to-toe with a religious person any time, and make them look like a complete fool, then go about my business.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I don’t put my real name online, but I’m completely open about it offline. Many years ago, I was afraid to come out, but I eventually realized that under my circumstances, there was nothing to fear. I am a university student in California. I plan to stay in academics. Most of the friends I make are queer or into physics or skepticism, so they give me no trouble. My immediate family is proud to have an independent thinker.

    So what was I afraid of? I think I read too many horror stories from other atheists.

  • http://ncsecular.org/ Jennifer Lovejoy

    There was also a story in the LA Times this morning:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-hometown-asheville-20100801,0,5835073.story

    We’ve got coverage from coast to coast today! =)

  • bLaKouT

    The idea of being “beaten” by Christians for being an atheist is an anathema to the gospel they profess to follow! Jesus said, “And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” He did not say beat them, torture them or ostracize them… just move on from them. Too bad that so many Christians do not follow their leader.

  • muggle

    I can understand their reluctance.

    I’m in New York and on a state job nonetheless got pretty badly harrassed for being openly Atheist. I even got a veiled threat (that fortunately wasn’t followed up on) about following me into the parking lot and taking care of me once and for all that supervisors ignored. I had to go all the way to the Division of Human Rights who declared all those pictures of Jesus plastered around my desk and facing me in every direction were just a guy in a robe and couldn’t be considered Jesus (pretty typical Sunday school book pictures and illustrated Bible type things that anyone would recognize as Jesus) because they weren’t labelled Jesus Christ or with a cross.

    If I could face that in New York State, I frankly don’t even want to think about what an out Atheist must face in the Bible Belt. You can’t really blame them for their caution.

  • http://doctorcrankenstein.wordpress.com/ Doctor Crankenstein

    I’ve been openly blogging/foruming about atheism for a while now. Being an education student that was possibly a bad move for me as I doubt I will ever be able to get a job for Catholic Ed or pretty much any other private school organisation in Australia. I’m still trying to decide if that bothers me or not, I think I would prefer to work in the public system anyway.

    I’ll probably be asked to delete my blog once I start teaching…

  • Scott

    Even though this is the land of Billy Graham, Asheville, NC is the most secular city I’ve ever lived in. I love it here. I think our “blasphemous” billboard is miraculously still untouched as well…

    Very jealous of the activeness of the Charlotte crew though!

  • L.Long

    As a NE person I will be moving to the Durham area of NC. I WILL NOT be openly Atheist for the most part. I will have G’Kids to consider. And We all know about the actions of the xtians, the religion of peace and luv. Ask the witches, jews, heretics in europe and the witches, Native Americans, Hawaiians, & atheists as they will be able to tell you lovely stories of xtian love.
    Here in NE I am very open and an in your face atheist but here I don’t have to worry about by job, kids in school, or xtians who think they can do as they wish because they are backed up by the cops and military and most everyone else in town. No I’m not talking conspiracies here, just a few odd balls that are being allowed to act violently against the devils spawn.
    In 5 yrs when my G’Kids are old enough to understand and handle the school kids and the ideas then I will be more open again.

  • http://sidfaiwu.com/blog sidfaiwu

    I’m a member (and an officer) of Charlotte Atheist and Agnostics. I’ve got to say that I, personally, am very happy with Mr. Funk’s article. He was honest about the tone of the article he wanted to write and very pleasant when he interviewed us.

    The one thing I would point out is that the article did over-emphasize the fear-of-coming-out problem within the group. There were a number of us, including myself, who were willing to be on record with our real names. Then again, we’re already out at work. Some of our other members have real concerns about how being out would affect their employment or business.

    Thanks for writing this post about our little corner of atheism!

    Shawn Murphy

  • Adam

    Asheville, NC here. I too struggled with coming out with my atheism and still am very selective about what I reveal to those who was already in my life since then. My immediate family, for the most part, knows. I try to be careful about what a few prior clients find out, and I’m really careful about my grandparents finding out. Other than that, I just try not to actively start trouble. If someone goes digging deep and finds out and has a problem with it, then they sound like a total pain in the ass to begin with and I’d be glad to have them spare me the trouble. That being said, this is Asheville we’re talking about, so I feel a fairly safe here. If I was in some of the surrounding areas I would really have to think twice about what I reveal.

  • Dan W

    I’m from Iowa, and most of the shit I’ve gotten for being openly atheist has been from people I’ve encountered online. I’m not entirely sure how tolerant people in the Midwest are towards atheists. The Iowa Governor, Chet Culver, doesn’t seem friendly towards atheists here, but the average people not holding political office? I don’t know about them. I don’t let everyone know I’m an atheist, mostly it’s just friends and some family members who know. I don’t think I’d be so open about my atheism at places I might work at, though, partly to avoid any possible discrimination and partly because my atheism would probably not have much to do with work-related stuff.

    I wouldn’t want to live in any states in the Bible Belt personally, because I wouldn’t feel safe being an atheist there. I think I’d prefer to live in a bigger city, perhaps on either the West or East coasts, after I graduate from college. From what I’ve seen and heard some of those places are more tolerant of atheists. In any case, I think it’s a good idea to be very careful about who to reveal my atheism to.

  • http://www.alien-designing.com Ttownbeast

    Totally understandable to want some anonymity when facing the possibility of ridicule I’ve been there. It is not unique to only Atheists. I’m Deist the crap I get from people for it can be unbelievable sometimes.

  • Hitch

    I think that particular billboard is brilliant because it puts the debate where it should be.

  • VXbinaca

    I live in Southwest Florida. I’m open to those who ask, my friends know, Facebook people certainly know. I’m not sure my employer knows and would prefer hey not know. My personal life remains personal and is really none of their business.

    I think theres a difference between being ‘out’ and ‘pride parades’, is how I put it. I don’t put it in peoples faces and I leave the rest of my life behind when I go to work, and vice versa.

    I’ve had some negative experiences but generally people don’t really mind. Although I do feel alone here as I’m pretty much the only atheist I know offline.

  • Silent Service

    I was an atheist and bisexual in the military. That was just SO much fun and I’m oh so very glad that I’m retired now. I had no idea how much stress I was living with until it went away. Even now, only a few people know I’m bisexual and even fewer know I’m an atheist. I’m not sure which gets a worse response from people when they find out. Thankfully, my boss is an atheist too.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    I live in the southern US. I am very quiet/private about many things about myself, including atheism, by necessity. I can’t stand harrassment, and I fear for my work prospects (and personal safety).

  • Wyrm

    I live in Chapel Hill, NC. Most locals don’t give a damn about your religious beliefs here – I’ve never been asked about my religion, nor would I expect to be in a college town. I still keep my atheism pretty quiet because I could in theory run into a wacko.

    Now, there are a few stupid things you have to put up with here. When my wife and I got married we had to swear on a bible, when neither of us is Christian. That may have been some personal quirk of the bureaucrat we had to deal with, I’m not sure. There are also some vestigial blue laws, laws which tick me off – and I don’t even drink.

  • cathy

    I don’t like the co-opting of queer coming out language in general, it bugs me and this ““We atheists talk about coming out of the closet,” just like gays and lesbians.” Makes me just think NO. One and three queer kids who come out before eighteen looses their home, thirty to forty percent of homeless youth in NYC are queer, ninty percent of queer kids hear anti-queer slurs at school every single day. Have you ever looked at the lists of dead people killed for being gay and trans? I’ve done the telling people I was an atheist in a rural conservative area and, yes, it isn’t fun, but it isn’t like coming out of the closet.

  • x

    Yeah, it is like “coming out of the closet”. Actually, it’s not just “like” that, it is that. I live in the Charlotte area and just joined CAA. I am terrified of the wrong people knowing that I’m an atheist. I feel certain that it would lead to job discrimination.

    I may not have to worry so much about being beaten or killed, but if I have to worry about losing my livelihood, you’ll pardon me if I accept the comparison to coming out of the closet.

  • Barry

    I’m looking for an atheist group in or near fayetteville NC…would anyone know of one or how best to find one?

  • Leigh

    @ Barry. You might check out Central NC Humanists & Atheists: CNCAH homepage
    Great group. : )