I am a father of two pre-school age children. I have just gotten a teaching job in a very small town (under 4,000 people) in a very isolated area (2 hour drive to find a bigger town). The town is exceedingly Christian. The local Yellow Pages lists dozens of Christian churches in the surrounding 60 mile radius or so and zero temples, synagogues, etc. Otherwise, the town is in a ruggedly beautiful part of the county, with much of the surrounding areas designated as natural parks.
However, I strongly suspect that I am not even remotely the only Atheist in town. There is a University-run research facility nearby, a small, but significant naturalist population exploring the trails, rocks, and rivers and a variety of botanists, geologists, and other scientists who work in and around the national parks. I’ve Googled every directory of atheist / free thinker / humanist / secularist groups I can find, but no avail in finding a local group.
I’m somewhat interested in starting such a group but worry about backlash from students, parents, and administration. My instinct is to wait out my probationary period, maybe checking out naturalist groups in the interim, though that’s not really my thing. Then, perhaps after I’m a little more settled, starting to make some moves towards forming such a group. I know a few people from the area, and few had positive things to say about its level of openness. One technically closeted gay teen regularly had rocks thrown at him by teens and verbal harassment by adults. Not a place that deals well with the other.
I’ve read some excellent advice about forming groups, but am curious about your thoughts on doing so in what seems to be such a hostile environment.
When I first heard the proverb, “A single stone can change the course of a river,” my first thought was “Gee, that’s so inspiring.” My immediate next thought was “Yeah, and that stone takes a hell of a beating.”
There are two reasons why I agree with your instinct to wait and be cautious and circumspect with this. The first is that you’re a teacher. If you were a bank clerk or an auto mechanic, public knowledge of your atheism might not have the same consequences. Parents are very protective of their children, and they know that teachers can have a powerful influence. Your personal reassurance that you would not bring your atheism into your class might not assuage the fears of your students’ parents.
Even if your school Principal is a person of principle and would not fire you just for that, he or she could face pressure from parents who think they’re protecting their kids from your evil influence. In very small, isolated, insular towns, each individual bigot has much more power than in big cities. It might only take a couple of dozen, just the congregation of one of those many churches in your area, to force your dismissal. Even after your probation, you might find that you should still be discreet. Each environment has its unique set of hazards.
The second reason is your two pre-school age children. It’s one thing to be willing to be that single stone in the river, but quite another to put little kids into that position. The rejection and abuse that the gay teen has experienced might be an example what your little ones could face. It will be challenging enough for them and you to just be “unchurched” in that town.
Your plan to get to know socially the naturalists and scientists in the area is a very good idea, although there is no guarantee that they are privately atheists. As you say there could be several, and some might even already have a group that meets quietly. But they may have learned that camouflage is the best adaptation for that environment. If so, this will make it more difficult for you to sort each other out, since they’ll be scrutinizing you just as guardedly as you are scrutinizing them. Unfortunately, atheists don’t have a secret sign that only we can use to recognize each other. Look for those of your new acquaintances who are also unchurched; they’re at home or at the town store on Sunday mornings.
Social isolation and intellectual starvation is a common problem for atheists and for intellectuals in small towns. If you’re both, it can be doubly lonely. It’s sad that small towns and small mentalities so often go together. Although I’m sure some towns are exceptions, I’m also sure that they’re rare. Individuals whose minds are hungrier than their fellow townsfolk tend to move away. Small towns can offer an intimacy and a sense of belonging, a personal validation that we lose in big cities. Too bad that conforming to narrow norms is so often the price for living in a place with narrow streets.
It’s an outrage that atheists so frequently have to hide and be secretive just to get along with their neighbors, keep their jobs, and feed their families. There are atheists who never knuckle under and never hide their views from anyone. I thank them for helping to normalize our image and showing that we’re just as worthy of decent treatment as anyone else.
However, I don’t thank those very few who deride or belittle closeted atheists. They can afford to talk tough. They usually don’t have vulnerabilities like a brand new job on probation, or two little kids to consider. Let the open and bold ones be the single stones in their river if they choose, but not hold a conceit against others. Atheists should help each other to cope, and encourage each other to be more open when the risks become more acceptable, but we should never condemn each other for being cautious and prudent. We get enough condemnation already.
Perhaps readers here can suggest ways to inconspicuously find other atheists in your area.
I wish you and your family success and happiness. Write again to tell us how things develop.