Oh Great, Yet Another Atheist Blog

boredJust what the world needed, right?

I feel ya.  I promise I do.  To be honest, I get as tired as you get reading the same stories and the same memes over and over again ad nauseam.  I’m in a lot of groups and over time you see the same stuff get repeated a lot.  It gets old sometimes.  Sometimes you just want people in your circles to start talking about something else for a change.  Go back to posting some funny cat videos and some recipes, maybe.  Or maybe you should just close up the laptop and cue up an episode of Walking Dead or Thrones.  Knock yourself out.

I’m not going anywhere, though, because like a lot of friends I’ve come to know over the last few years, I paid a steep price for my exit from religious indoctrination.  When you go through as tough a time as I did leaving your faith, you learn the value of talking through the process with others.  And it helps to have more people writing as former insiders.  I spent the first 35 years of my life inside Evangelical culture in the heart of the Deep South.  I was a devout believer for at least 20 of those years, and while I’ve since left the faith of my youth, I still live in the thickest of religious contexts in this country.  Most of those closest to me are still happy members of that society.  So I’ve got one foot in and one foot out; I’m a cultural amphibian, if you will.  I have to interact with devout Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, and Presbyterians on a daily basis, knowing full well that the only reason they’re comfortable talking to me is because they assume I’m one of them.  That’s a natural assumption to make around here.  I look and sound just like them, so they think I also believe all the same things they believe because most everyone else they know does, too.  Life for a non-believer in a place like this can be very difficult.  And if for some reason you work up the nerve to tell people you’re not a member of their religion, you’re in for some special treatment.  Needless to say, there aren’t many “out” atheists in Mississippi.

Which is why this blog exists.  I started writing under the name Godless in Dixie a little over a year ago because I wanted to see more written about the struggles and challenges of being a skeptic in the Bible Belt.  Most of us around here can’t speak openly about these things because the social and professional cost can be ridiculously high.  I’ve suffered losses in both of those areas, so I know all too well what that’s like.  The emotional and psychological toll can be pretty high.  Most who make their way out of the dogmatic beliefs of their upbringing learn to keep their differences to themselves.  But they have a story to tell, and some of us have to be “out” for their sakes, to give them a voice.  Losing your religion can be traumatic in a place like this, and my friends who have been through that (and are still going through it) need all the help they can get.  As long as they’re still closeted for fear of retribution and marginalization, we need another blog that brings these struggles to light.

A “War” That’s Been Spreading

To be honest, when I started writing about this I assumed it would only be relevant to people in the Deep South.  More than anything I wanted to create a group identity under which other closeted atheists could gather and connect with each other for moral support and encouragement.  I knew I wasn’t the only one who is “godless in Dixie,” so I started this blog as a means of finding others like me.  What surprised me was how many people who aren’t from the Deep South could identify with what I write because they, too, wrestle with the exact same things with which I wrestled, and their emotional journeys paralleled my own with remarkable similarity.  It turns out the Bible Belt isn’t just a location in the Southeastern United States.  It’s a cultural force that’s been growing in strength in pockets all over the country.  It has been increasingly making its influence felt in my country’s political process for the last three decades, which means that now we all have to learn how to understand and deal with this culture whether we like it or not.

At one point or another I’ve been entrenched on either side of this conflict, which means I’m in a good position to translate communications and understand tactical maneuvers employed by both sides.  Some might see me as a spy embedded deep in enemy territory, but in reality these are my friends and family we’re talking about, and to me they are nothing of the sort.  Evangelicalism is my native tongue, as a friend recently put it.  I’ll admit it grows stranger and stranger to me with each passing year that I grow into my secular humanism, and over time it gets more and more difficult to remember what it was like to think the way I used to think.  But while it’s still somewhat fresh (and while I’m still living where I’m currently living) I need to write about the issues I faced as I clawed and climbed my way out of this life-consuming ideology.  It helps those who are still going through it, and it reminds the ones who have recently freed themselves that they are not alone.

Despite what all my friends and family seem to think, I don’t write to persuade people to leave their faith.  While I personally am convinced they can have a happier and more fulfilling life outside of their religion, I also know the benefits that my loved ones draw from their faith, and I know the hardships that accompany leaving it (mostly in the form of social ostracism).  I’m not out to steal sheep.  I’m out to let the ones who are already walking away on their own know that they’re not alone.  Sometimes the atheist community can be so focused in their opposition to Fundamentalism’s cultural mission creep that they fail to empathize with those of us who had to work so very hard to untangle ourselves from such a mangled web of emotional and psychological manipulation.  Leaving your faith can come at a high cost.  Not everybody understands that, but I do.

I’m not a naturally confrontational person.  In fact, I’m conciliatory to a fault.  I’m a lover, not a fighter.  But here lately, my circumstances seem determined to change that.  I didn’t ask to be involved in this culture war, but it came to my doorstep anyway.  So now I’m in it.  It has taken too much from me and from the people I love for me to shut up about it any time soon.

The fallout from my leaving the faith (or rather its leaving me) continues to this day.  For that reason, you’ll see in this space a continued unfolding of my own thinking through and wrestling with the dogmatic assertions of my former life.  Living in Mississippi, I am surrounded by people who associate moral fortitude with Christian orthodoxy and therefore cannot imagine that people like me have real hearts or backbones.  They say some of the most awful things to us and about us without showing the slightest awareness that they’ve just spoken of us like we are empty shells with cold, dead eyes.  Privilege blindness can make people say and do ruthless things, only in this case they are convinced they’re showing love.  That makes it next to impossible to call it out for what it is.  But that’s not going to stop me from trying to do it anyway!

What to Expect from Godless in Dixie

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing about the ways I think Christians misunderstand who we are.  I feel I can speak from knowledge about this because I used to be a devoted believer myself.  I wasn’t one of those who flitted through my religion like a transient spectator.  I was down on the field, getting into the game.  I was a practitioner for many years, and I even accumulated degrees and leadership responsibilities to go with it.  So I feel I’m entitled and authorized to speak about Evangelical theology and about the many ways it gets atheists wrong.  I’ll also write some about the struggles that skeptics in highly religious regions like my own will face in restoring the separation of church and state, a concept which the Baptists practically invented but have almost completely discarded in favor of a more theocratic ideal.  I’ll write about what it’s like coming out of your faith only to meet with the many forms of social coercion foisted upon those who dare to expatriate from their respective tribal identities.  I’ll even share some of what I’ve written to my loved ones in order to explain for their benefit why I no longer believe.  I don’t expect them to ever see things the way I see them, but I do ask for them to show me the same courtesy and respect that I extend to them.  I’ll be sharing these things with the rest of the world because they just might help others find the words to say what they want to say to their own families and friends.  As always, I welcome input and advice, and I’m sure my readers would appreciate the same.  These aren’t easy things to navigate, and honestly I feel like most people don’t do it well.  But life’s too short not to try your hardest to live at peace with the ones you love, and it’s definitely too short not to live at peace with yourself.  Striking that balance is the goal of what I write.  So hold me to it, m’kay?

–Neil

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  • None of those other atheist blogs have that chin though….. That. Chin.

  • bananafaced

    “…life-consuming ideology.” That nails it for me. I was trying to explain to my husband just why my lazy a$$ left my religion behind (I was raised Catholic) when I was 17 years old. I just didn’t think I owed all my free time to someone I had never met and with whom I disagreed on so many levels. I had so much more to accomplish and spending all that time in a building where everything was all about an imaginary ‘sky dude’ just seemed silly. I didn’t let the door hit me in my derriere as I escaped the statues and incense forever.

  • London Smith

    I can definitely relate to this. I recently moved to Nashville, and am currently in the midst of a big shift in my life’s philosophy (or, rather, a coming-to-terms with the fact that my long-held beliefs have already changed). I’d love to be a part of this discussion and perhaps even help with the blog if you want the input of a 20-something pastor’s kid raised in the Mennonite church who actually didn’t mind being a PK.

  • XaurreauX

    Wishing you success!

  • apawstate

    Congratulations, Neil! I’ve followed you practically since you began and will continue to read your work here at Patheos. I’m in the process of writing to my parents to explain why I left their faith. I’ll be looking forward to your pieces on that subject. I’m trying to walk a delicate line between honestly speaking my position on God and the Bible but still showing respect for my parents. It’s not easy.

  • Andrew Hackman

    Yep, Evangelicalism does seem weirder and weirder to me every year I am out… I think some of our angst is a layer of embarrassment… How did we ever go for that?

  • Congrats on your move, Neil. Hope you are happy here. Are the old posts of the past year gone for good? I cannot seem to locate any archive here.

  • Welcome to Patheos, Neil!

  • Your writing is new to me so I will be interested in what you post

  • Annerdr

    Glad to meet you, from an atheist in Tennessee.

  • I’m so proud of you, Neil. Congratulations, and I hope your time at Patheos is rewarding in every way. You really bring something different to the table.

  • Neil Carter

    Thanks, Cas :)

  • Neil Carter

    They’ll be appearing here shortly. We’re working on getting them pulled up from the old site.

  • exrelayman

    Just in case you did not know. The only way I can get here is to use a search engine. Your blog does not appear when I am at patheos and click to see all atheist blogs. I removed your old site from Feedly and when I try to add your new site, all Feedly can find is your old site. I tried pasting in the url address into Feedly – that failed also.

    I would think I am not alone in experiencing this and that you would like to be made aware. Have enjoyed reading you for some time.

  • David

    I can’t say that I’m thrilled by your move to Patheos, but it’s not a bad one either. It just seems a little too commercial for what you are doing. Still, I shall be happy to follow you in your new location.

    I think you are very brave doing what you do, and where you do it. I agree that the most important role you play is not deconverting the hopelessly converted, but showing those with doubt that there are others like themselves out there, and giving them the courage to be skeptical.

    I belong to an organization with about 50,000 members nationwide. Most are concentrated in metro areas, but some are isolated. One member wrote in to our monthly journal that he felt very isolated in rural Louisiana, especially so since he was gay. He asked why he never got much attention from us gay city folk. (This was not a gay organization, but a sugroup of gay memebers.) I responded that I found it less than startling that urban gay members of the organization might not reach out to him because 1) we didn’t know he existed until his letter, and 2) his experience was so foreign to us we wouldn’t know where to be begin to help him. My response was not well received, and it initiated a firestorm of letters back and forth many from other readers, both commending and vilifying what I wrote.

    I don’t question your commitment to staying were you are, any more than I did the young man in my organization (although it was taken that way). You have no doubt weighed the options and consider that the burden of staying is outweighed by the losses that would ensue if you did. Actually, the need is probably greater where you are than in a place like Portland, Oregon, where being non-churched or atheist is much less an act of rebellion.

  • What the flugging shithell…you moved to Patheos too? What is wrong with you??? Patheos is crap! It’s incredibly slow. Its servers never seem to keep up with the demand, it doesn’t let you sort your posts nicely as you could on wordpress, and as you say, there’s already a ton of atheist bloggers here. I for one am quite disappointed. I’ll still be reading your blog faithfully because you say smart stuff, but I will certainly grumble about your move for weeks

  • Well … they did just go through an upgrade that has made things much faster. (Just one data point.)

  • Harumph.

    Okay, if that turns out to actually work I’ll be happy about that. And keep in mind that my griping is less “This is genuinely a bad thing” and more of “I can’t believe you did this thing which is probably better for you (i.e. more exposure) but slightly inconveniences me”, so I shouldn’t really be taken seriously.

    …and now I’m picturing John Cleese begging to be made a freemason in that one sketch. Because of course what blogger wouldn’t join Patheos if he were invited?

  • I also like the new “ticker” on the atheist page. You know, the one like they used to only have on the main page.

  • … I’ve got my own apron.”

  • Judy Whiting

    I am a secular humanist, but I don’t go so far as being a card-carrying atheist. I can be no more confident in my belief that there is no god than I can be confident that there is. But I live my life as though there were no supernatural god. I also live in the deep south, and I was raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical denomination. I even attended (for three semesters), under a parent’s duress, one of the denomination’s colleges, until even the Dean of Women realized that the school was a total misfit for me. So this blog is relevant to my own experience. I am happy to be among like-minded people, even if only online.

  • Daina S

    Hi I am new to your writing and hail from South Australia. I can identify greatly with the experience above – I don’t think it is quite as bad here in general, but as I became a believer early in my life – I too lost most of my friends when I had to walk away. Also, I moved across the country and started a new life for myself which minimised the constant impact upon me by believers. But that didn’t really make the experience easier on me mentally and emotionally. As I am sure you know, when your belief is so total and all encompassing it is terrifying to realise there is no “daddy” up there looking after you – you are on your own! That took years…. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this and I look forward to reading more from you.