A discussion thread on religion for people who live–or have lived–in “red” parts of the country

Strange as it may sound for someone who writes about religion so much, there are times when religion seems like this thing that’s “out there” but which doesn’t affect my life. And I guess that’s been true for some parts of my life, particularly when I’ve lived in the “blue” (i.e. liberal) city* of Madison, WI. So let this be a thread for people to talk about their experiences living in “red” parts of the country.

When I first started writing this post, I wanted to include some comments about my hometown of Oshkosh. It’s not the reddest part of the country, but definitely redder than Madison. (Winnebago county went for Obama in 2008, but when for Bush in 2000 and 2004.) Yet I’m not sure how to write about that while (a) having some respect for the privacy of the people I knew there and (b) it not turning into a  “how I became an atheist blogger” post. Hmmm…

I will say a bit about my time in South Bend, IN. When I first moved there, I knew it would be different, what with all the pro-life signs I saw coming into town. Oddly, though, Notre Dame may have insulated me from the worst of it. Yeah, you heard that right. The incoming group of philosophy grad students which I was a part of was roughly half atheists–I think maybe six atheists and one pretty nominal believer out of thirteen.

I did get a bit more sense of what it was like outside our little academic bubble when I started found the Michiana Skeptics about halfway through my time in South Bend. Hanging out with them is one of the things that makes me think that atheist groups do way more good in “red” areas than the “blue” areas.

In Madison, the campus atheist group was basically a discussion group for nerds. But in South Bend’s group, you had people who were genuinely feeling isolated in the highly religious environment–including one woman who was in the closet about her atheism because of where she worked. I think Jen has said something similar about the contrast between red area vs. blue area atheist groups, but unfortunately I can’t find the post right now.

Anyway, I didn’t really write this post to talk about that–I wrote this because I want to hear your experiences. So what are they?

*I say city, even though it’s more common to hear about red states vs. blue states. This is because if you want to know what it will be like to live somewhere, the people the next county over don’t matter much. Indeed, it’s possible to be totally clueless about what they’re like. When Wisconsin passed its anti-gay marriage amendment during my sophomore year of college, I was totally surprised. After all, everyone I knew was against it. 

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    It can get pretty stifling. I live in a small town in Texas. I rarely carry on conversations offline unless I know they’re “safe.” My dad got a fortunate break in that one of the newer employees at his job is a liberal and atheist, though they had to tiptoe around each other for a while before they could be sure. One of the longer-standing employees is a complete wingnut, however. Anything more than smalltalk is a minefield.

  • http://www.subparker.com Neal

    I live in Huntsville, Alabama. My city itself is fairly progressive but is not without its share of regressive politics or anti-science anti-thought rhetoric (I do work for the military-industrial complex). There is an unspoken code among freethinkers in my workplace which is “we keep quiet when talking to coworkers about philosophy”. Naturally, our religious counterparts have no such code.

    My college experience was different… I attended college in a small town in south Alabama. The university didn’t even have a campus atheist group, and I didn’t become an atheist until my junior/senior year so I never felt compelled to start one. But the student government actively resisted the formation of any new campus group that was not conservative Christian. They even voted against a gay/straight alliance (the decision was overturned by the administration, because obviously the discrimination was illegal).

  • http://www.andrewturnbull.net/ Andrew T.

    I lived in southern West Virginia for much of the first 22 years of my life. There were crosses on hillsides, ministries being promoted within the windows of public buildings, unsolicited telephone calls from people sharing bible verses over the phone, and on and on. This was the heart of rural Appalachia, the same piece of cultural topography that brought us the Scopes monkey trial and the creation museum. I never knew a single “out” atheist through my entire time there. I was firmly in the closet myself because of my own fears of the implications, and the sense of isolation there was absolutely excruciating.

    I currently live in Manitowoc, which

    • chrisking

      I know exactly how you feel. I live in Beckley and I can’t be out.

  • http://www.ragingrev.com Matt Oxley

    I live in the state of Georgia, there aren’t many states that are more red – nor more religious.

    I’m a very out and open atheist and ex-christian minister that turned down a scholarship to a Mississippi seminary right out of high school – I live in a county with between 18,000 and 25,000 people and a poverty rate of right around 48%.

    My experiences are that Christians are, by and large; complacent about the poverty around them, uninformed about the beliefs they claim to hold, and angry that people exist that do not agree with their poorly thought out views. I have also experienced an extremely different side of this: Compassionate and loving people that care to make a real difference in the world they are in and that don’t accept the status quo as good enough. I’ve been able to encourage local pastor friends of mine to start food banks and shelters.

    The most common experience is that of being outnumbered. You simply know that you are one of very few people in your town that has rejected ideas that simply don’t work – finding respect can be difficult but possible and often comes by forcing people to recognize that you have greater experience and learning than they and that you’ve earned the right to be critical of faith – at least that’s what seems to work for me.

    Somehow I’ve been able to earn a decent amount of recognition in my community because I care very much about it and the influence that religion has had on it – as well as the potential that such a community has to do better for itself. Though a number of people have displayed a certain dislike for me, they are the minority of my experiences today and I’ve found a place that I’m happy being at now.

    • http://www.ragingrev.com Matt Oxley

      by the way, the town I’m from is Eastman, GA – in Dodge County – in 1994 our town was featured in George Magazine as one of the ten most corrupt towns in the country for a number of scandals that occurred at that time. Scandals that barely hold a candle to the more recent ones.

    • daenyx

      I’m in Atlanta (having before lived in South Carolina and Texas), and it’s… very strange, here. On the one hand, there’s one of the largest LGBTQ communities in the country, which is a pretty hefty departure from what I’m used to in terms of what people are comfortable with. On the other, we’ve got state politicians comparing pregnant women to pigs and trying to criminalize miscarriages.

      Growing up in SC, there was very much always the *assumption* that you were cisgendered, heterosexual, and Christian by people you’d meet, but I was exposed to a lot less talk demonizing the Damn Liberals. (Though that experience should probably be taken with a grain of salt, because I was raised in a progressive Christian family and a relatively liberal church community.)

      The dissonance here between the very large liberal bubble of the LGBTQ community (as well as my academic community), and the rest of the state is jarring. It also frustrates me that the liberal presence IS so strong, and yet at least in the time I’ve been here (2 years), I haven’t seen much pushback against the forced-birthers and homophobic religious right. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places?

      • daenyx

        (For clarity, since I realized my inserted paragraph about SC breaks up the talk about GA in my comment above – the third paragraph is back to talking about Atlanta.)

  • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com The Nerd

    I grew up in Warsaw IN a 1/2 hour away from South Bend. So yeah, it was basically like your experiences there. Now I live in St Louis MO, and while the city is a lovely place to live, the state keeps throwing these horrible curve balls at us. What’s next? Creationism in the schools? Increased taxes on the poor? Eliminating child labor laws (I’m not even making that last one up, they tried to put children to work). Currently in the works is an effort to allow employers to veto medical procedures based on “conscience”. It’s terrifying!

  • http://slignot.wordpress.com slignot

    I live in the greater Salt Lake City area, and even though it’s more liberal than the rest of the state, the LDS church still runs everything. Public schools bear huge influence by the church and when I was in public school, I was ostracized for not being a part of the ward. I’ve seen elections when if I had to guess which candidate was the Republican, I would have guessed the Democrat who was trying so hard to seem like a good “pro-family” Mormon his (and it is almost always a HIS) campaign was more conservative than his opponent.

    Elected officials are much more likely to not only be devout members of the church here, but are also probably former bishops. Not being a church member myself, I don’t know if there is a de-facto litmus test of religious leadership to advance in political office, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any event, this consistently skews our officials more conservative than the base that elects them.

    A recent article in the less conservative paper was quite frank on how the mormon church runs everything.

    How Utah’s Capitol marches to a Mormon beat

    In Utah, the question isn’t whether the LDS Church wields hefty political clout, but how it does so. And the answer, according to state legislators, may surprise some.

    That Mormon influence, lawmakers say, does not generally come from edicts over the pulpit or through lobbying in the halls of the Capitol. Instead, it comes indirectly — mainly through legislators’ own religious views.

    After all, most elected officials here are Latter-day Saints who vote based on values instilled in them as Mormons — and even non-LDS officials try to reflect the will of constituents who are overwhelmingly Mormon.

    But lawmakers concede that the state’s predominant faith is directly involved on a few select issues, such as immigration, alcohol, gambling and gay rights — and a nod of approval from the LDS hierarchy is usually needed for bills affecting those areas to proceed, according to a questionnaire sent to legislators by The Salt Lake Tribune.

    Many Utah legislators argue that the LDS Church does not need to send formal directions, since most lawmakers are Mormons and share the faith’s guiding ideals.

    “I do not see legislators looking to the church for guidance,” says Rep. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who twice has been an LDS bishop, “but rather to their beliefs and value system, which in many cases their religious affiliation will have an effect on.”

    Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan, a former LDS bishop, says Mormon legislators share common values that cut across party lines. “It is also true,” Webb says, “that those same values are shared by those here of other faiths.”

    Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, who has served in LDS bishoprics, says “members of the Legislature follow the tenets of their religion, regardless of what the religion is. My religious beliefs are part of who I am, and those definitely factor in when I am deciding how to cast my vote.”

    Some lawmakers estimated that 90 percent of the 75 Utah House members are LDS, and that 27 of 29 senators are.

    Several lawmakers say the church does lobby on a few issues, such as alcohol, immigration, gambling and gay rights.

    Freshman Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake City, who says he does not belong to a church, discovered the LDS Church is “very involved” in alcohol regulations when he ran a bill to require that the Utah Liquor Commission include some drinkers.

    He says he was told that “I would have to have approval from the LDS Church for something such as that to be considered. I did not consult with the LDS Church and got the bill out of committee. It was next to be debated … when the board was wiped of all remaining bills as we finished our work on House bills.”

    Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, a Catholic, says he offered a bill this year to make it easier for restaurateurs to sample wines. He says he talked to LDS leaders about it and made several concessions. The measure still failed.

  • iknklast

    I grew up in Oklahoma City, which is listed #3 on the list of most religious metropolitan areas. Religion was simply taken as a given. We moved there from Maine when I was 10, and in the 5th grade. This was several years after mandatory prayer was removed from the schools, so imagine my surprise to find that we were not only praying in school, but we were required to pray. Because my parents believe students should be required to pray in school, I would not have been able to get any support. They had no clue I was in the process of deconversion – of course, at 10, that word would have had no meaning to me.

    When I went to college, I met my first atheist – or, as far as I know, I met my first atheist. Certainly the first open one. And in spite of everything I’d been told, he was one of the nicest, most decent, most moral individuals I had ever met. I started to be a bit less afraid of my own doubts.

    Now I live outside the Bible Belt, but the area I live could easily be called (and has been) the bulge over the Bible Belt. There is NO freedom of religion here, unless you count the freedom to join a religion. The rest of us just sort of keep our heads low and mumble a lot when everyone else prays. I find it very difficult to get support from my fellow atheists, who would rather keep their jobs, their properties, and their lives intact than fight the system. Who can blame them?

    I think the worst thing about living in a red state is reading the pontificating of the atheists in the blue states who deny our experience and insist that things aren’t bad for atheists in America (that doesn’t happen on FTB, thank FSM). I do a slow burn whenever I hear someone from Harvard or from NYC explaining to me what it’s like to live among Christians in the midwest or the south – because they’ve driven through those areas, talked to Christians, and found them to be nice people. The rest of us have to live here 24/7, and we’re the ones around when the excrement hits the fan.

    • Julia

      I transplanted into Oklahoma City from Sacramento in the middle of high school, right as I was starting to question my Christian upbringing, and had to deal with that as I graduated and then went to OU. I luckily was able to find a few others with similar beliefs. I often wonder how much of that was class privilege; we were upper-middle-class kids who could afford to be atheist, even if we kept it from our parents.

      Anyway, oh man, OKC. I remember being in a hospital room after breaking my leg in a car accident and counting two dozen visible churches from the fourth floor window. I remember when the huge cross in Edmond along I-35 went up, and the restaurant on the other side of the road that wanted to put a large sign with a crab on it at the same height, and the hysteria that the crab was some sort of pagan symbol(?!?) and therefore couldn’t be allowed.

      After graduating OU I fled to New England, where I’ve been for almost a decade now. Couldn’t be happier to get out.

      • iknklast

        So were you in Edmond when they had the battle over the Christian cross on the city seal? The city still hasn’t gotten over that, and it’s been 18 years! My father still screams and cries about those “atheists” that filed a case taking his rights away (they were Jewish). His right to have his religion tell everyone else what to do, that is.

        If you’ve just driven a block without seeing at least one, possibly two churches, you’re not in Edmond, OK!

  • http://www.andrewturnbull.net/ Andrew T.

    (Whoops, hit the wrong key before finishing!)

    I currently live in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which has demographics similar to but slightly more regressive than Oshkosh. There’s a fair amount of religious stink in the air…the Catholic Church and ultraconservative Wisconsin Evengelical Lutheran Synod are very much in evidence, Christian displays get erected on public land, the county went for Bush twice over, and the anti-gay referendum passed by 70%…yet the atmosphere still feels considerably less overbearing than West Virginia. I’ll tell people I’m an atheist if they ask.

    • http://www.subparker.com Neal

      I tell them I’m an atheist now. I used to avoid the term because my mindset was “denominations are something religious people have. I don’t need a denomination, I’m not religious.”

      However, just saying “I’m not religious” causes confusion, because you really have to spell things out for these people, and then they STILL don’t get it.

      I wanted no confusion over what I did or did not believe in, so I admit openly to being an atheist if someone asks.

  • chrisking

    I’ve always been jealous of non-believers who live in a blue state because they don’t realize how good they have it in many cases. I live in southern West Virginia, though Democratic on the local level my state is about as conservative as they come. Religion, for me is not something I can just file away in the back of my mind and forget about. It is in my face every single day and I have to hide who I am and lie about my beliefs on a constant basis. In fact, several years ago I made the mistake of coming out as an Atheist to a few of my co-workers and before long the entire store knew and I was treated like a criminal. People would constantly give me dirty looks, ask me “what was wrong with me” and generally assumed that I was an extremely dangerous person. It reached such a fever pitch that I finally left and have kept very quiet about my lack of beliefs. Now I am lucky in a few ways. My immediate family and a good bit of my friends are not religious but other Atheists here don’t have it so lucky. Coming out publicly as an Atheist here is more dangerous than coming out as gay. (Though they generally assume all Atheists are gay anyway). I have seen some people who are publicly out about their beliefs mocked,cursed at,beat up,thrown out of their house and other lovely Christian things. Atheists here are treated like second class citizens and most people here will not hesitate to tell you they think Atheists should either be killed,deported,arrested or some other lovely thing. I truly get a laugh when I hear Christians dare say how “oppressed” they are when in reality it is we who are oppressed. We have to lie about our very existence and live in the shadows or else face devastating social and economic consequences. Oh and if anyone asks why Atheists are so angry and bitter towards Christians just read my story and I guarantee there are thousands more just like it.

    • http://www.andrewturnbull.net/ Andrew T.

      Ah, tell me about it. I WAS a gay atheist in WV.

      I lived in Athens, which was one of the saner enclaves of the state…but it’s a half mile square. My high school was basically a consolidated dumping ground from the rural hinterland that (it seemed) rarely went out except to go to church twice a week or hunt game. There was no gay-straight alliance or Secular Student Alliance group to speak of in 2000 (and I highly doubt the situation has changed any since), and the idea of merely suggesting the possibility felt like asking to be lynched. When one of your SCIENCE teachers says that evolution is “junk,” then says with absolute certainty that 969-year-old Methuselah was the world’s oldest man…and the rest of the room leaps to agree with him…you notice. When the most popular person in your class dresses head to toe in neo-Confederate paraphernalia and opins that “faggots don’t deserve rights at all,” you notice.

      When someone asks me why I left the area or left the state, I often explode into a firestorm. Not that things are close to perfect where I am now (I listed some of the flaws above, and the amount of local Walker support is disheartening), and I’m trying to ultimately migrate to Madison. A place where you can live a day-to-day life without constantly fearing the implications of being open about who you are is a real luxury to be in.

  • Patrick

    I live in Indiana. I’m closed lipped both about being an atheist, and about voting for Democrats. It basically means I can’t talk about politics at all, because the default assumption of a fair number of people around here is that if you disagree even slightly with conservative talking points, you’re probably an atheist commie. So I can’t even be half out, or even position myself as a skeptical voice. Its all or nothing.

    Fortunately I’ve got plenty of friends and family in other areas of the country, and I have the internet.

    • iknklast

      I often tell people where I live, and they assume because it’s a midwestern state, it’s somehow “better” to be an atheist. I actually had it better in Oklahoma City, the epicenter of Southern Baptist intolerance, partially because it was a large enough city you could do all your errands without running into anyone you know, and most people didn’t pay attention to you.

      Now I’m in the upper midwest, and a teacher at a local (public) college, and I’ve already been threatened 3 times by my boss with possible loss of my job, once for actually DOING my job correctly (I teach environmental science, and I had the gall to notice that big agriculture has some negative consequences). The other times were because I am the faculty advisor for our secular student club.

      Around here, when people are given their certificate for managing to hold on and stay in their seat for 5 years, they tell about everyone’s hobbies, etc. I listen carefully for those who don’t mention church, and I’ve found a bit of a support group that way. It seems, listening to most of the bios that the only hobbies are praying and reproducing. It’s grim.

    • josh

      Some friends and I were driving through Indiana and stopped at a gas station for the usual reasons. We were kind of flabbergasted to find them selling confederate tchotchkes, and spent the next half hour debating how many Indianians realized they had been a Union state.

  • Timid Atheist

    I live in a southern state, though I’d rather not say which one exactly because I’m still not “out” and I actually have online stalkers because of my current custody status.

    Anyway, I was born in a midwestern state. And while religion wasn’t a hard pushed thing, it was still there in the background. Most who were out and open about it were ridiculed, but mostly because it wasn’t cool to be a “Jesus Freak.” I’m dating myself with that reference. But then again if you didn’t at least believe in god, well you were a devil worshiper for sure.

    Moving to the south once I was an adult wasn’t much of a change, same kinds of interactions. But I slowly began to let go of my religion and as I did it became more obvious that people clung to god and their bibles because when horrible things happened they didn’t know what else to do.

    It’s sad to see that people are taught to turn to god for comfort and help instead of turning to one another and helping whenever they can. I think kids and adults alike would benefit more if they were taught community service instead of church services.

    I will also say that I tend to avoid people if at all possible, so my encounters are slightly different from an active social person.

  • Justin

    I’ve lived in West Virginia for about 29 years; the other 3 years were split between Tennessee and Kentucky. So I guess I’ve always lived in highly religious communities. It’s never been a huge issue for me, but people definitely look down their noses at you when they find out you don’t believe.

    I was silent about my lack of belief until about 3 years ago, when I decided that if someone asked me I’d tell them. That’s still my policy…I have no interest in deconverting people, but if someone initiates the conversion I won’t shy away from it.

    That’s not to say it hasn’t altered my relationships…when my dad found out, he was devastated, and it took a few years to patch things up with him. My coworkers are usually surprised and a bit disappointed when they find out. I can tell they think differently of me no matter how long they’ve known me and that I’m a good guy. But I’ve honestly never felt alienated or persecuted at all in the dozen or so years I’ve been a non believer in a very conservative part of America. I never really felt the need to join atheist groups in college or anything like that, but for someone more opinionated about or defined by atheism I could see this environment being more problematic.

  • Brit

    Oh lord. The place I grew up- I grew up as a Christian (as in, I didn’t become an atheist until college), and I still found what so many people in my hometown did wrong. I grew up in south-eastern Indiana, and things were more or less fine at the schools (I went to three different school districts during my school years, and the first two were more diverse than the backwards, hickville school I ended at) until I reached high school.

    Thinking back on my time at high school, I don’t recall ever getting very angry at my school for the religious things they did, but I also know that I really didn’t know any better. Observing Good Friday by having a day off from school was fine- it wasn’t like we got MLK day off, so it was nice to have something. Prayer led by a teacher or administrator was common place at assemblies. Evolution was watered down in Biology, and parents still complained about it. Homework which required the use of the Bible happened every so often in English and History classes. And despite there being a Prayer Group and FCA group, any attempt to start up a religious-based club consisting of non-Christians was thrown out the window.

    Oh how I wish what I know now I had known back then.

    I still live in Indiana, and Indiana is still a pretty strong red state (though Obama did win Indiana in 2008, which was a big surprise to a lot of Hoosiers). While things are certainly better here (I live near a college campus), there are still annoying religious things that happen. When I went to the college, I got stopped quite frequently by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other Christians whenever I was on my way to class. Sometimes, I still get stopped by various religious people when I’m not even near campus, and just now, when I took my dog outside to go to the bathroom, I had a flier hanging on my door advertising some Easter celebration a local church is having.

    I was the secretary in my college’s non-theist club, and all of the officers would, every now and then, get an angry e-mail from someone (fellow students) on campus who didn’t like an event we did, or didn’t like that we were there.

    Only a handful of my friends know I’m an atheist, because I’ve heard other friends talk negatively about atheists, and I’m too scared to tell them. The ones who do know I’m an atheist simply don’t talk about it with me (which is totally fine- I don’t have a need to talk about non-religion).

    So, those are the majority of my experiences. Not too bad, I suppose, considering some of the things I’ve heard from others.

  • mnb0

    I live in Moengo, Suriname. OK, that’s not “part of the country”, even if Army South has paid us two visits.
    This town has 5 000 until 10 000 inhabitants. Nobody seems to know exactly. There are four mosques, two buddhist temples and as many christian churches as denominations. I am possibly the only atheist in town; I certainly am at the (secular) school where I teach. Possibly some of my pupils are atheist too; I don’t really know, even if I’m fairly outspoken.
    Moenog also “enjoys” one or two American christian ministries; one of them belongs to the Wesleyan Congregation. I don’t have contact with those Americans.
    The Moengonese simply don’t think my atheism an issue. Sometimes they don’t understand (“but everybody needs a religion, doesn’t matter which one”). That’s about it. Even the local Jehovah Witnesses gave up after two attempts, after I told them that I was not open to christendom ánd showed some Biblical knowledge, notably Psalm 137:9.
    The point is that Surinamese people are very religious (according to the latest census only 4% non-believers) but don’t make a fuss about it.

  • athyco

    Never having lived in “blue” parts of the country, I can’t compare. Besides, what’s happened on my scale of things can undoubtedly be eclipsed by things that have happened to someone in a “blue” area.

    My occupation helped shield me. I could and did often say that espousing a religious viewpoint was unlawful. As a teacher, I think I was able to point out the ways that a narrow religious standard could slide into religious bigotry. It was funny once when a parent/teacher conference was not going the way the parent wanted (darn that accurate recordkeeping, clearly written expression of expectation, and proof of many, different, and varied attempts to help her child individually). I finished a sentence and she blurted out, “Are you saved?” Since I’d seen others dismissed–even actively worked against–because they weren’t born again, I’d done some thinking and luckily didn’t freeze. I pasted on a big smile, grasped one of her hands with both of mine, and said enthusiastically, “I think you’ll agree that this is not the time, but how wonderful a chance to share my testimony with your family! It’s a bit forward of me to invite myself to dinner, but you just let me know when, and I’ll bring my special casserole. How many are in your family?” I never heard from her again, and at least two of my overtly religious colleagues cut down on things around me.

    Having Robert Bentley as a governor gives me many opportunities to point out religious overreach, exclusion and hypocrisy, and I’ve successfully cornered some “Yes, but” proponents, but it’s tiring. Strangely enough, it’s made me think about getting more involved in events/organizations so that I won’t feel as outnumbered.

  • http://slignot.wordpress.com slignot

    A few years ago, a cousin of mine came home from school with a furiously scolding note from her second grade teacher. What had she done? She had “upset” classmates; they had asked her about her family and religious beliefs and she had told them they did not believe in God. Yet she was the one who was scolded and punished by her teacher. That teacher also felt that she could criticize the parents’ lack of faith as well, and complaints to school administrators did nothing.

    Our local Eagle Forum lobbies every year to further weaken science education, and we were spared even worse damage to our sex education system by gubernatorial veto this year.

  • Stevarious

    I live in Pennsylvania, which while (technically) a blue state, you wouldn’t know it by some of the recent events. PA has been accurately described as ‘Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama between’. I live in the Alabama part, a few miles away from the now-infamous Dover (where a trial was held a few years back) and the much more recent Middletown church kid-kidnapping. Yes, the state capital (Harrisburg) is in the Alabama part, too, which probably explains this ‘Year of the Bible’ nonsense.

    I’m lucky to have an employer who is, while religious, is fairly liberal. I work in technology (computer repair and service) so most of my coworkers are fairly young and well-educated, so there are very few extremely religious people here (and my MOST religious co-worker is actually a satanist – but that’s a story for a different time).

    I’m out with my family, who are (mostly) okay with it (or at least, willing to ignore it). My grandmother can barely bring herself to talk to me, but since she is an awful angry nasty person this is actually a benefit. I have enough friends to get by and I’m out with all of them – some of them are also atheists which makes it easier.

    The main difficulty I run into is talking to customers. I can’t tell you how many times that a casual chat about nothing will suddenly jump to some ultra-religious or ultra-conservative subject. About once a month I am invited to pray with someone for their computer. Sometimes I feel like Dr. House – I do the work, and god or jesus gets the credit. I’ve had quite a few exchanges like this:
    Me: Your computer’s fixed.
    Customer: Oh thank you Jesus!
    Me: Oh, no, my name’s Steve.

    Most of the time that gets a laugh.

    The worst part is of course when they want to have a real discussion about things. There are some really really deluded people living around here. Global warming denialists are the mild ones – we’ve got hardcore racists that think Obama and his children should be killed in some grotesque fashion (quote of the day, about an hour ago: “Hang Obama for treason and put his hopeless monkey children into FEMA work camps!”), rape apologists (“the way she was dressed she was definitely asking for it” is a real thing that real people say to strangers in casual conversation, not just on the internet), Rush Limbaugh fans (…), people who believe all this nonsense about Obama’s ‘war on religion’ and think he’s a secret Muslim (these types are common). And I can’t really talk about these subjects. I hate it when they are even brought up because, of course, these people are fishing to see if I agree with them, if I share these views, and it’s even odds whether they will decide to continue to give me their business based on whether I share their ridiculous beliefs, regardless of how good the service was.

    I’ve had soldiers from Afghanistan or Iraq (there is a military base nearby) brag about how many sand n-r’s they’ve taken out – one even told me about how he had a few bits and pieces of most of the ones he killed in glass jars of alcohol in his basement – mostly eyes. (These types are the vast minority, most soldier that come in here are extremely professional and courteous.) I’ve had two different customers tell me that they won’t shop at another one of our other locations because they were pretty sure the tech there was gay and it was too hard to resist the urge to take them out back and beat the living shit out of them to risk shopping there again. I’ve had customers tell me, with a straight face, that demons were infesting their computer and given me suggestions on which prayers to use to drive them out while I was working on the thing. Or that the demons were in their cables so they need to buy new cables. Or that demons had made them go to porn sites and that’s where the viruses came from. Or that demons were here, in my store. (When I was in college, one of my professors would say that, when explaining what viruses were to a person who was computer illiterate, you could say that they were ‘a little like demons that possess your computer and make it do things it wouldn’t normally do’. I have long since learned to never ever say this – far too many people are likely to miss the part where it’s just an analogy.)

    All in all, it’s not TOO bad, but it is sometimes stressful, sometimes bewildering, and frequently facepalm-inducing. Most of my customer’s are perfectly decent people – even the religious ones. But I have awkward encounters almost daily. I miss Sacramento desperately.

    • Steve

      Don’t ever tell them about daemon processes

    • lordshipmayhem

      And never wear a T-shirt bearing a picture of the FreeBSD mascot, Beastie.

      • Stevarious

        No worries. I’d have to explain that there are other ‘things’ to run your computer besides Windows first, and it’s just not worth all that effort just to scare em with arcane technical terminology and honestly I always thought Beastie was too cute to be scary.

  • http://www.anthroslug.blogspot.com Anthroslug

    I have lived my entire life in California – which most people take to mean that I have always been surrounded by left-leaning hippies who favor socialism and fear vaccination.

    The truth of the matter, of course, is that California is a very, very big state, and most of the geographic space is taken up by people with very right-wing views (even if they are outnumbered in terms of state-wide votes by the larger, generally moderate-to-left-leaning cities).

    Anyway, growing up in Stanislaus County (increasingly urban, but rural back then), I was surrounded by churches and religious rhetoric. Most people were rather like my parents – nominally Christian, but not church-going despite the large number of local churches – but while my parents were more than willing to reject most of the emergent religious right’s mandatory views regarding government and legal enforcement of dubious morality, the surrounding community tended to be in favor of such things. It was common to hear people say, in all sincerity, that anyone who was not a Republican was not capable of being a Christian, that evolution was an idea developed to justify slavery, that the Nazi regime was the result of national teaching of evolution in Germany, etc. etc.

    I was raised nominally Christian, and continued to hold to that label even into my late teens, despite the fact that I had long since ceased believing in any of it. In part this was because I worried about what others would think of me, and in part it was because of my worries (inculcated by my environment) that if I didn’t identify with a religion, then I was a “moral free agent” who couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing, not even by myself.

    I moved out to the coast, where being an open atheist has a completely different set of problems (the New-Agers who dominate towns like Santa Cruz are open to all beliefs…but if you happen to not believe in anything “divine” then they tend to dislike you), but by this time I was growing a bit more confident and more willing to call bullshit where and when I saw it. As a result, when I returned to a more rural area a couple of years ago (I now live in Fresno County), I had no issues with being open about being an atheist.

    I do get some flack from people where I live now. However, I have the advantage of being a rather large (and my fiance insists, loud and scary-looking when someone threatens me or my friends) man, and so people tend to be less willing to confront me in general than they are other people. However, my fiance works with the local LGBT community center, and she has had to deal with a lot of local bigotry, most of it inspired by religion. It should, however, be noted that one local church, upstairs from her office, has consistently been supportive of not only the LGBT community, but also church-state separation, and the members have always been very respectful towards me even as we disagree. This is, however, an odd exception.

  • Coragyps

    I live in West Texas in a county that voted 82% for GW Bush both times, and 80% McCain/Palin. My customers are all oilfield types. Many of them likely never go to church, but I would still never dare bring up my atheism here. If somebody asks directly – “What church do you go to?” is acceptable within a minute of meeting someone here – I will say “I don’t.” But, like some others above, the A-word is possibly too highly charged to use here. The F-word I might get by with.

  • Rod

    Growing up in southern Onyario and working for years in eastern Ontario, I can honestly say that I have not come in contact with overt religiosity, either from friends, family or coworkers.
    In Canada those types of advances are seen as intrusive and unwelcome, and my experience would lead me to say that most people would tell those people to shut up.
    As well, there were and are few overt signs of religion. We see few roadside signs, and Canadian towns seem to ahve about 1/4 the number of churches US towns do.
    Religion is just not at the top of anyone’s mind here. And that is fine.

  • Zinc Avenger

    Red stater here. Telling someone you’re an atheist here get you stares like you’ve just announced that you are from Mars. They simply can’t comprehend it.

    One co-worker who I ‘came out’ as an atheist to told me not to worry, that I was a good person with strong morals. I actually relaxed for a second, then she said “You must be a Christian in your heart, and God will know his own even if you won’t admit it” *sigh*

    • iknklast

      When I tell people I’m an atheist, if they don’t run away immediately, they usually say “Oh, of course you mean agnostic. After all, you do such good things!”

      I hate that. It might even be worse than the ever popular “You’re more Christian than the Christians”.

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  • Inflection

    Grew up in Houston, Texas. I just sort of learned to not be bothered by it. It was background noise; you expected politicians to blather on about their Christianity, business leaders to tout their church involvement, etc. My public(!) high school’s school song was:

    Dear God please bless our school and all it stands for.
    Help keep us free from sin, honest and true.
    Courage and faith to make our school the victor.
    In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

    I was out as an atheist, but the only major problem it ever caused was that multiple Boy Scout troops kicked me out until I managed to find one that didn’t worry about it. (Stayed there and made Eagle, too.)

    The other students would proselytize me in high school, and I’d just come back with the best arguments I could. I distinctly remember causing a spot of flustered conversation when I pointed out to the budding young literalists the verse in Genesis about the sons, plural, of God.

  • benedic

    All of this was brought to the United States by folk who claimed to be persecuted in Europe. It makes one wonder as the accuracy of their claims.

    • GeorgeM

      Sometimes I wonder if those immigrants were “rejects”, in the sense of Australia having been settled by “rejects”

    • Steve

      It’s true that they were persecuted by the Church of England. But what is often forgotten or whitewashed is that the Puritans weren’t a bunch of nice people who simply wanted to live in peace. Far from it. They were tyrannical, theocratic zealots who didn’t tolerate any dissent. They promptly established a theocracy in their colonies and violently squashed all opposition. The first American colony founded explicitly with religious freedom in mind – Rhode Island – was founded by people who fled from the Puritans. The Puritan reign was ended after they executed a couple of Quakers and the King of England established a new governor and news laws about religious toleration.

      Overall, Australia definitely got the better deal.

      • GeorgeM

        Agreed.
        If extreme religiosity is the product of a certain “gene set”, then those genes were exported en-masse to the colonies. :(

      • Sam C

        Overall, Australia definitely got the better deal.

        Says something about religion that the country that got the villains and other ne’r-do-wells from Britain is a saner and more tolerant country than the one that got the fervent Christians!

        I’m sure I’m not the only non-USAer reading these stories with fascinated horror – I’m sure that in all countries with churches one will meet proselytizers, but they’re usually just an annoyance to be politely ignored and don’t interfere with normal life. These descriptions of the sheer nastiness of Christians and the Christian community appal me. And I certainly don’t make the mistake of thinking “they’re not True Christians” – oh yes, they very much are, and in the mold of the Old Testament’s mass murdering, child sacrificing zealots.

  • Aaron

    I grew up in and still sometimes live in a tiny town in the Blue Ridge in Virginia. I dance around belief when it comes up, and only say I’m an atheist if someone asks directly in a one-on-one situation. I work from home, so this situation is easy to maintain, but it is depressing to not have the community aspects that going to church as a child made easy. I’ve been earnestly told by close friends how sorry they are that I’m going to go to hell. When my grandfather died, the service talked about him for five minutes, and the dangers of not believing in Jesus for the rest. It’s exhausting to be angry at ridiculous decisions people make, but not able to say anything without being outed and, hence, branded.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    I was born and raised in Oshkosh. I graduated from UW-Oshkosh, but that was probably before the time you were even a gleam in your daddy’s eye. I moved away and, other than a few visits, I haven’t been back.

  • Laura C.

    I’m in the process of growing up in a Southwest Missouri town with a population of about 10,000, somewhere around 40 churches, and a 70/30 split in favor of McCain in the last election. Being a bisexual atheist without supportive parents isn’t easy.

    That said, things could have been a lot worse than they actually are. I’m mostly out at school, and haven’t gotten any direct death threats yet (there have been a few general, indirect ones, with “We should move all the gays to California and bomb ‘em” taking the cake). I’m tremendously lucky to have a small, rather underground support network through the more artsy departments of the school, and an administration that’s usually afraid of stepping on toes (although that can be both good and bad – it means no one really opposes evolution in science classes, but it’s also the reason it’s taking so long for our school to allow a GSA).

    There are still a lot of problems, of course: sometimes teachers (and once, a counselor – I asked him for advice on coming out, and he wound up recommending I read “The Case for Christ”) try to push their religious or political beliefs in class, and there’s not much the students can do about it. I was ready to leave my house when I told my mom I was an atheist, and I still haven’t come out as bi because of her reaction (I’m just glad she didn’t kick me out – coming out at that point was a really poorly-thought-out move on my part, driven by the stress that came with hiding everything).

    All in all, I’m not in any physical danger, and whatever psychological stress caused by not being completely out at home is alleviated by being out at school – and, of course, the way internet access has let me know I’m not alone. It’s no cakewalk, but it’s not horrible, either.

  • blindrobin

    I’ve been an unabashed atheist in Houston Texas since about 1969. While I rarely mention it among strangers or co-workers I don’t dissemble either should the topic arise in conversation. I find I lot more people than you would think agree with me.

  • Boz Haug

    I feel like a bit of an ass posting because I’m not being either actively or passively persecuted by people who believe in genocidal fairy tales. I live in Vancouver, B.C., and like most of urban Canada religion isn’t tolerated much outside of churches and the like. Proselytizing is rare and generally unwelcome, and when it does happen most people ignore it.

    What I can tell you is that when we (most urban Canadians, theists and atheists alike) see shows about Evangelicals and the like south of the 49th we get…well, kind of embarrassed for our American neighbours. Watching adults raise their hands and faces in some sort of pretend ecstasy while a greasy conman rants like an idiot with a speech impediment into a microphone just makes us squirm. (Why does every sentence have to end with a sharp “-uh” as in “The Lord believes in you-UH!”? It sounds ridiculous.)

    Not to say that we don’t have our own dorky dorks up here, but aside from a few egregious examples (that sick fuck running the polygamous sect in Bountiful B.C. for one) religious insanity among the masses seem pretty rare.

    Those of you in shitty circumstances in the red states: know that you have fellow atheists pulling for you. Even those of us who aren’t being oppressed. Just knowing that that kind of persecution exists is frightening and angering.

  • http://www.lovecraftzine.com Mike

    My wife, son, and I moved from Iowa to a small town in Texas almost a year and a half ago. I thought I was prepared for how close-minded they are here, but I sure wasn’t.

    When someone first meets you, they ask where you go to church. Or, I’ve met someone and right away they start talking about the “damn Democrats”. The really tough part is this:

    I have a 9-year-old son; so while normally I don’t care what people think, I HAVE to care. I have to lie and fudge the truth, because if I did not, NO ONE would allow their son to play with mine. It was a tough move for him and I can’t put my needs above his.

    If you’re an atheist, then you know how tough it can be. But if you don’t live in a place like this, and if you’re not a parent, then you really don’t know just HOW hard that can be.

    My policy is to smile and avoid people as much as possible.


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