Who would you say is the most distrusted and disliked group in America? According to two large university studies, Americans distrust atheists more than Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals, and they also find atheists the least desirable candidates for a future son-in-law or daughter-in-law. One survey presented a scenario in which a person hit a parked car but failed to leave behind insurance information. The survey then asked respondents to predict the probability that the person in question is a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist, or a rapist. Those surveyed found it equally plausible that the person in the scenario is either an atheist or a rapist. That paints a discouraging picture for the now 13 million Americans who self-identify as atheist.
But what about non-believers like myself who live in the South, where churches occupy more street corners than Starbucks in Seattle? Our situation is considerably more difficult. In Mississippi in particular, ranked consistently as the most religious state in the union, “coming out” as an atheist can be social suicide. Trust me, I know this all too well.
After talking with countless evangelical Christians in multiple settings, and of course after growing up as one myself, I know one of the main reasons why we are so repulsive to them: Faith and morality are so closely associated in most Christians’ minds that they believe you cannot have one without the other. I was taught from my youngest days that belief in God is the source of all virtue. All personal strength and moral fortitude, I was told, arise from knowing and trusting (one particular) God, and anyone who fails to believe in (that particular) God must be necessarily immoral.
Over the last couple of years I have come to know so many agnostics and atheists who encounter the same frustrating judgment over and over again. By far the most pervasive misconception about non-believers is that we have no basis for morals or ethics simply because we do not believe in the supernatural. This misconception derails so many conversations and stifles so many relationships that I cannot write about being an atheist in an overwhelmingly faith-oriented state without squarely addressing it. I help moderate a private Facebook group of nearly 300 (mostly closeted) atheists in Mississippi, and when I asked them what is their main issue with being a skeptic in our region, their most consistent reply was, “For crying out loud, we have morals, too!”
Few Christians seem willing to accept this, along with a handful of other things. For example, we also cannot seem to discuss our differing beliefs without someone dismissing years of thoughtful questioning and seeking, accusing us instead of rejecting their particular faith for primarily base or “carnal” reasons. “You just want to live an immoral life,” they are fond of saying. This overly simplistic (and condescending) conclusion may satisfy them, but it never satisfied us. To us, that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates us to ask questions to try and better understand the world around us. Another favorite dismissal we often hear is: “What awful thing happened to you to make you this way?” Leaving aside the implicit condemnation in that question (as if we’re broken), let me assure you that many of us had perfectly peaceful lives with functional families and decent economic situations (well, as decent as can be expected in the Deep South!). Sure, some of us did have bad experiences which influenced our evaluation of our surrounding culture’s beliefs. But my life was fine. Nobody hurt me. Nobody did anything bad to me, as far as I recall. It wasn’t until after I left the faith that I got to know the angry, judgmental side of the religion from which I came.
In the last couple of years I have been told that my loss of faith will cause my children to hate me. I have been told no one will want to hire me. I have been told I will lose all my friends and die a lonely man, finally burning in Hell for all eternity. And that was just what I heard from one of my family members! What I was told by people who don’t even know me well wouldn’t be fit for print. People get really nasty when they believe you are somehow personally responsible for the decline of American culture and civilization. To hear some preachers talk, you’d conclude atheists are the cause of every hurricane, tornado, and economic crisis which befalls our country. What blows my mind is that some people actually buy this nonsense.
“Quit your whining,” some will say, “You made a choice and now you have to live with the consequences.” On the contrary, belief is not always a matter of choice. You can choose what questions to allow yourself to ask, and you can choose where you are willing to look for answers. But you cannot unlearn what you have already learned. Some fundamental beliefs inevitably follow from your experiences and your reasoning from that point on. You cannot then simply choose to believe something that seems obviously wrong to you; you just do believe or you don’t. And I don’t.
So why don’t I just keep it to myself, then? Why don’t I mind my own business and refrain from bringing this up? I’ll tell you why: Because the double standard that represents is outrageous.
Consider a typical day I had not too long ago:
I awake to headlines announcing that the man about to become governor of my state publicly declared that anyone who disagreed with his view on a particular political issue is an instrument of the devil. This doesn’t shock me because politicians using religious language and wearing their faith on their sleeves is part and parcel of southern politics. Checking my Facebook feed I also see that a prominent preacher announced that atheists should all leave the country because America, he says, is a God-fearing place, and we will not be missed. On my drive to work I can’t find two of my favorite radio stations because, although my area already had four Christian radio stations, it turns out a national Christian radio conglomerate has bought out both of my stations, removing them from the airwaves. Once at work, I open several emails from coworkers and superiors announcing prayer requests or praises to God for things that have happened in their lives. I teach at a public school, yet I am required by state law to prominently display a 11×14 poster in my room declaring “In God We Trust” in very large letters. At lunch I watch as a trio of local youth ministers circulates through the lunch room, greeting kids and chatting with them as they eat (they do this for nearly two hours every single Wednesday). No other non-school employee is afforded such prolonged and welcome exposure to the students. After work I stop to get gas and hear Christian praise and worship music blaring over the loudspeakers above my head. I drive to my local gym (non-religious in name) where I workout listening to more contemporary Christian music played out in the locker room and over the gym floor. After that I take my daughter to the nearest skating rink where, once again, only Christian music plays and inspirational quotes and Bible verses are inscribed on the floors and projected onto the walls. We leave there and get dessert at one of her favorite yogurt places where they play (guess what?) Christian praise and worship music overhead. On our way home we pass two banks scrolling Bible verses across their brightly lit marquis signs. This is actually a typical day in Mississippi.
Around here, people are socially rewarded for public displays of religious devotion. In my culture, goodness and virtue are so closely associated with faith that anyone who openly admits he sees things differently suffers tremendous social consequences.
And yet, here we are. I now know hundreds of people like me who no longer identify with the Christian religion yet who lead perfectly normal, boring, law-abiding and moral lives. We cannot come completely “out of the closet” because the cost can be so very high. Many of us would lose things which are too precious to us to give up. You do not have to agree with us on issues of faith and religion. But decency and compassion should at least inspire you to withhold judgment because until you have lived in our place you don’t realize what it’s like being an atheist in Mississippi.