The Deep South Needs Atheists Who Don’t Leave

The Deep South Needs Atheists Who Don’t Leave December 7, 2014
depot
The Historic Train Depot in Eastman, GA (Copyright jOgdenC 2014)

[Today’s guest post is written by Matt Oxley, who writes at RagingRev.com]

There are a couple things everyone assumes about the people they meet here in the town of Eastman, Georgia:  You probably vote Republican, and you probably self identify as a Christian, whether or not there is any evidence of that identification in your life. Eastman is your typical small town in the Deep South, complete with a history of dirty politics – a long one – a ratio of people to churches that makes Vatican City look secular, and a general fear of progressive values which keeps our economy lagging behind larger cities (like “blue laws” which prevent bars and fine dining establishments from opening).

These things aside, I actually like my town – it’s generally quiet and I feel safe here. I like most of the people here and I have a growing business that I’m proud of with a client base ranging from the most affluent individuals and businesses to those individuals you would consider the most in need. I’m well-known here, both as a business owner and as an outspoken atheist activist who stands up for what he believes in – and despite the latter, I gather that I’m actually fairly well liked. Most of the people here are nice, and even in the things we disagree about they are well-meaning in their endeavors and beliefs. Most people here aren’t your stereotypical mouth breathing “rednecks” who can’t put together a coherent sentence to save their life. We have incredible teachers in our schools who are dedicated and who break their necks to educate with the resources they have who I believe lend to the “Yankee’s” surprise when they hear us use complex language and ideas.

Regardless of what I believe, I’ve always found myself at odds in some ways with my community. Some of my rebellious nature has waned as I’ve aged and matured, but I’ve always felt a need to stand as a representative for some form of social justice and of rightness in the ways that I can. Even if those ways were misguided in the past, I’ve never been afraid to say unpopular things in sometimes unpopular ways, though I believe I’ve progressed in the way I present myself over the years and honed my approach toward my community, which has helped me build more good relationships than bad ones.

The question still remains: Why would I ever become such an outspoken atheist activist in the Deep South knowing full well that it might prevent me from ever finding another job, expanding my business, or becoming any more than a social pariah? Why would I take such a risk.

Defeating The “Get the Hell outta Dodge” Mindset

For generations young people in communities like mine who think differently from the status quo have dreamed of the day when they would be free to “get the hell out of Dodge” to chase their dreams and speak freely about their beliefs, opinions, or sexuality. Years of being the black sheep, the oddball, the queer kid, the liberal, or the atheist can make someone giddy over the idea of just leaving and never coming back – and many do just that. Who can blame them?

It’s hard to stick around when you feel like your community doesn’t really belong to you and you don’t belong to it. I think, in a big way, this is one of the major reasons why these old Southern communities stay the way they are. All the people with the ideas and desires to see them move forward move to larger and more progressive cities the moment they have a chance.

This diaspora of brilliance, progressivism, and compassion leads to a vacuum of reason and forward thinking in small towns like ours. It leaves the status quo intact to continue its stranglehold on our community with the same antiquated thought that has brought us to where we are.

People in small Southern towns who think differently and make it known become popular targets for evangelistic efforts, and when those efforts don’t work they become social outcasts. Society and status here has more to do with what church you belong to than the content of your character. People want to escape that, and I don’t blame them. I probably would have at a certain point in my life, but circumstances arose in my life that kept me here and I’m ultimately glad to still be here moving the conversation in the direction I want it to go.

If we all leave, if we don’t affect the conversation in our communities, then the places where we grew up will never become places that kids like us will feel comfortable growing up. You could say we have a responsibility to those coming after us which those twho came before us never fulfilled.

The Deep South Needs Me to Be Who I Am

And it needs you to do the same.

Communities like mine in the Bible Belt contain within them individual specimens of brilliance, uniqueness, and humanity who are simply too afraid to let those unique characteristics shine through. Sometimes people simply need an example of that in their own lives to feel comfortable enough to shake away their own fears and insecurities.

Closets are full in communities like mine, but with enough proud public faces willing to step out and live with the consequences of whatever pulpit-shamed taboo it is they are willing to present, it becomes easier and easier for others to do the same. These newly free people are then able to build communities of support, further lessening the blow of the theocracy that surrounds them. This is why I’ve asked people to embrace their labels in the past, and use them as words of great pride.

Some People are Teachable (even me)

Activism, for the atheist, generally entails entering into conversations that aren’t generally considered “polite conversation.” It means challenging people’s most deeply held beliefs, offending people’s sensibilities at times, and disagreeing with some people who are vehemently defensive of their right to be wrong. Talking to people about the things I do requires a certain finesse and can often be an intimate affair. People often confess the depth of their doubts, their fears about religion and family, and how unsure they really are about everything in which they pretend to be so confident. I always approach people with an absolute openness – there’s no question I won’t answer, no topic I won’t cover, and no story about my life I won’t delve into with someone who’s willing to do the same with me.

After sitting down over lunch or coffee, most people are willing to learn something about me and how I got to be the person I am today.  I’m genuinely interested in how they get to the point where they are, and I find that very few people are not in some way teachable. I find that even fewer people don’t have something they can teach me. These conversations are worthwhile and they teach us a humanitarian compassion that I don’t think any other activity can.

If a Southern Baptist pastor and a godless heathen like me can sit across from one another (even if we do sometimes raise our voices) finding common ground in our humanity and love for our community, then we are both winning and both learning. I’m really proud of the relationships I have with my clergy friends.

Conclusion

Atheist Activism is, for me, Humanist activism. It’s LGBT activism, secularist activism, and it’s also standing up for the values I want to see in my community in the future. It means sticking my neck out when other people might be afraid to do so, so that they might eventually live without that fear. It’s saying unpopular things sometimes just for the sake of exposing people to unpopular ideas for the first time in their lives. It’s learning to live with people who aren’t like you and teaching others to do the same. Atheist activism is being an example of humanity that you can be proud of and that others can look up to, and while I’m far from the person I eventually want to become, I hope that my continued growth inspires others to continue to work on themselves. I’m old enough and independent enough that I can take these risks. If you are as well, I encourage you to find ways to engage in your communities away from social media where it’s easy to sit behind a keyboard and throw poo.  Maybe that way you can remind those in it that behind the label (atheist, queer, liberal, or what have you) is a human being who arrived at his or her conclusions with much thought, effort, and care.

Why am I an atheist activist in the Deep South?

Because someone must be.

________

This article originally posted here on Matt’s blog at RagingRev.com.  For more of his articles, be sure to check his blog out!

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Matt Oxley is a former fundamentalist Christian turned atheist living in Middle Georgia. He writes about his experiences living in the Deep South as an atheist activist and critic of Christian society. You can reach him at RevOxley501@gmail.com, on twitter @RevOxley, and on Facebook here.

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