By the time you read this, my family will have exchanged life in Tennessee for a home in Washington (the state, not the District of Columbia). For atheists like me, the Volunteer State does its best to make itself unlovable. With my children progressing into adult independence, and no job tethering my wife or me in place, it was time to move on.
When I arrived in east Tennessee in 2004, I was a committed, churchgoing evangelical. Watching the Appalachians recede in my rearview mirror in 2021, I’ve moved beyond atheism to anti-theism.
Just to be clear, I don’t hold my milieu responsible for my belief or lack thereof. My progression from Christian to non-believer was largely an intellectual one. I’m simply too curious and inquisitive to be satisfied with the mentality of “the Bible says it, that settles it.” So, when I embarked on a personal course of comparative religion study and discovered that Buddhist history contained people who were just as convinced about the correctness of their religion – and just as willing to kill for it across the centuries (don’t believe that “we’re a religion of peace” nonsense) – my doubts only increased. When I mentioned to a local seminary dean at a post-church lunch that I was reading Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, and the dean dissed it, not for its content but for its faith-eroding power, I became even less convinced that the Bible was ghostwritten by an omniscient, perfect deity.
When the job that brought me to Tennessee, as psychiatrist and therapist for combat veterans with PTSD, exposed me to the terrors of war (and the terrors of governments and citizens that cheer for bloodshed), I felt compelled to dig into the theology of suffering. How can a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving God permit such awfulness? Still more, how can a sacred book celebrate genocide and the slaughter of infants? The so-called Book of Answers not only failed to respond satisfyingly to these questions, but exacerbated the problem.
So, in 2009, when I read William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion, with his description of the Christian God as an unfulfilling deity who plays hide-and-seek way too much of the time, the notion of atheism as the sole satisfying theological answer made perfect sense. Later readings of Sam Harris, Dan Barker, and Christopher Hitchens only solidified my conviction.
Again, I feel certain that all of this would’ve happened no matter my location on a map of the United States. But seeing a suffocating evangelical religiosity play out in everyday life in Tennessee moved my dial from atheist to anti-theist. (And I suspect strongly that fellow atheist Americans can’t comprehend Bible Belt toxicity unless they’ve actually lived it.)
Even in a mid-sized university locale like Johnson City, the residents can be counted on to vote against their interests, for the worst possible political candidates. All that matters is that the candidate hold up a Bible with one hand and a firearm with the other.
This is true on both the micro and macro level. For the longest time, my state representative was an ignoramus named Micah Van Huss. A graduate of the august Tri-Cities Christian Academy, where young earth creationism and Common Core as Islamic propaganda are de rigueur, he could be counted upon to regularly make Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist website for his time-wasting, Christian nationalist legislative efforts.
Tennessee’s current governor, Bill Lee, is equally decerebrate. Naturally, his Facebook page proclaims that he’s a “man of faith.” Scroll down a little, and you’ll see that this trust fund baby likes to make maskless public appearances at Nashville bars. It’s hardly surprising that our state ranks 41st out of 50 in successful vaccine distribution with this boob at the helm.
Followers of national politics are no doubt aware that our US Congresspeople are equally awful. My longtime representative, Dr. Phil Roe, has thankfully retired, but it was more likely that Scientology would prove true than Roe would have a public utterance that wasn’t a RNC or Donnie Trump talking point. And of course Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty still have their heads so far up Trump’s tuchus, they can tell you whether he last ate McDonald’s or KFC.
Our region is supersaturated with evangelicalism, as the overabundance of houses of worship makes too clear. Shortly before our move west, I started counting how many churches I passed on my twice-daily dog walks. It’s never less than one, and sometimes as many as six! This religion even permeates what should be secular workplaces. One local orthopedic clinic has a painting of Jesus standing next to the doctors in the operating room; the main eye clinic in our region prominently displays plaques boasting of mission trips. In my wife’s former workplace, one of the docs would routinely pray with his patients (no abuse of authority there); and the nurses would hold morning devotions while on the clock, clogging up a high-traffic area.
Driving around town or patronizing small businesses, the Christian messaging is relentless. Whether it’s the piped-in insipidness of CCM at shoe stores and accounting offices, the Bible verses at the car wash or Toyota dealership, the turn-or-burn church signs, it never lets up. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Christians aren’t trying to persuade their lost neighbors, but are constantly re-convincing themselves that Jesus is the way, let science and reason be damned.
As a Christian, I was repeatedly told that our tribe is the salt preserving a vile world from decay, and the light on an otherwise darkened planet. Therefore, all this religion should make East Tennessee a paradise, correct?
Well, not exactly. Our public parks and lakes are disgustingly litter-strewn. Our region’s poor and homeless are criminalized; I routinely treated patients who had to make the hard choice between their prescription meds or paying their utilities, since our Christ-like legislators always refused federal Medicaid funds. And of course the “love your neighbor” crowd is all about gathering on Sunday mornings for quality time with Jesus, never mind the pandemic raging around us. (The contrast in percentage of mask wearers, between godly Johnson City and godless Asheville an hour away, was always telling.)
And let’s talk about Southern racism, shall we? The overtness of it was simply astonishing, upon my move from Connecticut in 2004. I never imagined that as a group therapist, I would have to tell patients repeatedly that the use of the n-word was unacceptable, or that waxing nostalgic about the good old days of sundown towns was not okay.
As such, it was horrifying but not shocking that my region so thoroughly embraced the cult of Trump. Here at last was an evangelical-friendly President who said the normally whispered racist stuff out loud. The only traffic jam my neighborhood ever experienced was the evening Trump held one of his fascist rallies less than a mile up the road. (My wife gave the Presidential motorcade a one-finger salute, bless her heart.)
Just as troubling was how this racism permeated even local university culture. When the men’s basketball team at East Tennessee State University kneeled during the National Anthem, the university president grotesquely condemned their action instead of supporting the team’s exercise of their free speech rights. President Noland can’t help that he resembles the creepy white supremacist from Lovecraft Country, but it’s certainly a shame that he talks like him.
Likewise, a regressive Southern mentality contaminates local journalism. When the local press covered Darwin Day at a regional fossil site, their writer gave as much ink to a disruptive heckler as he did to the designated speaker. When covering the debate over Confederate monuments, they allowed a “local historian” (i.e., a shill for the Daughters of the Confederacy) to proclaim, free of fact-checking, that slaves weren’t really treated that badly, dontchaknow?
As a lifelong reader of medical literature, I’m savvy enough to know that correlation doesn’t equal causation. But correlation matters, nonetheless. And it’s striking to me that a state with a majority evangelical population manages to get so much so wrong.
By contrast, it doesn’t seem like coincidence that Washington, where “nones” are the largest religious group, has their act together in many more ways than Tennessee. Their governor is a leading, um, evangelist for environment-friendly public policy, while their legislature banned single-use plastic bags last year. Washington’s minimum wage is almost double the pitiable amount mandated federally. And if the state’s COVID practices had been emulated nationwide, 300K American lives could’ve been saved.
With no disrespect towards Belinda Carlisle, I don’t believe heaven is a place on earth. But I anticipate a much better quality of life in Washington than East Tennessee can afford me in its current Jesus-saturated state. 17 years in the region have convinced me that it’s at least 30 years of funerals away from substantive improvement, given its regressive religious beliefs and overwhelming whiteness. (And overwhelming white privilege: Johnson City’s new mayor – a member of the last church I attended as a believer – recently spoke of the danger to white heterosexual males if he greenlighted a diversity committee.)
I feel some guilt at leaving behind the good people in the region: the local Democratic Socialist organization, a fledgling BLM group, the gracious veterans who schooled me on American imperialism, to name just a few. But I’m too old to linger 30 more years and keep writing, fighting, and protesting, when my occupational skillset furnishes me an opportunity to live in a place where the Christian gaslighting isn’t constant and exhausting.
So farewell, Tennessee. My brain taught me atheism. But daily living in your Bible Belt convinced me of the pragmatic rightness of anti-theism. Christopher Hitchens was right: religion poisons everything.
Postscript #1: I’ll get back to film reviews once I’ve unpacked a few more boxes.
Postscript #2: To any left-of-center Christians poised to make “no true Scotsman” arguments, please save us both some time. Any progressive beliefs you hold are due to secular humanism’s influence, not your religion. I would respect you more if you had the intellectual integrity to acknowledge this. I’m grateful for any allies in the culture wars, but I know your sacred book too well to accept any out-of-context arguments that the Bible is politically liberal, pro-LGBTQ, or anti-racist.
(Photos taken by yours truly.)