The Deep South Closet

The easy part of this blog is the field work. There’s almost none of it. I don’t use up a lot of shoe leather work putting out these posts. I mainly sidle up to other writers who have posted original stuff. And then I comment on what they have seen and heard. Of course, there have been exceptions. This is not one of them.

CNN Belief Blog editor Daniel Burke has done some foot work. Yesterday he posted this:

Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.

If you get the idea the most religious place on this planet outside of Saudi Arabia is the Old Confederacy, then you have a lot of company. Take a drive through the South. Here are a few scenes I copped from Google Images. Supposedly these are all from Mississippi or thereabouts.







Here’s one featuring the Joseph Stalin, late Premier of the Soviet Union and a noted atheist.



I’m going to let this one speak for itself.


This one is from Georgia.


Anyhow, you get the picture. Of course, there are atheists in the Old South just as there are in Saudi Arabia. The difference is in America we don’t execute atheists. Yet.

In fact, even in the South there are atheists who are fighting back. Here is a billboard, apparently from Florida.


While there are hazards to adults who allow their non-belief to become known, children bear a special burden. Burke relates some stories:

Kalei Wilson, 15, said she lost friends after trying to start a secular student club at Pisgah High School in Canton, North Carolina, and someone used a Bible to destroy her science project, leaving the holy book on her smashed model of the universe.

The blue-haired, nose-pierced freshman says she’s not the only atheist at her high school, but most of them are closeted.

“I didn’t want to come out at first,” Wilson says, “but in order to start the club I had to.”

In exchange for her openness, Wilson says, some students mutter “Jesus loves you” as she walks down the hall, and she regularly receives text messages with the greeting, “Hey, Satan.”

“I’ve lost friends because of it,” the teenager says of her atheism, “but they’re not real friends if that’s what they do.”

Kalei Wilson’s tribulations are not the worst example. Without citing specific instances I will note that others have been ostracized, shunned by their peers, even disinherited and forced to leave the homes of their families. An experience I observed first hand is almost humorous. My first job out of college was working at the University of Texas. A co-worker was a young girl, fresh out of high school and still living in her family’s home. As far as I know, she was not an atheists, but she experienced the pangs, non-the-less. We were discussing some books and I lent her my copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Rand was a noted atheist, and Kelly’s mother would not allow the book in her house. So Kelly moved out and got her own place. And a sports car. And she married Mac, one of the graduate students. I took her bridal portrait.

Many who have based their lives on Christian teachings (notice we are not talking about Jews and Muslims here) have no idea that a person can have a moral life without Christ. More particularly without the God of Abraham, because this is the supposed power and authority behind the teachings of Jesus. A fine point here, but atheists do not generally have to reject Jesus. The historicity of Jesus, while problematic, is not the key issue. Even an atheist can adopt the teachings of Jesus and form a moral life upon them without once accepting the existence of an all-powerful being who created the universe and set up humanity as a diversion.

The image some Christians have of atheists is startling, and a few facts need to be set straight. Atheists do not worship the Devil. The Devil is a mythical entity as much as the God of Abraham is. Strictly speaking, atheists are people without something to worship. That’s the definition of the word.

And atheists do not eat babies. That has traditionally been reserved for Rebel soldiers in the Civil War. Some Rebel troops approached a house prior to the Battle of Gettysburg and demanded food. The housewife refused, and the soldiers offered to eat her baby, instead. The got food, and the word got around. “Ja, the Rebels Eat Babies!” is the title of the first chapter of Gettysburg by MacKinlay Kantor and Elizabeth Payne. When there is something you abhor you can always find a disgusting attribute to attach to it.

Burke talks a lot about support groups:

Not so long ago, every other letter sent to the Freedom From Religion Foundation would begin something like, “I’m the only atheist in Nebraska … “

It’s still lonely being an atheist in rural America, says Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, but there are plenty of skeptics and nonbelievers in God’s Country – if you know how to find them.

Even the most religious states like Mississippi and Alabama have secular meetup groups, although many keep quiet and require long drives to attend.

Tell me about it. My brother and I, plus two cousins and a school mate, grew up in a small Texas town. All of us had the advantage of Protestant religious indoctrination. None of it stuck. In high school we began talking about the possibility God was a made up story. By college we knew for sure. What support group? All that seemed to be required was some reasoning unfettered by made up “facts.”

Religious families realize this and seek to protect their children. Home schooling is almost critical to maintain the faith, since students at any decent high school are going to learn enough history, biology, geology and such to put the lie to biblical fables. Schooling at a legitimate college is anathema for these Christians, since truth runs rampant in the classrooms and on the campus. Experience bears out the attitude of some. Glenn Morton is a religious person, but he is also a practicing geologist. He had this encounter at a meeting of young-Earth creationists:

Glenn Morton stood up and reminded those in attendance that he is a creationist who once published in favor of the young Earth. He now renounces that position because the evidence is too much against it, and he urged others to abandon the idea. A problem he mentioned is that after you teach this concept to your children and then send them to college where they will learn otherwise, their loyalty to your other teachings will be threatened. One cheerful member of the group offered a solution: “Don’t send them.”

You do not need to be an atheist to be of concern to the biblically entrenched in the Bible Belt.

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