3/17/08

An Atheist in Mississippi: One Perspective

Bible belt
Bible belt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Like many parts of the United States which are collectively referred to as the "Bible Belt," Mississippi can be considered a hostile environment for atheists. But what does this hostility look like and how is it experienced in the daily life of an atheist? I recognize that other atheists in Mississippi may have different experiences than mine, and this is one of the reasons I hope this blog will come to reflect the diverse voices of atheism across our state.

In my experience, the hardest thing about being an atheist in Mississippi is that it seems to require one to choose between deception and social ostracization. Disclosing one's atheism often leads to surprisingly swift rejection, condemnation, or even outright bigotry. I vividly recall how a former next door neighbor with whom I seemed to get along reasonably well never spoke to me again after I answered his questions about where I attend church and then why I chose not to attend church. What appeared to have real potential as a friendship ended so abruptly that it was as if I no longer existed in this neighbor's mind. In retrospect, I guess I should not have been surprised. Still, it stung quite a bit at the time.

I've also endured more than enough atheist-bashing conversations at work, coming from co-workers I respect and consider friends. While not a regular topic, the disparaging comments seem to come out of nowhere anytime subjects such as religion or politics are raised. I have never and would never disparage the religious beliefs of a co-worker during conversation, but this courtesy does not extend in both directions. In the work context, the consequences of ostracization could actually harm my career.

The temptation is to keep my atheism to myself, buried deep within and masked with a fake respect for religious belief. To be clear, I never lie if asked directly what I think of religion or whether I am religious. But I have certainly lied through omission, changing the subject or simply not volunteering information. This sort of deception makes me feel terrible, guilty for not standing up for my beliefs and sad that this could seem necessary in this modern age.