Friday, May 29, 2009

Atheist Billboard in New Orleans

I am thinking I might have to drive down to New Orleans just to see this new billboard on I-10. From WDSU.com:
"The point of the billboard campaign is to reach out to the millions of humanists, atheists and agnostics living in the United States," said Fred Edwords, head of the United Coalition of Reason. "Nontheists sometimes don't realize there's a community out there for them because they're inundated with religious messages at every corner."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Central MS Atheists to Hold June Meeting in Jackson

The Central MS Atheist Meetup Group plans to hold their next meeting on June 24, 2009, at 7:00 PM in Jackson. For the location of the meeting, see their Meetup.com page. It sounds like they are expecting this one to be fairly well attended.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Advice for Atheists New to Mississippi

I have received some e-mails from atheists who have recently moved to Mississippi from outside the deep South. Some simply want to know what to expect from an area that seems quite inhospitable to atheists. Others are looking for specific coping strategies, the most common of which involves where to find like-minded people to reduce feelings of isolation. I do my best to respond to all such queries and provide as much information as I can. However, such correspondence has led me to acknowledge that my limitations in these areas are many and my answers few. I thought it would be helpful for those of us contributing to Mississippi Atheists to do what we can to address such questions.

As someone who moved to Mississippi as an adult (and an atheist), I am in a decent position to address some of the issues involved with making the transition. At the same time, I am poorly equipped to address some of the social aspects of life in Mississippi as an atheist. I've never had a particularly strong need for affiliation, and many of my favorite activities are solitary pursuits. In this area, I can convey information reasonably well, but most of it does not come from personal experience.

I'm an Atheist Moving to Mississippi. What Can I Expect?

If you are relocating to Mississippi from outside the deep South, here are some things to expect:
  • Religion is an extremely important part of the daily lives of most Mississippians. Our state scores at the top of surveys asking respondents to rate the importance of religion in their daily lives. Note that this is very different from asking respondents about the importance of religion in some abstract way. This means that you can expect to be exposed to religion every day. This even holds true of the workplace.
  • Fundamentalist Christianity reigns supreme here. The Southern Baptists are very influential, and protestant denominations that might have been fairly liberal in other regions of the U.S. are so much more conservative as to almost be unrecognizable here.
  • When meeting someone for the first time, you can expect to be asked where you attend church within the first couple minutes. If you have been here more than a couple of days, you have probably already experienced this. If not, it is just a matter of time. I have found that nearly any response you give will be followed by the other party inviting you to attend their church.
  • Door-to-door proselytizing is an extremely frequent occurrence. Before adopting countermeasures, I could count on visits every week or two.
  • Anti-atheist bigotry is widespread. You can expect to hear atheist-bashing regularly, and it is not uncommon for Christians to either actively try to convert you or cut off all communication with you upon learning of your atheism.
  • There are other atheists in Mississippi. It may not be easy to find us, as most of us do not go around broadcasting it, but we are here.
This is Lonely. How Do I Find Other Atheists?

This is an area which I'd particularly like my co-authors to help me expand. Like I said, it is not my strength. Still, here is what I'd suggest:
  • Check out Meetup.com and see if there are any active groups in your area. Do not limit yourself by searching only for atheists. Look for humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, and the like. If you have an active group in your area, this is a great place to start.
  • How far are you from the nearest university? Most universities, even those in Mississippi, will have a higher concentration of atheists than you'll find in the community. Most universities also host a variety of public events. Some even have secular student groups that may periodically sponsor public events.
  • Visit the website of the local newspaper in your town. If they have any sort of online forum where people can post comments, you may well find other atheists there.
  • Check out Atheist Nexus and/or Think Atheist. Both have groups for Mississippi atheists (In fact, I think I created both of them). Again, this can be an effective way to connect with others in your area.
  • Leave comments here at Mississippi Atheists introducing yourself. Even if the authors don't know anyone in your area, other visitors might.
  • Above all, don't give up. I know it can be rough, but even having one person around whom you can be yourself makes such a difference.
Now, I invite my co-authors, visitors to the site, etc. to help me expand this in any way you see fit. Together, we can make a difference. And yes, please feel free to continue to e-mail me directly if you'd prefer. I don't have all the answers, but I'll certainly try to help.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Introducing the Jackson Skeptical Society

Official seal of City of JacksonImage via Wikipedia

The Jackson Skeptical Society is not exactly a new organization. They were formed in January of 2009. However, since I just found out about them, I figured it was as good a time as any to announce their presence. Their goal is simple:
We aim to provide the city of Jackson and the area at large with a resource for critical thinking to allay the superstition of our times.
This is exactly what we need in our state. I just added their blog, Living Better Skeptically, to our list of Southern blogs worth reading.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What I've learned from Mississippi Churches about Community

PZ Myers talks about the lack of correlation between religion and intelligence.
Journeyman Philosopher talks about the lack of correlation between religion and morality.

So... religion isn't the key to intelligence nor is it the key to morality. And you already know that I think Christianity is strange. And yet thousands of Mississippians are going to wake up on Sunday morning, find a church, sit through the service, praise a god, and then find something to eat afterward.

With the exception of "praise a god", I'm going to do the same thing, just like I've done every weekend for the past few years. I find a Mississippi church and sit through the service. In the back of my mind, I say, "This will be the service that convinces me that there's a god above." It's my effort to keep an open mind on supernatural matters. Each week I walk away having learned more about the church that I visited than anything supernatural. In two years of actively visiting churches, interviewing preachers and reading Christian apologetics books, I have found nothing that requires me to conclude that supernatural forces exist. I've blogged about many of those experiences here at Mississippi Atheists. There was one church that I attended that I've yet to blog about. Just for the record, I visited the local Oxford Church of the Nazarene but never wrote a post about them. I reached a point where there was nothing new to say.

If there is one positive aspect to religion, it's this: religion provides a unified community framework. Sure, the basis for that religion may be mythology, but the unified community framework is still there. Despite no interest in worshiping mythology, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers still seek that sense of community. I now know a handful of nonbelievers who attend the local Episcopalian church because they are tolerant to the views of others. I've started attending the local Unitarian congregation where I am encouraged to be open about my non-belief. It really is like having my cake and eating it too. I get the community involvement where I can openly discuss spiritual matters without having to worship mythology. I also visit The Orchard, a local Methodist affiliation. They have an active community outreach program that focuses on service.

But let's not forget the negatives. I think back to my visit to the Yellow Leaf Baptist Church. Here's a church that is warm and hospitable, and yet they have a warped view of history. This church wants us to believe that the United States was founded as an exclusively Christian nation. One of the things the pastor warned me about was people trying to rewrite the history of our country when it was he who lacked the understanding of basic US history. Their religion supports this strange viewpoint, so I doubt they will ever change. I also think back to my second visit to the First Baptist Church. I blogged about them once and they personally invited me back. The second time around, the pastor had an anti-homosexual, anti-secular subtext to his sermon that I found to be offensive. If this view is representative of the entire church, then I certainly don't want to be part of that congregation. I want to tell the pastor that if he keeps preaching an anti-secular message, he'll never win a new convert. Better yet, I shouldn't tell him anything.

Michael Shermer once said, "Religion is good when it does good, and bad when it does bad." From what I've seen in almost 20 Mississippi churches, I can vouch for that remark. There's a book titled, "They Like Jesus But Not the Church." It's a series of interviews with people who don't attend church and why they do not. Here's a message that I would like to tell to Christians: I'm no longer interested in your Jesus, but I am interested in your church. What do you have to show us? Where do you get community right and where have you been wrong? The one thing that I feel the freethought community in Mississippi lacks is a real presence in the greater community.

One last thing: three different members from the Oxford Church of the Nazarene have sent me personal e-mails asking me to return. They are certainly an example of positive community.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Olive Branch Atheists Has Closed

I just received word from Meetup.com that the Olive Branch Atheists Meetup Group has closed due to lack of an organizer. I suppose it is also possible that the group simply decided to ditch Meetup.com. If this is the case and the group would like me to continue to post announcements about meetings on this blog, please feel free to email them to me at atheistrevolutionATgmail.com.

Friday, May 8, 2009

No Separation of Church and State at Mississippi Universities

USM GraduatesImage by wonderfully complex via Flickr

I work at a state (i.e., publicly funded) university in Mississippi. As a function of my job, I am expected to attend at least one graduation ceremony a year (sometimes two) in order to hood doctoral candidates. In fact, I did so today and am writing this with the experience fresh in my mind. Like each previous graduation ceremony I have attended at this university, sectarian prayers were prominently featured in today's ceremony. This is unacceptable, and I am no longer content to simply ignore the matter.

I would like to make three points here. First, prayer has no place at a university-sanctioned event of any kind when the university involved is a public university supported with tax dollars. Second, I'd like to be sure that everyone understands the meaning and significance of "sectarian" in this context. Third, I'd like to briefly address the impact of sectarian prayer on persons of other faiths and no faith at all.

Prayer Has No Place at the Graduation Ceremonies of a Public University

Official (i.e., a member of the clergy addresses the audience over the PA system) prayer at a university-sanctioned event at a public university is a violation of church-state separation. Institutions that receive public funding are not supposed to elevate particular religions to preferred status.

This is precisely what has been happening. Only Christian clergy are invited, prayers are sectarian (see below), the prayers are written into the schedule printed in the bulletin (i.e., nothing spontaneous about this).

I suspect that this is illegal. If I am wrong, then I would at least hope that a secular institution of higher learning would wish to lead by example by avoiding the appearance of illegality in such a high-profile event. I would also hope that a public university would have a bit more concern for how its activities affect others (see below).

What is Sectarian Prayer?

A sectarian prayer is one that makes explicit reference to a particular religion or sect. In both of the two prayers delivered today, for example, the phrase "in Jesus' name was incorporated. This is sectarian in that in explicitly references Christianity. Members of non-Christian faith communities (e.g., Jews, Muslims, etc.) were deliberately excluded. These prayers were not offered with them in mind.

A common way which institutions claim to avoid church-state issues is through offering the sort of prayers that do not reference any specific sects or religions. For example, simply omitting mention of Jesus in today's prayers would have rendered them non-sectarian and allowed persons of other faith traditions to be included. Of course, atheists would have still been excluded.

Assessing the Impact

No, this is not the place where I talk about how much it pisses me off to have to sit through this bullshit. Instead, I want us to consider the impact of sectarian prayer on the non-Christian faculty, staff, students, parents and other relatives, and friends of the graduates in attendance. What must go through their minds the moment the Jesus references appear? Some may be offended, but how many others simply feel excluded? Is this really what one hopes to accomplish in a graduation ceremony? I think not.

Imagine the international student from a non-Christian faith tradition who has come to the United States to earn a degree, has now completed the degree, and is hoping to celebrate this great accomplishment. Is it really necessary to shove his or her face in Jesus as part of the official ceremony? What good can possibly come from this?

Yes, I am fully aware that the majority in attendance at any graduate ceremony in Mississippi will inevitably be not just Christian but also Southern Baptist. I get that. But I cannot and will not accept that the only way to be respectful to them requires the university to explicitly exclude everyone else.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

National Day of Reason May 7th

ReasonImage by Rickydavid via Flickr

May 7, 2009, is the National Day of Reason. I invite my fellow Mississippians to post announcements about any events in our state (or neighboring states) that might be of interest to Mississippi atheists.

If you cannot find anything closer to home, there is always New Orleans. The New Orleans Secular Humanist Association is holding quite an event at the Monkey Hill Bar on Magazine St. For more information, see their announcement.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Central MS Atheists' May Meeting

A new Meetup for the Central MS Atheist Meetup Group has been scheduled for 7:00 PM in Jackson, MS, on May 27, 2009. If you are an atheist living in the Jackson area, this is a great way to meet some like-minded folks. For details, see their page.