June 14, 2012

Safety in the Bible Belt: A Concern for Atheists

dangerOne of the most common questions I receive from atheists outside the United States is, "Is it really that bad?" They look at the U.S. with puzzlement, wondering how a nation intentionally set up with a secular government and constitution could be so hostile to atheists. My answer always begins with, "It depends…" It depends on what part of the country one lives in, on the size of one's community, on the prevalence of evangelical fundamentalist Christianity in one's area, and a host of other factors. It isn't that bad everywhere, but it certainly can be pretty bad.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about one particular form of how bad it can be: the question of personal safety. Let me be clear - many atheists living in the U.S. do not have to give regular consideration to their personal safety any more than Christians do. That is, they experience no elevated risk from their atheism. For those who live in areas dominated by evangelical fundamentalist Christians (i.e., the bible belt), this is not always the case.

Personal Safety in the Bible Belt

For many atheists in the bible belt, keeping quiet about their atheism is seen as a necessarily price paid for protecting themselves. Sure, they could be more open. But doing so could make them a target. It is fairly common for atheists in this area to have experiences losing friends, being threatened by strangers, and experiencing minor vandalism of their property as a result of disclosing their atheism.

Here in Mississippi, if I were to run errands around town on a Saturday wearing a t-shirt that said "atheist" in block letters across the front, the reactions I could expect would be comparable to wearing a shirt that said "sex offender." While I might receive one or two positive comments on the atheist shirt, the visceral reactions many Christians would have would not differ much.
Well just don't go around broadcasting your atheism then, and you'll be fine.
There are at least two issues with this solution. First, Christians around here routinely adorn themselves and their vehicles with all manner of pro-Christian symbols and slogans. I'm not sure I'm particularly excited about giving up my right to express myself. Why should doing so mean I have to incur additional risk?

Second and far more relevant, concealing one's atheism in the bible belt is not as easy as it sounds. It is extremely common for complete strangers to begin conversations by asking where you attend church, inviting you to attend their church, and the like. Christian belief is interwoven into the social fabric in ways I could not imagine before moving here, and everything revolves around church. Neighbors, co-workers, bosses, and even strangers inviting you to church do not give up easily, and some will persist no matter how many so many polite refusals or made-up excuses are received. At some point, you are either going to admit your atheism, be labeled an atheist regardless of what you say, or concoct the sort of lie you may later regret (e.g., telling your boss that you are Jewish so he will stop inviting you to his church).

Believe it or not, I've heard from a few atheists that they actually pretend to be fundamentalist Christians, attend church regularly, and go through most of the motions. They view this as the price for fitting in. They resent it, but they also recognize that the alternative seems to be accepting a life of social isolation and near constant concern for their safety. Some choice, isn't it?

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