September 8, 2015

Atheism in the U.S.: Is It Really That Bad?

US map - statesOne of the more common questions I see atheists who live outside the U.S. asking those of us who live in the U.S. is, "Is it really that bad there?" They ask this question for many different reasons. Some are planning a trip to the U.S. and are trying to get a sense of what to expect. Others are understandably puzzled by how a country with a secular government and Constitution could be so backwards when it comes to religion.

I've addressed this question previously, noting that it is a difficult one to answer with anything other than, "It depends..." In this post, I'd like to try to unpack this a bit more and take a look at some of the things on which it depends.

Region

At the broadest level, the experience of atheists in the U.S. is likely to vary by region of the country. The experience of living on the West coast, for example, is very different from living in the South. Religiosity, the role of religion in people's lives, the social acceptability of discussing religion with strangers, the prevalence of public prayer, the level of education and attitudes toward science and education are just a few of the relevant factors that often vary across regions. In general, atheists living on the East or West coasts are likely to have an easier time than those living in the so-called Bible Belt. But this is too simple because there is often great variability to be found within regions.

I think that the main reason it makes sense to think about regional variation at all is that we tend to find regional variability in terms of the type of Christianity that is most influential. Here in the South, for example, evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is the norm. When one meets someone for the first time, odds are good that he or she will turn out to be an evangelical fundamentalist Christian. This is much less likely to be the case in most other regions of the U.S.

States

Regions include multiple states, and there can be some interesting state-to-state variability. I have noticed, for example, that atheists in the neighboring state of Alabama seem to have had far more success organizing at the state level than we have here in Mississippi. Thus, it may be a bit easier for atheists in Alabama to feel like they are part of a larger community and to participate in secular activism at the state level.

Obviously, population density (urban vs. rural) matters here too. States that have very large cities (e.g., Georgia, Texas) are likely to provide a different experience, at least for atheists living in or near those cities than states without any large cities (e.g., Mississippi, Wyoming).

Cities and Towns

From everything I have experienced, I'd say that one of the more important consideration for understanding the experience of atheists happens at the local level and involves the specific city or town where one lives. An atheist living in Atlanta is living in the South but may have a much better experience than an atheist living in a small town in rural Northern California. Even though we do not associate California with rampant fundamentalist Christianity, it is entirely possible that the atheist living there may have a rougher go of it than someone in Atlanta.

This is an important part of what makes it so hard to generalize by region or even by state. One atheist living in parts of the South may have a fantastic experience while another atheist living in areas we associate with low religiosity may have a miserable experience. The difference usually boils down to exactly where he or she lives and the presence or absence of a supportive community.

The places where I grew up and encountered significant anti-atheist bigotry and hatred from Christians were in a progressive region of the U.S. (i.e., the West coast). They were in states that rank fairly low in religiosity and are not associated with evangelical fundamentalist Christianity (i.e., California and Oregon). The worst of it took place in relatively small towns.

Visiting the U.S.?

Some of those I have seen asking about whether it is "really that bad" here are thinking about visiting the U.S. and curious about what they might encounter while they are here. Unless one is planning to spend time in the Bible Belt outside of major cities, my guess is that the primary evidence of religiosity one should expect to encounter will be the startling number of Christian churches and crazy roadside billboards.

If one does venture into the Bible Belt and especially if one travels outside of the larger cities, it will be more likely (though still not likely in any absolute sense) that one will be approached by strangers uttering Christian gibberish. Here in the South, for example, it is not uncommon for people to ask strangers about whether they are "saved" or where they attend church very early in the conversation. They are generally harmless. If you are just passing through, you do not have to worry about the long-term repercussions of their concluding that you are an agent of Satan. So don't sweat it! View them as a local curiosity, something you might not get to see at home.
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