August 31, 2016

Coming Out as an Atheist in Mississippi

Photo via Good Free Photos
A version of this post initially appeared on the no longer active Mississippi Atheists blog in 2008. It has been revised and updated.

One of the main reasons I started writing the Mississippi Atheists blog in the first place was that I felt that it was important to do something about the immense social stigma associated with atheism in Mississippi. The demonization of atheists by the evangelical fundamentalist Christian majority leads many of us to keep quiet out of fear. While this was not unique to Mississippi by any means, it seemed worse here in some ways. It seemed that many atheists in the state end up feeling alienated because we have few opportunities to learn something as basic as the fact that there are other atheists in our local communities. I wanted atheists, even those in Mississippi, to know that they are not alone. Putting something out there that I mistakenly called Mississippi Atheists was my attempt at doing that.

Mississippi is not exactly known for being a socially or politically progressive place. It makes sense that the experience of coming out as an atheist might be a bit less comfortable here. And yet, it is important to recognize that Americans living in more progressive regions of the country may still experience many of the same obstacles to living openly as atheists.

In 2008, John McLellan wrote a wonderful article, which no longer appears to be available online, in the University of Washington's The Daily paper. Now, Western Washington is known as a fairly progressive place. This is especially true in the Seattle area where the University of Washington is located. And yet, here is what McLellan wrote about his decision to reveal his atheism to his family:
Going through the process and the accompanying extreme anxiety got me thinking. It would seem that for a typical religious convert, when rejected or disowned, their new religious community extends support to them. This alleviates the pain somewhat by providing comfort and understanding, but most importantly it affirms that their decision to convert was right and good.

This is not the case for atheism. We have no churches, and our population is low enough that communities are small and disjointed. There is no immediate support for an atheist spurned by family in a society in which the majority cannot understand a lack of a deity.
For some people, coming out as an atheist to one's family may lead to a complete severing of familial ties. This is more dependent on one's family, and so it can happen anywhere. This is a sobering reality and an important reason why I must disagree with those who boldly encourage all atheists to come out regardless of their individual circumstances. Even those fortunate enough to receive acceptance and understanding from their families may encounter rejection by the larger community. Thus, the question becomes what the rest of us can do to step in and offer support.

Prior to the explosion of atheism on the Internet, there was nowhere an atheist could go in many communities to find like-minded individuals for support. The fact that this has changed due to the Internet goes a long way toward explaining the phenomenal growth we have witnessed in atheist blogs, forums, websites, and the like. Moreover, this online activity has spawned meetup groups in many communities where atheists actually congregate offline. Believe it or not, a few such groups can even be found here in Mississippi.

I have little question that coming out as an atheist today, even in Mississippi, is easier than it was in 2008. There has been progress, especially in the area of informational support (i.e., the opportunity for people to go online and learn about atheism), and that is great to see. At the same time, I think it is important to recognize that different people in different family situations and in different communities are going to vary in the amount and type of support they need. I suspect that many people coming out in Mississippi today may need more support than what many people coming out in Washington or other more progressive states need. What I am really not sure of is how best to make that support available.

We atheists occupy an interesting place among other minority groups. Unlike many others, we have the advantage that we can easily pass for members of the Christian majority when necessary. As McLellan noted,
In the United States, atheists are passing, riding the security of identifying through agnosticism, espousing phrases to appease their religious contacts saying, “I’m agnostic, I believe there may be a God but I haven’t found it.” This gives the impression that religion is waiting to snatch them up and bring them to the light. Having been in this situation, I know that these phrases were never about what I believed, but about avoiding the persecution and attention that accompanies godlessness.
And yet, this sort of "passing" often comes at a cost. We can end up feeling disingenuous and increasingly alienated from ourselves. Many in the LGBT community have long advocated coming out not only because there is strength in numbers but because it is healthier to live an authentic life. I suspect the same may be true for atheists.

When I think back over all the drama and the assorted rifts that have divided and continue to divide many atheists, I cannot help but feel saddened by the realization that such nonsense has stood in the way of our ability to form some sort of a community for the purpose of providing meaningful support to one another. I don't mean to suggest that we haven't had some success in doing that, but it does seem that our infighting may have limited our success to some degree.
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