|Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr|
One of the most common reactions I receive whenever I mention that I live in Mississippi is one of surprise. "There are atheists in Mississippi?" It is an understandable question, and I'd probably be asking it if I wasn't here myself. Yes, there are atheists in Mississippi. As you might expect, many of us remain fairly quiet on the subject of religion, for we have much to lose by expressing our thoughts and even more by identifying ourselves as atheists.
For those who have not spent any significant time in the rural South of the U.S., it is difficult to convey what it is like to be an atheist here. Religion is more pervasive in Mississippi than I could have imagined without experiencing it for myself. With some notable exceptions, almost everyone I encounter here seems to have a large part of their identity tied up in evangelical fundamentalist Christianity (mostly the Southern Baptist variety). I sometimes find it even more oppressive than the summer humidity, and there is no question that living here affects me.
To say that there is a social stigma against atheists in Mississippi would be a colossal understatement. As difficult as it must be to be LGBT here (and I have little question that it is still difficult), I suspect that an openly gay Christian would have a somewhat more positive experience than a heterosexual atheist in many parts of the state. I can hear it now, "Well, at least he's trying to follow Christ."
Many atheists in Mississippi have had enough bad experiences around revealing their atheism that it can be difficult to remember that not all experiences will be negative. This is understandable, but it also serves as an obstacle when it comes to eradicating anti-atheist bigotry. As long as we remain invisible and Mississippians can claim that they've never met an atheist, it is easier to keep demonizing us. And yet, it is easy to say that more of us should "come out" without appreciating the high price paid by some of those who do.
What is it like socially for atheists in Mississippi? Of course, our experience is variable. For many of us, there is an inner tug-of-war between deception and ostracization. Either I keep my atheism to myself, or I run a fairly high risk of being socially ostracized. For others, living as an open atheist is worth whatever social and economic penalties one might encounter. But I suspect most of us would agree that being hated because one does not believe in the particular god preferred by most of the locals is rarely a pleasant experience.
Although there are a handful of small atheist groups active in Mississippi, many atheists in the state feel socially isolated. I've never been someone with particularly strong social needs, and I suppose that plays a big part in how I've managed to last here as long as I have. Nevertheless, I can relate to the sense of alienation I have heard many atheists describe. It often goes beyond loneliness and involves a sense of not being able to be oneself in so many situations.
There are many barriers to secular activism and efforts to stand against religiously-motivated bigotry in Mississippi. I think that the lack of strong secular communities that can provide support is one of the more important ones. It is easier to join in or even organize activist efforts when one has a safe community where one can be oneself. Too many of the atheists in our state lack any such community, and this makes it harder to work for meaningful change.