February 25, 2019

Christian Intolerance of Other Christians

church surrounded by snow

A relatively new co-worker who moved to Mississippi from outside the Bible Belt recently told me that he's Catholic. The context of this disclosure was a conversation about adjusting to life in the South and how I didn't think I'd ever do so. He said that he was warned before moving here that the Southern Baptist-dominated South is not particularly fond of Catholics. He said that he found this to be fairly accurate.

He did not share tales of religious persecution or anything quite so dramatic. Instead, he described what he perceived as a culture of intolerance built on a simplistic and often hostile sort of fundamentalist Christianity. After initially being as shocked as I was that "What church do you go to?" often passes as a greeting among strangers here, he described the surprised and disappointed look he sees when he identifies himself as Catholic. He was very aware of an all-or-none sort of thought process among the Southern Baptists: either you are one of us, or you are the enemy.

He said that he feels fortunate not to have children because he worries about what they would go through. Other Catholic and Jewish co-workers with children have provided me with many tales of cruelty inflicted on their kids by the local children with Southern Baptist parents (e.g., forced prayer circles, threats of hell, attempted exorcisms, etc.). When one is taught religiously-based hatred and intolerance from birth, I suppose the consequences should not be surprising. Still, it always catches me off guard when I hear about some of what the local children do to those they perceive as outsiders.

Even though I really should know better by now, I couldn't help being at least a little surprised that the local Southern Baptists would treat a fellow Christian this way. At least, my co-worker certainly considers himself to be Christian. This sort of religious intolerance seems to be woven into the cultural fabric here. Identifying oneself as a Christian is not worth much unless one is the right kind of Christian. They are rewarded with instant social acceptance. Others are rewarded with social rejection, attempts at conversion, or outright condemnation.

What my co-worker probably doesn't know is that he at least has it better than the atheists do. Many of the local Southern Baptists are quick to tell you that they'll take a "fake Christian" over someone who doesn't believe in their preferred god. I have had some conversations over the years in which I have asked about this. What I have been told is that there is still hope for someone who at least believes in a god (even if it is the wrong one). They feel like they can connect with such a person and convert them. Opinions vary when it comes to atheists but some view us as lost causes. Personally, I'd take that if it meant the proselytizing would end.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was revised and expanded in 2019.