July 8, 2007

Journey of an Atheist, Part V

South Olympia Street between Canal and Banks, ...
South Olympia Street between Canal and Banks, Mid-City New Orleans. Inside a corner grocery store at Olympia & Palmyra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the fifth part of a multi-post series. Part IV can be found here, or if you'd like to start from the beginning, you can find Part I here. I postponed writing this part for quite some time because I knew it would be the most difficult. This is the part that takes us up to the present time, meaning that I lack the perspective I had in the earlier parts. Still, it is time to get through this.

When Part IV left off, I was in graduate school and struggling to come to terms with a form of multiculturalism that insisted that religious belief was on the same level with race, gender, and sexual orientation. On one hand, I was told that I was being evaluated on my openness, willingness to self-disclose, and exploration of how my beliefs impacted my work with others. On the other hand, I learned that hard way that questioning someone's religious beliefs equated with criticism of someone's race - it was a a marker of serious intolerance. To survive this program, I would need to bury my atheism and profess respect for religious belief.

This bind was nearly intolerable at times. I vividly recall turning in "personal reflection" papers where we were supposed to discuss our racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities. When I disclosed my atheism in one of these papers, it became the subject of intense class discussion. As the only atheist, I was expected to defend why I rejected religion without saying anything even mildly critical of religious belief. My peers seemed to think that my very presence in the program was a threat to their spiritual well-being. I became increasingly isolated. At least one professor penalized me for being intolerant because she felt that atheism was per se evidence of intolerance.

I made it through the program and completed my Ph.D. but not without lots of second thoughts about what I was doing and why. Looking back on it, I suppose I can almost see a valuable lesson about society's tolerance of atheism in there somewhere. I had largely been sheltered from this while living in the Pacific Northwest. It was a difficult lesson but one I needed to learn. As I moved to Mississippi for a job, I would be surrounded by Christian fundamentalists. Perhaps it was a good thing that I learned how to conceal my beliefs about religion and the importance of doing so.

Mississippi is by far the most conservative place I have ever lived (or even visited). Nothing I had previously experienced prepared me for the degree to which religion is part of public life. Within weeks of being here, I had been approached by complete strangers in the grocery store and at the gas station with some variation of, "Hi there! What church do you attend?" My wife at the time was repeatedly told by strangers that she was going to burn in hell after she indicated that she did not attend church. She was also subjected to mandatory prayer meetings at work and persistent invitations to attend church with her boss and his family. Our next door neighbor never spoke to me again after I politely told him that we did not attend church. I was invited to church by nearly every co-worker, secretary, pest control technician, and delivery person I encountered. I know this is hard to believe if you haven't spent time in the South, but I am really not exaggerating any of this this in the slightest.

I know that the obvious question is why I am still here. There are many days when I ask myself the same question. If it wasn't for loving my job, really liking some of the people I work with, and the feeling that being settled (even in a place with many negatives) is better than the hassle of going through the academic job search and relocation processes again, I would have left long ago. Other perks include the winter weather, the cheap housing, and the small town atmosphere.

But if I am honest with myself, I suppose I must admit that another reason I'm still here is that I've made a lot of progress learning to become comfortable in my own skin, less concerned with what others think, and more willing to be true to myself even when it is unpopular. I've gained something intangible from struggling against Christian extremism while being in its heart. I'm not saying I don't still have a long way to go, but there has been movement, and I suppose that is what keeps me going.