An Atheist in Mississippi

Port Gibson, Mississippi. "Piggly Wiggly&...
Port Gibson, Mississippi. "Piggly Wiggly" grocery store (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A version of this post initially appeared on the no longer active Mississippi Atheists blog. It has been revised and updated.

While perusing various atheist blogs, I have learned that if I take the time to dig beneath the surface and check out some of the older posts, I often find missed gems. Back in 2007, Bligbi (update: blog no longer active) wrote a short post titled, "An atheist in Jesusland." Since I had not been following Bligbi for long, I would have missed the post had I not done some digging. I'm glad I did.

This particular post referenced the author's experience in during a recent trip back to Mississippi. She grew up here but had since moved away. Now she was sharing her thoughts after a brief visit of her home state. The post ended with:
I was only there for a few days, but it was stressful as hell without my aunt getting in on the act, but that’s another post. I can’t begin to imagine the stress other atheists, non-believers, disbelievers and doubters are under.
I can't argue with that. It is certainly consistent with my experience that there are plenty of things about Mississippi which can be stressful for atheists. Of course, my experience likely differs from hers since I moved here as an adult and had not spent any real time in the state prior to doing so. Had I grown up here, I suspect that I would have a different take on life in Mississippi as an atheist. I would know much more, and I might be even more reluctant about expressing my thoughts on religion. Why? Because I would have a greater understanding of the consequences of doing so.

What is it about Mississippi that can be stressful for atheists? If I had to pick just one, it would probably be the pervasive nature of evangelical fundamentalist Christianity in the daily life of nearly everyone here. Social lives are centered on church. Education is centered around church. Businesses flaunt their Christianity to attract customers. Vehicles are adorned with religious paraphernalia. Church-state violations are commonplace. The cumulative impact of it all can make me feel claustrophobic at times, like I just can't get away.

In meeting a stranger for the first time, one is almost guaranteed to be asked "Where do you go to church?" in the first moments of the interaction. Anything short of saying that you attend the very church of the stranger will be followed with an invitation to attend the stranger's church. I suppose that might seem friendly the first few times it happens; however, it becomes less friendly when one declines the invitations. A former next-door neighbor never spoke to me again after I politely declined his invitation to attend his Southern Baptist church with him. And this happened without me disclosing that I did not believe in his god or saying anything remotely negative about church.

Door-to-door proselytizing by Southern Baptists is a reliable constant. And while that may seem bad enough, what is far worse is that anyone out in public is evidently considered fair game for intrusive Christian proselytizing too. My ex-wife was routinely accosted at gas stations, grocery stores, and even the parking lot of the local mall. My pest control guy tried to proselytize to me on two separate occasions before I indicated that I would take my business elsewhere if they did it again.

So why the hell do I stay here in Mississippi? I ask myself that question every summer when the heat and humidity become as oppressive as the religiosity. I ask myself that question whenever the stream of hurricane and tornado warnings start up again. Is life not too short and precious to endure what often seems to be a bastion of proud ignorance, failed economic policies, and Christian extremism? How arrogant I must be to believe that I can come out of this experience unscathed!

And yet, I am still here. I remain because there are many things about where I live in Mississippi that I like. My job is the main thing that keeps me here, but it is not the only one. And yes, inertia certainly plays a role too. I've moved so many times that I just can't imagine doing it again, at least not yet. I like my job enough that I am far from eager to try my luck at finding one I'd like better simply to move to a state I'd prefer. I will leave Mississippi when I retire, if not before. In the meantime, writing this blog is one of the things that helps me maintain maintain what is left of my sanity.