No state is really safe for non-believers. You find creationist ideas in schools from Louisiana to New Jersey. You find efforts to send secular tax dollars to religious schools in Indiana and Florida. And, finally, you find polls done of all Americans demonstrating that plenty of families don't want their sons or daughters marrying atheists. There are many sad states of affairs.- Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State
I am an atheist living in Mississippi, a state which consistently ranks #1 or #2 on every list of the most religious states in the U.S. Many atheists do not hesitate to suggest that no self-respecting atheist should live here or in any of the other ultra-religious states. They have a point. After all, there are many other states where atheists would find it far easier to make a home. While we are likely to face bigotry nearly everywhere one encounters high concentrations of Christians, some places are going to be better than others. And so, I certainly understand why many atheists have advised me to move.
Of course, I don't particularly like being told what to do. That's one of my many flaws. It matters little whether it is the local Christians telling me to leave because "you don't belong here" or atheists in other states telling me to leave because "you'd be happier elsewhere." I'm not sure where I belong or even if there is anywhere I belong. I also don't know whether I'd be happier elsewhere. In any case, I recognize that the decision of whether to move or stay and fight is mine.
If I was to adopt the position of someone giving advice to a young atheist nearing the completion of a college degree, it would be easy to suggest leaving a place like Mississippi. I can certainly understand why others would do so. Wouldn't most of us rather be in a place where our presence was tolerated vs. one where we were truly hated?
At the same time, I think there is something to be said for standing one's ground and refusing to flee. Why should someone who grew up in Louisiana, Alabama, or Mississippi and still considers it home have to leave it behind due to the bigotry of the local Christians? And what about those who - for a variety of reasons - cannot move. Isn't there something to be said for staying and working to make a difference for the benefit of everyone? I suppose that is something we each have to decide that for ourselves.
I was eager to leave the state where I grew up because it seemed oppressively conservative, intolerant, and backward. I left it behind as soon as I turned 18, and I have not lived there since. Today, it has a reputation for being one of the more progressive states. I've had the opportunity to see this for myself when I have returned to visit. Funny how that worked out.
I don't have any real attachment to Mississippi. I didn't grow up here, and I will never consider it home. I'll admit that it is tempting at times to flee for saner parts; however, I really like my job and most of the people I work with. So far, that has been good enough. I don't plan to retire here, but I could imagine staying here until I do. And if, while I'm here, I can help to improve the lives of others in whatever small way I can, then that is what I am going to do.
I don't doubt that the day will come when the toll of Mississippi is finally too much for me. And yet, I also have the feeling that there is something I haven't finished here. There's at least some fight left in me still.