April 10, 2017

Changing Mississippi for the Better

St. Paul, Minnesota May 6, 2010 Humanists, ath...
St. Paul, Minnesota May 6, 2010 Humanists, atheists and agnostics held this event in support of the separation of church and state and as a protest to the government-endorsed National Day of Prayer. Fibonacci Blue 2010-05-06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post initially appeared on the Mississippi Atheists blog in 2014. It has been edited to improve clarity, and the links have been updated.

Here in Mississippi, it often seems that we are surrounded by church-state violations and other reminders of Christian privilege. And yet, many of us are reluctant to engage in secular activism. We are bombarded with unwelcome proselytizing from evangelical fundamentalist Christians, but we rarely speak out against it. Our environment is so thoroughly saturated with Christian privilege that it often feels as oppressive as the humidity in August; however, most of us have invested little if any effort in changing this toxic aspect of our culture.

It is perfectly understandable that we would be reluctant to speak out and to work toward change; doing so is risky. We worry that engaging in secular activism, identifying ourselves as atheists, or working to change Christian privilege would bring unwelcome consequences. We might lose our jobs, or friends, or even our families. Sadly, these concerns are not as exaggerated as they might appear. After all, this is Mississippi we're talking about.

So if we aren't engaging in secular activism, what are we doing instead? We go along to get along. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We hope we can pass among the evangelical Christian majority, even as they demonize atheists, erode the separation of church and state, and pass laws that affect our lives n negative ways.

At some point, we must acknowledge that our fearful silence and the many ways we excuse it perpetuates the status quo. Our inaction enables the bad behavior of Christian majority around us (e.g., church-state violations, proselytizing) and ensures the continuation of Christian privilege. To some degree, it also enables their ignorance. They can continue to claim they don't know atheists because we won't identify ourselves. Many of them do not understand secularism, and we are reluctant to educate them. Some of them don't even understand why their blatant disregard for the separation of church and state is a problem, and this may be at least partially due to our reluctance to complain about these violations.

When we think we are among like-minded Mississippians (as rare an experience as that might be for many of us), we express ourselves openly. And what do we say when we think we are among friends? We say that we are unhappy with the frequent church-state violations, the pervasive Christian privilege, and the unwelcome proselytizing. We say that we'd like this to change.

What are we doing to change the aspects of Mississippi's culture that need to change? What are we doing to improve the situation future atheists will find in Mississippi? These are difficult questions for many of us to answer (myself included), but that does not mean they are not worth asking.