Being an Open Atheist in the Bible Belt

Atheist baby motivational

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Mississippi Atheists blog in 2011. It has been revised to make it somewhat more applicable to a wider audience, and the links have been updated.

We know there are atheists in Mississippi and throughout the U.S. Bible Belt. We also know that many of the atheists who live in this region keep their thoughts on religion to themselves because "coming out" as an atheist can be a scary proposition. Even if we set aside the concerns for one's personal safety, one could be disowned by one's family, fired from one's job, and/or lose many of one's friends. What is a bit more surprising - at least to some of us who live in the Bible Belt - is that there are people here who are not just open but fairly outspoken about their atheism.

I write this not with the goal of making anyone who cannot be as open as they would like to feel guilty. I know that this must be a personal decision made with full appreciation of the potential consequences, and I've never push someone to do it before they were ready. Rather, I write this post to offer hope. It seems to be at least possible for some people to be open about their atheism even here in Mississippi, and I think that is something we should all find encouraging. Perhaps it will become somewhat easier in time, and more will be able to be themselves.

Here in Mississippi, I've lost friendships, had neighbors refuse to speak to me again, and been told by strangers I was going to hell merely for disclosing that I do not attend church. I've had Christian co-workers go out of their way to avoid me and spread rumors behind my back related to my "immorality" after they learned that I do not believe in their preferred god. Such experiences have not been pleasant, and I would not pretend otherwise. But it is also important to note that I've had some positive experiences too, experiences where the local Christians did not immediately condemn me for being an atheist. It would be a mistake to assume the worst from every Christian, and that is true even here in Mississippi.

Atheists living in predominately religious regions face many obstacles to gaining acceptance. But there should at least be some hope that more of us will eventually be able to take the plunge and find that it might not be as bad as we'd feared. It is important to remember that we do have a choice in how we live our lives. Some of us will probably discover that the benefits of being ourselves may even outweigh the costs. And my guess is that more of us coming out will eventually reduce much of the bigotry future atheists will encounter.