7/14/09

Atheists in Mississippi

Southern U.S., Mississippi? (LOC)Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

One of the most common reactions I get in response to this blog from those outside our state is surprise. "There are atheists in Mississippi?" It is an understandable question, and I'm quite certain I would be asking it if I wasn't here myself. Yes, there are atheists in Mississippi. As you might expect, many of us remain fairly quiet on the subject of religion, for we have much to lose by expressing our thoughts and even more by identifying ourselves as atheists.

For those who have not spend any significant time in the rural South, it is difficult to convey what it is like to be an atheist here. Religion is more pervasive in Mississippi than I could have imagined without experiencing it for myself. Virtually everyone I know here has a large part of their identity tied up in religion. I sometimes find it even more oppressive than the summer humidity, and there is no question that living here affects me.

To say that there is a social stigma against atheists in Mississippi would be a colossal understatement. As difficult as it must be to be gay here, I suspect that an openly gay Christian would have a somewhat more positive experience than a heterosexual atheist.

Many atheists in Mississippi have had enough bad experiences around revealing their atheism that it is difficult to remember that not all experiences will be negative. This is understandable, but it also serves as an obstacle for atheist equality. As long as we remain invisible, it is easy to demonize us. And yet, it is easy to say that more of us should "come out" without appreciating the price paid by those who do.

What is it like socially for atheists in Mississippi? Of course, our experience is variable. I've written previously about my inner tug-of-war between deception and ostracization. Either I keep my atheism to myself, or I run a fairly high risk of being socially ostracized. It is not easy.

Although there are a handful of small atheist groups active in Mississippi, I know that many atheists here feel socially isolated. I've never been someone with particularly strong social needs, and I suppose that plays a big part in how I can stand to be here. Nevertheless, I can relate to the sense of alienation I have heard many atheists describe. It goes far beyond simply loneliness and involves a sense of not being able to be genuinely oneself in so many situations.

There are many barriers to atheist activism in Mississippi, but I think that the lack of strong communities of support is probably the most important. It is far easier to join in or organize activist efforts when one has a safe community. Too many of the atheists in our state lack any such community, and this makes it much harder to work for meaningful change.

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