"You atheists are just looking for trouble." I've heard this claim far too often here in Mississippi. The perception seems to be that anyone seeking to end church-state violations is just making trouble for good, "god-fearing" Mississippians. But I have yet to meet a single atheist who takes the risks associated with activism just to agitate Christians. Instead, the atheists who complain about church-state violations believe that the founders had it right when they penned the Bill of Rights. Keeping religion and government apart is in the public interest.
I encounter many Mississippians who have not travelled much outside our state and who do not seem particularly willing or able to engage in perspective-taking. That is, they rarely attempt to view the world through others' eyes. As a result, I find that some have never bothered to ask themselves what they'd think of separation of church and state if their religion was not the religion shared by the overwhelming majority of their neighbors. I might ask what they'd think of church-state separation if they were a Christian living in a predominately Muslim region. On occasion, this can be a useful exercise.
I am not a generally optimistic person - not by a long shot - but I do not believe that most of our friends and neighbors are unreachable. I realize that many of them have had a lousy education, a thorough indoctrination, and are currently benefiting from Christian privilege. I realize that many have become so insulated that they rarely even have to confront dissenting views. They get their news from Fox "News" and conservative talk radio, sources that are not exactly conducive to open-mindedness. Their primary social networks are church-affiliated, and nearly all of the people with whom they spend their time believe the same things they do. Still, I stubbornly refuse to believe that most are unreachable.
So how do we reach them? One person at a time, beginning with the simple act of being ourselves. Each of us is an ambassador of atheism, and that includes those with little taste for activism. We start by being ourselves, living our lives free from religion, and showing that this is a viable alternative. Beyond that, we seek to correct violations of church-state separation. We make it clear that we are here too and that we will not tolerate the trampling of our rights merely to appease the Christian majority. Standing up for ourselves may be equated with looking for trouble, but we know better. And over time, I believe we can help our friends and neighbors see it too.
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