6/3/13

Why Do So Many Mississippi Atheists Stay In the Closet?

Check out Godless in Dixie's recent post, Why Some of Us Stay Closeted. It is a good one. He notes at the outset that we atheists are often encouraged to "come out" because doing so may be helpful in changing public attitudes toward atheists. I think most of us agree with this. I know I do. And yet, it is not always that simple. There are several considerations that must be made when it comes to deciding how "out" to be in Mississippi.

Godless notes,
That may very well be the case, and I do hope more of us can make that transition with a minimal amount of loss in our personal lives. But there are at least a couple of issues which are lost on people not from our region of the country.
I agree. Having lived in several other states before coming to Mississippi, I am not sure I can overstate the differences involved in being an atheist here. It is not that I do not know any open atheists here; I do know a few. But I really did not understand what an oppressively religious environment was like until I lived here for for a few months.

Godless provides two important reasons many of us remain at least somewhat closeted here in the Deep South:
  1. Openly identifying oneself as an atheist can have serious consequences around here (e.g., loss of friends, family members, one's job).
  2. The "unwanted emotional distance" that often results between one who has disclosed his or her atheism and others in his or her life.
I am so glad to see someone address this second point so clearly. We usually focus on the first. It makes sense that we would do so because of how scary it is. And yet, I suspect that the second is responsible for keeping even more of us in the closet than the first.
From the moment a friend, family member, or coworker learns this about me, they start editing themselves. They suddenly feel the need to avoid certain subjects or else to preface statements with “Now I know YOU don’t believe this, but I believe that…” Because I live in Mississippi, the chances are good that I’ve already heard whatever you’re about to say at least five times today.
Godless goes on to describe how this sort of awkwardness tends to result in subtle forms of social exclusion and alienation. I think he's absolutely right about this being an even larger issue.

For me personally, the outright loss of friends, family, or job is not my primary concern. What little family I have left is generally supportive - or at least not openly hostile. Most of the friends I would worry about losing have already been lost. I do still miss some of them, but they made their decision. There's no turning back now.

My job situation is a bit trickier. I am not terribly worried about being fired merely because I am an atheist; however, I am still quite concerned about how being an open atheist could make it much harder for me to do many aspects of my job effectively. I have to be able to work with many people, most of whom are evangelical fundamentalist Christians. This is probably the main reason I am not more open about my atheism today. The awkwardness and emotional distance Godless describes are certainly relevant here.

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