It’s hard out here for an atheist

Atheists face discrimination wherever they look in the South, and yet no one seems to notice.
By Russell Varner
December 1, 2008

“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

It is a phrase everyone knows and has said a thousand times from the Pledge of Allegiance. It says that we are all one nation. That everyone is equal and that God watches over all of us. But there are those who disagree with that statement, who don’t believe in a God.

Often we don’t recognize or think about atheists. They are the forgotten minority of America and surprisingly, they can also be one of the most hated at the same time.

“Atheists are the least trusted minority in America,” said one Elon atheist student, who asked to be referred to as William. “Multiple polls, studies and happenings support the fact that most people (almost 70 percent) would not trust an atheist in a relationship or position of power. Many church signs have anti-atheist bigotry on them and the religious are trying to take over schools and the public sphere.”

In fact, a study was conducted recently by the University of Minnesota where they listed various minority groups and asked people who they would vote for if someone from that minority group ran for President. Less than 20 percent of the participants said they would vote for an atheist presidential candidate, making them the most despised and distrusted minority in America.

Penny Edgell, who led the study, was very surprised by her findings, saying that “We thought that in the wake of September 11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group.” In fact, the numbers she found were so extreme that she concluded the numbers are “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.”

The study also found that nearly 40 percent of Americans believe atheists do not at all agree with their vision of America and that 47.6 percent of Americans would disapprove if their child married an atheist, both a considerable amount higher than Muslims, the next closest minority on both lists at 26.3 percent and 33.5 percent respectively. (To find more information on the study, visit http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheitsHated.htm)

Some respondents to the study associated atheism with illegal behavior, such as drug use and prostitution and ‘immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy.’ Others saw atheists as ‘rampant materialists and cultural elitists’ who ‘threaten common values from above — the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else.’

Need any more examples of how atheists are treated in America? Here’s a perfect one for you: In 1987, then President George H. W. Bush said in an interview “… I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” He failed to restate or change his position on this issue in any of the interviews that followed.

“We just elected our first black president,” said Elon sophomore and atheist Andy Harris. “But I still think we’re at least a good 40-50 years from being able to elect our first atheist president.”

Nowhere are atheist more reviled than in the South, including here in North Carolina, in what some call the “Bible Belt.”

It is no secret that people in the South are deeply religious, some valuing their relationship with God more than anything else. Down here, the word ‘atheist’ carries the same stigmatism that ‘homosexual’ used to carry. In fact, if you ask some, they would say that now it is tougher to come out as an atheist than it is to come out as a homosexual.

“I will say, in the South people seem to operate with the assumption that individuals and families are connected to particular religious communities in a way that is different from the West, which is where I’m from,” said Lynn Huber, an assistant professor of religious studies at Elon. “Here people assume that you attend the church of your family and if you don’t, people find that unusual or surprising.”

“This, in my opinion, is less about belief in God and more about the fact that Southern culture values familial relationships and loyalties. So, when you don’t find this mold, where families attend church and continue in the church tradition of one’s family of origin, you are somewhat of an ‘other,’ regardless of whether you are atheist or someone who has left one religious tradition and moved to another.”

“I think atheists, as well as agnostics or folks of other religious convictions other than Christianity for that matter, are disliked because so many ‘Christians’ in the South equate patriotism with belief in God,” said Tripp York, a professor of religious studies at Elon. “There is much confusion in the minds of many North American Christians as to the God they claim to worship and the tribal god established by the civil religion inherent within this nation-state. To deny belief in this god is synonymous, for many, as a form of anti-patriotism.

“Plus, because most believers in the South think that belief in God is just common sense, to reject belief is, for many, absurd, making that person difficult to trust. The problem with belief in our culture is that it takes far more conviction to be an atheist than to be a believer. Believing in the existence of God is simply the air we breathe, therefore it requires far more attentiveness to reject such belief than to go along with it.”

“This does not mean that belief in God is wrong, only that it is not terribly difficult to maintain. Therefore, it requires much more conviction to go against this grain. Plus, there is nothing at stake in belief in this culture. In the first 300 years of Christianity, people were killed for their specific beliefs in their particular God, yet in the U.S. one cannot be elected unless they believe in God.”

“Not only are atheists the least trusted minority in America, but gays have been trying to be liberated for almost 30 years,” said William. “They have had a long time to acclimate the populace towards homosexuals and the majority of the populace is now willing to treat them as people. The fact that we are talking about true gay marriage in the mainstream rather than how AIDS and vigilantes will kill all of the gays on the news shows this. That’s why I do indeed think that it is harder to come out Atheist rather than gay in the South.”

“Ten or twenty years ago, if you came out gay, your students would see you differently and you’d be afraid the administration would see you differently and there’d be a different acceptance of you on campus, and I’m seeing a real parallel with this,” said an Elon professor who asked to remain anonymous for this article. “Since the topic of my sabbatical research (atheists in the South) became public, people have come to me out of the woodwork saying ‘I’m glad you’re working on that because I’ve always felt uncomfortable here.’”

Like homosexuals who “come out of the closet”, atheists who come out and admit their belief to their parents are usually greeted with very angry responses.

“When I was a child, my parents never really made us go to church,” said William. “So until I was 7 or 8, I had almost no religious schooling at all, barely knowing more than that Christmas was a time for getting presents and Easter had peeps candy. My parents realized this around the time my family moved back to Greensboro, NC, and made my siblings and I go to a local Presbyterian church. I always hated having to go to church, usually because it was during Sunday cartoons on TV, it was early and it was boring. I never stayed awake throughout the ceremony and found the typical youth group activities (singing religious rock tunes, playing tag, etc.) to be childish at best.”

“Eventually, around my 13th or 14th birthday, I found out about Atheism on the Internet, and decided that was what I was. A month or two before Christmas that year, I finally told my parents about it in the middle of church and they accepted it after a week of off and on discussion. I for a time looked at other religions: Wicca, asatru, Buddhism, etc. but nothing found my interest. I haven’t looked back at my decision since I was over that phase, about 15.”

“My Irish Catholic mother screamed at me for a while, went into denial (assuming I was just going through a phase) a few hours later, and when I re-convinced her I was serious, she started screaming again,” said Harris. “She let it go for a while, I think teetering between more denial and a rationalized mentality, where I was godless but not evil.”

“For whatever reason, many Christians have come to associate morals with God, so by their logic those without God are without morals. My mom is one of them, and after it finally settled in that her precious son was an atheist, she asked me if I was still a good person, happy, and ‘still cared about people.’ When I assured her that the only thing that had changed was my level of faith and not my code of morality, she let a relieved sigh and then said, and I quote, ‘Good, because I was worried that you worshipped Satin.’ I laugh hysterically about it at times, and then am mortified by it at other times, because a solid percentage of Americans have the same beliefs about atheists that she does.”

One of the harder parts about being an atheist is finding and forming close relationships with other people. Some people will refuse to be your friend or talk to you all because you don’t believe in God.

“I would say the hardest part about being an atheist is forming a close or romantic relationship,” said William. “In the South, very many people are highly religious and expect others to be religious. When I saw that I don’t want to go to church, religious play, etc. some will get offended. “

“As such, I have, for the most part, completely screened out anyone that I know or find out to be highly religious. I am probably being unfair to many who would be completely comfortable with me and a great match, but the chance seems too great to me to be rejected/hated because of my beliefs to take the risk.”

It’s not just the South either that people get stereotyped because of this belief. Even in the more liberal North, which is considered to be more accepting of others, they don’t always treat atheists well.

“I don’t get [stereotyped] that bad because Elon’s a bubble and my community in Delaware is only moderately Christian, and a lot of my peers range from indifferent to agnostic to atheists. But every now and then I’ll encounter somebody who grimaces when I tell them I’m an atheist.”

“It’s lame because it’s often someone who I could have otherwise become friends with. It can be annoying when someone writes you off as just a lost and troubled soul rather than someone who came to a logical conclusion. Most of the time I find the stereotypes people hold amusing because they’re so off base.”

Atheists can often be the target of jokes from other people as well.

Comedian Dane Cook has a joke where he talks about an argument he got into with an atheist because he said “God bless you” when the man sneezed. Cook then later goes on to mention how the atheist believes when he dies, he will become one with the Earth and come back as a beautiful willow tree. To end his sketch, Cook expresses his wish that the man be cut down by a lumberjack, sent to a paper mill and then have the Bible printed on him.

While the joke is made in jest and good humor, it still shows how they are viewed across the country. The discrimination some atheists face can even come from those closest to them.

“Only my family and closest friends know that I am an Atheist, so most of the discrimination is only from hearing others talk about atheists,” said William. “My family, though, does indeed make fun of me some times. They will often do something and say, ‘oh never mind, I forgot you don’t believe that’ or ‘oh yeah… you are an atheist’ in just barely not mocking tone of voice. My father is completely comfortable with my beliefs, so anything he says like this I believe to be truly accidental, but I am completely sure that my mother knows exactly what she is doing.”

“I myself am not really discriminated against, but again that goes back to the whole ‘bubble’ thing,” said Harris. “Sometimes my roommate Joey and my friend Tyler will give me crap since I have a few hardcore atheist books by the likes Richard Dawkins on my bookshelf that they like to joke about, but it’s all in good fun and that’s about all. To answer the root of your question, no, I really don’t feel persecuted.”

Even the most simple of events that are normally taken for granted are things that most atheists would not be very happy with. Take, for example, the events preceding a football game here at Elon.

“The last football game we had was opened with a long prayer,” said the anonymous Elon professor. “And then we keep standing for the national anthem. And the inference is we speak for you. Well, I’m sorry. I may be Muslim, for example, or I may not be a believer at all, and this is a really bizarre diversion that assumes ‘of course I’d be interested.’”

“They are a lot of folks out there who are just wired differently…I think some people are wired such that they tap into a need for and connection to something larger than themselves. And then I think they are some of us who are just naturally wired differently, like there are some people who are just naturally wired to be gay or left-handed…It’s not a matter of ‘Oh I think I’ll do this.’”

“It’s just you pick up a ball and throw left-handed. I think there are some of us who are just wired to not have that kind of belief. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying in the population that naturally there’s gonna be more believers than non-believers.”

“I know for a fact there is a huge number of students on campus, a lot of them atheists. That’s just how they came here. And they don’t feel comfortable talking about it in a social situation.”

“If somebody’s wearing a crucifix, you know that’s great. If you wore you’re atheism like that, it’d be like why are you like that? Why are you putting that in my face?”

Many atheists though have gained great popularity through books and online publications. Sam Harris, William Lobdell, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are just a few of the bigger names of atheist authors that have gained national popularity (For more information on them, visit their websites). The anonymous professor at Elon is also doing research on atheists living in the “Bible Belt.” If you would like more information on the project, please email rvarner@elon.edu to get more information.

Richard Dawkins talks on CNN about Atheism plus a roundtable on the subject

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “It’s hard out here for an atheist

  1. Hi, what an excellent blog. Many mornings I use the Google blog search and type in “atheist” and see what I find. And that’s what landed me here.

    I’m the author of the book Christian No More, and I can certainly relate to what you describe here. What fascinates me (and not in a good way) is the way people read much more into the word “atheist.” It means what it means: No belief in a god. Nothing more. It doesn’t mean one is morally bankrupt or that one likes to partake in evil, horrible acts. (“Hitler was an atheist!” they scream–even though he wasn’t.) In fact, it says nothing at all about one’s moral ideas. One can be a good person or a horrible person and be atheist. There’s no causal relationship.

    Having lived throughout the South myself (including North Carolina), I’ve been surprised just how much Christianity permeates the entire overall mindset– not just where people are active in church, but where Christianity is a fundamental part of one’s thinking. People automatically assume the people they meet at the grocery store are Christians, and will even address them as such. I remember somebody getting upset over something and saying, “I can’t believe Christians would behave that way” — when she had no reason at all to even assume the people were Christians. And so the quote you have here is indeed true, that to many Christians, a belief in their god is just “common sense,” and if somebody doesn’t blindly accept it, then they must have something fundamentally wrong with them.

    Excellent blog!
    Jeff Mark
    Author, Christian No More

  2. Pingback: Being Atheist in the Bible Belt - Secular Discrimination Report

  3. Janna

    Russell, you got a lot of interesting information and some great telling quotes in this work. You still have some problems with the grammar here and there and a few minor errors in mechanics. You should be making the names of people like Sam Harris, William Lobdell, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins into hyperlinks to more information about them. That’s one great way to make your site more interactive and more widely read. When you write a long piece like this, you should be putting in subheadlines, to help lead readers through it all the way to the end.

  4. Janna

    It was good to embed the video interview on CNN, and it is empowering to see that your work was seen as important by the people who responded with comments and blogs about it.

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