What It's Like To Be an Atheist in the Bible Belt


At the Lake Hypatia Advance, a social gathering hosted by the Alabama Freethought Association, a frequent metaphor was "coming out" as an atheist. "I am out to my parents." "A few people are still in the closet." "We had several people in our community come out to us." One man said he came out to his parents twice, first as a non-Christian, years later as an atheist. ("Not in my house!" his mother said.) One woman told of an argument with her evangelical family in which "I outed my dad."

In much of the American South and Midwest church membership and religious faith are assumed. (In my hometown of San Francisco, as in Manhattan, faith is more apt to evoke surprise.) People have often never met an admitted atheist. "Literally people think that we do have horns, or that we're mean, or that we do not have kids," said a Kansan. Even in a city like Atlanta, some people feel religious pressure. Ed Buckner, president of American Atheists, said the Atlanta Freethought Association has members who "never saw any need [to gather with others] until they came to Atlanta – and people behind you in line in the grocery store say 'Do you know Jesus?' And your boss asks what church you attend."

(Because of such pressure, some people at Lake Hypatia asked that I not use their names or identifying information.)

The Alabama Freethought Association (AFA) is a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Pat Cleveland, AFA's director, described her erstwhile fear of atheists. Cleveland grew up in a devout home where a Bible was the only book. But "my husband Roger was a freethinker. I would cringe when it would thunder and he'd say 'Come on, strike me!'" Roger Cleveland wanted to attend a debate with Dan Barker, a preacher turned atheist (and now FFRF co-president). "I thought, 'Lord, if I'm not meant to go to this, help me.' ...The Lord didn't help me." To her surprise, "everyone was really nice. I went home and read the Bible – for the first time with my mind."

The FFRF distributes a radio program and podcasts via Freethought Radio. Partly in hope of reaching people who have never met an atheist – or never met another atheist – the FFRF has campaigns to put signs in buses and on billboards. ("Sleep In On Sundays," "Beware of Dogma," "Praise Darwin.") Outdoor advertising companies were particularly reluctant. Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said, "We were unable to purchase billboards for two decades."

When a new billboard goes up, it produces controversy, hate mail, and new FFRF members. One billboard company hired by FFRF responded to the subsequent flap with a billboard reading "In God We Trust" and "The previous sign posted at this location does not reflect the values or morals of our company."

In Rancho Cucamonga, California, after an FFRF billboard had been up for less than a week, the contractor took it down at city request. The FFRF responded with a lawsuit. In Phoenix, Arizona, the billboard company said an FFRF sign had to be at least 1,000 feet from schools or churches.

On June 25th, the FFRF's first Alabama billboard – "Imagine No Religion" with a stained-glass border – appeared on Interstate 20 between Birmingham and Talladega, facing west. It would greet many of the people coming to Lake Hypatia. The first advertising company the FFRF hired backed out, but they found another.

A letter to the editor in the Talladega paper, The Daily Home, indicated that the authors, Opal and Preston Stone, were offended by the sign, by a story about the sign, and by "self-called 'Free Thinkers.'" "We, personally, would like to be FREE from those who have done all that they can do to suppress and denigrate our right to look forward to meeting our maker, when he is ready to call us home."

A local television station interviewed Pat Cleveland about the I-20 billboard. They asked why it was important. She explained how much less visible atheists are than believers."We don't have tent revivals. We don't go from city to city. We don't feel anybody's soul needs to be saved." She said religion had been harmful to her. Cleveland was apprehensive about her appearance in the segment, and relieved when she saw the opposing remarks that followed her. "They got a good old redneck in Alabama that made me look so gooooood!" she crowed.

The AFA got 41 telephone calls about the billboard, 26 favorable. There were no "ugly calls," Cleveland said, "except for the rotisserie thing. Hell's not gonna be hot enough for me, I'm gonna be rotisseried!"

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