Atheist in Mississippi
St. Paul, Minnesota May 6, 2010 Humanists, ath...
St. Paul, Minnesota May 6, 2010 Humanists, atheists and agnostics held this event in support of the separation of church and state. and as a protest to the government endorsed National Day of Prayer. Fibonacci Blue 2010-05-06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in Mississippi, it often seems that we are surrounded by church-state violations. And yet, many of us are reluctant to engage in secular activism. We are constantly bombarded with unwelcome proselytizing from evangelical fundamentalist Christians, but we rarely speak out against it. Our environment is so thoroughly saturated with Christian privilege that it often feels as oppressive as the humidity in late July; however, most of us have invested little if any effort in changing this toxic aspect of our culture.

It is perfectly understandable that we would be reluctant to speak out and to work toward change; this is risky. We worry that engaging in secular activism, identifying ourselves as atheists, or working to change Christian privilege would bring unwelcome consequences. We might lose our jobs, or friends, or even our families. Sadly, these concerns are not as exaggerated as they might appear. After all, this is Mississippi we’re talking about.

So what do we do? We go along to get along. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We hope we can pass among the evangelical Christian majority, even as they demonize atheists, erode the separation of church and state, and pass laws that directly affect our lives n negative ways.

At some point, we must acknowledge that our fearful silence and the many ways we excuse it perpetuates the status quo. Our inaction enables the bad behavior of Christian majority around us (e.g., church-state violations, proselytizing) and ensures the continuation of Christian privilege. To some degree, it also enables their ignorance. They don’t know atheists because we won’t identify ourselves. Many of them do not understand secularism, and we are reluctant to educate them. Some of them don’t even understand why their blatant disregard for the separation of church and state is problematic, and this may be at least partially due to our reluctance to complain about these violations.

When we think we are among like-minded Mississippians (as rare an experience as that might be for many of us), we express ourselves openly. And what do we say when we think we are among friends? We say that we are unhappy with the frequent church-state violations, the pervasive Christian privilege, and the unwelcome proselytizing. We say that we’d like this to change.

What are we doing to change the aspects of Mississippi’s culture that need to change? What are we doing to improve the situation in which future atheists will find in Mississippi? These may be difficult questions to answer, but that does not mean they are not worth asking.

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Peacock flower

We may not have much in Mississippi that we can take pride in when we compare ourselves to the rest of the U.S. We are used to scoring at or near the bottom on all sorts of measures of positive indicators (e.g., education) and at or near the top on many of the bad ones (e.g., poverty, infant mortality, obesity). But we do have something in which we should take pride and be prepared to defend against those who would threaten it.

According to Newsweek,
Today, Mississippi has the highest rate of vaccination in the U.S., with 99.9 percent of kindergartners receiving their MMR.
Despite the many other problems with our healthcare system, this is great news. Unfortunately, there are plenty of misinformed Mississippians who would like us to give up this accomplishment in deference to their religious beliefs.

The same Newsweek article mentions that a woman in our state, Lindey Magee, has written bills aimed at giving parents the right to opt out of vaccinating their children on religious grounds.
Like many parents reluctant to immunize their children, Magee trusts her intuition (and information she finds on the Internet) over the advice of pediatricians. “I saw the Disney movie Bears, and if God gave bears instincts to survive their harsh reality, then human beings certainly have the instinct to protect children,” she says. “Mumps, measles and rubella do not scare me,” she adds, despite having heard that measles kills about 450 people each day around the world.
This is what we’re up against.

Vaccination is a vital public safety issue. Granting religious exemptions not only places the unvaccinated children at risk; it endangers the rest of us.

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Resume Design
Resume Design (Photo credit: CharlotWest)
A recent study published in Social Currents by Wallace, Wright, and Hyde (2014) explored the relationship of religious affiliation and hiring discrimination in the South. The researches sent fake resumes to employers who had posted job ads in the South. The resumes were identical except for the expressed religious identity, which the researchers varied. They found that resumes expressing any religious identity were 26% less likely to receive a response and that identifying oneself as a Muslim, atheist, or pagan brought the least positive responses.

The study was a fascinating read, particularly the researchers’ use of many theories to interpret their results. But for atheists applying for work in the South, the take-home message is simple: do not put anything on your resume that could lead to you being identified as an atheist.

Your work with the Secular Student Alliance in college? Don’t include it. The volunteer work you did with the local humanist group? Make sure it isn’t on your resume. Such indicators are likely to do more harm than good.
Atheists also faced considerable discrimination from employers…They received 49% fewer e-mails and 43% fewer phone calls than the controls.
Employment discrimination against atheists, as well as others who are not Evangelical Protestants or Jews, appears to be part of our reality.

H/T to The Jewish Daily Forward

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Men Shun Rocket packs
Men Shun Rocket packs (Photo credit: EpicFireworks)
I have made no secret of my dislike with how so many Mississippians insist on celebrating the Forth of July, New Year’s Eve, Christmas, and other holidays with fireworks. What I find objectionable is not that they enjoy fireworks. I recognize that other people are going to enjoy things I regard as silly and vice-versa. That’s not the problem.

What I object to is their continued use of the loudest fireworks they can find long after many of us are trying to sleep and their refusal to pick up the litter they leave in the street and in my yard. This behavior strikes me as being incredibly inconsiderate of others, and I detest it.

What they do with fireworks really isn’t any different from me putting an incredibly loud stereo system outside in my lawn and treating the neighborhood to an unwanted serenade of death metal for several hours while tossing beer cans in their yards. This would create a similar amount of mess and be roughly as annoying. I’d never do this, of course, because I am far more considerate of others than that. And yet, I’m the one who cannot be moral without their Christian god!

This year, I ran across a new reason to object to the inconsiderate use of fireworks. It is one I hadn’t thought about nearly enough until recently, and I have to say that it makes a great deal of sense. There are many veterans of recent wars living among us who have PTSD, and they deserve better than to be exposed to thoroughly unnecessary and potentially triggering stimuli throughout the night.

If any of these veterans live in areas like I do, they cannot escape the barrage. It lasted for roughly 3 hours last night, and it will easily surpass that tonight. Neither last night nor tonight are holidays, but that never matters. If this Forth of July is like the rest of them, I can look forward to a minimum of 6 hours of feeling like I am in a war zone. And I am neither a veteran nor someone suffering from PTSD. I’m just someone trying to sleep and feeling appalled at how inconsiderate these Christians are of their neighbors.

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As of yesterday, we now live in a state with “In God We Trust” on the state seal. This recent addition to our state seal was a provision of the controversial Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Senate Bill 2681), which Gov. Bryant signed into law back in April.

As you may remember, this legislation was controversial mostly because of fears that businesses would use it to discriminate against LGBT persons. The public outcry over this anticipated discrimination was just enough to delay the bill a bit but not to stop it from passing.

The church-state implications of adding a divisive god reference to the seal and legislating Christian privilege received very little attention in spite public statements made by Sen. Phillip Gandy, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Gov. Phil Bryant. All three of these men, elected to represent all the people of Mississippi, made it clear that this legislation is about promoting their Christian faith.

Back in March, I wrote that I was surprised groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had not been speaking out about the church-state issues here. I asked someone from the FFRF about this a few days later. I was told that they were aware of the bill and were hoping nothing would come of it. Similar legislation had failed elsewhere, and they seemed to expect the same result here. I am still puzzled that they did consider the church-state implications important enough to issue an action alert, but that isn’t worth dwelling on now.

What is my reaction to our new state seal? The new seal is divisive, alienating all of us who do not believe in the particular god our elected officials made it clear that they have in mind. It sends a particularly clear message to atheists that we are not wanted here. We do not trust in any gods. That means we are not real Mississippians; real Mississippians trust in some sort of god.

I find it quite embarrassing that elected officials would get away with such blatant pandering to petty religious tribalism in our modern age. Again and again, these men have demonstrated that they are not interested in representing us. The only seek to represent those Mississippians who share their god belief (and in all likelihood, their evangelical fundamentalist Christianity).

If there was a bright spot here at all, it was that it was encouraging to see that there were protests at the Governor’s Mansion the day the law took effect. Maybe next time we’ll work harder to defeat legislation like this before it passes.

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English: Hattiesburg Union Station in the earl...
Hattiesburg Union Station in the early 1900s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Downtown Hattiesburg has been plagued with an intermittent noxious odor for several years coming from an aging city lagoon used to treat industrial waste. On good days, it is barely noticeable. On bad days, it is downright oppressive and extends for miles. If a town were seeking ways to repel visitors, this would be a winning strategy.

On Saturday, local music promoters held a concert they billed at the “Hattiesburg Stink Fest.” The idea was to bring greater attention to the problem in the hope that public pressure might push the city to finally do something about it.

According to WDAM reporter Charles Herrington, a member of the city council, Mary Dryden, spoke at the event. She was described as providing an update on the progress reportedly being made. Nobody I know who lives in that area has reported any progress, and that has been the case for several years now.

Councilwoman Dryden was quoted as saying, “My hope and my prayer is that this is behind us very quickly.” It is nice to see an elected official making an appearance at an event like this and doing her best to be encouraging. It suggests that at least someone in city government might be listening. Still, hoping and praying have not produced a fix over the last several years. It would be nice to see some real action. This problem needs a real-world fix and not more prayer.

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Public views of the Citizens United v. Federal...
Public views of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
According to the Jackson Free Press, groups outside the state spent roughly $12 million on our recent Republican Senate runoff election. That seems like a great deal of money just to influence one party’s runoff.

$12 million could have gone a long way to improve the lives of many people in a state as poor as Mississippi. But of course, these outside groups aren’t really interested in helping us. They want to influence who represents us in the Senate for their own gains.

It is not clear to me how allowing those outside a state to influence elections that will shape the experience of those living inside the state is a good thing. They have relatively little to gain or lose in comparison to those of us who live in the state. It is almost as if their money is eroding our right to elect our own representatives.

Money has long had a corrupting influence on the political process. With the Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled that they were indifferent to this problem. The result is that states like Mississippi have become playgrounds for the wealthy in other parts of the country to experiment with pet theories. They are unaffected by the consequences of their blunders, but we must live with them day-to-day.

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Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...
Emergency “Twitter was down so I wrote my tweet on paper and photographed it and posted on flickr” : Satire on internet culture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the many challenges facing atheists in Mississippi is that of finding other atheists in the state. Many of us are in the closet for a variety of understandable reasons, but even finding those who are relatively open about their atheism can be tough.

I have started a public Twitter list of atheists in Mississippi who are active on that platform. So far, it is a very short list. If nothing else, I figured that having such a list might make it easier for readers to find atheists in our state to follow.

If you are an atheist in Mississippi who would like your Twitter account added to the list, please let me know. You can leave a comment below or contact me through Twitter @MSAtheists.

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Flag of Mississippi svg
With all the talk recently about the NFL team that continues to call itself the Washington Redskins, I cannot help reminding everyone that the image above is still the state flag of Mississippi. Completely different things? Maybe so. One is a racial slur, and the other isn’t. And yet, the primary argument one hears for keeping both around is the same: tradition. And the objections to both typically involve mention of the fact that some find them offensive.

For many Southerners, the Confederate flag is a far more complicated subject than what an NFL team calls itself. I tend to agree even though I do believe that Mississippi should change the state flag. I have not heard many calls for Confederate symbols to be banned. Few are suggesting that we should treat Confederate symbols the way Germany treats the swastika. No, what is proposed is just that our state should probably not be using a symbol that offends so many people on the flag.

I have little doubt that the meaning of the Confederate flag differs greatly inside the South vs. outside the South. And yet, I think it is a mistake for those of us in the South to close our eyes to its meaning outside our region and how this meaning impacts us. At the very least, it seems bad for business and for our image to have it remain part of our state flag.

With all the talk lately about offensive symbolism vs. tradition, it seems like this might be a reasonable time to remember how our state flag is perceived by much of the country and how this affects how we are perceived. Moving forward sometimes requires us to listen to others. Confederate symbolism has undeniable historic importance, but I’m not sure it belongs on our state flag in 2014.

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U.S. Supreme Court building.
U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals recently threw out the state’s anti-sodomy law. The case referenced Lawrence v. Texas, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that it is unconstitutional to prohibit consensual sex between adults.

Here in Mississippi, it appears that we still have an anti-sodomy law in effect. I assume that the law is no longer being enforced, but it is time to repeal it. We have no need for religiously-motivated sexual repression, and we have seen how Louisiana has used their anti-sodomy law selectively to punish gay men.

As long as Mississippi’s anti-sodomy law remains in effect, it serves as yet another a reminder of how far our state still has to go.

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