Atheist in Mississippi
19th century LGBT rights advocate Karl Heinric...
19th century LGBT rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs introduced the idea of coming out as a means of emancipation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have lived in Mississippi for over 10 years now, and I am still regularly asked by people I knew before moving here what it is like to live here as an atheist or a liberal. I’ve lost count of how many times the same people have asked me these same questions over the years. Perhaps my answers have never been satisfactory or sufficiently memorable. Or maybe those who ask cannot comprehend how someone like me could have found his way here and managed to stay as long as I have. It probably doesn’t help matters that I’m not sure how to explain myself.

If you missed Joce Pritchett's recent article in The Jackson Free Press, “What’s It Like Living LGBT in Mississippi?,” be sure to check it out. I suspect that many Mississippi atheists will be able to relate to some of what she has to say, although some have certainly had different experiences of Mississippi.

Pritchett notes that people who have lived here long enough to remember all the violence and hatred surrounding school desegregation have good reason to be wary.
When I say that some LGBT Mississippians are afraid to come out of the closet and live authentic lives, it’s not theoretical or an intellectual decision—they are genuinely afraid for their lives and livelihoods.
For those who have seen Mississippi at its worst, the threat does not seem hypothetical at all. I was not here for desegregation, and what I know of this period is primarily through the study of history. Still, the threat has always seemed realistic to me. I’ve heard enough of what my Christian neighbors think of atheists, liberals, LGBT persons, and immigrants to be concerned. The fear of “coming out” is something with which I can certainly relate.

Even though polls have shown that atheists are hated more than LGBT persons these days, I still think LGBT individuals have it worse than atheists in many respects. They have fewer legal rights, especially the many rights around marriage, and fewer protections against discrimination. I suspect that an LGBT person is more likely to be assaulted for who they are than an atheist is, and it is bound to be more challenging an LGBT individual to conceal who they are than it is for most atheists.

The part of the article that really hit home for me was when Pritchett wrote:
What’s it like? We find safe places and like-minded people. We create bubbles of safety to live in, and we smile and try to fit in. We don’t talk about it just like we don’t talk about the horrid race relations that still exist in Mississippi or the extreme measures that had to be taken just to get to where we are today. We get up every morning and go to work, visit with friends, pay our taxes and tell ourselves, “That’s just the way it is in Mississippi.”
Damn, that sounds familiar! Atheist bubble? Yep. Liberal bubble? Check. Secular bubble in which separation of church and state is valued and secular activism is seen as a necessary step toward equality? Definitely. Too many bubbles, and none are particularly satisfying. None feel safe enough. It takes so little to pop some of these bubbles. It often seems that we spend too much of our lives surviving and too little thriving.

When I read Pritchett’s words, I can’t help being moved. Being told “That’s just the way it is” has never been satisfying. We need to create a better Mississippi where such “bubbles of safety” are no longer necessary for LGBT individuals, persons of color, immigrants, atheists, and others who find this a necessary evil to survive here. We all deserve better.

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Rusty steam locomotive, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Rusty steam locomotive, Hattiesburg, Mississippi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is a contribution from a new author, Beau Black, currently living in Hattiesburg.

Up until relatively recently, my life’s resume is pretty typical for a young, motivated WASP male (though my actual beliefs varied widely by dipping into Eastern philosophy). I did youth ministry, wrote and mediated bible studies, worked for ministries across the state, led worship, and got married relatively early to a young woman I met in the ministry. I also got a degree in Philosophy with an emphasis on Religious Studies from MSU.

I grew up expecting to work in ministry. I got my degree for it and prepared to attend seminary all the way up until the summer after I graduated from MSU. Finding a decent job with my resume outside of the ministry has been quite the challenge. My only other experience was in restaurants, which is what I have fallen back on in the meantime.

My academic and personal studies of philosophy, theology, history, psychology, and science eventually led me to the conclusion that god and/or gods in all of his or her or their forms was a figment of the collective human imagination. When I came out, my friends and family said absolutely nothing negative to me. Nor did they say anything positive for that matter. They didn’t say anything at all. Which I suppose is better than some alternatives. And though I am actively and openly opposed to the ministry for which my mother works, American Family Radio, my mother and I have a loving relationship.

I thought that coming out as an atheist in MS would make me an outcast, but not long before I came out, I was invited to lead worship at University Baptist Church of Starkville. I told the pastor, Bert Montgomery, that I couldn’t because I was leaning towards agnosticism at the time. Bert didn’t miss a step and said I should come hang out anyway. And so I did.

I found that I was quite often frustrated by what I considered to be problems with the faith, but that I was able to overcome those frustrations and connect with this truly awesome community. On one of the last Sundays I attended with my wife, I got up and sang some U2 songs for the congregation. I am, and always will be, extremely thankful to Bert and the people of UBC for making me feel welcome during a time in which I was desperately in need of exactly that.

It was during that time that my wife and I were living in Louisville, MS. We were two humanists in a sea of Christians. Though it hardly came up in conversation that we weren’t Christian, it still separated us quite effectively from the community. If you weren’t involved in a church, you simply weren’t involved in the life of the town. It’s how you made connections - both for business and for pleasure.

In order to connect to other human beings we drove to Starkville three times a week most weeks. Sometimes more. Rarely less. We had to get out of there or risk going broke or crazy. So we moved to Hattiesburg. Almost immediately my wife met a group of colleagues who identified as agnostic or atheist in surprising numbers. It was a welcome reprieve from the life we led in Louisville.

So far, Mississippi hasn’t been that bad to me as an atheist. The people who have “confronted” me have done so out of (misplaced) care and love - not fear and hate. I know this isn’t everyone’s story, but it is mine. I’d love to hear yours.

If you are an atheist living in Mississippi and have something to say, please consider submitting a post. We’d like to hear from you.

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English: Norida high school teachers
Norida high school teachers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I trust that you have heard about the latest church-state case in Mississippi by now. The Jackson Public School District received a complaint from the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center on behalf of a teacher after sectarian (Christian) prayer and preaching were featured at their mandatory three-hour convocation. Apparently, public school teachers employed by the district were required to attend this event and then subjected to explicitly Christian prayer and preaching.

Why is this such a problem? First, this is about a public school district inviting Christian clergy to deliver sectarian prayers and proselytize at an event they sponsored. Public schools are not supposed to be in the business of promoting religion. Second, the district appears to have required their employees to attend this event. So it wasn’t just inappropriate proselytizing of the sort government agencies are not allowed to engage in; it was mandatory for district employees. I’m not suggesting it would not be problematic otherwise, but I think it being mandatory for district employees takes it to another level.

The good news here is that the Jackson Public School District seems to have realized that this behavior is indefensible. In their response to the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, they indicated that they would end the prayers and proselytizing at future events. Here is the video from WAPT News.

It is difficult at times for me to wrap my head around the fact that this sort of complaint would be necessary in 2014. I realize that this is Mississippi, but I am growing increasingly tired of hearing that used as an excuse for this sort of nonsense. Church-state violations like this happen much too often here, and it is great to see secular Mississippians standing up to hold our government accountable. Separation of church and state is an issue that should concern all religious minorities as well as anyone who takes social justice seriously.

I’d like to extend my gratitude to the teacher(s) who had the courage to initiate this complaint. Standing up for ourselves like this is rarely easy, but that does not make it any less important. Thanks as well to the Appignani Humanist Legal Center for their support. I’m sure there are many teachers employed by the Jackson Public School District who are grateful that they will no longer have to endure mandatory Christian proselytizing while on the job.

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Organization design
Organization design (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I started the Mississippi Atheists blog in 2008 to provide a place on the Internet for people looking for information relevant to atheism in the state of Mississippi. I figured that it might be helpful to have a central hub from which to could provide resources and support to Mississippi atheists.

I soon realized that the many limitations on my time and my lack of knowledge of what was happening across our state made me less than ideal to fulfill this goal. I sought to attract co-authors and turn this into more of a group blog. The idea was that we’d have a several atheists living in different parts of the state writing about their experiences periodically. This was successful for awhile, as we had several contributors. Unfortunately, none stuck around for long. By 2012, it was clear that this was no longer working as the group effort I had envisioned. I’ve evaluated and re-evaluated whether to close Mississippi Atheists many times, deciding in May of 2014 to keep it going for at least another year. My rationale is simple: the demand is there, and having something - even something flawed - seems better than nothing at all.

I think it would be great if we had a statewide atheist organization in Mississippi like one finds in many other states, a real Mississippi Atheists. But this is not it; this is just a small blog that is now down to one semi-regular author (i.e., me). If we had a statewide atheist organization, it would have active members and officers. It would hold meetings and events, facilitating collaboration between the few small groups we have scattered around Mississippi. It could promote atheism, educate the public, and provide an organized voice in our state. It might have people who were willing to publicly debate Christian apologists or talk to the news media about issues relevant to atheists in Mississippi. Perhaps it would even organize church-state activism, something that seems desperately needed here.

Admittedly, I am just guessing about what a statewide atheist organization would be like or what it would do. I know very little about how such organizations function in other states; I just know that I often feel envious of those living in states that have them. I have little idea about what is involved in developing something like that or how many people in Mississippi would join and/or participate if we had one.

When I am contacted and asked how people can join Mississippi Atheists, whether one of our representatives would speak at their event, or whether we are organizing activist efforts around a particular issue, I would love to be able to point those asking in the right direction. Instead, I have to explain that we aren’t a group, have no membership or representatives, and are in no position to organize anything. I have to explain that “we” aren’t even really a “we” because it is mostly just me. So yeah, it would be great to have a statewide atheist organization here in Mississippi.

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English: Official portrait of Steven Palazzo
Official portrait of Steven Palazzo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Among the ways in which we atheists, humanists, skeptics, and secular individuals need to change Mississippi, one of the most obvious might be strengthening the separation of church and state. We deserve nothing less than a truly secular government (i.e., a government that remains neutral on matters of religion). It is bad enough that we are surrounded by the evangelical fundamentalist Christianity that pervades our culture; we cannot permit our government to promote it.

The gap between the situation we desire and where we are currently was recently illustrated in dramatic fashion by Rep. Steven Palazzo's (R-MS) poor decision to send a Christian bible to every member of Congress along with a letter in which he suggested it would “help guide you in your decision-making.”

Perhaps this was little more than pandering. Rep. Palazzo likely knew that the media would pay attention, spreading news of his poor judgment to his Southern Baptist constituents. He certainly knew that many of them would be thrilled with this action. Bending - or even breaking - laws to expand one’s political power is not exactly new. In some ways, it may even be better than the alternative explanation.

This alternative seems to be that Rep. Palazzo genuinely believes that our elected officials should be using his bible to govern us. He’s either thoroughly ignorant about our Constitution, or he simply rejects the parts of it he cannot reconcile with his fundamentalist Christian beliefs. This strikes me as a far less desirable alternative than mere pandering.

Has Rep. Palazzo ever bothered to read his bible? Does he understand that it can be (and has been) used to justify practically anything someone wants to do? This is no valid guide for much of anything. It is interpreted as justifying one’s preconceived desires.

What happens when someone seeks advice by “meditating on God’s Word” as Rep. Palazzo suggests to those who are supposed to be representing us in Congress? The individual does what he or she wants to do and feels that some sort of divine inspiration is attached to it, clouding his or her judgment, making compromise less likely, and fueling a potentially dangerous sense of self-righteousness.

What You Can Do

Rep. Palazzo needs to hear from the Mississippians he is supposed to represent that “holy” texts have no place in the decision-making process of elected officials in a secular democracy. Talking Points Memo quoted Rev. Barry W. Lynn (Americans United for Separation of Church and State) as follows:
"When a politician calls for using the Bible as the basis for public policy, what he or she is really saying is, ‘Let’s use the Bible as I interpret it as the basis for public policy,’" Lynn said in response to Palazzo’s letter. "When it comes to religion, our nation is pluralistic and diverse. Rather than look to the Bible or any other religious book to craft our nation’s public policy, we would do well to examine another source instead, one that was actually created to guide governance. It’s called the Constitution."
Rep. Palazzo’s actions are unacceptable, and he needs to hear it from as many Mississippians as possible. If you’d like to contact Rep. Palazzo and explain why this is problematic, you can do so here. If you do contact him, please be civil.

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New Orleans Mardi Gras night in the tourist se...
New Orleans Mardi Gras night in the tourist section of Bourbon Street: Fundamentalist Christian protesters carry signs and shout damnations in crowd of more secular revelers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is easy to talk about the need to change certain aspects of Mississippi’s culture; it is much harder to put together specific examples of how we might go about doing that. In this post, I am going to offer one suggestion for something I believe we should put in place to fuel secular activism in Mississippi now and in the future.

I cannot count the number of times that some sort of church-state violation or other overreach by the fundamentalist Christian majority has taken place in our state without many of us knowing about it until it was too late to do anything. In many of these cases, I suspect that we might have been able to make a difference through organized secular activism (e.g., spreading the word through social media, launching online petitions, contacting elected officials to complain, writing letters to the editor of our local newspapers, alerting national secular organizations that might take an interest, picketing). But we can’t do any of these things when we are unaware of the need for them in the first place. We need a centralized, statewide system for distributing relevant action alerts.

What would this look like? It is clear to me that it cannot be solely limited to Facebook because many people refuse to have anything to do with Facebook (for what I believe are perfectly valid reasons). The same goes for Twitter. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms could play an important part in how those who receive the alerts can spread the word, but they shouldn’t be the primary way the alerts go out.

It seems to me that the best way to set up such a system would be in the form of an email list that people could sign up for. The emails that went out on this list would have to be limited to relevant and timely action alerts. Nobody is going to stay on a list that spams them with irrelevant content, and there is little point in distributing action alerts if you don’t give people sufficient time to take action. This means that the list would have to be moderated, as this is the only way to prevent it from turning into something different than what those who signed up for it had signed up for.

Would having a list like this solve all our problems, changing Mississippi in the ways we want? Of course not! But I see something like this as an important prerequisite because I don’t know how any of us can be effective secular activists when we are not informed about where our efforts are needed.

At present, Mississippi lacks any sort of organized statewide atheist or secular activist presence. We have a handful of active groups scattered around the state doing great work in their local areas, but most of us don’t hear anything about them, and their efforts are necessarily limited by their numbers. If we could get information out to everyone, those of us who live in areas without any atheist/humanist/secular groups could amplify the work of these local groups. We’d be far more effective if we could put our numbers to use throughout the state

Imagine for a moment that government officials in a small town in the Northern part of our state commit some sort of church-state violation. Someone who lives in that town writes an action alert and sends it to the list moderator who then distributes it statewide. The town is flooded with complaints from across the state. Those of us on the list use our social media accounts to amplify the effect, and a national secular group takes interest. It seems to me that this would make us far more effective than we are now.

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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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