Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
September 4th, 2009

Godless in Alabama

Challenges for Bible Belt atheists

Blair Scott, founder of North Alabama Freethought Association

Blair Scott, North Alabama Freethought Association founder

A red Hyundai with a Darwin fish and an “atheist” license tag eases up to a fast food drive-through window in Huntsville, Alabama. A van pulls up behind it. Five children slip out, line up along one side of the car and chant “God loves you” and “Praise Jesus.” The kids scramble back into the van, congratulated by a high-fiving mother.

Blair Scott — the 38-year-old, cherub-faced man in the red car — still chuckles about it a year later, joking that the kids yelled “god-scenities” at him. The quick-to-laugh Scott shrugs off the negative attention — which also includes 75 hate emails and at least one death threat a week. Scott is the founder of the largest atheist organization in the state, the North Alabama Freethought Association (NAFA) in Huntsville.

In 2004, NAFA had two members; today it has more than 200. Scott says that a decade ago, three atheist organizations in Alabama floundered, but now 10 thrive. “Atheists are on the rise in Alabama. But we may not be what you think,” he beams.

Many NAFA members say that the increased interest in atheism in their state reflects the country’s growing movement toward disbelief. And according to Newsweek magazine, they’re right. The number of self-described atheists or agnostics in America has almost quadrupled, from 1 million in 1990 to over 3.5 million in 2009.

Kenny White, organizer for the nearly 150-member Birmingham Atheists — which in 2003 had 15 members — says that atheists have always been in Alabama but that the visibility of groups like Birmingham Atheists and NAFA have given nonbelievers in his state increasing courage to come out and socialize with like-minded people.

“As a Catholic priest stationed in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was told on numerous occasions by certain evangelicals that I wasn’t a Christian. I can only imagine how an atheist would be made to feel in parts of the South” said Fr. Eric Andrews, CSP. “I’ve come across some very thoughtful people who were raised with such rigid, unreasonable forms of Christianity that they were driven to atheism in reaction.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges for atheists in the state that tied Louisiana for highest church attendance in a 2006 Gallup poll.

“I feel sure that if I were to come out as an atheist at work, I would be fired,” says Tom Easley, 54, a software technician in Huntsville. Easley, an assistant organizer for NAFA, says that his company is religious and even has a volunteer Bible study group.

Atheist perks

But being an atheist in Alabama might have its perks. Once, when Scott neared a drive-through pizza window, the cashier saw his atheist tags and gave him his pizzas for free, declaring God told her to do it. Scott says he wishes she had offered him the pizzas because he’s a nice guy, not to evangelize. “But free pizza is free pizza,” he laughs.

And then there’s the case of Ben Burns. Burns, 23, was a lazy C student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and in danger of dropping out, but then, he says, something saved him: he became an atheist. Now, he’s an inspired, straight-A student.

“As a Christian, I had the mindset that this life wasn’t important,” says Burns, in a crowded coffee house in Huntsville, Alabama, owned by a local pastor. “But once I realized that this life is the only one I’ve got,” he says, leaning forward to reveal a poster on the wall behind him advertising a Bible study, “you make a lot more of an effort to make this life all it can be, including becoming a better student.”

Nevertheless, Burns isn’t ready to tell his parents that he no longer believes. “I don’t think I need to add that stress to my life just yet,” he says.

Dateless in Alabama

But adding stress to your life might be unavoidable if you’re single and a nonbeliever in Alabama. “It’s not easy getting a date in Alabama if you’re an atheist,” sighs Austin Moore, a 26-year-old auditor in Huntsville.

Moore (not his real name) says the last two women he showed an interest in said that they wouldn’t date an atheist. He says one woman even yelled at him for waiting a month until he revealed he didn’t believe in God. Moore now announces he’s an atheist up front, even though he jokes that it’s not the best opening line for a single guy in Alabama.

“I love [NAFA]. I’m meeting a lot of like-minded people and no one tells me that I’m evil or immoral for not believing in religion.” Just as religious people feel a need to socialize with like-minded people, so do nonreligious people, Moore says.

After joining NAFA, Moore says that he’s more optimistic about his social life. “I love this group,” he says. “I’m meeting a lot of like-minded people and no one tells me that I’m evil or immoral for not believing in religion.” Just as religious people feel a need to socialize with like-minded people, so do nonreligious people, Moore says. We all need to feel connected and that we belong, he adds.

An officer and an atheist

But not everyone feels they belong yet. “It’s harder to be an atheist in Alabama than it is to be black,” says Darell Walter, an African-American Marine officer from Athens, Alabama, and a NAFA member. Walter, 41, says that while being black is skin deep, being an atheist goes right to the core. An African-American might not feel accepted in some parts of the South, he says, but an atheist might not feel accepted anywhere.

Walter is a former Christian and says a single question began to unravel his belief in God. A woman asked him if God would send her to hell for being gay. Walter was stumped, but also moved by her sincerity. The exchange, he says, led him to question his religious convictions and eventually his belief in God.

With less than 0.5 percent of blacks claiming to be atheists, according to a recent Pew Research poll, Walter says he is a minority within a minority. The high percentage of blacks who believe in God relates to the central role that the church plays in black culture. It’s hard to separate one’s African-American identify from the church, says Walter.

Pages: 1 2

The Author : Anthony Chiorazzi
Anthony Chiorazzi writes from Los Angeles and is currently a graduate student at Oxford University.
See more articles by (21).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Mims H. Carter

    I find the comments of the catholics, especially those who live in majority catholic communities, and the catholics who have move to the bible belt, interesting. They seem to separate their version of christianity from the traditional bible-belt baptist version. As a southerner who was raised catholic and started on the road to atheism at the age of twelve, and has identified as an atheist since my tour in Viet Nam a few years later, now almost forty years ago, I can only tell you that, unlike James Joyce’s wonderful character Stephen Dedalus, I don’t see much difference in catholicism and southern protestantism. As some atheist commentators have said, all believers are atheists when it come to other religion’s god claims. Atheists just go one step farther. I live now on the MS Gulf Coast, where catholicism is almost as strong as the protestant sects. They are all equally destructive of our social fabric.

  • George Aliwa

    I have been impressed by the articles which i have read and this also puts me on the same spot as am a victim of those who have been victimised on not believing in god.I was sacked from my employment recently on 29.10.10 because 2 clients of the company withdrew from the company because they saw my postings on the fb of me saying am godless and that forced my directors to sack me and i had a loan still pending to clear.The letter of my sacking is posted in my fb album,its harder in kenya and am seeking for any material support from you,for am very much frustated,i hope of quick positive response.Kind regards.George Aliwa.

  • Mike

    Funny how we always want others to agree with us, no matter if we believe or not we (humans) feel better in groups.

  • Dandre

    I understand where the police officer in the article was coming from. I am black, and atheist. And rejection has been a very hard pill to swallow. But I can’t change a personal conviction based on other people’s opinions or lack of acceptance. That would be completely missing the point.

  • Marc Rodes

    Anthony, that was a nice, balanced article that presented many points of view.

    I try to base my beliefs on evidence, and, while the scarcity of evidence for the existence of God is suggestive, I have to admit that a supreme being beyond all laws can’t be disproved. Considering this, I would call myself an agnostic, conditionally disbelieving in God based on the lack of evidence. Of course, this conditional disbelief also extends to the Flying Spaghetti Monster of the Pastafarians, though I could swear that I saw an image of it in my dinner at Olive Garden.

    I would like to address Mr. Patrick about the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. As I understand his ontological proof, it is akin to the statement that “the idea of a unicorn is so great that humans could not possibly have come up with it, therefore, unicorns are real”. Another interpretation is “unicorns are perfect in every way, something that is perfect can’t not exist, therefore, unicorns exist”. The first is based on a conjecture, the second is a tautology. Neither are proofs.

  • mustardseed

    CowboyZZ, If having an atheist tag makes Mr. Scott an exhibitionist, how would you describe all those people in the south who have a fish symbol on their rear fenders, bumper stickers that say ‘Jesus Saves’ or ‘GOD bless America’?

  • Lorna Dee

    Seems like many people here are equating these people with all atheists, shame.

    And Mr. Rose, I could easily (and truthfully) say that some of the most closed-minded people I’ve met are Catholics and some of the most open-minded have been atheists but then that would be speaking too generally and I’m not a fan of that.

  • CowboyZZ

    It seems to me that Free Thinking is not so free, these guys are obsessed with what other people may think about them… too much exhibitionism, for example his plates.

  • Max Lindenman

    Laura: A Brooklyn-born friend of mine, who has relocated to the South, swears that his religious statues protect his happy home from evangelists. As he puts it, “Missionaries come up the walkway. They see my Blessed Mother statue. Then they see my St. Francis statue. Then they look at each other and hurry away.”

    Of course, statues like that would probably scare me away from any Brooklyn house, but only because I’d be afraid the owner had a few bodies buried in the backyard.

  • laura

    As a NY Catholic that has recently relocated to the deep south, I was amused and appalled by my baptist neighbor’s comment to me “even though we do not believe in the same God…” Huh? What God does she believe in I wondered. I have never met such ignorance and bigotry towards religion in my entire life. My kids are subjected to it in school and I get it on a daily basis with the question “where y’all go to church?” with my answer being one that invokes rolled – eyes and stump speaches to switch to the “true belief”. I’ve even had cable repair guys and pest control people testify to me in my own kitchen when they were supposed to be working. Obviously they did not care for my crucifix, palms, and blessed Mother statue. Live and learn I say. The South does not understand nor believe Catholics are Christians. It makes me hold onto my faith even more strongly. If this is the reaction a “good Catholic family” recieves in a moderately progressive southern city I can just imagine what the Atheists go through!

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Some believers of any stripe can be obnoxious about it. But as a Catholic who has evangelicals in my family, I tire of stereotypes like this minivan family, offered up by atheists as some kind of proof that they’re in the right. Making fun of your opponent does not prove your correctness. And in my experience, atheists can be just as obnoxious and self-righteous about their beliefs.

    The second half of this article and some of the comments speak to the value of doubt. But by definition, atheists are not doubters; rather, they claim to be certain of the non-existence of God. (The doubters are agnostics.) All people of faith have moments of doubt, and most atheists have their moments of doubt too. To equate an atheist stance with this kind of doubt, or to dress it up as scientific skepticism, is not accurate. Some of the most closed-minded people I’ve met are atheists. And in my experience, some people of faith, because of their openness to the mystery of what is beyond human understanding, are the most open-minded and inquisitive people I’ve known.

  • Brian

    I’ve often been thankful that I was born and grew up in a primarily Catholic area where the fundamentalists did not even exist in my world until my uncle joined a store front church. It is unlikely I would have believed in the Jesus they preach!

  • Bodi Mayo

    Very good article, Anthony.

    If you folks that have commented thus far on this article think it is hard to be an atheist in Alabama, try being a germanic reconstructionist pagan in Georgia. Modern-day Christians might have a hard time understanding or accepting people who don’t believe in any god whatsoever, but they have no problem at all with letting folks like me know that we are evil and against everything they consider themselves to be.

    Personally, I could give a rodent’s hindquarters about the religion of another person, and rarely do I worry myself about it. The only time I do is when someone else decides to make it my business, and therein lies the crux of the matter: christians of all stripes are charged by the very tenets of their religion to try and convert the rest of us to it, while the rest of us would love nothing more than to never hear a word of it ever again.

    Maybe one day Christianity will remove that most unseemly portion of their doctrine and leave the rest of us in peace.

  • Valentine Chase

    Wow that was a wonderful article. I’m telling you it was very well written, balanced¬†and thought provoking. Solid reporting, too.
    This is why I like to read Busted Halo. I think what’s important here is that as believers we all have doubts, but doubts are not a bad thing. Doubts make us search more, explore more, reach more. Doubt also gives us the gift of faith. And as we read in the scriptures, faith
    is very¬†fundamental for the Christian experience. Christ said, “Blessed are those
    who have not seen, but yet believe.” Christ was acknowledging that faith is hard and
    that there will be doubts. So, when we look at the atheists, we have to respect their honesty 
    and see a little bit of ourselves in them.  

  • Max Lindenman

    Terrific article, Anthony. I don’t think I quite realized how Bible-y the Bible Belt really is. (My only contacts in the region live in a northern suburb of Atlanta that strives to be an oasis of diversity and sophistication.) I used to get annoyed with atheists who declare their unbelief in a provocative way — say, by filing lawsuits to remove religious symbols from public places. Now I’m finding it easier to empathize with them.

  • Cal

    I think atheists just want to say ? Look at Me
    ?? Stand Out ?? Have No Clue Who zthey Are ?? What They Stand For ?? I’m Not Them ?? Lost Souls With No ??
    We Stand For NFL !! Girls !! Greenbay Packers !!
    Hooters !!! Stand For Old School Values !!
    Stand For Nothing !! Who Care What Religious BS
    you Are !!! Just Enjoy Life Every Day , Love,Freedom,Truth,,Beautiful Life, Southern Living

  • Frank Patrick

    Great article. Your article showed the confusion that atheists face each day of their lives. They should read about Thomas Aquinas’ proofs of the existence of God. Anyone can deny the existence of gravity, but it continues to exist if you like it or not. I loved the ending of your article suggesting that “Humility” is another reason for the existence of God. We all can learn from that. Your article also tells that we must continue to nourish our faith
    everyday, and look to those with faith when we need some answers (like Busted Halo).

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