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.