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.

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Godless in Alabama

Challenges for Bible Belt atheists

NAFA members Catholic-Atheist-Pastafarian Allison Bohlman, and her boyfriend, Ryan
NAFA members Catholic-Atheist-Pastafarian Allison Bohlman, and her boyfriend, Ryan

Meet a real-life Catholic-Atheist-Pastafarian

In a crowded hamburger restaurant in Huntsville, with postings on a community board nearby proclaiming that “Jesus Loves You,” Allison Bohlman, 26, defines herself as a Catholic-Atheist-Pastafarian. A Pastafarian, she explains, is a person who spoofs the belief in a specific creator god by jokingly claiming that a Flying Spaghetti Monster actually created the universe.

Bohlman attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade and says she can’t shake her fascination with all things Catholic. “I still do the whole Pope watch thing, and know all these facts about the papacy,” she says bouncing in her seat beside her more reserved boyfriend and fellow NAFA member, Ryan. “Why should I care about the Pope? I don’t know, but I do.”

Raised in Fargo, North Dakota, Bohlman says she began to question God’s existence when she noticed that praying didn’t help her with her problems. Eventually she concluded that religion is just about doing good. “So why do I need the whole God thing?” she says.

Bohlman, an Alabamian for almost four years, says her adopted state is a world of difference from North Dakota. “In the Midwest, we keep our religion to ourselves,” she explains. “Pushing your religion on others is just rude.”

“In the Midwest, we keep our religion to ourselves,” Bohlman explains. “Pushing your religion on others is just rude.” For example, she says, people in Alabama ask you all the time where you go to church. But that puts you on the spot if you don’t go to church.

For example, Bohlman says, people in Alabama ask you all the time where you go to church. But that puts you on the spot if you don’t go to church, she says.

One misconception about atheists, Bohlman says, is that they all have wild sex and do a lot of drugs. “I believe in monogamy,” she says, ribbing her boyfriend about finally marrying her. “And I don’t do drugs or drink because they don’t make me happy. I’m probably one of the most boring atheists you’ll ever meet,” she laughs.

Faith and doubt

“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.”

Carol Becker — a rugged, 68-year-old Baptist grandmother who brags that she’s never missed Sunday services in her life — says she too understands how some people in Alabama might get turned off by religion. “Baptists here can be too big-headed, loud-mouthed and thick-skulled. Did I leave anything out?” she laughs as she fills up her Christian fish-adorned, mud-splattered pickup truck at a Huntsville gas station. Becker — not her real name — says: “But it’s important that we keep focused on Christ. He has to be our reference. Not man. Man will disappoint you every time.”

Agreeing that Christ must be the ultimate model for Christians, Frank Savage, 62, Director of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Birmingham, adds that he has a tolerance for atheists as long as they can respect his beliefs. Savage argues that atheists are not the only doubters, and on some level, all believers have to struggle with their faith.

Savage says you can’t put faith in a box and hand it to someone to blindly accept; every believer has to do some soul searching to make their faith real for them. And in that sense, he appreciates the doubters. “But it’s not a doubt that ends in despair, but that brings us to new life,” he says. Savage says even Mother Teresa was known to have her doubts, but her faith won out. Savage says that is the greatest testimony that faith and doubt will always coexist.

And at least one NAFA member struggles with faith, too. Adjusting a pair of horn-rimmed glasses in a Huntsville family restaurant, Jonathan Caro, 34, jokes to a group of fellow members, “There are two official state religions in Alabama: college football and Baptist.” They laugh.

Unlike most NAFA members, Caro calls himself a “non-traditional deist.” He says that if something is out there, it’s nothing like the Christian God, and not something easily understood or defined. When asked — surrounded by his non-believing friends — what makes him think there could be a God, Caro, who holds a master’s degree in philosophy, scratches a tangle of bushy hair and looks as if he’s about to say something profound, then shrugs and says: “Humility.”

[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]