RALEIGH, N.C. — Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.
But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.
The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.
They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.
“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.
The Wisconsin-based foundation co-sponsored the event with the Triangle Freethought Society, which draws its members from this state’s tech-heavy Research Triangle.
The nonbelievers came from as far afield as Ireland and France, but most described themselves as refugees from the heart of the South — atheist anomalies amid fiercely devout friends, family and neighbors.
We wanted to know what it’s like to be a nonbeliever in the Bible Belt, so over the course of the weekend we asked some of the folks here to share their survival secrets.
They had a lot to say, and some of their advice overlapped, but we came away with eight top tips. Some said they wished they’d had something like this list when they began their foray into religious infidelity.
So, without further ado, here’s our “survival guide” to being an atheist in the Bible Belt:
You may be lonely, but you aren’t alone
Not so long ago, every other letter sent to the Freedom From Religion Foundation would begin something like, “I’m the only atheist in Nebraska … “
It’s still lonely being an atheist in rural America, says Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, but there are plenty of skeptics and nonbelievers in God’s Country – if you know how to find them.
Even the most religious states like Mississippi and Alabama have secular meetup groups, although many keep quiet and require long drives to attend.
Gaylor’s favorite story about the secretive lives of Bible Belt atheists involves two neighbors in Georgia whose jaws dropped when they saw each other at an atheist gathering. Each had assumed that the other was a good, God-fearing Baptist.
“They were afraid to speak out,” she said, “because they didn’t want to be stigmatized.”
Gaylor recommends looking online for atheist support groups in your area and to search for related terms as well: agnostic, freethought, skeptic and nonbeliever.
It’s no fun debating fundamentalists
Bart Ehrman doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who backs down from a fight.
The University of North Carolina scholar often seeks them out, regularly debating the Bible and early Christianity with evangelicals and other experts.
But Ehrman told the atheists gathered in Raleigh not to bother arguing with fundamentalists.
“You can’t convince a fundamentalist that he or she is wrong,” he said. Their theology is a closed system, according to Ehrman, and their social bonds with fellow fundamentalists are too tightly knit to admit any wiggle room.
“You can point to any contradiction in the Bible and it just doesn’t matter. They will either find some way to reconcile it or say that even if they don’t understand it, God does.”
Technically, the term fundamentalist refers to a movement of 20th-century Protestants who rejected modernity and clung to a literal interpretation of the Bible.
But Ehrman has a different definition: “Someone who is no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.”
People will think you worship Satan
Many Americans don’t actually know any professed atheists, according to surveys — which means they often seem to assume the worst about them.
Fewer than half of Americans say they’d vote for an atheist politician; a similar number say they wouldn’t want their children to marry a nonbeliever. A recent study also showed that businesses in the South are more likely to discriminate against atheist job candidates.
“I don’t know what they think we are, Satanists or baby eaters or who knows what,” activist Todd Stiefel told the atheists gathered in Raleigh, “but it’s kind of scary.”
A recent survey conducted for Stiefel’s new “Openly Secular” campaign found that 20% of Americans can’t even define atheism. Far more don’t know what “humanist,” “freethinker” or “agnostic” means.
Behold, the six types of atheists
Based on “It Gets Better” and other gay rights campaigns, “Openly Secular” hopes to counter that ignorance by asking atheists to share stories online about their lives and beliefs.
“What we’re really trying to do is humanize us,” Stiefel said. “Frankly, most of the hate and distrust comes from misunderstanding about who we are.”
You don’t have to convince your friends, family and neighbors to accept all of your views, the atheist activist said. You just have to get them to accept you.
Sometimes it’s better to stay in the closet
After secular conferences like the one here Raleigh, many nonbelievers get so jazzed that they rush home and blurt out … “Guess, what? I’m an ATHEIST!!!”
That can be a really bad idea, says Sarah Morehead, executive director of Recovering From Religion.
It may help the atheist movement as a whole to share your lack of faith with friends and family. But it’s not always the best — or the safest — move for you, she says.
Recovering From Religion’s online support groups are filled with stories about people who lost their jobs, their kids or their spouses after coming out as atheist, Morehead says.
“It’s heartbreaking. People don’t realize how big a difference expressing their nonbelief can make.”
Recovering From Religion recommends having a plan in place before coming out as atheist.
“If you decide you’re a nonbeliever,” Morehead says, “you’re still going to be a nonbeliever in a year.”
The group’s own 10.5-step plan includes creating a support network, declining to get into debates and preparing yourself for a “religious breakup” with friends and family. (The half-step assures budding nonbelievers they don’t have to be experts on atheism and points them toward educational resources.)
Don’t be the ‘office atheist’
Candace Gorham says her close family is accepting of her atheism — but she’s not completely “out” at work yet, and doesn’t know if she wants to be.
Gorham, who was raised in the black church, said religion is deeply embedded in the lives of many Southern African-Americans, and the borders between private and public spirituality – or lack thereof – often blur.
“I work for a black-owned company, and most of my supervisors are black females, and it’s just sort of OK for everybody to talk about God, or offer to pray for you,” says Gorham.
The 33-year-old is author of a new book called “The Ebony Exodus Project,” about black women leaving the church, which has pushed Gorham herself to become more public about being an atheist.
Recently, a co-worker told Gorham she had seen her talking about being an atheist on Roland Martin’s television show.
“I was like, Oh my God, shhh don’t tell anybody!”
A mental-health counselor who works with children, Gorham worries that people will stop referring clients to her once they find out she’s a nonbeliever.
According to a survey Stiefel presented in Raleigh, more than 50% of Americans believe atheist teachers and day-care employees — people who, like Gorham, work with children — are likely to face discrimination at work.
She knows it’s only a matter of time until more of her office mates find out.
“It’s getting to a place where I don’t have a choice. I’m just going to have to be comfortable with it — but it does concern me.”
The Internet is your frenemy
A co-worker isn’t the only person who saw Gorham talking about atheism on television.
Her aunt read about the Roland Martin interview online, which led Gorham’s mother to call and ask if she is really an atheist.
The conversation went well, Gorham says, and her mother understands and respects her beliefs. But the unexpected disclosure shows why many atheists cover their Internet tracks, even as they increasingly look for like-minded communities online.
Gorham says she used to delete her browsing history on her laptop after watching atheist debates and lectures online lest her husband or other family members find out her faith was wavering.
“I was still early in my deconversion and I wasn’t sure how he would perceive it,” said the Greensboro, North Carolina, native.
Others here for the conference said they keep two separate Facebook pages, one for friends and family and one for their secular communities.
“Facebook is my happy place,” says one middle-aged woman who made a nearly seven-hour drive to Raleigh from Crossville, Tennessee.
The woman, who didn’t want to be identified, teaches English as a second language at public schools. She said most of her neighbors and co-workers are Christians.
“Crossville is a small Bible Belt community with churches on every corner,” she said, “and everything shuts down on Sunday except for Wal-Mart and the hospital.”
Most co-workers assume she’s Christian. But she said she joins as many atheist groups online as she can and keeps an anonymous Facebook page called “Within Reason.”
One recent post asks people to click “like” if they’ve ever been unfriended because of an atheism-themed status update.
Some people take Bible-thumping literally
Adults may face more real-life repercussions for coming out as atheist in the Bible Belt, but that doesn’t mean kids have an easy ride.
Kalei Wilson, 15, said she lost friends after trying to start a secular student club at Pisgah High School in Canton, North Carolina, and someone used a Bible to destroy her science project, leaving the holy book on her smashed model of the universe.
The blue-haired, nose-pierced freshman says she’s not the only atheist at her high school, but most of them are closeted.
“I didn’t want to come out at first,” Wilson says, “but in order to start the club I had to.”
In exchange for her openness, Wilson says, some students mutter “Jesus loves you” as she walks down the hall, and she regularly receives text messages with the greeting, “Hey, Satan.”
“I’ve lost friends because of it,” the teenager says of her atheism, “but they’re not real friends if that’s what they do.”
Have a sense of humor
For all the heartbreaking stories, if was there was a soundtrack to the conference in Raleigh, it would include a lot of laughter.
I got the sense that the atheists and freethinkers here had been storing their sharpest religion jokes for weeks, preparing for the day when they would find an appreciative audience at last.
“I’ve been living in the South for 13 years,” says Pat Meller, who came to Raleigh from nearby Greensboro, “and I’ve had to watch my tongue for just as long.”
So for two days, Meller and her kindred spirits cut loose.
They quipped about the folly of prayer, bought bumper-stickers calling the Bible a “Grim Fairy Tale,” and wore T-shirts proclaiming their belief in life before death.
Harry Shaughnessy, president of the Triangle Freethought Society, played the cut-up emcee for much of the weekend.
“For every activist-oriented event we have, we want to have three to five things that are just fun,” says Shaughnessy, whose group holds regular “Heathen Happy Hours” and meets for barbecues in each other’s homes.
At one point, the youthful 44-year-old donned a crown and a form-fitting, skin-colored costume to bestow Freedom From Religion’s “Emperor Has No Clothes” award on Steifel for his activism.
Perhaps appropriately for an atheist event, Shaughnessy’s get-up left little to the imagination.