Atheists gather for large convention in NC; discuss life in the Bible Belt

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.

Trademark and Copyright 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.


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43 comments

  • ratfink

    is it really a crime if one “releases” christians* from this mortal coil? bear with me, its what they want. see if you believe your a “good” christian, then heaven awaits. the longer your here the more likely it is your going to mess it up. you can’t kill yourself so whats the best option? wait on some brave soul to come shuffle you off to paradise, everybody wins! you get heaven,paradise, the golden city in the sky, the promised land all of it just waiting for you, while the honored “redeemer” keeps your stuff. why would this be a crime? its practically a public service! unless some of you aren’t really sure or haven’t been exactly as devout as you righteously claim. jump’in jesus on a pogo stick it makes sense doesn’t it. *(any persons of faith that has a heaven,not just christians, i don’t want to seem like i am picking on just one group.i file them all in the same category as fiction;)

    • Mickey

      Its a choice I choose to believe. Good people don’t go to heaven! People that have truly accepted Jesus as there savior go to heaven. You can accept it or not that’s your choice!

    • jliles1205

      Your comment is devoid of any intellectual credibility. Exactly what we expect from those who are totally ignorant of the subject they are discussing. Go back to your Marvel comics…

    • ratfink

      2 hands working will accomplish more than 1 billion prayers ever will. on a side note, prayers are kinda of a little FU to the lord. i mean, if god has a plan then anything you suggests means that god’s plan wasn’t good enough. probably why most prayers aren’t answered.

  • bean

    fox 8 now running CNN anti- christian propaganda? you see folks, they don’t stand for anything. they only stand against things. traditional marriage, jesus, america…..

    • PhillyDeist

      Yeah! Im tired of these liberals telling me its ok to mix fabrics! And not allow me to sell my daughter for a bull!
      Stop and listen to yourself before speaking next time

    • Sandra Howerton

      Bean, your ignorance and bigotry are showing. We stand for plenty: e.g., reason, responsibility for giving meaning to our own lives, compassion for other living beings, working for the common good. It seems to me that you are the one who stands against the happiness and well-being of others by opposing marriage equality and refusing to respect viewpoints different from yours.

    • Tiffany

      LOL Last I checked, we don’t live in a theocracy. If you want to be told what to believe and who/how to worship, then might I suggest a one way ticket to the middle east. Let us know how that works out for you. Reporting about something that happened is not telling you what to believe. I know that’s a hard fact for you to grasp, since that’s how your kind rolls but it’s still a fact.

  • jawn

    May the Flying Spaghetti Monster touch each of these conventioneers with his loving noodly appendage to bring them to pastafarianist pastadice.

  • Moses

    a convention? I thought that atheist met frequently in our public schools; if the atheist is correct and the Christian is wrong=no big deal; but if the Christian is right the the atheists are in one big heap trouble

    • leon

      real xians no that satin pushed the bones up from hell to trick us there is no way dinos culd be real nothing is that big

  • Gina R

    As a nurse , over the years I have had many a non believer suddenly want to pray or ask for help from a higher power when losing someone and even on their deathbed. Even had a non believer tell me she envied me because at my darkest hour I would have my faith and someone to talk to and even if they weren’t real , she said I had the comfort of the faith God was listening. The Bible if nothing else is a book of morals and guides one to do right.

    • sandrahowerton

      I can only assume that you have either not read the Bible or think that killing children for making fun of someone, killing homosexuals, and owning slaves–among many other practices most of us consider evil–are right if you think the Bible is a good guide to ethics and morality.

      • SMH

        Sandrahowerton… the things you mention above were God’s punishment for the sin’s His people engaged in… there are consequences for our actions, even today.

  • Bill Elliott

    This will be the largest convention in the world one day. There will be all amenities except air conditioning and you will never hear God’s name mentioned, except all the crying out to him.

  • oh what a belt we live in

    A few quick coomments…
    1. At the very least this isn’t a convention for latter day saints.
    2. These guys actually know what they believe in. Hmm..Unlike some religions that can’t quiiiiite decide whether they want to ignore the old testament for its sheer idiocy or to pick and choose what they like out of it to fit their grubby little needs.

  • Sue

    It’s none of my business if you want to worship a tree stump. I’m taking my chances on my faith on going to the glory land forever. Amen

  • what the h dude

    It’s not OK to label people as believing in fiction or going to hell. Be who you are. Talk about your beliefs with those with whom you feel comfortable. How about just loving people, cherishing the differences, and leaving the judging out of your relationships?

  • Chief Wretch

    As an Evangelical, iI sympathize with non- believers. It doesn’t affect me one way or the other if you believe or not. But so many of the statements made in this “news” article caan be applied to believers as well.
    “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?”- BINGO.
    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.
    As is evangelical atheism- BINGO
    But Ehrman has a different definition: “Someone who is no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.”
    A subjective observation- zero validity- BINGO
    “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.” Try to get an atheist to accept you- let alone hold an intelligent discussion without ridicule or derision. BINGO
    I could go on, but it is so laborious pointing out the hypocrisy of a group that routinely posts billboards that claim they are “good without God” while being curiously absent on the bloody history of atheists. Even more bloody than power hungry men who hijacked the love of Christ to further their schemes to dominate the world.

  • Jeff Haugan

    huuumm, the Triangle Freethought Society is what they call themselves, but it seems as if their actions don’t cohere with their name. I have also spent the last 2 1/2 years in Joplin rebuilding after the tornado for people who couldn’t afford to do it for themselves. Lots of Christians, a few Muslims and Jews and no atheists that I have worked with, and the volunteers were from all over the united states and we were not a religious organization. Pascal put it very succinctly in his wager. If he, Pascal, is right, he gains everything, if he is wrong, he still gains much and loses nothing, you on the other hand, if you are right, you gain nothing, if you are wrong, you lose everything
    .

  • PhillyDeist

    Dont worry! All the starving African children are on the verge of recieving all your prayers! You just need to keep killing gays and infidels!

      • PhillyDeist

        JLILES1205 show me one credible article that demonstrates your claim is true. Failure to do so results in the retracción of your comment

      • jliles1205

        Just one Christian agency
        Uses of Funds as a % of Total Expenses
        Programs: 88% Fund Raising: 7% Administrative: 5%
        Total income $398,716,635
        Program expenses $320,785,702
        Fund raising expenses 24,767,123
        Administrative expenses 17,988,135
        Total expenses $363,540,960
        Income in Excess of Expenses 35,175,675
        Beginning net assets 214,896,151
        Ending net assets 250,071,826
        Total liabilities 30,709,926
        Total assets $280,781,752
        2011 Financial Statement for Samaritan’s Purse. This graphic may be a bit difficult for you to decipher for you. The key is programs funded is 88%. This includes:
        Operation Christmas Child 193,686,718
        Community development ministry 31,751,853
        Medical ministry 28,257,273
        Emergency relief 26,861,769
        Christian education 21,200,018
        Other ministry services 11,227,134
        Children’s ministry 4,535,817
        Miscellaneous ministry 1,897,502
        International HIV/AIDS 1,367,618
        Total Program Expenses: $320,785,702
        Samaritan’s Purse provides direct food, medical and shelter to those in need around the world, as well as disaster zones in the US.
        Samaritan’s Purse is one of many Christian aid organizations around the world .
        I am unaware of any atheist/agnostic aid organizations. I would be glad to read up on any that you can provide for me.
        Sean Penn doesn’t count.

  • Link Duckie Kokiri

    religion is for dmubuts that cant think for themselves and think way highlye of themselves, often hating those that at are diffrent onky for there own ego. My lifes been hell at times due to christians hatting me for my lack of belief. If heaven is full of so many of these so called good people, then give me hell.

    • SMH

      Link Duckie Kokiri… There is nothing on this temporal dwelling place we live in that will even begin to compare to the agony of an eternity in hell. The Bible is a road map. I encourage you to get in to the Word of God and see for yourself the blessings and joys that having a relationship with our Heavenly Father can afford you.

    • Bob Jones

      Buddha isn’t really a god in the sense of the Christian creator diety. He’s a human who reached “enlightenment” or the ability to escape or transcend the cycle of life and death and then taught others how to do so.

      Not that I’m saying either Buddha or Yahweh/Elohim exist or existed, but they’re not really comparable takes on a god.

  • Kat Ingersoll

    As a pagan, I get similar reactions that atheists do. I just deflect it with a simple statement:

    “I appreciate what you are doing, but I believe religion is a personal matter that should not be discussed in the workplace. I’m not offended, but I do think discussing one’s religion is inappropriate. I respect your right to practice your religion, but please respect my wishes to keep religion out of the conversation.”

    • jliles1205

      You may find it odd, but I agree with your approach. I, and most of my believing friends, believe the best witness is to be a good friend and/or coworker. I do not bring up my faith unless directly asked, and if so, provide my personal experience, not the ‘bible thumper’ stereotype that those outside the body have of us. I know there are insufferable people evangelizing for whatever they believe,in, but I find a gentle word and often insight into the ugly life that led me to Jesus can be an opening to a reasoned and cordial discussion.
      I agree that discussions of personal belief issues do not belong in the workplace.
      Thank you for your post.

  • elsieprice

    When we lived in the bible belt, the neighbor kids were not allowed to play with my kids because my kids were going to hell. Nice family, that.

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