From Neil Carter
Godless In Dixie
[…] I paid a steep price for my exit from religious indoctrination. When you go through as tough a time as I did leaving your faith, you learn the value of talking through the process with others. And it helps to have more people writing as former insiders. I spent the first 35 years of my life inside Evangelical culture in the heart of the Deep South. I was a devout believer for at least 20 of those years, and while I’ve since left the faith of my youth, I still live in the thickest of religious contexts in this country. Most of those closest to me are still happy members of that society. So I’ve got one foot in and one foot out; I’m a cultural amphibian, if you will. I have to interact with devout Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, and Presbyterians on a daily basis, knowing full well that the only reason they’re comfortable talking to me is because they assume I’m one of them. That’s a natural assumption to make around here. I look and sound just like them, so they think I also believe all the same things they believe because most everyone else they know does, too. Life for a non-believer in a place like this can be very difficult. And if for some reason you work up the nerve to tell people you’re not a member of their religion, you’re in for some special treatment. Needless to say, there aren’t many “out” atheists in Mississippi.
Which is why this blog exists. I started writing under the name Godless in Dixie a little over a year ago because I wanted to see more written about the struggles and challenges of being a skeptic in the Bible Belt. Most of us around here can’t speak openly about these things because the social and professional cost can be ridiculously high. I’ve suffered losses in both of those areas, so I know all too well what that’s like. The emotional and psychological toll can be pretty high. Most who make their way out of the dogmatic beliefs of their upbringing learn to keep their differences to themselves. But they have a story to tell, and some of us have to be “out” for their sakes, to give them a voice. Losing your religion can be traumatic in a place like this, and my friends who have been through that (and are still going through it) need all the help they can get. As long as they’re still closeted for fear of retribution and marginalization, we need another blog that brings these struggles to light.
A “War” That’s Been Spreading
To be honest, when I started writing about this I assumed it would only be relevant to people in the Deep South. More than anything I wanted to create a group identity under which other closeted atheists could gather and connect with each other for moral support and encouragement. I knew I wasn’t the only one who is “godless in Dixie,” so I started this blog as a means of finding others like me. What surprised me was how many people who aren’t from the Deep South could identify with what I write because they, too, wrestle with the exact same things with which I wrestled, and their emotional journeys paralleled my own with remarkable similarity. It turns out the Bible Belt isn’t just a location in the Southeastern United States. It’s a cultural force that’s been growing in strength in pockets all over the country. It has been increasingly making its influence felt in my country’s political process for the last three decades, which means that now we all have to learn how to understand and deal with this culture whether we like it or not.
At one point or another I’ve been entrenched on either side of this conflict, which means I’m in a good position to translate communications and understand tactical maneuvers employed by both sides. Some might see me as a spy embedded deep in enemy territory, but in reality these are my friends and family we’re talking about, and to me they are nothing of the sort. Evangelicalism is my native tongue, as a friend recently put it. I’ll admit it grows stranger and stranger to me with each passing year that I grow into my secular humanism, and over time it gets more and more difficult to remember what it was like to think the way I used to think. But while it’s still somewhat fresh (and while I’m still living where I’m currently living) I need to write about the issues I faced as I clawed and climbed my way out of this life-consuming ideology. It helps those who are still going through it, and it reminds the ones who have recently freed themselves that they are not alone.
Despite what all my friends and family seem to think, I don’t write to persuade people to leave their faith. While I personally am convinced they can have a happier and more fulfilling life outside of their religion, I also know the benefits that my loved ones draw from their faith, and I know the hardships that accompany leaving it (mostly in the form of social ostracism). I’m not out to steal sheep. I’m out to let the ones who are already walking away on their own know that they’re not alone. Sometimes the atheist community can be so focused in their opposition to Fundamentalism’s cultural mission creep that they fail to empathize with those of us who had to work so very hard to untangle ourselves from such a mangled web of emotional and psychological manipulation. Leaving your faith can come at a high cost. Not everybody understands that, but I do.
I’m not a naturally confrontational person. In fact, I’m conciliatory to a fault. I’m a lover, not a fighter. But here lately, my circumstances seem determined to change that. I didn’t ask to be involved in this culture war, but it came to my doorstep anyway. So now I’m in it. It has taken too much from me and from the people I love for me to shut up about it any time soon.
The fallout from my leaving the faith (or rather its leaving me) continues to this day. For that reason, you’ll see in this space a continued unfolding of my own thinking through and wrestling with the dogmatic assertions of my former life. Living in Mississippi, I am surrounded by people who associate moral fortitude with Christian orthodoxy and therefore cannot imagine that people like me have real hearts or backbones. They say some of the most awful things to us and about us without showing the slightest awareness that they’ve just spoken of us like we are empty shells with cold, dead eyes. Privilege blindness can make people say and do ruthless things, only in this case they are convinced they’re showing love. That makes it next to impossible to call it out for what it is. But that’s not going to stop me from trying to do it anyway!
What to Expect from Godless in Dixie
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing about the ways I think Christians misunderstand who we are. I feel I can speak from knowledge about this because I used to be a devoted believer myself. I wasn’t one of those who flitted through my religion like a transient spectator. I was down on the field, getting into the game. I was a practitioner for many years, and I even accumulated degrees and leadership responsibilities to go with it. So I feel I’m entitled and authorized to speak about Evangelical theology and about the many ways it gets atheists wrong. I’ll also write some about the struggles that skeptics in highly religious regions like my own will face in restoring the separation of church and state, a concept which the Baptists practically invented but have almost completely discarded in favor of a more theocratic ideal. I’ll write about what it’s like coming out of your faith only to meet with the many forms of social coercion foisted upon those who dare to expatriate from their respective tribal identities. I’ll even share some of what I’ve written to my loved ones in order to explain for their benefit why I no longer believe. I don’t expect them to ever see things the way I see them, but I do ask for them to show me the same courtesy and respect that I extend to them. I’ll be sharing these things with the rest of the world because they just might help others find the words to say what they want to say to their own families and friends. As always, I welcome input and advice, and I’m sure my readers would appreciate the same. These aren’t easy things to navigate, and honestly I feel like most people don’t do it well. But life’s too short not to try your hardest to live at peace with the ones you love, and it’s definitely too short not to live at peace with yourself. Striking that balance is the goal of what I write. So hold me to it, m’kay?