An Atheist in a Red State: How do I make it better?

“How do I make it better?” is a huge question that probably has a complicated answer. But really, how do I improve the lives of atheists where I live?

I don’t feel threatened physically where I live, but I think being more open as an atheist would affect my job and relationships. My husband and I live paycheck to paycheck so I’m in no position to jeopardize my job.

I have schizoaffective disorder and I’ve dealt with my fair share of stigma surrounding mental illness. When it comes to mental health, the best I can do is tell my story, but it makes me vulnerable and I’m usually crushed when it doesn’t help. But most of the time, it actually does help. Either way, at least I gave it a shot. Nothing will change if no one speaks up.

With that in mind, I feel if I open up to the people around me that eventually, it will make things easier for other atheists. That’s how I feel at the moment. Do you think that helps? But I’m talking a big game here – at the moment I don’t have the guts to open up.

Will it get better with time? I’m assuming being an atheist in Ohio in the 1950s was very different from what I experience now. Isn’t it? Will we feel safer in the future?

I often ask myself, “Is it the organization I work for? Is it the field I work in?” I’m not sure but I doubt it. 

I’m way more open about my mental illness than I am about being an atheist. You might assume it would be the other way around. I’m willing to tell someone what psychosis feels like but I can’t even tell someone I don’t believe in god.

What do you think? Do you have any practical tips for right now? What about the bigger picture? Do you have dreams for the future? This is a short post but I’m really curious to read your ideas.


  1. lanir says

    I think all of us try to find like-minded people no matter what society at large has to say about who we are. So you’re probably already looking around for people you can talk to about being an atheist. Work carries a lot of risk and depending on what kind of neighbors you have, you might not want to let them know either. Same with family. These are all relationships that are hard to walk away from.

    It might be simpler to open up around hobby groups. Friends. People you socialize with. You’ll want to look for the people who respect and care for others in a genuine way. Watch out for the ones that just make a show of it, their facade will not help you. If you and your husband can start with a circle of a few friends you can talk to that can help a lot when dealing with other people, whether they reject you or not. Maybe it’s just me but I find it difficult to do that first step. I’m more awkward and that alone can push people away. When I have a few friends I can talk with it makes it easier to approach other people because I’m not feeling as twitchy and awkward.

    It might be worth trying a new hobby as well. This gives you a fresh group of people and while it may be harder to open up, it carries less risk. Just be yourself as much as you can manage around whatever social anxieties you have when you do it. I should do this more myself to be honest but maybe saying it here will prompt me to stop making excuses and follow my own advice. 🙂

  2. says

    What do you think? Do you have any practical tips for right now? What about the bigger picture? Do you have dreams for the future?
    I live in rural Pennsylvania, and am probably the only “librul” in 40 miles. Sometimes I have discussed this with neighbors, usually in the form of “I’m a recovering Marxist but now I’m a socialist.” Nobody asks me about religion, which is good. I assume they already figured that they don’t want to know.
    The question I came up with was whether it had any value to me to confront anyone about their weird beliefs or have them confront me. I concluded that, mostly, I wanted to ignore other people’s beliefs unless they somehow crossed mine in a measurable way – which they generally don’t. Why not keep to yourself? I found some communities around me of interest (hot metal workers, for the win!) and pretty quickly discovered that it’s possible to have pleasant, nurturing, interactions that are orthogonal to religion and politics. After all, jesus won’t lift a finger to help you if you get your hoodie caught in a metal lathe, and neither will buddha or mohammed or Qanon.
    I guess my feeling has boiled down to “life is to short to give a shit about other people.” And, as far as the future, I hope for a quiet comfortable death.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    I think the first rule is the airplane rule: Make sure your own oxygen mask is securely in place and working before you try to assist others around you. Also, I think work just isn’t a good place to discuss religious or political opinions because generally no one has the option to walk away if the discussion makes them uncomfortable. By that same token, I do think you should be ready to complain to your boss if anybody at your work starts gobbling god-talk to you. You have a right to not put up with that kind of stuff.
    Beyond that, you have options. If atheism is the most important signifier to you, or similar things can almost certainly find an atheist group near you. Personally, I would be cautious with that approach, though. There are a lot of atheists who are also conservative, anti-feminist, racist, and worse. I think you might have a more rewarding experience with groups that are honestly liberal, even if they accept traditional religious beliefs or even some of the milder forms of woo like astrology. It’s up to you, of course.

  4. brightmoon says

    I feel for you as I live in liberal NYC . But I have a lot of very conservative JWs cultists around me. They’ve learned I ain’t having it ,without being nasty!

  5. mathman85 says

    As I’ve mentioned a few times, I too live in (quasi-)rural Ohio. While my immediate family is aware that I don’t believe in gods, and while I’m not terribly reticent to tell others if they ask, I don’t generally talk about religion—or politics, for that matter—with my non-immediate family, on either side (though one, I think, would be less disapproving than the other). As far as I am aware, only my immediate immediate family is aware that I’m an anarchist in addition to an atheist, and I am far more reticent about that point than about my atheism. I don’t generally reveal my politics to much of anyone, especially not my employers. (Being overheard by the wrong person(s) when saying things like “unions are good, actually” or “landlords are bad, actually” or “capitalism is bad and should be abolished, actually” is a great way to lose a job.)
    I guess my whole point in weighing in here is to say that I don’t have any idea how to make this state any better, and I should probably look into moving away from here as soon as possible.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    I don’t have any idea how to make this state any better, and I should probably look into moving away from here as soon as possible

    Nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

    Less frivolously – “how do I make it better?” is a great question that speaks well of your character. However – the sensible first question is “can I make it better?”. And if the realistic answer is, as I would consider likely, “no”, then the question of how goes away, and instead you can concentrate on “how do I move to somewhere better?”.

    It’s an unpleasant fact that birds of a feather flock together and that conservative values will self-sustain in relatively isolated communities. We had a dream two or three decades back that the internet would connect people, but what it’s done is connect bubbles to bubbles – it hasn’t burst those bubbles, mainly. And if you’re in a hostile bubble… just get out, would be my plan. Thinking of ways to burst it won’t win you friends. It’s a fatalistic, even nihilistic attitude, but I prefer to call it realistic. The kind of change you hope for is generational, I think. It *will* be better in future… but not the near future.

  7. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I don’t think you should impose a strong obligation on yourself to do the impossible. However, if you want to know what can change people’s minds, I think there’s a lot of anecdotal and maybe even good scientific evidence that a good thing you can do (maybe the best thing you can do) is just be their friend. Prolonged personal contact with different people seems to be the number one way that conservative bigots become less bigoted and less religious. Not all bigots will become less bigoted, and not all religious people will become less religious, and when it happens, it happens slowly, like over the course of many years. So, just be yourself (assuming you’re a good person), be helpful and friendly and a little outgoing, and just be there.

    I second a lot of what sonofrojblake says above.

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