Why I am an atheist – Lucretius of Mississippi

I had a happy childhood during which I was taken by my mother to the local Southern Baptist Church for Sunday School, Morning Church Service, Training Union (that’s extra night-time Sunday School for you non-Baptists out there) and Evening Church Service. As I got older, she added Youth Choir practice, Wednesday night prayer service, and Tuesday Visitation (during which we got addresses of folks who hadn’t been to church in a while, and also addresses of folks who had moved from another town and hadn’t come by to see us yet, and went out to see how they were doing.)

I remember that the message to the young folk in my small-town church was very positive. God loves you, Jesus saves, bring your cares to Him, rejoice in God’s love and love your neighbor as yourself. As I got up to about seventh grade questions started to surface about how old the world was. The message we got was that we didn’t need to worry about this. Probably, we were told, God’s days must have been pretty long back during the making of the world. Everybody had to read the Bible on their own, and nobody, not even the minister, could tell you exactly what to believe.

But shortly after that my Dad had to move for his job, (in 1966) and we were in the great huge city of Memphis. I started to hear a very different message. You could read the Bible all you wanted, but if you thought anything much different from what the preacher said, you must be in rebellion against God. And that faith stuff we’ve been telling you about? It’s great that you have faith, but guess what, we have proof too! The Bible is the literally inerrant word of God, after all!

I was a fairly well-read young Southerner and I found this to be a bit hard to swallow. It all came to a head a couple of years later during a revival. (That’s where a visiting pastor comes and preaches every single night for a week or two.) The man stood up and said that archeologists had found the ruins of Jericho, and the collapsed walls exactly proved the Biblical account. And the very next night the same pastor told the old story about how NASA computers were missing a day in the history of the universe, but it was explained in the Bible. (Believe it or not, people are still spreading this story, see: http://www.presentruth.com/2009/03/nasa-finds-the-missing-day/ )

The second story had so many holes in it that it defied credibility altogether. Um, let me think, there is a story of an eclipse in Egyptian records about 1200 BC but how could you possibly date the historical account accurately to check against your orbital calculations for eclipses during that time? Back that far, I think you would be lucky to date any event within 10 years plus or minus in Gregorian calendar terms, right? And any further than that, well, there’s enough orbital chaos you probably couldn’t really say when eclipses occurred. And besides, why in the world would NASA be worried about exact orbits three thousand years ago?

So I did make it to the library, found that sure enough, the NASA story was bunkum, as was the Jericho thing. (Yeah, there were some archeologists, and there were some old walls of Jericho, but the collapse of the walls was dated to a fire so long ago it was impossible to correlate it with any plausible date for the Exodus.)

I could go on and give more examples of crazy pulpit-talk. And of course I owe a tip of the hat to some children’s and juvenile books by the esteemed Henrick Willem van Loon (Story of Mankind, Lives, Tolerance) that prepared me for this day. Suffice it to say that from this point on, I began to accept a purely historical, non-supernatural view of the Bible and of the Church. No there is no resurrection, how in the world would Jesus’ sacrifice atone for my sins, etc etc. OTOH I had a very hard evening sitting there one day reading a book called “The Uses of the Past” by Herbert Muller that helped bring it all into focus to me- albeit in a way that seemed very hard to take, it was as if I was watching my favorite football team lose to a hated rival, it was a feeling of deep disappointment and disillusionment. I suppose I was about 15 years old.

However, I hate to disappoint the hardcore outspoken atheists here, but the fact of the matter is that I live in a part of the world where “coming out” as an atheist seems to be more trouble than it is worth. One sees the coming of a post-Christian England, one supposes that natural trends are heading the same way here without any of my feeble assistance, why should I subject myself to the inconvenience of making myself publicly heard? So I never told my parents or indeed any other member of my family.

But when I went to college, and later when I got married and had kids, I found it necessary to have a “flag of convenience.” Well, there are in fact some wonderful churches that treat people very kindly, where the preachers do not shout and scream, and you might even have a string quartet to play along with the choir, where you might go and sing some Thomas Tallis or some William Byrd or some Johann Sebastian Bach, and they tend to have very nice pipe organs. Since this is actually the sort of music I really like, I hung out there for decades, at least until my children were grown and gone.

But I have to say, living in the part of the world where I live, I still dread the sort of backlash and harassment that I imagine would ensue were I to make myself publicly known, and though I may invite the ridicule of this forum, at my age I am content to continue as I am. If I may offer one small point of argumentation in favor of staying in the closet, perhaps I could say that I think there are more pressing things than evangelizing for the cause of not believing in God. For example, science education, evolution, and climate change are burning issues where I think we should stand up against the forces of ignorance. But where I live, being identified as an out-and-out atheist is actually going to eliminate any credibility I might have and reduce any chance I have for being taken seriously or effecting any change whatsoever.

Lucretius of Mississippi
United States


  1. says

    My family is steeped in Old World Catholicism and practices it faithfully, being “more Catholic than the pope.” I lapsed in my twenties, finally, but continued going through the motions long enough to become godfather to the first-borns of my sister and brother. I’m no longer pretending to be a practicing Catholic and my family no longer expects me to attend mass when I visit on the weekend, but sometimes I tag along because it makes it easier to go to brunch afterward. Lucretius is more comfortable keeping quiet about his lack of belief and has reasons for doing so. I keep quiet, too, but that serves to avoid arguments during visits down home, not to make people think I still believe what they do.

  2. John Morales says

    No worries, Lucretius, not everyone is an activist.

    (I’m not, particularly)

    So no ridicule for that.

    But I have to say, living in the part of the world where I live, I still dread the sort of backlash and harassment that I imagine would ensue were I to make myself publicly known, and though I may invite the ridicule of this forum, at my age I am content to continue as I am. If I may offer one small point of argumentation in favor of staying in the closet, perhaps I could say that I think there are more pressing things than evangelizing for the cause of not believing in God. For example, science education, evolution, and climate change are burning issues where I think we should stand up against the forces of ignorance.

    I’ve taken the liberty of emphasising a linkage you seem to be soft-pedalling.

    (You really don’t think living in dread of backlash and harassment were you not to play along with the make-believe is not a pressing issue? That such doesn’t affect (for example) science education, evolution, and climate change?)

  3. sailor says

    I find it easy to sympathize. Almost every one I know is an atheist, If I were to suddenly become religious, “coming out” as a god devotee would be very hard!

  4. electrabotanical says

    Wouldn’t it be lovely, though, to find a friend locally to come out to? YOu might find that they are a closet atheist as well. If not, you still have PZ and his gang of “thugs” here.

  5. mirax says

    I wonder if you came out to your children at least. You know, gave them the option to not believe.

  6. says

    I don’t think it is ridiculous to not reveal oneself. If revealing yourself comes with too much social cost, you shouldn’t do it. Although I do have to be with John Morales here. I think religion is an important issue. Think about why you are so afraid of coming out.

  7. Matt Penfold says

    I find it easy to sympathize. Almost every one I know is an atheist, If I were to suddenly become religious, “coming out” as a god devotee would be very hard!

    I have no idea the religious beliefs of a good number of people I know, except that I doubt any are rabidly evangelical. It is not a topic that comes up much in conversation in the UK, it being considered rather impolite to ask. Close friends are different, I do know their religious beliefs and most are non-believers though a few are rather lukewarm Anglicans.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    As an expatriate Mississippi native, I understand completely.

    The local gossipvines back there are quite thorny, and inescapable.

  9. Tapetum says

    As someone who plays some of those lovely pipe organs, I have a lot of sympathy for Lucretius here. I’m only out to select members of my immediate circle, since I doubt my church would be thrilled to pay an athiest to play their organ, nor are there a lot of organist positions out there not tied to churches.

  10. Saffron says

    I’m there too. It’s so bad around here that when my 3rd grade daughter didn’t raise her hand at the lunch table at school to affirm she believed in God, the kids in her class were merciless and evil in their actions. The girl who loved school now was refusing to go. I found out what happened and threatened a whole heap of lawsuits on the school since not only were the students proselytizing in school, they were using it as an excuse to bully anyone who didn’t agree with them. I’m not ashamed to admit that I told her to just do and say whatever anyone else did about god if it came up again because I never want to go through that month of hell again.

    I damn near got the main boy who started it expelled but they refused to move him to another class (although they did keep their promise that he was never to be at the same table or be within 10 feet of her again, at least last school year). After the bullying was ended, several other kids came up to her and told her that they didn’t go to church either but were afraid to speak up for her… so all those people who think that as long as the religion is brought in to the classroom by the kids themselves, it should be okay, they can shove it up their asses, sideways, because it isn’t.

  11. Erp says

    Well the Pew Forum did find a percentage of avowed Christians were non-theists a few years ago (and the clergy project shows that some active clergy in theistic religions are also) so Lucretius is not alone. I wonder how many atheists are sheltering in Episcopal churches in the Bible belt (in Mississippi the UUs are a bit more open but also a bit rare on the ground (6) the UCC is more overtly Christian but only 2 in Mississippi). Or was it in a different denomination with classical organ music that Lucretius found refuge? I suspect one day someone in one of these churches will come out atheist and discover most of the rest of the flock (including the shepherd) is also.

  12. Otrame says

    I think there is an argument for “the more of us out of the closet, the more they will see that we aren’t really baby-eating demon-worshipers”. But it’s just an argument. You have to decide what is best for you.

    But tell me. How do you deal with it when the conversation comes around to the evils of atheists?

  13. jayh says

    In fact @ all Atheists

    If you’re going to persistently talk about “coming out” as atheists, maybe you should consider taking a leaf out of the LGBT book and have Atheist Pride parades.

  14. niftyatheist says

    Wonderful essay. I can relate to it also. Lucretius, are your children and spouse believers?

  15. Matt Penfold says

    As someone who plays some of those lovely pipe organs, I have a lot of sympathy for Lucretius here. I’m only out to select members of my immediate circle, since I doubt my church would be thrilled to pay an athiest to play their organ, nor are there a lot of organist positions out there not tied to churches.

    Depends where you live. In the UK there is a shortage of people willing to play the organ at church services. I doubt the Anglicans would let a small issue such as lack of belief in god prevent you from playing, so long as you are willing to do so on a regular basis.

  16. joed says

    yes, “The Uses of the Past” by Herbert Muller
    is a wonderful book on Philosophy Of History and History.
    serious history buffs would find it a delightful, thoughtful and consciousness expanding read.

  17. Matt Penfold says

    But tell me. How do you deal with it when the conversation comes around to the evils of atheists?

    Well I would give them an odd look, whilst edging away from them. I might, when at a safe distance, ask them if they are feeling OK only they are saying some very odd things.

  18. T.J. Brown says

    Definitely understand the reluctance to come out in Mississippi. I’ve lived here my whole life, and that in itself is scarring. When I made the decision to come out, I assumed that it wouldn’t be a big deal. I wasn’t forcing anyone to think the same way. I wasn’t bashing anyone for being religious.

    Turns out, that doesn’t matter. I had previously supportive family members tell me that I was ruining the family. That I was crazy, that of course God created the universe.

    It was rough for a while. Heated emails were exchanged, I was “breaking (insert family member’s name)’s heart.” I almost regretted coming out. Almost.

    Now, I’m pretty outspoken. Most of my family members have accepted it. Though of course, I have the random outbursts from some relative or in-law. But I’m okay with that because I couldn’t keep hiding a very important part of who I am.

  19. Matt Penfold says

    Or I might, if I was being less dramatic, say something like “Yes, but being serious for a moment ……”.

  20. Art Vandelay says

    I’m sorry…I just don’t see how an atheist can be a part of or support a church in any way. I know you’re not always dealing with the Ted Haggards of the world. I know they don’t all harbor pedophiles, but to some degree they all promote irrational ideas, see faith as a virtue, mis-educate children, scare/threaten children, suppress or take credit for science, and favor the credulous. All ideas that an atheist should loathe.

    Certainly, there are other ways to get to hear Bach.

    Here…try this.

  21. Pamela OHearn says

    I understand your trepidations, I am in southeastern Idaho, a very mormon rural area, and teach at Idaho State University, about 40 miles away, and also very mormon. I’ve gotten more and more rebellious against organised religion, but try not to get into the atheist thing with most people. I DO push the evolution button, however. There is something to living in peace. And soon I will leave, and next time will find a place that is a little more progressive.

  22. Aquaria says

    I’m sorry, Lucretius, but you sound exactly like the old closet homosexuals who still, to this day, criticize the gay pride movement for “evangelizing” and “ramming it down people’s throats’ (the most ironic of all terms for them to use). But if people did things their way, more homosexuals would have to be in the closet, back where my mom keeps her Bobby Vinton albums and go-go boots.

    Likewise, atheists keeping themselves in the closet keeps atheists in the closet. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. The only way atheists are going to be accepted is not the telling term on your part of “evangelizing” (what an odd way to put it), but by being out and in-your-face.

    Nobody ever got rights by being silent, or asking pretty please or or begging, or hiding who they are or sucking up to the majority. The only way any marginalized group has gotten rights is to grab them, and that can’t be done nicely. Not ever. It can be done non-violently. But not nicely. There is a difference.

    Ask women, gays or any ethnic minority.

  23. Barbara says

    You make an important point, I think. It would be good to come out as an atheist lesbian teacher, but it’s also good to have credibility when discussing evolution, and with many students those are mutually exclusive.

  24. Mark says

    My parents were faithful Christians, despite my father’s excommunication from the Catholic church of his upbringing for divorcing his first wife–by all accounts (Dad’s, of course) a harpy of unimaginable hatred and discontent. Dad couldn’t believe God expected two people who hated each other to remain wed for life, but rather that becoming a wedge in his faith, he chocked it up to poor church selection; he became Lutheran.

    Dad remained active in the Lutheran faith I was raised with until the day he died. My mother, understandably, struggled with life-threatening depression for almost two years after Dad died until she finally found solace in becoming heavily involved with church activities. I can see that it is simply the fellowship and human contact she craved that is her salvation, but she is convinced it is the work of God. Her greatest hope and happiness lies now in the firm belief that when she dies she will be reunited with Dad in heaven.

    The last thing I desire is to disabuse her of her beliefs at this stage of her life; seeing her even semi-happy since Dad’s death is an immense personal relief. Despite this, Mom knows I am not a believer (she and Dad both knew before his death). Although we often spoke about it before Dad died, today I avoid discussing religion at length with her. But that doesn’t mean I must subsume MY strong beliefs. When the subject comes up, I’m very outspoken about keeping matters of faith and religion separate from matters of government, and I’ve even convinced her of the wisdom of such an ideal (or maybe she always thought this way and we simply agree). The sad thing is although Mom will express her feelings about this to me, I’ve never heard her say it to anyone else. I’m convinced she doesn’t for the fear of ostracism.

    After watching the religious idiocy during the Republican debate last night I find it difficult to generate any hope for the future of America. Our choice will be either Obama or one of the cretins who squirmed while trying to find a way to distance themselves from Mitt Romney’s Mormonism while ’embracing’ freedom of religion.

    Listening to Gingrich ‘splain how belief in God was a ‘cornerstone’ of American government and that a candidate’s religion is a ‘central part’ of their qualification nearly made me puke. I probably would have been able to control my gagging, but then he asked “how can you have judgment if you don’t have faith and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?”

    I understand your discomfort, Lucretius, but you must understand your silence, combined with the silence of every other person with doubts, makes such spectacular lunacy not only possible, but actually acceptable. I hope that even if you can’t find the will to fully unshackle yourself from the chains of religion, you at least speak up about keeping religion the fuck out of government…

  25. Polly says

    You might be surprised. There are more atheists in the Bible-belt than people imagine. Try meetup.com and come on out. Besides, who gives a shit what others think?

  26. eigenperson says

    #10 Tapetum:

    At my old church, I’m pretty sure the organist and perhaps 1/2 of the members of the choir (including me) were atheists (some openly, some not). But the church was the best place for music in the area, and it was worth sitting through the sermons and all that.

  27. says

    I’m a Jackson, MS resident, Lucretius, and am openly atheist. I don’t shout it from every rooftop I find, but the only place I keep it a secret is at work — and even then, if they were REALLY interested in finding out, they probably could with little trouble. If they don’t know already.

    Your mileage may vary in your circles, of course, but I’ve found that the harassment is minimal to nonexistent. I don’t know if that’s because people are okay with it, or don’t care, or are afraid of me, or secretly hate me, or whatever. And I’m not really very concerned about that.

    My experience is that you can live out in the open here, just as long as you are firm and confident, and give the impression that you are not to be trifled with.

  28. says

    Having cruised along like that for years, I can’t blame you for doing the same. It was really the cheerfully godless Pharyngula that got me to say out loud that I don’t believe in God. And I come from a part of Canada where it’s Very Bad Form to ask someone if they believe–that’s their own private business. I think there are a lot of silent atheists around me, but I don’t know for sure.

  29. Christine says

    I too live in the deep south. I am part of a small Unitarian Universalist congregation where many of us are atheists. I realize that many atheists poo-poo any sort of religious affiliation, even if it is only nominally religious, but I see it as a necessity where I live. The UU congregation is the only place I would ever meet other skeptics in this area. Basically, it’s the only game in town for non-religious people because socialization is largely based on church activities.

    I grew up in the Ohio, where people avoided talking about religion at all. It was hard for me then to even imagine living in a place where being non-religious was a problem, but here I am, and the bigotry is real. I understand the need to have something to say when people ask you what church you go to, if only to stop them from proselytizing you.

  30. Tapetum says

    One thing about atheism is that’s it’s entirely possible to support atheists and atheist’s rights without ever outing oneself. It’s even possible to maintain a half-in-half-out stance that would be impossible for many other things. I am a vocal advocate for keeping religion out of government and schools. I’m very vocal about atheists being perfectly decent, moral people (got into a shouting match with my most God-bothery aunt about it at the last family reunion – an advantage to not being “out” to her is that I can argue that way. If she knew I wasn’t a good Christian, she wouldn’t talk to me at all, nor likely to my parents)

    All honor to the out and proud, but it’s not a stance everyone can live with. Nor are all of us the most firm of atheists to begin with. I’m atheist mostly because there’s no particular god I believe in, not because there couldn’t be such a god. Mostly I call myself agnostic. Atheist is for when I’m feeling belligerent.

  31. Tapetum says

    @27 eigenperson – I think our priest may have her suspicions about me, but she’s keeping her mouth shut if so. Most of the church is fairly broadminded about such things, but there’s a few staunchly Jesus-bot hold outs who apparently are there to try to hold back the tide.

  32. den1s says

    Well my goodness, you are not going to effect any change in others if you cringe in fear of what others might think of your atheism. It is very important, in my humble opinion, that we do speak up and call them on their bullshit when we hear it. You might be surprised how much support you’ll get. We do have all the good parts in our corner… reason… logic… science.

  33. says

    Well done, Lucretius.

    We must admit that there are places in this world where coming out would ruin our lives or take our lives even (think Afghanistan). I wouldn’t blame anyone for hiding. It is up to those of us with nothing (or much less) to lose to do our best to change minds. Those of us that are out yet stop talking are the ones to blame. I feel a silent, complacent “out” atheist is worse than a closeted atheist.

    Although, Lucretius, there is no way to battle the ignorance of science education without taking religion head-on. Every scientifically literate society has low church attendance. It is the only thing holding it back. Look what it did to the pre-Islam Fertile Crescent. The Arabs looked up and named almost every star in the sky until God blocked their view.

  34. says

    Most atheists don’t openly advertise their atheism. It’s a very incidental thing that people find out. I only really bring it up when people enquire into my religion.

    It’s a choice and we cannot fault Lucretius for not wanting to be open about his faith, not when he will face ridicule at best and oppression at worst. It’s a choice we made to face it down openly (and indeed not so openly as I like Lucretius don’t openly state my atheism in India as discrimination is easy enough against non-indian people of indian ethnicity without feeding the whole religion angle.)

    It’s not cowardice, it’s prudence. My teachers can fail me for any infraction they like with literally no oversight and recourse for me to fall back on. So I understand his choice.

    Thomas Lawson – The islamic golden ages are rarely taught but I read a fair amount of work from them. The achievements are quite astounding considering they married indian and chinese math and technology with western literature resulting in a massive improvements in science at the time. It gave us such writers as Omar Khayyam and indeed Avicenna (yes. I picked a muslim name to write under. I am an ex-hindu. The horrific violence against muslims is what drove to me abandon my faith. I was also born in a hospital named after him.)

    From sufi music and song to mughal miniatures (I actually am aware of iranian art involving Mohammed, something muslims would consider as blasphemy now that was perfectly acceptable a few hundred years ago.) To me islam has regressed into a dark age.

    I simply adore sufi and islamic poetry. A lot of it deals with love. Lucknowi poets used to write erotic verse that would make us blush (Lots of comparisons of breasts to ripe mangoes). Some of it is rather sweet like the verse of “Those whose heads are in the shadow of love, walk with paradise at their feet”.

    I leave you with…

    Look not above, there is no answer there;
    Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
    Near is as near to God as any Far,
    And Here is just the same deceit as There.

    And do you think that unto such as you;
    A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew:
    God gave the secret, and denied it me?–
    Well, well, what matters it! Believe that, too.

    “Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
    And at the same time make it sin to drink?
    Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus–
    Surely He loves to hear the glasses clink!”

    It’s by Omar Khayyam. A relative skeptic of Islam at the time and well known islamic hedonist. No seriously… The term islamic hedonist seems like an oxymoron but most of his verse and stories refers to wine, women and song.

    It’s just a reminder that Islam isn’t all grim and dark. It’s just what it’s become now. A lot of muslims don’t read their own history or are taught their glory days. Instead all they are taught are the lunatic faith of bedouin extremists rather than the people who created amazing wonders. And because we see them as bedouin extremists we forgot all those wonders ourselves.

  35. Jeffrey says

    I think this one brings out a certain flaw with these posts: there’s no need to identify with a label at all. Christian, Athiest, Agnostic, American—all labels function as shorthand for unquantifiable synapses. I don’t believe in God, but I see no need to identify as an athiest.

    The problem stems from poor use of “to be” verbs, much as poor questions often do; questions like “what is truth” don’t work because of the “is,” not because of the Truth’s nature. Once you deal away with poor “to be” verbs, most religious and spiritual propositions fall apart in light of clear sentence construction.

  36. Sal says

    I empathize with Lucretius, the fact is we are social animals that suffer greatly if we were to suddenly be ostracized or even expelled from our particular social groups. Thus, it is so frustrating that religion can be such a divisive, repressive and exclusive factor in society.

    If anything I am an atheist because I absolutley abhor such a heirarchical ideology that so arrogantly claims to the sole arbiter of what or who is right or wrong. More importantly, because I have been the subject of much bullying throughout my life, I have a complete distaste for anyone who feels the need to repress others because of some perceived difference in appearance,attitude or belief, and I am quick to unabashedly confront them.

    In short, If I were in Lucretius’ position, not only would I be completely transparent about my atheism, I would actually take any criticism or outlash head on, and completely pummel them without any remorse. The fact is, you have to show no weakness when your very character is being attacked, and most of all, you have to make it very clear that you will not tolerate such abuse whatsoever by anyone! Stand your ground and stop being a coward, even if it causes you more distress in the long run.

  37. DonDueed says

    I feel the need to comment on this:

    “Back that far, I think you would be lucky to date any event within 10 years plus or minus in Gregorian calendar terms, right? And any further than that, well, there’s enough orbital chaos you probably couldn’t really say when eclipses occurred.”

    Perhaps that was your fifteen-year-old understanding, but it’s simply not true. There’s very little orbital chaos in the solar system, and certainly none worth mentioning over the last several millennia. A historical (or prehistorical) eclipse can be dated to the minute or better.

    If there’s anything that could interfere with the dating, it’s the historical record, not the orbital mechanics.

  38. Ray says

    I have lived near Memphis, TN my entire life and I can most definitely vouch for what this guy is saying. “Coming out” as an atheist in these parts doesn’t come across any better to the locals, even people who NEVER go to church, than announcing yourself as a child molesting cannibal. It is far more productive, in my experience, to take Sam Harris’s advice and live under the radar destroying individual bad ideas (creationism, racism, climate-change denial) wherever you find them.

  39. sjefskjekkasen says

    I feel the need to comment too.

    On the story of the missing day. I read the story Lucretius linked to, and it seems to me completely absurd that a computer would encounter “an error” while calculating back the position of celestial bodies. A computer is of course unaware of the actual positions, it just computes the position given present positions and known trajectories and variables. This “day”, had it occured, wouldn’t “show up” in a calculation like this. It’s utterly stupid and must come from a lack of understanding of how computers work. It’s understandable if the story is from the sixties, when I guess computers were still quite mystical.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing, Lucretius. It’s a good story, and I can’t help but sympathise with your “closet-situation”. I think you should reveal your position only when you yourself feel the timing is right. No one can demand that you come out before that.

  40. calliopejane says

    Aquaria @ #23, I must respectfully disagree. For one thing, I do not think Lucretius’ stance is analogous to closeted gays criticizing the gay pride movement, as I did not read him to be criticizing open atheists at all. I simply read it as him saying that *for him* being in *Mississippi*, he did not regard it as a safe environment to come out in. And that there were things that are more important *to him* than overtly pushing for atheism, such as scientific literacy — which can in fact be a great back-door way into atheism, and he makes the point that it’s an effort with much higher likelihood of success than converting the folks there to atheism (and also has better chances of success if he keeps his own atheism on the down-low).

    I am female, gay, and atheist, and quite out about all of that, to the extent it comes up (being in an urban academic environment, it’s like some others have said here, people just don’t bring religion into things much at all). But I know I am fortunate. I’m an organizational psychologist, and one of my research interests is sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. There is, of course, no federal law prohibiting such discrimination, there’s a patchwork of state and municipal laws, but in most of the country gays can be legally discriminated against. And I’ve heard some very scary stories from people in the course of my research, about not just harassment and social ostracism, but also physical and sexual assaults, sabotaged vehicles, attacks on home and family, and so forth. I would NEVER suggest that someone should not assess the safety of their own environment before deciding whether to come out as gay. And if someone makes a reasonable decision to stay closeted, I would not dream of telling them they MUST risk their social and emotional well-being, livelihood and very lives (and those of their families) to further overall social progress.

    I recognize that I am in a very privileged place where I can come out with a reasonable assurance of my own continued safety, and hope that by doing so, I am helping to make it safe for everyone to do that. But I have to respect people’s reasoned decisions about how much social and physical risk they are willing to take.

  41. calliopejane says

    oops, forgot to add the rest of the point I wanted to make:

    I’ve discussed with some of my “gaytheist” friends how we find it much easier to be out as gay than atheist. Because when I say, “I’m a lesbian” to a straight person, that does not in any way imply that I think s/he should not be heterosexual or that there’s anything wrong with their heterosexuality. But when I say to a religious person, “I’m an atheist,” it’s hard to escape the logical implication of that statement, that I think the religious person is deluded and wrong. I don’t SAY that, I don’t express any opinion about their beliefs at all, but that conclusion is in fact logically contained within my declaration of atheism. Thus: WAY more threatening to others than coming out as gay.

    No one tries to argue me out of being gay. Can’t say the same for the atheism.

  42. says

    I too live in Mississippi and certainly don’t wave the atheist flag too very high. I do contribute a lot of time being an activist for other things that you have listed as important. I volunteer several times a week at a local community center teaching people to read and tutoring for GED testing. You are correct that Mississippi has a very long way to go on basic literacy and education before we can feel comfortable declaring our non-belief loudly.

    Don’t be discouraged! there are more of us in the state than you might think. there is a facebook group of 150 of us! contact me on facebook and i’ll get you added to the secret group. it’s a great support network for people living in a state so soaked in god and religion that others even on this blog would have a hard time understanding. through the facebook group we also plan large and small social gatherings. it’s amazing how freeing it is to spend just an afternoon with a group of people from whom you don’t have to hide a large part of yourself.

  43. dawgdoc2000 says

    @ the author and #43

    I am in a small suburb of Atlanta where the religious scene sounds very similar to what you describe. I have kept my atheism to myself as well, because it would mean ridicule for my children and it would be devestating for my business. Plus, it is none of their damn business anyway.


  44. Jem says

    I don’t believe in God, but I see no need to identify as an athiest.
    The problem stems from poor use of “to be” verbs, much as poor questions often do;

    It’s no poorer use of ‘to be’ than me describing myself saying’I am a female/New Zealander/student’ etc. surely you’re not opposed to all categorization? It has it’s problems but for practical reasons is necessary. ‘I don’t believe in God’ literally means I’m an atheist, so until you can prove otherwise I see no reason not to use the two phrases interchangeably.

  45. Jem says

    I have kept my atheism to myself as well, because it would mean ridicule for my children and it would be devestating for my business. Plus, it is none of their damn business anyway.

    That’s all very well, but I have to wonder how you raise your children?
    I sympathise with anyone keeping their atheism to themselves, but when that means poisoning their kid’s minds with religion that’s another story.

  46. says

    I can definitely sympathize with Lucretius. All the members of my immediate family are born-again Christians. I am now 31 years old and two years ago I finally came out as an atheist.

    My sister, aunt and cousins were drinking and started talking about religion. I had too much to drink and really started laying into religion and really being a bit of a jerk about it. I felt really bad the next day and apologized, but in a way I feel relieved as it is now out there.

    I’ve made a deal with myself whereby I have my facebook status as athiest for all to see but will not openly criticize religion either on facebook or in person. However, if someone starts to criticize atheists, I will immediately defend them stating how atheists are more likely to be educated, less likely to be in prison, more likely to be in a successful marriage, etc. I never start a conversation about religion (or politics for that matter) or pick a fight, but if one comes to me I don’t back down.

  47. evodevo says

    What Ray at #39 said. If you haven’t ever lived in the Bible Belt South, you have no idea what shit can come down on you and yours if the word got out that you were agnostic, much less atheist. Property damage would be the least of the insults you, and your family, might be subjected to. Lynching may be out of favor, but there are a hundred other methods that are in the redneck arsenal. The larger, especially college, towns are OK; you can remain relatively anonymous there. The smaller communities, not so much. Everyone knows where you go to church, who you socialize with, what your ideas/beliefs are, within minutes of moving there. Everyone is related to everyone else, and the gossip machines are going 24/7. NOTHING escapes them. So, for survival reasons, both business and personal, the easiest escape is to tell them you are Catholic – that shuts it down immediately. No more trying to get you to revival, or choir practice or Weds prayer meeting or Easter sunrise service. I suppose episcopalian would serve the same purpose.
    Anyway, thanks for your story Lucretius – hope you find some fellow freethinkers in your area – thank goodness for the Intertubes !!

  48. WhiteHatLurker says

    It is sad that your community is like that. I wish you all the best in living in such a poison filled environment.

  49. mephistopheles says

    I am so happy for the many expressions of support for Lucretius; I feared he might be ripped to shreds by The Horde over here for choosing to not come “out.” My bad for making the snap judgment. Greta Christina has written extensively on the need and importance of atheists coming out, speaking up, styles of doing so, etc. There are very good arguments on both sides of this issue.

    I too was born and raised in the deep South into a fundamentalist sect that was so extreme in its doctrines and requirements it would make Southern Baptists look like hedonistic pagans by comparison. Being drilled from kindergarten age that your sole purpose in life is to spread the gospel and win souls to Christ was constant– doing anything else was a wicked, selfish waste of time because Jesus is coming SOON and we must be ready and help others to be ready as well(1960’s). The urgency and the “guilt” if you weren’t always about the Lord’s business was ever present.

    The sect was very isolationist and so I was not exposed to normal everyday people except in the most superficial manner, or for “witnessing” purposes– certainly not for personal relationships. Even other Christians! I went to church schools from 5th grade through college, taking a theology degree among other things (minoring in biblical Greek). I wasn’t really around “worldly” people till grad school.

    Finding my way out of this shit took decades. It has left me scarred, damaged, and very angry at a wasted life. The battle into rationality has been long and hard fought (and ongoing). Part of that victory entailed claiming the right to my own thoughts and figuring out my own views. (Fast forward many years). And at some point I decided I don’t give a damn whether a person wants to howl at the moon and thinks it’s made of green cheese if that’s what gets you off– just don’t tell me what to think. Leave me the hell alone!

    I know, I KNOW. It DOES matter what others think if it affects society– nutjobs affecting social policy, school science curriculum and all that. I get that. I really DO. I admire and respect and applaud that. It’s just that for me, crawling out of that fetid swamp, I’m worn out. I finally summon the courage the tentatively seek out maybe other atheists and see what it’s about, and am quickly confronted with many (in my local area) who are guess what? Militantly shouting how we have to get out there and in people’s faces and be activist and political and do all these things and on and on and on. We have to COVERT people! Get them to see how irrational they are!

    You know what? To ME, it often sounds like the SAME THING I just got out of– it’sonly a different team. Get out there! Win Souls for Us!

    I know that it’s not the same of course. That’s just what it FEELS like to me. That’s all I’m sayin.’ So I understand folks like Lucretius who, whatever their reason, may not be ready to come out of the closet and organize an atheist rally in his hometown or something.

  50. mephistopheles says

    So sorry for the all caps in the post; it’s bad form. It’s just that I’m new to this and don’t know how to do italics in the comment boxes. My bad.

  51. John Morales says


    mephistopheles, relax.

    (Honesty is pretty much all you need, here)

    As for italics, try this: <i>Italicised text goes here</i>

  52. John Scanlon, FCD says

    Oh yes. They were into serpent worship, those pre-islamic Arabians, and there’s no bigger serpent than the old Milky Way.

    Lucretius and many others above: it’s really horrifying to be reminded how medieval things still are in some places. But haven’t Americans (in general) got more ability to change location than people in most other nations? Surely it’s possible, and desirable, to get the fuck out to where you can be yourself?

    Though I understand that the Western Frontier has shifted a bit, and some even go as far as New Zealand ;)

  53. John Scanlon, FCD says

    Sorry about that, preview wasn’t working. What I meant to quote was:

    The Arabs looked up and named almost every star in the sky until God blocked their view.

    Oh yes… as above.

  54. Christine says

    Mephistopholes, I think I understand where you’re coming from. I too was part of “a fundamentalist sect that was so extreme in its doctrines and requirements it would make Southern Baptists look like hedonistic pagans by comparison,” as you so aptly put it. It took so much energy to extricate myself from it and the process left me so scarred that I don’t have it in me to fight with people over the existence of god, at least for the time being.

  55. dawgdoc2000 says


    My children are being raised to think for themselves and are not being exposed to organized religion. They are still young so it doesn’t come up much, but when they start coming home and repeating what they hear from other kids, I will help them analyze what they hear and let them decide for themselves. Believe me, I don’t want their minds being poisoned with the religious beliefs that are prevalent here.

  56. Lucretius of Mississippi says

    Lucretius replies to the list:

    I have been busy at work the last few days and have just now got back to see the thread. Thanks, folks, this is making interesting reading. I was expecting more flak and thinking maybe I deserved it. Thanks for the support.

    One point perhaps I should explain a little more is that my wife was a Christian, her parents and my parents were both Christian, and I saw no point in introducing so much conflict and drama as would have inevitably ensued, adversely affecting my children’s upbringing. Much easier, it seemed to me, just to take them to a church that respected intellect and made no bones about the fact that they taught the Bible as metaphor, not fact. Two out of three of my children have already announced their non-religious conclusions, not sure if I could have done better if I had made a program out of it.

    I did manage to sue the local school system over school prayer along the way, all without blowing my cover. (I’ll never forget, this is back when they had just come up with “student-led” prayer as the latest dodge, and my middle daughter came home and said, “Dad, my teacher got the school newpaper staff together and asked which one of us would give a prayer!” Yup, she knew it was not right and went straight to bat for her.)

    And thanks to the musicians and pipe organists who posted, I know my secret is safe with you guys! I am at the point in life where I am thinking it might be safe to be a little more open, OTOH I am a caregiver who is often involved in end-of-life discussions, right now I am still playing it close to the vest.

  57. says

    I’m openly atheist, though I don’t bring it up, especially at my daughter’s Catholic school (it’s the only private option and the public schools here are churning out idiots by the hundred,) but I am actually openly blasphemous at work (IBM) and only had one guy tell me to not use the flippant Jesus gif I got from here with him. So I don’t use that one with him.

    My point is, know your audience: work may actually be more OK with it than your neighbors.

    Also the Atheist Pride idea is good. I would go to that and invite friends.