Maybe the South Isn’t As Hostile to Atheists As We Thought… June 18, 2009

Maybe the South Isn’t As Hostile to Atheists As We Thought…

Recently, Shaun McGonigal (the Philadelphia Reason & Religion Examiner) took a trip to the South with his girlfriend.

Shaun normally wears atheist t-shirts while in Philadelphia, but he thought he’d continue wearing them during his trip. He wondered what differences he’d find. Would the reactions be that much worse in the South?

Turns out things weren’t so bad:

Yes, I got looks, double-takes, and even a few people becoming less hospitable after reading them. But surprisingly few actual comments or questions from people arose…

I guess the fact that we spent most of our time in or around cities meant that we ran into either more tolerant people or people who were more used to seeing things like that. Either that or they were just being polite in not asking questions or commenting. I did have at least two people comment that hey liked my shirts. I thanked them with a smile. I had one bartender warn me that wearing such things may not be a good idea. Maybe I just got lucky.

Maybe things are looking up for atheists. There is an exception or two in Shaun’s case, but mostly, the reactions were positive or non-existent. I wonder if that’s the case for other people…

Have any of you had a horrible response — especially in the South — to atheist -message clothing you were wearing?

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  • Infinitemonkey

    Where in the South? Dallas is a lot different than St. Louis, which is different than Wichita, which is different than Nashville, which is different than Jackson, MS…need I continue?

    Trust, I’m from Little Rock.

  • “Hmm. We’re not *all* kooky rednecks,” said your loyal reader from Georgia.

  • Yep. Here in Mississippi, folks don’t take kindly to anyone disrespecting their gods. Even pro-evolution stuff can elicit a strong reaction.

  • Jasen777

    Most people will ignore you no matter what you are wearing.

  • It also depends on where you go within the individual cities.

    I have one atheist shirt. All the writing is in Latin. It’s a cool shirt, but most people have no idea what it says. Maybe that defeats the purpose.

  • David D.G.

    Years ago, when I was living in Denton (a college town just north of Dallas), I occasionally wore a flair button that said “Born Again Pagan.”

    (I wasn’t a pagan, but at the time I didn’t even know yet about Wiccans and other “new pagan” types — I just thought the button was making fun of born-again Christianity.)

    Anyway, there was one time when I was wearing it that I had to go to the bank, and the teller was highly offended by that button — she almost refused to serve me!

    ~David D.G.

  • Mike

    Nope, no negative experiences regarding any clothing I’ve worn.
    I have had the experience of a big city dweller assuming I’m retarded because I live in a rural area, and the experience of somebody from the Northeast assuming I’m a stupid hick because I live in Texas. What did he expect, a lynching after the locals finished playing Dueling Banjos?

  • Dallas and Austin are the two “Southern” cities in which I’ve spent any length of time, and in which Ive worn “atheist” apparel.

    Austin is famously liberal, and I’ve never gotten a second look there.

    Dallas is becoming more and more cosmopolitan, and I’ve had no unpleasant experiences, not even on the occasionally trip to Southern Methodist University. I’ve even been a resident atheist at a Southern Baptist church for a couple of years.

    Even the North Texas Church of Freethought was added without question or complaint to the Dallas Morning News’ special insert on local churches!

  • TXatheist

    Well I’m glad all the work I’ve done has benefited somebody. Glad you could make it through Austin. I do think rural versus urban would have made a world of difference.

  • Lyz

    When I was organizing volunteers for a Dawkins event in Oklahoma City, I was very careful to take off my “Dawkins is my Homeboy” and “Ask me about the Secular Student Alliance” buttons when I was off-site. It was the only Dawkins event where we’ve had an audience member get out of hand and have to be escorted out of the venue. Was I a little nervous to be identified as an atheist when a guy just about went postal on an older professor? Heck yeah.

  • TXatheist

    Lyz, I’m sure you heard about the Oklahoma legislature trying to create a bill that would ban Dawkins from speaking at universities in OK? I’m not kidding, it was about 4 months ago, best guess. Funny thing, I wore my friendly neighborhood atheist t-shirt when I met Hemant and forgot about it. Went to a small town convenience store to get a soda and was perplexed why an older black dude looked at me funny. I just start laughing when I think about it.

  • Something you have to know about us Southerners, at least the ones who were “raised right”: Politeness is paramount. It’s not nice to comment (to your face) about what you’re wearing. The lack of response to the shirt, I feel, wasn’t an expression of tolerance or acceptance of atheists…it was simple Southern politeness.

    I don’t know what he thought was going to happen. Even the theists among us aren’t all assholes.

  • Keith

    I live in the South, in a large Tennessee city, and I would not wear an atheist shirt in public. I know the attitudes around here and how seriously people take their religion, and I would fear open hostility.

    This is the kind of place where it’s not at all uncommon to see somebody saying a blessing over their value meal at a fast food joint.

  • Audrey

    Not the South, obviously:

    I was once in a candy store in rural Wisconsin, and I was wondering why everyone in the store was staring at me oddly… until I realized I was wearing an Atheist-themed t-shirt that day.

    I now wear said shirt every time I travel through rural Wisconsin. People need to be exposed to things before they will accept them.

  • Infinitemonkey

    @ eruvande

    Southern Hospitality?

  • Most of the larger cities in the South are not really any different than the larger cities elsewhere in the country. The rural areas, though, may be different than the rural areas elsewhere. I’ll let others comment on that, though, since I don’t have recent first-hand rural living experience.

    I live in Richmond, VA – the capital of the confederacy.

    We have a mix of religious traditionalists (who have never read the bible), religious fundamentalists (who have never read the bible), “apathetists” (who have never read the bible), and some skeptics (who have read the bible).

  • I’ve lived in northwest Louisiana for the majority of my life. It’s not as bad as you might think, but there are most certainly a lot of Christians and it isn’t the most accepting environment for the non-religious. I don’t wear too many atheistic or anti-religious apparel, but when I was in middle school I used to wear a pentagram in sort of protest of Christianity and they made me remove it.

    I’ve thought about wearing some kind of atheistic t-shirt before, and knowing the kind of uptight people that are around, people would likely see it as me being antagonizing. That doesn’t really scare me away from the idea too much though, but I’m sure there would be a lot of people unhappy with it.

  • Anonymous

    Even the North Texas Church of Freethought was added without question or complaint to the Dallas Morning News’ special insert on local churches!

    That’s probably because most people don’t realize that freethought is a euphemism for atheism.

    The lack of response to the shirt, I feel, wasn’t an expression of tolerance or acceptance of atheists…it was simple Southern politeness.

    I thought this was pretty obvious from start when reading the story. Lynchers don’t usually conspire against you to your face. They jump you later…

  • Northern Arkansas ain’t so bad niether.

    I have worn my “Smile, there’s no hell” shirt to Wal-Mart. I get a few looks, but nobody really seems to give a …

  • Ex-Master Mason

    I agree the south is waking up but there are still those that believe in the person A. Pike. Some places, concealment and solitude will extends one life where other places thinking you are free will end it.

    My reasoning is as follows…a cornered tiger will fight to the death, for it has nothing to lose.

    The south still hates atheists.

  • I wish I could say that I heard this on the radio the other day.

  • AMT

    I agree entirely with eruvande. In fact, I came here to say practically the same thing. We southerners are raised to be polite at all costs. But once the fear of being impolite is gone, the gossip flies.It would be interesting to hear what people were whispering among themselves after he was out of earshot.

  • Kathryn

    Here in Spartanburg, SC our local UU Church is holding a gay pride march downtown this Saturday (a first ever here)! Of course, some churches will be protesting (all 8 are baptist churches BTW). Anyway, the local on-line newspaper ran a poll yesterday asking if you objected to the parade. The results were 60% objected 36% didnt and 4% didnt know/care. SO while that might sound bad to some, I was actually very pleasently surprised that only 60% objected. That really is progress here.

  • AJ

    Gee, a gigantic mass of people isn’t one homogeneous group that all thinks and acts the same?

    Well, forgive the snark, I’m just glad to see non-Southerners becoming a little less prejudiced and bigoted. Warms my heart.

  • TXatheist

    AJ, yeah, we are good at pointing out southerners who live in denial. Southerners are nice if you agree with their views but when you try to show them the error of their ways they get bent out of shape. Do mess with Texass.

  • Microbiologychick

    I wear atheist shirts in east Tennessee. I don’t get comments and I am not afraid.

  • Anne

    The real reason he got so few comments is because the illiteracy rate is so high in the South.

  • Lib

    Thanks, Anne. Your ability to stereotype an entire area of the country based on your own ill-conceived preconceptions is indicative of your truly inspiring reasoning skills and evidence of your obvious mental, as well as ethical, superiority.

    As a lifelong resident of rural Alabama and atheist, I don’t exactly feel free to share my personal (non-)belief with the people I meet randomly on the street, but comments like that make me feel just as unwelcome here as I feel as an atheist in my own community.

    Furthermore, I’ve seen people around town with atheist-themed shirts and Flying Spaghetti Monster car tags. All of them seemed to be unscathed, and I, for one, always give them an extra-big smile when we cross paths.

  • Dave G

    Here in Atlanta, I have a Darwin fish, a Science fish, and a FSM on the back of my car, and so far the only times people have confronted me about them have been to ask what the FSM one was. Of the three that asked, 2 found it amusing, and one was just confused.

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