Let’s be clear. It’s not like it’s easy to be an atheist anywhere in the U.S. Atheists are the most distrusted and disliked of all minority groups — more than blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians — and polls show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than they are for a person in any other minority or marginalized category. And this hostility can have serious consequences, in the form of harassment, bullying, ostracism, vandalism, alienation from family, loss of jobs, and more.
But to be honest, there are parts of the country where being an atheist really isn’t all that awful. Heck, I live in one of them. There’s some bigotry, some discrimination, a fair amount of misunderstanding and even hostility… but all things considered, it’s pretty okay. And then, there are some parts of the country where being an atheist sucks.
Let’s talk about a few of those, shall we?
Now, to a great extent, how badly it sucks to be an atheist may not depend on the state you live in. It’s sort of like the red-state/blue-state myth: cultural differences in the United States break down more along urban/rural lines than they do along state lines. Is it easier to be an atheist in New York than in Texas? Maybe… but it may also be easier if you’re in Austin, Texas than if you’re in rural upstate New York.
Many atheist and secularist leaders I spoke to stressed this point. According to Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason (the organization responsible for many of the atheist billboard campaigns), “As for the worst states to be an atheist, it doesn’t generally work that way. It depends on what part of a state you are in.”
In fact, he’s not even sure that this difference always breaks down along urban/ rural lines. “Is the key idea that the more rural areas give us the most trouble?” he asked. “Maybe. But we had bus ads vandalized in Detroit, too.” And he added that in Kentucky, “we had no problem in Louisville, but I still can’t get a billboard company to run our ads in supposedly more liberal Lexington.”
And according to the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “No state is really safe for non-believers. You find creationist ideas in schools from Louisiana to New Jersey. You find efforts to send secular tax dollars to religious schools in Indiana and Florida. And, finally, you find polls done of all Americans demonstrating that plenty of families don’t want their sons or daughters marrying atheists. There are many sad states of affairs.”
So the point here isn’t to show that some states suck for atheists worse than others. The point is to show that anti-atheist bigotry is real. The point is to show that it has real-world consequences. And the point is to let you know what some of those consequences are.
So with all that being said — let’s get on with the list! If you’re finishing your degree in secular studies and are trying to decide where in the country you want to plant your godless stakes… here are some places you might want to avoid.
#10: Pennsylvania. Yes, I know. Everyone’s expecting this list to be overloaded with the deep South. And I’ll be getting there soon enough. But religious privilege and anti-atheist hostility don’t stay below the Mason-Dixon line. Anti-atheist bigotry can, and does, happen anywhere.
And Pennsylvania is Exhibit A. Specifically, Annville, Pennsylvania, where atheist veterans marching in the Memorial Day parade were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell. Not once or twice by a couple of fanatics… but repeatedly, throughout the course of the parade.
Let me spell that one out again. In small town America, veterans — veterans, on Memorial Day, marching in a Memorial Day parade — were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell.
Because they were atheists.
#9: Idaho. Where atheist billboards — not in-your-face controversial ones, but almost aggressively mild ones, simply announcing that atheists exist and are good people — are vandalized on a regular basis. According to Maggie Ardiente of the American Humanist Association, “Thanks to a member of ours who lives in Moscow, Idaho, the AHA has been putting up billboards over the past two years to promote humanism and atheism. When we put up a factual, non-controversial billboard that said, ‘Millions are Good Without God,’ it was vandalized twice! We continue to put billboards in the area, but there is often additional security provided when we put up a new one.”
Just like it says in the Bible: “And whatever place will not take you in and will not give ear to you, when you go away, put off the dust from your feet… and then deface their billboards like a douchebag.”
#8: Arkansas. (I told you I’d get to the deep South!) Hey, at least in Idaho, atheists can put up their dang billboards. In Arkansas, the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) has flatly rejected an atheist ad that the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason wanted to put up on 18 buses… solely and entirely because the content of the ads — “Are you good without God? Millions are” — is atheist.
I am not kidding. Even the public excuses being given for rejecting the ads — possible vandalism and even “terrorism” due to the “controversial” nature of the ad — are based on the fact that these ads have atheist content, expressing the “controversial” view that atheists, you know, exist, and are good people. And as the behind-the-scenes scrambling reveals, they are blatantly doing this based on religious hostility to atheism. Check this out:
In response to an e-mail message dated February 28, 2011, from Plaintiff’s media broker to the Advertising Agent conveying the content of the Proposed Advertisement, the Advertising Agent forwarded the message to Betty Wineland, the Executive Director of the Authority, stating in her accompanying message (in its entirety): “Dear God……HELP!” Ms. Wineland replied: “I need Him now more than ever. Good grief. I think we need to throw religion into the advertising policy – as a negative. Stall while CATA reviews.”
Let me spell this one out very plainly: A government-run public transit authority is rejecting religious-themed advertising — solely because the religious view being advertised is the view that religion is mistaken. And no, they haven’t changed their policy to reject all religious-themed ads. They still take religious-themed ads. Just not ones from atheists.
Oh, and in case you were wondering: Yes. They’re being sued.
#7: Alabama. The state where the actual governor, Robert Bentley, said in actual words, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister.” The state where it took an interfaith delegation, led by the Anti-Defamation league, to inform him that there are non-Christians in Alabama. Non-Christians who — I hope I don’t have to remind you — are fully fledged legal residents of the state. Non-Christians whom Bentley also serves as governor… every bit as much as he serves the Christians. As American Atheists president David Silverman says, “Top of my list is Alabama, home of Roy Moore and ‘You are not my brother’ Governor Bentley. It appears that to hold office in Alabama, you have to be completely ignorant of American Law and despise the Separation of Church and State.”
Oh, and in case that’s not enough: Let’s talk about some places where it sucks to be an atheist in high school. Let’s talk about the Secular Student Alliance, and its new program specifically devoted to supporting high school atheist groups. Let’s talk about the resistance that atheist students routinely get from public high school administrators who want to block students from forming secular groups. And let’s talk a little more about Alabama. The only state where the SSA has had to initiate a lawsuit about it.
Duncan Henderson wanted to form a secular club at his public school — which he has the full legal right to do. But his school principal denied his request. According to JT Eberhard, campus organizer and high school specialist at the Secular Student Alliance, “When Duncan’s father scheduled a meeting to discuss the matter, the principal showed up to the meeting with a lawyer, who more or less repeated, ‘We’re going to follow the law’ in response to every question. But the school has not followed through on that promise to follow the law. The school has stonewalled, and attempts by the SSA to discuss the matter were met with an email from the school’s attorney saying they’re not going to speak to anybody.”
Hence — lawsuit. Which, as of this writing, is happening solely and entirely in the state of Alabama. As Eberhard added, “While it’s not the first state in which we have seen pushback from adults in a position of authority over students to the idea of atheists forming clubs in the same way religious students form clubs, it is the first state in which we’ve had to bring in lawyers to fight for equality denied.”
#6: North Carolina. Where in December of 2009, Cecil Bothwell couldn’t even get elected to the Asheville City Council, without people trying to invoke laws — antiquated laws overruled by the Supreme Court, but laws nonetheless — banning him from taking office because he’s an atheist.
Okay. Let’s be fair. This isn’t exactly an isolated case. Lauren Becker of the Center for Inquiry points out that several states have antiquated laws on the books banning atheists from holding office. “The Supreme Court has said that federal law prohibits states from requiring a religious test to serve office,” she says, but “there are still some states that have such laws, whether they enforce them or not.”
North Carolina, however, has the distinction of actually trying to enforce one of these laws. Less than a year and a half ago.
#5. Florida. On the other hand, in Florida, you might get kicked out of a city council meeting simply for wearing an atheist T-shirt. And if you protest against prayers at city council meetings, you might actually get arrested.
So that’s gotta suck.
#4: Rhode Island. Did you hear the one about the public high school with the prayer banner in the school gym — a prayer banner specifically addressed to “Our Heavenly Father”? The public high school that got asked to take the banner down by 15-year-old atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, since it’s an unconstitutional promotion of religion by government? The public high school that’s digging in its heels and hanging on to the banner, despite decades of unambiguous legal precedent making it clear that they’re in the wrong? The public high school that’s getting sued by said atheist high school student and the ACLU… and is still digging in its heels, devoting extensive time and resources to defending their promotion of religion?
That’s Rhode Island, folks. And this story isn’t just about a school administration insisting on its right to unconstitutionally establish religion. It’s about a community’s ostracization of an atheist teenager — in some cases to the point of threats of violence. Ahlquist has been shunned, insulted, vilified, and even threatened with violence. Students in an English class in her school said — during class — that she should be “smacked around and beat up” for fighting the prayer banner. Comments in the Providence Journal article on the story were ugly, personal, even threatening — to a great extent about the ACLU, but largely about Ahlquist herself. (“I think you need to talk to a doctor and get help… you are sick in the head.” “Looks like we have a moon bat in the making.” “Make no mistake, Jessica and the Bolshevik thugs representing her are driven by anti-Christian bigotry and intolerance and censorship… Curse them to hell.”)
In fact, according to the Providence Journal, Ahlquist and another student were removed from their regular classroom schedule last month — after some students said they intended to harm her. To quote JT Eberhard, high school specialist at the Secular Student Alliance, “In the city of Cranston, an entire community, perhaps an entire state of adults, is engaging in a smear campaign against a single high school student. Her crime? Believing her school violates the first amendment by hanging a prayer banner in the gym invoking the phrases ‘Our heavenly father’ and ‘Amen’.”
And this is in New England. This is Rhode Island. The first of the 13 original colonies to declare independence from British rule. The state specifically founded as a place of religious freedom, as a response to religious persecution. A slat in the cradle of liberty. And they are vilifying and threatening a 15-year-old girl for being an atheist, and for insisting that her public school follow the Constitution and not shove religion down her throat. Anti-atheist bigotry is everywhere. It’s not just in Alabama or Mississippi. Or even Texas.
#3: Texas. Wow. Where do you start with Texas? The public high school graduation ceremony that was like a revival meeting? The transit company that changed their policies and stopped accepting any bus ads for any religious organizations… just so they wouldn’t have to take ads from atheists? The governor who responded to economic troubles, natural disasters, and terrorism by initiating a state day of prayer, and has exhorted Texans to “call on Jesus”? The governor, again, who decreed three official state Days of Prayer for Rain? The public school where they distribute Bibles? The high school textbooks which teach that the Bible was a “foundational text” in the framing of the U.S., that the King James Bible “remains one of the… most-loved books in the history of the world,” and that “the sun went black” when Jesus was crucified? The state Constitution that says, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being”? The teachers that get fired, not for being atheists, but for being suspected of being atheists? The town where they get seriously hysterical about atheists playing “Jingle Bells” in a Christmas parade?
Come on. Did you really expect Texas not to be on this list?
#2: Mississippi. I could say a lot about Mississippi. For instance, I could talk about how, when the Second Chance Prom was being organized for lesbian student Constance McMillan, the state chapter of the freaking ACLU refused to take money from the American Humanist Association and the Stiefel Freethought Foundation… because it was atheist money. I shit you not. In an e-mail message to AHA, Jennifer Carr, the fundraiser for the ACLU of Mississippi, said, “Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word ‘atheist.'” The ACLU would later apologize and accept the money; but, as Maggie Ardiente of the AHA, puts it, “We were very disappointed to see an organization that’s famously known for standing up for everyone’s rights — including the right to be an atheist or humanist — initially discriminate against us.”
That’s reasonably messed-up. But I want to focus instead on a much more practical, nuts-and-bolts, life-screwing-up form of anti-atheist bigotry — child custody.
It is depressingly common for atheists to have child custody limited, or even denied, explicitly on the basis of their atheism. Cases have been documented again and again and again, in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. But according to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, “Mississippi is the most serious offender.” Volokh goes on to say, “In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better ‘future religious example.’ In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a [lower] Mississippi court ordered… reasoning that ‘it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.'”
Try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically, because they were Jewish. Because they were Mormon. Because they were Baptist. And now, try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically because they’re an atheist. You don’t have to imagine it. This is real. This happens. And it happens in Mississippi more than anywhere else in the country.
And finally, we come to my Number One Worst State to Be an Atheist:
I freely admit that this list, and the order I’m presenting it, is subjective. It’s not based on a careful statistical analysis of rigorously gathered data based on journalistically objective criteria about anti-atheist bigotry. It’s based on stories that happened to get my atheist dander up. It’s based on stories that made me sad — and enraged.
And the story that happened in Louisiana made me sad, and enraged, more than almost any other.
I’m talking about Damon Fowler.
I’m talking about the atheist high school student who opposed his public school having a school-sponsored prayer at his graduation. Whose name was leaked. And who, as a result, was hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community; publicly demeaned by one of his teachers; physically threatened; and thrown out by his parents, who cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and threw his belongings onto the front porch. Whose public school went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway. Who has had to leave his home and move in with his sister near Dallas, Texas.
You know things are bad when your atheist safe haven from extremist religious persecution is in Texas.
Worst. State. Ever.
And you wanna know the really sad thing? This piece could have been a lot longer. This could easily have been the 20 Worst States to Be an Atheist. The 30 Worst. Heck… the 50 Worst.
You’ve got Maryland. Where yet another atheist high school student started a group, whose posters were torn down by other students — and where actual parents of those students wrote letters to the editor supporting the vandalism, and calling the atheist posters “an atrocity.” You’ve got Georgia. Where students taking their AP tests at a church were proselytized to by church members. You’ve got Utah. Where, says American Atheists president David Silverman, “The state attorney general is trying to have the Roman Cross pronounced secular so it can be placed on public buildings and schools without regard to equal access.” You’ve got Oklahoma. Where still another public high school student tried to start an atheist group, and was accused by his principal of trying to start a “hate group”… and where the faculty advisor for the group suddenly withdrew, saying she had been told sponsoring the group would be “a bad career move.” You’ve got… oh, you get the idea.
Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No, probably not. Not for the most part. I don’t like comparing oppressions; it’s divisive and pointless, and I don’t think anything is gained by playing “more oppressed than thou.” There are a few ways that anti-atheist bigotry is worse than others — the roadblocks being tossed up against high school students leap to mind, as does the whole “least trusted/least likely to be voted for” thing. But atheists don’t seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people — or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color. And I’m not saying that they are.
My point is not that anti-atheist bigotry is as bad as other forms of bigotry. It exists. It is real. It happens all over the country. And it has real-world consequences.
So if you’re ever tempted to ask why atheists are so angry, or why they have to kick up such a fuss all the time, or why they want to organize and form groups based on what they don’t believe in… remember that.