In "Atheists in the Bible Belt: A Survival Guide" (available here
) Daniel Burke offers 8 tips for surviving as an atheist in the South. I was struck by the characterization in the article of the Bible Belt as "the country's most religious region" and the description of what it is like to be an atheist among "fiercely devout friends, family and neighbors." I don't doubt that there are many difficulties for those who do not share the predominantly professed religion of this part of the country. The negative treatment and discrimination that atheists endure at the hands of professed Christians is often reprehensible. And it is surely un-Christian.
In a strange way, even though I am a Christian theist who lives in the Bible Belt, I can identify more easily with the experiences of many atheists in the South than their "devout friends, family, and neighbors."
I am a philosophy professor, and among those in my profession I am in the minority with respect to religious belief. Just as the atheist in the Bible Belt often is assumed by others to be a believer, other philosophers often initially assume that I am not a Christian theist. The numbers justify this assumption. A report from a recent survey of philosophers states that about 73% accept or lean toward atheism, about 15% accept or lean toward theism, with the remaining respondents falling under "Other".
Among most of my colleagues in my field of study, then, I hold a minority view. As a proponent of stricter gun control laws I am also in the minority in a place where for many the Bible, guns, and the Second Amendment all seem to be a package deal. (For a discussion grounded in empirical data as well as Christian theology that favors stricter gun laws, see my recent article in the Christian Research Journal.)
The South may be the most religious part of the United States if church attendance and a verbal profession of Christian belief are the sole criteria for religiosity. However, if we take a set of criteria from the New Testament, then this may be a myth. As far as I can tell, the central criteria in the New Testament for an authentic Christian faith begins with a profession of faith, but then essentially includes the following:
- love of God
- love of one's neighbor (no matter their religious beliefs, or lack thereof)
- transformation of one's character
- care for the "least of these" (i.e., the poor and marginalized) in society.1
If the criteria from the New Testament are applied to our behavior, then atheist high school students wouldn't receive text messages that say "Hey, Satan." And atheists wouldn't lose their family and friends because of their lack of religious faith. To reject someone or cut them out of your life because they are an atheist is one of the least Christian things one can do.
I fall short of my own beliefs about how I should live as a follower of Christ, and so I recognize that it can be problematic to call others out in this way. My concern is not that professed Christians fall short in these ways, but rather that many of the moral and spiritual standards found in the New Testament are not even included in the aspirations of many who self-identify as Christians in the South.
I grew up in the Midwest, went to graduate school in California and Colorado, and have lived in the South for the past 10 years. In all honesty, and with a recognition that these claims are based on my own personal experiences and are merely anecdotal evidence, it nevertheless seems to me that nominal and cultural Christianity is more prevalent in the South than other parts of the country.
Why? I have my armchair theories, but at a fundamental level I believe that Christian institutions here worry so much about getting people in the door that they fail to teach, show, and challenge people to live in ways that the early Christians thought were essential for being a disciple of Jesus Christ. A great place to start growing in these essentials is seek to truly love, value, and respect those who don't share your religious beliefs.
1See, for example, John 15:1-17; Matthew 5-7; Luke 10:25-37; 2 Peter 1; and James 1-2.