In Defense of the Bubble: An Atheist’s Guide to Living in a Red State

In previous articles for, I wrote about my eleven years working for the Catholic Church in spite of not believing in a god, and some of the difficulties and dilemmas I struggled with. During that time, there was one bit of comfort I held onto—I knew that I could always quit if the situation became too much to bear. This stood in contrast to those nonbelievers living in deeply religious parts of the country who could not necessarily quit their society, which was a situation I didn’t face in my bright blue, relatively progressive state of New Jersey.

Fast forward to the present day, and the script has flipped. I no longer work for the church, but I’ve relocated to the deeply red, deeply conservative, deeply religious state of Tennessee.

Out of the frying pan into the fire, as it were.

When I informed my friends, family, and coworkers of my impending move, the news was often greeted with arched eyebrows and comments along the lines of, “Hope you packed your Bible.” People familiar with the area cautioned me that it’s not uncommon for folks to ask what church you attend within seconds of meeting you. In the past I’d been able to skirt this type of question by saying that I worked for the Catholic Church, thereby avoiding any awkward discussions of my nonbelief and general disdain for religion. But from here on out, it seems I will be compelled to either tell the truth, lie, or point to something behind these folks and take off in the other direction.

So how does a nonbeliever deal with living in a religious part of the country? I’m sure different people have different coping mechanisms, but for me, it’s been all about finding my bubble.

We’ve heard much recently about the dangers of living in bubbles or echo chambers, and I would be the first to agree with many of the concerns that have been voiced. Any scientifically minded person will tell you that confirmation bias is a real stumbling block toward intellectual development. The algorithms and selective societies of social media have created a firewall that makes it easy for us to ensconce ourselves in bubbles of the like-minded and block out any evidence that contradicts our preconceived notions of the world.

But my beliefs about religion, much like my beliefs and views regarding social and political issues, were not formed in a bubble. I’ve done the hard work of listening to opposing viewpoints and have honestly wrestled with the intellectual and moral arguments between conservatives and progressives, populists and statesmen, and between the religious and the nonreligious. I’ve been open to the beliefs and opinions of those I disagree with (provided they’re not screaming those beliefs at me IN ALL CAPS on some online comment thread) and have taken the time to consider that I may at times be mistaken in some of my long-held opinions. While I will always strive to remain open to reasoned arguments, it’s safe to say that—absent any new and verifiable evidence—I have developed a system of core values that I cleave to and that serve as my compass as I try to lead a moral, responsible, and ethical life.

So having earned my core values, I feel comfortable seeking out a bubble. I feel comfortable surrounding myself with those who similarly have done the hard work of applying logic and critical thinking to the complicated questions of this world as they develop their own rational systems of belief. I feel comfortable choosing to remain in the company of those who are also struggling to navigate the Trump-inspired madness of our present time.

And I feel especially comfortable sticking to my bubble when it comes to the subject of religion.

I’ve seen firsthand how the sausage of religion is made, and I know that the vast majority of people come to their faith not through intellectual discernment, but through indoctrination. I’ve had the experience of sitting in on planning sessions for “faith formation” classes where it was openly acknowledged that faith—believing in something without proof—needed to be instilled early, before children become old enough to ask questions

I wasn’t sure if I would find many folks in this area who shared my (non)beliefs, but they’re here. Tennessee may be as red as red states come, but there is no place in this country where one hundred percent of the people think and believe exactly the same. One reason I’ve been successful in finding my tribe is my involvement with the local arts community. Artistic people—myself included—tend to look at the world from a point of view that does not always conform to the status quo. If the world tells us we should think a certain way, we’re quick to ask why and investigate alternatives. This combination of skepticism and curiosity is the foundation of freethinking and the enemy of religion.

The arts community, however, isn’t the only place I’ve found fellow skeptics. Sometimes they appear in unexpected places and at unexpected times. It may be the parent who rolls their eyes as the PTA meeting begins with a prayer, or the stranger in the waiting room who tenses up when a story about the religious right plays in the background on CNN. However they reveal themselves, I feel fortunate to have found a few other heathens here in Jesus country, and I take solace in knowing that I’m not alone.

We should always be open to opposing views. We should always be skeptical of new information, particularly when it conforms to beliefs we already hold. But we also have a right to seek out those fellow human beings with whom we share common values and with whom we can openly discuss our fears, our hopes, and our convictions without feeling the need to self-censor. Sometimes that means placing ourselves in a bubble and blocking out the screams of those whose beliefs contradict our own. But sometimes that’s exactly what we need in order to keep our sanity.

What mechanisms do you use to make it through the day?