Growing Up Atheist in Alabama: Exactly as Strange as You Think

Photo by Casey Lee on Unsplash

For those of you who have found yourself in Alabama, you may be familiar with the three requisite questions in introductions:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. Are you an Auburn or Alabama football fan?
  3. What church do you go to?

While the sports question always throws me for a loop (I never grew up a sports fan and yes, my friends still give me a hard time about it), the last question was the one that felt the most uncomfortable to my family and me.

I once volunteered with my mother at a polling place (to the extent I could volunteer as a 4th grader) and the other staffer ran through the three requisite questions with my mom. To the church question, my mother threw a confident “we’re Jewish” at the man, which she certainly thought was a sufficient deferral. However, my mother then had to explain that Jews do not attend church.

I can’t recall us doing anything particularly religious prior to moving to Alabama, or even once we were there. I remember Easter egg hunts with my brother and opening presents on Christmas morning, but that was really where we drew the line. Didn’t fast for any Jewish holidays. Didn’t eat fish on Fridays during Lent. Didn’t really do Chanukah celebrations much either—you can only get so many pairs of socks and pencils as nightly gifts before both you and your parents get exhausted. For much of the south, religion offered many more active rituals. Church every Wednesday and Sunday, grace before meals, and lots of Jesus fish on bumpers to name a few.

I was not initially afraid to say “I don’t believe in god” to my classmates in sixth grade, although I’m hard-pressed to remember how or why it came up. Might’ve been the dreaded “what church do you go to” question again. After that first public identification as nonreligious, I got plenty of invitations to church, little booklets about Jesus thrown at me, and “starter bibles”—essentially a New Testament guide for those outside the religious fold. These were the more diplomatic attempts to save my soul from eternal damnation.

To classmates, the concept of not believing in a god was akin to not having morals at all. Some reminded me that I was going to hell, while others made fun of me for being an atheist, and many more just stopped associating with me altogether. There were plenty of reasons not to associate with me in middle school—I was a weird kid. But those reactions felt especially alienating. I did, and still do, see myself as a good person, even without that belief in a god.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of growing up in Alabama was the fact that many people were not accustomed to questioning our surroundings—in part because it was easiest to just put faith in the church as had been done for generations. Religion in the south was more about conformity than about being welcoming. Being a young atheist in Alabama, despite my current chipper attitude about not believing in a god, was a brutal experience. An experience weighed down more by the demand for conformity than even by the church itself.

My brother just graduated high school (congrats, Joe!). He attended the same high school as I did, with plenty of the same teachers and just as many of the same traditions. Eight years ago, I attended my graduation ceremony at a church in downtown Montgomery. Last week, I visited the same church to celebrate his. Back then, I was just grateful to make it out of high school in one piece and begin college, never dwelling on the building I graduated in. But this is not an uncommon occurrence in Alabama.

One of my favorite reactions to disclosing my home state occurred at a national secular conference. Without being intentionally hyperbolic, somebody remarked:

“Alabama? My goodness! I didn’t know they had planes there.”

Well…we have planes. But a lot of other elements still feel firmly in the feudal age.

There’s the time that a Ford car dealership got shut down for touting a “God, Guns and Freedom” promotion, in which one receives a Bible, a shotgun rifle, and an American flag upon purchasing a new Ford.

There’s the woman charged with manslaughter of her unborn child because she got into a violent altercation and was shot in the stomach. Thankfully, the charges were dropped.

There’s the indoctrination of football players during school-sponsored baptisms, led by a teacher.

Alabama was so offended by the 2015 landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges that they have proposed doing away with marriage licenses in the state altogether.

The driving force behind these regressive policies (including ones like forcing bible classes in public school) is that evangelical southern Baptists know they are losing. By forcing anti-gay and anti-choice policies, and destroying the wall between church and state, they acknowledge that nontheists are winning.

While the life of an (open) nontheist in Alabama is exhausting, I could not remain silent on the plethora of important fights in which Alabama is ground zero. While many in Alabama are still hyper-traditional and wince at the notion of an atheist, there is little avoiding us or the impact we can have for social good.