Started in late 2011, the American Humanist Association-Gulfport/Biloxi Chapter developed in an unlikely place. Like many Southern states, Mississippi has a large religious population, and being a nonbeliever could have consequences, including isolation.
That’s why Justin Triplett, founder of the chapter, started the group. What perhaps surprised him the most was the group’s popularity. “I am astounded by the every growing geographical extension of our membership,” he said. I spoke with Justin Triplett about his experience in organizing this group.
HNN: Tell me about how your group got started. Why did you start this group?
Triplett: I became an open atheist about a year ago. I was raised Protestant, non-denominational. I had always had a hard time making friends because of my skeptical and liberal viewpoints. After coming out as an atheist, I lost nearly all support from everyone close to me in my life.
After my declaration of non-belief I realized that I did believe in something. I believe in being good. I yearned for morality. I wanted it for my children, but I’d never heard of an atheist being moral. I wanted to know if anyone else felt the way I did. I did some Google searches and came across the subject of humanism and then secular humanism. It fit like a glove. I knew it was what I wanted for myself and my family.
There was only one secular humanist group in my area and I was able to determine that they did not meet regularly. Their main focus was activism. Since I was looking foremost for the social aspect of grouping local secular humanists, I decided to set out to start my own group with the primary/initial goal of fostering a church-like environment to teach morality and share fellowship with other ethical non-believers. I had low expectations.
Much to my surprise, our group was most definitely needed. We’re filling a huge gap that exists on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I am astounded by the every growing geographical extension of our membership. I had no idea people would travel from nearly the east and west tips of the states coastline. We’ve got people coming down from as far north as Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I never would have guessed there were so many others searching for a group like what I’ve started here.
HNN: Has there been any struggles or antagonisms during your chapter’s start-up? What is the attitude towards atheists and humanists in Mississippi?
Triplett: We’ve had no public opposition yet, probably because we’ve not had a chance to make our presence known publicly. I’m hopeful that our tact of putting atheism behind and not in front of our public persona will go a long way in helping our public reception as an activist and social group.
Atheists are viewed as immoral, angry and dangerous degenerates by many in our area. Being open about your beliefs at lunch during discussions at work can and does get atheists fired in this area. The oppression is so heavy that almost all atheists in the area have to maintain some level of secrecy if they want to hold down a job and be able to enjoy fair treatment in the public square. Even I’ve not come out completely to my co-workers for fear of losing my job.
HNN: What advice do you have for those trying to set up humanist groups in areas not known to be friendly towards atheists and humanists?
Triplett: You’re not alone. I thought I was, and boy, was I wrong! There are scores of individuals who consider themselves believers, but don’t want anything to do with the church. These individuals are on the fence about their belief in god. I find most of the time that these folk are deists that only need some education to reach the conclusion that they are actually secular humanists.
Make your group welcoming to all inquiring individuals trying to reassess their belief systems. These folks may be the largest source of recruitment you’ll find in these areas. Start as a private group and/or consider maintaining a private outreach. Many people want to join, but are afraid of being discovered or outed. Give people the chance to join anonymously and protect their privacy. Remember the dangers they’re placing themselves in just to inquire about your group.
HNN: What advice do you have more for humanists living in unfriendly areas?
Don’t lose hope. I did not know a single atheist in my area before I started my group. Now I have 50+ in a fellowship that I created in less than 3 months! You can do it.
HNN: What issues do you think are particularly important for humanists to work on in your area?
Triplett: Our state is a weak link exploited by groups attempting to pass laws that violate the separation of church and state, anti-atheist discrimination and basic human rights. These groups generally exploit the religiosity of our population by appealing to Biblical justifications. An uncomfortable portion of our state believes that the Bible is the ultimate moral authority. We need to become professional protesters, get out and show that there are secular Mississippians that are not taking these assaults on our freedoms lying down. It’s a constant and intense battle in this area.
There are already a huge numbers of laws on the books in our state that currently violate the separation of church and state. We have already begun the process of petitioning, protesting and lobbying to get these unconstitutional laws repealed.
HNN: Where do you hope to see your chapter in five years?
Triplett: I want to see us purchase a building where we can meet once a week, like the church folk do but without the religious trappings. I see our numbers increasing greatly as people are able to find us and view us as a stable and large safe haven to find like-minded secular individuals. I already see this happening even in these early days of our existence as a group.
I see us being a large influential force on local politics by our sheer numbers and the tenacity of our actions to stamp out injustice in all forms. I see publicity of our activism and wholesome family-friendly fellowship taking us very far in abolishing the negative stereotype that exists for atheists in this area. I see us becoming an oasis of reason in the midst of the intellectual desert that unfortunately exists in this area.
HNN: Where do you see the humanist movement in five years?
Triplett: I see secular humanists in our national legislature. I see the movement becoming an unrivaled and indispensable protection against the assault on human rights in this country. I see our movement evolving to better compromise with religious moderates who are willing to take a stand for secular values, but wish to have their faith-based beliefs respected. I think this is critical for our success in gaining national acceptance as a force for good.