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Secular Humanism, Southern Style
Grits and red-eye gravy without the grace

by Mary Ellen Sikes


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 15, Number 1.


"It must be difficult for you-an atheist in a Southern town. You're right in the middle of the Bible belt!" commented the Washington Post journalist toward the end of our phone interview.

How to respond? She was both right and wrong. Do Southern freethinkers have a harder row to hoe, surrounded as we are by Four-Square Gospel revivals, Christian fish decals on everything from cars to hotel billboards, and even a vernacular that assumes theistic belief (Lordy me!)?

Everyone knows the South is about the most openly religious region of the United States. We've all seen those Last Supper wall-hangings for sale at roadside stands, right next to the other sacred Southern icons-fireworks and paintings of Elvis on velvet. When the fiction writers want to create a convincing hometown preacher or sleazy televangelist, odds are he'll sound a lot more like Jesse Helms than Ted Koppel.

But, in some ways, Dixie ain't what she used to be. Dramatic changes have taken place down here in the last few decades. More than half of American job growth in the 1990s has occurred in the South. Per capita income has risen to 92% of U.S. averages, from less than 50% in the time of President Franklin Roosevelt. Teacher-to-student ratios in Southern schools are now, for the first time, actually higher than the national average.

All this progress means better education and more exposure to new ways of thinking for Southerners. But creed and culture are still difficult to separate sometimes - so difficult that, for many Southerners, religion isn't a trifle to be given up over something as trivial as nonbelief in a deity. "Passing" is as much a regional sport as sittin' on the porch, sippin' sugary iced tea out of a Mason jar. We have plenty of humanists down here-they just happen to be busy running the church committees, for now.

But what about all those newcomers lured to jobs or retirement in the New South? They don't necessarily make big waves in God's warm sea of humanity down here, either. Once they grasp the lay of the land, the hopelessly irreligious generally opt for a course of quiet assimilation, sometimes tricky in a place where "Where is your home church?" is often the first question asked of new neighbors. And devout newcomers may suddenly see great opportunities to be more openly pious in a believer-friendly culture that finds such displays completely unremarkable and totally acceptable. It's unusual to get through a single day in my town without a brush with some kind of religious fervor.

But if Southern humanists must endure daily reminders of their minority status, there are also features of Southern culture that I believe have real potential to aid the humanist cause in the rebel states.

Southern communities - especially small ones - like to congratulate themselves for an ambiance of hospitality, positive community relations, and polite avoidance of anything that will polarize. And now, for the first time ever, they can usually add to the mix a justifiable pride in good public schools. Governing bodies and even individuals can often be made to see the wisdom of avoiding policies or actions that will embroil a community in visible controversy - or that, worse, will strengthen any lingering perception that the South produces inferior students.

Southerners do love their heroes. Praise the Lord an' pass the black-eyed peas, some Southern good guys had definite humanist leanings. In my community, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison rule. Since so much of their legacy champions free speech, free inquiry, and separation of church and state, we heathens have some powerful allies to call on in our time of need. I don't hesitate to do so, especially with a well-placed quotation or two.

Great for activists, you may say, but what about the humanist just trying to get by in a religion-saturated culture? Manners, manners, manners - use them and enjoy them when others do. It's the Southern way. No surprise, then, that even the most open nonbeliever can enjoy friendly relations with others so long as everyday courtesies are observed.

Individual differences are celebrated in Southern culture, where children are as likely to be introduced by their personality traits as by their names: "I want you to meet Billy Joe, my musical one, and over there hangin' upside down in the dogwood tree is Katie Mae, my adventurous one." Some day, proud Southern mamas will feel free to add, "And my oldest here with his nose in a book - that's our Paul Thomas Matthew Luke. All those good biblical names-we don't know where he got such unusual ideas about religion. But we're right proud of his skeptical nature!"
The eccentric and the nonconformist do hold special places in the Southern heart, and I think it will ultimately be this love affair with the novel or quirky that will allow freethought to slowly make its way into the Southern mainstream and become accepted as, well, less novel and quirky. Lord willin' an' the creek don't rise.


Mary Ellen Sikes is the Secular Humanist Bulletin's newest Contributing Editor. She writes from Charlottesville, Virginia, where she founded the Central Virginia Secular Humanists.


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