The Atheists of Alabama

I mentioned to my CouchSurfing host in Birmingham that I was visiting different churches as part of my trip. An atheist himself, he suggested I try to track down an atheist group before I left the South, as they might be able to provide an interesting alternative perspective. I thought it was a great idea, though I had almost no idea how to find an atheist group. Churches are pretty simple to track down, what with their easily identifiable buildings and denominational websites. I asked around online and eventually found a freethinkers group through meetup.com. The site said the group would be having a coffee meeting and a happy hour get together while I was in town, but gave no info about where or when. I emailed the group’s coordinator asking if they would be okay with a visitor, and gave full disclosure of my Christian roots. I told them that I was interested in talking and learning, not debating. I didn’t want to start a fight. The coordinator, Sandi, emailed me back to explain that some of their members are “discreet” about their atheism, and she normally tries to warn everyone before letting a visitor come to a meeting. There just wouldn’t be enough time to get the word out before the week’s regular meetings. However, she knew that several members would be happy to talk with me while I was in town, and we set up a lunch meeting.

We met at Sinclairs, a popular restaurant in Montgomery. It’s surprisingly easy to show up at a restaurant and find someone you’ve never met before – you just look for the person who’s looking for you. I sat down with Sandi, a college student in her early twenties, at an empty table set for five. She said the others were running late, and gave me recommendations on the food. I asked her how she got involved, and she told the story of growing up Christian, slowly letting go of her beliefs, and eventually seeing a flier for a freethinkers group on her college campus. Now that she’s active in the atheist community, she’s discovering that lifelong friends of hers are also atheist. Whenever she finds herself defending her views to someone who claims they don’t know any atheists, she confidently tells them, “Yes, you do. You just don’t know they are.”

Church with FlagsEventually the rest of the group showed up: Paul, a tall, thin, white man who spent most of his life quietly defending his faith to others and himself – until he moved to Alabama. Once in the South, his internal disagreement with the faith he saw around him was so strong he became a full, proud, atheist. There was a slightly older man who was generally quiet, and a young black man. I’m not certain if they would want their names known, so I’ll refer to them as Alan and Mark respectively. Mark explained his troubles with being a black atheist, and how when he expresses his beliefs, people often respond with, “But…you’re black.” To hear Mark talk about it, it seems that atheism is strange to many in the South, but a black atheist might as well be a unicorn.

I asked if they could elaborate on why some of their members didn’t feel comfortable “coming out” as atheist. Alan explained that one member of their group lost custody of his kids because the judge thought they would be better off in a Christian household. Many worry about the backlash from their family, others from their jobs. The lunch group explained how difficult it can be to form such an organization, especially living where they are. How do you find new members if existing members can’t even admit their own participation? How do you let people know about your group without coming off as atheist evangelists? And what do you do once you’re together? Paul explained that some members are just looking for a support group – somewhere to meet with like-minded people and to talk about their personal struggles. Others felt like it was a starting place for activism and political action – that they should be lobbying against laws that discriminate against non-Christians, and working to create a more accepting society for atheists. Still others felt that the group could be a conduit for good works – that they should be donating to charities and organizing the same kind of social justice events that are normally hosted by churches.

In short, they have the same problems of any small group, including most small churches: getting new members, holding to your ideals, spreading your ideas without forcing them, and trying to figure out how to make a real impact in the world. It’s a hard business for any organization, and they have to do it in relative secrecy.

I had been told that in the South, one of the first questions people ask is, “What church do you go to?” My friend Christine told me it was how people placed you, in the way generations past might have asked for your last name. I asked the atheists how often they encountered the question, and they said it’s fairly common with anyone you share more than a few words with – on bar with “So what do you do for a living?” If an atheist answers the church question honestly, there are a handful of responses she/he is likely to get. There are those that will react with scorn and try to pick a fight. Some will attempt to casually convert them, maybe inviting the person to come with them to church. And my personal favorite response: disbelief. An atheist? You? Sandi said she often hears the phrase, “But you’re so nice!” Perhaps this is my favorite because it reminds me of the response I got a lot in college. I was in a liberal major at a liberal school in a liberal city in a blue state. When I told people I was religious the typical response was, “Really?” with a tone that said, “but you seem so normal!”

It was hard to get Alan to say much at all, though when he finally did, he spoke with more distain for religion than anyone else had voiced. He didn’t like that members of their group insisted that they treat religious people and groups with respect. “I don’t respect them,” he said in a quiet, deep voice. I could understand why he kept quiet. Just talking seemed to stir up pain.

As we were walking out of the restaurant, Paul expressed that he was pleasantly surprised with me. At their coffee meeting the night before, my request to attend a regular meeting was discussed. He said that he had been one of the loudest voices against letting me visit the group. He said, “If she shows up, I’ll be the first one to kick her out!” We talked some more and he asked if I would be joining them for happy hour later. I gently reminded him that I was, for good reason, not invited. He laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s right.”

After listening to their stories for over an hour, it was clear that these atheists were facing the same kind of discrimination that so many have faced before, and many continue to face today. They want the freedom to be who they are openly. They want equal treatment under the law as well as in society. They don’t want to be surrounded by the constant reminders of a culture they’re not a part of, and they certainly don’t want the government upholding those reminders. It’s a story you could tell about race, gender, or sexuality. It’s the story of civil rights.

The question I ask myself is, “What can I do?” I already agree with them on every point. I don’t think religion should dictate custody. I don’t think the ten commandments belong outside a courthouse. When they describe the kind of religion they’re surrounded by, I don’t agree with it. I don’t subscribe to a hell-based theology. I don’t believe in literal interpretations of Genesis or Revelation. I don’t think homosexuality, abortion, or contraception are inherently sinful. And I live 2000 miles away, in a very different faith culture. So what can I do?

Church SignsI figured I could start by listening to their podcast. Sandi and Paul recently started podcasting, and I subscribed before I left Montgomery. So far they’ve only had seven episodes and I’ve listened to them all. But it wasn’t easy. Not because of the content, which was generally interesting and informative. But the Sandi and Paul I heard online weren’t the same Sandi and Paul I met in person. They laughed less. They swore more. They used insulting and hateful speech. They called people morons and inbreds. Sometimes their reasonings seemed to be based in rhetoric rather than logic. I felt I was being yelled at not as a Christian, but simply as a listener. It’s the same way I feel when I listen to Glen Beck.

I’ve seen it discussed at length how the anonymity of the internet allows normally nice people to become hateful. Because there are no personal repercussions, they can behave in a way they normally wouldn’t. I think the same may be true when you are allowed your own microphone, and your audience becomes anonymous. If you can’t see your audience, you will never see the pain your words may cause. After all, the words aren’t hurting you.

While I’ve never attempted a head count, it’s safe to say that the majority of my friends in Seattle are atheist or agnostic. As far as I know, this difference is generally inconsequential to our friendship. Occasionally they will say something that really grinds at me, and I know I do the same. But we don’t talk about it much, and when we do the conversation is civil. I think it’s because there’s a lot of power in the presence of another human being. With a real person right there, you’re painfully aware of their thoughts, fears, and emotions, and you realize that your personal convictions are not worth causing them pain, no matter how sure of those convictions you normally are. It’s true even with a total stranger whom you will never meet again – such as a young woman traveling through your city, or some people you found on the internet.

It’s embarrassing to think that something as seemingly huge as a belief or non-belief in a higher power can be instantly undone by the mere presence of a human. I suppose it’s because once in front of you, such things become a real person, not just a set of silly and false ideologies. And you realize that as right as you know you are, there’s always a little room for doubt. After all, here’s an ordinary person who doesn’t agree. They must have their reasons. And perhaps humanity shares a more universal and overwhelming faith – in people.

The Highs and Lows of Parenthood

I hadn’t seen Kevin or Christine in ten years. When I first met them, I was a teenager and they were a young married couple who had recently joined our church. Eventually they rented the house next door to my parents, and had their first son, Kell. Kell was only a year old when Kevin’s job with the railroad forced the family to move to Michigan. Over the years my folks have managed to see them a handful of times, but I never had the chance. Several years ago they moved back to their home state of Alabama, which is where they were when I knocked on their door.

I enjoyed some long overdue hugs with the Kevin and Christine when I walked in the house. Kell is eleven now, and the oldest of their three boys. I recognized him the minute I saw him, which is strange since I normally have trouble recognizing my own family in baby pictures. Kell looked at me with a mix of happiness and trepidation, and I could tell that Kevin and Christine had explained to the boys that I knew Kell when he was a baby. As the youngest in my family, I’ve been in a similar position plenty of times. I’m often called to feign recognition of people I met when I was too young to remember, and I did my best to assure Kell that it was okay if he saw me as a stranger.

For Logan’s part, he came right up and asked if I knew him already. I told him no, since he was only four and I hadn’t seen the family since they left Seattle. Ian, age eight, chimed in with various questions trying to ascertain the exact relationship I had with his parents. How old was I when I knew them? How old were they? Where was this? Was he born yet? What about Logan?

Logan on ChairThe two youngest boys then insisted on giving me a tour of the house. While adults are inclined to show you the bathrooms, the room you’ll be sleeping in, and where the extra towels are kept, children have a very different view of their own home. This is where Ian keeps his toys. That is Kell’s train. This is a bathroom. That is a toilet. This is Mom and Dad’s room. This is Dad’s side of the bed and that is Mom’s side of the bed. This is where we eat. That is a chair.

They also have a black cat that was found in a pipe, named Piper. Piper is one of the most accommodating cats you will ever see. This is a necessity if a cat is to live with an eight-year-old boy who is in love with her. Ian is constantly picking Piper up, hiding her inside boxes and closing the lids, and throwing stuff on top of her. Piper does almost nothing in response, which seems to be in everyone’s best interest.

While the parents made dinner I was pulled into Ian and Logan’s room to play an intense and elaborate game of make believe. There were dinosaurs. Time went from day to night. For some reason I had to hide in the closet. Logan insisted we need to build a fort, and Ian responded with confidence, “I got this.” The boy is a regular engineer.

Maru in a BoxAfter dinner and a lengthy argument about why Logan had to sleep in his own bed and couldn’t sleep with Katrina in the play room, the two youngest boys went to bed. As the evening started to wind down, the adults began to reminisce. We talked about what we remembered from Seattle and what has happened in the ten years since. I commented on how laid back Piper was, and the night ended, as so many do, with us watching youtube videos of Maru the Cat jumping into boxes.

I woke up the next morning when Logan crawled into the bed next to me. He was trying to be sneaky and I wasn’t ready to get up, so I pretended not to notice. Eventually he tired of this game and left. A few minutes later he came back, got into the bed, and then left again. As the house began to fill with sound I got up, and at Logan’s insistence played another round of make believe, which he referred to as “that same game we played before.” Almost nothing about the game was the same. At one point we had all been shrunk down to a very small size. We had to rescue ourselves.

Christine invited me to join her and the boys to go swimming at the local YMCA. We got all of the boys ready to go and showed up at the pool door to find there was a camp using the pool today. It wouldn’t be open for another twenty minutes. For those of you who are not used to caring for a set of three young boys, twenty minutes is a gruesome length of time. Christine loves her children, but they are clearly a handful. I could see the blood drain from her face at the thought of standing outside the pool with three anxious boys for a full twenty minutes. We made it through. It wasn’t easy. At once point Logan headbutted me in the stomach. I don’t know why and neither did he.

In order to swim in the deep end, children have to pass the swim test without using googles or floaties. To pass, one must swim under the dividing rope, get to the wall, and swim back. Kell has long since passed his swim test and sports a small plastic necklace to prove it. Ian is practicing for his test, though he’s clearly got a ways to go. When we got into the pool, Ian clung to his mother so that she could help him practice. Logan clung to me since he can only barely swim. Kell was tall enough to reach the bottom, and was therefore mostly on his own. Over the next 45 minutes Christine and I played a game of pass the child, taking turns for which little boy would be clinging onto us for dear life as we walked around in four feet of water. Ian practiced going under the rope (which mostly consisted of him insisting he wasn’t quite ready yet), and Logan, Kell and I played with the floaties as we jumped and splashed around. The entire time we were in the pool I don’t believe I spent more than 10 seconds without a little boy clinging to my arm, and Christine had even less free time. When we finally got out of the pool and the boys were drying off, I looked over to Christine and asked, “So how do you do this when it’s just you?” She sighed and shrugged and looked exasperated, indicating she had no idea.

After meeting up with some people in Montgomery, I drove back to the suburbs hoping to catch Kell’s wreath laying ceremony at the Prattville Cemetery. It was Founder’s Day, and Kell and his Boy Scout troupe were supposed to participate in the ceremony to lay a wreath on the grave of Daniel Pratt. I was running a bit late when I got a text from Kevin indicating that the heat, combined with the size and volume of mosquitos, was making for a pretty miserable ceremony. He suggested I was better off going straight to the house and meeting them there. They wouldn’t be staying much longer.

A Star and a ChurchOnce they returned the three of us set out for the city again so they could show me the sights. I was excited to get to spend some time with Kell. While Logan and Ian are great, they tend to dominate the situation, and as a result I hadn’t had much time to hang out with Kell, who seemed like he had turned into a pretty smart and interesting young kid. Kell loves trains, and we pulled over to watch a few cargo cars pass through the city. We saw the “First White House of the Confederacy,” as well as a civil rights memorial art piece that unfortunately was under construction. I talked with Kell about Loving v. Virginia, and he told me about what they learn in school regarding civil rights. At the Capitol Building I took one of my favorite photos of the trip. From the top steps you can see a star memorial on the ground indicating the spot that Jefferson Davis stood as he was sworn in as the first president of the Confederate States of America. One block down the street is the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the struggle for civil rights is said to have begun – the church where Rev. Martin Luther King preached. So much happened between the foreground and the background of that photo.

As Kevin, Kell, and I were pulling into the driveway back at the house, I noticed a cat I hadn’t seen before in the yard. I pointed it out, and an excited Kell yelled, “Where is it?” The cat darted behind our car, Kevin pulled in to park, and Kell hopped out. I looked out into the street to see where the cat had gone, and it was in the street violently seizing. I had never seen such a thing. It was so horrifically unnatural – it belonged in a movie about black magic. The cat had been hit by a passing car. Kevin and I watched as the convulsions slowed to a stop, and the cat became motionless. I looked around for Kell, who was no where to be seen.

“Perfect timing,” Kevin said with a sort of sad sarcasm he’s always been good at.

Kevin explained how Kell is especially sensitive about animals, and takes it really hard when he sees animals in pain. We walked in the house and Kevin started calling out for his son to make sure he was alright. From the kitchen we heard Christine yell, “He’s in here.” We walked in to find Kell pressed into his mother, hugging her so tight she could barely hug him back. After awhile he let go, and sat at the kitchen table wiping away his tears.

“Do you think the cat be okay?” Kell asked his dad.

“No Kell,” Kevin told him honestly. “It won’t.”

The four of us stayed in the kitchen, consoling Kell as Kevin and Christine made dinner. When he seemed to be getting better, Christine sat down next to Kell to rub his back in that comforting way mothers have. Kell leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and told him, “After your brothers go to bed.”

We all ate dinner, and Kevin gave Christine a break from the kids. She took me to downtown Prattville to see the end of the Founder’s Day festivities. Most of the activities were closing up, but we managed to walk around and see a few stores. There was a man dressed up as Daniel Pratt, and a woman dressed as his daughter. It’s a small town, and Christine kept running into people she knew. Most were other parents, and they talked about the latest updates on their respective children.

Back home, the family had dinner and Logan and Ian were put to bed. This is when I found out what Kell had whispered to his mother earlier. Ian has a bad peanut allergy, but it’s not nearly as bad as the fear of peanuts he’s developed as a result. Which is why the family always eats SunButter and why Ian doesn’t know that there’s a jar of peanut butter hidden on the top shelf of the pantry. Christine pulled out the peanut butter and a jar of jam from the fridge. Kell had asked his mother for a secret peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I stayed up late talking with Kell. He’s a good kid, and Kevin and Christine are just as wonderful as I remember them. Before bed Christine walked up to me with a big smile, holding a box she had found in the recycling bin. She put it in front of Piper, and the cat jumped inside. Just like Maru.