What it means to be an atheist in South Carolina

20 Feb

I’m an atheist. I’d never considered this to be a bold statement, until I moved to South Carolina.

Growing up in a scientifically minded family, God was never a topic of conversation at the dinner table. My parents didn’t discourage religion- I went to Sunday school for a couple of months- but besides seeing my friend once a week and getting to be in the nativity, as a child I never really liked church.

Religious beliefs and practices are such a large part of southern American culture that suddenly I’ve found myself in the minority. Over here it’s naturally assumed that most people believe in God and go to church, whereas at home, non-believers tend to constitute the secularized majority.

Sometimes it still takes me aback to hear people talk about religion so openly. When the topic of conversation turned to Biblical scripture in one of my English classes, the teacher remarked,
“You’ve all read the Bible, right? If not you can go to the nearest motel and find one.”

Despite the obvious sarcasm loaded in this statement, part of me felt embarrassed that I was probably the only atheist in the room, and the only one who answered ‘no’ to this rhetorical question.

Ken Ham and Bill Nye recently fought head to head in the debate over creationism. It sparked a number of opinion pieces to appear in last week’s paper, offering various viewpoints on the status of religious beliefs in modern society. At the same time, Facebook status updates started appearing on my newsfeed from fellow atheists re-posting the video of the discussion.

What was evident in these various disputes about religion is the worrying sense of entitlement that atheists often express in their rebuttal against creationist beliefs.

I believe that science suitably explains how the world works, and I’m unwilling to devote my time and attention to a God that I cannot scientifically prove exists.

But while I believe these views are right in my world, I appreciate that they are not the only beliefs in the world. Atheists all too often take it upon themselves to mount the valiant horse of science and embark upon a self-righteous crusade to teach the religious masses about the wonders of scientific evidence.

For every atheist that bemoans the Jehovah’s Witness standing on their doorstep, there’s probably a believer somewhere sighing because they are being subjected to yet another lecture about the scientific impossibility of the virgin birth.

When I say that religious beliefs are wrong, I mean to say that for me personally, they are incorrect and insufficient ways of explaining the world. This does not mean that I consider religious beliefs to be immoral, irrational or disreputable. Everybody has a different version of the truth, and we cannot attach value judgments to other people’s explanations of their own worlds.

Criticising a creationist worldview for failing to examine scientific evidence is just as nonsensical as criticizing an evolutionary worldview for its lack of biblical stories. Atheists often undermine the complexities of the religious world with the tools of science, reducing religious beliefs to a concise set of ideological bullet-points to cross off their crusading checklist.

I’m not an atheist for any one reason alone. As a child, I did not, one day, profess that I don’t believe in God because I prefer scientific explanations of the world over Faith. I’m probably an atheist because my parents are not religious, because churches intimidate me, because I thought Sunday school was really boring, because I didn’t go to a religious school…The list goes on.

By the same token, religious people hold religious beliefs for a variety of complex reasons. Its time atheists stopped launching into verbal attacks at the very mention of faith, and started to understand the array of complex influences that colour people’s beliefs.

I have the right to stay true to my own beliefs while accepting that others have the right to remain just as grounded in theirs. While I believe that science explains the world, I celebrate the various paradigms that exist contrary to scientific explanations, because they are what make the world such an interesting, diverse and fascinating place.

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