COVER STORY

GODLESS IN THE BIBLE BELT

Atheists, agnostics and secular humanists face bizarre conundrums on a daily basis in Northeast Florida, but the world is changing

Godless in the Bible Belt
Shan Stumpf
Thomas Amason
Dennis Ho
Kristen Barger
Dennis Ho
Earl Coggins
Dennis Ho
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A couple months ago, my 7-year-old daughter came home from school and shared an interesting anecdote. “Dad,” she said with a hint of indignation. “Today my teacher told us we are all made of clay.” Her disposition quickly soured as she tugged on the flesh of her forearm. “Is my skin made of clay? No! Is my blood made of clay? No! I don’t get it. We’re not made of clay.”

I confirmed this, of course, then asked if she’d responded out loud in class. She said other children had spoken up in agreement with the teacher. “I was the only one who was silent.”

As an atheist, I was outraged, knowing that in many ancient religious texts, clay is the material from which God forms man. The Quran, the Greek Prometheus myth and even the biblical Genesis story, in fact, involve God fashioning man from clay (or dust from the ground, as in the case of Genesis). I suspected that the teacher was promoting some sort of religious position in the classroom — a first-grade classroom that offers no science as part of its curriculum.

So I did what any deep-thinking intellectual would do. I posted on Facebook.

Voicing outrage on Facebook is easy and safe, allowing me to rage on in the ether of the Internet, thus sparing school officials and a well-intentioned educator a visit from a fuming father with a chip on his shoulder.

The responses to my post — 185 comments all told — were wide and varied. Some suggested, in not-so-friendly language, that I take the teacher and the school board to task. Several religious friends said they’d never heard of the “created from clay” story. Others claimed I had misinterpreted the teacher’s intent, and that I should give the instructor the benefit of the doubt. One particularly vehement commenter called me out, demanding that I disclose the teacher’s name and insisting that children can be coached to say things they may not mean or even understand. He implied that since I was open with my child about my atheism, perhaps she was influenced by my heavy hand to interpret the teacher’s words as religious in tone.

I found all of this very confusing. Had I jumped to an unfair conclusion? Was I being unfair to a first-grade teacher who made a passing reference to children and their malleable psyches? Or was I right, thinking that a sincere, well-meaning instructor had infused her lecture with religious subtext? And did any of it really matter?

Then, I remembered how upset my child was at the notion that she wasn’t made of flesh, but muddy earth. I pondered whether or not children are equipped to process such a metaphor, regardless of its metaphysical or philosophical intent. And I wondered why all of those children in her class were so willing to accept such a concept at face value while my child was so disturbed by the notion.

I decided to let it go, as I didn’t want to make my daughter’s school year any more difficult than it had to be. She and I discussed the issue in depth, considered all the possibilities, then put it to rest. She hasn’t mentioned it since. 

And yet I still wrestle with it. Such is the struggle of many atheists, agnostics and secular humanists who reside here in Northeast Florida. In an area so deeply immersed in religion in general, and conservative Christianity specifically, we face these bizarre conundrums on a daily basis, conundrums that to the religious seem, at best, petty, at worst, extreme, maniacal and certain to send us to hell. Some of us are outspoken, while many more live in the shadows, fearing the consequences of a public pronouncement of a lack of belief in the supernatural.

But this is changing. The developed world has become increasingly secular in the past two decades, with large swaths of Europe now claiming to be irreligious. In America, an overwhelmingly Christian nation, the tide is turning as well. As so-called Millennials come of age, church attendance has dropped and fewer people than ever before are claiming to be religious or churchgoing. Yet in the South, nonbelievers remain a largely closeted group, worried that employers, friends and family members will ostracize them.

In preparing this article, I engaged in many discussions with people of varying degrees of faith as well as full-blown antitheists. Their responses were illuminating. Many were candid and happy to share their ideas. Some of the faithful admitted to experiencing crises of faith in their lives and, as a result, having a more open and accepting view of atheists and people of other religions or spiritual practices. Several atheists expressed reluctance to speak on record about their lack of faith. One dear friend, a religious woman who wears a modest cross on a chain around her neck, told me to keep my atheism to myself.

It was a delicious irony.

 

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Tags: Jacksonville, Bible Belt, Bible, Godless, Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Humanist, Florida, Folio Weekly, Folio, Quran, Old Testament, Genesis, Clay
4 comments on this story | Add your comment
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JesseJones

Love this article. I can immensely relate to the author's experiences and those of others as well. Sometimes, it can be difficult to be agnostic/atheist living in the bible belt. Wednesday, April 23|Report this

mmclarke

Something I caught at the beginning of the article, and which changes the basis of the piece in my opinion, is your comment about the "well-intentioned educator". That seems to me, to be a rather obvious assumption on your part.

I would argue that any educator who, knowing the controversy surrounding bringing religion into a class room, stepped over that line intentionally is anything but "well-intentioned", e.g., a theist who choses to slip their religion into your child's education no matter what, law or no law. The choice of words seems all to intentional to me.

The entire argument of "well-intentioned" theists repulses me personally, as does the argument for tolerance - as if theists have ever been tolerant. The idea that we should smile and ignore the little old ladies who bake cookies for church, who would never speak ill of anyone or in this case allow their religious beliefs to slip into the class room "well-intentioned", but who walk right into the voting booth and vote in bigoted and discriminatory legislation or who disabuse family members for their lack of faith or lifestyle, is purely ignorant on our part. No. Ignorance is ignorance, and is the basis of all the wrongs on the planet. It, like all evils, needs a little "light" on it.

Furthermore, the comment that "religion has given the world so much", is pure nonsense. Artists give their gifts to the world. As do architects, musicians, educators and etc.... They may chose religion as a topic or subject, but it is the individual, not the religion, that gives that gift. That's like saying the church gave us Newton's laws on gravity, just because Newton was a Christian. Its a preposterous connection. Its a false premise on which many glamorize religion where there is no due. Again, a little "light" on the true nature of religion is over due.

I am not saying you should have walked into the school with torches and pitch forks in hand, but having a talk with the teacher certainly would have given you more of a true handle on her intentions. It is also, after all, your child's education and your duty to protect? Wednesday, April 23|Report this

Gypsieroselee2013

I’m not astonished that John Citrone’s young daughter had that awful experience. I am horrified this behavior has gone on throughout the millennia times six.

I would like most to convey there is a large Atheist community in Jacksonville. We have meetings once a month, and activities ranging in Free-thought and Humanitarian lectures, to Contra dancing and trivia nights in sports bars.

We have a broad membership of professionals, technicians, Mom’s and Dad’s, Family’s, students, and most importantly recovering philosophers of all denominations, races, and sexual orientations. Everybody is accepted that needs support and believes there is no heaven, hell, god, or devil. We smile, laugh, hug, and are against murder. We are horrified by the so-called war-mentality of the religious sects. Might verses right has been debated throughout the ages.

Our meetings are an open discussion to whatever is bothering you. Usually it’s something hurtful, degrading, or threatening that has upset a member. We actually “lost” a member because her neighbors found out she was in a business that catered to a religious Christian ritual and they threatened her with putting her out of business if she didn’t sever ties with us! That’s called desperation. Churches have lost their mojo to attract members. There’s a new sect calling themselves “Fight Church” to get butts in pews. Take a look through the realtor boards and see how many churches are for sale!

Churches are not the answer they were even fifty years ago. Their enemy is technology and science. The Bible is a horrible book; especially the Old Testament. The New Testament deals with first century Christianity, and is no better. Both books are editorials and essays by individuals, and social groups, mostly about how to govern. All scripture was taken from the popular pagan gods that came before them. The stories and attributes of those gods, were wrapped into an invisible supreme being of all men. Kings and gods have always been one and the same since the time of the Pharaohs. English Kings, in order to break from the church, made themselves the ultimate supreme commander.

Women are excluded in most of the power of gods and it’s always been that way. They are for reproduction, ownership as property, and always inferior. They have been enslaved for years.

Yes, you are at risk if you speak aloud about your Atheism. People will “pray for you”. Like that does any good. It only helps the lazy person that is doing the praying feel better. It solves nothing.

Religion and politics are very strange bedfellows. They have corrupted our country, poisoned and dulled minds, and destroyed our planet. The brightest, best, and most progressive thinkers of our time have left the angry rants of the oligarchy of the pulpits, and embraced living without fear of the unknown. The truth sets you free, but often makes you miserable first.

Southernism demands clinging to old ways. You see this in our City Council, the D.A.’s office, social clubs like the Rotary Club, and who gets into office. I’ve yet to meet one person that’s happy with our City Council. It’s a judgmental, prejudice, and uncooperative body.

So, John E. Citrone, you have a group that isn’t only sympathetic, empathetic, and outraged over this incident, but sincerely supports you and would welcome you to our groups(s).

Renee Soforenko, April 28,2014

Wednesday, April 30|Report this

mezofoprezo

I can't even begin to express how much it warms my nonexistent soul to see an article like this plastered all over Jacksonville. The tides are turning, indeed.

Friday, May 2|Report this

 
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