This past weekend, I spoke at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, courtesy of the local Secular Student Alliance affiliate, SSA at USA. This was a milestone for me: the first time I’ve ever been invited to speak about atheism in the Deep South!
Making a public case for atheism in Alabama may seem like going into the lions’ den, but as you can see for yourself, I’m alive and well. (The SSA at USA has hosted other speakers before me, and the group’s president, Amye, told me that all of them called friends and family after their talk to reassure them that they hadn’t been arrested or strung up.) In fact, I’m very pleased and a bit surprised to say, this was one of the friendliest audiences I’ve ever had.
The talk I gave on Saturday night was my presentation on secular morality, which I’ve delivered at several other universities. Since I’m a firm believer in attacking the opposition where they’re strongest, I sharpened it a bit for the occasion, adding some more explicit critiques of the Bible and religious morality. I was expecting a hostile reception – an expectation that was only strengthened when I landed in Mobile. The USA students who picked me up from the airport told me that a local Christian group had been distributing their own fliers, which had the correct time and place for my talk but listed their own follow-up discussion afterwards, rather than the SSA’s.*
Given this sort of build-up, I was expecting local churches and Christian organizations to come to the talk to challenge me. That’s happened in the past – like at the University of North Dakota, when campus Christians showed up in force to play “stump the atheist” during the Q&A session. (They didn’t.)
But the reality on Saturday night couldn’t have been more different. Some Christians did come to my talk, and there was the seemingly obligatory how-do-you-explain-the-Nazis question; but the majority of the questions I fielded – even from religious people – were friendly, perceptive, and showed that they were taking my thesis seriously and wanted to know more about it. I spoke about how precisely to define happiness, at what point should you make the trade-off between attending to your own needs versus helping others, how I can accommodate cases where someone can break the rules and not get caught, what we should do in situations where everyone needs a scarce resource and there isn’t enough to go around, and more. The excellent conversation continued over dinner at a seafood restaurant in town, where we discussed the challenges of surviving as an atheist in a hostile society. That’s a problem that’s especially acute in Alabama, needless to say, where some of the local atheist students hadn’t come out to their parents and feared the reprisals they might face if they did.
Most of all, I want to give a special thanks to Amye, Shelby and Joel from the SSA at USA. They went above and beyond the call of duty to make me feel welcome: shuttling me around town, taking me out for real barbecue, spending their own time to give me a tour of the campus and the city. I even got to see a Mardi Gras parade. I couldn’t have asked for better hosts or a more hospitable reception. If more Alabamians could experience this kind of atheist hospitality, it’s hard to see how there could be anyone in that state who’d still hold prejudiced beliefs about us!
* One of the Christian group’s members got in touch with me on Twitter to say that this was an innocent misunderstanding. I’m willing to take his word for this, but even so, I think the potential for confusion was very real.
Image credit: SSA at USA