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Maybe he’s an unreliable narrator. I don’t know. But he is interesting. He’s a colorful acquaintance of mine from Louisiana who has long called himself The Bayou Prophet. He left religion years ago but he kept the moniker of his earlier pious days and uses it at his singer-songwriter gigs.

He likes to keep an eye on growing trends toward irreligion in his part of the nation. He has tiny theories about tiny things that indicate larger social developments. The latest tiny thing is bumper stickers.

He asks me if bumper stickers on cars in the Deep South could suggest rising irreligion and growing secularism. “I don’t know. Give me your evidence,” I say. And he does give me evidence, which I’ll get to it in a minute.

The Deep South of the USA is limited to five states, from west to east they are: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Riding through these states along the 10 Freeway is something every American should do. It’ll be a multi-day trip. You’ll have some of the best food you’ve ever put in your mouth. And the culture is fascinating. The Bayou Prophet doesn’t wish to ignore hundreds of years of racism, but he says there’s something about today’s South that truly displays Southern hospitality and Southern charm. Strangers, Black, white, brown, can be genuinely warm to out-of-towners in the Deep South.

Red State fundamentalist religiosity is a badge of the Deep South as we all know. But The Bayou Prophet detects something else afoot as he reads numerous bumper stickers along the 10 freeway when he travels state to state. He says there’s a skeptical thrust, a bud of doubt, a bit of the religiously self-aware in these pithy automotive messages. He mentions some to me, and offers a brief commentary on each, along with the make of the car and the drivers and passengers of each. He noted that the drivers and passengers were all young.

So here are several Deep South bumper stickers along with The Bayou Prophet’s observations:

  • “It’s bad luck to be superstitious”—It’s a clever inversion and also true: it would actually be bad luck to be superstitious. A young Black couple in a Ford Taurus.
  • “Zeus loves you”—There’s a generation out there raised on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. The Bayou Prophet sees a lot of Greek mythology on bumper stickers. A young white woman in a Hyundai Elantra. (More Greek mythology below.)
  • “Apollo is coming soon”—Willfully sacrilegious. Young white guy in a Honda.
  • “Athena is my co-pilot”—Since The Bayou Prophet regularly sees ‘Jesus is my co-pilot’ bumper stickers, he took this as be a deliberate mock. Two young white girls in a Jeep.
  • “Poseidon is all washed up”—Clever indication of reading beyond the Bible? Young Latino in a Toyota truck.
  • “Sisyphus is a rock and roller”—Another sign of being well-read. Three young Latinos in a Dodge.
  • “Aphrodite in a nighty”—With a drawing of the scantily-clad goddess. Young Black guy and gal in an old BMW.
  • “Achilles died for your sins”—Out and out blasphemy. Four white teenage girls in a Land Rover at a Mississippi beach.
  • “Troy Inc., wooden horses for sale”—Still in the classics vein. A 23-ish white woman in a Volkswagen van.
  • “Blasphemy is a victimless crime”—And this from a state that still has blasphemy laws on the books. A couple of 20-year-old Black guys and two Latinas in an Audi.
  • “Jesus ain’t your friend”—How to take this? Is it un-ironic? Real? Or is it just a play on the ‘Jesus is your friend’ meme? Young white guy and maybe his young wife in a Mini Cooper.
  • “It’s turtles all the way down”—The playful creation mythos of other religions. A couple of Black youngsters in a Nissan.
  • “Clowns of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your red nose and your religion”—An allusion to Marx and Engels while ridiculing religion? Young white woman with perhaps a younger sister in a Mercedes.
  • “Why no discarded prosthetic limbs at the faith healing last night?”—Cutting and witty and plainly skeptical. Young Black man and young white man in a Chevrolet.
  • “I like intimacy so go ahead and tailgate me”—Lots of sexual innuendo in Southern bumper stickers, bespeaking nothing of Christian morality. White teenagers in a Kia.
  • “Eat’n ain’t cheat’n”—A defense of a species of sexual infidelity, hardly Christian. Young white couple in a Honda.
  • “Atheism is the cure for religious violence”—No pussyfooting around about this one. Young white girls in a Hyundai.
  • “I have doubts about my agnosticism”—Adroit and witty hall-of-mirrors effect, doubts about doubting. Young Latinas in a Mazda minivan.

I made a trip though the South a couple decades ago, and I can tell you no such bumper stickers were to be found then. These stickers The Bayou Prophet saw on his recent trips are of a new generation—a generation who might be losing their religion, or at least a generation who has a sense of skepticism and humor about religion.

Can a small thing, even a frivolous thing like a crop of bumper stickers, be a bellwether, a slight and slender indication of religion becoming stale along a string-straight Highway 10 running through the deep, Deep South?

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...

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