Hillbilly Aunt

Hillbilly Aunt
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Little Rock, Arkansas, USA
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November 18
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Chief Dog Food Giver Person
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I'm your Hillbilly Aunt. I was Born, raised, and I'm now residing in Arkansas. I have a MFA in Creative Writing, for what that's worth. I'm child-free, dog-mothering, liberal, over-read and over educated, sometimes snarky, sometimes sweet, sometimes pathetic. I use this space for all sorts of random things, but eventually it all comes back to Arkansas.

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DECEMBER 20, 2008 12:15PM

Agnostic's Guide to Surviving the Bible Belt

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bible belt  

 

I grew up in a town where the phrase “religion is the opiate of the masses” is pretty apropos.  Teachers preached to us regularly in the hallways of our public school, there were regular conversion experiences in the choir room where the Student Christian Association met during lunch. 

It hasn’t changed much in 15 years.  When my father was sick a few years ago, preachers we didn’t even know showed up at his hospital room to pray with us.  My mother and I spent many nights running interference with the ministers, trying to keep them out as much as possible. My father is a man of science. 

Many of my friends who don’t come from the Bible Belt regularly question how I can stand to live down here, considering I can’t really call myself a Christian because I don’t go to church. I’m a woman of science too, who believes it’s possible I don’t know everything.  I am much too liberal to fit in with the general tendency toward Evangelical Christianity.   Sadly, I’m also sort of an evangelical magnet.  

I’m regularly approached by people looking for converts on the street.  If I’m standing in a crowd of people, somehow, those seeking to spread the word of God manage to single me out.  This goes across cultural boundaries too – the Hare Krishna’s make a bee line for me as fast as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There are entirely too many examples of this in my life to list.

Once, in exasperation I asked one of these people why he picked me out of the crowd.  He said there was something about me, some kind of positive aura that he could feel.

 I realized that this probably the same reason why pushy sales people follow me around.  I’m subconsciously exuding “sucker” energy into the universe.    I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with this situation over the years, strategies which come in handy this time of year.  I thought I would share. 

1.      ------  Learn Tolerance.  So you’re an agnostic liberal, or a Wiccan, or a Muslim, or Jewish, or you’re just a secular humanist.  Whatever you are, if you aren’t openly a Christian, you’re probably in the minority anywhere in the Bible Belt.  The best way to survive this experience is to simply learn to tolerate the religion of others.  Actually put it into practice by simply not allowing yourself to get annoyed at all the daily reminders of your minority status.

 Learn to translate what people say into something useful.  If someone at work says, “Jesus will help you through it,” understand that what they really mean is “I know you’re going to be okay because I believe in you.”  If someone offers to pray for you, simply say “thanks” and take it as “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and I have sympathy for your situation.”   Don’t hold their preachiness against them, it’s their cultural context.  You can’t force other people to remove themselves from their cultural contexts.  It takes an intellectual and philosophical leap that a lot of people simply can’t make. 

2.       ------ Calm down, already. It’s not worth getting yourself worked up into a hissy fit over every expression of religious belief around you, even in public places.  Learn an old writer’s trick, “If the comment doesn’t apply, ignore it.”  You wouldn’t go to Mexico and take offense at every religious icon you saw, right? It’s part of the landscape, part of the way people explain themselves to themselves.  Learn to step out, and away, from the tendency to take personal offense unless someone personally offends you. 

3.     --------  Learn the Art of the White Lie.  Down here, when you meet someone new they ask three questions: “Where do you live,”  “what do you do,” and “where do you go to church.”   They ask these questions because they are trying to situate you into their world. If you know people they know, well, that makes you almost kin.  Down here, we figure out people by figuring out how we’re connected to them. Ask any southerner, they will back me up on this. 

I avoid answering the third question by lying, simply to add grease to the social friction.  Who really wants to get into a debate about religion every time they meet someone new?  I have various approaches to this kind of white lie. The first approach is not to mention a church specifically. Just say, “I’m Episcopalian” or “I’m Unitarian” and change the subject.  This usually satisfies most people.  If they insist on a particular church, I tell them that I go to church someplace out of town, but close enough for me to reasonably drive there every Sunday.

4.       ----------- Learn Graciousness.  If you live in the Bible Belt, at some point someone is going to tell you how Jesus can change your life.  It’s sort of inevitable.  At my last job, the secretary regularly sat me down and explained to me that if I would just get Jesus, I would be so much better off.  In this situation, it’s not a good idea to lie, because it’s going to end in an uncomfortable invitation to a church that you can’t avoid.   It’s better to simply learn a little graciousness.  

First, thank the person for their concern.  Tell them you will seriously consider what they have to say, and that you respect their beliefs.  Explain that you do have a relationship with God (you don’t have to give the details) and that there’s really no reason to worry about you. Explain that you feel religion is private and that you don’t like to talk about it, but that you sincerely appreciate their desire to see you have a better life.   Then, smile, say God Bless You, and get out of there as soon as possible.

5.       ---------- Don’t Assume.  Don’t assume that other people share the same ideas about the basis of the universe as you do.  If you get into a discussion which requires the assumption that the universe wasn’t created by God or that evolution exists (which happens more than you’d expect),  explain that you are speaking in general terms about what most people believe. Leave a small opening for the fact that you might not be “most people,” this will avoid a very difficult devolution of the conversation.  

6.     ---------  Adopt tactics to scare away door-to-door ministers.  They are rampant and they don’t go away. We get at least three visits a week from our local “community ministry.”  Generally, I just don’t answer the door unless I’m expecting someone.  This has a downside, though. They keep coming, and they always leave pamphlets stuck in the screen door. There are other tactics that work better.  Hang a pentagram over your door.  Answer the door in your underwear, holding a beer (this works especially well for women).  Get one of those signs that says, “Solicitors will be mauled by angry dogs.” Turn up your death metal the minute they walk up to the door.  Anything that might broadcast “evil sinner” as opposed to “poor lost sinner.”  All of these, of course, have the side effect of making your neighbors talk about you behind your back.

7.       ------------ Quit worrying about how people judge you.  Pretend they don’t.  Ignore the neighbor gossip. My personal tactic is to simply pretend it doesn’t exist and assume everyone likes me anyway.  If I went around worrying that every Christian I met was secretly judging my worthiness in the eyes of God, I’d go insane.   A little denial is not always a bad thing.   Live your life the way you want, and let that speak for itself.  

8.      ---------  Don’t Be a Hater.  That old Christian commandment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is an excellent motto to adopt in this circumstance.  Don’t assume you can’t be friends with someone because of their religious bent.  There’s a lot to be learned from people of faith, even if you don’t share their beliefs. free hit counter

 

 

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Useful. Generous. Good ideas. Here in the God-less northeast we suffer from some of this, but it is not so ubiquitous. Nonetheless, your faithful neighbors would be shocked to see how daily life is so similar, kid's softball, teapot tempests with local pols, traffic issues, petty crimes, decency and goodness and potlucks. The God part -- being necessary, that is -- is pure illusion down there.

I grew up in the near-south (KCMO, Ozarks), and recognize the weary wisdom of your advice.
I lived in the South for seven years, and this is very good advice.
I find all this to be good advice. I'd just add that, for non-southerners, the applicability of the advice can vary widely depending on where you are. In North Carolina, for example, which isn't Deep South, I'm only very rarely asked where I go to church, and it's fine for me to say simply that I'm not a church goer. (One possible explanation for why I'm not asked this question is that my answer to the second question of what I do is "I work at the university," which may short-circuit the usual sequence. :-)

Also, I've found that, for me, a perfect response to "I'll keep you [or a family member] in my prayers" is a sincere "Thank you," just as the post suggests. I feel good, and so does the well-wisher.
Robb -- you're right, it does depend on where you are. In Southern cities, I don't think this is quite as much of a problem. This would apply more to small towns, where working at the University isn't always short hand :).

You made me think of something else, too, that I should have thought to add in the original post so I'm just going to add it here:

Just Bow Your Head Already. You're going to be asked to pray at moments that feel completely weird to you at some point. For instance, someone might ask you to pray before eating in a restaurant, and you will definitely be asked to pray before every high school football game. Just bow your head already. Meditate. Calculate your monthly budget. Consider the greenness of the grass. It won't hurt you to respect the people around you.
Shelle, I've never lived anywhere other than a coast - but your advice works for anyone who doesn't really fit in. (Although really, I can't imagine what it would be like to be a fish out of water all the time...)
dorelvis -- I'm not really a fish out of water. I mean, I grew up adjusting to a larger culture that had different religious beliefs. Most of my family are evangelicals, too. I completely understand where they are coming from, I know enough to understand the lingo and the jargon. It just seems easier to me to learn to understand it. Being annoyed by it all the time would exhaust me.
Good God Gal, you must live in my neighborhood. Like most folks around here, I think Darwin was wrong -- but not in the same way they think. I think some people really are descended directly from monkeys (hyperbole exemption requested).

I bill myself around these parts as a semi-reformed Yankee (I prefer fried taters to grits). That's one reason I share your target syndrome, my pony-tail probably doesn't help the situation. I've had more than my share of skirmishes with those intent on saving me.

Intelligence doesn't seem to have much relationship to ignorance, either. I had the very bright head of our local S&L, and on another occasion a retired MD, explain to me about dinosaurs and humans cohabiting when God made the world 6,000 years ago. Oh, and I was told there isn't ONE single contradiction in the Bible.

Since I'm not as wise as you obviously are about these matters, I have a tendency (fault) to try and reason with those who seem approachable by reason. I'll admit I'm not often successful.

I'm not as tolerant of intolerance, though, and when the racist rants start, I put my foot down because I harbor my own delusions and think God put me here to speak for Him against that evil.
I love this post, and wish I had it when I moved to central Florida. I have to say that the red cloud on the map of US needs to go down a little closer to Lake Okeechobee as the Bible Belt is very strong in the white area just where the red ends....

I think I will print this out and read it at least once a week until it is solid in my head. It is rough being a secular Humanist, ex-Catholic in the public eye here in this town...!
Tom,

I completely agree with you. I just try to remember that racism and Christianity don't necessarily go together, though they do sadly often co-exist. I'm not saying there's not a time to speak up when obvious bigotry is present. I don't think any thinking person would or should.
Wow, this is obviously effective advice learned through experience, sad but true. Especially sad is the closeted advice to claim to belong to some sect, although I'm sure it saves a world of trouble with people who shouldn't be prying.

I'm also struck by the difference in the tenor of dealing with the door-to-door solicitors versus the rest which I suppose comes from the "my home is my castle" concept. I'm getting a mental image of one of your new acquaintances paying a visit on their new "Episcopal" friend and finding you answering your pentagrammed door in underwear with beer in hand. I don't think the Episcopals or Unitarians would hold it against you though.
Everything you say makes perfect sense. Now, about that sneeze that always gets followed up with a "God Bless You". I always warn them that I'm going to do it about ten more times and that I have been blessed enough. Rated.
nkennedy,

Well -- you're kinda right, actually. I do sort of draw the line at being preached to on my own doorstep. It isn't as contradictory as it seems on the surface, I guess. I always think one has the right to say "hey you are crossing the line" if someone else "gets in your face" about something. Property extends that right, I suppose.

The wouldn't find me playing death metal in my underwear drinking beer, but they might find me playing Gretchen Wilson in my underwear while drinking beer. I'd put pants on for the Unitarians, of course, even though they definitely wouldn't hold it against me.
Despite having grown up in an ultra-spiritual Christian home, I have not found my little enclave of the South, "Cajun Country" or "Acadiana" in southern Louisiana to be anything like the actual deep south. I'm very thankful it isn't, and it can be chalked up to Cajuns being largely Roman Catholic and not Protestant. The Catholic ethos makes things fun and happy here, without the annoyance of the Protestant tendancy to evangelize. The only reglious representatives who stop by our door are Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, and they come around rarely. I am not Catholic, but I am a big fan of the faith due its effect on our area, both culturally and spiritually.

That said, I found your piece to be very well written, accurate and concise.

Rated.
Graciousness. Brilliant! Calm down. ahh okay, now I get it. It's really hard to fumble over words when your on the spot in front of a pack of zealots. I usually choke on my tongue trying not to divulve my devious behavior. Thank you, my friend. It's good to know there are allies, with these wonderful words of wisdom.
Cartouche - in violation of the edict against commenting on other comments on someone else's blog -- as I understand it, God bless you after a sneeze is the anglicized version of gesundheit, which is based on an old German tradition that when you sneezed you were vulnerable to evil spirits entering your body.

A sneeze can propel noxious discharges at up to 100 mph, which suggests that the person on the receiving end might wanna get blessed, too.
They wouldn't find me playing death metal in my underwear drinking beer...

I'm halfway persuaded that when the doorbell rings before noon, I should answer without pants, even if I have to take them off, just in case. :-)
"Learn to translate what people say into something useful. If someone at work says, “Jesus will help you through it,” understand that what they really mean is “I know you’re going to be okay because I believe in you.” If someone offers to pray for you, simply say “thanks” and take it as “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and I have sympathy for your situation.” Don’t hold their preachiness against them, it’s their cultural context. You can’t force other people to remove themselves from their cultural contexts. It takes an intellectual and philosophical leap that a lot of people simply can’t make."
"There’s a lot to be learned from people of faith, even if you don’t share their beliefs."
"It won't hurt you to respect the people around you."

Loved all of those, Shelle.

Cartouche, honestly G'bleshchu was ingrained into me from the moment I learned to speak. I can't not say it if I tried. and I'm an athiest ;) My mom fussed at my dad and I once for not remembering and we've been like clockwork ever since.
"..say God Bless You, and get out of there as soon as possible." ..excellent advice, for all sorts of situations.

Thanks, excellent post, rated.
HALLELULAH!!!!! Praise the Lord!!! Thank you Jeeeeeezzzus!
Rated
I am an agnostic...probably the most aggressive, activist agnostic on the planet.

I have absolutely no problem with anyone sharing their guesses about Reality with me, because I love to share mine with them.

I can truthfully say that I enjoy it when a Christian attempts to recruit me—for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there is a decent chance I am talking with a Christian who is not a hypocrite. If one truly thinks one has a lifestyle that can benefit others, one would have to be a slug not to offer it to others for consideration.

And, of course, any recruiting efforts on their part simply open the door for my own enthusiastic proselytizing for agnosticism.

Whenever I encounter a Christian trying to recruit me to Christianity, I consider it a win/win situation.

You would love to sit in on a discussion with me and some of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses!
This is an excellent post. I am no longer an atheist or an agnostic, and have a deep faith in God, but living in the south I am still on the other end of the spiritual spectrum. I have become much more tolerant over the years. Intolerance/anger/hatred often develop from fear and insecurity. Given this, the BEST EVER way that I have found to get rid of the religious people at the door, I only had to do once. No one has ever come back. A whole group of women came to my door and I was simply not in the mood. I answered the door. They said,"We are here to talk about (fill in religious something or other)", and I said, "Thank you, but we worship the devil." My son still talks about the look on their faces and how quickly they walked away from our house.
rated
I clicked on this post with some trepidation, fearing negative stereotyping of church-going Southerners. Instead, I found a well-considered, compassionate piece with which I am in total agreement. Having grown up in the "Bible Belt", in a household that attended church 3 times a week, at least, I can say with certaintly that the vast majority of those I knew in church were kind, compassionate, friendly people who I would be very happy to have as neighbors today.

One thing made me laugh: your advice regarding how to deal with door-to-door ministers. Once when I was playing at my next door neighbor's house, the Jehova's Witnesses (or possibly Mormons) rang the doorbell. My friend's father peaked out the window, saw who it was, immediately took off his shirt to show off his big beer belly, lit a cigar and opened a can of Schlitz. Then he opened the door, and when the missionaries began their spiel, he interrupted them and told them to go next door to my house, explaining that my father was "in to that kind of stuff." Of course, as Baptists, my parents were not at all into the version of "that kind of stuff" these people were preaching. That's been nearly 40 years, and I still smile as I think back on that afternoon.
Excellent post, Shelle.

Tolerance is key to surviving many cultural differences, but doing so in the Bible Belt presents a fascinating paradox. I mean, practicing tolerance for fundamentalist Christians, who are typically the most intolerant cultural group of all, seems extremely contradictory and it takes a very serious effort to "turn the other cheek" around them.

Having lived in the Bible Belt for about a third of my life, I do understand just how agitating the presence of nonsensical extremism can be, but survival requires extreme tactics at times.
Good post.

My personal take on people who try to convert me is that I'm always amazed by their presumption that they have the right to ask what your religion is and and then try to convert you. It's a) rude, and b) disrespectful. Maybe because I'm from north of the border these things seem alien to me, but I absolutely loathe it when people feel they have the right to ask me personal questions, expect an answer, and then blithely run roughshod over that answer.

I've spent some time in the south and I know it's not considered quite the same there -- maybe some people are genuinely trying to place you -- but maybe it's time some of these people got a clue. I know at least three people who despite having good jobs in the South couldn't wait to leave because of the constant Bible thumping.

The idea that only Protesants do this makes me smile. I've been a Protesant my whole and neither I, nor anyone else I know, approach strangers in social settings or at their front doors and try to convert them.

I often find there is a vast difference between evangelicals -- "professional" Christians as I prefer to call them -- and people who practice their faith quietly, or don't subscribe to any particular religion but simply live a decent life. I am always reminded of what William Burroughs said on the Material CD -- If you're doing business with a Christian, GET IT IN WRITING! They've got God on their side.
That should read "my whole life"
Benjamin -- Historically, south Louisiana is one of the most tolerant of other religions and of multi-culturalism, ironically enough. The early French and Acadians didn't have any issues with anyone else so long as they could do their thing. That's one of the things that makes that part of the world so interesting.

Rosie -- it is hard sometimes to say the right thing. I've figured out that there's no need to try to dig through the whole spiritual conversation right then and there. If you want to, go for it. I just can't live with that much debate on a daily basis :D.

Rosie -- glad you enjoyed it :).

Tom -- I love the sneeze tid-bits. Do whatever you want here, especially posting interesting trivia about bodily functions :).

Lalucus -- Thanks!

Rob -- I think that's a good policy, personally. I mean, come on. Who really wants to be wearing pants before noon on a weekend? Be honest. I sure as hell don't :).

HB -- thank you!

O'Kathryn -- thanks as well :).

Grif -- excellent-- perfect response to this post, I think :).

Frank -- I'm inclined to practice what I preach, which is to say I don't really believe in converting anyone to anything. I believe what I believe, it doesn't matter, there's no need to argue about it unless we get in each other's way. Now, if I'm pressed to the mat by someone (which I have been), I will honestly explain my beliefs. They are a little complicated, but closer to what the Quakers believe than anything I guess. I think that the only way we know God is to go to a place where we can sit quietly and listen. Most of that takes place, for me, out in the woods when I'm alone. The Ozarks are a much better church than any building, IMHO. Still, what good does it do me to press others it? I honestly think it's not my business until someone is legally discriminated against or my rights are violated in some way.

MB -- Oh yes, the old devil worshiper thing works well too! Although, after the Memphis III controversy, it's best to pick your sin carefully in someplaces :D.

Procopius -- I love the south. I hate the south. How do I learn to live with it? That's sort of my whole modus operendai. If I stereotype my neighbors, I stereotype myself. Seems pretty simple to me :).

Bob -- that is the paradox, isn't it? I suppose, though, that the actual basis for the religion that Evangelicals share with all other Christians is tolerance and acceptance. Somehow, to me, it seems a very fitting way to combat intolerance as well. If people see you are able to accept them on their own terms, then they are perhaps going to think twice before they condem all hussies of my particular type ;).

Emma -- Burroughs was a smart man, through his heroin fog :).
This is an interesting counterpoint to the uproar over Obama's asking Rick Warren to offer the invocation during the inauguration.

The general argument there seems to be "We cannot give an inch to people who would run roughshod over us if they had their druthers."

To a certain extent, I sympathize with the sentiment. I certainly do not bow my head when somebody hijacks a family dinner for a "prayer" that I neither believe in nor wish to legitimize with an insincere pretense.

There's a fine line between civil tolerance and plain old societally dictated indulgence. I'm always trying to both find and walk that line.

Basically, I'm just looking for people to afford me the right not to believe and worship as they do. If I feel like they're willing to give me that, I'll happily say "God Bless You" to them instead of my more commonly used "Gesundheit," and "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays."
Excellent post and compassionate advice. Some people think that Bible belt folks are the most intolerant. When I moved out of the Bible belt or have encountered people from outside it, I sometimes receive sneers as soon as they hear my Southern accent. Sometimes they even talk more slowly to me, as if I am stupid. It does more than sting. Someone should write a post about how to deal with this kind of intolerance. As Americans, we do have a lot in common, wherever we come from. When we travel out of our country, the people often peg us as American (even though we like to remember the ones who did not), so there must be something that unites us all.
Now I am scared- what is the Memphis III controversy?
Verbal,

You make an excellent point -- there is a fine line. Still, the situation is so fluid. I have a friend who I know respects me for exactly who I am, but still he asked me to pray with him over lunch in a restaurant. Normally, that would make me uncomfortable, but in that case, I just closed my eyes and let him pray.

On the other hand, I went to a funeral last year that was clearly highjacked by people who not only didn't know the deceased, but judged him in an openly bitter hell and brimstone kind of way. I wasn't afraid to tell that preacher what I thought when I got him a lone for half a second at the wake.
MB,

I should have said "West Memphis III."

Here's the activist version of events: http://www.wm3.org/splash.php

Another story from the Arkansas Times: http://www.arktimes.com/Articles/ArticleViewer.aspx?ArticleID=f1b058c2-82ac-455c-b193-83cfce18215d
Wish I'd had this list at hand when I moved to Tennessee 15 years ago. I'm in California now -- a much better fit.

While living in another Bible Belt city, Kansas City, Mo., I came up with a good way to deter those pesky door-to-door evangelists: Just keep some brochures from your own church (Unitarian, in my case) or other affiliation by the door. When they show up at your door, just smile, hold out a brochure and say, "I'll take one of yours if you'll take one of mine." Tends to disconcert door-knockers and bring their visits to a halt.
This reminds me of two things. The first is the old saying that Joseph Heller quotes in "Good As Gold" : "If you ever forget you are Jewish, someone will remind you". I would expand that to include anyone who has ever felt different. I have always lived in the South, in western Kentucky, Bowling Green, Ky., and now outside of Nashville, but I think this is a universal feeling.

The second is the time I was approached at a Hardee's restaurant by a man who said, "God told me to come over and talk to you". I said, 'That's funny, I was talking to him earlier, and he didn't say anything about you". That gave him something to think about.
Shelle,

As a fellow agnostic and former Arkansan (and old friend of at least one of your Arkansas Times colleagues, with whom I have discussed this subject over the decades), I have some observations.

First, you're not talking about religion versus agnosticism. You're talking about aggressive, unbending, literalist Bible-believers, who are certain of everything yet oppose uncomfortable science, and meet your tolerance with a great deal of intolerance. You're not talking about "mainline" Protestants (who are now in a shrinking minority among Protestants), or even Catholics, whose authoritarian structure at least is serious about science and the real world and acknowledges evolution, and certainly not Jews, whose practice of religious debate for the purpose of enlightenment is well-known. No, you're talking about classic, stereotypical, redneck yahoos.

The simple truth is that nice people know better than to intrude upon your religious sensibilities, especially when they don't know what they are. The kind of people you're talking about don't deserve the subservience of a white lie about what church you attend, they deserve to be verbally smacked. "What church do I go to? Excuse me? What was your taxable income last year?" Or, "I am home-churched." Not a white lie for those of us who engage in serious reflection about the ultimate questions in our easy chairs.

I thought it was interesting that in public you seem to be extremely deferential to your Christian oppressors, but when they come to your door you leave tolerance at the property line. I wouldn't do any of the things you joke about, because these people are invading your privacy out of a commitment they can't really escape. And apart from that mission, I've never had a pushy experience with them. So I gently shoo them away with some slightly reassuring comment ("Don't worry, we're OK").

Let's be clear also that the kind of religiosity you're talking about is Southern. These people are Confederates. They vote right-wing in a bloc because Ronald Reagan told them that racism had a home in the Republican Party. They are aggressive by nature -- started the Civil War rather than let the courts sort it out, and most recently proclaimed from television pulpits that God Almighty wanted George Bush to vanquish Saddam Hussein. These things are total anathema to the basic Christian message of love, nonviolence and charity, and yet they use their religion to support all their political beliefs and one other thing -- conformity. So much for rendering unto Caesar. This is the dark side of religion, and it deserves to meet the strongest moral opposition.

But I am very comfortable with the more benign expressions of religion, all of which I regard as sincere attempts to find the ultimate answers and to find true goodness, and many of which offer wise insights into how our humanity can deal with those quests. And many of those who pursue them in the name of religion tend not to be the aggressive hegemonists you describe, including a lot of evangelicals. Those I can cheerfully meet in friendship.
Shelle, I am by birth a southerner and can be a witness for the white lie. White lies are at the heart of "southern hospitality." It's a very thorough list with metaphorical application as well as specific.
Very healthy responses to mostly meanwellers (wh my bff refers to as "the fish people"). Living in Jacksonville, FL isn't quite as zealously religious as living in the rural areas....however...... politically- fagettaboutit (former NYer here). So it occurs to me I can use your sagely advice with respect my neo conservative, Fox News watching neighbors.

I have certainly spoken up at work to correct blatantly untrue facts concerning liberalistic topics, but with my neighbors- not so much. I live on a 2 block dead end of upper- lower class (is there uch a term?) houses and have very nice neighbors. I dealt with the church ?'s early on by saying I was Jewish (which is ethnically true if not in practice). The 1st year I moved in I put a Gore sign on my lawn (no other signs on the street) and by the end of the week every
neighbor had a Bush sign.

I will try to be more gracious about these differences after reading your piece, but I am tired of being a fish of a different color- out of water. Thanks for great food for thought!
Wise words, Shelle, I feel like decoupaging this post.

Living with grace and good humor amid an aggressive, right-wing religious culture is not always easy to practice. But a dollop of wry affability, coupled with a few teaspoons of daily tolerance, can lower one's blood pressure and help make life easier in this presumptively Christian nation.

But I wonder if we adopt these strategies because of maturity? Or are we just plain tired of, to borrow a biblical phrase, kicking against the pricks? -- A fellow "thumper" magnet
I don't tell white lies, but I do tell the truth with the intent to deceive. When rude evangelical types--and they ARE being rude--ask where I go to church or what religion I am, I smile and answer, "I was raised Catholic." This implies that 1) I have a church and 2) it's a denomination generally resistant to evangelizing. It's also quite discomfiting for the asker since I know most of the really intolerant types think I am going to hell, am not "saved" and certainly not a Christian. But they don't really dare do anything about it. Saying how I was raised says nothing about my current religion. To Catholics, I tell them I am non-practicing or lapsed. Every Catholic knows a lot of lapsed or non-practicing Catholics. Very, VERY few are assh0l3s about it.

But I am with Douglas about people coming to my door. They are trespassing on my property and my privacy. Fortunately, when we moved to the country, we got far fewer, but we still get the J-dubs and some local churches. When someone invades my space, I let them know it's not okay. "Thanks, but I have a religion, I don't want yours. Please don't ever come back."

I will admit though, that I am nicer than that to those poor Mormon mission-kids who used to come to my house in the city. That's what they are: brainwashed kids. They walk around in jackets and ties in cold, wet, rain and heat. I have been known to offer them a coke or cold bottle of water, going so far as to walk across the street to give it to them. But refuse their pamphlets and offers of discussion with, "I have a religion, thanks."

The most interesting thing about this post is that I generally view questions about my religion as rude. That is a crucial ingredient of tolerance: you have to follow "don't ask, don't tell." But this goes directly against the Evangelical's Biblical direction to evangelize. They HAVE to ask, even if it's really rude. I like the author's idea that they are asking to figure out where you fit in their cultural context, who you know, etc. I had not thought of it like that. Makes it at least slightly less rude. Perhaps rather being rude back, a simple acknowledgment of their rudeness is in order: "My goodness, do you always go around asking strangers rude, personal questions?"
I have the same problem in my Bible Belt community, and I'm even a Christian! As a scientist's daughter like you I have a different way of understanding the world than many Christians. I also don't take the Bible literally, a major no-no here in Northern Colorado.
These are very useful strategies & appreciated! I've recently all but lost a very good friend who expressed her worries about me in the afterlife. Said Heaven would be lonesome without me. "Not to worry," says I. "I'm already there."

Not such a good reply, as it turned out. I realized at a very early age that it behooved me to go down that aisle to shake the Evangelist's hand. I was 8 years old, & my Dad the Pantheist was worried. (The Sunday morning woods was his only personal cathedral.) I had many questions for our preachers along the way, but received very few good answers to them, if any. So I decided to find my own answers, an approach which usually works out pretty well.

There are plenty of people who share your position on churchish things. While a sense of community is very important to some, & some very good things can happen in church, such things are not for everyone. There's room for a whole lot of opinions about things we might never understand, & realizing that nobody down here has all the answers, full & complete, is a very good start, imo. Great Post!
Your message here may risk accusations from the right (too liberal!) or from the left (too accomodating to the desert dogmatists), but I think that you have struck a very pragmatic happy medium in dealing with 'the christian soldiers' -- and isn't that the happy medium that is required 'down here'!

Thank you for your excellent words of advice for survival which I intend to follow. No question about that.

But, we all should still recognize and militate against, in our own private ways, the arrogant ignorance and effrontery of the religious zealots that is very much abroad in the (former?) land of Jefferson and Lincoln.

Thanks again for the words of advice in handling 'THEM'.
The map, associated with this post, has it all wrong and needs to be updated. The Bible Belt religionists have now extended it to Colorado, Idaho and parts of California and Alaska.

This all began with the good folks at Channel 16 (religious TV station) in Greenville, South Carolina decided that they needed to go out to San Francisco and save ,in Jesus' name, all those wicked sodomites out there, convert them to heterosexuals, close down the gay bar dens of iniquity, the fornicating swinger’s clubs, the porno movie places and shut down these sinful places in the name of Jesus and God, convert the Jews and all the idol worshipers and Devil worshipers (like Wiccans, in their view) to Christianity In their travels they also included Colorado Springs, Denver and other parts West and North West--like Sarah Palin's Country. They learned quickly that they were not welcomed in the Castro and other places but they kept trying until they now have a somewhat of a following.

It is hard to be a liberal or moderate, an intelligent person of logic and reason and live in a "conservative" (read bigot) place where people suspend all intelligence and reasonable belief by taking the Bible literally, claim to be Christian but follow the tenets of Orthodox Jews regarding Leviticus; then pick and choose what sections of they Bible that they consider the true word of God. They also think that the Bible was originally written in English and that there is an original that God wrote lying around somewhere undiscovered. Most barely can speak good English let alone all the languages that are required to read the biblical texts in the closes original texts known. These people have no tolerance of anyone who is different from them. Lord help you if you are a Wiccan, Jew or other religion or atheist because you have no rights or respect for your beliefs---the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal churches see to that. The Public Library in Easley, South Carolina had a public summer reading program for kids as it had for some previous 50 years. One of the programs talked about witches but did not proselytize the Wiccan religion--so it was legal. The Preacher of the Rock Springs Baptist Church learning of this tried to have the books with story themes about witches burned and removed from the shelves and got the reading program shut down so that no one else regardless of their faith or research purposes could get books directly from the library on witchcraft.—Censorship! His rationale was that invited demon possession and devil worship and some other off the wall ideas. Yes, as Karl Marx said—religion is the opiate of the people to which say—it also puts their critical reasoning to sleep and tosses reason and logic out the window.

Church and State are suppose to be separate but not down here in the South where the Churches openly visit legislators to get their church laws made civil law and use the Bible to get these laws passed. Preachers and Ministers serve openly in positions of Government power and make their religious laws civil laws. The ACLU was forced to call them down about Christian Prayer and when they refused to do so Granite Falls, South Carolina was sued by a Wiccan—she and her lawyer now own the town. A Pentacostal Preacher in charge of the Oconee County County Council was trying to doing the same thing and stubbornly refused to stopped after being warned. The Granite Falls precedent did not faze him and it appeared that he was going to drag the County into a very expensive lawsuit until some county residents woke up and called him down. South Carolina State Legislator Mike Fair, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist and gay basher/hater ,made sure that South Carolina had place into its Constitution that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. It was people like Fair that promulgated slavery to the point of civil war. Fair also thinks that Darwin’s Law of Evolution is hogwash and he has tried to get Creation Science(read pseudo-science) (Christian Baptist version) taught in the Public Schools but luckily the scientific community rose up against him and we had the Federal Case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover also to back us up on this issue. Sadly, no one came to the defense of preventing discrimination to be written into the S.C. Constitution.

Most of these laws have no reasonable basis and are frivolous---like you can not sell liquor in a wine store, or grocery store---if you legally do --it has to be a partitioned store. In some parts of South Carolina, one can not buy wine, lightbulbs et al on Sunday---the Baptist Sabbath never mind that the Jewish Sabbath is Friday until Saturday night or the Buddhist one is Wednesday.
Then there is the matter of gay people---these church people try to insure that they will be harassed, bashed, beat up and killed. Forget about allowing them to get married.--taint goin happen without another civil war. The most shameful thing about these people is that while pretending to be so religious and Christian---they are huge proponents of hate and bigotry. The Nazi skinheads abound, the KKK also abounds (having risen again after being sued for a billion dollars and had to pay up), and if white supremacist are not enough--we now have Black supremacists whose hero is Malcolm X. The Bible Belt is in a deep need of total house cleaning. The state of South Carolina has the third highest group of hate groups in the Nation. Already, a fundamentalist religious group from the Philadelphia area has moved in and openly has stated that there goal is to seize control of the State of South Carolina and turn it into a separate Theocratic Nation. To that end, they have refused to pay US or State taxes. Recently on of these people taken to court for failure to pay taxes told the judge that he did not pay taxes because he was not a US citizen but a citizen of the Nation of South Carolina. The Judge had a hard time repressing his laughter but did inform the subject that there was no such thing as a Nation of South Carolina and he would have to pay up because evidence showed that he was a US Citizen.

Fascism reigns rife in the Bible Belt and if you do not go along with it as a thinking person—all sorts of disparaging names get put upon you. The most common ones are ‘Hippie’ or ‘Communist'. Now Redneck Bubba barely got through High School and certainly would not know a communist if he met a real one ---in fact Christianity is based on some communist ideologies if not socialism---that one is one’s brother’s keeper and early Christians live as a communal society.

I am deeply concerned that if we do not get back to the America in which everyone has equal rights and freedoms ---we will have no rights except what the dominant religion tells us we may have. A Constitution is only as good as those who agree to abide by it. We have seen the basic rights of the US Constitution ignored in recently years and trashed by John Yoo and the Bush II Administration--among these basic rights is the foundation of all law in Western Societies---the doing away with Habeas Corpus. Hopefully Obama, who once would have not even gotten past the back door in the South, will change things but if he truly is for Civil Rights; then he will see that gay people may marry whom they choose and live just like their heterosexual counterparts. He will also see that Women also will have equal pay for equal work. It is time for a change and we all must work together to change this nation for the better so that no one is denied their basic human and civil rights because of their religion, sexual orientation, race, creed , geographic origins et al.
And, in the interest of Fair and Balanced, might I suggest the web page:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXzladhscMQ

for some light hearted antidotal fare for those of us who do NOT appreciate extremists on either side of this cultural divide.

BUT, Do Not (repeat: Do Not) show this to ANY of the aforementioned desert dogma enlistment officers in our midst.
First of all I have a favor to ask of Billy Rowland.
Could you please type your post again as, I didn't hear all of it the first time.lol

Now for a pertinent(to Shelle's post) experience I had with a fundianity a couple of years ago.

I have an applaice repair business.
I have a few elderly cusomers who actually don't have two nickels, etc.
I'll do things for them for free as, not only do I not need the $$ I might charge them, I also feel good about treating some people like this.

That does NOT include some who are asstards though.
Well, I've done this a couple times for one old lady who is both nice and really poor.
The last time I came out of her house to put my tools into my truck, the 6 axehandled ass neighbor lady waddled out to allow me as to how she judged me.
She told me that she knew what I did for her neighbor lady and that I was truly a christian(what is THAT?) and that I would go to heaven.
I looked her in the eye and said, "Lady, I'm an atheist."
Without batting an eye, Lady Axehandle responded,
"Oh, you're going to go to hell."
I almost barfed trying to not laugh in her face.
I just shook my head, got into my truck and went on my way to hell.lol
Great article, thank you! Three years ago I moved to the deep "south". Upon my arrival to my new home in an established but rapidly changing neighborhood, an elder neighbor was at my front door before the arrival of the moving truck. Her first question was what church I attended. I responded that I didn't attend a church and left it at that. She never asked again and I assume she either thought I was Jewish or was politely trying to tell her it was none of her business without saying so. Yesterday when two pleasant women arrived at my door to inform me that this is the season everyone thinks about Jesus, I politely said "not in this house". They smiled and left. I don't want them to waste their time or mine.

I have found the south to be a very different world all together. I have lived in Ohio, California and Northern Virginia and nowhere have I experienced such overt intolerance. I finally, after asking several times, had to inform the fellow who mows my grass that if he ever uses the "n" word in my presence again he will no longer mow my grass. His response was that everyone says it. I firmly told him that not everyone uses that word and while using that word might be acceptable in his circle of friends not "everyone" says it, and that I considered it hateful and cruel. He got my point. I will keep my word and fire him if he ever utters that term around me again. Frankly I’m shocked at the ease with which it came out of his mouth and his assumption that it was OK.

During the election we displayed an Obama poster in our front window - our homeowners association asked us to remove it. Not because there are rules against it but because the homeowners board is primarily republican and much to their annoyance the neighborhood is rapidly becoming more colorful than they care for. Never have the people displaying the confederate flag been asked to remove them from their cars, windows or flagpoles!

I wish I felt differently but my experiences with the "south" is that there are some very persistent southern traditions, and that intolerance, bigotry and a resistance to change is just beneath that polite surface of "hospitality" so many southerners claim.
I appreciate your post and your approach to appreciating the human-ness of your neighbors.

I think the idea of "translating" can be especially useful. Part of my training to be an Ethical Culture Leader included chaplaincy training in a hospital setting. While some people were pleased - and amazed to have a non-theist as a chaplain, my role was to support people in their spiritual beliefs. My thoughts for a patient might have been "I'll hold you in my thoughts and wish for the very best for you." Sometimes the best way to convey that to someone was to say "God bless you."
Saying you go to church when you don't isn't a white lie, it's a full-on lie - especially if you compound the lie by inventing a nameless out-of-town church. What do you say when they ask the name of the church or the pastor, and you haven't a clue? Tell another lie? (It seems especially strange to pretend you go to church while at the same time hanging a pentagram from your door - exactly which message are you trying to give?)

Agnostics and atheists are often men and women "of science," as you put it. We have a higher duty to the truth than anyone.

May I suggest this response to that question: "I'm not a church-goer." Followed by, if they invite you to their church: "No, thank you, I'm not a church-goer."
Great post...so appreciate your kindness and tolerance.
Enough already! I'm in the meat grinder of the bible belt, Shelle, Appalachia, where fundamental Christian biblical literalism and tribal culturalism merge and make life one big, continuous farce to continue to accept the unprovable myths they exhort if one follows your advice. I know all too well. I dare say we would yet be under the yoke of an english monarchy if we had simply 'tolerated.'

I, for one, have had it with this approach. Which is worse, continue to pretend to indulge in the fairy tales put forth by these religiousos or finally, stand firm for what you believe is the truth--at least acknowledge that one can't know the whole truth.

I have watched gays, minorities, even animals suffer and die for Christ's sake from the beliefs followed through with actions...remember: faith without works is dead! Now to continue to tolerate this human malpractice is too disgusting for me to accept. It's not going to be easy either way, so today, I choose to stand up for what I don't believe. One truth is that I truly love my cats more than they 'love' their neighbors and I treat and respect my cats a helluva lot better than they do many of their fellow human beings. You have heard of 'hate-crimes' I pray.

Ergo, I tell the evangelists (somehow, the women seem more pathetic to me) whether at my door or in the barber shop plainly and upfront and with an equal determination that I do not buy what they sell anymore. Don't go away mad, but please, just go away. To assent to them from fear of confrontation with them is cowardice already, not tolerance.

If you want to be amused yet dumbfounded and have the time, my favorite to ask is, 'Physically, where is hell and just how hot do you think it really is?' or 'would you want to be put on death-row by a jury that with 'unquestioning faith' believed you were guilty of murder without one shred of physical evidence?' Either question will usually send them away aghast wearing the tortured look of a martyr.

Granted, you'll probably lose them as social friends and references on job applications but I promise, you'll sleep better. Thank you.
Some interesting points there, and some things I agree with. But, going against the tide of nearly all previous comments (as far as I've noticed), I myself think there is a lot of bad advice there too.

So, lying is the way to go, that's the message. Many of the points boil down to that. Pretend to be someone or something I am not. And hide who or what I am. What would that say about me?

One (or more) of a few possibilities:
1) I can't survive unless I hide; my property will get vandalized, I'll lose my job; I'll be isolated from society; my kids will be ostracized; whatever other violence/discrimination;
2) I'm ashamed of who/what I am;
3) I don't really stand behind my beliefs (or lack thereof), which opens the door for questioning the sincerity of said beliefs or how well I have thought about them;
4) for family harmony;
5) fill in the blank.

If you think point 1 above is the one that applies to your situation, by all means do lie. Go to church and pretend. Hell, even go proselytizing if you have to in order to fit in and survive. Having your life destroyed just to make a point is definitely not worth it. Otherwise, I'd question the wisdom of lying. Specially considering that lies can always come back to haunt you at the least expected times.

I live in Richmond, VA, so I haven't experienced too much of this problem. I did have people knock at my door some 3 or 4 times in the nearly 7 years I've been in the US, and I've always talked to them honestly. Sometimes I wasn't in the mood for talking and just said "thanks, but I'm not interested"; other times, I talked with the guys for about half an hour, even debating the Bible in Spanish once (which is not my native language, but was fun). But I never lied saying "I have my religion", for example. I'm an agnostic atheist (yup, both, and it does make sense if you think about it the way I do), so I can't be said to have a religion.

Sure, I also respect the local culture. Which brings me to something funny that happened just yesterday, at an ice skating rink. We went as a group, and I had seen this one guy some 3 or four times already, John. When he was leaving, I said "well, if I don't see you again these next days, have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year". You see, I do not celebrate the "birthday of that guy", as a Buddhist friend of mine jokingly puts it, but I have no problem wishing that the people who do have a great time doing it. I don't need to believe/celebrate it to do this. For me, Xmas is just a family event, since back in my country my Catholic family gets together at our farm, grandmas, several uncles and aunts, respective kids, and us, and have fun all night, from 10 pm on the 24th to 2 or 3 am on the 25th, eating, drinking, listening to instrumental (harp) Xmas music mostly, exchanging presents and all that. But since I don't have family here, Xmas does not exist for me while I'm far. Anyway, back to John. He kind of looked sideways and said something like happy new year to you too. Hm... A few other things he said in a hiking event the other day... So I went to his profile in our activity scheduling website (Meetup) to check which other groups he was part of. And lo and behold, he had also recently joined a couple other groups too, where I am longtime member. Both are agnostic/atheist/humanist/etc. groups for people to meet and discuss things, have a good time, and even help the needy (we just did this a few weeks ago and it was great), whatever they think about us.

The "morals of the story" being: if you keep hiding, you lose such unexpected opportunities to meet other fellow naturalists (people who reject the supernatural, whatever other name they call themselves), or at least to know you are not alone. Next time I see John, we can talk honestly and openly, and I won't again assume he's with the majority. One of our members, age in the late 50s I believe, said in the first meeting attended (paraphrasing): "this is the first time in my life that I'm talking to other atheists that I know of; I've been pretending to be someone else until now". I wonder how that must feel. And I suspect it does not feel good. Sounds like an AA meeting or something, sometimes... :-)

If all of this lying and hiding is indeed necessary to be able to survive in the "Bible-belt", then it's not that far away from Saudi Arabia or Taliban-land.

A final small point, I notice this slightly strange sentence:
"I’m a woman of science too, who believes it’s possible I don’t know everything."
The implied message there is strange, and potentially offensive, but I can't say what you're really think just by reading that snippet. I have to say, though, that it's a sentence commonly used by people who are a somewhat ignorant of the philosophical underpinnings of "non-belief". What did you mean by "it's possible I don't know everything", apart from the obvious meaning that nobody mentally healthy claims or believes to know everything?
I'm lucky I'm a Quaker because that always short-circuits those trying to save me. Often it will steer the conversation to why I don't wear funny clothes [We are not Amish nor Mennonite nor are we associated with either.] Learning that we have no dogma, no creed, generally leads to the circular conversation: then what do you believe in? The daunting task of asking each individual Quaker for their beliefs usually leads to enough silence to change the topic. Tales of being thrown into prison for our beliefs can lead to awe, and mentioning that we are tolerant of everyone's belief suggests that we respect even theirs. If none of that works, I add that our fundamental belief is that anyone can talk to God directly without an intermediary, such as a priest, which was why we were thrown into prison in the first place. None of them are interested long enough to get to the part where I'm a non-theist, but rather an animist. Generally we both leave feeling good about our own beliefs, which is a nice outcome.
I really admire you. I'm Jewish and I lived in North Florida and Atlanta for several years and couldn't deal with it. Now it would be even harder for me. You get more blunt as you get older I think, and less able to listen to stuff that doesn't make sense to you. I live now in places I'm comfortable.
I absolutely Love this post! I believe in 'Keep Thy Religion to Thyself" in most scenarios because the clash of ideas gets so ugly. This is wonderful. I see no reason to be disrespectful to people who are acting in what they perceive as goodness. When someone tells me I'm going to hell or boasts intolerance...well, that's another story. But if someone wants to pray for me, I say "thank you!"

I'm pretty good at scaring the door knockers away- not on purpose, as I'm nice to them, but I get a little 'too' rational....it bores the hell right out of them- they thank me for my time and run.

Excellent post!
What you describe, Shelle, is also my experience, and I live in a metropolitan area – Dallas-Fort Worth. When we first moved here from Yankee Land, I was amazed that one of the first questions from many was “What’s your religion?” or “Where do you go to church?”

At first, I said bluntly: “ I DON’T.” Then I tried, “Excuse me?” in the best Steve Martin outrage. At least once I said, “Let’s talk about something less personal. How many men have YOU slept with?” I gave that up, though, thinking that being a heathen AND rude was probably overkill.

For a long time now, I’ve responded to such questions with: “I’m a Druid.” I say it lightly but seriously, and most people laugh or eye me uncertainly. Sometimes – I’m not making this up – people ask: “What’s that?” Then I say, “Druids worship nature. They especially like trees.” THEN they laugh or eye me uncertainly.

Twice of late, an interrogator approached me much later and asked with a confidential air, “You’re not really a Druid, are you?” Both times I queried the room: “She wants to know if I’m really a Druid.” To which the room answered: She is.

Works for me.

Apparently Druidism is more daunting than atheism or agnosticism. Nobody tries to talk me off my rarefied religion. I do still get the occasional Christian fundamentalist working for my salvation, but not many, and fewer all the time. Here’s a true account of a (serious) conversation I had with one of my evangelical acquaintances:

Me: Does it ever occur to you that our friendship will inevitably end because of your religion?
She: No. Why would that have to be?
Me: Because, sooner or later, you will be drawn to proselytize and then you cannot possibly fail to be disappointed.
She: No, no, that won’t happen. I could never be any more disappointed in you than I am right now.
In response to Tom Cordle,

Gesundheit literally means "good health" in German. In the vernacular it implies "I wish you good health". For me it is a much more reasonable response to a sneeze or a cough.
Wow...amazing that there are so many people who are as offended as some of you good folk by attempts to convert.

My feelings about this are probably best summed up by an adage that was popular among potheads back in the 60’s and 70’s. It went:

“If you have a friend who smokes pot and who does not try to turn you on…find a new friend. This person really isn’t a friend at all!”

Seems to me there should be more offense taking if someone who truly feels he or she has something of value to share…never bothers to share it.

Just my feeling.

I understand the other position—the position so many of you are articulating.

I just feel obliged to offer mine for consideration.
Thanks for the tips--I'm headed to the Bible Belt with my girlfriend to visit relatives for the holidays, and although her family fall into the liberal-agnostic category, I'm a little worried about the neighbors. But your tips, plus the instincts honed by my fundamentalist upbringing, just might be enough to see me through a week or so.
Great post. I practice these rules myself now that I live in a rural area instead of the big city. I avoid the church question by saying I go when I visit my parents.

Work is a little harder to avoid outing myself as an agnostic though.
As someone who has considered herself an Evangelical Christian for many years now, I have found myself surprised at how negative and stereotypical are the attitudes of some of those who are not Evangelicals. It seems this began with the election of George Bush, although that may just be when I was old enough to begin noticing that sort of thing. Stereotypically, it seemed people were crying "Tolerate me" yet refusing to tolerate me.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read this post. Shelle, I appreciated your insights and efforts to supply some understanding. And I was saddened to think that if those I meet on the street know I am an Evangelical Christian, they would feel they have to hide their true selves. I would have missed out on so many wonderful friendships.

And I'd like to offer some explanations to possibly help foster understanding about some of the things Evangelicals do.

To begin with, not every Evangelical Christian believes Jerry Falwell and Richard Land hung the moon. :)

Not every Evangelical voted for George Bush, lives in the South, is a redneck, racist, backwoods, country hick. Some of us live in the backside of the country, yet feel no need for rebel flags. :)

Not every Evangelical feels compelled to walk up to complete strangers on the street, ask their beliefs and then tell them they're going to hell when told a belief that is different from their own. In fact, most of the people in my Sunday School class cringe at the thought, and feel it's a very invasive, insensitive, non-productive approach. Although it does seem to work for some people.

When I do ask someone what church they attend, it is usually part of a larger conversation that's attempting to establish a connection. It's along the lines of where do you work, where do you live, what school did/do you go to, do you have family, etc. I believe that's probably a Southern-thing of trying to find "kin." I have never thought that I could be offending someone by the church question, and I apologize to everyone who has been offended on behalf of myself and other church/synagogue/temple/other religious service attenders who have asked that question.

When the questioner then invites you to attend with them, please take it as a sign they are trying to connect with you and offering to share his or her life with you. Much as they would suggest you join them at an art show if their passion was art.

Many of my evangelical friends and I have friendships with people of a wide variety of faiths. Sometimes it's a topic of conversation, sometimes not. But I enjoy learning what they believe, and how it informs their view of the world, and appreciate the chance to share from my perspective.

And that brings me to the point. For every person who holds a set of beliefs, be they Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or based on something other than spirituality, if those beliefs are strongly held, they shape that person's view of the world and his or her interpretation of the world around them.

When someone shares those beliefs with you, no matter what they are, they are usually doing so because they feel they have or know something that has helped/improved/enriched their life, and wish to do the same for you.

When I share my beliefs with someone, it is usually because we have had a conversation that led up to it. And I usually already have an established relationship with them. When I offer to pray for someone in a difficult situation, I am doing so because I empathize with them and desire to help. Because I truly believe there is a God who answers prayers, I believe my prayers can help them. Although it might feel a little strange, I'd like to think I would not be offended if a Muslim offered to pray for Allah to help me, or a Catholic offered to light a candle and pray to a Saint for me.

So I guess I'm asking for the same thing many of you here seem to be: A little love, a little tolerance when I practice my beliefs, and a little faith that humans can rise above the stereotypes and be enriched by our commonalities and differences.

Thank you Shelle, for this gift in your post.
I live in extreme southern Michigan and although this isn't considered part of the Bible Belt, nonetheless it is an extension of it; undoubtably due to the fact that there are a good number of southern transplants in the area. I have a problem accepting that it is part of the "culture" when my children and grandchildren are regularly proselytized by teachers and staff in our public school. It is a regular occurence and I can't begin to count the times we have gone to the superintendent and school board who promise to make sure it doesn't happen again - until the next time it occurs. Culture? Try religious harrassment.
This is good advice. I think I've done most of these things at one time or another over the years. I also have tended to hide out in the liberal oasis of Austin, Texas. I know it is much harder when one continues to reside in a conservative Christian community.
I enjoyed Penrose's and Bowers' clever strategems.

Some of the tactics promted in the original article struch me as dishonest. Also, in reading the comments I concluded that southerners have no monopoly on intolerance.

A tactic that I developed over a period of time was the following:
A man hands me a tract. I respond: "Oh, are you a Catholic? " A pause. "uhh...no" "Why not?" After a standard verse of scripture such as "God so loved the world....." "How about the prophecy in Luke that all generations shall call Mary blessed?' That usually produces a pause; by citing scripture I am speaking his/her language. Then "where is that policy fulfilled today?"

Never have I experienced an angry or rude response at this point. Usually it leads to a brief but friendly dialog. And I hope I have given them something to think about.

Some of those commenting seem to be in a state of intolerant denial when it comes to discussing religion.
This is good advice. My least favorite is when evangelical Christians close a business phone conversation with "have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"
----------- Learn Graciousness. If you live in the Bible Belt, at some point someone is going to tell you how Jesus can change your life. It’s sort of inevitable.

So true. I have a post in draft mode: "When people give their life to Christ, does he regift?"
As someone who has considered herself an Evangelical Christian for many years now, I have found myself surprised at how negative and stereotypical are the attitudes of some of those who are not Evangelicals. It seems this began with the election of George Bush, although that may just be when I was old enough to begin noticing that sort of thing. Stereotypically, it seemed people were crying "Tolerate me" yet refusing to tolerate me.

Erin Tunnell, you seem like a nice chick, so this isn't a specific attack on you personally. Evangelicals had a bad name LONG before GWB. And there's darn good reasons why they did. This is just to give you an idea where us "negative" and "stereotyping" people are coming from.

I was 9. It was 1979. I was attending what was supposed to be a non-denominational Christian school run by the local Southern Baptist Church. Heidi, a fellow 4th grader and I were having a discussion and I mentioned the fact that she was a Protestant (I was raised Catholic, mind you). I suspect, not knowing what "protestant" meant, she was very insulted. She declared that she was certainly NOT and that I, as a Catholic, wasn't a Christian and was going to hell.

Now, for a moment, let's bypass the essential horror of what she said and the impact it had on my young psyche. Where do you think little Heidi learned this factoid... that Catholics are not Christian and are going to hell? From her parents? From her church's sermons? From the books and tracts she read? Do you think the school reprimanded her or demanded she apologize when my parents brought it to their attention? The adults all believed it too!

Very often, when you find an agnostic, atheist, Catholic, Jew, Buddist, Jainist, or Hindu who doesn't much seem to like evangelicals, it's NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE talking, not "stereotyping." I commend you for not being a rude evangelist. I have met a few--very few--people like you. They are a very nice sort of friend to have. Good folks. But there are bad folks too and I'd sooner take and asp to my bosom. Little Heidi might have been the first, but she was not the last. I stand by my experience.
To all --

I'm a little overwhelmed with the response to this post! I didn't expect to see such a huge number of responses. I think this post has more responses than anything else I've ever written for Open Salon, even those pieces that have made the OS cover OR the regular Salon cover.

Secondly, I wanted to say that to those of you who are so offended by my suggestion of the "white lie" -- you must obviously not deal with this sort of behavior from strangers on a regular basis. If you'd ever lived in a small southern town and been an obvious outsider, I think you would get it a little better. I'm not going to apologize for my white lie about church attendance. As others have said, the white lie is the salve that makes society run in the south -- like it or not. It's a whole lot more compassionate to allow the poor old lady next door to believe a lie about my church attendance than let her fret over the fact that she's got such an obvious sinner living next door. (That's not a literal fact by the way, merely an example). Believe me, if you were confronted with that little old lady on an almost daily basis, you'd just get sick of trying to explain yourself to people who wouldn't understand anyway.

What's worse -- a small lie or a constant theological war with one's neighbors? At some point, a person has to learn to live in his or her own peace, IMHO.

For the rest of you who so kindly praised my writing, thank you. I don't deserve such praise, really. I'm just a girl who has to write things down and Open Salon has given me a place to share it with random strangers. You all humble me. Thank you!
Oh yeah, one more thing --

This post was not intended to be a guide for dealing with issues when the political and religious converge, or how to behave in the face of obvious oppression based on religious tenets. If this kind of behavior crosses into the political realm, I'm all for standing up and saying what needs to be said.

I think Huckabee is an extremely frightening man for that very reason.

However, this is a difference between dealing with people on an everyday social basis. I mean to address those issues here. It's better to pick one's battles, I think. If you're too busy battling with your neighbor over theological and philosophical questions of the deepest sort, won't you be entirely too busy to notice when your neighbor starts _actually_ oppressing others, ala gay marriage, etc?

Of course, it's up to you too. If you feel you need to fight that battle, go ahead. I just think I'm a lot more useful as an advocate for the things I believe (i.e. the philosophies I try to live) if I can tolerate others long enough to actually have a conversation with them. I also think that if I tolerate others for that long, they might be more willing to tolerate me too.
You wrote about Christian gossips, but you can't be a Christian and a gossip: the Bible is real clear about that.
Once gave a ride to a woman in her 30's who was trudging through a Jewel parking lot with about four plastic grocery bags in each hand.

It was just about six blocks to her house and on the way, she told me about all her current troubles. Not complaining really, just being conversational.

Before she got out of the car she asked why I picked her up. I am an agnostic/deist/depends-on-the-moment, but I said, "Maybe God thought you could use a break."

She smiled briefly and I think it made her feel better momentarily. It was a quick explanation and I don't really care if God got the credit.
Your words are wise. I am, however, glad that I'm an Easterner, and not glad that I am as tolerant and sensible as you. As a gay person, I do get my hackles up as I suspect the majority of the evangelical type of Christian isn't too fond of me. I do however, avoid confrontation (but like Frank relish my conversation with Jehovah's Witnesses) and know there are many Christians who actually act like Christians.
Thanks so much for a wonderful post. When I graduated from high school in 1964, if anyone had told me I would ever intentionally move back to the little town where I was raised, I would have immediately suggested that they get intensive counseling with a competent professional. But when my father died, I saw the camellias my mother planted in 1950 and realized that I'd just hate it if anyone lived in that house who didn't love those camellias.

And so it was that I soon found myself telling all and sundry that, "Why, yes, I do believe I'll be moving back here". I did exactly that, and, apparently still being in a state of emotional flux, found myself resorting to all the old 'default settings' of my earlier years here. So, back I went to the church I joined as a child I. Joined the choir, etc. And quite soon realized that I was no longer that same person ( a mere 38 years after I left).

Not long afterward, I saw Ridley Scott's 'Kingdom of Heaven', and right in the middle of it had a double de-conversion with a back flip. Halfway through my popcorn, the phrase 'Spirit unites; religion divides' popped into my mind, and I all but shouted 'Hallelujah!' (which would have been ok, since I was the only one in the theater, and would have been ironic, to boot).

All my religious dominoes fell in perfect sequence, and the only time I've been back to church is for funerals. When one of the less inhibited ladies buttonholed me and informed me that I was a 'back-slider' (now you know I was raised Methodist), I looked her in the eye, smiled sweetly, and said, "Miz So-and-so, I know you're concerned, and I appreciate it. I prayed long and hard over this, and I know I've made the right decision. God and I have an understanding, and I'm going to ask you to respect it."

Now, whenever anybody says, "When are you coming back to church? We sure do miss you," I just smile and thank them. Then change the subject.

I actually found that I'm much more inclined to be tolerant, kind, and generally exhibit all those other 'Christian' virtues now that I'm a 'born-again Gnostic' (my appellation of choice these days -- it does a great job of confusing 'em).
this advice is useful for those who venture out into public places frequently and interact with a lot of people. if you are a lychnobyte, introverted and not very outgoing and prefer the company of just a few people, like me, i would suggest making yourself a t-shirt or a pin stating, in very loud, bold, large letters something along the lines of "DON'T TRY TO CONVERT ME, IT WON'T WORK". I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you have nobody to impress and have no care for what others think of you, like me, then do it. if the evangelist sees the button or t-shirt you are wearing and reads the message, why would he/she approach you? if an evangelist insists on attempting to convert you, simply point, wide-eyed and firm, to the t-shirt or button, then be on your way...problem solved.
Feel ya' . Great article that a God-fearing ,non-religious,non-Christian guy like me can fully relate to . My exception to your plan is the lying about where you go to church. I found my response of, "I'm spiriual, but not religious" is usually confusing enough to hardcore Christians to snuff that section of the conversation. Of course, I occasionally get the response "So your an atheist?".
Or try," I'm a Spinozan acosmic pantheist, would you like to come to one of our gatherings tommorrow at the stroke of midnight?
Hi!
An English Atheist here.
How are you?
I just thought I'd comment, mainly I suppose to let you know (and this is desparately trying to sound non-patronising or gloating) that I feel your pain.
I've never in my life been asked what church I go to, even the most rabid born-again christian wouldn't do that. And if they did then it would be perfectly acceptable to start a very large argument. In fact - and this is the nub - most people would consider it their duty.
In the same way that there is an obligation to confront racism in this country (or, I hope, any country), so there is an obligation to confront any kind of bigotry.
This evangelicism is bigotry. I was going to look at the Oxford English Dictionary, but felt Webster's might be more appropriate. They define a bigot as, "A person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices ; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance."
It is my moral duty to oppose bigotry wherever I find it.
Why do you think it's so rampant in your country? Maybe because individuals don't make a stand and just keep their heads down?

"In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up."
Niemöller

I urge you not to keep your head down.
I urge you to stand up, politely, calmly and with respect for other's beliefs, and demand the same respect for yours.
When people of science, agnostics, secular humanists and aethists tolerate religious superstitions nothing changes. The unfortunate brainwashing of so many Americans into believing in mythological tales, written thousands of years ago, before all the wonderful scientific discoveries humans now benefit from, is perpetuated.

Tolerance via "white lies" and cordial responses to uninvited efforts to convert me, to convince me to give up rational thought and to relinquish control of my life to a religion ... most of which have their hand out for money and have a hand in the outcomes of political elections ... is not acceptable.

My response to uninvited zealots knocking on my front door is to spend a couple days a month knocking on their doors and suggesting that they read "god Is Not Great" by Hitchens or "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins or "The Year of Living Biblically" by A. J. Jacobs.

When someone tells me that Jesus will save me, my response is "Keep your superstitions to yourself. Stop bothering me with such nonsense."

It's time for Americans, who have a mind left to use, to resist organized religions' dominance of our culture.

Jesse Ventura said it well in that Playboy interview long ago: "Relgion is a crutch for the weak minded."
I think this post has more responses than anything else I've ever written for Open Salon, even those pieces that have made the OS cover OR the regular Salon cover.

A quick-and-dirty count shows that this post has produced no fewer than 17 new Open Salon members, Shelle, who apparently joined specifically in order to comment here. What do you think you are, some kind of OS Evangelical? :-)
I'm an atheist and have lived in the Bible Belt for 40 years. This is an excellent article. I've used most of these techniques and they do make it easier to survive here.
My family is in MS, AL, and answer the phone sometimes, "It's a beautiful day for Jesus". I love them but they are insane. My best story from living in the woods of MA was 20 years ago when Jehovah Witnesses tried to get past my Elk Hound to the front door. He knew who was weird and who was cool. He bit them. Then the neighbor down the road got the shot gun out. All of this is one reason why I live in "Yankee" land. I can't handle this crap.

Signed: Rev. T.
Some 40 years ago a professor of mine in Waltham, Mass., talked about answering the door on a Saturday late morning and finding two young gentlemen there who told him "We'd like to talk to you about your soul." "Sorry," he said then that he replied. "My soul's in my wife's name and she's out shopping." Understanding the literalness with which true believers feel forced to spread "the good news" is no comfort for the fact that they still come across as zany, overzealous pests.
I grew up in Southern Oklahoma with parents who grew up much further south.My small town had nine churches, the most liberal was Methodist. The least liberal handled snakes and spoke in tongues. I walked away from my Baptist church when the minister started speaking from the pulpit about the problem of blacks getting too uppity (civil rights). I consider myself a pagan—a country person who loves trees and stones. I agree with all of your sashshays to avoid conflict, but resent the requirement. I am a 59 year old woman, and don't have enough time left to waste it on making other people feel good about inflicting their religions on me. I stand—or sit—unbowed during their acts of prayer. When asked if I believe in God, I say I believe that god is the goodness in all of us, whoever she is." Sometimes I get looks of horror, usually a chuckle. My job in life is to an authentic self. To be kind when it is appropriate. To be honest because it is required. To not create a verbal flapdoodle just because I can and to stay in the garden and away from yahoos as much as possible. Winter can be a problem. I honor the seasons and the heart of all religions, the light. I'm the nutcake who turns on the lights on her holiday topiaries until the first day of spring. Each night, a minute later, the ritual pleases me. A quiet moment of my relationship with the true sun.
I'm a New Jersey boy who spent most of his adult life in Colorado, with the notable exception of 2 years in Lubbock, Texas. Those 2 years were enlightening, to say the least, about how "the other half lives."
But mostly, as you say Shelle, tolerance and kindness with an eye toward finding common ground is the best way to live amonst any people. Eventually, if you are true to what you believe, be it science or deism or atheism or animism or no ism, if you do not meet other people's objections with similar force you stand the best chance of being able to coexist comfortably.
Rated - because it is the kind thing to do! Nice post
I think this is an excellent - and thoughtful and, yes, sensitive, post - and as a Christian who grew up in a secular, humanist NYC house, and having lived in the southeast and New England and now again in NYC, let me offer these two thoughts.

One is that there are those of any belief system who want to proselytize simply to justify their own biases or cover insecurities. Their faith is weakness, not strength, and an increase in numbers alongside them confirms that "misery loves company."

The second is that there are some Christians who so have been so deeply changed by what they interpret as God's love through Jesus Christ that they honestly want that change in another's life for the sake of the other. They know that as complete as that other's life appears to be, knowing Jesus is something that, once experienced, can transform what someone once considered a complete or fulfilled life.
graciousness, kindness, patience, tolerance, compassion. these are things to remember in all situations with all people. thank you for such a wonderful post.
rated
Your advice not to make assumptions is spot-on. I also live in the bible belt, and I am constantly making the erroneous and illogical assumption that everyone I talk to is a godless liberal like me.
Rob -- God Forbid! I have tried to push OS among the writers I know, but this appears to have a life of it's own! I can't keep up with the comments so I'm just going to respond as I can. You, sir, being an old OS regular -- deserve a full response, however :D.
Interesting article; interesting comments. I would say that being polite, gracious, and sincere are important. However, I don't think you need to back off you own beliefs and give proselytizers the impression you are someone you are not. Tell them your beliefs honestly. If you are not interested in their message, tell them so. I just read an interesting book about a former Mormon from Salt Lake trying to fit into the small, very religious community of Monticello in southern Utah: "Trespass", by Amy Irvine. It is a frustrating story of not fitting in anymore.
Gracious, but this is how we have come to the point where our leaders have to prove they are 'christian' in order to be elected to anything, (and the ones who fake it best are probably the least religious). The Constitution says there should be no religious test for public office, but there is, and our graciousness has handed our country over to the ones that are people who would rewrite that document. Heaven help us should be our prayer.
So many comments, that I have to add mine to the fray. I live in heathen California now, so I haven't had to use this, but I have it all ready for the door-knockers and others: "All of my spiritual needs are already being met." I'm an atheist and don't have any spiritual needs, but this phrase could be used by ANYONE.

I haven't read all the comments here, but Erin Tunnell's caught my eye. She says that she (specifically) asks about where people go to church as part of a general conversation when learning about a new person, and inviting someone to go to church with you is like inviting them to an art museum or other activity. I have to start by saying I respect the sentiment she's expressing, and she is probably NOT the type that my question addresses. I'm speaking hypothetically, about evangelicals in general. My question is, why is it that the church invitation comes FIRST, even if it's something we don't have in common? For example, you could meet someone new, and find out you both have kids the same ages and you both like swimming, and you both studied English in college. But I'm an atheist and you're an evangelical. Why is it your first invitation is to accompany you to church? We have so much ACTUALLY in common. Why not invite me to go swimming with you, or to have my kids over for a play date? Why is it you invite me to the ONE thing that I am least likely to enjoy?

Then there's this in Erin's comment: "I'd like to think I would not be offended if a Muslim offered to pray for Allah to help me, or a Catholic offered to light a candle and pray to a Saint for me." So, she doesn't know yet whether she would be offended or not if a Muslim said he'd pray for her? But she expects ME not to be offended if she says she'll pray for me? Even if the Muslim said he'd pray your child got well after a serious illness? And yet she/they expect us atheists not to get offended if they say they're going to pray for my eternal soul and that I'll eventually accept Jesus Christ? Sorry, not buying it!

Thanks, Shelle. I actually practice most of your policies myself. I only get riled up when they get aggressive about their beliefs toward me.
That place sounds like Hell to me.
...and one more wrinkle to my last comment. In AA, it is often said that it is a program for those who want it, not those who need it. (I.e. there are plenty who need it but refuse to stick to the program...) Those of us with faith or beliefs of any kind who think others would be benefited by them should remember that unless someone freely adopts them, there can be no true life transformation.
Very well done.

I like the Mexico observation, but the difference is that iconography and faith is not the same as getting up in your faith. I have never had a mexican try to save me from the perils of hell. That's why I like Mexicans.

When travelling abroad, seeing a big statue of Jesus or a cross on the top of a city's tallest point gives me a rush of cultural exhiliration. When travelling in the states, and the big JC or his cross I just think "Keep driving. Keep driving."
Over the last eight years I've successfully turned away the door-to-door evangelists with a polite "Oh, no thank you. We're not Republicans here."
I have Tip for that one about the Dor-to-Door Missionaries - though you have to be good and ticked off to be this mean to such well-meaning souls; which - because I'd worked until 1AM, drank till 3AM, and had only slept about three hours - I was, when they (the Adventists, I thnk) tried to beat my door down at 8AM one Sunday Morn.
Here's what my 'bear in the morning self' did.
With a perfectly straight face, I said; "O'h your just in time to Join ME in Worship - of Baal! I have a Cat, which isn't as good as a Sheep - or a Small Child - but, anyway, would you HONOR ME by sharing in my Sacrificial Act?"
That'll make 'em scurry away - quickly!
AND not come back.
To whomever said, "thank you but all my spiritual needs are being met," thank you! I really like that. It's far less rude than, "Thanks but I have a church, I don't need yours." Most of the time, I don't really want to be rude to people around here. This IS a small town and the people are nice people, even if they are misguidedly trying to "share" their religion where it's not wanted. Fact is, I suppose I could answer, "there is not a church here that meets my needs." Because it's the truth and not terribly rude. But then they get to insist that THEIR church would... and of course, it wouldn't. What I want is a liberal Catholic church like the one I grew up in... and I don't think those exist anymore. Certainly not in the South.

But last night, I had the mother of a good friend of my child's confess that "getting Jesus" had saved her from a destructive lifestyle. I mean, this is real. Jesus saved her life literally as well as figuratively. But it still doesn't mean that I want her to witness to me or ask me to her church. It makes me uncomfortable.

And yes, Shelle, I did finally "join" OS so that I could leave a comment here. I leave a lot of comments on Salon, but this was my first one here. But the chances of me starting a blog here are few. I already have several blogs and I can't keep up with them.
Even though I am an atheist I love to say I am Jewish orMuslim when approached by these people. I figure it's good just to let people know we live in a big world and not to make assumptions.
Very thoughtful post, but I have a problem being tolerant of other's intolerance.
I'll agree with those who've noted that southern Louisiana is different. I was a Midwestern-transplant grad. student down in NOLA in my mid-twenties, and my strategy for handling offers to pray for me was a bit different. If a Southern woman 10-25 years my senior offered to pray for me, I'd give her a little smile, say "Oh, Darlin', it's far too late for that," and then give her a little wink. ;-)

Most of the time, I was adopted as an honorary "bad" nephew, invited to lots of great parties, and introduced to any number of charming Southern daughters, nieces, etc. It was funny and fun. I still felt like a fish out of water, but I was an accepted fish ... and kind of on my own terms.

So ... they may talk the talk in southern LA, but they walk a different walk.
George W Bush, a born again Christian is a product of the bible belt supported by many evanelicals including Billy Graham. Instead of doing some compassionate things for the world community George sqaundered a wonderful godgiven opportunity to advance the Christian cause in an act of pure revenge invaded Iraq wasting billions of dollars, killing & injurying many people & making millions of people homeless in their own land. 'The Gospel According to Saint George' it's available thru google.
Great post. I grew up in the Bible Belt and still live there half the year, the other half in heavily RC south Texas. Up north in the BB, we live at the end of a mile long private road that intimidates even the Fedex guy so we are seldom bothered by the door-to-door folks. On other occasions, I've found that religious types generally fall into two categories: pretty nice folks, and those who fail even the simplest test of 'forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us'. The first category I can deal with just fine, and the second just need to be reminded of the Lord's Prayer and sent on their way.
Of course , I do think "agnostic" is a cop out. Fall off the fence ,why don't 'cha?
You may think it's a cop-out T- I think it's as honest as I can get. I've already fully admitted I believe I don't know everything and wouldn't claim to. I'd rather sit on the fence and hear all sides than pick one and close my mind to the rest.
good advice. very christian in tone....

a couple more options re door to door preachers; if you want to pull the Full Satan on them and make then not come back, ask them if they need to break loose from thc cult and offer them a place to stay. Particularly effective if there is a pair of then and you address the younger one. the other alternative; invite them in and engage in a lengthy theological discussion. good entertainment if there is nothing on cable.
Bet those pickets get uncomfortable....
when I lived in south carolina in the 80's, it was whispered that I was "unchurched."
Great advice - you're far more laid back and understanding about it than I am. I've lived my entire, life in southern Louisiana, where being an agnostic is like being the only straight man at a Cher concert. And it can be frustrating, especially when the believers want to push their superstitions on you despite your best (and most polite) efforts to avoid the conversation.

To add insult to injury, I managed to get myself married into a devoutly Catholic family. They're good folks, and I love them, but we had to come to an understanding a long time ago about my views on religion. The deal is: they don't proselytize, I don't roll my eyes on the one day a year (Christmas) that I attend church with the entire family.

My wife and I, for the most part, deal with it well. We made a deal when we married that she could raise the children Catholic, and I would support that (mostly by chasing them out the door when they didn't want to go to church). In return, I get to tell them how I feel about religion, and urge them to treat with skepticism anything told to them on the subject by an adult... including me.
Remembering childhoods in MS during the summer and going to the Methodist church is white gloves, hat, etc., I recall racism more than I do oppresive behavior of church goers, and people being overly graceous when they really didn't feel that way (i.e., jealous of my aunts money). In fact, the "bible thumpers" were viewed a lower class and ignorant. It's interesting how they have taken over and dominated the nation and the government. Something like reality tv, which to me is more of "into the land of stupid". Too bad America has stooped so low.
A great post. I used to have the problem of door-to-door faith peddlers when I was in graduate school in Chicago. What they didn't know is that I was studying history of religions, so my ammo was thus: "Can you explain to me Genesis 6 verse 2?" "That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose." Now, when you come armed to talk about THE Son of God, and here you are presented with a notion of other Sons of God, from your own book, well, let's just say I was scary. I always politely invited them to come back when they could explain it, or when they wanted me to explain it to them. Sneaky, eh?
"I dealt with the church ?'s early on by saying I was Jewish (which is ethnically true if not in practice). "

Be careful with that one if religious discussions with evangelicals bother you. A lot of evengelical Christians are intensely curious about Judaism - especially if they don't know any Jews. I personally enjoy such conversations when they're respectful - which, in my experience, they usually are with people I meet in the course of daily life (as opposed to those who approach me only to proselytize). I'm also a non-practicing Jew, but I had a thorough religious education, so I can usually answer the questions I get and it's usually enjoyable.

As far as the door-to-door folks, I let my dog decide. I lived in a very poor town outside Gainesville, FL. We got tons of door to door proselytizers. I enjoyed them; especially the JWs. The same folks came repeatedly and stopped trying to talk religion after the first couple of visits. They usually stopped to chat and love on my dog for a while, and I'd give them something cold to drink. I always figured that if the dog liked them, they were OK.

The dog never liked folks from the Pentecostal church. Really. The church was 2 blocks from my house, so they came around alot. They had a lot of fish fries and everyone was invited. The dog - who was generally thrilled to see just about anyone - barked and growled at every single group of Pentecostals that ever showed up. I'm not sure what it was, but I've always suspected that it was the way their smiles never reached their eyes.

My dog was well trained and would have sat down and shut up if I'd asked her to, but I trusted her judgment. This dog LOVED people. If she didn't want them around, then neitheir did I. I'd always pretend that I couldn't control her, apologize, and say that I'd have to chat with them another time. It didn't deter them from coming back, but I never really had to talk to them either.
Thanks, I enjoyed your essay a lot. I'm a scientist who grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt, although geographically on its edge (if you know what I mean). I'm talking about West Texas. To make things worse, I come from a cattle ranching family (for 8 generations) and now I'm a vegetarian. Talk about sacrilege. One of my cousins and I have toyed with the idea of creating a 12-step program called "Fundamentalists Anonymous." Your 8 points give us a good guideline for developing this idea.
Shelle,
I like this, Miss Manners on religious etiquette in the Bible Belt.

In my rural area we don’t have the Evangelicals coming to our door, the only Sky Pilots are JW’s. The Evangelicals write letters to the Editor of the small local newspaper telling all of us that we are going to hell, everyone who is more liberal than the late Right Reverend Jerry Falwell.
A few decades ago when I was not at home my wife meet two JW’s at the door. Both daughters were ill, the youngest she had in her arms. The JW’s at that time were quite aggressive feeling all needed to be saved. They had taken up a position just inside the door preaching of their religious beliefs with great vigor. Suddenly my youngest daughter vomited on the young man who was front and center.

It was a number of years before we saw another JW on the front steps.

This post also gave me thoughts regarding an email that came from an exchange regarding religion. My response I decide to post on OS I titled it “God, Created in Mans Own Image”
Here is the link: http://open.salon.com/user_blog.php?uid=6329
Funny.....you said "Do unto others" and then you said in regards to a religious person coming to your door, "Turn up your death metal the minute they walk up to the door." How would you feel if people did that to you when you showed up at their door? Not very nice now, is it?

The religious folks are concerned for your soul and really desire for you to spend eternity in heaven. That IS God's desire, that no one should perish but to have eternal life. Perhaps God has been pursuing you all this time. He loves you SO MUCH that the idea of losing you simply kills Him. Oh wait!!! That's what happened on the cross.

I think God is trying to get your attention but you keep pushing Him away! I'll keep you in my prayers. God bless!