Deep In The Bible Belt — One Atheist Professor’s Experience by William Zellner (December 1995)

Institutional discrimination refers to patterns of discrimination that are woven into the fabric of society. Victims are negatively labeled based on some characteristic or attitude that sets them apart from most members of the community. Such discrimination is so ingrained in the ethos of a people that the logic of their prejudice is never questioned. In the “bible belt,” atheists are victims of institutional discrimination, despite the fact that most nonbelievers in their communities tend to be good neighbors with a concern for humankind–secular humanists.

These atheists do not pose a threat to Christianity or any other religion. In fact, the five percent or so who are atheists are as closeted as homosexuals were 30 years ago. Many, especially in the South, even go to church. I was not one of that group, but neither was I an outspoken critic of Christianity, fundamentalist or otherwise.

A series of events that began in the fall of 1991, six years after moving to Ada, Oklahoma, where I am a university professor, has changed my attitude toward Christians, particularly fundamentalists. A local newspaper asked students, “Who is the worst professor on campus?” One girl, a member of a fundamentalist church, answered, “I don’t take Dr. Zellner’s classes because he is an atheist.” My immediate reaction was okay, don’t. I have never had a problem filling classrooms.

But the student’s comment touched off a wave of hostility. Our car was vandalized to the tune of $543–Praise Jesus! I began getting damning notes from students (most left anonymously under my office door). We received threatening telephone calls at home, insisting that we get out of town. A fellow professor (now at Oral Roberts University where he belongs) sent me a seven page letter, accusing me of being in league with Satan.

One Apostolic church made up campaign-type buttons in a buyer’s choice of yellow, blue, and pink, which read “I am praying for Dr. Zellner.” They sold for a dollar each. I was later told by one of their number that when I didn’t repent, they prayed that God remove my miserable soul from this earth.

Worst of all, our children, who have been taught not to discuss religion with anyone, were shunned and beaten. My daughter, six years old at the time, lost playmates. And my nine-year-old son was attacked during a little-league baseball game by two Baptist children. He couldn’t understand why they wanted to hurt him. Explaining bigotry to children is difficult.

As a family, we are the victims of institutional discrimination. Would the newspaper have published the student’s comment had she said, “I don’t take Dr. Zellner’s classes because he is gay,” or “I don’t take Dr. Zellner’s classes because he is black”? I think not. Even Christian fundamentalists, no matter what they believe, have come to the realization that there are some things you can’t print or say out loud without expectation of reprisal. But atheists are fair game, and almost anything can be done to them in the name of Jesus.

Institutional discrimination runs deep in the bible-belt. To protect ourselves from harassing telephone calls, especially in the early morning hours, we installed “Caller ID,” a system which records dates, times and the telephone numbers of callers. The wake-up calls stopped about the same time that the equipment was installed–watched pot syndrome. But one daytime caller persisted. An elderly woman would call and read Christian poetry to whomever answered the phone. She said nothing else, and when we tried to talk to her, she just kept reading.

Finally, I called her back. I am certain that she had never heard of “Caller ID.” Her voice shook when I identified myself. I’m sure she thought that Satan himself had given me her telephone number. I insisted that she tell me the purpose behind her calls. She said that she had been to the sheriff’s office during the previous week on another matter, and they had been talking about me. She said that he was keeping an eye on me, waiting for me to break the law. She thought that she might save me for Jesus with the poetry she had written.

I asked myself, “why would the sheriff want to keep an eye on me?” Our car was being keyed on a near daily basis; my family was threatened with violence, my son attacked in a baseball dugout. And the sheriff was protecting the Christian community from me, an aging college professor with a well documented abhorrence for violence. I dropped by his office. Deputies acknowledged that, indeed, the woman had been in their office, but they would not confirm or deny that they had been talking about me.

I am white, male, of western European ancestry. Never before in my life had I been a victim of discrimination. Nevertheless, until my experience with the Christian right, I always thought that I understood the frustration shared by racial minorities, women, the gay community, and others barred from full participation in society for no logical reason. Not so! Until you experience the tyranny of the majority, it is impossible to really know the sting of discrimination. I now know why some blacks hate all whites, some gays hate all straights, and some women hate all men. I still find it difficult to separate the haters within the fundamentalist movement from those who are not, despite my years of education.

Ever since my confrontation with the fundamentalist community, I have tried to protect my family from them. A year ago, before the fall semester began, I asked the principal of the elementary school where my daughter attends if she would assign Chelsea to a teacher who was not a fundamentalist. She asked haughtily, “I suppose you would rather have her in a class with an atheist teacher?” I acknowledged that I would.

I said that I doubted that she had an atheist on her staff, adding in a nice way that I would be satisfied with the average Presbyterian, Disciple of Christ, Catholic or Episcopalian. She went ballistic. Screaming, “There is not an atheist on my staff, and there will not be as long as I am principal!” In a rage she verbalized what she would not put in an employment ad — Atheists Need Not Apply. The very essence of institutional discrimination.

Perhaps we (atheists) are the last unprotected minority. I managed to become a tenured, full professor in a liberal, academic setting before the community discovered there was an atheist in their midst. I don’t have to go anywhere, and I’m not going to. On the other hand, in the bible belt, the sins of the father are, indeed, visited on his children. I hope my children visit me often after they graduate from a liberal college, well north of the Mason-Dixon line.

William Zellner, Ph.D, a subscriber to Freethought Today, is a noted sociologist and professor at East Central University, Oklahoma. His recent book on cults in America, “Countercultures”–examining such deviant subcultures as Skinheads, KKK, Scientology, Survivalists and Moonies–is published by St. Martin’s Press and was selected for the elite list of books the publisher offers to popular bookstores.

“Countercultures” provides an in-depth look at the commonly held beliefs of cultists. Zellner personally investigated his subjects. He is also author of the fifth edition of “Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Life-styles,” used in as many as 600 universities and colleges.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in sociology from Western Illinois University. He earned a doctorate in sociology from South Dakota State University. He joined the ECU faculty in 1985. Zellner was recently elected to a second term as president of the Association for the Scientific Study of Religion, and is past president of the Oklahoma Sociological Association.

Freedom From Religion Foundation