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"My mom is worried about my mortal soul": Atheism in the Bible Belt

Brandon King / Red Dirt Report
King James Version of the Holy Bible.
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OKLAHOMA CITY- In 1961, geographer Wilbur Zelinsky defined a region that would become known as the Bible Belt. According to Zelinsky’s definition, this stretch of land contains religions such as Southern Baptist, Methodists and evangelical Christians as the dominant religions in the region.

The Bible Belt ranges from West and South Virginia to southern Missouri in the north to Texas and northern Florida in the south.

Thirteen years prior to Zelinsky’s parameters, the Saturday Evening Post, an Indianapolis newspaper, named Oklahoma City the capital of the Bible Belt.

A Pew Research Center report shows in 2016, an estimated 79 percent of Oklahoma’s population is Christian. The other 21 percent is divided between the Catholic, Mormon, Jewish and Muslim faiths.

In the mix of all these religions, one belief system has been seen on the rise: Atheism. Over the past five years, the percentage of people identifying as atheist increased from less than one percent to four percent.

Atheism is defined in Webster’s dictionary as, “a disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, over three million people live in Oklahoma. Out of the overall population, 156,960 people openly claim to be atheist.

The North American Mission Board estimates over 2,000 churches spread across the state. This means that there are five churches per capita.

It can often be found difficult or discouraging for those with a difference of opinion on the views of religion. People without faith are sometimes left without a voice. 

Lead By Example

Vicki Weiss is a 25-year-old agnostic.

Living in one of the reddest states in the nation, she would often think that there was nothing she could do other than keep her beliefs to herself.

Weiss was raised in Shawnee, Oklahoma and started going to the United Pentecostal in the town by the age of 9. 

“It was never something that I really jived with,” she said. “But it was something that I felt strongly about because I was raised to think that way. I was born into a system that I didn’t agree with.”

While she attended, she felt a sense of safety and security that she found hard to find when she left the church.

“You always have group activities so you can feel like you belong so long as you participate. The music, the atmosphere and even the Bible have a powerful effect on people,” Weiss said. “What I think gets in the way is often our motivations.”

Weiss moved to Mustang during her junior year of high school. Quickly she entered the United Pentecostal. While working on the north side of Oklahoma City, she was introduced to a friend which kept an open-minded approach to religion.

For many, it would be a philosophical debate.

For her, it was a doorway into a more honest understanding.

“The more I started to learn different things from different people, the more I questioned what I had learned in church,” she said. “Once I started to disagree with the message, it was easy for me to walk away.”

Many of the messages Weiss listened to, through the various churches she tried, she says were restrictive and conformist. After trying other churches like she grew to dislike church altogether.

“I felt that people put too much emphasis on the words of the Bible instead of the message behind it,” Weiss said. “Our society has taught us to be more individuals that it’s hard to teach these very antiquated ideas or get them to relate.”

She knew that she had to leave the church but it’s not as easy to walk away from.

“It was hard on my Mom. I was in school and working so I kind of used that as an excuse to kind of scale back on how often I attended,” she said. “Then it got to the point where I wasn’t going and I knew my Mom was upset. Ultimately, it was my decision to go so I decided not to.”

Since the age of 20, Weiss has defined herself as agnostic.

Weiss has kept her religious ideas to herself unless she felt that the environment was safe.

When asked if other atheists should keep their beliefs to themselves, she said, “Keep it to yourself and live and let live. It’s okay to not agree with an idea in order to keep the peace.

The Sunny-Side of Religion

It can be hard for people on either side to rationalize where the other is coming from. Different mindsets with differing ideologies can clash together if nothing is to be met in the middle as a compromise.

This is where church-goers, like Yukon-native Grady Blevins, come in.

Blevins is a member of the First Baptist Church of Bethany yet he understands the stigmas behind the stereotypes of the church for different beliefs.

“I was born into church, first off,” he said. “Grew up going every Sunday and Wednesday for a long time. It became routine. I did distance myself a bit and eventually left my first church. But I ended up coming back to a different one later.”

He said what drove him to come back to the church life was a sense of community and support within the church.

“I’m lucky enough to have found a church that’s very supportive and understanding with a strong sense of community,” Blevins said.

When it comes to the misunderstandings of the church, Blevins has heard the people talk out about how the church is slow to see the perspective of a new age.

“There’s some validity in them, first and foremost,” he said. “The church as an entity moves at a glacier's pace, and is extremely slow to embrace new ideas, so I definitely understand that stigma.”

He emphasized that not all churches are the same. As Blevins put it, “it all depends on the church.”

“I always encourage people to “shop around” if they’re thinking of becoming involved to try and find one that’s welcoming and understanding,” he said.

According to Julian Aster, a 23-year-old minister in training, religion is something that should come from within instead of a hard lesson.

Aster is going to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and is studying religion. His hopes are to own his own chain of churches across the country.

Atheism to Aster is a stepping stone for understanding.

“I think why people believe in Atheism is simply because there’s no tangible evidence to prove the existence of God out there,” he said. “What people often forget is that religion is something you must feel before you begin to accept it. Not the other way around.”

Aster believes that the problem between religion and the rise of Atheism has to deal with no commonality. With no compromise comes no conversation.

“Good Christians need to have an open dialogue with those willing to express who they are,” Aster said. “Instead of condemning someone for believing in something different than you, why not talk with them and attempt to see it from their point of view?”

Blevins, much like Aster, has faith in open communication to be the answer and bridge between the two philosophies.

“Once you have the knowledge, you can’t pray that away"

Derek Scarsella is a single mother to a four-year-old daughter named Stella.

As she raises Stella, she remembers her upbringing in Oklahoma by the footholds of religion. Since being an atheist at 19-years-old, she has experienced prejudice for her beliefs.

“Sometimes I think it would be easier for me to come out as gay nowadays than an atheist,” she said. “Once you have the knowledge, you can’t pray that away.”

Scarsella was raised in a religious home. The last church she attended was a Baptist church called the Shekinah Fellowship in Oklahoma City. By the age of 16, she made the decision to leave the church.

It would take three years for her to admit to herself what she believed.

Since her decision, she hasn’t made the effort to come out to the rest of her family. The only exception she made was for her mother. Though they disagreed in their beliefs, it was their relationship that remained strong.

“My mom is worried about my mortal soul,” Scarsella said. “She takes any chance that she can to quote scripture to me and talk with me about the Bible. I know my mom loves me and Stella for who we are and there’s nothing that could change that.”

She is confident that telling her family of her belief would result in her being ostracized.

“It’s simple as this: Family is the one who runs churches and the family is right-wing Christian,” she said. “In there and many other homes, atheism is a dirty word.”

Scarsella has been a long-term relationship with her boyfriend Aaron Cardenas who is a Christian. She said people sometimes don’t believe that the two could make it work due to their beliefs.

After 15 years of not going to a church, Cardenas was able to convince Scarsella to attend Front Line church in Oklahoma City with her daughter.

She said she wanted to introduce Stella of church life in order for her to gain a sense of community and allow for her to pick what she believes in when she grows up.

“When you go to church, you feel like you’re in a community and you have structure for your Sunday. I can take the good things from the Bible and leave the rest behind,” she said.

At the age of four, Stella asks her mother questions about what religion and what life all means.

Scarsella sees this as a learning lesson.

“Dealing with death, people lean on religion. Addressing that issue with Stella was hard,” Scarsella said. “Stella talks about religion and heaven so I use it to teach about different religions for education. If anything, I want her to be able to think for herself and not lean on something she doesn’t fully understand.”

Her belief system has come at a cost with people she interacts with.

According to Scarsella, people have told her that she is going to burn in hell for her belief; they have also said they’re praying for her or they ask her questions as to the origins of her morality.

To her, living in Oklahoma can be painful.

This is the thing she fears for Stella; it’s the fear that many parents have: She doesn’t want her child to feel like an outcast for what she believes.

“We all have the right to exist and believe what we believe or don’t believe. If you think we’re an abomination that flies directly in the face of the constitution and what our founding father’s wanted,” she said. “I deserve protection under the law just as much as you do. Respect is the biggest thing. Not here to convert people to atheism.”

She laughed when she said, “people act like like we’re going to eat your kids but I promise we’re not.”

Where Scarsella focuses is on a level of understanding between those who are religious and those who are atheist. However, she doesn’t see the climate changing anytime soon.

“The way Oklahoma is that it’s deeply rooted in Christianity and I don’t see it changing for right now. They say you have no morals,” she said. “For me, I don’t need a book to tell me that it’s not okay to murder people and the fact that you need a book to tell you not to do so says more about them than it does about me.”

Scarsella, like Weiss, Blevins and Aster, says there is a level of community that can be reached once understanding is met on either side of the debate.

Until this happens, organizations like Oklahoma Atheists are avenues for those who don’t believe in religion to feel like they have a place to belong.

The AOK is a non-profit American organization founded in 1999 to bring a community and a voice for people without religion. This organization is a step in the right direction but the tolerance of religion as stated in the Constitution involves those without religious affiliation.

For those who believe and for those who do not, American society is available for those willing to live among those they might disagree with.

With freedom comes the freedom of thought. 

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About the Author

Brandon King

Brandon King is a journalism student at OCCC, working towards becoming a professional writer....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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