By Amber Barnhill
One of my favorite movies is The Matrix. Possibly because I once suffered from a mild obsession with Keanu Reeves or maybe I’m just a geek at heart. I eventually had to change my email after becoming too embarrassed to tell potential employers to contact me at “thewhiterabbit- @yahoo.com.” Little did I know then that the path ahead of me would veer into a series of events which can only be described as a real life manifestation of Neo’s own experience waking up and adjusting to the realization that the world wasn’t the way he had always believed it to be. Cognitive dissonance is a mighty tyrant as the most damaging lies are the ones we tell ourselves. It’s easy to recognize harmful behavior in other cultures, but until experiencing it myself, I never would have known that our own community in South-east Texas has been perpetuating so much intolerance and hatred under the guise of social normalcy. Atheophobia is defined as fear, distrust, or hatred of atheists or atheism; however, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to atheists and its repercussions on society affect us all, not just those targeted. I can say this because I’ve lived it, both as perpetrator and as victim, and have emerged with the scars to prove it.
National Atheist Day is April first, or so claimed the snarky bumper sticker that hung on my bedroom wall as a teenager. Just underneath the loud red font was an all too oft repeated verse, Psalm 14:1, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.” My belief, as confirmed by the movie God’s Not Dead, was that atheists were people who believed in God, but rejected him i.e. the murderers, the Nazis, the homosexuals, and essentially anyone who voted for NObama. My mother remarried early on and sub-merged us into extreme fundamentalism. My biological father believed in God, but didn’t live the way real Christians should so according to my mother and pastor, he was headed straight for Hell. I cried myself to sleep countless nights, sick to my stomach with fear, and still remember my awkward attempts to take him down the “Romans’ Road” of salvation. His mother, who was of a “false religion,” once asked why we couldn’t visit her church. I replied that we weren’t allowed to because they were “heathens.”
During my brief stint in public school, I bravely contradicted my openly Catholic Biology teacher informing him that he most certainly cannot believe in God and evolution at the same time. I answered essay questions in like manner and took zeros on those assignments. This intolerant ideology built an unnecessarily hurtful wall between myself and many who cared about me; not because their beliefs were inferior to my own, but because I had perceived them to be. Thankfully, acquiring some life experience finally taught me to accept that it’s okay for people to think and believe differently though I was still perched comfortably atop my position as an honorary member of the privileged majority. It is impossible to truly empathize with those outside our social norms until spending a day or two in their shoes. The summer of 2013, I inadvertently did just that.
My children were both enrolled in a private Christian daycare when my son started preschool at BISD. As BISD is public, seeing his teacher lead the class in a repeat-after-me prayer was a bit unexpected. The sacred responsibility of spiritual instruction belongs to parents, not government, and unlike my daycare’s religiosity, parents in this class had not been informed of such. I mentioned later that I wasn’t offended, but wanted to be aware of other religious inclusions outside of the ceremonial type. His teacher became oddly defensive stating she would not apologize, among other things, and claimed it was entirely led by the students, a group of four year olds who, at their teacher’s command, repeated a prayer after her. She then targeted my son for conversion. To be clear, individual voluntary prayer is not, nor has it ever been illegal, only coerced or school sponsored prayers are. Contrary to popular belief, God has not been kicked out of anywhere. I posted in a local parenting group for advice and was introduced to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A reporter saw the thread and asked me for an interview.
I don’t watch the news myself and hardly expected anyone to notice; however, the story quickly spread and national headlines went from Concerned Parent to Angry Mom Goes Ballistic, many even quoting what was never said. This climax of events, I affectionately refer to as my little red pill. I was officially and involuntarily unplugged from the machine. I woke up the next morning to a world full of complete strangers I had never met who were oddly wearing the faces of my co-workers, friends, and even family. I was ostracized and threatened while locals rallied to run me out of town, to organize a protest in my front yard, and spammed my business page. A Beaumont pastor stalked me for information to feed the media and school board. Apparently, another Amber Barnhill near Galveston was arrested for assault so I became “trash.” The school tried to transfer my son, my ex-husband detailed my location on KBMT, and I was targeted by institutionalized bullying while one of my managers harassed me to the point of having panic attacks before finally losing my job. I have never seen such anger and hatred.
I naively thought my upstanding reputation as a Christian, not just any Christian, but a fundamentalist seminary graduate with a history of evangelical Christian service and the ability to quote entire chapters of scripture would neutralize the issue. To my chagrine, quoting Jesus himself during the interview didn’t prevent Christians from calling me a “militant atheist in disguise” with the devil in my back pocket, or from my more admiring fans, a “dumb-ass moron rat piece of shit” and “gutless bitch” who “needs to be scared so maybe she’ll teach her kids about God!” Though apparently, “sperm would die on contact with such a shrillesh woman.” After being told to go “where women can’t do nuthin but clean and prostitute,” one person was kind enough to ask if I “preferred beating my head into the ground five times a day before going home to her hubby for the nightly punching sessions.” “May her kids grow up to be Conservative activists just to defy Mom the Slut and Dad the Drunk.”
Further disproving any notion that students in our districts are treated fairly, an HJISD principal recently distributed a fear-mongering letter causing community hysteria over pure falsehoods; a Sour Lake Elementary teacher stated, “if you don’t like it, leave!” and boasted of teaching her students to pray for “people like you;” a Burnett teacher says Christians are exempt from the law because “some laws aren’t worth obeying,” and both Henderson’s PTO as well as the HJ Hawks’ social media pages circulated an open letter to the “narrow-minded atheist or condescending idiot who complained” while simultaneously boasting of their tolerance toward others. Those who have spoken out have been called communists, terrorists, workers of darkness, worthless bigots, “baby raping sons of bitches,” “radical uneducated hate mongering fools,” and told repeatedly to “shut the hell up and take you and your kids to a Muslim country,” “drop off the face of the earth,” and “file a lawsuit in Hell.” As previously stated by a sign in downtown Kountze, “If you don’t like it, LEAVE!” appears to be the motto of Southeast Texas. There were threats of being burned at the end of a rope, taken for a “Texas joy-ride,” dragged by my hair and water-boarded, something about pitchforks and an AR-15, and so on. Many students have reached out to me since, including a Methodist, thanking me for doing what they’re afraid to. It’s been unreal, but I would do it again, every time, because if everyone is quiet nothing will ever change and no human being, not even the dirty heathen ones, deserves that kind of treatment.
I am horrified by the ignorance and intolerance in our community, but even more horrified that I myself was once under that same spell. Many Americans have never knowingly met an atheist, even though the majority of the world isn’t Christian. Media and churches continually associate atheism with immorality, communism, and criminal behavior causing a universal misconception about atheism. Our actions define who we are, not our beliefs. Those who want protection for their rights must first exemplify the virtue of protecting others’ rights. The constitution was designed for all of us whether we pray to God with a big “G,” god with a little “g,” or the flying spaghetti monster. It requires courage to take responsibility for our behavior and integrity to do right without the hope of reward or fear of punishment. Standing up for what’s right when it’s not the popular thing to do has cost me a lot this past year, but there is no price so high as the harm we inflict on our own souls when we turn our backs to injustice.