When I left North Carolina, I also left religion. I grew up in a house where we prayed over country fried steak, sweet tea, and Kraft mac and cheese to the nourishment of our bodies. In the car, we would often listen to Christian music, meant to filter out all of the ugliness from the Top 40 stations, aka the secular world. On repeat were songs with self-critical messages like “we alone are not worthy” and “Lord, make ME in YOUR image,” disguised by clever chord structures and well-crafted melodies. I was an anxious and insecure kid, who already felt that I was not good enough; getting constant reminders that the Lord felt the same way about me didn’t exactly help. It left me feeling defeated, like no matter how hard I tried, I could
always be doing more. Doing better.
I came to atheism by accident. Coincidentally, it was in a World Religion class, during my last year of college. It dawned on me that my Christianity was merely a result of where I grew up. Had I been born in, say, India, I likely would’ve been Hindu. In Iraq, Muslim. And on down the line. Couple that with making new kinds of friends whose “lifestyles” God didn’t approve of, I suddenly had the kindling and match to fuel my new doubt.
A few years later as an emerging adult, I left the South for a famously godless city, New York. I was looking to explore a new identity, to be the kind of person who moved to big cities and tried new things. And New York was full of newness. There were no steeples, no crucifixes planted in everyone’s yards, no JESUS SAVES signs on telephone poles, no constant reminders that I wasn’t good enough in God’s eyes. Riding the bus crosstown on 79th one fall afternoon, reading my first ever atheist book, The God Delusion, I felt free to explore my growing doubt for the first time. Soon after, I pored over every atheist book, podcast, debate that I could find, and my new identity was secured.
Eight years later, job changes led me to return to North Carolina. On a road trip, I scanned through the radio stations, and found that every other one featured a sermon of the “hellfire” type that I’d listened to so often as a child. Far off in the distance, a red, white, and blue sign appeared out of the ground:
The creators clearly felt proud to let anyone driving by know that their radio station broadcasted Christian messages and Christian music, unlike all those secular stations. Like the sermons, the sign forced me to confront what I had left behind: an ideology that I no longer agreed with, and a family firmly, unshakably planted in that ideology. I’d always known my family and hometown were religious, but it’d taken leaving for New York to realize just how large Christianity’s influence was in the place I'd come from.
Unlike my younger self, though, I now had full control over what messages I did and didn’t receive. I was an adult with a new, battle-tested belief system. I could simply turn the station, tune out my family’s words, choose not to park myself in a church pew. The sign gave me a new message: that while the South and my family may not have changed, I had.