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Beyond Binary: Living a Secular Life in the Bible Belt

Getty/Dimitri Otis

Now we continue our series “Beyond Binary” which explores the changing demographics of our area.

Eastern North Carolina is among the key notches on the “Bible Belt.” Houses of worship can be found on the most remote country roads and it isn’t uncommon to see their lots filled to the brim at least twice-a-week.

But as Chris Thomas reports, secularism’s reemergence in America hasn’t exempted eastern North Carolina.

Gallup polls over the years have rated North Carolina as one of the most religious states in the union, placing 9th in the most recent study, published Feb. 4.

Worship services are a virtually compulsory ritual for many across eastern North Carolina. That was once the case for Victor Steed – a Wilson native.

“I was born in a very traditional, African-American home – church every Sunday whether you wanted to go or not.”

As Victor grew up, they gradually felt their connection to the church loosen until, in spirit, it had been severed.

Victor is part of a trend in which a growing number of Americans are opting out of organized religion and are sometimes called the “nones” (spelled n-o-n-e-s, not to be confused with the similar sounding, though decidedly religious, “nuns”).

Victor no longer attends services regularly and, these days, their Sunday morning routine is a little more leisurely.

“A typical Sunday with me begins with me waking up, maybe, at 1:30 p.m. [laughter]. I usually spend the entire day at home or…I go out with some friends and we just spend the day around town, going out to eat, just hanging out, maybe some shopping or something like that. ”

According to the oft-cited study published by Pew Research Center last year – the percentage of religiously affiliated adults dropped from 83 percent in 2007 to 77 percent in 2014.

The trend is even stronger among Victor generation: millenials – those born between 1981 and 1996. Less than half of millenials polled say “religion is very important in their lives” and barely half say they believe in God “with absolute certainty.” 

“I understand that there is…that no one can really know for sure that there is a God or that there is any supernatural entity in the world. So I recognize… the possibility of there being nothing and there being something.”

Victor says “coming out” as secular person in an especially religious place like eastern North Carolina can be a perilous situation. It wasn’t made much better for them since they said they were “outed” before they were ready to do it themselves.

Their parents were “not okay” with their child’s deviation from what they saw as the right path, Victor said.

“One thing they kept saying was ‘you know the way, you know the way, you know the right way. You were brought up right, you were taught right.’ And I’m just like ‘I was only taught one way…I was taught the right way in your eyes, but I mean, in somebody else’s eyes, I was taught in the completely incorrect way.’ You know what I mean? There are so many different ways.”

Since they started living their life as a secular person, they’ve noticed strange things about the region’s relationship with faith – things that were once as normal as breathing to them.

A common example is seen at restaurants, like the one Victor used to work for, when a family comes in for a meal.

“And I’ll walk away, because they’ll ask me if they want salt or pepper or something like that, and I’ll walk away from the table, and I’ll come back and I’ll have to, like, stop for a minute or two while they say grace and I’ll have to stand there for that two minutes just to wait for them to finish, and you know, I got other tables, but at the same time, it’s just…it’s not really inconvenient, it’s just you notice how when you believe and when you don’t believe, how people treat you.”

But this may not be a sign of the United States becoming an atheistic, much less anti-religious, nation any time soon.

ECU Sociology Professor Susan Pearce is a member of the Religious Studies Program at East Carolina University.

This interview was recorded at a café near Downtown Greenville.

“One thing we know about Pew’s research…is that the ‘nones’ are not necessarily anti-religious. So they continue to be people who continue to be religiously unaffiliated who still say ‘religion is important’ or they say they’re spiritual but just not in a more institutionalized way.”

Studies have shown more prosperous nations tend to be the least religious, but in this case, American Exceptionalism cannot be denied.

The United States is number one in all major measurements of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) among sovereign nations; among the world’s 25 most prosperous nations, it’s also one of the more religious. About two-thirds of American adults said “religion is an important part of” of their daily lives, according to a 2010 poll.

Among the world’s “industrialized nations” on both hemispheres, Pearce says the United States is a latecomer to the secular party.

“And so what I’m wondering…about what’s going on now, is whether there is – among the millenials especially…less of a stigma to saying that you are a non-believer and less of a stigma to being spiritual in a deinstitutionalized sense than there was in the past. ”

Religion is deeply interwoven in the American narrative, especially in the south – but that may not have been the case from the start. Deism was popular among many western, intellectual circles during the late 18th century – including the blossoming American Republic.

A member of those circles? Chowan County Native Cornelius Harnett, who led the North Carolina Committee of Correspondence just before the start of the Revolution.

By the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the revolution, church attendance was low throughout the new nation. Very low.

Nowhere was it lower in the former colonies than North Carolina – which reported a diminutive, 4 percent church attendance rate.

“To some extent, we can see the United States going through cycles. We’ve had several great awakenings…we go through times of religious revival and I think that we actually had a recent one, maybe in the ‘90s, early 2000s, I saw a real spike in interest in religion, so that’s why it’s hard to predict about whether this is a new pattern toward generational transition toward secularization because who knows whether we’ll have another revival?”

Dr. Pearce said she doesn’t foresee the end of religion in eastern North Carolina, or anywhere else in the United States.

Instead, she sees an era of expanded “plura

lism” in which hijabs and pictures of atoms – the adopted symbol of the secular community – will be as common as metallic crosses and wooden rosaries

“One of the things we are seeing is more immigration to, what we call, ‘new gateways’ in the U.S. and so, in North Carolina for example, my students are going to be much more exposed to religious diversity than they were 20-years-ago in this state.”

Victor says religion is inherently harmful, but hopes present and future non-religiously affiliated individuals will inherent a more tolerant and inclusive country.

“It would be a world where people understood that…having different beliefs and different understandings is okay and just because someone believes differently doesn’t make them your enemy, it just means that’s something more for you to learn – someone else for you to learn from.”

The fact is pluralism is becoming a more common aspect of American life, in which matters that were once polarized are now deeply nuanced and people are now found on spectrums instead of opposing camps.

In more ways than we may realize, we’re all living beyond binary.

I’m Chris Thomas.