I’m beginning to write this on a plane traveling back to California from Roswell, NM where I traveled for a wedding, and it has been an eye opening experience. I had been to Roswell many times when I was younger to visit family, but I hadn’t been back there since I became an atheist several years ago. It’s amazing how much the rose-tinted glasses of religion altered my perception of the town. Roswell, NM is famous for the “UFO crash” in 1947, but the locals don’t really seem to believe those stories much (for them, UFO stands for “Unlimited Financial Opportunity”). Their delusion, however, is about 2 millenia older; the religiosity of the town was just dumbfounding.
Symbolizing the level of religious delusion, I think, is their proud display of the ten commandments on the lawn of the county courthouse. This monument isn’t inside where the only people who see it are locals there on business. It isn’t sitting next to the building where it would blend in, or even facing the building for that matter. It is blatantly positioned right next to the highway so that drivers passing by will see it…proselytizing to anyone who drives by, which is a lot considering that the courthouse is situated on the main highway passing through the town. It’s basically a big “fuck you” to anyone who isn’t Christian or Jewish. It’s also as if they are just daring someone to speak out against it. Perhaps not coincidentally, there is a World War II era canon on the courthouse lawn just a few dozen feet away.
If someone were to speak out against this monument, I have little doubt that the town would react with a vengeance at least as strong as that seen with Jessica Ahlquist, Damon Fowler, et al. I get the distinct impression that virtually the entire town is fundamentalist Christian, and they really aren’t accustomed to dealing with dissent. I also suspect that the majority of Christians there aren’t the Easter/Christmas Christians either. For what it’s worth I did send a note to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico about the monument, but since I’m a Californian I don’t have standing and can’t really do much about it.
Religion was absolutely everywhere in the town. If a display wasn’t about aliens, it was about Christianity. I saw business signs that incorporated the fish logo, even though those businesses had nothing to do with religion. I saw liquor stores with signs saying “God Bless You” on them (that was good for a laugh, I admit). I would estimate that around 20% to 30% of all billboards were religious; sometimes of the generic “find Jesus or burn in hell” sort, but typically advertising for a church.
The churches were probably the most disturbing thing I saw. They were everywhere. In a town of 48,366 (2), there are 58 churches according to the yellow pages (3)! That’s 1.2 churches per thousand people! For comparison, the city I live in in Silicon Valley has 0.6 churches per thousand people and, given the wide diversity of faiths here, the number of places of worship would normally be expected to be higher than a more homogenous place like Roswell. Many of the churches in Roswell looked brand new and very expensive. I cannot begin to fathom how much money has been spent on churches there. What makes it truly disturbing is that Roswell is a very poor town, where the median income is just $36,237 with 21.8% of people living below the poverty line. By comparison, the national median income is considerably higher at $51,914, with only 13.8% of people living below the poverty line. (4) Seeing half-collapsed buildings are a common occurrence, and most of the houses have visible signs of decay. You can almost see the buildings crumbling before your eyes. It’s a stark reminder of how much poverty there really is in the US. To see all of these people struggling so much, and then to see how much money is going to these churches really really makes me angry!
Just being there was oppressive. It didn’t matter that I didn’t interact with many people and didn’t experience much proselytizing (I haven’t come out to that side of the family yet), I still felt incredibly stifled. I was constantly on edge the entire weekend. It seemed like there wasn’t a moment that went by that I wasn’t reminded of the religiosity of the town. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be flying back to San Francisco.
What is equally amazing is that I never even noticed how religious it was before. I did a little digging and the ten commandments monument was definitely up last time I was there, but I didn’t notice it. I didn’t notice all of the churches, I didn’t notice all the ads, and in general I didn’t notice how prominent Christianity is there. I’m shocked at how effective the blinders of religion are. I only had to spend a few days there; I can’t imagine what it must be like to have lived your whole life there. There are people suffering under these oppressive conditions all around the country. It was a brutal reminder of how important our movement truly is. It’s not just about preventing atheists from being harassed, although it is that. It’s not just about upholding the law when others are content to break it, although it is that too. This is about allowing people to life their lives as they see fit. This is about preventing the ostracization of minorities everywhere. This is about creating a world where ancient superstition doesn’t govern a nation.
(1) Frysinger, Galen R. “Roswell, New Mexico.” Available: http://www.galenfrysinger.com/new_mexico_roswell.htm
(2) “Roswell, New Mexico.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roswell,_New_Mexico
(3) “Yellow Pages.” Superpages. Available: http://www.superpages.com/
(4) “State and County QuickFacts.” U.S. Census Bureau. Available: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html
(5) “Church on the Move.” Jesse M. Harris, Architect. Available: http://www.lpdj.com/projects/Move.htm