This week, we're delighted to bring you guest poster Noble Savage. She's an American living in the UK and started blogging when she moved there in 2005. This week, she has something to say on religion in the UK versus the US:
Like a Plymouth pilgrim in reverse, I fled America for Britain to escape religious tyranny.
Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but only just.
When I see things like this on American street corners and someone like this on American TV screens -- spouting hate, ignorance and vitriol night after night, in the name of religion, patriotism and the aggrandized sense of moral superiority that accompanies both -- I do feel that I’ve escaped a way of life that, if I’d stayed, I would have undoubtedly struggled with and against. As an agnostic and then an atheist, I have always felt uncomfortable with the pervasiveness of organised religion in my home country and thought it ironic that a nation founded on principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state could be so dominated and divided by that mythical man in the sky.
When I moved to England as a young adult, I was a bit shocked at the lack of religion. As a 20-something living in London and hanging out with lefty liberals, this should have been unsurprising but still, it was. Even the rare few friends and acquaintances whom I eventually learned did attend church never proselytized or used their religious beliefs to openly judge my lifestyle or political opinions. If they did disagree with me or judge me, they had the quintessential British politeness to do so in the privacy of their own head or home. That’s not to say that the British never use their religious beliefs to shape their opinions and, consequently, the law, but it seems to be less pervasive and in-your-face than it is in the States.
The thing that strikes me as most odd about the UK’s secularism is the fact that, technically, it is a religiously-affiliated nation, run and represented by the Church of England. There is no separation of church and state, yet it remains fairly separate because of the populace’s laid-back attitude to religion. This is a nation where 33 per cent consider themselves atheist or agnostic and only 15 per cent attend church regularly. The comparative figures for America are 7 percent and around 40 per cent, respectively [figures from religioustolerance.org].
Nothing illustrates these differences more perfectly than in 2008, during the Democratic nomination process in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stood on a historic ballot. For the first time ever, America’s Democratic voters had to decide between a a black man or a woman. Rumblings and misgivings about each came from all quarters. But it was when a friend of mine quite rightly commented, “I can see either of them getting elected president before anyone who identified as atheist,” that I knew that even more than skin colour and even more than gender, religion holds a monopoly on American politics and culture.
For that reason, I’m quite happy to stay in merry ol’ England, where we have an admitted atheist for a Deputy Prime Minister and messages like this appear on the sides of buses. When it comes to religion, the UK is definitely my stop.
Post Script from Toni, our Brit in America:
I have little to add to Noble Savage's views except to say that if you're not a right-wing religious zealot, it's all a bit scary in the US at the moment.
I had a taste of the religious element as soon as moved here in 1990. Most people (in Dallas) were heavily involved in their (mostly Protestant) churches and were almost aghast when I confessed my non-attendance. Many offered to take me along to their church, never for a moment thinking that I had no intention of joining any church at any time. Even in Chicago (lots of Catholics, of which I am the lapsed variety) there's a much bigger percentage of church goers than in the UK.
All this I can live with however. I respect a person's right to practise a religion as long as my right to take a pass is respected in return.
What really annoys me is the religion that is inserted into American government despite the supposed separation of church and state. Having had many debates about this, the usual answer is that this country was founded by Christians and the entire Constitution envelops the Christian ethic. Never mind that they were trying to escape enforced religion, or that there are millions of Americans who don't have God and the Bible as the center of their belief system. And god help agnostists and atheists - we're all going to Hell in a handbasket apparently.
People who call themselves Christians are getting downright evil, as Nobel Savage showed above. This nasty side has always been apparent in the intolerance towards gays and lesbians, but now it's being directed against Muslims specifically, with Obama's middle name Hussein being interjected whenever possible to remind us that they think he's one of them.
I miss the tolerance in the UK and realise now that, like many, I took it for granted.
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