Sunday, September 5, 2010

American Religion and British Secularism - A Few Surprises

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:

Noble Savage:

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].

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.


  1. I couldn't agree more! I am horrified at how nasty my so-called christain friends back home in the states have become. I am exhausted with old friends quizzing me about my lack of religion. I love the UK for it's tolerance and understanding of those of us who choose not to believe.

  2. I'd love to know what is causing it. I'v espeant the last 21 years in countries with a strong religious identity. Thailand and Italy.

    While there have been moments of discomfort (mainly via both my MILS, any stick to beat a "forrin" DIL with will do) in the main it is more a gentle part of life than not, with pleanty of live and let live for people like me who are as spiritual as your average teapot.

    So what happened in the States, and why does the Daily Mail give me the horrible impression that the UK may be trying to work towards importing the same strident "hit you with my religious stick" tendancies ?

    What ever happened to "love thy neighbour", one of the most inclusive and generous statements religion has come up with ?

  3. Sarah, I am from the deep, dark South. The 'Bible Belt' as they call it. One of the first things they will ask you after meeting you is 'What church do you go to?' Makes me crazy.

    as far as what is causing the frevor..I think it is fear of the unknown, changing world AND the constant hammering into the heads of the masses that it is all because of a lack of God in people's lives. There has been a recent movement to put prayer back in schools...scary indeed.
    I also chalk alot of it up to 9/11 and the fear/anger over the 'others'...those non-christians who want to take all the freedoms of the christians (according to Glenn Beck and others).

    I simply cannot imagine the UK going the same way, just from what I habe observed here in the last few years.

  4. I'm a New Zealander living in the 'upper bible belt' of Minnesota,USA. I will also say I've lived in several European countries as well as the UK so my opinions are fairly well travelled. I'm a liberal democrat and each and every day it bothers me to the core that this country does not actually separate Church and State, that millions, actually 1/5th of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim! at which point I say who cares if he is or he isn't, but thats beside the point, the point is that there is fanatacism in this country to a level that is frightening! I also ask this question of many people I run into...
    In the UK it is the Chruch who constantly petitions the Government to add/keep services to the poor and needy(throught taxes), but in America it is the Church who constantly demands that the government stay out of their lives and demands lower taxes? It's a conundrum of the two different types of Christianity! Obviously being a liberal is a dirty word for most who attend Church over here, they want a Christian government, hence the entire 'quiverfull' movement(God help us if they succeed)
    it's a mess of monumental proportions and if Sarah Palin and her witch hunting cronies get any nearer to an official seat in government I'm packing my bags and taking my family back to New Zealand!

  5. I find American religious extremism terrifying. I sincerely believe parts of the USA are regressing back to the Dark Ages. We left the USA to return home to the UK 4 years ago - at first we wondered if we had made the right decision - now I know we definitely did!

  6. I would like to be the voice of moderation in this rather one-sided discussion, but alas, as someone who spent a number of years in a fundamentalist cult, I don’t think I have a very balanced view, either. However, as Toni, myself and Noble Savage all seemed to be singing form the same hymn sheet—so to speak—we had no one on deck to write the other side of the argument. And that’s a shame, as it has left us with a decidedly one-sided post.

    In my overall experience (cult membership aside) I find the majority of Americans to be even minded and open to other’s beliefs. I also know that the media loves to excite people, and if a picture of a child holding a sign about God’s hatred of fags gets people outraged, then they will do it, with no thought toward a balanced view.

    I’m not saying the thread of religion does not run deep in America—it does—I’m just saying I cannot believe, nor would I want the world to believe, that the majority of Americans are wild-eyed, bible waving, teeth-gnashing zealots eagerly marching toward Armageddon.

    This current wave of religious fervour is likely propagated and magnified by the media and embraced by a small percentage of the population. When I think of the wave of fundamentalism that swept through America in the 1970’s (the one that sucked me into its undertow) I recall it got a lot of press and had some people wringing their hands but went largely unnoticed by the majority of sane, rational, normal, tolerant people who were just trying to get by in their day to day lives.

    I can probably tell more horror stories about religious fanaticism than most people, but I can also tell many, many more stories of kind, open-minded people who touched my life and changed me for the better and who, to my knowledge, never cooked their child in an oven to drive Satan out of him.

  7. Oh bother. I'd just written a long, careful comment, and then I clicked away before I'd posted or saved it. Mike, I was trying to be your voice of moderation!

    What I was saying was that it's important not to tar all Christians in America with the same brush. Here - and I'm in the Bible belt - I've found people to be non-judgemental and accepting. I'd say the prevailing Christianity here is 'conservative tolerant', if I had to put a label to it.

    One of the things that can sometimes slip by unnoticed in a liberal context, is that tolerance should extend to tolerance for fundamentalist beliefs - so long as those beliefs don't harm others. So, for example, about the idea of having a morning prayer in schools... supposing the school is in the Bible belt, and though a public school, has a Christian majority of students. Wouldn't it be fair play to allow them a prayer, if they wanted it? Frankly, for atheists and agnostics, what's the problem? It's just a few words said by a misguided person. To say "we won't allow a daily prayer in schools because schools should be secular" - isn't that a bit fundamentalist in approach?

    I'm playing devil's advocate here, because I know the "prayer in schools" issue is much more complex, so please don't all come back at me on this. But I have to say that sometimes in the UK, I've got the feeling (particularly in the media) that liberalism has become "it's ok for everyone to believe what they like, so long as they're not a fundamentalist".

    However, I don't want to be naive, and I am worried by the way Christianity is used to support certain issues, whether it be using spanking to discipline your children (yes, really, that's considered a mainstream Christian viewpoint), or the kind of pro-life fervour which ends in the shooting of an abortion clinic doctor (pro-life? how is that pro-life exactly?) I heard on the radio this morning that there's a church in Florida which is holding a Koran-burning. That appals me, and worries me for the future of this country (and therefore the world).

    And Mike, I've been wondering why the ovens over here are so large.

  8. Actually, it's not the religion and the zealotry per se, but the fact that it infiltrates our politics and our secular lives without anyone seeming to notice, let alone mind. A bit like the illegal wire-tapping of Dubbya's administration that barely raised an eye brow, or Cheney's refusal to answer any questions about the various gray areas of his dealings. (Haliburton, Lyn Cheney's doings, Official Secrets classification etc.) All very scary if the nation lets it slide.

    As I said, I really have no problem with "religious people" and in the USA, they are respnosible for a lot of the work that more "socialist" European governments take on, but this country is not a Christian country technically, so religion/God shouldn't be injected into secular events like the swearing in of the nations' President.

  9. Expat Mum

    I don't understand why you say the illegal wire-tapping was a result of religion in politics. Did Bush say he had a right to do it on Christian grounds? Or is your point that he got away with things, simply because he professed Christianity? Interested to know.

    On the scary side, we've just been in Barnes and Noble, and I happened to catch sight of
    "The American Patriot's Bible". You can imagine what that's like. And as if that wasn't bad enough, there was a pocket edition of it, which was fabric-covered. The fabric was combat camouflage design. Yikes. The Stars and Stripes would have been bad enough, but combat camouflage! Yikes.

  10. And I realize again that here on the left coast I live in a completely different country to the rest of the USA! I have Christian friends: one is an openly gay catholic priest and the others attend a church with a lesbian episcopalian minister. I have muslim friends of Afghani descent, Jewish and Buhdist too. But I don't know a single person who isn't appalled by Sarah Palin and the religious right. San Francisco really is a different country. But though we have an ad on buses depicting six men of caring skin tones in bed together with the tag line "choose your wood carefully" (it's for lumber!), I doubt we could get away with those awesome bendy bus ads, even here.

  11. Geeky: "... we have an ad on buses depicting six men of varing skin tones in bed together with the tag line 'choose your wood carefully'..."

    Too funny! And in AMERICA? I'm shocked ;) But as you say, SF is a different country.

  12. "It's just a few words said by a misguided person"

    Context tho'.

    My son's former STATE school was decorated in crucifixes, the kids went to church based events as a school fairly often, nuns wandered in and out and RE was very much about the dominant religion rather than be "religions of the world" style.

    And it didn't bother me one bit. It was a religious flavour but it sat on top of the curriculum (aside from RE), it didn't whiffle its way into subjects where it had no place.

    But where you have a fight over what schools teach in science classes, with religion trying to hijack the curriculum...then my instinct would be to start putting up a barrier as high and wide as I could to keep it out of the school.

    And that is why I'm concerned about where the UK is going. Because references to creationism outside of the USA makes me go a tad google eyed.

    I blame Blair, I don't believe that he had no idea how the acadamy system could be abused in this fashion.

  13. This is a timely post for me. I just finished watching two documentaries that are polar opposite in views from one another: one about Americans who believe in the Rapture and Armageddon and another hosted by Richard Dawkins called "The Genius of Charles Darwin." I won't bother telling you which one I enjoyed more and which one was the most horrifying to me. But along the lines of Toni's comments, the one thing that is still startling to me is the fact that we (myself not included) still consider our President's religious affiliation and kick up a fuss about whether or not he attends church, prays and mentions God regularly. I wonder what would happen if he/she no longer said "God Bless America." No doubt it would be political suicide. Two years after his election the right is still using Obama's religion (or what they think is his religion) as in issue to influence the electorate. At the end of the day, I really don't think THEY care but they know many Americans care so they use it to their advantage. I don't blame the Right as much, they just saw what was politically advantageous, but I do blame Americans who place waaay too much importance on religion in their government. I find it humorous that, as Noble Savage points out, we left Britain to escape religious persecution yet now practice our own.

  14. Interesting blog.

    You might enjoy an older blog post of mine about Prince Charles :)

  15. @Iota - my point about the wire-tapping etc wasn't anything to do with religion, I was just pointing out how many things the nation doesn't seem to notice, like religion being inserted into government, wire-tapping etc. It makes me very worried when this sort of thing happens.

  16. (waves from North Carolina in the US)

    Apologies; longwinded!

    This kind of thing is one of many reasons I've told my expat British better half anytime he wants to move back home, just give me a window to get the critters through customs and I'm there. We're both Pagans; he's Wiccan and I fall somewhere between Native American shamanism and immigrant Scots-Irish agricultural folkways. In the Bible Belt, this has cost me 3 jobs and a rental house, and I've had people cheerfully tell me they have a religious duty to "thwart me at every turn" if they can't actually kill me. Some of them are my neighbors and relatives. One of them was a cop.

    When we went to the UK last year to visit his family, I enjoyed that not once did anyone ask me "what church do you go to?" in a "testing-you" tone, or demand to know if I support "Christian values" interest groups or politicians.

    I went to quite a few churches (history! architecture! artwork!) and spoke with various clergy, and all of them were far more interested in talking about the buildings or local history or the current fundraiser (used book sale!). Not one asked me about my beliefs, except for a question about why I took my shoes off to walk up on the dais to take pictures, and then it was "oh, that's rather nice, wonder if it would catch on here with this lot . . ." and she proceeded to tell me about some of the pre-Roman archaeology sites I should try to see while I was there!

    I've hardly met the whole country, but everyone I've spoken with seems to feel this is normal, and the type of aggressive evangelical attitude we get over here to be appalling and unreal.

    I grew up in a family that was/is mostly ultra-conservative charismatic fundamentalist. Women are subordinate, don't wear pants or cut their hair, secular music, GLBT people, and foreign cultures are evil, etc. The significant thing to me is that that older generation of hardliners are finding the attitudes being displayed now are too hateful or nuts even for them. My grandmother would have told a gay man he was demon-possessed, but she would've tried to feed him a hot home cooked dinner and asked after his Mama while she was doing it. Not these people.

    Not all Christians are of the crazy stripe; I hesitate to even call them Christians. As was commented earlier, "media theocrats" is more accurate. I feel fairly certain that poor Jesus is looking at them and doing a major :headdesk:, and shouldn't be held responsible for them.

    Problem is, I think many of the people I would call Christians think of the extremists as the lesser of two evils. They don't like them, they don't agree with them, but they either feel they must take the high road and not speak out against them because they're supposed to be brethren or because it would be "lowering oneself", or because they fear that other faiths are more dangerous and want to wipe out Christianity, and things like the New Apostolic Movement, Wallbuilders, Quiverfull, Beck, Gingrich, Hannity, & Palin are at least devils they know. Those entities and much of the media are reinforcing those ideas as loud and often as they can.

    Add that up with Dominionist infiltration of the Federal government over the last 3 decades and it ain't pretty.

  17. I have to say my experience in New York has not been one of religious fantacism at all. Not one person here has asked me whether I go to church, or which one I go to (rather luckily, as I don't go). The only time religion ever comes into conversation is when someone's child goes to a Jewish or Catholic school - at which point they are usually at great pains to tell me "I'm not actually Jewish/Catholic, but I like the school". I have met people who attend church, but they certainly don't make a big deal of it, and quite often you find out someone is Jewish just because they happen to mention Hanukah presents or similar.

    So, it's definitely not fair to tar all Americans with the same brush. I realise that my experience is probably wildly different from someone in the rural bible belt, but really here I have found people to much less openly religious than I wass expecting.

  18. If I came across as tarring all Americans with the same brush, I didn't mean to. I am referring to the zealots here who don't allow for any other views and expect everyone to live according to their dogma.

  19. The other thing that hasn't been mentioned is the danger these views pose to Americans abroad. Pastor Terry Jones from Gainsville, Florida is currently being criticized by military officials for the danger he is exposing US forces to in the middle east. He is preaching that "Islam is the Devil" and has appeared on TV condemning Muslims.

  20. New York, NVG, is not like the Bible Belt at all. (For that matter, NYC isn't like the rest of the country. I started college in 2002, a year after 9/11, and even as a native New Yorker (second generation!) I was startled at how many of my classmates were perfectly happy to say, when asked "I don't think of myself as an American, I'm a New Yorker first."

    That's the large feeling about the "mosque" at the "WTC" as well. Whether you support it or not, both sides are willing to band together to say "The rest of the country needs to butt out".

    Of course, Lawn Guyland isn't *really* part of NYC :P

    As far as prayer in school goes, nobody EVER has said that children shouldn't pray in school. "As long as we have tests, there'll be prayer in schools!" What we have said, consistently, is that prayer (or the lack thereof) should not be coerced. Children should not be put in a position where they can be singled out for their beliefs.

    For a teacher to lead a prayer is the same as the teacher saying that praying in this specific way is the right thing to do. Small children trust their teachers. We WANT them to trust their teachers. And to that end, their teachers should limit themselves to teaching proven facts. This protects Christians as well as non-Christians. As an atheist, I don't want my (theoretical) children being told about Jesus by an authority figure. I also don't want them being told about Islam, or Buddhism, in the same "This is the right way" tone of voice. Likewise, I don't want Christian children in the Bible Belt to come home saying that their teacher told them church is stupid.

  21. I love deep in the mid-west bible belt and my tiny town of pop: 400 has 7 churches - need I say more!! I am totally with Toni on this and am quite frankly horrified at what so called christians think is acceptable to do and preach! I much prefer the way things are in the UK. Personally I think a persons religious beliefs should be like their poiltics, nobody else's business.

  22. Oh and that 2nd word should have been LIVE!! Although I do love here too!!

  23. I agree with geekymummy that it's different out here on the left coast than the rest of the country. Or so I hear. I'm a liberal, open-minded Christian who cringes at religious extremism, and most of the Christians I know my age feel the same way. I do think that, despite media portrayal, your average American Christian is more tolerant than many people may expect. At least, I'd hope so. Why do all the out-there Christians get all the attention, rather than the ones minding their business, just trying to make their worlds a better place? Because the media likes a good story.

    I did appreciate living in the UK though how religion and politics didn't infiltrate people's identities and make people so needlessly emotional. I think Americans in general can get swept away by emotions much easier than Brits!

  24. Wow what a fascinating post and the comments section itself would take ours to read and respond to! I'm a Kiwi living in the UK and I'm a non-church going Christian, of unspecified denomination. Like Mike? I too was involved in a fundamentalist cult and have seen enough of scary religious fanaticism to last a lifetime. I've found religion to be a larger part of the fabric of the England I live in - whether that's because I live in a rural town and much of the local town business is conducted in their parish council of the Church of England, or whether it is by nature conservative, I'm not sure. I was surprised that my daughter's primary school celebrated Harvest and Shrove Tuesday. We certainly didn't have any of those celebrations in the New Zealand state school system. I think there's a growing religious fundamentalism growing here too - not all of it Christian I might add. It's interesting to hear your comparisons of the religion/state balance in the US versus the UK. I suspect there's religious intolerance and fundamentalism everywhere in the world, you just need to look under the surface for it, in some places.

  25. Wow ....
    So much hate ......
    (And i'm just talking about some of the posts here.)
    As an adolescent i attended that same organization Mike refers to as a "cult" (remember "friendship tea", Mike?),
    and i just finished 7 years' volunteer work as a sunday school teacher.
    So you could definitely call me a member of the churchgoing subculture.
    Is there anything i could add that you, um, agnostatheists wouldn't sneer at?
    Does it help my credibility to mention that i earned a Juris Doctor degree and was admitted to the bar in two states? No? No. Oh well.

    Well agnostatheists, (YES, i KNOW it's not a real word; it's called "wordplay", okay?)
    i do owe you an apology for Terry Jones and the other members of the low-forheaded gene pool. But on the other hand, people like him have embarrassed me so much, i've pretty much stopped talking about my faith. Matter of fact, when John Heaggy first started the fashion of anti-Muslim hate speech (no, don't waste your time Googling him. He's a fat guy with a big mouth and a Bible that he may or may not read; that's all you need for now.), that's when i realized that speaking out for tolerance is pointless in a culture where the secular people don't want to tolerate the religious (so they --- what. Move to England?) and the religious people don't want to tolerate the Democrats. Mostly, what Americans want is, to make the other guy look stupid so that they won't have to listen and learn and become more educated themselves.
    So really, agnostatheists, maybe you ought to be grateful for the jerks, since they have (1) given you reasons to say "Ha! Told you so." and (2) caused people like me to shut up because we realize that neither the religious people nor the secular people want to hear a gentle, reasoned discussion about the topic.
    So, enjoy your Christopher Hitchens CDs. I've got a comic strip that i've been neglecting for too long.

  26. This thread is long since cold, but just in case anyone has notifications on, the underlying topic, Americans as ignorant, intolerant ignoramuses has come up again for me, and I realize that I never commented over here back in September. Bits of my post:

    Last week I found this post over at Pond Parleys. There is much to comment upon, but for the moment I will focus on the pictures she linked to, the ones with teenagers from Westboro Baptist Church holding horrible signs about gays. If you click through to the original post at the Dallas Observer, you might get the impression that this is a protest by some local Baptist church traveling around Dallas. Certainly most of the commenters on the news story and the expat blog assume that such things are commonplace. Only one or two mention that they live in America, find the people surprisingly tolerant, and haven't seen protests or attitudes in line with the pictures. ...

    The too-obvious-to-argue assumption among most Europeans (and many Americans, too) is that America, especially the South and West, is full of religious, intolerant bigots. Everyone can see the horrible protest signs. Everyone has heard similar stories, including the new big story, the Koran burning threat. Obviously Americans are a bunch of bigots, right?

    Well, there certainly are some bigots, those guys holding the signs aren't mannequins, but they number far fewer than it seems. A little background info on the Westboro Baptist Church will illustrate. One, WBC isn't a Baptist church, isn't part of any Baptist convention or any other convention of churches. It is an independent church started by Fred Phelps in the mid-1950's. ... Two, WBC, in spite of being around for 50+ years boasts only 70 to 100 members, most of which are Phelps's family. Three, WBC isn't in Dallas. It is in Kansas. The WBC reportedly spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year sending members all over the country to protest at things like servicemen funerals (They think that God hates the US for tolerating gays and that soldiers' deaths are God's righteous wrath. Pleasant group, no?) Four, they are publicity hounds. In addition to coverage of their protests, church representatives have appeared on TV numerous times in the UK, both day and night TV as well a documentaries. They have given interviews on talk shows in Canada and Australia, as well as on various talk shows, both day and night, in the US, including multiple appearances on Fox news (and no, for those that assume Fox is some medium for horribleness, not favorably).

    There are lots of hyperlinks in there that don't cut and paste, and the post is longer. If interested, the post is "Forced Perspectives" from last September. And this stuff came up again in comments about a post I had on Tunisia, Are Americans Uniformed, Incurious.


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