Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Religion in America

I normally try to avoid religion and politics in my blog, but from time to time, I enjoy the challenge of trying to sail it through choppier, more unpredictable waters.

The power and influence of religion in America was certainly a jolt to the system when I arrived here from the UK.  I already knew that the US was a much more religious place than the UK of course, but even so, it is still quite a culture shock.  I am not sure how much the shock is compounded by the fact that I am not at all religious myself (I would generally describe myself as an atheist).  It was certainly fascinating to read (British expat) Iota’s blog on the subject of encountering US religion, and it made me appreciate that aspects of the experience of coming here may well be quite different for those who are Christian, as she is.

Religion generally plays a very quiet and low key role in the UK, but here in the USA, religion is big and brassy and most American people are very up front about telling you all about their religion and beliefs.  I know that Iota found this approach refreshing, but for me, I must confess that I can find it awkward and I can easily end up smiling and nodding vaguely, as people tell me at length about Jesus and their experience of being saved, or whatever.

The language here is different too - in the USA, if someone is having problems, say they are sick or something, people will talk about praying for them, or ask people to pray for them.  It some circumstances, it can just be a turn of phrase, of course, but even so, it is one example of how the American language contains more religious overtones.

Another difference for me is that religion in the USA nearly always means Christianity, certainly down here in the South, anyway.  Back in Britain, where I was working and living in the inner cities most of my adult life, Christianity was just one of many belief systems: Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism etc.  But here in the US, there is a general sense that Christianity is the big one, certainly down here in the Deep South (although there are multiple different Christian denominations and sects, of course).   

As a non-believer, I often get the sense that being Christian is perceived as the “norm” here and that many Americans generally see atheism (and to some extent some of the other religions aswell, such as Islam) as being more than a little bit suspect.

There is a social respectability that is accorded to those who attend church and pronounce their faith  and values here too, which hasn’t really existed in England for a long time.  What I mean is that you are perceived as being more upstanding and moral by some if you publicly subscribe to being a Christian.  I guess that is why politicians and public figures here pretty much always have to play up their Christian credentials, which is almost the opposite to the UK, where Tony Blair was constantly trying to play down his Catholicism.

One of the peculiar paradoxes about religion and politics in the USA is that essentially it is a secular country (enshrined in the constitution) with a very religious population, whereas Britain (also paradoxically) is officially a Christian country (The Queen is head of state and head of the Church of England) but the population aren’t particularly religious.

I guess I should point out in conclusion that despite me not generally being a big fan of religion, I do strongly believe that people have the right to believe whatever they want.  I am generally a live and live kind of person.  Some of the more conservative Christians here in the US seem less tolerant than me, however.  I have developed a lot of compassion for the plight of gay Americans since I’ve been here, especially those who live outside of the big coastal cities, who can have a particularly difficult time, it seems.


  1. Growing up in a religious family (I didn't have much say in the matter) back home I mercilessly had the piss taken out of me for going to church on a Sunday. I suspect the same stigma doesn't exist with American children, it's almost expected that on Sunday morning the family is bowing down to the almighty.

    I think we'll see a great deal of fuss regarding Mitt Romney's religious views with the upcoming election. Watch Christian turn on Christian.

    I see Europe moving rapidly towards atheism/agnosticism but the US clings steadfastly onto it's collective faith, I wonder if America will follow Europe's lead or whether a cultural divide will emerge?

  2. @Rob - Evidence seems to be that the culture is moving in a different direction amongst the young:

    I do thing religion is more demonstrative and public in the US, and that there is more diversity of experience and belief, but I would caution anyone who thinks that means the UK is full of atheists. Actually, the majority believe in God, they just don't attend services and make a public spectacle about it.

    I was shocked to find half of Britons don't believe in Evolution. Which is the same amount that don't believe in the US. And that 20% believe in creationism and intelligent design.

    The statistics for the UK vary, ranging from 38-46 percent believing in God, whilst an overwhelming majority are not religious (meaning attending services). Compare that with the statististics in the US and things aren't quite as radical in the US as it might seem on first blush.

    That is not to say that most of what Paul said is untrue, but that I think he's right to mention that his personal atheism and lack of exposure to public religious behavior does make the religiosity in the US seem more shocking to him, than to someone like Iota.

    I grew up in it, so I don't see it as anything other than personal expression of belief and I don't feel I have been indoctrinated in it, or forced to believe what I don't want to believe in. That, I find, is a common fear of atheists - that somehow exposure to religious material makes people religious. Contrast that with discussion of the God gene and the idea that humans evolved a tendency towards religiosity for some very good reasons and I think there's less to fear - certainly amongs the more strong-minded individuals.

  3. Hi Paul,

    As someone who grew up in Belfast I have developed a hearty distaste for all organised religion.
    That does not mean I do not have a faith - I do, and a strong one. But I do feel that my faith is my own personal business and I do not feel the need to impose it on any one else.

    I also believe that there are values (I will call them Christian values for lack of a better expression) which are inherent in all faiths (even secularism) which far too often get ignored.

    Good blog


  4. Another great blog and comparison. The hubs and I feel the same way about things, and even more so after traveling the world. Life is too short to be so judgmental with religion, and unfortunately a lot, I mean A LOT of people in the US feel it is their duty to force it on others.

  5. To xysea's point - I grew up in a tight Catholic community in England where everyone went to church, but I still found religion in the US a much bigger deal when I came here. Even tho' we all went to church & did all the religious things, we would NEVER talk about it the way people do here.

    I also think it's much bigger in the south here. When I first came here I lived in Texas, my in-laws are in Arkansas, so I've been exposed to a lot of southern stuff. Up here in Chicago, there's a lot of religion (more of the Catholic & Jewish persuasion) but it's not as evident in day to day life.

  6. @Rob - I am so much out of the loop that I asked my wife (Xysea) why there were so many smartly dressed people in the pizza place on a Sunday lunchtime (they had all come from church, of course).

    @Xysea - there are, of course, many Christians in the UK. But their expression of faith takes a quite different form and the religious culture is different. Church attendance has been dropping gradually, but steadily in the UK for about 150 years. One can debate the veracity of various graphs, but this one from Wiki is typical:

    @David - For me, Northern Ireland is a great example of why politics and religion should never be mixed! :-)

    @Texa - Yes, I agree. I think it should just be a matter of personal belief!

    @Expat Mum - I included the link to Iota's blog, because I think that most Brits experience some level of culture shock, whether they themselves are religious or not. I did a little research before I wrote this post, and it was interesting to see how variable the USA is in terms of its religious demoography.

  7. When I saw the title of your post, I was shocked that you would attempt this one - it is such a touchy and complicated subject, esp in the South. The funny thing is, I thought about writing about religion in England, but it seems invisible yet official and integrated. I think they say prayers in UK public schools(?) yet it is illegal to do so in the US. I believe religious education is part of the UK curriculum with an array of RE classes offered to target the specific religion of each student(?). Living among so many religions here, one realizes that there surely there isn't just one 'right' religion (of course I knew that, but now believe it deeper).

  8. I'm fascinated by the US, but I don't think I would be very liked over there. I don't appreciate people ramming their beliefs down my throat and I find it difficult to bite my tongue when they do. I tend to over-compensate and tell them why their wrong, even if I actually agree with them. Religion, politics, or any other thing that uninformed people are passionate about.

  9. I love your paragraph (the penultimate one, to use a lovely British English word) about paradox. Yes. Isn't that interesting? I also notice it at Christmas. In the US, you have to talk about "the holidays", and be careful to include Hannukah and Kwanzaa. In the UK, primary schools still have nativity plays, and there is still much more religious symbolism around.

    Interesting about Tony Blair playing down his Christianity (I think he only became Catholic after he left 10 Downing Street), while in the US, the politicians' Christian credentials are all on display. Yes.

    I think I must live in quite a mellow place. I really don't think people are offensively 'up front' with their religious views. When we first arrived, most people were far more interested in talking about my accent than my religious beliefs. I guess if I'd said I was an atheist or agnostic, I might have found different - as you say.

  10. @Iota - I have had the debate about Tony Blair with my wife. My understanding is that Blair considered himself to be a catholic whilst in office, but he didn't formerly become a catholic until after he left office, because he didn't want the publicity that would surround it. I thought that Blair said that in his book, but I might be wrong.

    My background is Church of England, which my mother still follows, so my knowledge of catholic theology is admittedly weak and I don't know whether Blair can be a catholic without some sort of formal acceptance, although I suspect he can?

    I maybe should have just said 'christian', rather than 'catholic' in the piece and avoided the whole issue! ;-)

  11. @Anon - I must admit that I can struggle with the culture shock of the religion and politics here in the US. My wife thinks that I exagerate because on an everyday level, it doesn't really have a big effect - it's not like there are people are haranguing you about religion or politics every time you leave the house(!) The general 'atmosphere' here in the US is really very different, however - certainly down here in The South. At times, it can be charming and fun and to be honest, part of the reason I go to other places is to experience the relative strangeness, but other times I can find the atmosphere a little sinister.

  12. Paul--

    I think a lot of it is your location in the South. Not sure where you are in Florida too, as that will vary considerably. There are many, many Americans (like myself) who also struggle with the right-wing elements of the US and find it disconcerting. We just aren't always as visible, especially depending on where you live.

    It would be interesting to consider spirituality in the US vs. the religious. This has become an important distinction lately, and Americans are often said to be very spiritual people.

    Among educated people in certain parts of the country (especially in urban areas of the Northern states), being openly Christian is very much a stigma. Many atheists are even more passionate about their beliefs in the US because they feel threatened, and if you mention prayer in certain circles (for example in academia), you will be considered a bit suspect.

    Don't know if you saw it, but PBS & Frontline just did a multi-episode special called God in America, going all the way to Spanish exploration & the Puritans. I just watched episode 1 and found it enlightening on the roots of Puritanism in the US.

    Thanks again for the post!

  13. @Tara - I'm in Gainesville which is a very liberal college town. Though even here, we had that crazy koran burning preacher, who's gone now, I believe.

    Thanks for the link, I will check out the PBS docu.

  14. to go along with Taramoyle--
    I would also think a lot of this is more regional than national (to an extent). Having lived in Northern California (Sacramento/Bay Area) for my whole life, religion isn't this all-encompassing thing like it can be in other parts of the US (my mom is from Low Country, Georgia/Deep South). I can't speak for other parts of the country, but I know here there has been quite a shift over the years from religious to maybe more spiritual/agnostic. I think this will continue and maybe spread as time goes on--we'll see. I thought it was interesting that you, coming from England, would think of the US as being more openly religious. Christianity (and other large organized religions) have been around a lot longer in England than in the New World. I don't know, but England/UK has always seemed very 'Christian' to me, albeit with significant groups (Protestant, Catholic, etc). I guess it just goes to show you that it really just depends on how your parents raised you, and what state/town/city you live in. I am off to watch that PBS documentary now!~

    Also, I just stumbled across your blog today and it's been fascinating reading--thank you! :)

    1. For sure, there are some regional variations, but overall by most measures the US is far more religious than the vast majority of 'Western' countries, not just the UK.

      The UK, although nominally christian, is at the other end of the scale. Far more people in the US attend church regularly than in UK (

      But it's not just the numbers, Americans generally take religion far more seriously. Issues like evolution, abortion, gambling, gay marriage, etc are all far more contentious in the US and there are stricter rules against things like gambling, alcohol, and homosexuality generally (with regional exceptions, of course).

      You are, of course, right to point out that the big US coastal cities are generally more non-believing than most of the rest of the country, and that academic and scientific culture is, like in most places, generally skeptical of religion - but I would argue that these are exceptional as far as the general pattern goes.

      I would agree that there is some evidence, like you say, of a movement amongst the young away from traditional religious ideas. American teenagers of my daughter's age seem less interested in traditional religion. (When I was a kid in the UK, there were quite a lot of religious people in the older generation still alive, I would say, but they are gone now and the religious are very much a minority)

      But overall, US culture seems permeated by Christianity to a Brit. The president talks about his faith. The bible and Christian beliefs crop up regularly on TV discussions. People use language like "I'll pray for you" etc. Being a Christian also has wider connotations in the US - it implies an upstanding lifestyle and moral character to many people.

      On a lighter note, here's Tim Minchin, an Australian atheist comic's angle on playing to audiences in America: