If you didn’t know it already, I am an atheist. Non-belief is more common in England where I am from, and the culture is generally a more skeptical one. So it was definitely a culture shock coming to the US where Christianity is still going strong and being religious is to some degree very much part the norm.
This post was partly prompted by a survey recently done by Gallup in the US (June 7-10 2012), where they asked people if they would be prepared to vote for a politician who was Catholic, or Jewish etc. and as you can see from the figures below, atheists ended up down at the bottom of the pile below Muslims, with just under half of Americans saying that they’d not be prepared to vote for someone who was an atheist.
The poll asked Americans if they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified candidate who was black (96% would), a woman (95% would), a Catholic (94%), Hispanic (92%), Jewish (91%), Mormon (80%), gay/lesbian (68%), Muslim (58%), or atheist (54%).
Several of my American friends actually expressed surprise that 50% of Americans trusted atheists – they thought that the number would be much lower!
Back in the UK, religion has been in steady decline for 200 years, but the process accelerated somewhat in the latter half of the twentieth century and by the time it got to the post-1960s generations most people stopped going to church altogether. Here, where I am in Gainesville, North Florida, such are the numbers of church goers that there is actually a rush hour when church ends on a Sunday morning and the congregations turn out.
The core of atheism in the US, as you would expect, is probably in academia and the scientific community. I think the American scientist, Carl Sagan, has often summed up best for me why I put my faith in science and reason and believe that God and religion are man-made phenomena.
There are also quite a few atheists on the political left in the US, although nowhere near as many as you’d find in the UK, or Northern Europe generally. Rightwing American atheists tend to be rarer in my experience.
Probably one of the most famous atheists in American popular culture is Bill Maher, although there have been plenty of non-believing US comics in the past – W C Fields being maybe the most notable one. My favorite US satire of American Christians is probably the Ned Flanders character in The Simpsons.
Religion and politics
Although the post-revolutionary founders of the US wanted to keep religion separate from politics and the state, fearing a single religion becoming established like in England, where the Church of England was and is still the official religion (at least nominally), they were only partially successful, in my opinion. Issues of how much religion should feature in political life and what its role should be are very much a hot topic of debate in the US.
Whatever the debate over the relationship of religion and the American state, the involvement of religion in everyday party politics is without doubt huge compared to the UK. American politicians on the left and right will often claim divine inspiration, but it is probably fair to say that it is those on the conservative right who mix religion and politics the most.
In the UK, religion is generally seen as a private matter of personal conscience for politicians, as well as the general public, but Americans wear their faith on their sleeve and will often define themselves by it. It never occurred to me not to vote for Tony Blair because he was a Catholic, but Americans take religious belief (or the absence of) into account much more. I think it’s also fair to say that for many Americans, being a Christian is associated with being a respectable, upstanding, ethical person – whereas the image of Christians in the UK is far more mixed.
The Practicalities of being an atheist
Just as the politics of the US is skewed very much to the rightwing from a British perspective, the secular/religious attitudes are very much skewed towards religion (especially so where I am in the South). Although I’d say that without doubt most Americans are tolerant, there is also a devout minority of Americans who see Christianity as being completely tied up with US values and culture and by extension, all non-belief and non-Christian religions are therefore “otherly” and a threat.
Just being an atheist can be perceived by some as being quite extreme here where I am (rather than being fairly mundane, like in the UK) – atheists are not uncommonly portrayed as being unreasonable absolutists, with agnosticism seen as a more moderate and acceptable form of non-belief.
(I should add that although I would describe myself as an “atheist”, my assessment is that God [or gods] *very probably* don’t exist, but it can never be fully ruled out. I therefore see religious people who claim that their belief system is definitely the one true faith and their holy book is *the only* one that is divinely inspired as being far more absolutist than myself).
On a personal note, one thing that is strangely liberating about being an atheist in the US for a mischief maker like myself is that I feel able to be critical and satirical without experiencing much guilt about it. Back in the UK, religious belief can seem so beleaguered at times that poking fun at it can seem like kicking a person in a wheelchair. In the US (certainly down here in North Florida) you definitely have the sense that you are the one who is part of an underdog minority as an atheist.
Related blog posts by Brits in the USA
Iota Quota writes about how refreshing she finds attitudes, as a British Christian in the US.
Eve, a non-believer, posts about her frustrations with religion in the US.