Friday, 7 December 2007

Secular society in the UK

As an American living in the UK, people often ask me what some of the biggest differences are between living in the two countries. Always eager to please, I usually list the positive differences first. For instance, for me, quality of life here is better. Music is more to my taste. Nearby places to travel are more interesting and London is more international than New York City. And of course, free healthcare!

But beyond all these things, there’s been an underlying difference which I wasn’t able to really put into words until recently. And it's historically one of the biggest differences two societies can have between one another: religion.

As an Atheist, I feel much freer to express my religious beliefs in the UK than I ever did in the US. In America, I usually felt that I had to keep my religious affiliation to myself, and I knew few others who also openly identified as atheists. Here in the UK, most people I know identify as atheists. For me, it means I feel a greater degree of religious freedom in the UK.

God Bless America

Several surveys have shown that Atheists are the most mistrusted minority in America. For instance a 2006 survey by the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and all other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to approve of their children marrying (nearly 50% would disapprove, versus 33 percent disapproving of marriage to a Muslim and 27 percent of marriage to an African American). “Atheists, who account for about three percent of the US population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” the study concludes. Atheists are also the groups that the highest number of people would be unwilling to consider for president.

This isn’t surprising since the US is consistently ranked as the most religious developed nation. 95 percent of Americans believe in a monotheistic God, and 45 percent attend church regularly. In this environment I was always uncomfortable openly stating my religious affiliation, and it was no coincidence that I didn’t have the nerve to openly identify myself as an atheist on my Facebook profile until I moved to the UK. In fact, when I moved to the UK I found with astonishment that most people I meet here also identify themselves on their profiles as atheists.

Godless Europe

Indeed, the UK couldn’t be more of a contrast to the US in this respect. Only 61 percent of Britons say they believe in God, and only 13 percent attend church. A whopping 44 percent of Brits identify as Atheists.

And this is just concerning people’s personal lives. It is safe to say that religion has little place in public life here, and is regarded as a private matter. Underscoring this point, outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair caused quite a stir recently when he outed himself as actually being deeply religious, but having kept this a secret while he was prime minister because people in Britain regard religion with suspicion.

"It's difficult if you talk about religious faith in our political system," Blair told the BBC. "If you are in the American political system or others then you can talk about religious faith and people say 'yes, that's fair enough' and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter. I mean … you may go off and sit in the corner and … commune with the man upstairs and then come back and say 'right, I've been told the answer and that's it'."

The remarks have caused quite a stir because much of the British public is horrified by the notion that they may have had a man in number ten for so long who was being guided by his perceived conversations with “the man upstairs.” And one can see how the people around Blair went through great lengths to keep a lid on Blair’s religiosity. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s PR guru, once famously snapped at an American reporter who inquired about Mr. Blair’s religion, “We don’t do God.” Now it becomes clear why he was so defensive about it.

But it is a stunning contrast that Mr. Blair had to hide his religion, while in the US, politicians have to go out of their way to wear their religion on their sleeve in order to get elected. There isn’t a single self-identified atheist serving in the entire US congress today, and it’s hard to imagine that one could ever be elected. Even candidates who obviously don’t have strong religious feeling (a certain female candidate currently running for president comes to mind) must go through the motions in order to be electable. So while in the US strong religious belief is required for public office, in the UK it is considered a liability.

Church and State, BFF

It is ironic of course that in the US, where any establishment of religion is barred by the Constitution, religious faiths flourish, and every presidential candidate is a self-identified believer. Across the pond, the UK has an official government church, yet the church has become a hollow shell and all ‘God talk” has been banished from the halls of parliament.

Just yesterday, while the British public was fretting about the “religious nutter” that may have been leading them, across the pond the networks gave an entire broadcast slot to Mitt Romney to wax philosophic in a speech on “faith in America,” a thinly-disguised attempt to get ahead of concerns over his Mormonism and give a speech akin to the one Kennedy had to give saying he would not be a servant of the pope. Just for amusement I thought I’d show some of my British friends Romney's speech, and they were horrified. It certainly shows how much the US has changed when we go from Kennedy's speech, in which he defended his Catholicism by strongly expressing the need for the seperation of religion and government, to Romney's speech yesterday in which he defends his Mormonism by strongly advocating more religion in government, just not any one religion (ie his scary one). Modern social conservatism in the US sees the battle as being not between religions, but between the faithfull and the faithless, as David Brooks notes in his column in today's New York Times. The US ideal today is that any god is better than none.

Incidentally, Romney tried to couch his speech in philosophical words about the founding fathers, but most of what he said in that regard was completely false. For instance, take a look at this statement,

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the founders - in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”

"In God We Trust" went on American currency in 1957, and "under God" went in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. The founders had nothing to do with them. Of course it shows the extent of the stranglehold of religion over American politics that not a single commentator pointed this out after the speech. After all, these 'truths' have are now believed to be self-evident.

In the US I often felt that my own secular belief system was not only devalued but actively derided and feared. So, I personally am much more comfortable living in a society where I am free to openly state my religious conviction and where I can find others who feel the same as I do. The US is just not a comfortable place for an Atheist.


Jayne said...

I left the UK for Australia when I'd had enough of living under Maggie and am never likely to return... But... it worries me that Australia is coming under the control of religious people. I like to live my own spiritual life and don't like the power the larger, wealthier religions are wielding here. It worries me that we may be drifting heedlessly towards the US way of religion.

Ron said...

I think the UK could stand to be more religious than it is. There's almost ab obsessive distrust of religion in this country, which I think feeds into animosity between the majority and minority communities, particularly Muslims