Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Atheism in the USA (British and American differences)

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.

American atheists

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.


  1. Good blog. I think one of the biggest issues surrounding the 'atheism' question is how the questions are framed. For example, asking someone if they are religious is quite different to asking that person if he or she has any sort of religious belief at all.


    For example, while Sweden is often stated to be a more atheist country than most at least 53% of Swedes believe in some sort of life force or spirit. An atheist, by definition doesn't really believe in the latter.

    And France is weirdly split between a believe in God (34%) and a near equal number of people who believe in no God at all (33% - the highest in the EU) - with the middle ground believing in some sort of spirit or life force...

    I think many more countries seem irreligious compared to the US, but that doesn't necessarily mean atheism is the norm in Europe, either.

    1. France is a very polarized country - lots of people are traditional and catholic, and then there's another lot who have a very fervent rationalist and secular outlook. It's one of the major reasons why it has been so unstable over the last 250 years - along with the Gallic passion for dissent, of course.

      It's kind of difficult to explain, but even British Christians are often more skeptical in their outlook than the average American. Skepticism is deeply embedded in the British psyche. This is a great post, referring to a Sunday Times article which laments the death of the Church of England. My favourite quote: "An old don of mine once remarked that he supported the Church of England as a bulwark against religion. He had a point."

      George Orwell, who described himself as a "Tory Anarchist" wrote some interesting stuff on religion in the UK, too (Orwell was an Anglican).

  2. Great post, and thank you for the link! You have a habit of writing balanced, non-accusatory observational posts that a) I think illuminate the experience of being a British expat in the south of America, and b) explain without prejudice how problems/misunderstandings arise, and how they might be resolved.

    I think Iota's post is really good too, as I like the fact that all people seem to be accepted (even though it may be Christians/those of faith in particular). It must be somewhat welcoming to feel like you already have a faith family, especially when you have moved countries. You immediately have something in common with people, despite never having met before and having live 3000 or so miles apart for most of your lives.

    The only issue I have with religion here really, other than (my issue of) the culture shock of the difference in importance, is when it is used to perpetuate hate. Otherwise, I don't see the harm in the community and unity it can bring to a group of people who share their beliefs. Like any shared life choice, interest, gut feeling and so on. :)

    I agree with you on the mischief-making though! It's funny to see people realise that me - a nice person, I would at least hope is how I am thought of - could be an ATHEIST?! Heh heh.

    Plus I also enjoy the "f" word. ;) *gasp* F'ing great post, Paul! :D

    1. I write from the perspective of a British person in the US. But most of my readership (according to Blogger) are Americans. I don't claim to represent all British people, of course, some of my opinions aren't at all representitive.

      I've been re-reading the American-in-Britain, Bill Bryson again recently. He's a great writer, who I appreciate even more, now that I am more familiar with the US.

      There is a vid of Stephen Fry where he talks about his differences with Christopher Hitchens. Fry doesn't share Hitchen's belief that religion poisons everything - he argues that it has inspired some of the world's greatest art and music. He just doesn't believe that God exists. I do certainly have negatives about religion, but overall, I tend more towards Fry's viewpoint.

  3. I think 'agnostic' may better describe your beliefs to an American than atheist. Atheist has more of a negative slant; agnostic is more neutral.

    1. Well, I believe in science and reason at the end of the day. In some situations, such as working in the US, I will probably describe myself using euphemisms such as "I'm not religious", but I am pretty sure that I am an atheist. :-)

    2. Being an atheist is basically very mundane in England. In the US, there are online support groups and I've seen some American atheists, esp those who live in very religious places or families, use phrases like "coming out" as an atheist!

  4. I'm an atheist. But consider the myth of Daedalus and Icarus: what was dreamed of in the religions of antiquity is a technological reality today... we fly. Consider the Star Trek communicators: our cell phones are better. In time, we can realize, through technology, the myths we've made for ourselves.

    So while I don't believe in anything spiritual, I believe that in the future, technology will exist that a person with today's mindset would call spiritual.

    A neural interface to cell phone technology would be the equivalent to telepathy. We're on the way.

  5. By the way, I'm also an immigrant to Florida. I moved from Montreal, Canada to Tampa in 1997.

  6. I know this is an old post but I always hear people confuse the meaning of "separation of church and state" with the "separation of God and state"...There is the way people view history through a subjective perspective or through lack of understanding or proper research and then there is true history that remains factual, objective and real independent of misinterpretation or ignorance of the facts...History is always being rewritten compared to what actually took place and the facts...The Founding Fathers literally did not want a national church like there was in England and much of Europe however, that didn't imply that they wanted to completely separate God and politics, simply the church itself...that is why it is called the "separation of CHURCH and state"...literally. God was still very much in the picture as before, during and after our Constitution was written, our Fouding Fathers and all our representatives would say the Congressional Prayer, as they do still today, before the Congressional session would start...There is also an official Congressional chaplain which Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution allows the U.S. Congress to appoint...however, to be fair in keeping the separation between any official church and the State itself, the chaplain does not have to be a Christian but can be of any religion..."Chaplains are elected as individuals and not as representatives of any religious community, body, or organization. As of 2011, all House Chaplains have been Christian but can be members of any religion or faith group. Guest Chaplains, recommended by congressional members to deliver the session's opening prayer in place of the House Chaplain, have represented many different religious groups, including Judaism and Islam." The first official Chaplain of the House was William Linn in 1789, established by the Second Continental Congress, the chaplain would open each day of Congress with an opening prayer...The idea of "seperation of God and state" was first thought of in the early 1960's as an argument by an atheist mother against school prayer in the United States...this argument was brought before The Supreme Court of the United States and was a very successful argument as teacher-led school prayers became unconstitutional in 1962, even though teacher-led school prayer had been common place and acceptable since the 18th century, especially before, during and almost 200 years after the Constitution was written...However, these prayers were not Christian prayers as they did not mention Jesus Christ but would mention only God himself...The idea of separating God and politics is a fairly new and modern idea and would have been very taboo and almost incomprehensible in 18th century America...The idea that this new nation would have no official religion and the church would have no say in politics and be completely separate from government affairs was a very progressive and very forward thinking idea for its time but for anyone to suggest that God be completely separate from politics and government would have been far too forward thinking and taboo in the 1700's, even for our diest Founding Fathers...There is a difference between God and church and the separation of church and state literally means that the U.S. would establish no official religion through a national church such as in Western Europe...but that doesn't suggest we can't pray in Congress and mix God in politics...our Founding Fathers did it all the time...objective of whether you approve of this or not, of course.