Right before I came to America, a woman asked my then-fiance T how a Dutch person is different from Americans. The first thing that came to his mind to say was that I wasn’t religious. That left her speechless. She had never met an atheist.
When we were in the Rockies this past summer, we met several Dutch people and one of the first things they commented on was how religious so many Americans seem to be.
Recent Pew research shows that 78.4% of Americans are Christian, 4.7% are “other”–including 1.7% Jewish and 0.6% Muslim, and 16.1% are unaffiliated–including 1.6% who call themselves atheists. So even if you assume that all the “unaffiliated” are not religious at all, that means that at least 85% of America is religious. “A strong majority” of Americans are said not to be dogmatic in their beliefs, meaning that they don’t believe that their religion is the only way; more than half attend services regularly and/or pray daily.
According to the Dutch CBS statistics, 48% of the Dutch are Christian, 5% are Muslim and 5% are “other”. 42% is not religious. Of the 58% of the population that is religious, only 20% attends services regularly–“regularly” being defined as at least once a month.
While about half of Americans are pretty actively religious, only a little more than 10% of the Dutch are. So it’s no wonder religion doesn’t come up that much in Dutch conversation, and in America it almost always does, in one form or another. Religion is another of those aspects of being Dutch in America. I went from being in the majority to being part of a 1.6% minority. An often vilified minority. For many Americans, atheism is a dirty word.
In the Netherlands, my actively religious friends didn’t proselytize. Though I’d like to think they didn’t try to bring me into the fold because they respected my atheism, it is, of course, altogether possible that they just considered me a lost cause. But, again, I think they were genuinely accepting of non-believers.
Once I emigrated to America, and ended up in south Texas, my experience with religious people was very different. I went to lunch twice with two different women, both of whom were obviously very religious. That came up almost immediately, so right away I told them that I wasn’t religious. So we know that about each other, I thought, and that’s that. Now let’s get on with the business of becoming friends.
Well, the first woman wasted no time. At the end of our first lunch, which I thought had been reasonably pleasant, she handed me a little booklet. I thanked her and we said goodbye. Once I had a better look, the booklet turned out to be a little comic book about a science teacher who insisted on teaching evolution. He was depicted as a greasy-haired sleazeball caricature, much the same way that Jews were portrayed in Germany in the 1930s. A very clean-cut, friendly-looking Christian student was running circles around him with his knowledge of what the Bible says. Which is quite possible, of course, since what the Bible says is not a science teacher’s area of expertise.
Needless to say, that was the last time I had lunch with her.
The second woman was very nice. No insulting booklets at the end of our first lunch, so I was hopeful. Around the third time we met, she asked me if I was interested in joining a Bible study group. I reminded her that I was not religious, and that I would feel rather out of place in such a group. Some would say that it was pretty darn obvious she wanted to convert me, but I was still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt–maybe she really was just forgetful. The fourth time we were going to go out to lunch, it turned out the plans had changed. We were having lunch at her place, with her church’s minister and his wife.
Shortly after that, before I had decided how to deal with it, something horrible happened to T and me–a great loss–and I could really have used a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear. All this woman did was stick a wooden cross in my mailbox when I wasn’t home. A little card with her name was attached to the cross, so I would know who it was from. Really helpful. Apparently she had only “befriended” me because she hoped to convert me and own brownie points with Father Bob. Actual friendship was never what she was about.
I did make friends with a Unitarian co-worker, but in general I kept religious people at a distance. In other words, pretty much everyone. But I also still kept pretty quiet about not being religious. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone; that was just too ingrained.
Now I live in Austin, and a large chunk of the 1.6% atheists seem to live right here. Lo and behold, I have even become very good friends with some religious people who apparently like me anyway. Things are somewhat normalized.
At the same time, though, I am becoming more vocal about being an atheist. At least on Facebook. Why? More on that in my next post.