Time to speak up!

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.

7 responses to “Atheistism

  1. My parents sent me to a private Southern Baptist school from 2-8 grade, not for the religion, but for the education, which was slightly better than what I was getting in public school at the time. Technically, I was being raised Presbyterian, but my parents tended to go on Sundays fairly irregularly. Amidst the hardcore religion I started getting at school toward the end and the way my parents taught me to think rationally and question, I was already having serious doubts about religion by the time I left the Baptist school.

    The older I’ve gotten, the more solidly and vocally atheistic I’ve become. I just don’t believe. At. All. Yet I also see friends whom I never thought of as religious becoming much more religious as they get older. I would have thought people now would become less religious as they get older.

    I do have friends who are religious, but they’re the kind that don’t make a big deal out of it and simply “do good”. They also don’t proselytize and they also happen to be quite liberal socially/politically. That’s the biggest issue for me about religion in the US. The fact that it is wrapped up so tightly with politics when it shouldn’t be. “God says marriage is between one man and one woman,” is not a valid argument against gay marriage. And why do politicians only seem to use their faith as a way to limit, rather than as a way to help? Why don’t they say that their god and their faith is the reason why they’re voting for better healthcare for all? I find it odd that people who profess to be so Christian are usually the loudest about not wanting to share and help others. I’m pretty sure that goes against what I learned all those years at that Baptist school.


  2. Sometimes I have a hard time accepting the statistics, but I know from experience that they’re probably at least close to true. And it still puzzles me. I grew up in this country, in the heart of the Bible belt, and it never even occurred to me that there might be a God until middle school when I realized that most of my friends believed. I was shocked. It was partly an accident maybe. Catholic churches are few and far between in the deep south and my mom couldn’t abide the priest (who was a condescending, sexist pig). And my dad had left the Catholic church for reasons of his own. So I wasn’t indoctrinated young. Or actually I was – by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke a dozen others, science fiction writers and all men of science. So my dad was a thinking man and my mom was a closet feminist (she voted against ERA) and they were both bookworms and they let me read whatever I could get my hands on. So I grew up different and puzzled.

    I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. I’ve had similar ones, and like you, tend to just avoid the religious. And for years, we lived in Asheville, which was very much like Austin and full of atheists and agnostics and Wiccans and Unitarian Universalists such and we were very insulated and comfortable. Not so much here in Durham.


    • That’s too bad, that you went from a place like Asheville to a place that’s less open-minded. At least we got to do the reverse. In Austin there are enough open-minded people, religious and non-religious alike, so I’ve been able to make friends.
      I also find it sad that in most places the only somewhat affordable alternative to public education is religious schools.


  3. I had similar experiences regarding proselytizing while living in Alabama. It was amazing how quickly potential friends became mere acquaintances once I declined attending their churches.

    I was just talking with a British friend here in England about how religious America is and how for the first time in my life I feel like I fit in/belong to a community; people here may or may not be religious, but either way it’s private and generally not discussed. I never felt completely welcome or comfortable as a non-Christian living in an overtly Christian country (the US). Freedom of religion? Yes, legally, but consequences can be all too real for those outside of the flock. I wonder if I’ll ever feel as I do now once I move back to the US. Perhaps I should consider Austin.


  4. This sentence of yours is telling in general how the Dutch view this subject:
    “I think they were genuinely accepting of non-believers”

    Religion or not is something personable and people have to respect that.
    I just have to look around in my family religious, atheïst, agnostics. You name it, we have it!

    I don’t understand how atheïst are looked upon in the US.
    Religious people seem to think they have no morals, evil degenerate people. Really!!!

    Funny story:
    My sister doesn’t believe in life after death.
    Once I asked her: “What will you do when you die and you find out that there is life after death?”
    “O”, she said. “I will be very surprised then!!!”


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