An Australian’s View of Religion in America

Those of us who live in America know how crazy religious some parts of the country can be, but what do we look like to an outsider?

Ben Knight, a Washington D.C.-based correspondent for ABC News in Australia, did a radio piece on America’s religiosity — something strange to him because, in his home country, a lot of people don’t attend church and that’s not considered weird at all:

Over here [in America], you hear about God everywhere. In the Pledge of Allegiance that my kids recite at school every morning, in the newsletter their science teacher sends home, in patriotic songs, in athletes’ news conferences, at the end of presidential speeches, and, of course, in disasters. Especially in disasters.

The whole time I listened to the piece, I just felt so damn embarrassed, like I’m sorry you have to go through this, but I swear we’re trying to change things!

Still, it’s always fascinating to hear an outsider’s perspective on what we go through on a regular basis. We’re used to it. He’s not.

I need to visit Australia one of these days. It sounds lovely.

(Thanks to Greg for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Peter Coote

    and our Prime Minister is an Atheist ….

    • Stev84

      …who is sucking up to religious fanatics for political gain

      • Peter Coote

        well, yeah she IS a politician after all, it goes with the job … it disgusts me, but it’s not surprising ….

        • Mogg

          It still amazes me that the religious lobby has so much influence, given how little of the population they actually represent. Gillard certainly appears to be wanting to keep them on-side.

          • Paul_Robertson

            As I understand it, it’s less about electoral pull, and more about promises that were made to one of the Labor Party’s conservative factions in exchange for the votes Gillard needed to replace Rudd.

            • Mogg

              That makes sense, unfortunately.

  • Jonni

    This is a good reminder to me, as an Australian. Sometimes I’m very irritated by the amount of religion we have here, and I forget that it’s much worse in so many other countries. Even the other countries I’ve spent time in have been low on religion (except maybe Italy!) so until I visit America I really can’t imagine what having it shoved in your face really looks and feels like.

    I hope you do visit Hemant! I think you would have a brilliant time!

    • Nebuladance

      “I really can’t imagine what having it shoved in your face really looks and feels like.”

      It’s like driving down the interstate to school and seeing between your own home and your school six billboards, all black with white lettering that recite that “If my people…..” verse from the Bible. Six, in less than 20 minutes. And around elections it gets worse.

  • compl3x

    It is terribly noticeable just how much religion features in American news. I watch news from all over the world: The BBC, Al Jeezera, France 24 etc. and it really doesn’t seem to feature in those services, unless it is relevant to the story being covered, like it does in American broadcasts.

  • Compuholic

    Australia fucking rocks and I would love to live there. I spent a semester in Adelaide and had the best time of my life and I really want to go back some time. The weather, the attitude of the people, the countryside, the beaches. They’ve got it all. I had an offer to do my PhD over there which was really tempting. But in the end I got a better offer here.

    • glenn dork

      How white are you?

      I got busted going to Australia slightly tinted with a few well tinted buddies and they treated us like shit everywhere except Melbourne.

      Granted, the younger (urban) population was a little more forgiving of our birth defects but older folks and rednecks (which is almost everyone) made our lives difficult at every turn.

      Amazing country, terrible people!

      • Compuholic

        Ok. I cannot really comment on this particular problem. But I’ve never noticed any racism towards others while I was there. I lived together will international students from all over the world in one of the student houses and I never heard of any problems.

        But of course I mostly interacted with people from the university which is probably not representative of the whole population.

        • Feminerd

          I did, and I was 13 when I visited with family.

          We’re white (literally Caucasian, actually, given that all my great-grandparents were from the Caucasus mountains area), so we got treated fine. Aussies are super friendly to white people. But the underlying messages are hard to miss- the treatment of Aborigines even today, the way in which they are referred to, the way immigrants of color are treated and talked about … the US has quite a lot of racial issues, but they’re much more out in the open and people mostly acknowledge the problem. In Australia the racism is like a fog over everything that no one seems to notice unless they’re affected by it as a POC.

          • Katherine Hompes

            I think it has changed some in regards to racism – most of us acknowledge that it is an issue – and a rather big one at that. We are working on it, I promise.

            • Feminerd

              Most excellent :). I visited like 15 years ago, so I’m sure a lot of things have changed.

      • Mogg

        Aww, we’re not all terrible! I’m from Melbourne, though, so I’m probably not representative – Melbourne is very multicultural, and even in the conservative outer suburbs where I grew up it was perfectly normal to have kids from all kinds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds together in school. Racism is definitely a problem in Australia though – the White Australia Policy is not far enough back in our history yet, and we seem to have a deathly fear of brown people escaping persecution in boats which is despicably played upon by politicians. I’m sorry you and your friends were treated that way.

        • glenn dork

          melbourne is not multicultural…, not even by a loooong shot… try walking the streets in that city and all you see is a sea of white faces…

          and those dopey australians like to think it’s multi-culti because they have so many international restaurants… seriously…, some fool even put that on their wikipedia page…

          truth is, the reason for all those restaurants is that foreigners are only employable by the federal government so they are basically forced to open restaurants

          • Mogg

            I think you must be thinking of a different Melbourne to the one in Australia. You know, the one with the largest Greek population outside of Athens, a Chinese population some of which has roots in Australia going back to the 1850′s gold rush, huge populations of Vietnamese, Italian, Lebanese, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, Indian, Pacific Islander, and more recent African immigrants? Where according to the telephone directory the most common surname is Smith, but the second and third most common are Nguyen and Singh? he city where my very Anglo/Irish grandmother worked for Italians in the 1950′s? Even in the whitebread eastern suburbs where I grew up, my best friends at school included a Japanese girl, a girl whose dad was Italian, and an Indian Sikh, and my high school had a large number of Greek, Macedonian and Slavic background teachers and kids. My sister’s first two boyfriends both had Anglo names and were born in Australia, but one was Chinese in ethnicity and one was Macedonian. My other sister is married to a guy of Hungarian heritage who didn’t speak a word of English until he started school, my partner is Dutch. And that’s just the ‘burbs. Going to Uni and working in different areas of Melbourne to where I grew up have only broadened my exposure to people of non-Anglo backgrounds, and I work with more people of non-English speaking background than I do Anglos – and I do not work in a Federal Government department. My last job I worked with an Afghan nominal Muslim who was educated in France and called The USA “back home”, an Eastern European atheist Jew, an Indian Hindu and an ex-Anglican lay preacher turned hippy, all in an American-owned corporation. In my first job out of uni I had the great pleasure of finding out a little bit about Mongolia via a guy who was doing a work placement in the department while he finished his engineering studies, and we were helping to send medical equipment back to his home town in Mongolia. Every day I drive through areas with signs in Arabic or Chinese or Korean or Greek or Italian or Vietnamese, not just for restaurants but for chemists, real estate agents, and clothing shops. I see people wearing hijab out doing their thing, with skin all colours from as white as mine to black. Unlike in some other areas of Australia, I don’t have to seek these people out or think of them as strange – it is a completely normal part of the everyday landscape.

            Multiculturalism is not just about restaurants. Sure, we have a racism problem, and I’m not saying it’s perfect, but your characterisation is completely inaccurate.

      • Paul_Robertson

        Have you considered the possibility that the treatment you received was more about your personality than your skin tone?

  • Jasper

    I heard that everything in Australia is trying to kill you, so it’s sort of a trade-off.

    • jdm8

      I get a feeling some of the gun-toting Christians are looking for a reason to kill you. The food is more likely to kill you than other places with the excessive fat, sugar and salt. US traffic safety is pretty low among developed nations.

      • tinker

        I was curious so I looked up where the US is on the list of traffic fatalities. We are not that bad when compared to the whole world (12.3 fatalities per 100k people, 15 per 100k vehicles). But, when compared to Germany, where they have the Audubon (4.5 – people, 7.2 – vehicles), Australia, with road trains (5.7 – people, 8 – vehicles) and Canada, where we can drive on our US license (9.2 and 13) we are far behind. I put some blame on politics in this country. Our politicians are always looking for ways to raise more money or save money. Here in Arizona a teenager could get their license and not have to show up to the Motor vehicle department again until they are 67 except to take a new picture every 10 years. Our freeways were designed by blind monkeys that never drive on them and our politicians don’t want to ban things like cell phones because they are afraid that they will get caught using them. Getting a ticket in this state is only possible if you are speeding in an ‘enforcement area’ or you get caught by a camera (red light or speeding). If the ticket may cost the state more then they will get, (iow you might take it to court) the police don’t want to write them.

        I do also blame Xtians. I have noticed that if they have a fish, a cross or some other symbol of Xtianity on their vehicle they are much more likely to cut you off, tailgate or do something else stupid. I think that this is because they actually do believe that God will take the wheel.

        Don’t forget that last Easter (which was also Jesus take the wheel day) we had a 95 car pileup in Virginia.

        • MD

          Sorry to be a pedant, but it’s Autobahn.

          • Pseudonym

            Thanks, I have the song in my head now.

            Wir fahr’n farh’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn…

          • tinker

            Sorry, had not a clue how to spell it and when spellchecker came up with the the wrong word I just hit it. You are absolutely correct though and had I not be tired I might have seen that.

    • C Peterson

      I’d feel safer around some Sydney funnel spiders or tiger snakes than around that Tea Party crazy down the way, with his guns, God, and waving flag!

      I’d trade for a natural environment that is trying to kill me, as opposed to Christians.

      • Anat

        Yes, the natural environment is more predictable.

    • Feminerd

      Not everything, from what I understand. Just large numbers of snakes, spiders, and sea animals, along with the brutal internal climate … I’m sure there’s nice animals and plants too. Somewhere.

      • Mogg

        Don’t forget the dingoes which kill children, the cassowaries with huge claws and notoriously bad tempers, and the kangaroos which have figured out that if they get into water they can hold down a predator until they drown. And the drop bears. Don’t forget the drop bears. Tree kangaroos are nice, though :-)

        • Katherine Hompes

          Koalas qualify as cute and fluffy, but you do have to watch the claws…

        • Charles Honeycutt

          Okay, I now know that drop bears are fictitious, but even looking at the Photoshopped images makes me want to stay the FUCK away from Australia.

          • Mogg

            LOL. Seriously, most people take the attitude that if it scuttles you squish it, you make a fair amount of noise in bush or long grass to scare the snakes, and you don’t handle injured wildlife or pretend to be the Crocodile Hunter.

      • Pseudonym

        Actually, the snakes are pretty harmless as these things go. The inland taipan is the most venomous snake int he world, but there have been exactly no fatalities since the development of an anti venom, and pretty much all known bite victims were herpetologists.

        (How to avoid a taipan bite: change jobs.)

        You should be more scared of the platypus. We have no treatment for mammalian venom (not even an analgesic that works!), so if one of them stings you, you’re in for a couple of weeks of unbelievable pain with no relief.

    • MsC

      Especially those sharks with frickin’ lasers:

  • Ian Reide

    I hope that you do visit, you would receive a warm welcome from many.

    While it is true that Australia does enjoy a marked absence of overt religion—some refer to Australia as a secular country (I wish)—our public debates are unquestionably based on a xian perspective. I am thinking specifically of the debate over gay marriage. Some might think that who one marries is one’s own business, but not in ‘secular’ Australia.

    Legally, the head of state of Australia is the queen of England, who owes her job to the blessings of god and the Anglican Church. I do regard the American Revolution as a good example here. We should also look at the issue of tax and the church. Thomas Paine!

    • zaphod

      She own her job to the will of Parliament (and a lot of lazy MPs)

      • Mogg

        Not exactly. Some of those supposedly lazy MP’s fought very hard to convince people to vote against changing our current model of government at the referendum held on the matter – a vote of all citizens required before changing the head of state could be done. So the MP’s aren’t lazy as such, and it’s not necessarily the will of Parliament which retains the Queen, given that the majority in all states except one voted to keep her and all.

    • Pseudonym

      I am thinking specifically of the debate over gay marriage.

      For those who aren’t aware of what Ian is referring to, the (atheist) Prime Minister is against marriage equality, but the (Catholic) guy she replaced is (now) in favour of it.

      Yet another reason why Australians find the US a weird place.

  • Neil Rickert

    I need to visit Australia one of these days.

    I grew up there. And that was before I dumped religion.

    It would be hard for an Aussie to take Young Earth Creationism seriously (Ken Ham to the contrary notwithstanding), because one is forever reminded of plants and animals that were from a far earlier time than that of the Adam and Eve story.

    When I came to the USA, I did not actually notice much difference in the lives of ordinary people. But there is far more religion for show. I’m inclined to think that there isn’t more religion in the USA, just more hypocrisy, more ritual and more pretense.

    In Australia, the real religion is surfing, Aussie rules football, etc. In the USA, the real religion is golf, American football and worship of The Almighty Dollar.

    • C Peterson

      Seriously, Australia is an amazing example of how evolution works. We have an isolated continent full of animals that are very different from animals in the rest of the world, but which filled the same evolutionary niches that exist everywhere, resulting in animals that look and act very similar to their distant cousins elsewhere. Different paths to the same end. Very cool example.

    • Pseudonym

      Ken Ham to the contrary notwithstanding

      There’s a reason why Ham doesn’t live in Australia any more. (Actually, there are several reasons.)

      • Mark

        America’s full of easy marks for Ham’s nonsense.

  • A3Kr0n

    Very good. I loved it!

  • Rudi M

    Living in Sweden where going to church is (almost) considered weird and not something reasonable and welladjusted people do I can only confirm Ben Knight’s comments. USA is really an odd country. I’m just glad you and other secularists work so hard to make your country better. Kudos to all of you!

    • Henriette Wesselman

      Same here in the Netherlands and France.

  • glenn dork

    but I swear we’re trying to change things!

    Speak for yourself and very few others, Hemant.

    The vast majority sit in their armchairs reading your blog and think to themselves that reading blogs is action enough.

    • Charles Honeycutt

      Yes, you’re very superior.

    • Paul_Robertson

      Because reading blogs in your armchair isn’t enough. You also need to leave snarky comments or else you’re really just part of the problem.

  • JET

    We (the U.S.) are like two different countries. In vast parts, mostly on the coasts, you can live your personal life largely without constant references to religion. Yes, there are churches, but people don’t constantly talk about their religion and everyone is sort of left to do their own thing. In other parts, our infamous Bible Belt, religion is pervasive in every aspect of one’s life. And these people take their religion so seriously that they won’t be happy until this country is turned into a Christian theocracy and “everyone is saved.”
    Nationally, we’re fighting another civil war: theocrats vs. secularists, creationists vs. scientists, Biblical morality vs. humanistic morality, tradition vs. progress, Christians vs. everybody else… Currently it’s just a political war, but many right wing fundamentalists do not rule out the possibility of escallation.
    I honestly don’t believe (or at least I hope) it won’t come to that. I believe that the fundamentalists are taking such a hard line out of fear. They see themselves as losing their “traditional way of life” to the, quite frankly, more educated population. As their children go off to college, watch television, and access the internet, they’re losing them slowly but surely. And so they dig in their heels and spout their dogma to ever-increasing levels of absurdity. The more we point out the absurdity, the more absurd they get and I honestly believe that eventually they will spiral into oblivion.
    There will always be those who need nothing more in life than their Bible, 40 acres, and a mule, while they wait impatiently for the rapture. But they are dying out. The fundamentalist, right wing, gun toting, tricorn hat wearing, flag waving, rights denying Tea Partiers will die out as their children see the absurdity and abandon them. They see the writing on the wall and they are afraid.
    Thank you for listening. I’m in one of those moods.

  • WillBell

    In Canada we have a bit of that in disasters – not much, and our anthem has God in it and it is recited every day. But still nothing like America.

    • AxeGrrl

      I encourage everyone to do as I do ~ instead of singing the phrase ‘God keep our land glorious and free’, sing ‘LET’S keep our land’…..

      because if it’s going to stay glorious and free, we’re the only ones who are going to do it. And speaking of that, I really hope we do it and heave Steve in the next (can’t come too soon) election :)

    • Pseudonym

      I’ll bet your land isn’t girt by sea, though.

  • revyloution

    That’s crazy cool. You Aussies should name one of your cities after a scientist who was famous for evolution, or something.

    • Pseudonym

      Amusingly, none of what you suggest happened.

      The Port of Darwin (it wasn’t a city at the time) was actually named after Charles Darwin by the captain of the HMS Beagle (i.e. not an Australian) during theBeagle’s visit (i.e. before he was famous for evolution).

      Still, better late than never. When the three local universities amalgamated a few years ago, they settled on the name “Charles Darwin University”.

      • revyloution

        That was a joke Pseudonym, I was just trying to be cute.

        • Pseudonym

          Obviously, hence my use of the word “amusingly”.

  • Anna

    Over here [in America], you hear about God everywhere. In the Pledge of Allegiance that my kids recite at school every morning, in the newsletter their science teacher sends home

    Yikes. If this is a public school, the newsletter from the science teacher should certainly not be mentioning any gods. I see that Knight is living outside of Washington D.C., so perhaps his family is in a more conservative suburb. He should complain, though. It’s completely inappropriate and not anything I’ve ever come across here in my diverse California suburb, and I’ve seen hundreds of school newsletters over the years!

    • Charles Honeycutt

      Not only inappropriate, but illegal.

      • Anna

        Probably, but it might depend on what the newsletter says. Maybe the teacher writes something like “God bless” in closing. I’m not sure that would be illegal. Or maybe it’s more overt like: “This week, our fourth graders are studying God’s creation.”

  • Mitch

    Here in Aus the inclusion of the christian religion can sneak up on you, example; ANZAC Day. On Anzac day at the dawn service we had out of a 30 minute ceremony (including music), at least 5 minutes of christian prayer. All I could think was, am I the only one around here who thinks this is completely irrelevant!?

    • Katherine Hompes

      Not only irrelevant, but also inappropriate.

  • Goonies

    Unfortunately we have an election coming up in September this year and the man (I use the term loosely) that is looking most likely to win, Tony Abbot, is very religious (trained to be a Priest but allegeldy couldn’t handle the celibacy) and has Cardinal Pell (uggh) as his right hand man. IMO he is a very dangerous/backwards man to have leading our country and I can only apologise to you all now ahead of time for what may be coming.

    • Katherine Hompes

      I am voting Greens. It seems though, that in this election, it is a choice between bad and worse.

    • AxeGrrl

      Sadly, this is precisely what my friend in Australia has been telling me :(

  • Katherine Hompes

    You should visit. It is lovely :)

  • Frank Farquar

    There is more chance of Shergar trotting around Trafalgar Square, with Lord Lucan on it’s back. Than any atheist being the President of the USA presently. It’s a fact. Call your invisible friend God, you get the Oval Office. Call it “Bob” you get locked up in a padded one, and fed daily by burly staff in bite proof vests. Maybe one day a President will be atheist, but presently and for the foreseeable future, there is no chance.
    The UK is just as bad with it’s ‘cultural conditioning’/the “Just Because” causes. Like the CoE given seats in the House of Lords (for instance), is quite simply wrong and an injustice. No way representative.