Tag Archives: religion

American Atheists

Atheists are perhaps the most unjustly reviled minority in the United States. Often criticized as being nihilists, anti-American, or even devil worshippers, atheists are one of the few remaining minority groups that it is not considered politically incorrect to publically criticize.

In Austin, Texas, I attended the National Convention and 50th Anniversary Celebration of the American Atheists, the most outspoken organization representing atheists in America. I had never attended any atheist event or gathering before, and didn’t know much about the American Atheists before arriving.  When I heard the opening remarks of David Silverman, President of American Atheists, and noticed that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, I wondered if perhaps I was in the wrong place.

Founded 50 years ago by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, once branded the ‘most hated woman in America’ because of her successful supreme court challenge against compulsory prayer in schools,  American Atheists is a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to the separation of church/mosque/temple and state.  They promote freedom of thought and religious beliefs, secular education, and humanist ethics and they defend the civil rights of Atheists and other nonbelievers.  They are a provocative, grumpy organization known for in-your-face atheism, running billboard campaigns and launching legal challenges regarding state and church separation.  Some of their recent court challenges include the erection of a cross at Ground Zero, site of the former world trade center towers in New York, and displays of the 10 commandments on public property.  In the style of many religious proponents, they practice firebrand atheism, leading the fight against the privilege of religion in America.  David Silverman argues that his organization’s aggressiveness is critical to advancing the broader acceptance of atheism in the U.S. by shifting the debate and creating space for less strident organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.

The number of Americans who say they are religious has been steadily dropping in America, down from 73% to 60% between 2005 and 2012 according to WIN-Gallop’s Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism.  According to this poll, the number of Americans who say they are atheists increased from 1% to 5% over this same period and the number of Americans who identified as atheists or ‘not a religious person’ was 35% (Canada was 49%).  The Pew Forum October 2012 Poll  found that 20% of Americans are not religiously affiliated.  This unaffiliated group has grown more than any other particular religion and more than religiosity overall.  This trend is likely to continue as young adults aged 18-29 are much more likely than those aged 70 and older to not be religiously affiliated (25% vs. 8%) and are more likely than the adult population as a whole to be atheist or agnostic (7% vs. 4%).

Despite these trends, American atheists still face widespread discrimination.  Although Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, no avowed atheist has ever been elected to either of the U.S. Houses of Congress (only Congressman Pete Stark, who came out while in office, has been re-elected).  Although there are many suspected atheists in the over 500 members of the current 112th Congress, all profess to be members of an organized religion except one (an openly bisexual U.S. Representative from Arizona who won’t call herself an atheist).  Two Muslims were elected at a time when America is at war with fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, but not a single atheist.  This stands in stark contrast to Australia where the Prime Minister Julia Gillard is openly atheist.  Nonbelievers outnumber every religious group in the American military except Christians, yet have no secular chaplains to provide ethical and family counseling geared to their own non beliefs.  Atheists cannot be Boy Scouts of America nor members of its leadership.

In some parts of the country, to identify oneself as an atheist results in blackballing by the community, including the loss of one’s livelihood and friends.  In many religious groups, apostates are denounced and ostracized, eliminating their only support network.  In some families, coming out as an atheist results in rejection by one’s parents, siblings, and perhaps even one’s spouse.  Clergy who lose their faith often keep it a secret and continue to preach rather than lose their only profession, their livelihood, and perhaps their only means of funding after retirement.

I support freedom of religion.  Religious people have a right to worship, to organize, and of course to free speech, which includes the right to proselytize to consenting adults.  When I am in the home of a religious person, I follow their traditions, and I am courteous in houses of worship.  I am also a secularist and believe in an absolute separation of church and state.  The government should never promote not impose any aspect of any religion on others, nor allow this behaviour by its representatives or on its properties.  Will those promoting a Protestant Christian America, who are currently barely a majority (51%), be as supportive of public prayer and religious education when the Muslims or Catholics have the numbers to impose their will?

Impressions of Europe

Here are some common items that we’ve noticed about the 10 European countries we’ve been to.

  • There is an obvious sense of history here. Public buildings and churches can be hundreds or even a thousand years old. Families often trace their roots for hundreds of years and may live in a house that has been handed down for many generations.
  • Generally people dress better than those in Vancouver, and definitely better than we do in our travel clothes. Women are willing to sacrifice for fashion (e.g. wearing high heels on cobblestoned streets).
  • There is a greater focus on food. Europeans purchase higher quality fresh ingredients. Most cities have morning fruit and vegetable markets several times a week where the freshest ingredients can be purchased, the largest typically being on Saturday morning.

    Produce at morning market in Aix-en-Provence

    Produce at morning market in Aix-en-Provence

  • Bread is the main staple. Always fresh and delicious it is heavy and darker in Northern and Eastern Europe (e.g. Germany, Czech Republic) and lighter in the South and West (Italy and France).
  • Beer and wine are cheap. They are often cheaper than soda pop (bad for someone with a Diet Coke addiction) and bottled water, which makes it a tough decision to drink anything else.
  • Pork rules!  Unless you’re Muslim or Jewish, you’re going to eat a lot of pork here.  Far more popular than beef and as common as chicken.
  • Europeans don’t refrigerate their eggs. It is somewhat disconcerting to see huge stacks of eggs sitting in the supermarket aisle. When they get them home, people store their eggs on the counter or in the pantry, not in the fridge as we do in Canada.
  • Although America is one of the most religious countries in the world, Europe seems even more so, perhaps because there are impressive churches everywhere. The most religious countries in Europe are in the East (e.g. Turkey, Romania, Poland) and in the Mediterranean (e.g. Cyprus, Italy, Greece).
  • The Catholic Church is ubiquitous. There are grand Catholic churches in every village, town, and city, becoming larger and more impressive with the size of the city.

    St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

    St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

  • People here ride bicycles a lot more than we do. It is done much more as a means of transportation than recreation. Most people don’t ride fancy road or mountain bikes, just basic bicycles with simple or no gearing, front and rear lights, a comfortable seat, and perhaps a basket.
  • More people smoke than in Vancouver.
  • Homes are smaller. It is very common for people to live in apartments or shared accommodation of some sort. Owning a house (especially one with a yard) is less common than in Canada.
  • Buildings, including houses, are made of brick, block, or stone. As a result, walls and door frames are thick. We haven’t seen any wood framed houses which are the norm in British Columbia.
  • Most large cities have some pedestrian only streets where locals and tourists flock. They are typically full of retail shops and restaurants and don’t have the run-down feeling of Granville street, Vancouver’s singular pedestrian-only street.
  • Little dogs are very popular. For the conspicuous consumption types (like the ‘schickimickies’ in Munich), a small terrier, dachshund, or Chihuahua seems to be an essential fashion accessory. In case you’re wondering, the word ‘schickimicki’ is of German origin and is used to describe the ‘in crowd’, very stylish, superficial, chic, and pretentious.
  • Europe has a graffiti problem. In every country we’ve been to graffiti is common, but it was most prevalent in the former East Germany and Eastern Europe. In a few places it was particularly bad (e.g. on the inside of trains, on historical buildings, etc.)
  • There seem to be a lot of small circuses (mostly extinct in Canada) and traveling amusement parks here. We see them advertised everywhere, and have run across them a few times (in Pont du Gard, Arles, and even in Monaco).

    Tent and sign for a small Circus in Pont du Gard, France

    Small Circus in Pont du Gard, France

  • Europeans use the 24-hour clock. Times are often quoted to us as, “17 hours”, by which they mean 5 PM.
  • Virtually every European capital has a very fancy shopping district, much larger and higher-end than Vancouver. If you’ve got some serious money to spend, head for Europe (or the Middle East).
  • Most pharmacies tend to be boutique shops (no mega chains like Shoppers Drug Mart) with well-dressed staff to help you choose cosmetics and hair products. They often don’t even sell drugs, not even aspirin when I have a hangover.
  • Europe has a lot of co-ed bathrooms. They’re not the standard, but we encounter them frequently. They take some getting used to. I’m not accustomed to hearing the girl pee in the stall next to me, nor feeling the necessity to regulate my body functions so as not to shock her.
  • Mushrooms seem to be popular. Perhaps it’s just mushroom season here, but we see them more frequently and in a much greater variety than at home. There are mushroom sellers in the markets with whole tables of different kinds of fresh and dried mushrooms.
  • Most countries have a Value Added Tax (VAT) of some sort, usually much higher than the sales taxes we pay in Canada, but it’s always included in the price. The price you see is the price you pay. In principle I don’t approve of hidden taxes, but I must admit that I like the simplicity of it.
  • Europe has the most stylish and lavish McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. In Bratislava (Slovakia) and throughout Italy they have very modern styling and décor. The one in downtown Madrid has granite floors throughout. I think they are trying to compete with the coffee shops that have a long tradition in Europe.
  • It is rumoured that body odour is a more common problem in Europe because people don’t traditionally bathe daily. Although we have noticed this occasionally, it has only been slightly more frequently than we might at home. However, traveling by RV, we also haven’t been bathing daily either, so perhaps we can’t distinguish their smells over our own!