american atheist or agnostic
May 6, 2006 4:17 AM   Subscribe

Please it's not a debate about if its right or wrong to be godless !

From my european point of view the religion seems to be a very important part of life in the usa today.

For you american atheist or agnostic members of this forum, do you feel discriminated, or ignored in your everyday life ?
posted by luis huiton to Society & Culture (66 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think a good example of what you're trying to find out would be the whole "War on Christmas" fiasco from this past holiday season. Christians got angry at retail corporations (and their lackey salespeople) that preferred to wish customers an all-inclusive 'happy holidays!' rather than the specific 'merry Christmas!' you can assume that I've been on the retail employee end of a typical confrontation with a hissy Christian.

religion is a very important part of many, many people's lives across the world. whether you ascribe to a certain creed or make it a point to belong to no creed, religion is a great heuristic for people in (any) society to make sense of the chaos of everyday life and the huge issues we have to deal with (death, reproduction, interacting with others, etc.) today, in the usa, we are still trying to figure out how religion works in the context of our governmental system and cultural values. you'd think those smarty-pants forefathers took care of it eh? they tried, but the issue is still at the forefront of many people's minds.

to more personally answer your question, I have never felt discriminated or ignored because of my beliefs. though I have dealt with people who were willing to dismiss me in this fashion, I have managed to speak my mind clearly and compassionately enough to convince those who would listen that I am a valid viewpoint.
posted by carsonb at 4:45 AM on May 6, 2006

Sometimes, yes.
posted by box at 4:58 AM on May 6, 2006

As an atheist, yes.

You should note, too, that while much attention is given to the zealots that are very visible in the United States, the majority of Americans, while perhaps "religious" if asked in a poll, are not at all zealots. They're simply people that live their lives in a generally secular manner yet believe in god and go to church on Sundays, many of whom are actually quite liberal in their beliefs.

I see that you're French, luis huiton. To put it into context, I work (archaeology) for about two months per year in a small town, about 2000 people, in the Dordogne, near Sarlat and Les Eyzies. Our dig house is down the road from the town church, which fills up every Sunday with people like the ones I'm describing. Are they religious fanatics? No. But they are people that go to church and believe in god, much like many people in the US. Are there more people like that in the US? Yeah, probably. But I just wanted to point out that it's not just religious crazies and atheists here, and most people are more moderate.
posted by The Michael The at 5:20 AM on May 6, 2006

As an atheist, no.
posted by languagehat at 5:30 AM on May 6, 2006

Saying "I'm an atheist" is roughly like saying "I'm a transsexual." It's not going to get me killed or beaten (except for, maybe, in some really backward parts of the country), but it will make many people uncomfortable. There will be long silences, strange looks, etc.

Naturally, there are parts of New York City (and other liberal places) where I could say "I'm a transsexual" or "I'm an atheist" and no one would care. I'm talking about the average American response.

(A good meter is American TV. There are almost never overt references to atheist characters. Very occasionally, there will be someone who seems Godless or even says, "I don't believe in God" -- this is usually the bad guy -- but the word "atheist" is avoided.

The funny thing is, my Christian friend often complains about the portrayal of Christians on TV. He says they're often shows as being crazy zealots. We concluded that the average American doesn't like extremes. It's good to be religious, but keep it within bounds. Go to church on Sunday and believe in God, but don't speak in tongues or get down on your knees in public!)

I rarely get upset about the fact that "we atheists" are treated unfairly. I think we are, but not in a big enough way to seriously impact my life. But I do sometimes get irked that I can't be as open about my atheism (without getting strange looks) as other's are open about their theism.

In my circles, people are more likely to be agnostic than theistic or atheistic, and I've noticed that agnostics are LESS comfortable with me than religious people. I can sometimes forge a bond with theists, because -- though we have opposing beliefs -- we're both passionate about our stances. We can relate to each other's passions. Agnostics sometimes seem to feel that my atheism is a sign of hubris.

Playing armchair psychologist, I sometimes wonder if agnostics worry that someone might make an argument that would sway them to become atheists -- and they don't want to be atheists. They WANT to keep their options open. They want the POSSIBILITY of God.

I get much more flack when I say I'm not a spiritual person than when I say I'm an atheist. (To me, the two statements are almost identical.) In fact, people get SO upset when I say that, that I almost never say it anymore. "Spiritual" is a vague term that some people take to mean "deep" or "emotional," so when I say I'm not "spiritual," they think I'm saying I'm some sort of sociopath or automaton. I'm actually quite emotional and deep -- and I have a sense of the Oceanic (the tiny "you are here" sign in the immense Universe). But I don't attribute any of this to spirits or spirituality. But if you want to get away with saying, "I'm an atheist" without getting any flack, you can say, "I'm don't believe in God, but I'm a spiritual person." Strange to my ears, but I've heard many people say it.

I'm actually uncomfortable with my fellow atheists -- and they with me. I like religious people, and I often long to be a theist. I think, on balance, it's healthier to be a theist than an atheist. (Yes, since I don't believe in God, I AM claiming that it's healthy to believe a lie. Why should the truth necessarily be healthy?) Alas, I am not built to believe.

This view isn't popular with (many) atheists. They want me to join their anti-religion team, and I can't do that. Many of the atheists I know had bad experiences with religion in their childhood -- they were forced to go to church or whatever. I wasn't. So I can't identify with an antagonism towards religion or theists.
posted by grumblebee at 5:38 AM on May 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not really. If I use the A-word, it makes some people visibly uncomfortable, but if I stick to "not religious" or "I'm Jewish" (I am that too) it's fine. Some folks think it's really funny to joke about me being Jewish, but it doesn't really bother me. Of course, I associate mostly with Northern white-collar professionals, so that might have something to do with it.
posted by callmejay at 5:56 AM on May 6, 2006

It depends. I work in a small town with a bunch of really bright engineers. My mentorship consisted of my mentor spending most of his time trying to get me to go to his church. At first, realizing that saying I'm an atheist was probably a bad idea, I told him I was Roman Catholic (I was raised as one). Uh oh. That only increased his efforts because the Pope is the anti-christ. Finally I gave up just said I was an atheist. That didn't help things either.

I've had managers refer to peoples spirituality in peformance reviews.

On the other hand the two people I'm closest to locally are Mormons and they've never once tried to convert me.
posted by substrate at 6:13 AM on May 6, 2006

I live in the heart of the bible belt (Charlotte, NC area), and I have NEVER had a discussion with religion with anyone, outside of church, where you kind of expect it.

I have, on occasion, been asked where I went to church, and when I answer "nowhere", the subject generally shifts to something else, and no one looks at me funny or burns me at the stake or stops talking to me.

Like grublebee says above, saying "I am an atheist" in a casual conversation would be just like saying "I am a transsexual", but so would "I am a Christian" or "I like to sculpt baloney". It's just kind of impolite to talk about.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 6:25 AM on May 6, 2006

of course,

I live in the heart of the bible belt (Charlotte, NC area), and I have NEVER had a discussion with religion with anyone, outside of church, where you kind of expect it.

should be

I live in the heart of the bible belt (Charlotte, NC area), and I have NEVER had a discussion about religion with anyone outside of church, where you kind of expect it.

The cursor on my keyboard mysteriously jumps around as I type. Its very aggravating.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 6:28 AM on May 6, 2006

Where I live, near New York City, in the North, in a relatively urban area, no one cares. It doesn't come up, I don't bring it up.

Do subtly roll my eyes at my students who wear massive crosses (I had one last term)? Sure. But they never tried to witness to me or do anything obnoxious, so no one cares. Where I live, at this time, I am not inconvenienced by religion.

However, I have a friend who moved to Florida last year to teach literature. Just last week she recounted some specific anecdotes about being apathetic/agnostic down there and how, "...down here, people have no qualms at all about prying into the religious practices of total strangers." She tries to mail a letter to her grandmother, she gets interrogated - why hasn't she been to church with said grandmother? Tennis is so much less important than your soul, etc. She asks if she's 'in a good place' while setting up some decorations, the reply is that that depends on whether she'd accepted Jesus. Out of nowhere!

We both teach. Can I tell people I'm atheistic? Sure, if it comes up. Wouldn't make a difference. Would it be smart for her? Hell no.

Now, as for the media and the like, it's absolutely obnoxious sometimes. You can watch a drama on TV and people will go pray when there's serious stuff going on, previously skeptical, logical main characters will start wearing crosses, and yes, anyone portrayed as atheistic, if he's a good guy, will be a cranky male. (Actually, both examples I can think of are cranky, bitter male doctors.)

What I think I see more of is this idea that it is belief and not works that make someone a good person, among some kinds of Christians. Thus an atheist who does good things - charity work, especially - is still less a good person than any guy who, despite possibly doing harmful things, is 'saved'. That bugs me.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:29 AM on May 6, 2006

As an agnostic with strong atheist leanings, not particularly. I have friends and associates that run the spectrum from atheist to devout followers of most religions, and we all mostly get along. Occasionally, I'll wind up in an argument with someone, but I have to admit that probably half the time, that's the result of me reacting defensively to someone being just a bit too passionate about wanting to "save" me. I don't need to be told I'm going to hell, folks.

I think part of the problem with the perception of the religious situation in the US (and, I imagine, in the world, but that's not the issue here) is that a few extremely vocal minorities get the majority of the media attention. There are some extremist groups out there on both sides of the spectrum (atheist and fundamentalist, conservative and liberal) that give leave me with an extremely bad impression. However, in day-to-day living, those sort of people are outnumbered by nice folks who're, for the most part, just trying to be good people. I respect that.

<derail>And, just because this thread needs some levity, I present to you Audio Animatronic Jesus in Space! Note that I present this as an example of an extreme, not the norm. ;) But you gotta admit. . . you can't make this stuff up. :p <derail>
posted by Alterscape at 6:30 AM on May 6, 2006

In high school (in South Carolina), one of my teachers told me that he will try, in his words, "to win [me] over for Jesus."
posted by subtle-t at 6:36 AM on May 6, 2006

Not really. If I use the A-word, it makes some people visibly uncomfortable, but if I stick to "not religious" or "I'm Jewish" (I am that too) it's fine.

Same deal for me. But I'm a college student in a northern city, so it's not that difficult. So pretty much, no, I don't feel discriminated against in an every day sense.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:44 AM on May 6, 2006

As an atheist living in the U.S., I feel somewhat discriminated against. "In God We Trust" is on the money in my wallet, the Pledge of Allegiance we were supposed to say in school has the words "under God" (added in the '50s) in it, most people say "[God] bless you!" when you sneeze, and "God Bless America" is sung in the seventh inning stretch of almost all Major League Baseball games. And of course that's not the end of it.

I don't let it bother me much, because I know there's absolutely nothing I can do about it. It's simply too ingrained in American culture. I know that, if I were to ever run for public office, I would have to pretend to be a believer, which I find ironic and unfortunate.
posted by cerebus19 at 6:55 AM on May 6, 2006

Yes, if only because Americans are more disconnected from our neighbors and communities now than ever. Especially in congregational (as opposed to evangelical) faiths, churches and synagogues serve as the de facto town square - one of the only opportunities outside of academic and employment circles to interact with neighbors. So it's a much more subtle form of discrimination.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 6:58 AM on May 6, 2006

Here in the godless San Francisco Bay Area, my atheism never even comes up.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 6:59 AM on May 6, 2006

As an atheist I do not generally feel discriminated against, though there have been occasions. When President Bush (senior) said (a number of years ago) that atheists are not fit to be Americans, I took some offense to that statement.

What I do feel though, is certain amount of dread. The fact that our heads of state and many of our lawmakers are deeply religious worries me greatly. Many of their "political" stances are informed by religion. THe abortion question is one of religion. The gay marriage question is one of religion. Stem cell research is hampered by religion.

Prostitution is illegal in most places due to the influence of religion. In fact, the criminality of just about any "victimless" crime you can think is founded in religion. Heck, if you live in a place where you can't buy booze on a sunday - that's because of religion. The roots of all blue laws are to be found in relgion. The fact that I have to go to a special store on any day BUT sunday to buy a bottle of wine simply because of some stupid law a Puritan proposed 150 years ago is just ludicrous.

Environmentalism is even affected by religion: when you believe that Christ is coming (and coming soon) to take all of the faithful to heaven, then why bother conserving our natural resources, since we're not going to be around to use them.

And what worries me the most is probably the fact that they can't even be counted on to *really* follow the religion they so deeply profess. How is sending a bunch of troops to Iraq NOT a violation of "Thou shalt not kill" ?
posted by jaded at 7:02 AM on May 6, 2006

I grew up in South East Texas and was a pentecostal* (Assemblies of God) until I was 18 or 19. Now I'm an agnostic** with strong tendencies towards atheism.

I live in Chicago now. In Chicago, I don't feel alienated about my lack of belief, though I tend to be politic about the subject. Visits home are an entirely different story. Even being on the plane can be a trial, since I'm with a passel of people heading south. I try to avoid discussions of religion entirely. I tend not to use the A-word and stick with "I'm not a believer" or "I don't go to church."

Unfortunately, this past trip home was due to an emergency and had me visiting over the Easter weekend. I ended going to an outdoor Easter pagentry with my Sister's family. People exiting the event were subject to being witnessed to, and I hate lying so I was entirely honest about not being a believer. The lady who witnessed to me was a bit teary eyed and I told her that I didn't mean to upset her and hoped that she was okay. She gave me a big hug.

I was trying to avoid discussions of religion in front of my nieces and nephews but was unable to avoid that one because my niece was holding my hand. On the ride home, she asked me if I went to church and told me it was very important to go to church because I could go to hell otherwise. I told her that she could pray for me. That seemed the best approach.

If you travel to the US, just be polite and you'll be fine most of the time. If you have a run-in with an evangelical christian, keep in mind that from their point of view you are a person in a burning building and they must try and rescue you. Perhaps that will help you to empathize and forgive them for being pushy with you. This is generally how I look at things, but I find it extremely easy to empathize due to my background.

*Due to my background I loathe prosylitization and dogmatism. I am as uncomfortable around dogmatic atheists as I am around evangelicals. I am uncomfortable with non-religious dogmatism as well.

**I don't view agnostism as a position of indecision, I view it as a statement that it is impossible to know whether god exists. a la Clark's Law. No one would be able to pass a god Turing test for me. anyway, despite acknowledging that atheist then requires a leap of faith, my personal feelings are towards atheism. Though I do tend to have an irrational feeling of divine love towards people and the universe. I call them irrational feelings, and enjoy the ride. Extreme atheists would probably find me somewhat loopy due to that.
posted by bleary at 7:08 AM on May 6, 2006

As a foreigner, you have to understand too that there is an effort under way here to whip up religious fervor for political reasons. The "war on Christmas" nonsense is a perfect example. If religious Christians are made to feel threatened and under siege, they will give money and organize and vote. Even though Christians are the vast majority here, it's easy - what with the very real coarsening of the culture - to make them feel threatened. And so stupid battles like whether the Ten Commandments are hung in courthouses or not get pumped up into life-or-death crusades. The headlines you see might be a little misleading, is my point. Most Americans aren't as militant.

That said, here in NYC, religion is not a topic of conversation that generally comes up with strangers and there are so many other atheists here that I feel totally comfortable. When I go to places like Florida or Texas or rural Ohio, I'm generally pretty shocked at all the "Jesus loves you" signs and the way people ask you blatantly about your faith, but I've never been made to feel threatened by them for saying I don't have any. I wouldn't want to live in that environment all the time though.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:11 AM on May 6, 2006

Oh, but I will say that my early college years were very difficult. On one of my trips home I asked my parents for a ride to the store, and they used that as a way to get me in the car to force me to go to our old pastor to be prayed over. They also interrogated me and asked me hurtful questions, as though I had stopped believing in good and evil merely by not believing in god. I did not go home for a few years due to this. Later, my father told me that my mother mourned for me as though I were dead.

Those were troubled times for me. On another occasion my family onced burned a gift I sent home for Christmas because it was satanic to them.
posted by bleary at 7:11 AM on May 6, 2006

Though I have to agree with what jaded said:

What I do feel though, is certain amount of dread. The fact that our heads of state and many of our lawmakers are deeply religious worries me greatly.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:15 AM on May 6, 2006

As an athiest in the Bible belt: No, never, and I tend to disbelieve folks who claim otherwise.
posted by LarryC at 7:31 AM on May 6, 2006

I was discriminated against once for being an athiest. I worked as a valet at a hotel that has a busy Christmas Day lunch/dinner crowd. In order to take Christmas Day off, you had to "sign up" for it in October. Well, when I tried to sign up, the bell captain asked me why I was signing up since I was an athiest (it had come up, without incident, a few weeks earlier). Apparently, "Athiest Kids Get Presents Day" wasn't a valid alternative holiday and I ended up working on Christmas. I made about $200 in tips that day, my best shift ever.
posted by mullacc at 7:36 AM on May 6, 2006

The cool thing about being an atheist is it doesn't appear outwardly to others. Though atheists may be the most reviled minority in the US today, the average person can't tell who is and who isn't.

I haven't felt any kind of discrimination. A lot of my friends tend to be of a similar mindset, I think it's more common for people of the Gen X/Y age to be disillusioned with religion as a whole. I do have Christian friends, who have qualms about my lack of beliefs (they don't understand how you can be moral without God, for example), but they still accept me and respect me. None have tried to "save" me, and none have made me feel discriminated against in any way.

The only time I get really aggravated is when people try to bring religious beliefs into law. The gay marriage battles are one example, attempts at censorship, unhealthy views toward sex (resulting in disease and pregnancies due to ignorance), etc. However, the people attempting these legal changes are a minority of the population and generally they fail, so that's good. The average Christian I've met has basically not cared about any of those issues, it is just the more extreme ones that do. Of course, there are a billion things lawmakers are doing right now to anger me, of which this is only one.
posted by knave at 7:38 AM on May 6, 2006

I live in a liberal area of the country, so I do not feel alone, but I do feel that atheists are generally discriminated against in most political matters -- people mention spirituality and religion all the time. It's kind of odd to watch when you consider religion to be a sort of "mass delusion."

At the same time, I am not comfortable telling my parents (who are non-zealot church-attenders) that I'm not down with the whole god thing, especially after that survey that said atheists were the something like the most-hated or most-feared members of society recently. Yikes.
posted by theredpen at 7:42 AM on May 6, 2006

I think I know a co-worker that goes to church. I also haven't seen a yellow ribbon on a car in months.

Viva la San Francisco.
posted by kcm at 7:44 AM on May 6, 2006

Do I feel discriminated against? Not really, not on a day to day basis. It does make me angry that you can't really run for office in this country without testifying to a religious conviction. That's wrong for a number of significant reasons.

Do I feel ignored? Of course. No question about that one. Nobody really talks about atheism in this country, and it is generally assumed that everybody practices a harmless and quiet form of Protestantism, I assume because it's less disruptive than acknowledging the differences that exist.

It's also considered gauche to discuss atheism. Even I feel a little uncomfortable saying, "I don't believe in God," in front of believers, as though I weren't supposed to say that, or as though it was an offensive thing to say. Maybe it does offend them, I can't say, but I'm sure they don't feel the same way when they tell me they believe in God. That's the difference, in a nutshell.
posted by Hildago at 7:53 AM on May 6, 2006

As an athiest in the Bible belt:

Yes. I have atheist friends who have been refused jobs for failing to take religious pledges. Now I find myself applying for the same jobs and wondering whether to lie.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:04 AM on May 6, 2006

The question is do I feel discriminated or ignored in my everyday life for being an atheist. In my everyday life: absolutely not. I do feel it a bit from society as a whole, via the government and media.

In everyday life, I think it depends greatly on how you present your religion to the outside world. Saying "I'm not religious" or "I don't go to church" to a stranger when they ask will get a much milder reaction than, say, "oh, there is no god." Likewise with someone who is religious. In high school, for instance, there were gah, hundreds of Christian kids. Most never said much about it beyond "I'm Christian" or "blah blah church on Sunday blah blah"...but there was one kid who would take every opportunity to talk about Jesus. Jesus this, Jesus that. He wrote Bible verses on the Valentines we had to make for each other in Spanish class. He was even more ostracized by the school as a whole than any of the kids who were very open about their atheism. Even more than the kids who were obviously bound for gaytown. Also, our sole Jehovah's Witness probably had it the worst in high school. Anyway, I know high school isn't exactly the same as real life, but it's my only frame of reference because I live in New York City now, where everything is acceptable...except maybe being republican...and sometimes people raise their eyebrows if you say you're Mormon. heh.
posted by lampoil at 8:04 AM on May 6, 2006

As an agnostic, no. Not where I live now, though where I used to live it was different--it was extraordinarily fundamentalist where I grew up, with the Baptists and Nazarenes trying to out-fire-and-brimstone each other.

grumblebee: Playing armchair psychologist, I sometimes wonder if agnostics worry that someone might make an argument that would sway them to become atheists -- and they don't want to be atheists. They WANT to keep their options open. They want the POSSIBILITY of God.

Maybe. I don't know. Some agnostics might. As for me, I just think I haven't seen any proof one way or the other. :-)

I will say, though, I was raised in fundamentalist church, and (like Jaded, above) I'm deeply annoyed and frustrated with people in power using professed Christianity as an excuse for several dozen things that are plainly at odds with Christ's teachings (like, I don't know, the Beatitudes or even the Golden Rule). I feel the same way about people claiming to be vegetarian and eating chicken, which is not a vegetable, so it's possible I'm just too literal sometimes.
posted by Tuwa at 8:06 AM on May 6, 2006

I've never been explicitly discriminated against as an atheist anywhere in this country. I wouldn't hesitate to tell anyone I'm atheist in white, native neighborhoods in Boston where I now live, or in NYC or LA where I've previously lived. Outside of the major cities, however, and in black or immigrant neighborhoods within major cities, it's very clear that the overwhelming majority identifies as religious. So I'll feel that inherent discomfort in being a minority, although I'm not being actively discriminated against.
posted by TimeFactor at 8:26 AM on May 6, 2006

I don't feel discriminated against, usually.

I am getting rather short tempered, however, due to the intelligent design issue and the threocracy I suddenly live in, and I WANT to actively discriminate against the intrusively religious.

I work with scientists and engineers, some of whom are in the Earth-is-5000-years-old club, and I cannot take any of their input seriously as a result. In the past, I have kept my mouth shut. It's getting harder to do that.

Given that, in a job interview, if I found out if the prospect had a bible-literal viewpoint, I would definitely not recommend hiring that individual, purely on point.

It's not that I care what people believe, it's what process I am hiring. Science isn't magic or fantasy, and praying for the right results or shoehorning data into a fantastic framework speaks poorly of education, intelligence, and impartiality.

Also the only time I ever got screwed during 7 years of self employment it was by born-agains. Now it's a red flag.

Like the supposed Vietnam vet full of war stories who turns out to have actually spent the war in Panama (i.e., my brother in law) the more visible the bible, the greater the risk to your wallet (i.e., my brother in law, too!)
posted by FauxScot at 8:31 AM on May 6, 2006

Having just been in San Francisco's Mission district on a Saturday night, I'd like to suggest that the commenters above live in a very specific "San Francisco" (and, indeed, Bay Area) if they don't know anyone that goes to church. Either that, or they manage not to notice a good percentage of their coworkers.

Opting not to think of these people as racists, I'm tempted to believe the more likely explanation that it simply doesn't come up -- for me, talking about sculpting baloney is far more likely to happen than talking about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
posted by obliquicity at 8:33 AM on May 6, 2006

I'm agnostic. Outside of the Internet, I find religion rarely comes up as a topic of conversation and very few people seem to care.

I had one girl who didn't want to date me anymore because she'd had bad experiences with atheists and didn't think we could be compatible.

I tried to volunteer with the Big Brothers program and they mentioned that being agnostic might be a problem because most families want somebody who believes. True to what they said, they don't seem to have been able to find a little brother for me.

I can't imagine it impacting my ability to get a job though. Bringing it up would actually be illegal in a job interview, and in polite conversation it rarely comes up anyway.
posted by willnot at 8:33 AM on May 6, 2006

I work at a factory in Tennessee, in the office area. I have avoided talking about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof - I am agnostic leaning toward atheist) with my co-workers because (a) I don't think that's appropriate in a work setting and (b) I am worried some of them may try to save me, and I don't need the hassle.

Most of my co-workers have religious paraphrenalia up in their cubicles - comics that say, "It's Under God or get out!" and Bible verses and that Footsteps poster - and while I have no difficulty with most of that (the under god one is, I think, confrontational and rude, but mostly these are personal expressions of what's important to them, just as my photo of my husband and I is a personal expression of what's important to me), it still annoys me a little bit that if I were to put up something in my cubicle that expressed my religious philosophy, I would certainly be asked to take it down by management.

I think part of the difficulty is that, when you are used to a missionary religion being the default, you assume everybody is missionary about their beliefs. I honestly don't care what people believe as long as they don't use it as an excuse to legislate people's rights away, and I certainly have no issue with theism in general. But saying I'm agnostic sounds, to many Christians, like a challenge or like I'm being rude about their beliefs. So I try to avoid the topic with people I don't know well.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:42 AM on May 6, 2006

I'm not so simple minded as to believe my fellow bay area residents don't attend religious services, it was a blithe comment as to the fact that it's a comparatively small influence to my everday non-religious life with respect to other states (all blue) that I've lived in. I live in a ridiculously hispanic neighborhood in the south bay, and you'd better believe people go to church here regularly.

The scholastic (academic, well-educated technical professionals, etc.) communities I'd guess most here are a part of are generally the least religious groups at least outside of the Bible belt. If I were to have been a "townie" in Pittsburgh rather than one of the many transient, outsider academics during my brief stay there, I would have a different opinion of the city. This thread probably brings a sample of the people with interesting stories out of that ordinary to the top, though.

I think you meant 'unobservant bigot', though.
posted by kcm at 8:45 AM on May 6, 2006

To wit, what I was trying to get at is that here in the SF area, being non-religious is a lot less atypical and limiting should I venture outside of my cozy little world of engineering and books. There's plenty of religious communities and groups, but there's plenty of everything else that has nothing to do with that. It's a by-product of the culture here that has a lot of people from a lot of different places co-existing in harmony - for the most part - and I believe that breeds tolerance and indifference both. It's "liberal" in the most pure sense of the sense, without any political connotation, and yet it's also passively apathetic.

Do people in Amsterdam go to church? Yeah, they do.. but by and large, the population there is made up of lots of non-affiliated groups of newly-minted residents and passers-through. It's an entirely different area to the rest of the Netherlands. I'd liken this area of CA to that experience.
posted by kcm at 8:52 AM on May 6, 2006

I'm agnostic, but tend to say I'm atheist. Many people think that agnostics are just shopping for the right god, so they try to sell you theirs.

I don't know that I'd say that I feel actively discriminated against, but I definitely feel like the rights, opinions and feelings of non-believers are not taken into account. Around here (suburban/rural PA), it is always assumed that everyone is Christian. Local restaurants think nothing of putting bible verses on their menus and placemats. One local supermarket has big bible quotes on the walls. Growing up, there were certain businesses that would only hire people of a particular denomination, although I think that's changed. I had a jr. high science teacher who would ask bible trivia questions for extra credit. So, yes, I've felt a bit marginalized, a little left out, on occasion.

Like others have already stated, it's the way that religion creeps into public policy that is the most disturbing. On a personal level, though, I've been put on the defensive more than once about how I plan to raise my child to be "moral" without taking her to church. It's irritating and a bit hurtful to have my parenting skills called into question.
posted by jrossi4r at 9:04 AM on May 6, 2006

As an athiest, no. Even when I was a practicing Catholic, religion wasn't that big a part of my life or talked about by anyone else I was around.

And mind you, I live in the 'reddest' county in Ohio.
posted by Mick at 9:09 AM on May 6, 2006

Sometimes I think being "liberal" has a strong correlation with an independent AND self-centered lifestyle. Religious groups are formed of a number of people with varying degrees of complacency to the norm of their beliefs, and that requires compromise. In a community with strong liberal tendencies, it may be viewed on the whole as accepting and supportive, but *sometimes* there's a lot less support going on and a lot more ignorance of what others believe. That's not to say there aren't giant parades for support of marginalized groups, and that's great, but the unvocal majority may just not care what you do. So, is a liberal mindset one of support or apathy? Is apathy towards others' beliefs a positive or negative contribution to a community? Some of this may boil down to "interests" vs. "beliefs", and I don't have to agree with your ideas on how the world started to enjoy a game of chess with you. The main point in question here is how religion is the greatest common denominator in some areas, and thus becomes the functor for tying a community together to do everything from dances to community service to lobbying for legislation. There's been plenty written on that subject, and it's getting really off-topic for this thread, I guess.

I think in the end, I agree with some comments above that see religion as a great unifying force in America. It's an activity just like volleyball or deep-sea diving, for some. That's fine.. I don't deny you your right to bump, set, or volley, and I don't care if you think there's a giant floating guy with a beard in the sky. Perhaps that's why the larger cities with greater population densities eschew religion a bit more in favor of other activities given the ability to find and form groups with ease for even the least popular interests. If it sounds like I'm marginalizing anyone's religious beliefs, I probably am.. I view the ideas as separate [perfectly valid] interests like any other.
posted by kcm at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2006

A few numbers: 5% of the US population feel that a god does not exist, 36% attend religious services at least once a month, and 71% believe in the devil. So, to echo what several here have said: for many Americans even if their religion is not "practiced", their faiths still influence how they frame their individual moralities. Thus, the concern for atheists by believers is less that they're sinners, more that they are preceived to lack an ethical foundation.
posted by glibhamdreck at 9:19 AM on May 6, 2006

I'm agnostic/atheist and while I don't feel discriminated against, I do feel that religious culture is pervasive in the area where I live in ways that the people who participate in it don't feel is "religious" So, sometimes it's hard to explain to someone the concept of "why saying one nation under god" in the pledge of allegiance might bother some people, or might be unfair to some people. I'm no stranger to having my beliefs misunderstood, but I do feel that atheism or agnosticism confuses people around here, and in a "we can fix this" sort of way.

This came up for me this week when I was teaching email to senior citizens and one of them needed help forwarding a petition to bring back the pledge [and in English Only please]. I keep my mouth shut about politics at work mostly, but she asked me what I thought and I explained my feelings about it, and explained what I thought were the feelings of others. I felt like I was being rude just by mentioning that the pledge might be problematic and got a sort of curt nod in response and then a hastily changed subject. I'm aware that this may be just my impression and I also made a conscious choice to live here knowing it was like this, so I don't complain, I just note. I usually tell people I'm Jewish when they bring up religion [often when they ask what church I go to, or how my Easter was] and this works out okay but I feel some social pressure to have SOME religion, though I don't lose much sleep over it and I feel sometimes that it's a missed opportunity to not say I'm an atheist, but then I also feel like I'm more of a vistor here so unless people are being totally offensive, I lay low. This is just with the general public, among my friends a casual or non-existent relationship with a higher power is the norm.

Last year there was a creche on the town common, which I found bothersome, and a Christmas tree, which I mostly didn't. The creche was taken down, but it was the talk of the town in that "can you BELIEVE WE CAN'T HAVE A CRECHE" way. When I worked at a public library I had to share an office with a crotchety gal who complained about how her daughter couldn't sing silent night in school. I hear old ladies make disparaging comments about Jews every once in a while. There is a sense of distrust sometimes I feel against "those people" where that basically means any non-Christians. I don't think it's towards atheists personally.

Religion is important to a lot of people where I live and I don't think they give a lot of thought to the non-religious which is one of the advantages that comes with being from the dominant religion.
posted by jessamyn at 9:29 AM on May 6, 2006

Actually where I live it's probably more awkward to demonstrate a genuine belief in God. People here go to church and aren't ashamed of it. They also go to all manner of zany "spiritual" functions and aren't ashamed of that either. But if you were to say something like "Boy, God sure is testing me today," there would be an uncomfortable silence.
posted by scarabic at 9:33 AM on May 6, 2006

I'm a Canuck. I am absolutely astounded that the USA has a "National Day of Prayer." IMO that goes utterly against everything described in the Constitution: wtf happened to freedom from religion?

NDoP comes very, very close to giving exclusive sanction to Christianity, and certainly is exclusive to only those religions in which prayer is conceived as a "proper" rite.

All in all, it just serves to remind me that the USA is a very strange and foreign country.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:08 AM on May 6, 2006

I'm much in agreement with jaded above. I would say, in general, not that I feel singled out or specifically targeted, but rather discomfited and irritated with what I would characterize as a socity sick with religion. I don't proselytize; don't really, in general, give a rusty snort what others believe. I'm not so ecumenical in my atheism, however, to think that "believing what you want is totally okay."

It is not okay to think that those who do not worship as you do are less than you are. It is not okay for your wingnut extremist agenda to determine policy: governmental, educational, or otherwise. It's not okay for you to foist your weapons-grade ignorance off on others. Never.

And that's the real reason outspoken atheists get lambasted in the press and elsewhere: they're only okay when they sit down and keep quiet, and perish the thought they should be granted the power to define their own beliefs. And I could linky-linky-link all day, but I'll just point up and mumble, "what they said."
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:11 AM on May 6, 2006

five fresh fish, I'm a Canuck as well, and my American friends always seem to think I originated the phrase when I talk about freedom from religion. It's not a widespread concept down here afaik.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:12 AM on May 6, 2006

And honestly, I think a lot of you non-religionist Americans are simply unaware of how much religion you're being subjected to. In Canada, it'd be a rare employee cubicle that's decorated with religious icons, and it'd be nearly unheard-of to have a co-worker proselytize at you. The very idea of it is shocking!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:12 AM on May 6, 2006

When the subject comes up, I usually just say "I am not religious." Seems less confrontational than "I am an athiest," which really amounts, to a lot of people, to "I believe your God does not exist."

I will say, growing up in Suburban/Rural Utah, there is "Mormon" and there is "Non-Mormon", and that's pretty much the only distinction that matters. If anything, a Protestant/Catholic is more likely to get singled out than an athiest, since they often wear crucifix jewelry (and Mormons do not.)
posted by blenderfish at 11:13 AM on May 6, 2006

I'd like to second Emperor SnooKloze, and just about everyone else. I've always said that religious beliefs, like sexual proclivities and bowel movements are not something of yours I want to hear about.

I do not however feel any sort of direct discrimination regarding my lack of a particular faith. Granted I live in a very liberal city and most of my peers tend to share a belief system, which is something of a secular humanist approach to life.
posted by fantastic at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2006

I'm British and now live in a relatively small mid-west-ish town. One of the biggest differences I noticed when I moved here was the amount of overtly Christian stuff everywhere. Stuff as in leaflets in diners, bumper stickers, messages on billboards - routine furniture of everyday life seemed, to an outsider from a cosmopolitan European city, to be dripping in religious superficialities.

Then I made some friends, settled in and decided it wasn't a local problem. No-one's tried to convert me (ok, apart from the very occasional knock on the door, but they soon go away politely when asked). I haven't been asked about my beliefs other than by close friends who's beliefs are similar to mine. The social contract in these parts seems to be "don't ask, don't tell". Which suits me fine.

A gay friend once explained to me that he sometimes got fed up with talking about What It Means To Be Gay. Even when with friends and acquaintances who obviously weren't prejudiced against his sexuality, if the subject came up in conversation, he'd change it or avoid it. Not because it caused him any discomfort, but just because he was thoroughly bored by it. By the time he was approaching middle age, he'd heard all the arguments, had every discussion, knew every angle, he knew who he was, and would rather think about something newer and more interesting. I'm certainly not suggesting atheists are discriminated against as despicably as gay people are, but I think there is a somewhat analogous mindset. I feel like I've heard, and in my time discussed, every nuance of the irresolvable religion-or-not rhetoric, I've been there a thousand times before. Socially, let's talk about something newer and more interesting.

Politically? It's not that we're anywhere near a purge, but I look to the government with a wary eye and can't help but feel disenfranchised. I don't want to run for public office, but correspondingly don't feel that anyone who does will ever truly represent the interests and beliefs of the unreligious. It's not that we're overtly discriminated against, at least not yet, but we are the unelectables.
posted by normy at 11:53 AM on May 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

36% attend religious services at least once a month

No, 36% told a pollster that they attend religious services. The actual number may well be much lower.
posted by LarryC at 12:44 PM on May 6, 2006

Seems less confrontational than "I am an athiest," which really amounts, to a lot of people, to "I believe your God does not exist."

I think this is interesting. What if a Buddhist tells a Christian that he's Buddhist, isn't he saying "I believe your God doesn't exist."? I don't dispute the sentiment. It just seems weird that the same idea can be more offensive coming from an athiest rather than an adherent of some other mutually incompatible religion.
posted by subtle-t at 1:10 PM on May 6, 2006

I'm someone who has been on both sides of the fence - I went from being fervently evangelical in high school and college to being mildly theist post college to now being decidedly agnostic (open to the possibility of God yet see little reason to believe). I have lived in evangelical culture for most of my life and feel I understand its ins and outs. American evangelica Christianity, from my observations, is much more about traditional "family values" and living a "clean life" than it is about following the Bible specifically (though people will claim allegiance to the Bible).

Evangelicals are supposed to be fervent about "sharing their faith" and "witnessing", but in more than ten years of being an evangelical, I can count very few instances of times that I or anyone I knew actually engaged in that behavior. Churches will ramp up campaigns to talk about how important it is to share your faith, but most evangelicals simply do not do it. The same goes for topics like homosexuality - most would say that they are against homosexuality, but then again, most would never tell a homosexual straight out what they think of it. Perhaps it was just the crowds I travelled in, but for all the talk of belief in God and the Bible, the lifestyles were mostly the same as those who do not believe. In fact, one of the factors that assisted in my exit from the faith was how little "devout" Christians actually talked about spiritual matters, read the Bible, or prayed - it just didn't register as that important in their lives.
posted by sherlockt at 1:26 PM on May 6, 2006

subtle-t: It just seems weird that the same idea can be more offensive coming from an athiest rather than an adherent of some other mutually incompatible religion.

Agreed. I think it's more frowned upon to be iconoclastic than, uhmm, iconovariant. My wild theory on it is I think many religious adherents put a value on (or at least are taught to tolerate) alternative 'belief systems'. Stating you are 'not religious' is seen as a belief system, whereas stating god does not exist is more of a cosmological statement.

Really, I think the main reason it works so well is because there is really no immediately open avenue for disagreement. If I say "there is no god," you instinctively say "yes there is." If I say "I'm not religious," you can't really jump right into "yes you are."

I failed to mention this above, but in the name of completeness I will: the worst thing to be in Utah is an ex-mormon, since "you've had your shot" and you rejected it. The main feeling of Mormons is that anyone who is subjected to their beliefs, with an open mind, will of course believe them, since they are so obviously true. (Hence all the missionaries.) So, to fall away from them after having a good Mormon upbringing really throws a gear in the works-- it means there must be something really wrong with you.
posted by blenderfish at 1:50 PM on May 6, 2006

Sorry to rapidfire post, but I want to very directly answer the original question:

If you grow up as a non-mormon (protestant/catholic/athiest doesn't matter) in rural/suburban Utah, you will not be overtly discriminated against, or have your civil rights directly threataned. However, you will not be a part of the major social scene (since the scene occurs at church,) you will not be 'electable,' and 'your sort' will be eyed with vague mild suspicion in general. Initially, people will be mega friendly when you move into the neighborhood, viewing you as a potential convertee, but that will die down a bit when you show you are not interested. The Mormons are pretty much right-wing individual-rights types, and are pretty busy competing with each other for status (biggest SUV, most kids, nicest house, best job, highest position in the Church, etc.) so they'll generally let you be just fine.

You will see things, such as the Mormon church purchasing Main Street, which would not happen in a non-theocratically controlled government, and be subjected to liquor/porn/etc laws that make it obvious the Mormons are in charge. (Though not much worse, and in many cases better, than Southern US States. There aren't any 'dry counties' or anything.)

If you are clean shaven and white (or act totally white,) dress somewhat preppy, and aren't seen swearing, drinking, or smoking, you will probably be mistaken for a mormon as a matter of course (but, of course, people in your school/neighborhood will know they don't see you at church.) As a kid, some mormon parents may discourage their kids playing with you, some won't. If the cop is deciding between believing your word, or a Mormon he goes to church with's word, yeah-- you're probably going to lose. But, if you are pleasant, and seem to conform to the WASP-y Mormon ethos, you probably won't have many problems. This all applies to the really homogenously Mormon areas, rural, suburban, Provo, etc.

Salt Lake City is a pretty much normal city, with little day-to-day concern over religion.

And, as I said above, athiest, protestant, catholic or whatever-- it's all the same.
posted by blenderfish at 2:39 PM on May 6, 2006

sherlockt: Man, my experience with evangelicals has been totally different. Every evangelical I know well owns multiple bibles: annotated, ancient greek, self-anotated, different translation, etc.

I know a group in Kentucky that meets 5 times a week just to talk about the bible, in addition to their normal services. Furthermore, many of the clubs they belong to for various hobbies are church related: church music, church dance, church book club, church coffee house.
posted by phrontist at 5:32 PM on May 6, 2006

Seems less confrontational than "I am an athiest," which really amounts, to a lot of people, to "I believe your God does not exist."

How could it mean anything OTHER than this? Athiest's don't believe in God. So of COURSE they don't believe your God exists.
posted by grumblebee at 5:41 PM on May 6, 2006

I'm an agnostic of sorts, although I find that I prefer just to say "I don't believe."

I got into a religious discussion of sorts last night with someone who was talking about fasting in a spiritual sense, and I asked him what religion he belonged to. He asked in return what I was, and when I said "agnostic," he kept pressing for more information - Why? How? It made me realize that I'm fantastically uncomfortable discussing my beliefs with anyone I don't know.

Sometimes I wish I were religious, just because I appreciate the comfort of ritual, but I don't believe and I just don't think I can have faith, so I ignore it. This also does not mean that I want people to proselytize to me.

Someone upthread suggested that younger people are disenchanted with religion. I could not disagree more. I count among my friends practicing Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and that's just the ones I can name offhand ... certainly I have other Christian friends too. And when I say practicing, I mean service-attending, praying, keeping kosher/halaal/vegetarian, people who have shrines, people who wear specific dress ... you name it. And I'm someone with a relatively wide mix of friends of all races, who attends a large, diverse, excruciatingly liberal university in New York City. So I think my generation is very open to religion.
posted by anjamu at 5:48 PM on May 6, 2006

A couple of observations as someone who's gone from athiest -> agnostic -> christian, and who's lived all over the country:

The USA is huge. The culture, housing prices, accents, etc. vary so wildly that living in Detroit, MI, vs. San Francisco, CA, vs. the suburbs of northern Virginia (outside DC) really feels like living in 3 different countries. So your mileage will vary.

Someone (David Brooks, I think) had a great quote about how there are so many subgroups in America that everyone can kick everyone else's ass. The crunchy granola vegans can look down on the suburbanites and vice versa; people of every religious stripe can look down on those who disagree... etc. Basically in America everybody can align themselves with something and claim that they are a noble, persecuted minority. Some people do avail themselves of the opportunity - and even though I am a christian, I'm a bit embarassed by christians who claim that they are "persecuted by the media" or whatever.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:45 PM on May 6, 2006

I am an atheist. I have friends who are fundamentalists Christians, Catholics, mainline Protestants, agnostics, atheists, Muslims, Jews and Buddists. They pretty much all feel marginalized. I think we have a culture-wide perception of persecution by a religious majority that doesn't exist, but I don't personally believe that religious descrimination is widespread, though it does manifest itself in a number of minor ways in many sub-communities.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:42 PM on May 6, 2006

I'm an agnostic. Giving the other side of the coin from grumblebee's first comment: I sometimes feel derision from atheists that is eerily similar to the derision I often feel from people of faith. A believer might shake his head sadly, and say 'Oh, come on, in your heart you know that there is a god,' while an atheist might jump up and down spastically, saying 'What do you mean, your conclusion is that you don't know? HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW?! Don't you really mean that you're an atheist, but you're scared to admit it?'

I would say that, in both cases, it's not discrimination, so much as disdain. It's ridiculous, but now that I'm not in college (or Kansas) it hardly ever comes up anyway.

From my european point of view the religion seems to be a very important part of life in the usa today.

It's a very important part of the President's life, and he is far from being alone in his beliefs, but please don't let that lead you to think that we are all a bunch of zealots. Culturally, we're all shaped to some extent by the religion that we were raised with/around, but for many Americans, that's as far as it goes.
posted by bingo at 11:36 PM on May 6, 2006

Culturally, we're all shaped to some extent by the religion that we were raised with/around, but for many Americans, that's as far as it goes.

I don't think you're grasping how weird that "cultural" religion seems to many Europeans. Suppose you visited some country that had a reputation as a bunch of cannibals, and you got to talking with some guy who said "Oh, come on, cannibalism is a historical part of our culture and, sure, we talk about it a fair amount, but not that many of us actually eat people." I'm not saying religion is like cannibalism (I've defended religion many times around here against the belligerent atheists), just trying to give you a handle on why the question might be asked.
posted by languagehat at 6:55 AM on May 7, 2006

Culturally, we're all shaped to some extent by the religion that we were raised with/around, but for many Americans, that's as far as it goes.

This also depends a lot on where you grow up. I was raised with no religion by parents who came from differing religions. We literally never talked about it, having a religion or not having a religion. I knew a few other people who believed in God or went to church, but I also knew many who didn't. Since I grew up in a small town, my small group of friends included some people who went to church, some who were evangelists, some who were Mormon, some who were Jewish etc. It didn't occur to me until maybe I got to college that I was in a distinct minority and by then I didn't really feel weird about it because it was just normal to me, so the minoritiness of it didn't register.

I know when I talk to my more religious friends now, we have a differing view on having an absence of religion in your life. For them, not having religion would leave a hole in their life, a hole they sort of feel I must have, whereas I see no such lacking. Usually these conversations are friendly and civil, but I know they have a hard time understanding this, sort of like how I might have a hard time understanding my friends who grew up without TV or sports or other common American cultural practices. I think this may be different for people who grew up with a religion that they actively left, possibly under negative circumstances, getting hassled by family, bad experiences etc.

So back to the main question, unless we're in proximity to a religious holiday -- which, because of where I live, everyone just assumes that everyone celebrates -- I don't think about it much at all except when I watch elected officials get all my-religion-this and my-religion-that and I get annoyed. To me there is a bright line distinction between having your own personal faith or lack of faith, and presuming that someone else in specific (or Americans in general) shares that faith, or, worse yet, that they should share it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 AM on May 7, 2006

I also share Jaded's point of view. Being an atheist frees me from getting my panties in a twist about anyone else's nutty beliefs. On the whole I don't feel particularly ignored or discriminated against. But I don't like what's happening to my country.
posted by melvix at 10:56 AM on May 7, 2006

Having just been in San Francisco's Mission district on a Saturday night, I'd like to suggest that the commenters above live in a very specific "San Francisco" (and, indeed, Bay Area) if they don't know anyone that goes to church. Either that, or they manage not to notice a good percentage of their coworkers.

Opting not to think of these people as racists, I'm tempted to believe the more likely explanation that it simply doesn't come up -- for me, talking about sculpting baloney is far more likely to happen than talking about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

It was flippancy on my part to call the SF Bay Area "godless." Plenty of people, including some of my co-workers, are religious. But I doubt any of my co-workers would guess I specifically identify as an atheist... like I said, it doesn't come up.

By and large, being an atheist isn't very interesting around here, and doesn't warrant much comment, like being, say, a vegetarian.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:33 PM on May 7, 2006

I have had my car decorated with raw eggs for having an Atheist bumper sticker.

I have been threatened with violence by a parent when their child asked me about my religious beliefs and I answered truthfully.

I have been told by numerous people that their friend who loves them, (and me) is going to arrange my torture for eternity.

I have had people include me against my will in their superstitious ceremonies by "praying for me"

Millions of my tax dollars are spent to pay chaplains to waste time in my militaries.

Millions of my tax dollars are given to churches for "faith based initiatives"

Millions of my tax dollars are lost by giving exemptions for their clubs. They don't pay taxes on their property, but they expect fire and police protection (essentially stealing that service from taxpayers)

Thousand are spent on ink to print religious messages on all my currency

Hotel management nationwide lets one religious book be left in every hotel room in the country. If I tried to leave a book about atheism, or rugby or beekeeping, houskeeping would discard it.

Laws and government policies are often set based on the stories that primitive goatherds living in caves told each other 3000 years ago.

Why would I feel feel discriminated, or ignored?

I live in a paradise or sweet reason and logic.
posted by Megafly at 3:38 PM on May 11, 2006

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