Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Secular American in Europe: Secular life in the Southern US vs Germany

Long time, no see everyone. A large part of my absence has been due to my studying abroad in Germany since September 2016. I spent the first half of 2016 preparing and saving money for my departure and from September until now...well, studying. I'm a graduate student pursuing a dual master's degree where, if successful, I'll earn two master's degrees. More on that in another post, but this post is specifically dedicated to my vastly different experiences as a secular person in Germany versus in the US (more specifically, in the region known as the Bible Belt).

One of the aspects of Germany that stands out to me is how the secular experience here differs from home. For those new to my blog or not aware, I'm from the American South, a region over-saturated with evangelical Christianity. Identifying as openly atheist from the age of 16 has brought its share of challenges. By "open," I don't mean shouting my nonbelief from the rooftops in the manner that American evangelicals tend to do with their Christian beliefs. I'm referring primarily to responding honestly when asked about my religious beliefs.  In person, I keep quiet about my atheism unless specifically asked. Hearing nonsense about the moral depravity of atheists is quite the norm. 

 Being openly secular in a rural southern town can be uncomfortable at best and extremely ostracizing at worst. Speaking to fellow southern secularists has confirmed that my experience with approaching the topic of religion with caution is far from unique. Many irreligious people in the South choose to remain secretive about their lack of religious beliefs out of the fear that their families and friends will disown them, their employers may fire them, and otherwise suffer ostracization for not being a Christian. Those of us with friends and family that would do such a thing have had to create creative ways to avoid or divert attention from the topic of religion so that we're not subject to these risks.  I am fortunate in that I have accepting friends family members, but a number of experiences with others have not been so pleasant.

 For example, several years ago a former acquaintance invited me to church after finding out I was an atheist. I politely declined, but the acquaintance responded with "Well, I tried to save you. Only God can deal with you now." Just knowledge of my atheism (not even discussion) was enough to offend and elicit a "loving Christian" response of ridicule and dismissal. This is but one of many stories I have of how negatively my atheism has been perceived back home. Your religious beliefs are often used as a judgment of your character. Telling this to my friends here in Europe, they can hardly believe a developed country would still place such a huge emphasis on personal religious convictions (or lack thereof) when simply getting to know someone.

The great thing I've noticed about being in Germany is that people just don't ask you about your religious beliefs on a regular basis. People don't even talk about religion often in general conversation unless you are close to that person and the topic is of interest to them.  When the topic has happened to come up, no one's batted an eye when I mention that I'm an atheist. No arguments, no defensiveness, no disgusted huffs...just nonchalant acceptance. Back home, I brace myself for rejection and ridicule when asked about my religious beliefs. It's been a true breath of fresh air to be openly atheist without fear. I'm not an argumentative person by nature and go to great lengths to avoid discussing religion with people I don't know well back home. It's great that here it rarely, if ever comes up, and when it does, it's not a big deal at all.

The differences I've noticed aren't limited to the way people discuss and react to the religious beliefs of others, but the role religion plays in German society. In my city, Konstanz, there are of course churches and at least one synagogue and mosque that I know of. However, unlike my hometown, houses of worship are not literally everywhere you look. I guarantee that my hometown with 16,000 people has many more churches than Konstanz, which has a population of about 83,000. Religion is noticeably less important here, evidenced not just by the number of houses of worship, but people's behavior as well. If people are religious, most are private about their beliefs instead of trying to push them on others. In my entire 10 months in Germany so far, I have only seen one person evangelizing. 

Lack of religious beliefs isn't even on the list of things one might judge your character by here. The stigma atheists are branded with in the Bible Belt is entirely absent in Germany. I'm relieved that I can be open and honest about my atheism without hostility. I have never been the type to be in-your-face about my lack of belief, but I have longed to be at ease when the subject of religion comes up. I just wanted to be treated with the same respect afforded to someone with religious beliefs. Not having my moral compass questioned just for being an atheist is a wonderful feeling. I have finally found that peace and comfort that I wouldn't have if I were still in the US. When I do come home, readjusting to tiptoeing around my lack of religious beliefs will provide me with quite a challenge. Whenever that day comes, may my pleasant memories of acceptance in Germany bring me peace.