30 Days – Religious Perception

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I’ve mentioned 30 Days, the series created by Morgan Spurlock after he made Super Size Me earlier in the year. Recently the second series of 30 Days has been showing in the UK, and after our trip to Canada we had one episode left to watch, an episode which finds a confirmed atheist who spends 30 Days living with a devout Christian family, attending both their services and Bible study classes. Interestingly both the atheist and the Christian parents had been brought up in Christian families, and both had reached a point where they had made a big faith decision, in one case having been brought up a Methodist to become atheist, and in the other to move from being Catholic to the McKinney Fellowship Bible Church that the family were now attending.

Unlike some of the other episodes, there wasn’t any significant change in the beliefs of any the participants, although there certainly was a greater understanding of the position of each group. What I found really quite surprising though is quite how much the attitudes and behaviour of most Americans differs from what their constitution actually says.

The first amendment to the US Constitution explicitly forbids the government from establishing a state religion or even being seen to prefer a certain religion, nor to prohibit the free exercise of religion. So unlike the UK, where prayer is a legal requirement in schools for example, any sort of prayer is regarded as unconstitutional. Having said that the show featured in background segments a number of problems that atheists face. For example the show featured a group of atheists who formed a church – an association of people sharing the same set of atheist beliefs – and applied for a tax break that was given by the government to any church. The application was thrown out because they didn’t believe in any sort of deity or divine being. As the group pointed out, they believed this to be contrary to the first amendment. They also highlighted that the decision in 1956 to officially adopt ‘In God We Trust‘, and to put it on bank notes also contravenes the amendment, as does the Pledge of Allegiance – particularly since the words ‘under God’ were added in 1954.

Interestingly the daughter of the atheist in the programme had refused to use the words ‘under God’ when reciting the pledge at school, substituting ‘under the Government’ instead, and been bullied by other students for doing so. This highlighted quite how badly atheists are seen in the US. The programme quoted figures from a survey of 2000 US citizens that found atheist at the bottom of the list of people “sharing their vision of US societyâ€?, and the group in society that respondents were least happy for their offspring to marry. Compare this with the results of the regular Gallup poll into Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design which finds that 53% of respondents believe that ‘God created man exactly as the Bible describes it’ and, the pretty widespread misunderstanding during the street vox pops in the programme that atheists don’t believe in anything at all you can start to see why they are unpopular. For the record, the programme highlighted that atheists believe in a lot of things including humanism and naturalism, and at one point, one person questioned on the street even described atheists as both progressives and communists (obviously hadn’t come across the biblical verses that underpin Christian Communism then…).

The programme also took a look at a couple of Christian groups and places to balance out the atheist group, including a group that I’m sure Howard would appreciate, Denver based Biblically Correct Tours who were shown giving tours of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and trying to fit dinosaurs into the creation story (according to the tour guide shown on the programme they were created on the same day as humans and co-existed with human beings before their extinction – there is apparently no evidence that they existed millions of years before humans even appeared). The followed this up with a visit to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida, which alongside a daily passion play includes a number of Christian themed exhibits, and even includes the worlds largest model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. The sequence also included a shot of the price list at the concession stand – King David Chicken Sandwich anyone?

The whole irony of the programme was that a country like the US that seems proud of it’s heritage separating Church and state is largely Christian, and yet the UK, where Christianity is the state religion as a culture is significantly more secular.

One thought on “30 Days – Religious Perception”

  1. I don’t think it is any great surprise that the population of the United States is either primarily Christian or religiously intolerant. Those have been facts that have quite apparent, just based on the stances and rhetoric used by American politicians over the past decade, as well as the shift in the legal precedents coming out of the US courts.

    My perception of the role of religion in British society is less clear due to the distance and limited contact.

    I have a feeling that the differences are more cultural than anything else. Of course, incorporation of religion into the society is part of that culture. Still, the stereotypical international image of a UK citizen is a lot more tolerant and polite than that of the stereotypical international image of an American. It may not be that attitudes towards people of differing religious beliefs in any more tolerant in the UK, it is just that people are a lot more tactful about what they express (the difference between emotion and action).

    Still, I have to shake my head along with you at things like Biblically Correct Tours and the Holy Land Experience theme park. Still neither willful blindness not kitsch are a peculiarly American vice.

    Sounds like an interesting program. I’ll have to see if I can find it.

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