Atheists (and everyone else) in the U.S. often fail to notice Christian behavior because it’s normal, even if some of these behaviors are absurd. For example, women wearing gaudy dresses with oversized matching hats to church is quite common in the south. No one pays it any attention. But when we remove ourselves from the U.S. and spend some time living in a Muslim country, our expectations are shattered by the culture shock, and this gives us the opportunity to see Christianity in a new light.
As I’ve mentioned 100 times, I used to live in the Hamra section of Beirut, Lebanon, a cultural and intellectual paradise (where beer and booze are served from endless taps and bottles). During my stay in Lebanon I travelled the country, visiting ancient Orthodox churches in the mountains and even ancienter Mosques in the South. I ventured into Hezbollah territory south of the Litani River, all the way to Sur (Tyre), a biblical city that, according to biblical texts, should not exist at all. I spent many evenings and nights pampered by Sunni and Shia homeowners with Almaza beer, red merlots, and mujaddara, hummus, olives, and tabbouleh. And we argued over the Quran and Islam. We spoke about science and evolution. Politics. Israel. And The Beatles. During this time I discovered a wonderful culture of inclusion (even though they knew I was atheist), and it afforded me the opportunity to look at American Christians more objectively. Here’s a list of observations I made about Christians while living in a Muslim country. NOTE: Not everything on this list is a criticism of Christianity. NOTE 2: This in no way applies to all Christians or, in many cases, even most.
1. American Christians are passive-aggressive.
In Lebanon if a Muslim doesn’t agree with you he says, “I don’t agree with you,” and you both accept this and move on. But in the U.S. Christians appear to go out of their way to be nice to you, while uttering demeaning comments like, “I pray that you’ll be saved.” This comment is translated into, “You will burn in hell for eternity if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior.” As an atheist I hear it all the time. But in Lebanon no one says, “I pray you’ll come to Islam.”
Another one I hear often from a friend is, “I wish you could see the beauty of Jesus.” In other words, “I think you’re blind for not seeing what I see.”
2. American Christians are not always preoccupied with sex (unless it’s homosexuality, and then only sometimes).
One of the great tragedies in Lebanon is the sexual repression that dominates social behavior. Sex among the youth is everywhere, just not in safe places. Young lovers must resort to sex behind the bushes, in questionable hotels, and at their friend’s seedy apartment next to the university (guilty!). And if they get pregnant, it’s a guaranteed way to be condemned and kicked out of your family, maybe even arrested, the child be damned! But in the US Christians are more tolerant of premarital sex. They don’t condemn their sons and daughters for shacking up. And although we have a long way to go before homosexuality is accepted, many Christians are coming to that understanding already. I just wish the Muslims would too.
3. American Christians bring their Christianity with them everywhere.
In the U.S. we see signs of Christianity everywhere we look. From bumper stickers to jewelry, symbols of Jesus pop up at every twist and turn. Talk about scripture invades many conversations between strangers. And t-shirts quoting Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are worn with pride. Aside from a very few select Muslims wearing religious outfits, Muslims don’t showcase their religion for all to see. In fact, in Lebanon I’ve had long conversations with people without ever learning their religion. I don’t even know the religion of most of my Lebanese friends. But in the U.S. I am well aware of my friends’ Christianity.
4. American Christians are intolerant of atheists.
We’ve all seen the stories in the news about atheist oppression in Middle Eastern and some African countries. I’m not saying that American Christians treat us that poorly. But American Christians would generally prefer me to be anything else but atheist. In Lebanon, no one cared that I don’t believe in god, even Hezbollah members.
5. American Christians have a blind love affair with Israel.
Without getting into politics, I’ve noticed that most American Christians support Israel no matter what, even without getting their “boots on the ground.” The reality in Palestine is a lot more complicated than many Christians are willing to admit. And even when Israel errs, Christians often look the other way and blame the Palestinian people. In Lebanon even the Christians understand what’s going on across the border and are highly critical of the Jewish state.
6. American Christians are not very hospitable, especially towards “others.”
Outside of metropolitan areas, many American Christians don’t care about cultural diversity. They want outsiders to conform to their cultural norms. They shun, especially in rural areas, anyone who breaks those norms. I noticed this in the U.S. but it becomes glaringly obvious when I stepped back from America and looked at it from the outside. In Lebanon everyone wanted to learn from my experiences in the States. I was once riding shotgun through the mountains with a friend. She asked if I was hungry. I was, so she stopped at a stranger’s house, knocked on the door, and said (in Arabic), “This is my friend from America. He’s hungry. Can you cook him something?” The woman invited us in, fed us, gave us wine and beer, and asked me countless questions about my travels, America, and atheism. She was genuinely interested in our differences. In the U.S. if a strange foreigner with a different religion knocks on your door asking for a traditional American meal, they might get shot. American hospitality doesn’t exist the way it does in other parts of the world.
There are countless other examples I have of the differences, and I’ll probably make a new post about those later. This post was getting kind of long, so I wanted to cut it short. Also, sorry if anyone feels this is a straw man. I’m merely writing about observations and not trying to necessarily make an argument. I welcome criticism.
Excellent and very informative post.
Excellent summary. I particularly liked your reference to passive aggressive behaviour which I see a lot.
I do think the “American Christian” you describe is regional…even in rural New England you don’t often meet anyone who would say they will pray for your soul…as long as I’ve been around that would be totally unacceptable. In the south it is a very different story.