A Burning Question As An Atheist Foreigner In The South


On the 27 of this month, we will have been in Tennessee for a full year (and what a year!). My husband and I had been in the US previously in time to celebrate the 2009 new year (by falling asleep in a Staten Island motel room well before midnight, much to the disgust of Australian friends who found out about it later – “You didn’t even go to Times Square?!”), but had spent most of our time in Tennessee, so we had a bit of an idea how religious the south was. Before our arrival, I had wondered: would Christian locals have a problem with our lack of faith, would they reject our friendship once it came up in conversation?

After almost a full year here, I can honestly say I have no fucking idea yet.

I’ve befriended locals who are also non-believers, and heard tales of disputes and even outright rejection from families, break-ups based mainly on disagreements regarding faith or lack of it, fear of non-faith affecting employment if work colleagues were to find out about it, and the awkwardness surrounding the seemingly inevitable question “what church do you go to?”. At least, it’s inevitable for American born and raised. No one asks me, no one has asked my husband. I had wondered what the best response to such a question would be – “I’m an atheist” (The evil ‘A’ word!) “I’m not religious” (Will they understand what that means, or just assume I believe but don’t feel like getting up early on a Sunday?) – only to find that I have never been put on the spot in any way so far about my beliefs. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that unless the Jehovah’s Witnesses show up down our little street, it may not happen.

Why not? Do foreigners get a bit of a pass? If you asked most Australians about their religion, they would probably state the religion into which they were christened, even though the majority do not attend church unless it is Easter, Christmas, or someone is getting christened, married or farewelled there. Maybe locals know that Australians aren’t that into church attendance? Or that they totally would be if they weren’t spending 99% of their time fighting snakes?

Do I just hang around with more chilled out believers who don’t really care about the faith of others or what place of worship I do or do not attend? I know a few who fit this description, others who are more acquaintances – a neighbor I sometimes chat to when I go walking, friends of family members already living here – I’m not so sure about. And wonder if it were to come up, whether they would continue to be warm towards me. It’s not something that has been tested, I have no desire to start a debate if someone mentions God in passing conversation if they are not actually preaching to me. Would they be more forgiving because I’m a foreigner, or could I expect the same treatment my godless American friends have experienced?

 And yet…..there is another possibility, more terrible than any other, to explain why no one has asked us what church we go to, and asked us if we would like to go to theirs.

What if….they considered asking us, but decided we weren’t cool enough for their church?

Because……that would just be HURTFUL, Tennessee!!!!

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  1. Marie Ehlers

    Could it be that they intuitively understand that you are immune to their sanctimony, so why bother taking jabs at you? They assume you are different and haven’t been indoctrinated. Hey, an infidel! Salvation isn’t for everyone, somebody has to go to hell, and it’s those foreigners. Too bad, Ms. Fancy Pants.

    • Dale

      I wouldn’t mind…Heaven always sounded seriously boring while hell seems to be where the action is. If you are going to be there for eternity you would want to have some sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll I think.

  2. Adam

    Feel fortunate you are not asked. I have dodged this question often by saying my daughters go to church with their mom. Usually that stopped the prodding. But I have met one or two people with the un-corrupted brain and its refreshing to talk to them. Even conversation about normal life is much better with an “a-word”. Great write up… give it time you will get to experience the fun of being invited into “their world”.

  3. You might actually be acquainted with people who just do not care or find it rude or annoying to ask people what religion they believe. I live in Alabama, and I have had people invite me to church who I wasn’t even close too, basically strangers. I was raised Christian, but stopped attending shortly after I graduated High School. It may be because you are “foreign” sometimes people are afraid to approach people who are “different”. Maybe it’s the part of Tennessee you live in. I gaureentee if you lived in Bama someone would invite you. When I’m invited to church I just say thank you but I’m not really into church. Sometimes it may get a weird response, but that is their problem. My friend Helena, who is from Australia was very surprised at all the churches she saw while visiting Alabama.

    • Daniela

      Yeah, my husband’s aunt who visited recently was amazed at the amount of cars parked at the big church near us on a sunday. Most of the friends I’ve made are either atheists as well, or religious but not overly so and don’t give a shit what I believe. But I tend to seek out such people, so that might influence things as well. It’s probably not because I’m not cool enough for their church….but it is possible, though 😉

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