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In this Economist blog it is stated:

In the most religious parts of America, it is tough being a secular teenager. Many of the kids at Camp Quest say that, at school, they either keep quiet about their lack of belief or are teased for it. What they like about Camp Quest is that no one tells them they are going to Hell.

Then there is this epic Top Gear episode "lethal car decorating", where it appear that it is not safe to just vent an opposing opinion.

I guess Top Gear is mainly comedy, but are there regions in the US, where you better pretend to be a Christian, just to be safe?

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@greg121: yes, you seem naive. Have you ever been to US? – vartec Feb 13 '13 at 11:16
Yes it does sound a bit ridiculous, but if you have travelled outside the tourist zones in the US you might find it less surprising that somebody would find the need to ask a ridiculous sounding question like this. – hippietrail Feb 13 '13 at 11:41
Top Gear was deliberately trying to provoke a reaction; even if they didn't have a bunch of other people following them around with camera's to record it (been too long since I saw the episode to remember if they used hidden cameras or not); they were so blatant it was obvious they were trying to provoke a dramatic reaction. As a result what they got were a bunch of people willing to act like idiots in trade for 30 seconds of fame. – Dan Neely Feb 13 '13 at 13:57
@vartec , merely being of a different religion, or no religion at all, is of little consequence in almost any non-homogeneous setting in America. If you are planning on attending a KKK rally, or, as a less inflammatory example, Sunday church, there may be a certain expectation of belief or at least adherence to custom of those settings... failure to adhere to custom could be uncomfortable in the case of church, and straight dangerous in the case of a Klan rally. You are absolutely correct that purposely offending locals in America is a potentially dangerous proposition, regardless of reason. – LJ2 Feb 13 '13 at 14:14
An interesting variant of this question would be: Is it wise to hide homosexuality to travel safely through the US/Poland/Russia/Uganda/...? – gerrit Feb 13 '13 at 14:33

5 Answers 5

up vote 25 down vote accepted

There is absolutely no reason to need to pretend to be Christian while visiting the US. The US doesn't have an official religion and is a very diverse nation where people travel often. It is also a very large nation, and unfortunately some people do commit crimes against people for their religion/lack of religion. This is like any other diverse nation. There's no issue with being a secular teenager in America, unless you actively argue with those who have different beliefs than yours. (And if you do actively argue, you don't typically have threats of violence or anything; its just the people of the majority belief may not want to be friends with you).

In the United States in 2009, a nation of 300+ million people had 1376 hate crimes with a religious bias; the majority being anti-Jewish (70%), anti-Islamic (9.3%). Only 0.7% were anti-atheism/agnostic. Also, while I couldn't find data that broke down by victim-group by type of crime (so this also includes hate crimes committed against other races, sexual orientations), a large majority of the hate crimes are vandalism/property-destruction/intimidation (63%) and adding in simple assault (assault without intent of injury) and other property crimes you cover (~90%) of hate crimes. The other 10% is mostly aggravated assault with the addition of about 17 (0.2%) that were murders or rapes; and many of these are possibly based on racial or sexual orientation motivation. Note the number of Hate Crimes in Great Britain is similar (1621 religion hate crimes), despite having 1/5th the population of the US.

When meeting strangers it is best not to deliberately insult/mock/convert them from their own religious/political/other beliefs--this is regardless of where you are traveling. People often get upset when their beliefs are mocked, but again this turning into assault or worse is extremely rare. However, if your waitress says "God Bless" or something and you mock her for believing in an imaginary being in the sky (rather than just ignore it), I wouldn't be surprised if you get worse service. Also, note only about ~20% of Americans actually go to church/synogogue/mosque every week, though ~40% will report weekly attendance. While politicians do pay lip service to God/Christianity in US politics more than in some other nations (e.g., European nations), its mostly playing politics. When surveyed on religion about 75% of Americans self-identify as Christian (25% Catholic, 16% Baptist, 8% Methodist, ...), about 5% are Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim or other religion, 15% reply no religion, and 5% refuse to answer.

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great detail in the answer, +1! It'd be nice to have a link for the stats in the final paragraph though, if you have one. – Mark Mayo Feb 13 '13 at 18:49
@MarkMayo - Added links for citations left out. (Both wikipedia). – dr jimbob Feb 13 '13 at 19:01
@drjimbob - great, thanks! Welcome to the site, btw, look forward to more great answers like this from you! – Mark Mayo Feb 13 '13 at 19:19

As @MarkMayo pointed out there is no official religion. As the person who had lived in Indiana (a pretty religious state though not part of the Bible Belt) the issue at hand is actually disrespect rather than religious affiliation.

That actually was the whole point of the Top Gear episode you have linked.

One of the few occasions you might have to pretend to be Christian would be a KKK Rally.

In most rural areas of the Bible belt if you are polite and respectful no one would care what is your religious affiliation or if you have any.

There are areas where you might be treated with extreme suspicion but this doesn't have to do with religion, but rather blood relations.

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Agreed. Don't wear anti-Christian T-shirts. Don't have loud conversations in restaurants about how stupid Christians are. Don't drive round town playing heavy metal on Sunday morning. Oh, and don't go to KKK rallies. – DJClayworth Feb 13 '13 at 4:24
@DJClayworth : well this is a good advice for all religions/world-views/ethnicities. If you don't purposefully insult them and their culture, they leave you alone. Maybe with the exception of a civil war or revolt, but in that case you have to really ask yourself the question whether you want to travel there. – vsz Feb 13 '13 at 15:45
@DJClayworth i'm curious why you provide that advice. wearing an anti-christian shirt might get you some weird looks at restaurants, but i absolutely don't think you would be in any danger, and it's certainly not illegal. do whatever you want in the us. by and large, no one cares. – sgroves Sep 25 at 22:06
@sgroves I take it you've been everywhere in the United States? – Karlson Sep 26 at 3:37
@sgroves I did not say that wearing anti-Christian T-shirts would be dangerous or illegal. I said it would be disrespectful. – DJClayworth Sep 26 at 19:13

General recommendation when traveling anywhere is to avoid discussing any controversial subjects with locals. This include religion, politics, minorities rights, etc. Always divert conversation away from these subjects. If you're a tourist you're there to see, not to make a statement.

Also discussing other subjects, don't try to be smartass about local customs. You might for example despise NASCAR or handegg (aka American football), but you won't win any friends by trying to convince locals that F1 is true racing and soccer is true football.

This doesn't, however, mean that you need to pretend to be a follower.

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Also, don't refer to American football as "handegg" and you'll be just fine. ;-) – jjeaton Feb 13 '13 at 19:35

In general, no, you do not need to pretend. Just be respectful.

There's no check at the border, nobody questions you. There's no official state religion, and the whole "Freedom of religion" thing is huge there.

Of course, wherever you go - in any country, there's going to be people who discriminate.

For the most part, however - most people, in every country, are more curious than judgmental.

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Saying there's no official state religion really understates the truth. The first amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". This is normally referred to as the "separation of church and state" and basically means that the Government can't/will not ever act in any specific way for/against any specific religion. ("Cults" and similar things being the exceptions) – Doc Feb 13 '13 at 3:19

There are situations where for social acceptance pretending to be of the right faith matters but that's all. It's not a safety issue other than in extreme cases (such as the KKK rally Karlson mentioned. I would NOT recommend shouting "Allah akbar" in a KKK rally--but I would suggest staying away in the first place anyway.)

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I would not recommend shouting "Allah akbar" at meetings by certain European political groups either. – gerrit Feb 13 '13 at 12:20
@gerrit: OTOH, Islam is currently number one religion in quite a lot of Western European countries :-P – vartec Feb 13 '13 at 13:21
@vartec No, it is not the number one religion by any means in any western European country. On the other hand, insulting Islam loudly can certainly put one in a risk zone. – gerrit Feb 13 '13 at 14:34
I have zero experience with the KKK, so maybe I could be wrong. I haven't heard any stories of violence at one of their rallies in recent memory, other than from people protesting them. Thus, I would guess that you could shout your favorite religion of choice's slogan and the worst that will happen to you is being rudely asked to leave and escorted out if you dont. There is absolutely no reason to pretend to be anything you aren't, in any public place in the US. Just be aware that antagonizing someone may get undesirable results, but that isn't a problem with a country it's a problem with u. – Dunk Feb 13 '13 at 22:48
However, I should add that there are certainly neighborhoods in the US that you shouldn't go; regardless of who you are, because they are high crime areas. – Dunk Feb 13 '13 at 22:52

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