**EDIT (3:25 3/5/07):- To clear up a couple of things. I do come from a upper middle class family but I don't think i suffer from elite isolationism. Two of my really good friends were sons of cab-drivers and another one learn't the entire Koran by rote. His goal was to grow up to become a mullah. Look this article is not about how religious countries are as a whole or which country is a better place to live but it is about how people as individuals are wrapped up in their religion. **
All right I am writing this article because of this comment thread on reddit.
Let me preface what I am about to say with this - I was born, and spent the first 8 years of my life, in India. Next I spent a year in Kenya, a year in Saudi Arabia, 7 years in the UAE and now 3 years in Kirksville Missouri doing my undergrads. In between I have visited, on vacations, somewhere near 23 countries (including Germany and most countries in the Middle east). I don't mean to state all of this as a boast but merely to illustrate that I am not speaking from a limited or narrow experience.
Coming to the US my biggest shock was how seriously people took religion. It was a form of religious intensity that I had never encountered. In Saudi I had endured a totalitarian theocracy (is there another kind?) but I had never seen the man on the street be so wrapped up in their religion. I had never met people who defined themselves, first and foremost, on the basis of their religion. Yeah living in the Middle East I was aware of all the extremist fundamentalists. But they were the fringe. They were like UFOs. You only heard of them, you never actually met them in real life. None of my Muslim friends listed the Koran as their favorite book. They never included any suras as their favorite quotes. Sure there were Muslim mullahs on the TV but no one really actually listened to those programs. Anyhow they were TEACHING the Koran as opposed to PREACHING it.
So when I came to the US I was shocked, absolutely stunned at just how absolutely people believed the Bible. This was the first time in my entire life that I had a religious text cited to me during a scientific debate. When one of my dorm-mates tossed out the "Evolution is an unproven theory whit a lot of holes" line at me I didn't even realize that it was the opening line for a serious debate. For a second I thought it was a throwaway one-liner. He doubted evolution! Not just one odd guy, but dozens upon dozens came at me that night. I actually have met 3 different people since that night who actually doubt that the earth is more than a few thousand years old. I still can't wrap my head around this concept.
Another thing that has shocked me how strongly people feel about converting non christians to Christianity. This driven by the constant overarching belief that all non christians are wrong and are going to go to hell (something I have been told bluntly to my face). There is an inability to conceive of the fact that they might be the ones who are wrong. No one, not one single person in my 8 years in the middle east ever tried to convert me to Islam. Not once did anyone suggest that not being Muslim meant that I was going to suffer.
The problem with the mid west is the sheer homogeneity of it. Growing up in a culture where everyone is of the same religion as you, where everyone shares the same believes as you, i can see how anything different maybe considered strange or unnatural. Growing up I ate at iftar during Ramadan with my friends. They burst firecrackers with me during Diwali. We all went to Christmas parties. There was no awkwardness in celebrating religious festivals of a different religion. it never felt weird. But here in the US I cannot think of celebrating christimas. It somehow feel strange. And I am not the only one to feel so. Thats why Kwanzaa and Hanukkah are sort of celebrated/marketed as the christimas alternatives. Thats why malls are afraid of hanging up signs that say 'Happy Christmas'. Hell malls back home (in in the UAE) had gigantic banners saying merry Christmas, no one thought that was strange or somehow offensive.
Perhaps it come with being the worlds only super-power, but somewhere along the line the people of the US started taking themselves too seriously. Somehow the words 'under God' in a pledge have become so important that the Supreme Court needs to rule on this. I went to an Indian school where we recited the standard muslim prayer every day. Then we sang a prayer that appealed to a single almighty god. At no point did this offend the sensibilities of the mostly Hindu student population. We understood that emphasizing one religion does not necessarily denigrate another. 'Unity through Diversity' after all was the motto for India. Somehow this is a lesson that US has not yet managed to learn.
Amen, brother. I'd like to add to Newt Gingrich that this is the world of bilingual education, not "the ghetto" that he cites. Almost everywhere else in the world where they educate their kids, they are aware that other countries exist, and they might even speak several languages. This makes people smarter. Sorry, Americans, that's just how it is. That's why Canada, with all of its faults, has far superior societies. Canada is not the white-faced aw-shucks place Americans believe it is, or want to believe it is. They speak several, not just two languages, and, as the above article noted, are just not that into religion. They are much better off, and American societies can just wallow in their self-important ignorance.