A View from Afar, with Sylvia Broeckx

Author Emily Dietle

My focus is on state-church separation & social issues. I'm an avid reader, and feel that one of our most valuable tools is the free movement of information and ideas. | @emilyhasbooks

According to statistics, the vast majority who frequent this blog are from within the United States. Often, we Americans can become so steeped in our own media and local paradigms, that it becomes challenging to see a clear image of ourselves as a nation. In this blog series, you will be offered a ‘view from afar’ by atheists abroad, with their take on our politics and religious culture. Read the full series: Martin S. PribbleShelley SegalSylvia BroeckxTylzenRory Fenton, and Roger Ivan Hart.

In the fifth article of this series, I bring you Sylvia Broeckx, a Belgian filmmaker living in England. Sylvia, an atheist herself, embarked on a project last year to make a documentary film that aims to improve public perception of atheists. The project, delightfully dubbed ‘Hug an Atheist,’ will include a fifty minute documentary focusing on stories from real atheists across the United States that have chosen to live publicly with their non-belief.


Hug An Atheist

Before I can give you my thoughts on the separation of church and state in the USA, it is important to highlight my background. The country I grew up in, Belgium, had a strong emphasis on the separation of church and state, even before it became a country in its own right. We have the French Revolution and Napoleon to thank for that. When Belgium became a (not so willing) part of the French Empire, a strict separation of church and state was enforced by our overlords; and it wasn’t just a separation, it was “state before church.” There are some towns where they took this quite literally and built a new town hall right in front of the church.

These days Belgians don’t really dwell on these ideas any more, but the remands of Napoleonic times are still with us in daily life. For example, any couple wanting to get married, must be married at their town hall by a civil servant (think Justice of the Peace type of ceremony) before they can have any type of religious (or even non-religious) ceremony. Religious ceremonies don’t constitute a legally binding marriage. They are not recognised by the state, and they are not allowed to be performed until you can show your official marriage certificate to your celebrant/priest.

In politics, God isn’t mentioned, religion and politics are never mixed. I can’t remember ever hearing a politician mentioning that he was guided by his faith in making any political decision. To do so these days would most likely be political suicide. In times of crisis, you are very unlikely to hear a politician say anything like “the victims are in our prayers” or “may God be with us”,… We even went so far as to declare our king mentally unfit for a few days when he refused to sign a law legalising abortion citing religious reasons. This type of separation of church and state is what I am most comfortable with. This doesn’t mean Belgium is an atheist country. At present approximately seventy percent of the population is technically Roman Catholic (though few people are still practising Catholics) and another 15-20% belong to other religions.

Then I left Belgium and moved to Britain, a country that actually still has a state church and where the head of state is the head of the church. Even though there are bishops serving in House of Lords, the political landscape is guided by a sense of the separation of church and state. When Tony Blair mentioned his religion guiding him to make decisions on the war in Iraq, the public’s reaction was one of astonishment and disapproval. Today, two of three main political parties have leaders who are openly atheists and I can’t help but feel quite happy with that. Whether or not I agree with them on all issues is a different matter, but at least I know they would not be sending men and women to war over something they believe an all-knowing being in the sky thinks is a good idea.

It was with great interest that I followed the lead up to the U.S. elections earlier this month. The primaries for the Republican Party candidate were strangely entertaining. I had never seen so many politicians proudly proclaiming their faith, and not only that, they made it their platform. I kept thinking “who in their right mind would want this in a politician?” Surely, there can’t be any way in this day and age that we can go back to this kind of irrational thinking? And yet, there weren’t just a few misguided people cheering them on, there were thousands and thousands of them. As I have many close American friends, I got quite caught up in it all and when I saw how close a race this was, I could only hope for an outcome that wouldn’t put the clocks back sixty years.

With some of the stupidity that was uttered regarding rape and contraception, you just didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Churches were telling people how to vote, people were proclaiming that the second coming of Christ was nigh if Obama would be re-elected … Seriously???

So, on November 6th, I was hoping that the USA wouldn’t suffer from a collective brain fart. I was invited to an election party in Las Vegas, and let’s just say, there was a huge sigh of relief that night. So as an outsider looking in, I always thought of the USA as a country that has a strong national identity and that it had a separation of church and state. I’d assumed that religion didn’t come into politics just like the country were I was raised and the country I moved to afterwards. While studying history, I was taught that America was founded so people could get away from religious persecution. You would think that of all nations, this one would want to keep religion out of politics. Unfortunately, I’ve now learned it is quite different. I’ve found America to be one of the most religiously guided countries in the Western World. When I look at the direction countries in Northern Europe are choosing, they are all becoming ever more secular. I would have thought that with a constitution like the US, the United States would have been leading the way in that respect. This is unfortunately not the case. However, after the recent election result, I have a hope.