Once, I did a ranking of life in the States vs life in Europe (in my case Spain) along 100 different categories, and surprisingly the result was basically even. There were significant differences in the quality of life in both sides of the Atlantic but USA exceeded in some and Europe in others. Let me give you some examples. In America justice works faster than in Spain, but in Spain it is much less likely that anyone will ever sue you. Or that America and Spain are equally safe, but America requires much more policemen per capita to achieve the same results. Or that America is much better than Spain as an environment in which to start a business, but in Spain there’s much less competition. And I could go on and on, but I would like to pause on one subject in which Americans and Europeans are significantly different, and that is what I would call a likelihood to believe in things not proven. Americans are believers, Europeans are cynics.
The first substantial difference in believing relates to religion. There is an enormous division between Americans and Europeans on this subject. While most Americans are religious, Europeans are mostly non believers. As you can see in the linked articles, almost 80% of Americans consider themselves religious, while just 52% of the Europeans believe in a god. But not only do most Americans believe in religion. From my personal conversations with people on both sides of the Atlantic I have found that in America there are more people willing to believe in all sorts of things that few people would defend with a straight face in Europe. Now, being a big believer, or almost a gullible person to European eyes is not always bad. On the positive side I think that the best belief that Americans have is actually in themselves and in the American dream and, regardless of the failures of America, America´s leading economic indicators have been outperforming those of Europe for decades. On the negative side, being an overall trusting culture lacking in self criticism can be a bad thing. Spaniards, for example, quickly realized that the Iraqi invasion had gone wrong and that it was likely to increase rather than reduce global terrorism, so President Aznar was voted out. Americans instead reelected Bush and it took them much longer to conclude that the US Middle East policy has been a failure. The ability to change your mind, which is seen as a virtue in Europe, is frequently seen as a lack of values in America. Kerry, for example, was defeated on a campaign in which he was accused of flip flopping, a trait that should be positive in a politician, namely the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, something that President Bush clearly failed to show. But for Americans, being driven by circumstances can be perceived as worse than being driven by beliefs. Now, going deeper into these issues, not only do I much more frequently run into people in America who believe in organized religion than in Europe, but I run into people who believe in all sorts of what I would call weird things.
Here´s a random list:
– Previous lives. I have tried to argue with success with many Americans about how unlikely it is that we all had previous lives, considering that there are as many people alive now that ever died in the history of humanity (did we share past lives?).
– Creationism, only in America do a significant group of people doubt evolutionary theory.
– A literal interpretation of the Bible. I have spent time with Americans debating that the world is actually older than 6000 years or so as the Bible literally says. Fossils and dinosaurs were of no help in those conversations.
And I could go on and on, but here´s a Dictionary of weird beliefs that does a great job at listing them all.
Now, of course there are also Europeans who believe in those things too. They are just much less common, and moreover they don´t tend to be the Presidents of our nations.
Conclusion? A nation built by self believers is a great nation but there´s a limit to this and without enough self doubt citizens of this nation can end up acting on beliefs that can cause tremendous harm to others. One thing, for example, is to believe that the US government is overextended, the other one is to blow up a government building and kill a lot of innocent people as it happened in Oklahoma City. Or one thing is to believe in God, the other is to believe that God has you on some religious mission that involves killing others.
Is it bad to believe in weird things? Personally I think that so long as those beliefs are harmless to you or others it is acceptable, but maybe just boring. Many times I have simply ran out of patience debating Americans at dinner parties on subjects such as the power of pyramids, alien abductions, the existence of the devil or the interpretation of past lives.
Posted on November 19, 2010