What does Bacon, Venus, Athens and London have in common? They are all places that some Texans call home. For a state that is capable of swallowing my entire country whole, it is no surprise that there are some cracking names to be found on the map.
Everything is bigger in Texas, right? During my 12 months there it was hard to disagree. Overly ambitious diners compete in the Big Texan 72oz steak challenge in Amarillo, the 102,000 capacity Kyle Field of Texas A&M. I doubt I will find a British equivalent. The English Premier League, the worlds most watched sports league, can only currently dream of a stadium of this size. It was interesting to compare the difference in sporting systems, university football (soccer) is unheard of in the UK, Google is quicker to find British University American Football teams.
The city skyscrapers, the vast canyons, the intense summer heat leading to miles of scorched fields and campfire bans, the unrelenting patriotism and national anthem at every opportunity, the State flag flown outside every other building… for my first experience of the United States it was by no means a let down.
I lived in a college town in West Texas. I was offered an internship shortly after completing my university course, my J1 visa granting me 12 months of employment and one month to travel before flying home. I travelled with four classmates and it didn’t take us long to realise the English accent was a rarity there. Not that many believed we were English, our Geordie dialect is one they weren’t prepared for. For a bunch of twenty-one year olds, this soon turned into a blessing.
As most of my time was spent with students from around the States, I wasn’t directly exposed to the Bible Belt belief of many locals. The contrast between the local community and students seemed apparent in a couple of ways. Humorously, I was watching an episode of the Jimmy Kimmel Show in which Lubbock was announced the city least interested in sex. A survey which can be read here on Lubbock Online was conducted by a dating site. This does not correlate with this Everything Lubbock article which suggests the cities STD rates are amongst the highest in the nation. Maybe it’s the city least willing to admit they have sex? Who knows.
As the months went by, I found more and more examples of the high levels of religiosity I was expecting. I ended up collecting more Bibles than late night Whataburger receipts. The friendly Texan welcome was even seen in the Gideons after I told them I was an atheist. ‘I like you. You are going to Hell, but I like you’, was one response I received. Not that I particularly liked the person that was okay with this fate, I was at least able to have a two way conversation.
I was comfortable telling people I was an atheist. It was still a shock to them, resulting in a reaction I was not used to in the UK. Even my then American girlfriend had questions and we had the occasional debate, this did not affect our relationship. I did hear stories of families being torn apart due to religion, well, more a family members choice to leave it behind. One of my colleagues knew of someone that was disowned by their parents for being an atheist. How anyone can choose to abandon someone so close to them, choosing to remain loyal to a God that has never been so close, astounds me. Nevertheless it happens and this is why I blog.
One road trip had us leave San Antonio for breakfast, hit Austin for lunch and end in Dallas for dinner. On route I remember a giant billboard spanning the road, reading:
‘They are commandments, not suggestions.’
Pretty eerie to encounter after hours of nothing but farms, fields and the occasional dustnado. Oh, and this huge replica of Jesus on the crucifix. I cannot remember where I found this, but it totally caught me off guard.
It still annoys me to think of that billboard. I would love to have met the church or organisation that had this put up, the anonymity of the sign meant my anger turned towards the Texan authorities for allowing such a message to further pollute the highway. Being on the road was an further eye opener to the levels of faith communities had. ‘Pray for rain’ was spray painted on the side of a barn, a message that clearly had little effect during the record braking heatwaves of 2011. Churches filled in their hundreds, I willingly attended a service one day in Dallas, sitting right at the back was no issue due to the widescreen TV’s and speaker systems. I opted out of putting money in the collection tray, well, because funding a religion that tells me I’m going to hell would be like an African-American picking a hooded hitchhiker up and giving him a ride to the next KKK rally.
This being said, I loved the experience I had here. The people I met were some of the friendliest I will ever meet and I actually feel ashamed I have not been back. Texas is often given a hard time, on occasions this may be justified. Any destination is as fun as you make it and I made the most of what the Lone Star State had to offer. This wouldn’t have been possible without the awesome people I met there.
Oh, I would also recommend The Atheist Experience for any Texan atheists, or anyone looking for fun debate. Located in Austin they welcome anyone onto their show for discussions, sometimes with very interesting encounters. Their website can be found here.