God, Gays, and Germans

Yes, yes, I know I should get around to doing some original blogging one of these days, but instead I’m going to to steal yet another graph from the Pew Study Kevin Drum linked to — a chart of worldwide responses to the question whether you must believe in God to be moral, and whether society should accept homosexuality.

The answers line up just about how you’d expect, except perhaps that most of Latin America is more tolerant of homosexuality than the U.S.; and Russia and the Ukraine much less.  Brazil surprises everyone by rating off the charts on both the God/morality question (affirmed by both young and old) and tolerance for homosexuals.

I don’t have much to add, except that this chart might indicate why I tend to feel more at home in Europe than in the United States. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I would answer question 1 "obviously not." And, to illustrate the point, most of the Germans I know who do believe in God would not say this essential to morality.  They know there is a veritable Everest of historical evidence against this proposition, and don’t want to look ignorant.*

And my answer to number two is "of course." The fact that about 4 out of 5 Germans agree — and 9 out of 10 of younger Germans agree — means that many Germans who consider themselves conservative and who are regular churchgoers believe society should accept homosexuality. Major leaders in all political parties are openly or at least not-secretly gay. It’s just not a controversial issue over here, which explains why the angry bickering over acceptance of gays in the United States seems so futile to most Germans.

* This doesn’t mean the opposite is true, of course. My personal experience favors the null hypothesis: belief in God has no effect on a person’s morality, however you might want to measure that (good luck!).

19 thoughts on “God, Gays, and Germans

  1. I think the ‘accept gays’ issue has gotten mixed up with the gay marriage issue in the US, and that will take a while to die down.

    I accept gays and believe society should do so also – have done for many years. Until recently I’ve not been sure about gay marriage, but even there I think I’m changing my mind. At core marriage is a covenant between two people, which makes it a personal thing more than a legal thing. I believe that two people can make a valid (if not legally enforcable) marriage without benefit of clergy or ajustice of the peace. So why would that exclude gays?

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  2. In my (limited) experience, many gay people in Germany tend to be somewhat more low key about that fact in a more formal social or professional environment. But that fits in precisely with the German habit of not immediately disclosing personal information to people you don’t know well. I rarely hear anyone I don’t know very well talk about their spouse (same sex or other) at my workplace; I never hear anyone discuss what political party they support, what religion they are or what their childhood was like or the fight they had with their husband last night.

    I do hear them talk a lot about car insurance, health insurance, what they did on the weekend, where they want to go on vacation, where to buy the best baguette, etc. But that’s because one’s work colleagues aren’t typically treated as one’s substitute family and friends – and everyone acts that way. That’s something I find tremendously endearing about Germany.

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  3. I left out summary comments in my previous post – my thought is that this general disinterest in / respect for the intensely personal in many spheres of German social life just makes being gay one more issue that remains far in the background of many interpersonal relationships. My guess would be that a large number of Germans simply go through daily life possibly unaware of, and typically uncaring if the person in the next cubicle or stall or Kneiptisch is gay or not. That probably equates to a higher degree of tolerance – for better or for worse.

    A very typically German former colleague of mine is gay – everyone around him knows it, but not because he mentions it, or because any form of personal interaction with him would ever put him in the position of having to declare / reveal it in that context. In the professional context, that’s just the way things are. Another former colleague flies off to Thailand every year to relieve himself. No big deal there – because it NEVER would come up in the interactions one has with him in that arena.

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  4. An opinion survey of this kind, given the generalizing phrasing of its questions, is equivalent to a Rorschach inkblot test: you can read into it what you please.

    As Don points out, acceptance of gays, in the U.S., has become linked to the gay marriage issue. That has generated a great fog of controversy which in turn may well befog minds.

    As for God, the definitions vary from the personal God of the Old Testament prophets to Spinoza’s (and Einstein’s) Deus sive Natura. Depending on the definition, decision theorizing–your “null hypothesis”–is irrelevant.

    Or isn’t it possible to make a choice in uncertain conditions? Pascal’s wager–ever heard of it?

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  5. I agree that opinion surveys have their drawbacks, but I generally disagree with people who describe them as meaningless or hopelessly subjective. At an individual level, skeptics ask, how can we know what people are thinking about when they are asked whether society should “tolerate” gays, or whether belief in God is essential to morality?

    But at a macro level, even questions this general highlight intercultural differences. That’s why people spend time and money putting these polls together. The debate about tolerance of gays in the U.S. has some overlap with the gay marriage question, but there are also plenty of other gay-tolerance issues. For instance, recurrent Congressional debates about whether to include gays in discrimination or hate-speech laws (a separate issue from whether these laws are a good idea in the first place). The majority of anti-gay-marriage provisions in the United States also ban civil union arrangements, and automatically deny gays hundreds of other legal privileges conferred by marriage.

    Sure, gay marriage tends to dominate this debate, but this fact is a by-product of political manipulation by right-wing Christian activists, who understand that there is a large pool of voters who, although not particularly hostile to gays, will respond to appeals to “rescue” or “defend” marriage. This is why the Congressional bill passed on this subject was called the “Defense of Marriage Act.” The answer to the poll question gives you a rough estimate of how many people will actually respond to this rhetoric in the U.S., which in turn shows you why this rhetoric can — and actually does — fundamentally change national policy. I’d call that a pretty important poll question.

    Same goes for the “belief in God to be moral” question. The specific meaning one person had in mind when responding to this question is, of course, unknowable. But the fact that over half of the country endorses some form of this idea explains why every American Presidential candidate makes a show of their faith, while nations like Germany sometimes elect declared atheists to be their Chief Executives. This general attitude — as revealed in the poll — also changes history forever. How many people voted for George W. Bush instead of Al Gore because they believed Bush shared their morals better because he talked openly and often about his religious faith? The answer is: we’ll never know the precise number, but we know it’s very large, and it plays a role in every election. And I don’t think anybody’s going to challenge me when I say that the fact that Bush was elected instead of Gore has had rather dramatic historical consequences…

    That’s why I find polls like this interesting, even despite their drawbacks.

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  6. Tolerate. I detest that word. There is something condescending about it.

    Gays are not a group of unfortunate deviates whom I ‘tolerate’ out of the goodness of my mealy-mouthed soul, they are equals whom I accept as fellow citizens. Though even accept seems condescending in this context.

    My point is that you (or the survey) seem to be using gay marriage as a proxy for acceptance of gays in the US. If the questions were asked seperately ‘Accept gays’ and ‘forgay marriage’ the pollresults would diverge widely -in the US. So treating them the same is actively (and deliberately?) misleading.

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  7. Don, if I understand you correctly then it’s the other way round: you’re implying that the survey is misleading in that it is using acceptance for gays in general as a proxy for a poll about gay marriage. I would beg to differ, if you look at the wording of the question, it is not the survey that is “treating them the same” but, if anything in this regard, it would be the respondents that make this equation.

    But even if one did suppose that your understanding is true, how come the question is a proxy for getting an opinion on gay marriage in the US (and is posed in a way actively misleading in this way there), but not in the other countries included in the survey? Is it because in the US, as opposed to other countries, gay marriage is such a “hot issue” that any question pertaining to gays acceptance must coercively be read as a poll on gay marriage? If that was indeed the case, then this already tells you a lot about the country, doesn’t it? Why isn’t it a hot topic in Canada or Sweden?

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  8. Much of this seems to be just another manifestation of the old “outliers are evil, and the US is an outlier, QED the US is ….” argument so popular in certain European circles today.

    It’s statistical manipulation and a bullshit guilt trip, as most of would recognize instantly if the US weren’t the target.

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  9. @Don:

    My point is that you (or the survey) seem to be using gay marriage as a proxy for acceptance of gays in the US.

    Except that neither Andrew nor the poll even mentioned gay marriage until you brought it up out of thin air. The question of the poll was: Should homosexuality be accepted or rejected? 41% of Americans say it should be rejected. There is nothing unclear about that result at all, and it is you who is trying to downplay this number by conflating it with the gay marriage issue, essentially implying that Americans are too stupid to understand a simple question.

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  10. Is the real point of this statistical exercise expressed by your above sentence: “. . .this chart might indicate why I tend to feel more at home in Europe than in the United States.” Americans are fundamentalists and hate gays: here’s Exhibit A, a Pew Survey, QED? Therefore, folks, I’m now eating Currywurst, not Texas barbecue?

    Your choice, Andrew, and whatever it is I respect it: it is not my intention as a trolling co-blogger to harass you (not too much, anyway).

    In the interest of full disclosure (that is a fine lawyerly phrase), I don’t really feel completely at home on either continent. I managed, after much finagling and sleight-of-hand, to spend a year in Connecticut, probably to resolve some of the expatriate identity issues that are a driving force of your Blog. Regrettably, 9/11 occurred shortly after my arrival, which no doubt colored my experience (those Leni Riefenstahl displays of martial glory…); nevertheless, I was very happy to return to my country of birth. And yet I still felt a pull back toward Europe. On my 2002 return stop in Reykjavík, I settled back into Europe as into a warm bath with a sigh of relief.

    At home in both countries? More like feeling more at home in America while in Europe, and vice-versa.

    Looking forward to your next demonstration of European cultural superiority. Perhaps at the end of all this there will be some sort of final, clarifying illumination.

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  11. To assert that the results of this survey are an example of European cultural superiority would be quite ignorant, and, to speak with Don, condescending.

    Gays’ rights movements started in the US long before anything similar occured in Europe. And Europeans do acknowledge this. The fact that the gay parades are called “Christopher Street Day” in several European countries reflects this. And to get the full picture you would naturally need to ask gays in the US and in European countries where they feel more accepted by society. I am not so certain whether the result would mirror the Pew Group survey. I also think that the existence of the respective legal instruments implemented to guarantee freedom of sexual orientation does not necessarily correspond with the level of gays’ acceptance by society.

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  12. “To assert that the results of this survey are an example of European cultural superiority would be quite ignorant.” Precisely the point.

    “Gays’ rights movements started in the US long before anything similar occur[r]ed in Europe.” Indeed. And much else had its origin in the U.S., good as well as bad, some of it acknowledged by Europeans, some denied (especially the good).

    I would even go so far as to say that European counterculture would never have come into existence without the groundwork laid in America in the 50’s and 60’s.

    Perhaps stones would never have been thrown in 1968 Parisian streets without the precedent of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, among others. Joschka Fischer would never have dared to appear at his oath of office ceremony wearing running shoes. And so on.

    Not that it was a one-way street. Without Europe distinctive features of American culture would never have come into being.

    It is the confluence of the two cultures that makes transatlantic relations so fascinating, while giving birth to some painful paradoxes.

    At the moment Germany is trying to shake off American influence and form its own identity. That’s to be welcomed, but you can only go so far in defining what you are by defining yourself by what you are not.

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  13. @Norbert:

    And to get the full picture you would naturally need to ask gays in the US and in European countries where they feel more accepted by society. I am not so certain whether the result would mirror the Pew Group survey. I also think that the existence of the respective legal instruments implemented to guarantee freedom of sexual orientation does not necessarily correspond with the level of gays’ acceptance by society.

    The political climate in the US is very hostile towards homosexuals. Rarely a day goes by without some newspaper columnist or TV or radio personality wondering in earnest whether homosexuality is a genetic disposition or a choice of questionable morality. Openly gay people are not allowed to serve in the armed forces. Numerous states have recently made same-sex civil unions unconstitutional. If you are surprised at poll results such as this one, you simply have no idea what’s going on in America. Of course I’m not saying that this makes the US “culturally inferior”, because as a European I strongly believe in moral relativism. Americans are just … different.

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  14. In the interest of accuracy, there was a Gay Rights Movement in Germany during the early 20th century. Beginning in 1897 and through the 1920s there was much effort to repeal paragraph 175. It is estimated that in the 1920s there were more Gay bars in Berlin than in NYC in the 1980s. The film “Anders als die Andern” was released in 1919, and Magnus Hirschfield’s work continued until the Nazis came to power. Whether Germany needed the Stonewall Riots to get the ball rolling again is another issue, but Gay Rights is not an American invention.

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  15. This fits with the image of Germans in the American mainstream media, where Germans are often portrayed as either Nazis or markedly gays (e.g. Sprockets or “Hans” in My Own Private Idaho).

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  16. True. Can’t remember a Hollywood film in which a man speaking a thick German accent is not meant to send shivers down viewers’ spines.

    Hans was harmless compared to Uli, Franz, and Dieter (the “Nihilists”) in the Cohen brothers’ masterpiece “The Big Lebowski.” But anyone parodying techno-pop has my stamp of approval.

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  17. “True. Can’t remember a Hollywood film in which a man speaking a thick German accent is not meant to send shivers down viewers’ spines.”

    I can think of one. Cabaret. Both the major villian and the major sympathetic characters in Cabaret had accents, the sympathetic jewish victim more so than the villian.

    Cabaret presents 1920’s Berlin as very ‘gay’. Not only gay, a place where sexual freedom of all kinds thrived.

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