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REVELATIONS: A trip across the United States

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
July 6, 2012 at 2:06 a.m.


On the Fourth of July, cozied up on my couch recovering from a delightful 24 hours of food poisoning, I found myself glued to a cheeky British TV documentary about an Englishman traveling the United States.

"Stephen Fry in America" wasn't necessarily patriotic in orientation, and yet, somehow, it was the perfect selection for Independence Day lounging. And since there were multiple episodes and 50 states to get through, my tired, achy body didn't need to move. It wasn't a substitution for fireworks, but it would have to do.

Fry drove north and south throughout each state (in a traditional London taxi cab), highlighting what he believed to be culturally distinct Americanisms: A Maine lobsterman, the excitement and ridiculousness of college football games, the Germanic roots of our beloved hamburgers, patrolling the American-Canadian and American-Mexican borders, Native American reservations and attending Houstonian high-society charity galas, to name a few.

He left the taxi behind in Washington state to catch a flight to Alaska, then Hawaii.

Of the many stops Fry made throughout the states, unveiling destinations and Americanisms that even I wasn't too familiar with, I found myself reflecting on our country's immense diversity, in culture, tradition and religion.

Fry, an open atheist, carefully (and, I'll add, respectfully) examined America's rich religious diversity - something I don't think he necessarily sought out to do when he signed up to complete the documentary.

Episode after episode, it seemed he was rather impressed with the exchange of religious beliefs in America and our willingness to practice them so openly. For an atheist, I imagine that's somewhat confusing to digest.

He attended an Orthodox church in Alaska, he witnessed a Hasidic Jewish community walk the streets of New York City, participated in a Wiccan celebration of Samhain (Halloween), viewed a voodoo high priestess perform a ritual ceremony in New Orleans, and watched a group of coal miners in West Virginia praying in a huddle for Jesus to watch over them before they started their workday in the underground coal mines.

I was fascinated to watch Fry walk through a buffet of religious traditions and ask thoughtful questions.

But I guess I'm always fascinated when I get a glimpse of how an atheist views the world of the religious.

But what I loved about watching Fry navigate through our American religion subcultures, is that he seemed genuinely interested in learning about other faiths different than his own (the religion of having no religion).

His religious tolerance reminded for a moment how people of different religious beliefs should behave around one another - with understanding, fearlessness and joy.

Don't misunderstand, I know Fry is not sympathetic to religion. He is an outspoken supporter of the humanist movement, and vocal dissenter of Christianity, especially the Catholic church.

But the point is, he was there in the trenches of religious diversity, and maintained a jolly, respectful attitude. He didn't make asinine jokes, or attempt to talk them out of their faith trances. He watched, observed and moved on.

This is a practice I know all too well: Watching, observing and moving on.

Because I'm confident in my faith (just like Fry is confident in his non-faith) the study and investigation of other religions do not turn me off. I have a bookcase of religious texts on everything from Islam to Scientology, historical to philosophical, ancient and modern - and still, I'm a confident Christian. In fact, the research of other faiths in recent years, has led to a deeper understanding of God, and stronger willingness to study more about him.

Fry might argue the same for his non-belief in God.

But that's not the point. The point was that Fry's documentary reminded me how few people take the time to investigate, travel, interact and break bread with individuals of varying religious backgrounds.

And how much we could learn from each other if we took a moment every now and then to take a leap of faith, and dive into the religious trenches of the nations.

It just might be as interesting and life-changing as Fry's trip across the United States in a London taxi cab.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jlpreyss@vicad.com or @jenniferpreyss on Twitter

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