Religion and Happy Meals

Although they aren’t on every street corner, we have fast food restaurants here in Austria, too.  McDonald’s is the most common, but there are a few Burger Kings and Subways, too (although I’ve never gone into one) plus at least one, NordSee, that you’ve probably never even heard of (they serve fish, and often some strange ketchup-y sauces sometimes used in excess).  The basic premise at McDonald’s here is the pretty much the same as at home: mostly burgers, chicken sandwiches and french fries, with ice cream sundaes for dessert (although they also have other things that we really ought to have back in the States, like a full coffee bar and waffle fries).

20130524-232408.jpgWe tend to do a quick, convenient dinner about once a week, whether that means ordering pizza, picking up street food or carry out from a local restaurant, or, on occasion, getting McDonald’s.  Last week we had a McDonald’s night, and, as usual, the boys chose to get Happy Meals . . . which are pretty much exactly like what you’d get back at home, except that sometimes, the toy is something fantastically cool, like a pedometer or a sheep-shaped cereal bowl.  Last week, the “toy” was actually a book.  The boys got their choice of 6 different, full size, full color books — B chose a book that came with a ton of stickers and Liam chose a hardback book that came with 3-D glasses . . . and which started off with three pages worth of an explanation of evolution.

Aside from the books being pretty darn cool as a freebie with a Happy Meal, I was pleasantly surprised to find evolution in Liam’s book, mostly because here, in one of the most Catholic countries in the world, in the city that was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire for over 300 years, it’s not really considered controversial to give out books that treat evolution as scientific fact to little kids.

20130524-232435.jpgBut in the US, I think it would be.  I suspect that in the States, if McDonald’s were giving out books stating the facts of evolution along with Happy Meals, there would be outrage and boycotts.  Social media would explode with exclamations about intolerance, persecution and freedom of religion.

And here, no one seems to think it’s an issue.  (Although, to be fair, my German isn’t that good, so it’s also possible that it is and I missed it . . . I’m mostly kidding.)  I really think that no one here thinks it’s a big deal . . . at least not on a cultural level.  It’s not that religion isn’t respected here.  It is, tremendously.  The entire nation and culture is overwhelming influenced by Christianity, and more specifically, Catholicism.  The country’s calendar of holidays is dominated by the church, and while people aren’t overtly and dogmatically oppressive about their religious views, the tenets of Catholicism are pervasive here.  (Although the Austrians that I know claim that Austria, and Vienna in particular, is “not very religious”, I disagree.  I see it everywhere.  For instance, there’s no “Happy Holidays” here, it’s always “Merry Christmas”, and the state-run schools are unembarrassed about their inclusion of the celebration of Catholic holidays and discussion of saints within the school year, although they don’t actually teach religion in any sense.  It’s simply that these ideas are so woven into the fabric of life here that they don’t see that as “religion” . . . which is exactly my point — Catholicism and Christianity are so commonly practiced and believed that they are completely taken for granted and the acceptance of them is assumed.)

The freedom of people to believe and practice other religions is taken seriously here, as well.  The legacy that Austria carried out of the second World War is one that people here want to leave in the past, and there is a strong feeling of sensitivity towards those who aren’t Catholic or Christian, too.  Culturally, especially among young people, Austria wants to be inclusive.  Religious tolerance is important here.

20130524-232503.jpgBut, even with all of that, it seems to be a complete non-issue that McDonald’s is giving away books that teach evolution as a matter of fact.  As far as I can tell, no one cares.  I think the difference is that people here don’t equate “respecting” their religion with expecting everyone else to believe the same thing as they do.  They don’t view it at anyone else’s duty to not disagree with their religious beliefs.  Respect of your right to believe something doesn’t necessarily require that I agree with you.

Also, with the caveat that my sample size is pretty small (in that I don’t know very many Austrians well enough to have had these kinds of discussions) I feel like that people here, no matter their religious beliefs, don’t deny the truth of science.  The very religious have either consciously chosen to accept or ignore the contradictions, or they’ve come up with some internal way of reconciling it . . . but regardless, they don’t expect everyone else to avoid contradicting their core beliefs.  Here, disagreement doesn’t seem to equal persecution, disagreement doesn’t equal disrespect, and respect doesn’t require agreement.  And that’s not something I’m really used to seeing.

I’m not trying to critique or admonish anyone in the US, or anywhere else.  But I am grateful to see a culture that doesn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to something that might disagree with a personal belief.  On an individual level, the religious people I know are intelligent, accepting, and understand that not everyone is going to agree on something as deeply personal as religion.  But on a cultural level, I think there would be a vociferous reaction to a book in a Happy Meal that talked about evolution.

These are generalizations, of course, and I haven’t been here very long yet, so there are probably things that I’m missing.  But I do get the sense that there has been a more successful reconciliation between religion and science here.  At least, no one is boycotting McDonald’s today.  The profoundly religious culture that exists here seems to live peacefully alongside an acceptance of science.  From my American perspective, it’s pretty stunning.

2 thoughts on “Religion and Happy Meals

  1. I am an Austrian, who has lived for two years in the United States (Wisconsin when I was 17 with an American family, who were “born-again” Christians (I went with them to church every weekend), and Philadelphia a few years back). To be honest, I was pretty shocked (with 17) when I recognized that there is a sizable minority in the USA that does not take evolution as a fact but rather believes in creation of the world a few thousand years age. This belief is, except for very small fundamentalist religious fringe groups influenced by American churches in Austria (there are not many), more or less totally unheard of in Austria (and nearly all parts of Europe). Many Catholics believe that the world was created by god billions of years ago (and then evolved; including the evolution of apes to human(apes)). This is also the official dogma of the Catholic Church, which has embraced evolution. So, there should be no wonder that evolution is a non-issue in Vienna (and Austria), it is just accepted as a fact (just as that the world is not flat). Furthermore, I disagree that Austria is a very Catholic country. In fact, most people here are not very religious at all, at least by American standards. It is more a historical-cultural, traditional issue that most Austrian celebrate religious holidays (who would not like Viennese Christmas markets), not an active manifestation of a belief in god. Also the overwhelming presence of churches is due to a long Catholic history. There are not many new churches in Austria and many of the old ones are pretty empty on a regular Sunday. Hence, this is not a very religuous society, even though from the buildings, churchbells and the like it may appear so. To sum up: Issues that are controversial in the US, are not controversial here (the death penalty and right to bear arms would be other of those issues; they are rejected by a close to uniform consensus in Austria: the social system and state medical care is another; this is approved by a close to uniform consensus), All the best to you. Markus

    • Markus —
      Thank you so much for your input and perspective. It’s always nice to hear the true Austrian side of things — since I’m so new here, many of my thoughts and observations are incomplete. It is shocking (and refreshing), coming from the US, where religious fundamentalism is relatively common, politically powerful and very loud in its opinions, to see that things are so different in other parts of the world. I feel like what I’m seeing here is that scientific fact is treated as such, and religion is treated as faith . . . which seems to be the obvious way things ought to be, but it isn’t how things happen typically in the US. If McDonald’s gave away books describing evolution in Happy Meals in the States, there would be major repurcussions — many people would be simply horrified!

      Thanks again for reading, and for taking the time to share an Austrian perspective. Vielen Dank!
      – Emily 🙂

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