As a PhD student in Religion, my answer to the question, “What do you do?” is always a loaded one. The responses are mostly predictable, only occasionally aggressive, and sometimes spur wonderful conversations. Navigating these responses while minimizing awkwardness has become a bit of a hobby for me, so in addition to learning how to laugh on cue at the question, “Are you gonna be a priest or something?” I’ve come up with some strategies to steer the conversation to a place that’s more interesting for me personally, and if I’m in the mood, great for my research.
In my everyday life in New York City, meeting a new person and saying I study Religion usually raises eyebrows, and so I try to let them down gently by quickly adding that I study secularism and atheism. This being a bit unlikely, I can usually get a laugh or a smile, especially if the person’s holding a drink and was momentarily fearful that I was there to scold rather than cavort. Bringing up atheism also primes my conversation partner for a certain set of responses. I’m usually interacting with atheists and agnostics, though people often feel a bit uncomfortable identifying themselves so quickly with these terms. (And in fact, this discomfort is the starting point of my research.) I hear a lot about how unhappy people are with organized religion, but I also hear a lot about how unhappy they are with the terms left available to them to describe themselves. Some people are hesitant to tell me they believe in something more than strict materialism, and others are quick to proclaim an underlying unity or unseen force. A lot of folks just want to chat with me about a piece of literature or philosophy they’ve read recently that relates to religion or its antithesis. These are usually great conversations, and I feel pretty lucky to have them.
When I’m not in New York, I get a wider range of responses. I don’t usually reveal so quickly that I’m studying atheism and secularism, and sometimes I’ll say something more along the lines of, “Oh, church/state relations in the United States” (which is true; I read a lot of tomes about this). People who identify as religious in some way often want to know how I came to study such a thing, if I’m an atheist, and what I think about all that. While I used to hesitate more before divulging my biography, now I just give in. The frankness has made possible very intense conversations about religion, religious upbringing, and vocation. I also seem to become a sounding board for any skepticism people might have, either out of polite sympathy or genuine doubting.
In my next few posts, barring an interruption by current events, I plan to discuss some of these conversations as case studies on how we talk about religion and areligion. And as I’m still trying to avoid being a disingenuous partner in this dialogue, I’ll begin next week by divulging some of my biography and undoubtedly opening myself up to analysis.