Last week I wrote about the conversations I get into when I tell people what I do. Answering that I study religion usually leads to a conversation about it—a topic about as uncomfortable as politics during an election year. One of the first things people ask me in these conversations is what I believe. This question comes in a lot of forms, and every answer I give is an educated guess meant to quickly defuse any tensions. Sometimes I’m not particularly religious; other times I was raised Christian; and sometimes I’m simply an atheist. Telling someone you’re an atheist is hardly the end of the world, but if I’m going to have to have a conversation about religion with the person sitting next to me on an airplane, I’d prefer it to be as civil as possible for the duration of the flight. If I’m lucky, it’ll be a downright amazing conversation, so starting off on the right foot is pretty important.
By trying to be open and by telling the person about myself and my pseudo-religious upbringing, I try to set him or her at ease. I’m looking for a shared experience, and I also want to immediately show that I don’t dislike religion or religious people. I’m not interested in a pedantic conversation, and so I try to quickly disavow any status as expert I might seem to have. Hopefully the other person does the same, and we can proceed without hierarchy.
Like any good narrative, my story is trimmed around the edges, but I always try to remain honest since that’ll probably come across to the other person. I have the daunting task of explaining how I was raised by a woman that I can best describe as a socialist libertarian Jehovah’s Witness. For all of my childhood, and especially for the early part, I was allowed to ask any question I could come up with without ever being discouraged from that asking. Once my mother converted to being a Jehovah’s Witness, I was compelled to attend their Bible meetings, both out of love for her and through the force of her will. Eventually this didn’t feel right for me. Since most people aren’t too fond of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they sympathize with my leaving that religion. People almost never ask me if I’ve tried to become some other kind of Christian, and I usually say that I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy instead.
The next obvious question: So why study religion? Since it seems like the kind of thing you’d only get into as a vocation, people also want to make a strong connection between my upbringing and my choice of PhD. Mine was hardly a rigorous religious upbringing, so that narrative seems tenuous to me. Instead I say how my interest in philosophy led me to questions that I think the study of religion can answer. Put another way, religion is a really interesting, barely definable area of culture, which as a discipline affords me a lot of intellectual freedom. That’s hardly an ending fit for a Bildungsroman, but it’s as close to an honest answer as I can muster.