The highlight of my 4th of July weekend was spending July 3rd on my friend’s boat on the St. Croix River, which (near the Twin Cities) marks the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. I was on the latter side, in a small town called Hudson. Not once during the activities of the weekend did anyone ask me what I do, so not once did I talk about religion. The only time the topic came up was when a friend (whom I only see once or twice a year) asked me what I was studying now. When I told him secularism and atheism he politely and approvingly said, “that’s deep, man.”
It is the Upper Midwestern culture of politeness that interests me in this post. Although originally from Minnesota, it has been a while since I have actually lived there, and I now find myself straddling the boundary between insider and outsider. My accent was never very strong, but now it seems to only persist in my inability to pronounce “bagel.” (I can’t hear the difference, but my coastal friends tell me I sound ridiculous.) With the exception of my mother’s devotion to being a Jehovah’s Witness, I grew up learning from a surrounding culture that believed talking about religion in public was taboo. No one would call you rude for bringing it up, but it was likely that someone would deftly change the subject out of discomfort.
That said, I have discussed religion on the St. Croix River before. Two years ago, when I said I was moving to New York to study religion, I received the usual questions about whether I was becoming a minister and whether I was religious. When I answered that I was neither, that pretty much ended the conversation. And even when I pushed a little, I couldn’t discover much about the religion of my conversation partners. The contrast between this cultural approach to religion and what I’ve found elsewhere is stark. For example, when I was moving in political and academic circles in Minneapolis (often with Jewish families) religion was talked about all the time, and especially in relation to politics. When I was living in southern California, it seemed like hardly a day passed when I didn’t have a conversation about the local Evangelicals and mega churches.
I bring all this up to make a larger point about how we live religion publicly and privately. While the public/private distinction often breaks down, there are certainly times when the separation is clearly drawn in the minds of those to whom I’m speaking. For many Minnesotans, religion is a private matter that shouldn’t be talked about—not even among friends. For others, it hardly makes sense to think of religion as public or private because it seems so obviously embedded in both spheres. As someone who has to talk about religion a lot, two rough groups emerge for me: on the one hand, there are the public non-theists; and on the other, there are those who talk about religion, whether or not they are actually religious themselves. In analyzing discourse, I believe this distinction will become crucial for me. I would like to think of the publicly non-theistic as those for whom religion only emerges on holidays and surveys. Since many people seem to fall within this category, here’s my challenge as a fieldworker: to locate and describe the atheism of the polite and the apathetic.