In Joseph Blankholm’s recent post, he wonders how to begin to understand (or even locate) the atheism of people who choose, politely, not to talk about religion. His example of Midwestern propriety is an apt one—for many people, religion is not an acceptable topic of public conversation. Blankholm’s question of how we get behind this polite façade is important, but he also raised another significant aspect of writing and thinking about religion: the importance of place.
During fieldwork I conducted at a domestic violence organization in rural, eastern North Carolina a couple of years ago, I found that despite the fact that volunteers knew they were not supposed to “witness to” survivors, these volunteers talked readily and frequently about their religious beliefs and practices with statements such as “I’m praying for you” and “God bless you”, and with questions such as “how was church last night?” These seemingly minor remarks cultivated an atmosphere in which Christian ideas of love, service and compassion radiated throughout the work of the volunteers. In interviews with these individuals, I found that religious desires to “walk where Jesus walked” compelled their volunteerism and infused their work with a sense of the sacred.
This experience of a small town in North Carolina seems to be markedly different from Blankholm’s Midwestern conversations or fieldwork to understand atheism. However, by placing the two in conversation with one another, we are confronted with some big questions: How do national, regional, local differences affect the ways religion is (or is not) a part of public life? How does place factor into the ways that religion is lived or experienced?
I think it is important to acknowledge the role of place in the creation of what we think about as the religious or the secular. These things emerge and intersect in different ways in different places, times and communities. How religion is talked about in a small town in eastern North Carolina will be very different from the ways that it is lived and experienced in New York, London, or Nairobi, Kenya (where I will be later this summer). Where we live and where we work matters when it comes to talking about religion, and significantly, thinking about the secular.