Help me deal with this totally religious state!
September 30, 2010 10:59 AM   Subscribe

How do I get used to living in a state where religion plays a huge role in seemingly everything?

First, as a disclaimer: I am completely clueless to religions, churches, and what the difference is between all the churches. I consider myself agnostic.

All I know is - where I live now - it's way different than what I'm used to.

I grew up in the Northeast where religion, I assume, played a part in peoples' private lives. I went to school with mostly Irish Catholics, Jewish people and Indian people. No one really discussed their religions except "Can't hang out, going to church!"

Anyway, fast forward to a year ago - I moved here to Tennessee.
And, uh, I'm not sure what to think. There are three churches from where I live to the bottom of the hill (.5) miles. One has little crosses in the front of the church with giant pro-life signs.

My co-workers constantly talk about church functions, politics as relating to "Christian Beliefs", and twice I've heard people whisper that Coworker A used "the lord's name in vain".
The festivals I've been to always have pro-life booths and people handing out Christian literature.
The local Planned Parenthood has protesters outside.
Stores have bible quotes hanging up, advertisements include "Christian owned"....

This is stuff I've only seen on the internet or on television... and I feel ... awkward. I don't fit in.

I feel uncomfortable at work when I sit in my boss' office and am surrounded by crosses and bible quotes. I feel awkward when people at work ask me what church I go to. I feel awkward when people say "God Bless" (what do I say in return? I just say "uh, thanks). I feel awkward when my co-workers start discussing the Lord's Intentions and stuff like that. I thought of all places, that working at place dedicated to multiple disciplines of science, that my place of employment wouldn't have that many people quoting the bible. Also three women saw that I had a tattoo on my ankle and found it "offensive" to their religion (I work in division where there isn't a dress code and we do not deal with outside clients). It's just a purple star! Is this really offensive to religions?

What happened? I know Tennessee is considered a Jesus place, but why wasn't it like this when I lived in Boston? Or why wasn't it like this when I lived in Florida? Is there a certain religion (denomination) where this kind of non-private behavior is "normal" ?

I feel like I need to edit myself constantly and shut people out to avoid religious discussions.
I don't feel comfortable here.

At first, I was in awe and found it strange... but now it's really starting to annoy me and I'm starting to dislike my new state that I live in. I feel like people are judging me at work, and I feel like this religion is being forced on me. Why don't people keep their religions to themselves? Why is it so different where I live now - where people have to throw it in peoples faces?

Is this something I will get used to?
posted by KogeLiz to Religion & Philosophy (75 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
It's possible that this is just culture shock, and that's what it is: a culture difference. A different brand of Christianity and a different take on it...I promise you that if these people went to Boston, they'd probably feel equally out of place. "Nobody mentions God!" "I feel I have to censor myself!" That said, it sounds like your workplace is particularly bad.

You will probably get used to it with time, but it's not going away, and it won't get better. You'll find your niche of cool people (and they do exist, even in Tennessee :), and learn that you simply can't be yourself with the bible thumpers at work. If you're unhappiness, then you can seek job opportunities in a city you feel more comfortable in.
posted by wooh at 11:03 AM on September 30, 2010

As an aside, simply as a humanitarian study it's worth reading about religions, and their history (especially in the US). It should help put some things in context, and it's always delicious to know somebody's doctrine better than they do.
posted by wooh at 11:04 AM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Is this something I will get used to?

No. It will always annoy you, if my experience is any indication.

It really sounds like you're in the wrong workplace, though. I live in the south and there absolutely no discussion of religion among people I see daily. (I own my own business but interact professionally with a huge number of people outside my office from week to week.) It just doesn't come up, except for the occasional person who says "God bless," which dooesn't bother me. If you're in a place where it's a big deal, you're in the wrong job. Not every workplace in the south is like yours.
posted by jayder at 11:05 AM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Wooh has excellent advice. Seek out the non-religious and cool people, they are out there. And learn all you can about whatever religion it is that seems to be so popular in your area. It will help you understand your coworkers, at least. Good luck!
posted by molecicco at 11:07 AM on September 30, 2010

If your coworkers feel free to tell you that your tattoo is "offensive to their religion," you should feel free to tell them that their religious chatter is "offensive to your intellect."
posted by cyndigo at 11:10 AM on September 30, 2010 [20 favorites]

I moved to Utah shortly after getting married and am not LDS. I found the state and church mix to be absolutely crazy. In fact Pioneer Day is more celebrated than Independence Day! The state lives and breathes the LDS religion. It was a 'bother' for the first couple of months for me until I actually sat and thought about it. I found myself being really closed off and not open to others ideas, which was causing me to stress out about it. I finally just accepted it, and when people started to make pushy advances I just politely told them I was not interested but I thought it was awesome they had something that they felt so passionate about. That usually spun it in a positive light and I only had 3-4 negative interactions based on that. Sorry it is not much help, but I feel how big a PITA when you feel like the religious minority.
posted by NotSoSimple at 11:10 AM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ah, Southern Baptists. Methodists in the South, too. I grew up in Alabama, and had my awakening to what was going on around me in fifth grade science when no one else in the class believed in evolution. (The teacher was newly from California; I'm guessing he had kids ask their parents just to see if he could get unanimity. My parents were pissed.)

Short answer? Ignore it. Don't even engage, or you'll constantly fight battles that just aren't worth it, especially with coworkers. You will get used to it. Find transplants from the north who think like you-- they're out there, and being a bunch of outsiders really creates group cohesion.

I hope this isn't too forward, but if you want to find like-minded people really quickly, and learn how they deal with it, find the nearest UU church and see if you like it. All the UU churches I've been to in the South (including the one I grew up with) had kind of an awesome "oasis of sanity" thing going on. They tend to be involved in the community as well, repairing the damage done by the less sane; see this for an example. Once I moved out of the Bible Belt, going to the local UU church felt a little unnecessary.

Best of luck. MeMail if you'd like more specific coping strategies.
posted by supercres at 11:11 AM on September 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm willing to bet that you're running into Southern Baptists of the right-wing, Dominionist stripe, or into "non-denominational" evangelicals. The inclusion of politics is kind of a red flag.

The shaming thing is common; an old coworker of mine got pregnant out of wedlock and the older women of her evangelical church would visit her a couple times a week to discuss her sinful failings. It's disgusting and inappropriate. I'd ignore them as much as you can; they don't take "But I'm not a member of your religion" well.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:12 AM on September 30, 2010

Response by poster: OP here:

I should mention that I went through a phase of trying to learn about different religions and it just wasn't for me.

Also, I should mention - the place where I work is the ideal place to be employed in the entire section of the state - as it's government-related. $$$. I took a great deal getting into the place.
If I wasn't employed here, I probably would discuss with my boyfriend about moving. But my job is pretty decent money-wise and the economy is crappy right now. But I figured working at this place, I wouldn't have to deal with so much religion in the workplace. Maybe it's just the division I work for. I have a new assignment next week - so maybe it will be less uncomfortable.
posted by KogeLiz at 11:14 AM on September 30, 2010

I'm going to assume your question(s) is(are) serious.

Is this really offensive to religions?

For some religions, doing anything that permanently marks your skin is not permissible. My understanding is that the objection is some variation of "God made you in His image. God is perfect. You don't mess with Divine Perfection." This is an extremely oversimplified, crude version of the objection. There are others that are more nuanced.

What happened? I know Tennessee is considered a Jesus place, but why wasn't it like this when I lived in Boston?

I am surprised that you find the cultural difference between Tennessee and urban Massachusetts so surprising. What happened is that you moved to a different culture.

Or why wasn't it like this when I lived in Florida?

I have no idea, so I won't comment, except to note that Florida is also in a different part of a very diverse country, and that given that Florida and Tennessee are both whole states, there is probably considerable cultural variation within each of those states.

Is there a certain religion (denomination) where this kind of non-private behavior is "normal" ?

I don't think this is specific to a particular religion or denomination, no. Although many ultra-religious people (of different religions) that I know, do feel the need to be "non-private" about their own and other people's religious beliefs and practices.

Why don't people keep their religions to themselves?

Because to some people religion is very much a public, communal thing, and not strictly a private matter.

Why is it so different where I live now - where people have to throw it in peoples faces?

Probably because you are meeting more people of the kind I mentioned in my answer to the question right above this one.

Is this something I will get used to?

I think that's really up to you, honestly. It's not something that you HAVE to get used to, unless you choose to live in this place for any extended length of time. If the culture of the place you're living in makes you uncomfortable in ways that are unlikely to change (if you are fairly certain, for example, that you aren't going to become religious, remove your tattoo, etc.), then you might get used to the discomfort, but it isn't really going to be a pleasant place for you to live...
posted by bardophile at 11:16 AM on September 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

if you look at people discussing religion like people discussing their favorite sport team, it's easier to take. it goes deeper than that, of course - the overly religious are influenced in every action by god and church, but that's for them to work out. i sympathize with your uncomfortableness, even though i grew up in the south, grew up deeply religious, as an adult i'm agnostic and i'm having a really hard time here in oklahoma.

when people relate everything to their beliefs, it's because the church is the social club they've joined. it's like if you've ever had a friend who was really into punk or metal or lofi. every single time you talk to them it's like "Joey Ramone said this amazing thing" and "it's like black flag in the 80s, man" and pretty soon you can feel like this guys entire world revolves around punk. now, imagine if you lived in a place where every politician, business owner, school board president, and PTA member were really into punk rock, if every grocery clerk, mechanic, and police officer had a mohawk. imagine if there were special summer camps for kids "punk for tots!" and wednesday night activities.

so what do you do? find groups that are liberal leaning and find friends there. in every uber-religious area there are a group of people who feel just like you. find each other. the more you get used to it the less it feels like an attack on you and the more it feels like a sports team affiliation.
posted by nadawi at 11:17 AM on September 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

I don't really understand how it's appropriate to discuss religion at work. If I were you, I'd just say, "You know, discussing religion at work is really inappropriate. Please stop." I don't know if your HR department also partakes in this religious crap, but maybe they'd help.
posted by two lights above the sea at 11:18 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the Bible's not called that for nothing.

The best you can try to do is recognize that this is the way a lot of people (most people even) in that area of the country are. Theyre raised that way, a large part of thier social and cultural world is framed around church centered activities and a church centric worldview. They probably aren't going to change.

If you're secure in your job, sometimes it can help to mention that you arent religous. The more respectful Bible-belt types will generally stop asking you questions about where you went to church or asking you to thier revival dinners or what not. But be aware that this can also backfire with the pushier fundy types, who may make it their mission to convert you. If you want to be sneakier and can pull it off, they wont usually bother Jewish people as much, use your northeast Jewish knowledge and become a fake nonpracticing Jew. If there's a chance you could be out on the street for rocking the social boat too much...might be best to just bite your tounge at work and look around for a more accomodating scene in your free time, not everyone is that bad, even in the heart of Jesusland.

It can also pay off to sorta humor them in a kind of jovial confrontation manner, let them know you arent church and wont becoming to thier Weds night bible group, but whenever they start prying or getting churchy, entertain them for a bit and either poke some holes in whatever creationist babble theyre talking or deflect them from being so pushy:

Jimbo: So you're coming to the bookburning the Wedensday arentcha?
You: Now Jimbo you know I believe in the First Amendment and the right of people in this country to read about and express different beliefs and opinions, we've been over this havent we?
Jimbo: Well I know we talked about that last week but I really dont want to see you burn in hell with the rest of those libruls.
You: Thanks for your concern Jimbo but Ive already got plans anyway, and you know the book burning scene just isnt my thing.
Jimbo: Well alrighty but we're also playing smear the queer on saturday, you should think about trying to make that.
You: I'll check my calender but Im not sure my homo friends would be welcome there.
posted by T.D. Strange at 11:18 AM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I live in Nashville but I expect it's pretty similar to Knox. For what it's worth the southern politeness can be helpful here:the few people who directly asked me about religion never brought it up again when I told them that I wasn't religious. It'll still be all around but just think of it as some annoying thing that other people like to talk about, like football or celebrity gossip.
posted by ghharr at 11:20 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

On preview, lots of good answers so far. It's very much a cultural thing -- I'm a pretty devout Catholic, grew up in the mostly-behind-closed-doors religious milieu of the midwest where people mostly mentioned religion in the sorts of contexts you mentioned ("Oh, I have Hebrew school that night, can't make it."). Then I moved to the south. To go to SEMINARY, of all things. AND OH MY GOD THE CEASELESS QUANTITY OF JESUS was so much more than I could cope with. And I was like a professional member of Jesus's fan club!

It's a culture where it's normative to "testify" publicly about one's religious belief. I found that if I found ways to signal I was not HOSTILE to religious belief, people mostly left me alone, despite the fact that many of them thought I was going to hell for being the wrong kind of Christian (i.e., Catholic).

You can say things like, "My spiritual life is important to me but I'm a very private person about that sort of thing." (If you feel that's honest.) Evangelical Protestants are very, very big on personal relationships with God, so if you signal that it's important, but private, they will typically respect that. When invited to church, you can always say, "I'm not looking for a new church right now [which sneakily implies you had an old one], but thank you for inviting me." If someone presses, you can say, "Thank you again, I will definitely keep in mind that I can come to you if I do decide to pursue it." Your mileage may vary; my goal was generally to get out of the conversation without alienating anyone, and to stop it from recurring very often.

A book I found helpful was "God's Own Scientists: Creationists in a Secular World." Whether or not you're dealing with creationists, it sort-of helps explain the mindset where members of a massive majority of around 80% and feel like an oppressed, threatened minority. I found it was helpful to actually treat the really loud, angsty ones as if they WERE members of an oppressed, threatened minority -- gently and with obvious respect for their threatened beliefs, while still pointing out where they were completely parting ways with reality. ("They're taking the Christ out of Christmas!" "No, actually, the X in Xmas MEANS Christ and has for like two millennia." "... oh.")

It will become less obvious to you; it will start to fade into the background as the culture shock fades. But I never got fully comfortable with it. As people get to know you better they will stop mentioning it so much -- one way Southerners show hospitality is to invite you to church, once you stop being a newcomer it'll slow down -- but strangers and public events will always be pretty Jesusy.

On the plus side, strategies you learn to cope with this now will make it easier for you to move and function in other socio-cultural milieus that are different from your own; I'm back in the midwest, but I fairly routinely deal with a small Christian religious group that's fairly fundamentalist and conservative, and I'm much more sensitive to their outlook than I would have been before; it makes it easier for me, as an outsider, to deal with them productively.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:24 AM on September 30, 2010 [14 favorites]

I, too, am a nonbeliever in Jesusland and a transplant from the Northeast. I live just south of you near Maryville. I agree with Jayder - I've been here five years and have never experienced a workplace like you're describing. I mean, most of the people I've worked with are Christians but I have NEVER overheard comments like you describe.

You mention that you work in a place devoted to the sciences... Oak Ridge or UT, maybe? You might consider talking to HR about your concerns. It seems like your workplace verges on hostile for non-Christians. I've never looked into that area of law because I've never experienced anything like what you're describing.
posted by workerant at 11:25 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do not provoke them or it will be impossible to get any work done. Just weasel out of any questions with non-committal phrases and when pressed just say you are not that religious. Or that you have a "private relationship with god" if they turn purple. I am not normally one to back down but I have experience with mobbing, and that is what will happen if you speak up. You do not want to be on the receiving end of a religious mob.
posted by domo at 11:28 AM on September 30, 2010

Man, I grew up with this. It never gets less annoying, and in a lot of places you really can't avoid it, no matter where you work (or do anything else outside of your own home). One day, when I was in high school, someone passed me an anonymous note to me in class that said "why don't you believe in God?" When I turned around to see who had given it to me every single person was looking at me imploringly. In the middle of class.

I adopted a dumbfounded expression (not unsimilar to this) to cope with the nonsense when it reaches a point where I can't possibly ignore any more without exploding. You have to wear the face like you just can't imagine a situation where such-and-such would be an issue. Coworker A took the lord's name in vain? [DUMBFOUNDED EXPRESSION] Bible quoting time? [DUMBFOUNDED EXPRESSION] Coworker B was not seen at church last Sunday and possible scandal is afoot? [DUMBFOUNDED EXPRESSION]

Ugh, and the comments about the tattoo...those are just totally insane and should be dealt with as such. "Oh, the tattoo is offensive to you? Huh, I guess that's why I put it on my ankle and not anyone else's."

It sucks, and I feel for you, but there's not a whole lot you can do about it other than to try and trivialize it as much as possible. You don't want to let it fester into a seething rage. Just remember that you're going to get some of teh crazies no matter where you live. The local Planned Parenthood here has protesters, too (though probably not as many), and I live in Chicago.
posted by phunniemee at 11:28 AM on September 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

WELCOME TO THE SOUTH. i have never realized how WONDERFUL it was to have invisible atheism until i moved here. (Pulaski, TN) I have had to rationalize it like this:

when I'm in France the locals speak French. I am fluent in French, because i studied for 8 years in school, and now I enjoy practicing when encountering people who speak French.

When i'm in Germany, they speak German, and when i'm in the south, they speak Jesus. I can understand German and Jesus with the same degree of proficiency: I can make out what certain sounds mean, but i don't hold conversations. i can appreciate the culture without being fluent in the language.

Conversely, I don't hold modern-day Germans responsible for Hitler's actions, unless they're overtly proclaiming their neo-nazi proclivities. I can ignore most religious people unless they're getting in my face about it. then i have to approach them with caution.

In both cases, I try to not offend intentionally but being offended is something THEY CHOOSE to be. I also don't wear my atheism on my sleeve, but I will drop an occasional FSM reference to see if people are on my side or not.

There are more of us atheists than you'd think, we're just quiet about it, because it's easier. Here's a collection of links to help you find the rest of us:
  Atheist Resource
  CenterFor Inquiry
  Secular Humanism

posted by ChefJoAnna at 11:32 AM on September 30, 2010 [13 favorites]

Ah... my home state. I grew up with this sort of stuff, so I guess I acclimated early. But once I firmly decided I did not believe in Christianity as a young adult, I did find my feathers getting ruffled. Here's how I dealt with it.

Part of it has to do with general cultural expectations. When the the majority of people identify as a specific faith, and that faith takes a major role in the social structures of daily living, people are gonna talk about it. It's just a norm that most people share. In most cases, it's not specifically to freak you out. They ask where you go to church the same way other people might ask where you work or go to school. It's just a chit chat thing. You can handle that how ever you want... I generally would say "I'm not religious", and that would shut down the conversation. But the key is to not be hostile about it. I always tried to be respectful of people's beliefs, so long as they weren't directly intruding upon me. That made it much easier to expect the same sort of respect about my beliefs (or lack thereof).

Generally, most people will let you be, and not necessarily treat you any differently. When people do get their piety in a wad, I just set boundaries. Like with the people who took offense at your tattoo (which I find odd, because I have a tattoo of a moon on my ankle, and never got any grief), I probably would have said something like, "I'm sorry you feel that way, I certainly had no intentions to offend anyone. I hope you understand."

The other thing about the Jebus talk... that's how people prove to themselves and others that they are "good Christians". In a way it's just stupid posturing, but it gives them some sort of satisfaction. Tennessee is deeply a place where people worry about what others think of them, so there's lots of public shows of spiritualness like witnessing. It's also a symptom of the concentration of evangelical faiths, where converting people is part of the doctrine.

And as others have recommended, it helps to have a circle of friends that aren't so steeped in religion. They are out there, I promise.

I must admit that I found it quite refreshing to leave that sort of atmosphere when I moved to the northeast. But I love TN enough that I am considering moving back in the next couple of years (although to the Nashville area, which is a lot more diverse and liberal).
posted by kimdog at 11:36 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OP here again:

I also wanted to mention that I've always found it silly that people got involved with non-religious groups (athiest/agnonstic/UU), and now I understand.

It's hard to make friends in an area where people find tattoos, swearing, etc. offensive and most of their outside activities usually include church-related things.
posted by KogeLiz at 11:39 AM on September 30, 2010

This is a big case of culture shock and how you deal with it will likely affect your quality of life while you live there. I, a secular non-religious type, moved in the opposite direction, from the Bible Belt to super-secular Seattle. As much as I wanted to get away from the Bible Belt, I was a little bit surprised when I moved here to find out how taken-for-granted it is that people are not religious, that politics are super liberal, and that people from south of the Mason-Dixon line are incompetent ignoramuses. Interestingly, it caused a little reactivity in me such that I was insulted when people insulted the things that I used to insult frequently (follow that?). It's all about setting boundaries, accepting that things are different culturally where you are now, and not feeling like you have to take the bait every single time someone says something you find offensive and/or disagreeable. Whether or not this is a tenable long-term strategy depends on you and your adaptability.
posted by proj at 11:40 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't think you will get used to it. I'm in a similar experience myself (but fortunately I don't live there full time).

Agreeing with the answers above to find kindred spirits locally. What also saved my sanity was reading narratives from people who found themselves in a similar situation, such as Kathleen Norris (especially her book, Dakota). She herself became Christian, but in a very different way from the southern Evangelical culture you describe.

One thing that will help is to (in a polite way) stand your ground about your own beliefs. Vacillating will trigger their 'she's in need of being saved/having a church home' radar. Notsosimple's answer is good.

Sociologically, you are a religious minority in the region (even if you don't feel think of yourself as religious). Seek out other religious minorities as allies and friends.

And I personally would probably be making a lot of trips to Nashville, to link up with the academic community there for lectures, guest speakers, concerts, etc.
posted by apartment dweller at 11:40 AM on September 30, 2010

I just wanted to say thanks for this question. My new boyfriend's far more religious than me and I find it very foreign. Didn't know how to phrase it for an askmefi Q, but now I think I'm good.

I was raised catholic but am agnostic, went to a public highschool, and religion's been only a part of family tradition, I've not had any religious friends. But the guy I'm dating is going through RCIA (catholic initiation) and his friends are all part of the Catholic Youth association. Feels like being born and raised in Canada and going back to the old country to live - a little familiar, but still a bit of culture shock. I don't mind it, but didn't know what to make of it all. But this is giving me some much needed perspective on how to process things, I appreciate it.
posted by lizbunny at 11:42 AM on September 30, 2010

Look at all of us posting! clearly we Tennessee atheists need to hang out. :-D but the analogy to herding cats, while accurate, is not universal. the nafa group (Northern Alabama Freethought Association) hangs out often, and they're a RIOT. as long as you don't take yourself too seriously. I love those folks, and i wish i lived closer so i could be around their particular brand of fun more often.
posted by ChefJoAnna at 11:43 AM on September 30, 2010

I know supercres's point about finding a UU church was more for "finding like-minded people", but I just wanted to note that if you do go that route (and it's a fine route to go), that you shouldn't bring up your UU-iness as "Christian street cred" with your coworkers. If they're even familiar with UU, they'd likely lump it in with Mormonism and other non-normative denominations/faiths, and not consider it legitimate. This could lead to even more conversations that you don't want to have, including putting you in the place of apologist for a religion that you're only just becoming familiar with.
posted by Alt F4 at 11:43 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to disagree with a few people. I can't wholeheartedly recommend taking it up with HR at your job, despite how satisfying it would be to get some proselytizing nosybody in trouble.

If the HR rep agrees with you, that behavior like that is inappropriate for work, he will likely sigh and say, "Yes, I'll talk to her." People who feel uncomfortable in your situation are a minority, so if your coworkers are anything like people I've known, they will balk -- no matter who tells them to tone it down -- and think, Why should I change for this heathen? or But I'm trying to save her soul! People can't be talked out of their behaviors surrounding their religious beliefs any more than they can be talked out of the beliefs themselves.

If your HR rep is on your coworkers' "side", you're putting yourself in a possibly-uncomfortable spot. The bigger your company is, the better, but it's entirely (and sadly) possible that you would make an enemy by complaining about this sort of behavior. HR reps are people with their own beliefs; not all of them can be neutral moderators who uphold fairness and the law at all costs.

I agree with how phunniemee phrased it: trivialize it. Laugh about it with people you can laugh about it with. Make a tumblr with stories and pictures and scans of the worst offenders (the bible verses likely scrawled everywhere, not the bible-thumpers themselves) so that your friends from the north can laugh about it too.

And don't patronize the chicken fingers place with a Jesus fish on their billboard if that bothers you; I would always just go to the one down the street with enough sense to keep it private.

Also, sorry for mentioning/pushing another, alternative religion. It's hard for me to even think of non-dogmatic UUism as a religion; my old fellowship was more like "liberals talk philosophy and drink coffee" club. Obviously, it's still not for everyone.
posted by supercres at 11:47 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to be sneakier and can pull it off, they wont usually bother Jewish people as much, use your northeast Jewish knowledge and become a fake nonpracticing Jew.

As a real nonpracticing Jew, I'd strongly advise you not to do this! The questions you will get from the most well-meaning of people can get so odd, and so complex, that they can easily leave even someone who's been thinking about Jewish culture/history/issues all her life at a loss for words. And that's not even getting into the not well-meaning people.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:47 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

As for the tattoo, they're offended because of the concept that the body is a temple. 1 Corinthians specifically refers to the body this way. Leviticus has a prohibition against tattooing. Leviticus also has a prohibition against eating pork. So, do these offended coworkers eat pork in any of its glorious forms? Why is that less of an offense than your tattoo? Would they be equally offended to see you enjoy a BLT?

Seriously, it is not worth getting into an argument over with them. You can point out the hypocrisy if you want to, but you won't change their minds.

When they comment on the tattoo, you can say something like "I'm sorry to hear you're offended by my star. I'm glad to know you feel comfortable saying so. However, I don't find it to be any of your business if I have a tattoo, pierce my ears or find another way to decorate myself." You can always ask them if they stop random people on the street to tell them their tattoos are offensive. If not, they can keep it to themselves at work too.

If people say "God Bless", a simple "Thank you" is more than sufficient.

I love the suggestion that you remind them that discussions of religion are probably not work appropriate.

Let it roll off your back. If people get pushy about their religious beliefs, thank them for their time and tell them you're not interested. Rinse and repeat. It will taper off or you'll learn to tune it out.

Good luck and don't hide the tattoo because someone was offended by a little purple star.
posted by onhazier at 11:48 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

NotSoSimple has it: "I found myself being really closed off and not open to others ideas, which was causing me to stress out about it. I finally just accepted it, and when people started to make pushy advances I just politely told them I was not interested but I thought it was awesome they had something that they felt so passionate about. That usually spun it in a positive light"

The tattoo and dress code thing is a funky one. Did they ask you to cover it? Have it removed? I'd frankly say, I'm happy with the tattoo and don't feel ashamed of it. What do the two of us need to do to get past this? If they are assholes in response to this, then it's an HR issue. If they're not, then you have a basis to move forward.

And yes, anywhere you go where there's a stilted culture, there's an underground culture too. It will take some doing to find, but it's there. The bummer is sometimes the underground insists on being a different kind of asshole. I'm crossing my fingers that that's not the case.

Other ammo: Thomas Jefferson was a freethinker, and did not accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. He wrote a version of the bible with the miracles and magic removed, yet, heck, everyone loves Thomas Jefferson! This is a great opportunity to learn about varieties of religious experience in the US. Don't expect in that learning to be converted or be anything other than you are, a confirmed agnostic. But understanding the people with strong beliefs is good ammo. I find that a direct: "Reasonable people can disagree on this issue. I'm thankful for the freedoms we enjoy in the US to disagree on this. In [name intolerant country] we would not be so lucky!"
posted by artlung at 11:51 AM on September 30, 2010

If you do go the UU route, do it for the sake of finding kinship and not as a deflection. If I were in your situation, and I got involved with Unitarians, I wouldn't even bring it up at work. Some Protestants have a serious problem with Unitarians.
posted by AugieAugustus at 11:54 AM on September 30, 2010

Okay, I grew up in East Tennessee (Lenoir City to be exact), and yes the Bible is strong there. But there are people like you. I promise. I haven't lived there in 18 years but I do know folks who still live there and they aren't crazy Jesus people. The problem is, it's hard to make friends without church or school, so you're at a disadvantage if the work folks are not people you can connect with.

As to the constant discussion of religion, I always used the classic, "My momma always taught me it was rude to talk about religion or politics at work. Sorry." Say it often enough and they'll learn you can't be swayed. If they start pushing you to go to church with them or really pushing you, I found this works really well, "Thank you so much for your concern and I'm pleased that you respect me and care about me so much that you are so concerned for my soul. If I ever decide to pursue faith, you'll be the first person I'll contact. Thanks."

Good luck.
posted by teleri025 at 11:54 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm popping in to offer a quick explanation about your tattoo: Your star may not be "just a star" - it suggests a pentagram to some people, which is emblematic of the devil. Not that you should change a single hair on your head, but it helps to understand what kind of crazy you're dealing with. I've encountered Christians who consider the yin/yang symbol "satanic" in that it is an emblem of one of the many ways that people are led away from Jesus.

...and also to second Supercres on the whole "find a UU church" thing. UU congregations vary, but in many the majority of folks are some flavor of agnostic/secular humanist/atheist. And it's really handy to have something to say when somebody asks what church you belong to - for some reason, being unaffiliated screams "available soul" to people who believe their god wants them to convert everyone, but they'll leave you more or less alone if you go to some church. Some will respond as Alt-F4 describes, but enough will drop the conversation that it's a net gain IME.
posted by richyoung at 11:55 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My stock answer in these situations is "sorry, I don't discuss my religious beliefs with non family members". When they answer "this ain't religion, it's your SOUL!!!", just repeat the stock phrase until they tire out.
posted by signal at 11:55 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I feel awkward when people say "God Bless" (what do I say in return? I just say "uh, thanks).

That's fine, as is a simple "You, too."
posted by reductiondesign at 11:56 AM on September 30, 2010

I am also an agnostic in the deep south (Mississippi here). I'm in a tiny town that has no UU church so I don't even have that outlet. As a matter of fact, the nearest UU fellowship is three hours away.

It's commonplace for people around these parts to ask, "What church do you go to?" within the first conversation. The kids in my college have bible studies all the time. There are two screaming (literally) bible thumpers (not a derogatory term, they have their bibles out and are thumping on them as they preach) on the campus at least twice a month. There's one preacher who brings his whole family out for a week every year and tells everyone who passes them they're going to hell... It's really amazing.

This tiny town of about 20,000 people has at least 100 churches. Before I moved here, that was simply inconceivable.

Will you get used to it? I did. When people ask me which church I go to, I tell them I'm Agnostic. If they don't know what it means, I explain it. If they try to convert me, I end the conversation politely. Most people will respect your wishes.

As for the women who found your purple star tattoo offensive to their religion... I can't speak for them, but I used to wear a pentagram and when people told me they found it offensive to their religion, I'd tell them not to look at it. Last I looked, it's a free country and one of our freedoms is freedom of religion (any religion). Worked for me. *shrug*
posted by patheral at 11:58 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the bible belt! You are going to deal with being a Yank outsider for the rest of the time that you spend there. That is the predominant culture in many places in the deep east. Not all of Florida is in the bible belt, so that may explain the differences you seem to have experienced.

Going by the description of your workplace:

You can tell people that you aren't religious, but you should really be aware that you will never fit in unless you decide to go to church every Wednesday and Sunday and really take the Lord into your heart. I'm sure that you'll be able to find people to get along with in your work place, but they may never think of you without pity or judgment in their hearts. Many people in the bible belt are defined by their religion. The smaller your city is, the harder it will be for you. If you are in a large city, please find outside friends who think the way that you do. If you are in a small town, you may be in a lot of trouble.
posted by 200burritos at 11:59 AM on September 30, 2010

It sounds to me like you just might need to grow thicker skin.

I moved from Kansas to Portland, Oregon about 9 1/2 years ago and had the reverse problem. People at my work talked non-stop about environmentalism, liberalism, bicycling, etc. - all things that I wasn't used to. In fact, my work had a publicized party to celebrate Obama's inauguration, something that I feel is highly inappropriate and wouldn't have happened for a Republican president.

But who cares? Just because I don't share the same basic worldview doesn't mean I need to throw a fit about it. I went to the Obama inauguration party (even though I would never vote for him) and just enjoyed being with co-workers.

Getting uncomfortable because someone discusses their personal beliefs (whether it be religion, politics, government, or whatever) is a *you* issue. Sure, it's not very nice or polite of them to do it. But *your* reaction to it will ultimately determine your happiness and comfort level.

People's words only have as much power over you as you allow them to have.
posted by tacodave at 12:00 PM on September 30, 2010 [9 favorites]

@richyoung, many southerners also consider the peace symbol to be satanic because it is a 'broken cross'.
posted by 200burritos at 12:01 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

And out come all the anti-Christian tropes....

You are in a different culture, for sure. Appreciative inquiry would be useful here. Always seek first to understand and seek to associate with others who do the same.

See this as an opportunity to be gracious. People want to be understood and accepted. I can engage in conversation with a NASCAR fan and truly want to know about what it is they see in it that ignites their passions. If they invite me to a race or to watch it with them, I'd just say no, it's not my thing but I am genuinely glad that it gives them such joy.

Yes there are going to be some who will try to save your soul because you haven't been "saved." Treat them like those kinds of people who are just a "little too into" some progressive cause like animal rights or veganism and want to spread their own gospel by criticizing your food choices. Again, in all things be gracious and peaceful yet firm in your own boundaries.

Gravitate toward those who have some spiritual maturity. Those who are secure enough to not feel like your non-churched status is some kind of a threat or a problem to be solved. There are plenty out there.

And there are a lot of fringe benefits to hanging out with religious people on occasion. Covered dish dinners, fish fries, etc. One thing that comes with church is fellowship and hospitality. You can enjoy one without necessarily embracing the other.
posted by cross_impact at 12:02 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

"I promised my mother I'd never dabble in other religions, thank you. I'm glad that your church is so right for you."

...["and what ARE you, dear?"]

"What am I? Respectful of others' faith."
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:04 PM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

@cross_impact, I didn't see anybody really being anti-Christian. There are many different kinds of Christians, and southern Christianity can be really confusing to somebody who grew up with a northern Christianity lifestyle. In the north, people don't talk about church or god ever. Many of my friends are Christian (in the north), and I have never once heard any of them mention Jesus. In the south, it is much more of a lifestyle. Kids have bible studies during lunch breaks, Jesus is mentioned frequently, and you are automatically assumed to be Christian. It can be hard to transition from one to the other!
posted by 200burritos at 12:07 PM on September 30, 2010

I'm an atheist who has lived in Knoxville his entire life. Let me start by saying that while yes, there is a *very* strong Christian thread in this area that touches on just about everything from community events to the evening news, your workplace is definitely out of the ordinary.

Part of it is likely culture shock (or maybe its kind of faded into the background for me after all these years) but where I work has nothing even remotely like what you experience going on. At most you'll heard 'God bless you' or 'Have a blessed day' or the occasional conversation or cork board posting about some church event.

That said, there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, pagans, and plenty of open-minded Christians and what have you in the area. I know at least some of the atheist and agnostic groups are posted up on, so that could be a good way to get yourself acquainted as well.

If you have any questions about the area or just need to complain to someone, feel free to send me a message.
posted by skrymir at 12:10 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Op here again: I may ask this question next week, but - do Atheist/Agnostic Groups talk about being Atheists?
I kind of want to find people/groups where there is just NO talk of religion (or lack thereof) and just having a good time. I don't really want to get together with people to discuss why we're here on earth, the science behind it or making fun of those who have religions.
posted by KogeLiz at 12:22 PM on September 30, 2010

I think that depends on the group. I know the Rationalists did a fair amount of science/theology/philosophy stuff but that was years ago and I can't really speak for any of the other groups
posted by skrymir at 12:35 PM on September 30, 2010

I also grew up in East Tennessee and I feel for you. It's easier for me because it's part of my childhood, but after living in another country for six years I can understand how alien this must be to you.

When I go home, I try to focus on the good parts of this culture, because there are great parts to it. People are friendly, incredibly welcoming (as long as you don't set off their alarms) and will give you the shirt off of their back if you need it. My memaw, for example, splits her time between working at the church "pantry" where they hand out food to people, and volunteering at the VA where she hems up the veterans shirts and sews on buttons. As I was growing up we helped build houses, cleaned out schools after floods, and volunteered in soup kitchens. They really are good people.

They just speak a completely different language, and it is all woven around God. As another poster suggested, try to think of it like learning to understand a new language - translate "god willing" to "here's hoping" and "god bless you" to "you have a great day" and you might find things easier.

I think the suggestion to check out a UU church is a great one - a lot of my friends in high school were Unitarian, and I really envied how normal their lives were. If you went along to a social event put on by a Unitarian church, there's going to be very little religion and a lot more of just plain socialising.

Finally, have you been to Asheville, NC yet? It's like a little mecca of cool in the South - has a good nightlife, is much much more secular, and will probably feel a lot less alien to you.

(p.s. the reason you didn't experience this in Florida is because to a Southerner, Floridians are just as "Yankee" as a New Yorker. You can't even get sweet tea down there)
posted by ukdanae at 12:44 PM on September 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've been there too (like a lot of us have, as you have seen). I tried a few different ways of fitting in, but ultimately I realized how crap it was to live somewhere where I couldn't be honest about who I was and had to censor myself. I only lasted a year.

The great part is that you can find enclaves or elements of the truly great aspects of Southern culture almost anywhere you go. Food, music, neighborliness. That's because a lot of people have made the migration out of there (many for the same reasons you are describing).
posted by quarterframer at 12:46 PM on September 30, 2010

Karaoke the most honored religion at the NAFA group. Blair Scott worships at the temple of Depeche Mode. (When he sings "Personal Jesus" it IS kind of a religious experience... haha)

They joke around that the only people who talk about religion at NAFA meetings are people new to the group. I've found this to be the case. Also, when you bring an appetizer based on pork or bacon, jokes abound. That's about it.

(NAFA is the one with which i have the most experience)

I hope I'm not threadjacking, by posting so much, but i feel your pain. the biggest part of culture shock here was finding out, for real, what living in the bible belt means. I really had no idea.
posted by ChefJoAnna at 12:52 PM on September 30, 2010

I also forgot to mention -- try the food! Biscuits and gravy, fried okra, country ham, pulled pork, peach cobbler, BBQ, and beef stew and cornbread will all lull you into a happy, unhealthy coma of southern comfort. I'm only half-kidding -- try engaging your co-workers about southern food and you might find that you'll have something else to talk about apart from religion.
posted by ukdanae at 12:56 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I feel like I'm hogging the thread a bit too, but hey, this was fifteen years of my life.

If your coworkers feel free to tell you that your tattoo is "offensive to their religion," you should feel free to tell them that their religious chatter is "offensive to your intellect."

Yeah, don't do this, unless you want to be even more miserable. Great; it's a clever quippy comeback, and one that I'd personally agree with. But don't go out of your way to make enemies and offend people. Southern hospitality has its limits. If you exhaust them, they will very politely hate your guts and make your life difficult.

Again, my experience. Take or leave, YMMV, etc.
posted by supercres at 1:08 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I grew up Unitarian Universalist AND Mormon, in five states ranging from the "people go to church??" to the "my pastor told me you worship Satan and I was just wondering, that's not true, right?" This is culture shock. Your workplace is worse than average - kind of like the one I worked at where people read erotic poetry out loud at lunch to upset me.

Don't join a UU congregation in hopes of escaping religious talk. One of the regular activities of the congregation I was in as a child was deconstructing the New Testament; the congregation across town was known for its Presbyterian Lite feel.

Find groups that are interested in $ThingYouLike. Especially if they run toward the nerdy or unusual, you will experience a marked reduction in off-topicness.
posted by SMPA at 1:10 PM on September 30, 2010

This is just a small piece of advice, but I find that most questions about religion and church can be quickly cut off with: "I was raised (whatever you were raised)." Obviously, this assumes your parents had some religious affiliation. Even if you didn't, I would just go with "I was raised Episcopalian." Which I actually was and I think being Episcopalian is a pretty good, yet non offensive, conversation stopper with the very religious.

It's an acceptable enough form of Christianity to most born agains (I know probably not really, but you won't get all the Catholic hate), but it's totally culturally the opposite of born again Christianity and it's really liberal. So it's that fun mixture of well I guess we technically, sort of believe the same thing, but uggh how boring and uptight and they marry gay people. Oh god let's just stop talking about this. Which is exactly what you want. Also, by phrasing it as it being how you were raised it leaves wide open whether you even now believe it or practice it. Also, chances are most of your colleagues aren't Episcopalian and won't invite you to their church. It also demonstrates that you aren't looking to find a congregation. Just saying you were raised Christian makes it sound like you are open for suggestions or could be brought into their church. It also helps you fight off those that would like to convert you, as it makes it sound like you've already found god and a specific god at that. And if it comes out your an atheist, you didn't actually lie (well not entirely at least) and they just read into what you were saying.

I like this tact with coworkers, because while I am in NO WAY as religious of an environment as you, there are many instances where I worry about being negatively judged for being an atheist. I don't care if this is the case socially, but at work I don't want to give someone a reason to be suspicious or distrustful of me.

With the tattoo, I agree with the others that it might be simply because it's a tattoo, but my guess is that the two church ladies actually are mistaking it for a pentagram. I have a very religious relative who constantly mistakes very mundane things for being of the occult. I find it hard to believe that tattoos aren't commonplace in the south. It might help to bat your eyelashes and go, "my little purple star?? I think it's so cute. How could you be offended by a pretty little purple star??" Of course, this is only if you actually give a damn, and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't. I find with the very religious, if you just make some overt gesture that you are a sweet, nicey nice person (despite the scary atheism) they'll calm down. I think there is a gut reaction, akin to xenophobia, to non religious outsiders and if you just make them some cookies or something or tell a cute story about your nephew and whip out pictures they realize oh she's a nice, normal, probably sort of moral person.
posted by whoaali at 1:24 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

If your coworkers feel free to tell you that your tattoo is "offensive to their religion," you should feel free to tell them that their religious chatter is "offensive to your intellect."

This. However, instead of that particular response, you'll definitely want to go with a patronizing, "Well, bless your heart!" Make sure to smile when you say it.

It seems counter-intuitive, but in the South that's seriously like punching someone right in their stupid face.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:25 PM on September 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

Southerner here from the other side of the mountains in Asheville, NC.

It was different in Florida because Florida isn't the South. Florida is Cuba and Manhattan/Long Island, relocated. (We used to say "I'm going North, to Florida", jokingly.) Nothing down there but Latinos, yankees, serial killers and tourists. The age distribution being what it is in Florida, if anyone bothers you they'll be dead in two years, anyway.

Tennessee is where brains go to die. I lived in Bristol for two years, making goddamned rockets, of all things, and joined Mensa just to find interesting people. Fail. When I moved there from North Carolina, I raised the average IQ of both states. It takes some getting used to, and one strategy is to save up a lot of that big salary you are making for when you relocate. Pick a secular region next time if it's a show stopper.

Enjoy bluegrass while there. Gospel bluegrass is wonderful, just deluded. It may be the sole (soul!) good thing about the area. Otherwise, I'd rather be in hell with a backache.

Sorry, Tennesseers. One man's opinion.

Personally, I am one of those people who can look someone in the eye and tell them that I worship Satan and drink the blood of hillbilly babies and get by with it. My responses, usually, are just a plain statement that I am an athiest, which keeps me from going to hell. Only christians go to hell, as they are the only ones who believe in it. I'm doing it from self-interest! Not everyone can pull this off, as it takes a ballsy yoyo like me to tell people how much I hate the baby Jesus. If he ever came back, humanity would probably kill him again, but it would be the religious folks doing it, not the atheists.

Good luck with this one. My current bride engineered an exit for us at least partially because it offended her, and we were in the most liberal part of North Carolina you can find, almost.

In the south, both the Civil War and the Rapture are daily concerns. Take a deep breath, enjoy the bluegrass, study the natives, make some bucks, plan your retirement, visit home a lot.
posted by FauxScot at 1:39 PM on September 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

I kind of want to find people/groups where there is just NO talk of religion (or lack thereof) and just having a good time.

They are definitely out there, though I can't point you to a specific resource where you are. Again, I'm a pretty devout Catholic, and I was WAY Jesus-ed out between living in the south and being in seminary (so my school friends, despite being awesome, were not super-useful for a religious respite). I found my "just hanging out" friends who didn't want to talk about religion all the freaking time by taking an adult Irish Step Dancing class. You might try things like that -- adult rec classes, learning to canoe, going hiking, etc. I'm sure there are local meetups listed. And there are a lot lot lot of people who either aren't religious, or who are but don't want to talk about it all the damned time, who are also looking for fun people to hang out. You'll just have to get out there and try some different things until you find them. Also, if you meet people through an activity or a class, you'll automatically have something to talk about that ISN'T the typical "we just met, what church do you go to?" religious small talk.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:48 PM on September 30, 2010

Matthew 6:5

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
posted by goethean at 1:49 PM on September 30, 2010

Any chance you're just experiencing "small town USA" and it doesn't have that much to do with the south or Tennessee. Move from Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, etc. to isolated/small town New England, Colorado, Utah, etc. and you'd probably experience something similar. Small town people just tend to be more interested/judgy about how their co-inhabitants live. Not that much else to do. My advice would be to not react, just let it roll off.
posted by Carbolic at 1:55 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to be sneakier and can pull it off, they wont usually bother Jewish people as much, use your northeast Jewish knowledge and become a fake nonpracticing Jew.

No. Do not do this. Not only is it dishonest, smacking of appropriation and cowardice, but just wait for the moment when they go out of their way to introduce you someone who is actually Jewish.

"Oh, you absolutely have to meet X, he's JEWISH TOO!"

And depending on the people in question, TD's assertion about "they don't usually bother Jewish people as much" might be really wrong. For some fundamentalist, evangelical types, hearing the word "Jew" can be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
posted by canine epigram at 1:58 PM on September 30, 2010

When someone tells me 'God bless you' as a greeting, benediction, whatever, I silently think you know, they never specified WHICH god...

For my friends that know I'm not Christian and keep saying it to me anyway, I just grin and say 'Which one?' They're used to it and we just take it as inside humor.
posted by Heretical at 2:12 PM on September 30, 2010

Okay. I looked at your profile and see you are in Knoxville - not a small town. You need to expand your contact group. Although you are also in the hot bed of snake handling, there are loads of people in your area who don't make a habit of sharing their religious beliefs at work or otherwise.
posted by Carbolic at 2:12 PM on September 30, 2010

I moved to Chattanooga Tennessee from the northeast just after high school, and lived there for 9 years, 'til I moved to California.

1. Don't expect to hang out with people too much after work. The second question is "... and what Church do y'all go to" because that's the core of their social life, and unless you go to their church there probably won't be too much hanging out.

2. The good bit about this is that all the weirdos hang out together, so your social life can be tremendously more diverse than I've experienced, say, out here in California, where the various subspecies of weirdo that are more like me flock.

3. Second the UU church recommendations. You might try going on a Wednesday night, first, because I freaked and couldn't go in the first morning I went on a Sunday and saw people all dressed up and said "eeew, not my scene", but I found a good group in the evening folk.

4. Get out of town occasionally. I didn't realize just how much it impacted me 'til I moved out to California. Make Burning Man, or some other big cultural immersive event somewhere the hell out of the south, a priority. And if you find the others from your area who are going there, instant social group when you get home! A friend of mine is a part of the Alchemy Festival, that might be a fairly local place to start.

5. Find the outdoors crowd. Whitewater paddlers, rock climbers, cavers, and even the trail building folks. People who do that stuff on weekends spend less time in church.

6. As I pointed out in #1, it's more a social thing than a core set of beliefs. I mean sure, they're intertwined, but they really don't hate you as much as you'd think given how different your stated beliefs are from theirs. Live and let live, find your social group, find activities that aren't church sponsored, and get the hell out of town a couple of times a year just to remind yourself that there is a real world out there.

Having said all that, there are aspects of eastern Tennessee that make me break down and weep at the beauty every time I visit there, and I've still, 15 years later, got a large contingent of very good friends in Chattanooga whom I talk with regularly, but it would take a hell of a lot to get me to move back there.
posted by straw at 2:25 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You almost certainly are not going to be able to change your workplace or the general culture. And you say you enjoy your job and it pays well.

Why not attend a MeetUp for atheists and agnostics, or organize one yourself? I bet there's a lot more than you'd think and you are all probably hungry for companionship. Arrange to meet someplace for a beer or coffee after work and then if a number of you click, you can go from there and arrange further social activities (a science museum outing? an All-Atheists Hiking Club? there's bound to be lots to do). I bet there's a whole lot of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and just plain spiritual-but-not-religious types in your area who are looking for like-minded folks to hang out with.

Having kindred spirits to talk to, hang out with, and share ideas and activities with will probably go a long way towards making your uber-religious workplace and surroundings a lot more bearable.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:29 PM on September 30, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - non-sequitors about TN not appreciated, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:29 PM on September 30, 2010

You are certainly welcome to affiliate with my church, I'm a Noncongregationalist. Where are we located? "Why everywhere there are good people." "We treasure the celebration of life and spirit in strict privacy." No, you won't see me there.
posted by leafwoman at 3:13 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I should mention - the place where I work is the ideal place to be employed in the entire section of the state - as it's government-related. $$$. I took a great deal getting into the place.

I know someone who works for an Army Corps of Engineers office in the South, and there, even some of the engineering and science people profess Creationism and fundamentalist religious beliefs.
posted by jayder at 3:33 PM on September 30, 2010

If you look at people discussing religion like people discussing their favorite sport team, it's easier to take.

One day it occurred to me that a certain type of person approaches religion exactly the same way that a certain brand of type of person approaches Star Wars (or anime, or WarCraft, or whatever). They're hard-core fanboys. They want to talk about it all the time, and the make fan art, and write stories, and they go to conventions, and they can't believe anyone else wouldn't love it just as much as they do. The only difference is that this particular kind of religious person thinks that the thing they're obsessed with is real, and that if you don't agree you're going to burn in hell forever.

It sounds like you're stuck at ComicCon.
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:20 PM on September 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

KogeLiz: I kind of want to find people/groups where there is just NO talk of religion (or lack thereof) and just having a good time.

Sigh... tell me about it. This is one of the big problems for me as an atheist whose family wants him to show up at the UU church. My individual UU friends are great, but the church as a whole is not secular enough for me. (That should tell you a thing or two about me, eh?)

In the end, you're probably better off just telling people you are agnostic and asking them to leave you alone about religion. If you can get them to drop it and respectfully allow you to go to hell in your own way, they won't irritate you as much and you might actually be able to get past it and form some friendships across religious differences, which would be nice.

Or save your money and escape as soon as you can, that would work too :^)
posted by richyoung at 5:23 PM on September 30, 2010

"Along with our productive, semantic language, I think religion is the unique human trait, sui generis. It has to be studied on its own terms, but it has to be looked at as a biological phenomenon, not just as a cultural phenomenon, nor as an aberration, nor as some would like to have it, the conduit for divine guidance to man... religion is essentially an extension of tribalism..."
posted by ovvl at 6:26 PM on September 30, 2010

KogeLiz: I kind of want to find people/groups where there is just NO talk of religion (or lack thereof) and just having a good time.

Just a thought, seeking out meetups or activities that are happening at the same time church activities are happening, pretty much guarantees that everyone participating in those activities isn't a regular churchgoer.

Most typical times that work for this are Sunday morning (or any time Sunday to a lesser extent) & Wed. evening. So for instance if you go to a Wed evening book club or a Sunday morning bike ride you're more likely to find the type of participants who are going to just talk about the activity at hand and not religious stuff.
posted by flug at 7:25 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh for the love of Johnny Majors, Knoxville is not the hotbed of snake handling, or the epitomy of backwoods doom. There are tons of folks in the Knoxville area that are non-Christian, there are tons of Christian folks in Knoxville that are not assholes, and there are tons of folks in Knoxville that will respect you when you say I'm not interested in your faith. Seriously, go to some bars, go out to events, talk to folks you don't work with. You'll meet people that are into football, that enjoy new food, that love to talk about their kids, that enjoy going out hiking or wandering around with their loved ones. Those that talk about their religion nonstop are not indicative of the rest of the region.

If you want to get into bees, my mom lives around there and will talk your ear off. If you like guns, my dad would show you around. Sure, religion is a little more at the forefront of conversations, but it's just like any other area of the country, people are people. Be cool and they'll be cool back.

Sorry. I got a little fired up about the all the anti-Knoxville comments. Honestly I have some issues with the town, but religion is at the very bottom. Seriously.
posted by teleri025 at 7:59 PM on September 30, 2010

Response by poster: Knoxville is not the hotbed of snake handling, or the epitomy of backwoods doom.

No, it's not as bad as where I first lived when I moved to Tennessee (McMinn County), but it's still a culture shock compared to other places I have lived. It's hard to make friends since I my co-workers talk about church a lot I'm the youngest one there by 15 years (and I'm 30). I've been to a few bars downtown. But basically, I was just wondering why it's so different here with religion and how to handle religious people that become "offended" easily or talk about church all the time.
I like that I'm near the smokies - but ... really, that's about it.
It's basically full of insects, college and high school sports, Jesus and lots of children (I'm guessing that's because I'm in the suburbs). That's my view, anyway. I understand every city isn't for everyone.

I'm sure if I move from here, I'll like it more.
posted by KogeLiz at 12:22 PM on October 1, 2010

Response by poster: oh, I like alt-country and bluegrass, so that's a plus for the area.

And I think more family are willing to visit me rather than when I lived in Boston.
posted by KogeLiz at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2010

(I just want to point out that because the tattoo is a STAR, they might be interpreting it as a pagan symbol (which it could be, I don't know). I've met many Christians who mistake a simple five-pointed star for the upside down star of satanic meaning).
posted by agregoli at 8:10 AM on October 3, 2010

Your workplace sounds a bit much but the offenders are probably members of one of the more evangelical minded denominations. I think this is not the usual work environment. Don't snark or joke about religion because there are some real fanatics in the Bible Belt and they will double down if you disrespect them. (Besides, they love that; it makes them feel like martyrs and they can testify about their burden for you on Wednesday night. Then everybody will be praying for you; maybe you'll be put on a prayer chain and have intercessory prayer around the clock. Bless their little hearts -- see how that works?)

Most Southerners are hospitable, polite, kind and generous--and Christian. And they can really cook. Most Southern Christians are nice people. Some are downright dangerous, especially if you are for reproductive choice or marriage equality or are otherwise obviously socially liberal or progressive so it's best to be polite to everybody and back away from the fanatics.

Good advice about finding sports or hobby folk. See if there aren't some kindred spirits among the UTKnoxville faculty. Also, get out of town when you can. Go to Asheville, come to New Orleans, even Nashville for the sophisticates in the music field, the Vanderbilt community, and the more metropolitan vibe of a capitol city. The countryside in East Tennessee is beautiful. Same for the Smokies. Check out the Campbell Folk School and learn a new craft in a serene mountain retreat. Devise weekend diversions that will energize you and help you meet the right kind of people for you. Be creative and determined to experience the beauty of the South while you are there.

I wish you well. I was born in Tennessee and love the South of my childhood fully as much as I could not tolerate the stifling cultural climate past adolescence.
posted by Anitanola at 11:49 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aside from the boors who tell you that your discreet body art is offensive, accept most of their direct comments to you as well meaning. And then find your own way to move the conversation on to something more neutral.

Well meaning? Well, yeah.

For a lot of people church is their emotional support system, their social life, and their spiritual life. Folks will be both curious and they will want you to have the resources that they feel enrich their lives.

ANd it took me a long time to realize it, but some of the pushier people I encounter trying to help me find the Jebus aren't just making notches in their their spiritual bedposts. They believe, wholeheartedly, that they are saving me.

So, my first piece of advice is to accept these inquires as generous, if weirdly casual and narrow minded. Learn to tune out the Jebus crap at folks' desks. It gets them through their day.

I tune that out. I also tune out football and sports talk. Not my bag.

The boss's office thing is harder. If you have scheduled meetings, try to take charge of it a little, and try for a conference area or "wouldn't it be nice to be outside today at that picnic table."

Office conversation is also hard, when the norm is so incredibly non-secular that no one (but you and a few others) even notices. Do people there watch tv? Movies? I don't spend the money on theater movies and dislike most popular reality tv, but I'll skim a recap so I can bring up what happened on American Idol or Biggest Loser. (EW Pop Watch and You Tube helps.) Are you at all interested in sports? Would you be willing to attend a high school football game or basketball game or too. (There will be the Jebus. But there will also be local sports conversation.)

For a social life. Well, as my friends and I put it it, the Internet is the new church. It's a way to find or meet people without preachers, priests, and pulpits. It's a little slow at first, but then things get going. I found folks (at all places) on a LJ group for my city. I just asked a question, someone emailed me a side question. And then I met people through people.

Look for museum schools, meetups, My local library system has free evening events for adults. Everything from a philosophy club to scrapbooking to bloggers. Is there a yearly festival? They take year round planning; see if you can find a good fit for volunteering (and therefore socilazing) that way. How do you feel about watching or participating in roller derby (

As for non-churchy churches... my experience with UU was poor. I was told what to do up down left and right. Oddly enough, I know a lot of atheists, agnostics, and non christians who attend one specific Methodist church for the community aspects.

Finally, for work, read your HR policies. You don't want to be the one who everyone knows made them all take their bible calendars off their desk, but you also want to be aware of what constitutes a hostile work environment. (Like people pointing at your body and calling it offensive. Urgh).
posted by nita at 9:49 AM on October 4, 2010

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