Why I Dread Telling People What I Study

I suppose it’s something that I’m just going to have to get used to…

I’ve been working on my Master’s Degree for almost three years now and whenever I tell people that I’m studying the history and philosophy of religion my first response is inevitably something along the lines of “oh, so does that mean you want to become a priest?”. After talking with more than a few of my colleagues around the department I discovered, to my great relief (or maybe it’s horror, actually) that I’m far from being the only one who’s been asked that question.

I suppose, in a way, it’s better than being immediately asked “what do you plan on doing with that degree?”, that question we all fear to hear around the holidays, when family members we haven’t seen in ages suddenly start wondering if we’re wasting our lives. That question is a little bit condescending, because it implies that we’re studying something of no discernible use. It’s even worse when I get into specifics, such as my main focus of research is examining an obscure Catholic saint in South India and how his shrine is largely the meeting place for a variety of cultural polarities. It usually kills the conversation.

If I were to tell people that I’m studying engineering, as vague as that word is, I’m pretty sure that I would get a good pat on the back, and kinds words of encouragement. I would be studying something practical, where the money is, and all that. When you tell people that you’re an engineer they immediately assume it means success, even if they have no idea what you do. Civil engineer, robotics expert, meh; it’s all the same and it’s all good. The second you throw in the words “religion”, “philosophy” and “history” (which my faculty happens to contain all three in it’s name) you get the look of troubled desperation.

I’m sure there are some people who can take all the groans and the moans in stride, and never tire of clarifying what it is that they actually do and why it’s important, useful and self-fulfilling, but I’m not one of them. After the tenth time of trying in vain to point out that the secular study of religion is not the same as going to seminary, I’ve mostly just given up. In fact, most of the time when people ask me what I’m studying, I’ll give them a different answer, just to see what happens. I told people that I’m studying philosopher, or culture, or Indian philosophy and culture. I’ve said “master’s degree” and left it at that, and I’ve even gone the path of rolling my eyes and saying that even I didn’t know what I was studying.

Those answers always produce an interesting variety of responses, and sometimes even yield more positive reponses than I was expecting. I’ve noticed that being vague or evasive somehow strangely makes it easier to get into the specifics of what I’m studying, and clear up any pre-conceived notions that people might have about the study of religion before I once again have to defend the fact that as an atheist, I’m just as qualified to study religion as anyone else, and no it doesn’t mean that I plan on converting.

Curiously, the one time I answered that I was studying Hinduism, it turned out to be a rather poor choice of words. The person who asked me what I was studying happened to me a self-proclaimed expert in Advaita-Vedanta, the Norther American understanding anyways, and fancied themselves the bees knees of all things Hind and Indian. It was actually a rather bizarre experience. I was asked when was the last time that I read Abhinavagupta, and after pointing out that I didn’t think he was part of the Advaita-Vedanta, I was nearly reprimanded for not really knowing what I was studying. I think that was when I noticed how good the salad bar looked, and pointed out that my immediate dharma involved breadsticks and I quickly made my escape.

Sometimes people are offended when I tell them what I study. Usually the offended parties involve people who adhere to a very specific set of values and or beliefs. Once when I was talking about ancient civilizations of the Indian subcontinent, and the possibility that some ruins might be as old as 6000 BCE, I was politely told that it was not the case because the world wasn’t even that old. At times like that you know the evening’s off to a poor start.

There was a time when I might have been more argumentative (combative, even) towards views like that, pointing out that things aren’t exactly the way a certain popular collection of religious texts would have you believe, but I’m far too tired too care. People can think what they want, no matter how ridiculous their belief systems are. If you believe the world was created 5000 years ago because a shoddily edited and very suspicious tome says so, that’s fine, but please don’t knock on other people’s accepted truths. It’s just as likely that the universe was created by a giant flying spaghetti monster 60 years ago, and everyone who claims to be passed the age of retirement is in on the lie.

In all, I’ve been rather lucky to only have a few people accuse me of either being elitist when I tell them what I’m studying, what I think about things and my field of study is just as interesting as (and potentially part of) unraveling the mysteries of the universe. So I suppose I have something I should be thankful for.

Oh, and for the record, Abhinavagupta wasn’t part of that philosophical movement. He considered himself far to classy to bounce in those circles.