So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Matthew Baldwin


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

Small Talk and the “Religious Studies” Professional

by Matthew Baldwin

Mavens of etiquette and custom have frequently criticized the propriety of asking people one has just met “so, what do you do?”[1] Nevertheless, outside of a few localities where an unwritten taboo has caused “the question” almost to vanish from social life (this seems to be true, for example in my adopted home city, Asheville, NC), asking the “what do you do?” (WDYD) question remains a fixture of American small talk. Everyone, including scholars of religion, will face it from time to time.

As I understand its purpose, this series is meant to provide a space for scholars of religion to share our experiences with handling the often-awkward WDYD question. The premise of the series depends on a hypothesis, to wit: that many of our experiences with the question will be similar enough to bear comparison, while remaining diverse enough to warrant repeated acts of description and reflection. Presumably, the intent for the series goes beyond the desire to elicit communal feelings of affinity (and empathy) among “Religious Studies” types. We may also hope that these descriptions can lead to redescriptions. The things we learn from sharing our experiences might lead us to better understand the challenges we face in our shared work and social identity as scholars of religion.

The leading question of the series title, “so you’re not a priest?” suggests a humorous direction for the series, drawing on ancient comic tropes of mistaken identity and anagnoresis. It also foregrounds a certain assumption about what makes our collective experiences with the WDYD question similar and worth comparing. You may never have heard these exact words in response to your own answer to the WDYD question. Yet the title question serves as an icon (or synecdoche) of a certain repertoire of familiar-sounding responses that (we assume) outsiders to religious studies regularly present once they find themselves making small talk with a “professor of religion.” The question “so you’re not a priest?” gives us a pre-existing map, a short-cut for thinking about the most common outsider perspective on our professional identity. We aren’t priests. (Except, let’s be honest: some religious studies scholars are priests.) But many people assume we are. Not every interlocutor we meet will share this straightforward assumption that professors of religion must occupy the same classificatory category as religious professionals. But the mistake is common enough that we seem to already have decided that the mistake constitutes the archetypal version of the public’s misperception of our work and social role.

It may be the contrarian in me that wants to play with the premise and assumptions of the series, rather than to indulge in sharing any particular anecdote from the 24 years in which I have been either a graduate student or a professor of religion. Like my colleagues, I can think of many times when I have encountered other people’s cognitive dissonance and uncertainty once they learn what it is that I say that I do. Memories of many individual situations are percolating in my brain, from the astonished river guide on the Rio Grande (in 1992) who couldn’t believe that a scruffy young man wearing a silver demonic-joker-skull ring was going to be a Divinity student, to the thirty-something father at the Asheville Food Lion Skate Park (in 2016) who thought it was “cool” to meet a college professor who teaches about the Bible. But in truth I’m not a very good storyteller, and I have tended to “forget” the details of such encounters. There have been so many. The scores of times something “interesting” has happened to me following the WDYD question have kind of blended all together in my mind.

So instead, I think it might be more suited to my talents to reflect a bit more deeply on the social function of the WDYD question itself, and to consider taxonomically (or morphologically) how the repertoire of our answers to the question serve to position us within the complexities of the late-capitalist economy, constructing our identities in dialogue with others who bring their various ideas about what our various doings may mean within the world.

Let’s consider the setting in life of the WDYD question. Usually, one should graciously assume that, at least at the conscious level, the question is being asked innocently. We call it “small talk” for a reason. People ask it as though they were motivated by mere curiosity, or by a desire for simple human connection. We are in waiting rooms, on airplanes and trains, at parties, receptions, events, luncheons, mixers, dinners, in audiences, or contracting various services, and this is one of the things you ask people. (“We’re stuck sitting next to each other, so we may as well get to know one another.”)

Yet we are scholars of religion. Our theories (along with our experiences) tell us that nothing is so simple or mere. The query has larger social implications that are hard to escape. Ask a person what they do for a living, and you initiate a dance of mutual self-positioning and posturing. In trading “small talk” about one’s employment one is operationally identifying oneself within a larger system of significance. People who exchange profession-identifiers and appropriate responses are drawing on a symbolic and denotative system that has been shaped within a wider context. The signifiers and labels we use operate within a socially constructed system of classification, the terms and values of which are greater than any two individuals talking about their work.

It follows from these reflections that dealing with the WDYD question is relatively sensitive territory for everyone. Furthermore, many different employment-identity positions available in our economic and social life could involve discomfort, hilarity, or opportunities for faux pas in interactions based on the WDYD question.[2]

The situation in which the WDYD question gets asked is complex. It can be referred to a classic idea of human intercourse suggested once upon a time by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (here I draw on it as reported by Josiah Royce in 1881).[3] Holmes suggests that in any conversation between two individuals, there are actually six persons involved. There are the two “real” individuals of course; but in addition to these two, there are four “imaginary” persons. Each “real” person also harbors two “imaginary” persons: a concept of self, and an idea of the other. Our real speech acts come out of our personal self-imagination and address our imagination of the other. Our speech is then received in a way that shapes the other’s imagination of us, and is taken up into their own self-conception. Our relations are therefore imaginary (and having said that, I suggest we leave behind Holmes and Royce, and embrace the Lacanian resonance of the term).

In furthering the analysis, let’s set some more obvious points on the table. Religious studies professionals do not all have the same real being or self-conception. We are diverse. We do not all have or want to be seen as having the same identity position or social role. We operate in a field where the disciplinary boundaries are shifting and contested. We work in contexts which range from the overtly sectarian and religious, to the secular and public. We pursue different goals in the classroom and in research. We have different kinds of work environments with great variation in the levels of compensation we receive and work duties we perform. Vigorous disagreement can be found among our ranks on basic questions of epistemology, metaphysics, theory, and method. There is wide variation in specialization. There are huge regional, local, and cultural variations in available roles and identities with which we can attempt to identify through our choices of clothing, hair, speech, social activities, affiliations, affinities, possessions, and friendship. So much for our real and imagined selves.

And what about how we imagine those outside of the discipline? Again the obvious points come first. The success of our encounters may come down to how well we read other people. We have no way of knowing other people except by semiosis, that is, by interpreting the signs that they themselves are. Endlessly varied in class, position, and roles, other people are just like us in acting out and projecting their affinities into interactions with others. We are forced to interpret (and imagine) the people we are dealing with based on the signals they send. How we imagine the other person shapes what we tell them about ourselves, and how we receive what it is that they send.

So, how ought we to generalize about what other people think of “us”? How well have we formed our conception of how others conceive of us? What is our data?

We could start by considering the problem demographically. First, it should be noted that religious studies professionals are exceedingly rare in our economy. It is highly unlikely that a person will meet a religious studies professional in the ordinary course of life.[4] To consider only the economy of the United States, in 2015, out of the nearly 149 million employed persons over age 16, only 1.3 million (less than 1%) were categorized as “postsecondary teachers.” But postsecondary instructors in “Philosophy and Religion” (where the BLS categorizes us, not including the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed, and the graduate students) number only 23,820 persons. Translated, that means that less than 2% of college teachers teach Philosophy and/or Religion. Thus, overall, less than 0.02% (2/100ths of one percent) of working people in America do what you do. In comparison, Clergy, Religious Educators, and other Religious Workers (as the BLS categorizes them) make up some 620 thousand persons, making them about 25 times as common as you in this economy (though still rare at around 0.5% of workers).

But surely, maybe you’re thinking, most people in North America go to college or university, and there they will have met some scholars of religion, perhaps in a required general education course? Perhaps they knew some religion majors in college? Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. In 2014, it was estimated that approximately 45% of United States residents age 25-65 held an associates or higher postsecondary degree.[5] Furthermore, it should be noted that students with a major in Philosophy and/or Religion have made up from 1% (in 1970) to 0.75% (in 2014) of degrees awarded, while students in Theology have held steady at 0.5% of degrees awarded from 1970 to 2014.[6]

I have not found data to suggest what percentage of students in college have encountered religious studies courses during their time in school. However, the disparity in percentages of postsecondary teachers in our line of work (nearly 2%) versus the number of graduates with degrees in our fields (less than 1%) suggests that many of us are employed because we are at work in teaching general education courses. But some number of these persons teach philosophy rather than religion, and many teach general humanities at an introductory level. In short, I do not think you can count on most people ever having any prior experience with meeting actual religious studies professionals.

That person who just asked you what you do? You are probably the first (and last) scholar of religion they will ever encounter. (Unless the AAR/SBL is meeting in their town.)

Given such observations, is it any wonder that people have difficulty in categorizing us and situating us in their mental systems of kinds of professions?

As a coda to this set of reflections, let me step back and register a few further notes of perplexity and complexity.

Twice every year at my institution, in early Fall and Spring, the registrar sends out a complete list of every student organized by major course of study (double majors are listed twice). In each list, student names appear together with their ID number, the name of their main advisor, their declared concentrations, and their class level (which is determined by number of credits earned). I normally use these constantly shifting lists of majors in Religion and Philosophy to help manage my program, for example, by creating relatively current email lists, or for planning for which courses need to be offered, or for qualitatively tracking individual outcomes in conversation with my colleagues. But recently, while examining the lists from the past four years, I noticed something that was both interesting and a bit troubling. The fact is that it is somewhat rare for my program to retain freshmen majors. We tend not to see those who had declared a religion major when they matriculated as freshmen in our senior seminars. At least half of our graduates declared the major as sophomores or later. And well over half of those whose names appear on these major lists as freshmen do not stay religion majors (some drop out, transfer, or leave the school; others switch majors). What this suggests to me is that students who come in thinking that they want to “study religion” do not know in advance what this work entails. Possibly, when they encounter our faculty, and our courses, these early declarers discover that “religious studies” really isn’t for them. Possibly, there is a mismatch between their preconceptions and the “reality” that the work presents.

And what about the students that do persist? At my school, around half of them go on into seminaries after graduation, and from there into those vastly more common but still rare jobs that are associated with religious institutions.

And as for us: how many of us trained in religiously affiliated (or historically religious) colleges, seminaries, and graduate programs? How many received M.Div. or M.Th. degrees? How many took ordination? How many belong to churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.? How many do mainly descriptive, interpretive, theological or normative and constructive work? How many write editorials extolling the virtues of public theology, critical engagement, and the profound resources of religion, like “revolutionary love”? How many operate with the idea that religion is a sui generis response to a universal human experience of transcendence?

“So, you’re not a priest?”

“No, let me see if I can explain the difference…”

Yes, let us see if you can.


Matthew Baldwin is Professor and Coordinator of the Program in Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, an historically Baptist undergraduate liberal arts school in Western North Carolina.


  1. A vast literature of blog posts and professional self-help articles examine the socially fraught question “what do you do?” Most advise taking alternate paths for getting to know people. For a relatively recent and frequently linked piece on the topic, see Carolyn Gregoire, “Want to Kill a Conversation? Ask Someone What They do,” Huffington Post The Third Metric (10/30/2013)
  1. “So, you’re a heart specialist? do you recommend eating bacon or not?” “You’re a psychologist? Wow, I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you; are you analyzing me right now?” “What made you decide to be a garbage collector?” “Cool! I’ve always wondered what it is like being a stripper!” “You’re a writer/actor/painter, eh? interesting; but what do you really do, you know, for a living?”
  1. J. Royce, “Doubting and Working,” The Californian 3 (1881) 229–230.
  1. The following numbers are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and reflect fiscal year 2015. See BLS, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” (2/10/2016) For specific data on Postsecondary Teaching, see the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook at and for employment statistic on Philosophy and Religion teachers at the post-secondary level see the BLS, “Occupational Employment Statistics | Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015 | 25-1126 Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary” at
  1. See Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation” (April 2016)
  1. See Quoctrung Bui, “What’s Your Major? 4 Decades of College Degrees, in 1 Graph,” National Public Radio Planet Money (5/9/2014); and National Center for Education Statistics Classification of Instructional Programs at which explains and breaks down the categories.
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One Response to So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Matthew Baldwin

  1. Randi R. Warne says:

    A priest is an institutionally located and affirmed religious functionary. A professor is a worker in the Knowledge Factory. The allegiance of the first is to the tradition in which they are located and affirmed. The allegiance of the second, like it or not, is to capitalism.

    That’s one possible way.

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