The Southern Greeting: What Church Do You Go To?

abandoned church
Image by Dale Forbes from Pixabay

If you've spent any time in the American South, you have had complete strangers ask where you go to church. They don't ever ask if you go to church. The idea that someone might not attend church is foreign to them. I am not sure I will ever get used to this, but an article from The Charlotte Observer (update: link no longer active) suggests that I will continue to hear it. It is part of the culture here, though I do not think that excuses it.

I moved to the South after having spent most of my life on the West Coast. Religion was a private matter and not something one would discuss with strangers. People recognized the inherent divisiveness of religion. Asking strangers about their religious beliefs or practices was impolite. Fundamentalist Christians were present but small in number. Few of them spent their time evangelizing to strangers.

The South has a different history than the West. It should not be surprising that a very different culture has emerged here. Attending church is far more important here than in many regions of America. From the Charlotte Observer article:

In the South, the conversation-starter is born from history, tradition and sociability, experts and faith leaders say. In other regions, particularly the Northeast, it's a matter left in private life, newcomers say.

I was not prepared for this sort of question when I moved to Mississippi. It struck me as rude. It still does. My temptation is often to respond with something like, "I don't see how that is any of your business." It really isn't! Of course, I also realize that saying this would not be well received. At least, it hasn't been the few times I've said it.

One reason many Christians ask the question to everyone they meet is that their pastors tell them to do so. Recruiting new members to one's church is a source of great pride here. This is why the question is often followed with an invitation to attend the speaker's church. They are hoping you will say that you haven't found a church so they can get you to theirs.

It makes some uncomfortable, even some from the South. "In a world where we tend to align ourselves with other people who are `like us,' the answer to this question may be immediately polarizing," said Jessica Hooks, who moved here from Raleigh.

And the polarizing nature of this question is the problem. The implicit meaning of the question is something like, "Do you believe the same crap I do? If so, we can be friends. If not, you are doomed to hell."

Explaining I do not attend church and have no interest in doing so ends the conversation. I may first learn that I will "burn in a lake of fire"), but at least it ends. It sometimes ends the possibility of any future interaction with the speaker. They have written me off.

Christians are not alone in preferring to spend time with people who believe as they do. They are also not unique in demonizing others who do not believe what they believe. If you want an example, consider political ideologies. Christians do seem more inclined to abruptly cut off contact with those who do not share their beliefs. That may make sense for those who equate non-Christian belief systems with evil. Most of us aren't eager to spend time with people we regard as evil.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and expanded in 2022.