Don’t let religion be the most feared topic at the party. Here's a guide to talking about faith without getting in a fight.
Illustration: Kurt Strazdins MCT
Religion, like politics, is something polite people aren’t supposed to talk about, particularly at the dinner table. And there’s sound reasoning for this: Passions can flame, voices spike, dissent can explode into disputes long-festering.
But if one never talks about religion, how will one ever learn? And that’s seen as vital now as society is becoming more multicultural, more multidenominational and ever more vocal.
“Over the years, I have noticed several changes,” said Vasudha Narayanan, director of the University of Florida’s Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions. “People are less than shy about talking about religion; in fact, they wear it on their sleeves and also display it through their car bumper stickers.”
Narayanan, a religion professor and author or editor of seven books, including “Hinduism,” believes talking about religion is a good thing. What’s important, she stressed is talking the talk in a “nonconfrontational” manner.
“The trick to a good religious conversation is humility, humor and sincerity — applied in the right way,” said Stephen Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago and author of, among other books, “Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism With Red Meat and Whiskey.” “If you approach a friend or acquaintance with a humble attitude — the opposite of missionary zeal — you’ll start a more honest dialogue. Sprinkle in a little bit of humor about your faith (yes, even serious believers should have a sense of humor) and ask sincere questions.”
“Sincerity about your motives is crucial,” Asma added. “Many people maintain devotion to their beliefs by harboring secret disdain for every other faith. If you’re just baiting someone in order to roll your eyes later with like-minded friends, then you’re not having a genuine interfaith conversation.”
Why does talk of religion generate so much heat?
“It often comes from a gut place rather than a heart place, and a gut place is more reactive,” said the Rev. Shannon A. White, pastor of the Wilton Presbyterian Church in Connecticut and author of such books as “How Was School Today? Fine” and “Invisible Conversations With Aging Parents.”
“When you talk to someone about your religion or religion in general, it’s important to come from the heart place,” she said. “You are not trying to change people. You are interested, curious even, in the other person and what their experience is.”
How to have a spirited spiritual conversation
Be honest. “A wonderful conversation starter is, ‘I don’t know anything, or I don’t know much about your religious practices and I would appreciate it if you can help me understand the significance of your upcoming holiday,’ ” said Stuart Matlins, a Vermont-based publisher of Skylight Paths, a publishing house specializing in religious-themed books, and co-editor of “How to Be the Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook.”
Reach out bravely. “Say you grow up a fundamentalist Christian in southwest Missouri, and the people you congregate with are from a similar background. If you have never talked to someone of a different ilk, it can be scary talking to someone outside the fort,” said Susan Campbell, Connecticut-based author of a memoir titled “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl.” “But the fort is completely boring. It’s like reading newspaper columnists who completely agree with you.”
Realize that culture and religion are often deeply intertwined. Gain insight into religion, said Vasudha Narayanan, a religion professor at the University of Florida, through food, music, dance, performance and other cultural activities.
Use humor cautiously. Don’t make jokes until you get to know the people you’re with, Narayanan said. “Frequently people from an ethnic or religious group make jokes about themselves, and it can be hysterically funny, and we are tempted to follow it up with another in the same genre. But ... the same joke told by an ‘outsider’ can be offensive.”
Stay calm. “Religion is so emotional,” said Jane Larkin, who writes for InterfaithFamily.com. “It’s sometimes hard to walk away or take a deep breath. You will never change someone’s mind with an emotional reaction. Stay calm, state your position.”
Realize that generational or cultural differences can add tension. Put, for example, parents who moved here from another country with their more Americanized children and there “may be an energetic discussion,” said Edgar Hopida, communications director for the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, Ind.
Be willing to change the subject. “Sometimes you have to pick your battles,” said Rev. White. “Sometimes you can change the subject and say, ‘I don’t want to go there.’ Or you can say, ‘We agree to disagree,’ which is not easily bought by someone who needs to be right. You just say, ‘There are a lot of different viewpoints. I’m just expressing one.’ ”