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? That’s seen as vital now as society is becoming more multicultural, more multidenominational and ever more vocal.
Vasudha Narayanan, director of the University of Florida’s Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions, believes talking about religion is important. 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. “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 and ask sincere questions.”
“Sincerity about your motives is crucial,” Asma said. “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.”
Tips for 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 Woodstock, Vt.-based publisher of Skylight Paths, a publishing house specializing in religious-themed books.
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, the East Haven, Conn.-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 culture and religion are 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 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 the Rev. Shannon White, pastor of Wilton Presbyterian Church in Connecticut. “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.’ ”
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