How To Talk About Religion Without Starting A Fight

Religion is one of the three things you're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table (along with politics and The Great Pumpkin). And yet it's pretty important to a lot of people. Here's how to discuss God stuff without getting into a shouting match.

Figure out if it's appropriate.

It's worth saying right at the outset that there are some situations you should just leave God out of. If you're interviewing someone for a job, for instance, it may be illegal to discuss religion. And if you're making small talk with someone you just met, there's no need to bring up a contentious subject. My friend J, a "recovering Catholic" says, "I think religion is awkward to discuss [...] unless you're comfortable enough with the person to know that the conversation won't detonate any bridges." If you're not sure where you stand with someone, you might just avoid bringing it up.

Don't assume you're already an expert.

Dr. Yvonne Chireau, professor of religion at Swarthmore College and author of Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition, told me,

[S]ometimes it is best to approach the subject with a "know-nothing attitude" while simultaneously being open and curious enough to want to learn more. We have to learn more before we speak! Read books, take classes.

So don't just assume that because you read a newspaper article one time you know everything there is to know about Islam. If you're going to discuss somebody else's religion, it helps to actually listen to them. And if you really want to learn, you might do some research first.

Get on the same page.

Says Chireau,

The biggest mistake that I see and hear is that when people speak about "religion" they come to the conversation with different definitions, assumptions and ideas of what they are talking about. Is "religion" an institution, or something that people "do" on Friday Saturday or Sunday — if for example, you are a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian? Or is "religion" something like "spirituality," something that everyone has and does. I think it is best to come to an agreement about what we are talking about before we talk about "religion," especially to avoid misunderstandings. That part of the conversation can be fun and interesting.

If you want to learn about somebody's religion, it can be good to narrow down what you're actually wondering about — practices, beliefs, some combination of the two? And if somebody's asking you questions, you might be better able to respond if you can get them to state specifically what they want to know.

Be curious.

My friend E lists her religion on Facebook as "not sure, but it doesn't look good." She says,

[A]s an outsider to religion/spirituality I automatically know that my thoughts and ideas will be different than someone who is vested in this aspect of their life, so I try to listen to what the other person has to say — about what is important to them, about how it enriches their life, about practically what it involves. I try to be careful when I ask questions to word them as coming from a place of genuine interest and curiosity rather than criticism or skepticism.

Similarly, says J,

I have no problem talking about the comfort and the succor that I derive from the pageantry and the communalism of the Catholic Church. And if people are willing to listen to me elaborate upon why I still approve, in theory, of the Church, then all the better. [...] But, if people start shutting me down with insults, or implicating that I'm somehow less logical or hypocritical, then...no, that's not a productive conversation.

If you feel like critiquing organized religion, a conversation with a friend or family member probably isn't the place to do it. Approach such a conversation with curiosity rather than judgment, and it'll go a lot better.

Find common ground.

The scary thing about pretty much every religion — and the lack thereof — is that it can seem kind of crazy to nonbelievers. If you're going to discuss religion with people, though, you need to move past this. E takes the following approach:

I try to look for some grain of similarity in what [religion] brings to them and the kinds of things I want for myself. Like, this is a way that they get in touch with emotional baggage and think about it in a way where they can let go of old feelings.

Thinking about what others get out of their religious lives can help you understand them better, and talk about an often touchy topic in a non-judgmental way.

If things get tense, back off.

Despite your best efforts, talking about something that's so close to many people's hearts — and that's all tied up with politics and morality and family and dozens of other contentious and important things — can spiral out of control. If it starts to, just call a halt. Says J, "I generally find no problem in saying, this conversation is getting a little overheated, maybe we should both just take a step back." And, he adds, "If I brought up the conversation in the first place, I'll be fine with backing down." Odds are, if you're talking about somebody's deeply-held beliefs, you're not going to convince them they're wrong. And if the conversation is even going in this direction, it's probably not very productive or fun anymore. If you've gotten out of the realm of question-asking, knowledge-sharing, and common-ground-finding, and into the realm of argument, it's time to cut things off.

Don't let that last tip scare you, though. It is possible to have a civil discussion about religion, especially if you follow the tips above. And maybe if people were willing to speak up and ask each other questions about their beliefs, there wouldn't be so many misconceptions. Says Chireau, when it comes to talking about religion, "a little courage would not hurt."

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Black Magic: Religion And The African American Conjuring Tradition

Image by Steve Dressler.