The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


May 4, 2014

Talking about religion — how to do it right

CHICAGO — 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,” Vasudha Narayanan, director of the University of Florida’s Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions, wrote in an email. “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 in both the email and a subsequent telephone interview, 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,” 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,” writes in an email from Beijing, where he is teaching on a Fulbright Fellowship. “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.”

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