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 Woodstock, Vt.-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, 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 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 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 the Rev. Shannon A. 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.’”