Religion: A time to speak and a time to keep silent

Perhaps you believe in God, and you are concerned about friends or family members who do not. Or you don’t believe in God, and some of those you care about are afraid you’re headed for hell. Should you start a conversation about religion? Or would that just make things worse?

If it’s hard for you to answer this question, you’re not alone. Many people who disagree with loved ones about religion wonder if it even makes sense to try. Sometimes mentioning this touchy subject stirs up hurt and anger, with no realistic hope of making progress. When differences are extreme and emotions are raw, it may be best to skirt the issue altogether. You can still find ways to build positive feelings with each other, without addressing spiritual matters.

Too often, however, people give up without making any effort to communicate. It’s easy to assume that other people are rigid or irrational. If you aren’t sure, you could prepare for the conversation carefully, watch for the right time, and see what happens. If it doesn’t work out, at least you gave it your best.

I was a family therapist for 20 years, and I have been quite involved in religious communities. As a therapist I tried to understand and appreciate the perspectives of my clients, including their spiritual orientations. I have known wonderful people who have all sorts of opinions about God. I have worked with families in which religious differences were addressed respectfully, and families in which talking about God always led to raised voices and hard feelings.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself before starting a conversation about theology:

How strong is your relationship? Have you been able to address serious disagreements in the past and still feel close to each other?

How secure are you and your friend? Would he or she find it extremely unsettling to consider whether you are right about God? And how about you? Would it be threatening to seriously question your own beliefs (or disbelief)? Are both of you able to “try on” another viewpoint without shooting your blood pressure off the charts?

Are both of you humble about your own worldview? Or are you adamantly certain of being right?

Would there be ricochet effects? In other words, how would a conversation between you and a friend or family member impact others? If your grown daughter, for example, began to respect or even appreciate your theological opinions, would that drive a wedge between her and her husband?

Have you tried talking religion before? If that conversation was at least partly positive, how can you build upon what went well? After the conversation, what did you wish you had done or said?

If your previous discussion left a bad taste, how could you do it differently next time?

Would it help to have a third party present, someone both of you trust who won’t take sides? Sometimes we behave more like grownups when someone impartial is watching.

Try imagining the conversation beforehand. Close your eyes, if you like, and picture yourself approaching this discussion in a loving and constructive manner. Then picture yourself becoming critical, aggressive, or condescending. Imagine yourself noticing this negative shift, and getting back onto a more positive track.

If you decide not to talk with your friend, think of some other ways to improve your relationship, perhaps by sharing activities you both enjoy. If you can strengthen your heart-to-heart connection, this could lay the groundwork for discussing religion some time in the future.

On another day I’ll share some ideas about how to initiate an interchange about God – or any other touchy religious or ethical issue.

Roger, July 19, 2011

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