Handling Hot Potatoes: How to Deal with Inflammatory Comments about Religion

In a recent posting I mentioned some workshops I recently conducted based on my book, Bridging the God Gap. I was surprised by the way participants reacted to the “Hot Potatoes” part of the program, in which we practiced replying to provocative comments about theology.

I invite you to try this process yourself. It has two parts; we’ll go through the first part today, and the second part on June 5. Part one involves responding to two hypothetical situations:

1. Imagine that you are a Christian, and an atheist family member sarcastically compares God to Santa Claus. How could you respond in a constructive manner? What could you say? Write down the best reply you can think of.

(If you are not a Christian, try to imagine what it would be like for someone who follows this religion to hear this “hot potato” comment, and how such an individual could respond.)

2. You are an atheist, and your mother says she cries every night because you are going to hell. Again, write down the best reply you can think of. If you are not an atheist, try to imagine what it would be like for someone who doesn’t believe in God to deal with this remark.

Important: Don’t just think about how you could respond constructively to these two hot-button comments. Actually write down your reply, and post these as comments if you wish.

To be continued …

Roger Christan Schriner

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6 thoughts on “Handling Hot Potatoes: How to Deal with Inflammatory Comments about Religion

  1. How about imagining that you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or the member of any number of other “old religions” and an atheist Unitarian Universalist minister announcing his candidacy for President of the UUA publicly belittles and maligns your religion by saying that the “old religions” “lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression” and are “obsolete religions” which “contribute to the darkness” of “hatred, injustice, prejudice, ignorance”. . .

  2. 1. While many people believe both God and Santa are simply make believe, belief in God is very real for a majority of people. I think we can disagree about the existence or nonexistence of God in a respectful manor, without mocking or needing to resort to stereotypes or straw men, and when I say that I include the mischaracterization of atheists by religious folk as well.

    2. I understand how important your beliefs are to you, and I do not mean for my beliefs to cause you pain, but I have to be honest with myself about what I believe. I respect you and that is why I am honest with you about what I believe. We may have different religious beliefs but, as Unitarian preacher Frances David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” Let us embrace the things that unite us over the things that divide us, such as our shared values of love, compassion, and respect.

  3. Reply: Thanks for giving this a try, James. Here are some comments on your post, drawing on the days when I was a family therapist:

    #1: I’m not sure how much this response defuses the tense situation, but stating “I include the mischaracterization of atheists by religious folk as well” could be a very helpful way to connect with the atheist. Saying something along these lines at the beginning of your remarks might have helped de-escalate the interchange.
    #2: A lot of this response seems very constructive. I especially liked the way you led off with a sentence that was empathetic and expressed caring: “I understand how important your beliefs are to you, and I do not mean for my beliefs to cause you pain …” I also liked your comment about needing to be honest, and it might have been even better to have paused before saying it, putting the “period” right after “cause you pain.” When a sentence contains two parts connected by the word “BUT,” the “but” tends to cancel out the first statement. So one alternative would be to say, “… do not mean for my beliefs to cause you pain. At the same time, I have to be honest …”

    Of course, attitude is more important than words. Since you are sincerely trying to find ways to communicate well, that attitude will probably come through in any interchange.

    Roger Christan Schriner

  4. 1. Actually, I have often thought that Santa Claus is a good metaphor for our longings for a God. Watching cheesy Christmas films confronts me with my deep need to be loved, to feel safe, to believe that goodness exists, and my hope that there is someone trustworthy with no agenda other than to make people happy. What are your thoughts about these kind of longings? Can you remember how you felt about Santa Claus as a child?

    Another point that strikes me about your comparison is that it is natural to project all these hopes onto a person, whether fictional or real. Recently, a child shook hands with the Rector and whispered excitedly to her mother: “That’s the first time I’ve shaken hands with God!” Unsurprisingly, the children also call him Father Christmas!

    2. I am sorry that you are suffering. It is wonderful to know that you love me so much, though. I hope you know I love you too, even though I might express it in a different way to you. I know we both feel the same about wanting to live in ways that are true to our values, and I’m glad that we both want to make a difference to the world around us. Maybe we could focus on that for now?

  5. 1. I guess you mean that they are both make believe. That made me think. Santa Claus is based on a real person, Saint Nicholas, who was kind and giving. His life continues to inspire many people, mostly for good. Whether or not we believe his spirit contiues to live, we understand that many beleifs about him are imaginative and mythical. In the same way, I know there are many myths about God while still sensing realities behind the myths. What are results of believing in God that you find to be good and what ones do you find to be bad? We may we have more in common than you think.

    2. I know you care for me and I am sorry that it makes you cry. I love you and do cherish values of goodness that you have taught me. I guess I am just more comfortable using different words to express the source of those values. Could we talk about how your beliefs make a difference in your life and the values we share? I still appreciate the stories you taught me of Jesus’ love and kindness. I share these values even though we have different understandings of who Jesus was.

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