God-Talk: Ways to Break the Ice

Suppose you disagree about religion with a friend or family member, and you want to try discussing this topic respectfully. How do you bring up the subject? Here are a few ideas:

First, find out whether your friend is receptive: “You and I sometimes criticize each other’s ideas about religion. But your friendship is important to me, and I wish this disagreement didn’t get in the way. I wonder if we should sit down some time and see if we can understand each other better. Do you think it’s worth a try?”

You could also watch for a time when tension about religion flares up, and then say something like this: “Religion has been coming between us for quite a while, hasn’t it? Maybe we should talk about the whole God-thing.”

If the person seems receptive, encourage a specific commitment. “I have some time tomorrow when we could get together. Would that be OK? Or what would work for you?”

Before having a conversation about theology, try to establish realistic expectations. Instead of hoping to iron out all religious differences, your goal might be to find out more about what the other person believes. People’s theological opinions are often more complex than they seem on the surface. Maybe the two of you have been stereotyping each other unfairly.

One excellent approach involves learning about each other’s religious journey. What were each of you taught about religion when you were children? How did your beliefs and practices change during adolescence and adulthood? Are you dealing with any important issues about religion today? How do you imagine your views about religion or spirituality might change in the future? Try to just listen to each other’s story, without getting into debates about who’s right and who’s wrong.

If both of you enjoy reading, you could peruse some book about theology and discuss it. Or choose two books, one supportive of belief in God and one critical. For example: Read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion? A religious person will need a thick skin to read Dawkins, because he can be sarcastic. But his critique of some common forms of theism is worth considering. In general, Eric Reitan is thoughtful and fair-minded. Many atheists and agnostics will find him approachable even if they don’t agree with him.

See my blogroll for links to these authors.

Of course, I also recommend my own book, Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. You could show this to your friend and say, “Our relationship matters to me, and it makes me sad that religion causes frictions between us. I’ve been reading this book about finding common ground in spite of theological disagreements, and I’ve been trying to get up my courage to mention it to you.”

Over the next few months this blog will briefly review Dawkins’ and Reitan’s books, and other works on this topic by writers such as Bob Altemeyer, Karen Armstrong, Rob Bell, James P. Carse, John B. Cobb, Jr., Don Cupitt, Daniel Dennett, Michael Dowd, Greg Epstein, Anthony Freeman, Sam Harris, John Haught, Christopher Hitchens, Bruce Hunsberger, Mark Johnston, Michael Krasny, Ian Markham, Scotty McLennan, Bradley Monton, William R. Murry, Tom Owen-Towle, Stephen Prothero, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Charles Taliaferro, and Rick Warren.