We’ve all heard the expression at one point or another: “Don’t talk about religion or politics”, “Religion and politics aren’t things you talk about with company”, or something along those lines. It’s generally passed along as one of those social norms that we hear from our parents or caretakers. The idea, that bringing up such topics could potentially be offensive or excessively personal, is one that guides us towards getting along with others as opposed to being a controversial prick. However, given that a great deal of the voices in both the arenas of religion and politics could fit that description depending on who you ask, I think we might be approaching these topics incorrectly.
Simply put, maybe not talking about religion and politics has made us worse at understanding or navigating both.
Before we dive down this rabbit hole, let’s get some things out of the way. I’m not proposing that religion and/or politics are not important enough to be above normal or casual conversation; quite the opposite: because religion and politics are so important to individuals and groups as a whole, it is critical that that we, as individuals and society as a whole, have a solid understanding on both so that we can engage one another on the things that really matter in an intelligent and well-informed fashion. Second, this isn’t a rant about political correctness. While there are plenty of people upset at how “political correctness” has stifled public discourse and the efforts by some to ensure that no one gets offended (see “the War on Christmas”), consider this a rant about combating ignorance, not hurt feelings.
When it comes to religion, we’re generally born into a particular faith and go from there (a similar case could be made with politics, but we’ll get there later). Granted, some folks may find their particular flavor of religion later in life, but by and large we don’t exactly have the opportunity to shop around for religions growing up. Simply put, we get a biased opinion of which religion (or lack thereof) is “right” and which are “wrong”. This shouldn’t be an overly controversial claim.
What’s maybe not as immediately intuitive is the fact that when you factor this alongside the fact that we don’t engage in conversations about religion, especially with people who have different religious backgrounds, we eventually go from coddled and protected children to being coddled and ignorant adults. To make matters worse, whenever the topic of religion gets brought up, people are hesitant to engage on the topic due to the fear of offending someone else or getting offended themselves. It also doesn’t help that since we haven’t spoken on the topic before, we might not feel prepared to engage in a conversation about religion with people from different backgrounds.
In the absence of actually learning about the varieties of faith, we’re quick to pick up whatever is suggested by those in positions of authority. You can thank our elected officials, media figures, and even some religious leaders for that. (There’s a reason the term is “talking heads” and not “thinking brains”). Anybody remember the American perception to Muslims immediately following 9/11? How about the perception that still persists in certain areas of the US towards Muslims? The explanation of the “evil Muslims” provided a simple explanation for a horrific event. It also was a widely spread piece of propaganda that was largely unchallenged (and continues today). In other words, without actually have any understanding of Islam prior to 9/11, it was very convenient for Americans to accept the first piece of spoon-fed information on this strange and foreign faith that was provided. The well-informed, obviously, knew better.
The enemy wasn’t (and isn’t) Islam or any one set of religious beliefs; it was (and continues to be) ignorance. Just this week there was a great story of a bigoted protester converting his perception of Islam after actually seeing and talking to a group of Muslims. It shouldn’t be a huge stretch of the imagination to imagine how much better we would handle religion if we openly engaged in educated conversation about it on a regular basis. Instead, you have the engagement of different religious backgrounds through the context of protests and aggressive action (you may have never been to a protest or rally, but it’s hardly the kind of place where you go to patiently hear the opinion of your opposition…which again underscores the impressive nature of the above story).
There are a lot of people who place a great deal of stock in their religious or spiritual beliefs. However, it’s inevitable that all of those people do not have the same beliefs. Without having a way to calmly and intelligently communicate with people who believe a different set of ideals, we’re bound to have more cases of anti-(insert religion) rallies or protests. What’s most unfortunate about the news story of the man who had a change of heart when it came to his intolerance of Muslims is that it was news at all. A story like that is the exception when in fact it should be considered normal for people to engage in dialogue and learn from each other.
Of course, the blame can’t be placed entirely on our lack of discussing religion. Politics, which extends and affects every person whether we want it to or not, is a far more pervasive topic and therefore, a bigger crime is committed for every opportunity we pass up to discuss it honestly and intelligently.