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Religion is one of those topics that cause people at cocktail parties to suddenly see an old friend they absolutely have to say hello to, experience the abrupt urge to refill their plate of finger foods, need to visit the restroom or otherwise abandon the conversation like cockroaches scattering before a bright light. Everyone knows that faith is deeply personal, and most people do not want to accidentally insult another person’s deeply held convictions. Given the fact that inadvertently offending someone can cause the social media lynch mob to ensure that you are shunned by your friends, many people feel that discussions of religion are not worth the risk. This is unfortunate because talking about and debating religious beliefs with other people can help you deepen your own faith as well as come to better understand your friends, neighbors and coworkers who practice different religions. It may seem daunting, but truthfully, talking about religion does not need to be unnerving. Admittedly, far too many people today seem to take pride in having a thin skin, but the majority of people are smart enough to understand that you are not looking to offend them if you put your foot in your mouth. As such, debates about faith do not need to be approached in the same way as an active minefield. All you need in order to engage in healthy debates about faith are a few basic ground rules. 

Be respectful.

It should go without saying that when you are discussing faith with another person, you need to be respectful. It does not matter that you may find it bizarre that Hindus worship a god who has an elephant’s head or that you cannot fathom why Wiccans use the terms “wand” and “caldron” with complete seriousness. Remember that to them, your beliefs probably look just as strange. Do not scoff, snicker or otherwise disparage their beliefs. You can ask why they believe something or disagree with them politely, but treat them with the same respect you would like to enjoy.

Accept your ignorance.

It may sound counterintuitive, but you cannot begin purging yourself of ignorance until you accept it. This means that you need to understand that there are things you do not know about the other person’s religion. You need to accept that you will need to ask them to explain various things and define what are, to them, basic terms. Enter the debate with little pride and a thick skin. They may not mean to be rude, but they might give you a startled look when you ask them to explain a very basic belief. Buddhists, for example, might be baffled by the fact that you have no idea what “emptiness” actually means or be confused by your complete misunderstanding of how karma works. The same would be true of any Christian being asked to explain what Communion is or why they spend so much time talking about forgiveness of sins. 

Part of accepting your ignorance is accepting the possibility that you will put your foot in your mouth. You cannot learn to speak another language without mixing up two words and declaring that your coworker’s wife is a “shiny beetle” instead of a “beautiful lady.” The same is true of culture. As you learn to navigate another culture, you will inevitably cross some line or break some taboo that no one bothered to tell you about because everyone in the culture already knows not to do something. A Japanese person, for example, might forget to tell a Westerner to take off their shoes when entering a house because the knowledge is so culturally ingrained in Japan. Similarly, a Westerner might neglect to tell a Middle Eastern friend that they have to wait in line at the store. Everyone in the West knows you wait your turn, but in the Middle East, lines are optional at best. This sort of disconnect occurs in discussions about faith as well. Accept that you will make a fool of yourself and potentially offend someone. Be prepared to apologize for your mistake and ask the other person to explain why what you did or said is offensive. Then, move on.

Have an open mind.

Debates and discussions are meant to be an exchange of ideas, not one person trying to pound their opinion into the other’s skull. Religious beliefs are deeply felt, but if you are going to discuss faith with other people, you need to do it with an open mind and be willing to not just listen to what they have to say but also accept that they may have a point. Otherwise, there is little point in having the discussion since anything the other person says will go in one ear and out the other. You will never learn anything that way.

Religious debates are often viewed in the same manner as a booby trapped temple in “Indiana Jones.” There is danger around every corner, and most of it pops out of nowhere. That said, there is no reason to view discussions of faith with this sort of wariness as long as you use some common sense. Be respectful, open minded and humble. As long as you are not proud and brash, you should be able to discuss faith with other people without any serious problems. It is true that you could probably go most of your life avoiding such conversations, but why would you want to? If you never talk about uncomfortable issues, you will never grow as a person.