Last week, I wrote on a talk that I attended at school about the bible and homosexuality. It turns out that that was the first of many talks that I’d be sitting through. This week was a “focus week” of sorts in which my college would have one or two talks per day, and this year’s theme was loving your neighbor. Of course, they were Christian-themed presentations, but some of the ones I went to were surprisingly good. Although they used the bible as a basis instead of common sense and human empathy, they focused on loving and being respectful to your neighbor, which are universal themes that everyone should practice despite their religion or lack thereof. In addition to the talks, I also read an article for a class on “interfaith dialogue”. I was immediately reminded of many of the interfaith—or mostly faith-nonfaith—conversations that occur right here on my blog, in my comments sections and in my email. The different ideas proposed by the speakers and by the author inspired me to compile a list of the best bits of wisdom I gained this week, as well as my own advice. Enjoy!
1. Focus on common ground
Usually, if you have a friend with different beliefs than you, chances are you have something in common, such as if you met through a class or a common interest. This automatically gives you something to bond about other than religion. For example, one of my friend groups at school formulated within our years together in the marching band. So even though they’re all Christian (and they don’t know I’m an atheist anyways), we can focus on our communal love for music instead of our beliefs that divide us.
2. Know when you should just avoid the topic
I’ve seen with nearly everyone I’ve come out to in person that even though they know I’m an atheist, mentioning it draws attention to our differences, intentionally or not. I’ve always perceived conversations about faith differences to be beneficial by allowing the other to see our side, but in practice it usually turns out to be awkward. When I told my mom, I thought it would open up a dialogue, but it instead caused her to try to convert me and see my justifications for nonbelief as insults to her. In these cases, it’s often best to just avoid the topic of religion altogether and focus on more unifying things like wedding plans!
3. Understand where they’re coming from
Knowing the basis for why someone believes what they do is so important. Most of us who have actually thought it through generally have reasons behind even the silliest-sounding beliefs. I feel like I know a lot of Christians who have probably never met an atheist in their lives. That kind of separation can cause them to be unable to comprehend why someone would possibly not believe in God whenever they do meet an atheist later on (as was the case with my mom). The best way, in my opinion, to understand why someone believes what they do is to have open conversations with them (when you can) and learn their story as well as how their beliefs and values affect real lives.
4. Know your audience
This might sound silly, but it’s something that I don’t think many people are very good at. At my college, there are surely more atheists than just me, but speakers, teachers, students, and administration always make the assumption that everyone is Christian. Even at church, you can’t assume that every single person there is secure in their faith or is even a Christian (a lot of people go to church against their will, you know). Addressing possible outliers in your audience is a sign of respect in just acknowledging that they exist.
5. Be open-minded
It’s not hard to find atheists and Christians accusing each other of being close-minded but not seeing it in themselves. If someone says something to you that you’ve heard a thousand times, keep in mind that they don’t know that you’re already heard it. And if you have, then hear them out anyways, because you never know if they might add on a point that you haven’t heard before. I feel like it is so rude when, for example, someone says “I recommend that you take a look at this book that explains my point of view” and the other person replies, “I already know what I believe, and that’s wrong, so I won’t read it.” How arrogant is that? It can’t hurt to just read it, or at the very least to thank them for their recommendation and say you’ll look into it.
6. Respect people despite their beliefs
It’s a common theme in atheist communities that although we have to respect people, we don’t have to respect their beliefs. I think this is fair enough: I don’t really respect religious doctrine or beliefs such as wives being expected to submit to their husbands or that praying without action is productive. That doesn’t mean, however, that I should see those who do believe that as less than me. I don’t see all beliefs as equal or even equally likely to be true. But if someone believes something ridiculous, I’m not better than them, and I don’t deserve more respect than they do. I think the only way to be justified in not respecting someone is if they don’t earn it or if their beliefs lead to harmful actions.
7. Set an example
If you are like me and you’re, for example, the only atheist in an entire community of Christians, then it’s likely that you are the only atheist that anyone knows. Or suppose it’s just the opposite: if you’re representing all Christians on your own in a sea of nonbelievers, then you’re giving them their first impression of what all Christians are like. To them, you’re the face of Christianity, so you must represent it well. If you don’t, then they might see all Christians as hateful even when they’re not. But if you do, then you’re responsible for being one brick in the interreligious bridge that is slowly but surely being built.
8. Step outside of your comfort zone
In order to do #7, you first have to be in a situation where you’re the only one among people who are different from you. For some of us, we’re thrown in the situation by default, such as atheists at Christian colleges or in Lutheran families. The rest of the students at my school, however, have mostly never left their Christian bubble or had a chance to interact with those with other beliefs. In order to do this, they must consciously leave their comfort zone by going somewhere that Christianity isn’t so popular. And in this case, it isn’t to evangelize but to set that example and make a connection between otherwise polarized groups.
These have been my 8 practices for maintaining respectful relationships across different religions. How many of these do you use, and how do they play out in your interfaith relationships?