Why Don't We Ever Talk About (Our) Faith?

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We went to church this morning. I don’t go every week, usually once a month or so. And I was fried from watching Alien 3 on AMC until 1:30 a.m.; the last thing I felt like doing was dragging my tired bum to church.

One of the most striking and consistent absences on TrueSlant — one which continues to puzzle me — is our lack of conversation about faith, religion or spirituality beyond its predictable political ramifications. What’s up with that? Are we afraid to talk about it? Is there nothing to say? Will it inevitably get too ugly and embattled? I think people are scared of offending someone, of coming out as preachy and judgmental if their interlocutor is atheist or agnostic. There are as many ways to be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc. as there are shades of the color blue, because each of us brings our own fears, doubts and certainties to it, as well as our strengths, hopes and faith.

I think it’s a real shame we don’t talk about it more, certainly in a country that is arguably pluralistic. Call me hopelessly idealistic, but I feel strongly there’s still a lot we can learn from one another’s faiths and traditions, no matter how weird some of them may seem.  If you’re a Christian, have you ever attended a synagogue service? I did, once, but only while reporting on it. I’ve never been inside a Hindu temple or mosque. I have been to several meetings of Buddhist tsangas in their temples because my partner is a devout Tibetan Buddhist — raised as a Hispanic Baptist minister’s son.

Faith and an attempt to behave ethically is an essential part of our shared life. We talk about it, think about it, try our best to live it. I know his Lama, Surya Das, who is a best-selling author and a dear friend. My partner has also known, and deeply loved listening to and becoming friends with, several of our church’s Episcopal ministers. This morning, as the choir processed up the aisle, he wrapped his wooden mala beads around his wrist as he always does. When our minister Nora proceeds up the aisle after the service, he bows deeply to her in namaste, a traditional gesture to a spiritual leader.

Here’s why I think we need to talk about faith, belief and religion publicly. It matters. It matters enormously and deeply. I am, frankly, saddened and embarrassed that a stupid, lame-ass post about Marge Simpson making the cover of Playboy is now my 5th most popular post, of more than 250. Please! It makes me shrivel with shame that a joke-y bit of filler is that appealing. But it is. Maybe because jokey stuff is so banal, so familiar and therefore so unthreateningly safe.

Here are some of the reasons I go to church, and here’s a magazine piece I wrote about it a while ago:

Community: I live in a wealthy suburb, dominated by big mansions filled with Type-A achievers. Not us. It’s easy to forget that there are many other people out there, each with spiritual needs and lives. Sometimes only in this sacred space where we hear the prayer list — Hilde has cancer, Becky is recovering, Bill needs a job — do we peel back, ideally in a safe and accepting way, the polished, gleaming shells we wear much of the time. Here, it’s OK to show the cracks. We’re all cracked. We all need healing.

Diversity: There are few places, if a spiritual community is thriving, you share physical space, let alone conversation, with people ages six to 80. Let alone white, black, Asian, Hispanic, investment bankers to artists. Today my sweetie chatted up a 10-year-old redheaded boy whose voice rang out this morning from the children’s choir. We don’t know this kid or his parents. But he’s a member and members feel free to talk to one another. You don’t have to be married/parents/employed/whatever to find solace and welcome in the right spiritual community. Your soul is the member, not your exterior labels.

Tradition: I admit it. I’m a sucker for liturgy, the Nicene Creed, the Doxology, the Peace. I get weepy belting out my favorite hymns, knowing that generations of others have belted them out, in my church, before me. I like being part of a long line of Christians going back to 1854 in this space. I just love “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Lessons: Not just the sermon. Sitting still for an hour. Caring for your soul in the same thoughtful and deliberate way we pay obsessive, tedious, relentless attention to the size of our hips, bank accounts or achievements.

Humility: Every one of us is eventually humbled, whether by divorce, betrayal, job loss, illness. Knowing others have survived this, are surviving this all around you, reminds us we’re human. We still retain tremendous value, to ourselves and to others, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

Do you attend services? Does it matter to you? Do you share this with others, or is it a well-kept secret? Why?

12 thoughts on “Why Don't We Ever Talk About (Our) Faith?

  1. markbolton

    I find that the faithful are usually much more easily offended when talking about the subject of faith so I’m a bit curious that a person of faith would be afraid of offending an atheist by merely bringing up the subject. Atheists, for the most part, take offense when public policy favors religion over reason.

    As an atheist, I never talk about faith unless the others in the conversation agree to not take offense at anything I say, and I agree to the same. It’s not as easy as you might imagine (not everyone has my thickness of skin.) An aquaintance once said, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a way of life and a personal relationship with God,” and became offended when I suggested that she was mistaken. I didn’t even get to what I thought about the religion itself.

    I do find it interesting that none of the reasons you listed for going to church have anthing to do with belief/faith.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for weighing in. I agree that these sorts of conversations — as you have seen firsthand — get crazy quickly as people can and do get so offended if someone doesn’t see things exactly their way.

    But what about tolerance or even acceptance of difference? I may hesitate to tell people I attend church because there are those who assume I must be therefore a wild-eyed Bible thumper. Not necessarily, and I’ve met Christians who find me unacceptably irreverent or insufficiently devout. Not my problem.

    As you noticed, I don’t speak publicly about belief and faith – but am more comfortable speaking about other issues. I feel the broader issues are also important to talk about, and, perhaps, less divisive.

  3. tamchin

    That is a great post and a reminder of what was good about the spiritual community/church I was attending – even if it wasn’t my spirituality.

    I guess the closest thing for me is the rooms of the 12 Step program I belong to. The lesson is the speaker’s topic – the liturgy/doxology are the welcome and closing of the meeting. Something for me to think about…

  4. Donald O'Neill

    I’m not sure we really should talk a lot about religion. Traditionally, it was good manners not to discuss politics or religion in mixed company. Perhaps we should consider their wisdom here. Granted, we do discuss politics here, but I believe that by doing so we open the topic up for debate with people who may feel quite differently than we do. And debating religion seldom gets anyone anywhere.

    I’m an atheist and a veteran of religious debates, and I’ve come to the conclusion that religious beliefs themselves are best used for personal enrichment and not for exchanging with others. They’re like your beliefs about your kids: It might be personally enriching to think your kid is smarter or a better athlete than someone else’s, but this opinion goes from positive to negative the moment you share it with the other kid’s parents.

    It’s certainly possible to have civil discussions about religious belief and faith, but in general, the civility often depends on people NOT saying what they truly think. I think that tells us something.

  5. Ms. Kelly,

    Religion is a difficult issue to discuss because it is a set of beliefs that is often held with great intensity. I remember having an on-line discussion with a fellow who found it inconceivable that a person could not believe in God in general and the Christian God in particular (“I simply cannot imagine not believing in Jesus”). I know an atheist who finds going to church creepy, an event filled with bizarre and incongruent rituals (“They are eating the body of Jesus? Ew.”). How do those two people discuss religion?

  6. Interesting topic Caitlin. I think we’re often so afraid of offending someone (our culture has made us paranoid in the face of frank conversations…)we just don’t bring it up. I posted last week about a sign posted on a freeway billboard in southern California to support those who don’t believe in god–it read “Don’t Believe In God? You Are Not Alone.” Not exactly about religion, but I did cite some stats about the country becoming less religious now than ever before. I don’t feel particularly religious–and I am Jewish–but I will say that this fall I separated from my husband after a long marriage and I took my kids to Rosh Hashona services. That’s the Jewish new year, and it’s a time of renewal. And despite my skepticism, I found it really comforting to think of starting over in that context.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for such thoughtful comments.

    Donald, I agree that “debating” religion isn’t helpful and can get nasty. My father is agnostic and has tried this with me, but I shut it down rather than spend a lot of energy on it. The key — which seems, to me sadly, elusive if not impossible — is to actually listen! To assume the other person has made their choice for a very valid reason and retain (?) some sense of respectful curiosity about that choice.

    Davidlosangeles, I hear you on this point. Again, (I need to find another planet, perhaps), I am saddened that people: 1) have so little imagination they can’t see past their own choices 2) have zero interest in others’ choices 3) feel the need to denigrate those choices. Talk about ew!!

    Eilene, I think this is it. There’s something odd, then, in an era when people happily (!?) take and display their sex videos on-line but can’t talk about faith or spirituality. What on earth does this reveal about our culture?

    One of the things I so value about attending church (although the Christian piece of it is less essential to my point than any attendance) is the sense of renewal and of a fixed place and point within a deeper historical and liturgical tradition we always find there. There is always a welcome. Yesterday, for us, was the “end” of the church year, i.e. the end of Christ’s story…which begins officially next weekend with the start of Advent, which is marked with a special candle. Call it mumbo-jumbo, but I think all of us need a place to refresh, renew and connect with places in ourselves and others that much of frenzied, individual secular life rarely reaches.

    How sad we can’t talk about ideas of faith — without those who’ve made one choice being belligerent and rude to those who’ve made different ones.

  8. ctblue

    I live in an area that is devoutly Christian. I find that the only way to be accepted in this community is to declare myself “unaffiliated”. I do not dare say I do not believe in Christianity (which I don’t) or organized religion (which I don’t) nor do I say I prefer to follow the principles of Buddhism. As for religion, all my child’s friends attend religion classes (which I refer to as brainwashing classes since they get them at such an early age) at the local Catholic church so I live in fear of voicing my religious preferences and beliefs out of concern for my child. I don’t believe in religion. I believe in spirituality which is highly personal. We are a divisive society no matter how you look at it. So in order to be accepted and not rock the boat I have keep my mouth shut.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    ctblue, thanks. How sad, and probably how not unusual is your experience. My partner — raised as a Baptist minister’s son — is Buddhist and I ran into this early during a lunch in Texas with his fundamentalist Christian relatives who, when he went to the bathroom, leaned over and asked: “What’s with the Buddhism? He’ll be left behind at the Rapture.”

    Gulp. At least I knew what the Rapture is and stayed calm and polite. But I’ve seen this sort of divisiveness within his family. Not mine.

    This may also be a holdover from my Canadian upbringing, in a nation with many South Asian and Chinese immigrants, many of them non-Christian — and on one cares who or what you worship. It’s just not an issue the way it really can be in the U.S.

    What a sad irony we can’t share what’s potentially so helpful and good about faith (and I do NOT mean evangelizing or being preachy or judgmental) without it getting snotty and toxic.

    1. ctblue

      I think that outside of Buddhism, the only “religion” that is as open and welcoming would be the Baha’i Faith. They welcome all and also have no clergy – no hierarchy. They are also severely persecuted in Iran which is where it all began. I find that fact Christianity has infiltrated our government to be truly sickening. Why are we as a people not free to practice our own faiths? Truth is, we are not free in this country as long as we have the bible thumpers telling us we will go to hell if we don’t believe what they tell us is right. It’s the same all over the world and has been that way as long as there has been organized religion. Yes, it is truly sad. Thank you for reading my post.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    ctblue, I find it interesting that my partner chose Buddhism and one of his sisters in fact chose Baha’i, after being raised Baptist.

    Buddhists are in a tough spot because they’re actually taught not to proselytize — how refreshing! Yet this hurts them somewhat because they remain relatively off the radar. My partner is often asked, with genuine hunger and curiosity, about his practice — even by members of our Episcopal church. He is always happy to tell people about his beliefs and why, very thoughtfully (after covering the war in Bosnia as a news photographer) he needed to root himself spiritually and within a tradition that made sense to him.

    I deliberately entitled my post on “faith” — and NOT on religion. Religion, sadly, seems profoundly divisive. Faith is arguably more universal and I hope(d) to hear from and inspire thoughts about that in which we hold faith — whether a spiritual community or not.

    One of the challenges I find interesting about coming to a religion or a specific demomination within it as an adult — i.e. not dragged here by your parents — is why one does that. You can believe in God (or a god) and never step foot in any church or temple.

    To me, this really means living a life that actively models and includes compassion, which is a tenet of every religion/faith I know of. You can say anything, and many do and defend it hotly. What do your actions show the world?

  11. datajunkie

    When I was going through college, I didn’t drink alcohol at all. The reaction I got from some people is the same as the reaction that makes it uncomfortable for me to talk about religion. My peers who had a long history of being told “don’t do this, it’s bad” by their parents etc. reacted very negatively. They didn’t hear “I don’t drink”, they heard “drinking is bad”. I realized that I could flip their reaction very quickly by looking them straight in the eye and saying that I respected their personal choice to drink, and I was asking them to respect my personal choice not to. I think with religion, too many people feel that it has been forced upon them, or that their beliefs have been attacked. Either way, they no longer hear “I believe XYZ” but “XYZ is THE Truth” even if that isn’t what is being said at the time.

    PS to ctblue – I am a quaker, a sect of Christianity that welcomes all seekers and has no clergy or hierarchical structure. I am deeply saddened that other Christians have not shown you and your child the love and acceptance that I believe God asks us all to strive for.

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