Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Seven Terms of Engagement When Discussing Religion/Atheism

Use these 7 principles in your talks about religion/atheism and thank me later!

I just finished teaching an undergraduate course on the psychology of religion and spirituality here at Santa Clara University (a Catholic, Jesuit University in the heart of Silicon Valley). In a fairly small class of about 30 I was fortunate to have diverse students who were actively engaged Catholics (from Mexico, the USA, and Eastern Europe), Jews (including an Israeli born), Muslims, an Orthodox Coptic Christian from Egypt, several Evangelical Christians, a devout atheist, several agnostics, and folks who were identified by various forms of interfaith or hardly religiously identified at all. This is one of the great benefits of a pluralistic, tolerant, intellectually rigorous, and thoughtful university environment. Class discussions and term papers were really quite remarkable, fascinating, and even very inspiring.

As usual, I learn a lot from my students and being with them offers oppotrunities for reflection that don't come easy otherwise. 

The class reminded me that so many people in the general population seem rather dazed and confused when it comes to religion and spirituality. My students, who were certainly smart, thoughtful, and engaged demonstrated to me that conversations about religion, belief, spirituality, and various levels of non-belief can and do happen and perhaps must happen more in civil society. They did a terrific job and basically put on a clinic for how to do it.

As a rule, most people out there seem to know actually very little about religion and certainly very little about any religion other than their own. If all you knew about religious traditions is what you learned while growing up or what you read in the newspapers you would likely be pretty misinformed or have only a superficial understanding of things. Certainly most people have (and often offer) plenty of opinions about religion but they rarely have much in the way of established facts to inform their views.

The good news is that there is excellent evidence based scholarship on religion, spirituality, and so forth if you choose to access it. In our increasingly multicultural and global society a solid understanding of religion is critically important regardless of your personal beliefs or tradition affiliation (or lack thereof). And for those interested in the psychology of religion there are many wonderful and accessible scholarly books and articles to read too. For example, you might consider reading one of the books used in my class (such as Hood, R. W., Hill, P., & Spika, B. (2009). The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. New York, NY: Guilford or perhaps one of my recent edited books such as Plante, T. G. (Ed.). (2012). Religion, Spirituality, and Positive Psychology: Understanding the Psychological Fruits of Faith. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO).

But what was especially inspiring and encouraging for me was watching a very diverse group of students come together in a thoughtful, respectful, and even gracious way to learn about the psychology of religion from academic sources as well as from each other in a spirit of evidence based learning and care for others. Perhaps this is a model that we all can believe in.

During this course several principles of engagement came to mind that might be of use to all of us when considering conversations about religion. These include the following:

Seven Terms of Engagement when Discussing Religion/Atheism

1. Be evidence based. There is a great deal of scholarship, accessible academic research, and thoughtful writing on this topic…use it! As Senator Patrick Moynihan once famously stated, “People are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts.” Opinions are certainly important but facts are much more important.

2. Be respectful to points of views other than your own. 

This is true even if you think the view of others are wacky. Being respectful doesn't mean you agree with them.

3. Don’t try to convince people to believe what you believe or take your point of view.

Articulate what you believe and why (that is evidence based as much as possible) and let others make decisions for themselves.

4. Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers about religions other than your own.

There is tremendous diversity not only between but within religious traditions. Newspapers report on the extremes and talk about the margins. The middle never makes headlines.

5. Let quality data (rather than belief or who shouts the loudest) rule the day.

6. Nurture humility.

Don’t let anyone fool you…no one has all the answers or even many of the answers. We all struggle to make sense of the world, our views, and greater truths. Some admit this while others don't or are perhaps in denial.

7. Compassion rules the day.

Compassion for others, their struggles, their beliefs or non-beliefs as we all try to make some sense of our challenging, complicated, and often scary world perhaps trumps all other principles of engagement.

When in doubt, do the compassionate thing!

So, what do you think (and believe)?

Check out my web site at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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