Why Do We Avoid Talking About God and Spirituality?
Six reasons we often keep our most meaningful experiences to ourselves.
Posted Sep 21, 2020
About 90 percent of adults in the US believe in God or a universal spirit. The majority of people pray often, with 75 percent of us praying at least sometimes. And about the same number of Americans think the US would be better off if more people were religious.
And yet, most of us rarely talk about our own spiritual experiences or our relationship with God. Even if we regularly attend religious services, we tend to keep matters of faith in our church, synagogue, mosque, or other houses of worship. That’s not to say we don’t argue about religion—its place in public life, whether God exists, what sacred scriptures have to say about current political debates. But we tend to argue about the facts as we see them, and avoid revealing anything about our deepest personal experiences.
We don’t let people know we encountered a mysterious and loving force during a near-death experience and came back from it a changed person. We keep to ourselves the encounter with God’s presence that helped us through an extended illness. We avoid sharing the feeling of transcendent peace that we found in savasana. And we probably don’t dare mention the series of dreams that brought us insight about the afterlife.
There are exceptions, of course. Some individuals are more than willing to share their spiritual and religious beliefs. They’re happy to tell us about what God is doing in their life, or how Jesus saved them from addiction, or the spiritual connection they found in a yoga class. But these people often make us uncomfortable, leading us to shut down the conversation rather than engaging in it.
There are many factors that make us reluctant to discuss our spiritual experiences, even when they might be profoundly important to us.
It could start an argument
Religion is often seen as a taboo topic, like politics. Both can generate a lot of heat when we don’t see eye-to-eye with someone, we may fear the blowback we’ll get if we raise the topic. However, it’s important to distinguish between different ways of talking about matters of faith. Efforts to convert someone to our belief system are likely to create friction. But an honest description of one’s personal experience is a different matter, and harder to argue with. “I felt such peace as I was reading the Bible this morning” feels a lot different from, “The Bible is not the literal Word of God.” The former captures an experience; the latter is a statement of belief.
I might offend someone
Similarly, we might worry that we’ll say something insensitive or politically incorrect if we tell the truth about our spiritual lives, akin to wishing Happy Easter to a devout atheist. Again, so much depends on how we raise the topic. We’re generally not offended by others’ beliefs, provided they don’t infringe on our own freedom. Saying we felt God’s unconditional love is less likely to offend than saying God wants you to vote for a particular candidate, or to stop loving the person you love.
I don’t want to seem like a fanatic
Given the taboo against talking about spiritual matters, it’s easy to think we’ll be a weird outlier if we break the taboo. We don’t want people to see us as a “religious nut” or other pejorative labels given to the religiously zealous. The irony is that the experiences we’re afraid to talk about are ones that most people have had.
I’m afraid I’ll sound unintelligent
We might also worry that we’ll be perceived as a simpleton if we speak honestly about believing in God or experiencing a divine presence. It might seem childish to believe in an invisible being who is involved in our lives, like still believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.
While it’s true that there’s a significant negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence, it’s a small effect, and knowing someone's religious beliefs tells us virtually nothing about how smart they are. There are plenty of highly intelligent people who have religious or spiritual convictions (like NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins), and people of average intelligence who are uninterested in God or the spiritual. And while some may assume that believing in the divine means you’re dumb, most people do not make that assumption—for the simple reason that they would be implicated in the judgment.
No one else is talking about it
For decades psychologists have studied the bystander effect—our tendency to walk past someone in obvious distress in a public setting. One of the explanations is called pluralistic ignorance: No one else is stopping to help this person, each of us thinks to ourselves. There must not really be a problem. I’ll look stupid if I stop to help. This is a false assumption, of course, since everyone is using everyone else’s inaction as a reason not to do anything.
The same dynamic can lead us to stay silent about what’s important to us. Others aren’t talking about God, faith, spirituality, religion, divinity—so I probably shouldn’t either. But when we lead the way, we often find tremendous receptivity to these topics. It can feel like everyone breathes a sigh of relief that now it’s okay to put these things out in the open.
At the last dinner party we hosted before the pandemic, I raised the topic of spirituality. I hadn’t planned to, but it came up naturally and I decided to go with it. I had assumed our friends would be uncomfortable with the topic, or even antagonistic to it, but it was quite the opposite. The discussion ended up being one of the most engaging parts of our time together. I learned things about our guests that I wouldn’t have guessed, and felt more connected with them at the end of the evening.
I’ve had similar experiences with many of my podcast guests when we have frank discussions of spirituality and faith. So many of us seem eager to talk about spiritual things and are just waiting for an opening.
It feels like weakness
At the heart of many of our concerns about speaking of faith is a fear of vulnerability. We take a risk when we share our deepest beliefs and most profound experiences. Like saying “I love you,” it reveals an emotional and sentimental part of ourselves and an earnestness that we can’t take back once we put it out there. So we go out on a limb when we’re honest about ourselves. And as with saying “I love you,” we also open to the possibility of greater intimacy with others, which requires the trust that comes with honesty.
If you’ve held back from talking about these topics with friends and family, consider finding an opportunity to start the discussion. We never know what doors may open when we share more of our human experience. Maybe there would even be fewer arguments about things like religion and politics if we actually talked about what’s most important to us.
Gallup: Religion. Accessed at https://news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx.
Zuckerman, M., Silberman, J., & Hall, J. A. (2013). The relation between intelligence and religiosity: A meta-analysis and some proposed explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17, 325-354.