Etiquette and Religion, Revisited

Look, people are going to disagree in life.  And they are going to disagree even more about religion, which many consider a vital part of their identity, culturally and individually.  The problem is not disagreement, the problem is the oft-perceived idea that disagreement is a personal insult to oneself followed by the wielding of disagreement as a weapon as a result of that insult.  Disagreement is not a statement of unworthiness of another, or superiority of one’s self.  Really, its not.  

But maybe we need to learn to disagree with one another better.  This is where manners come into the picture.  I don’t think that having manners means leaving disagreement behind.  In all actuality, I think that part of having manners is being respectfully honest.  The honest truth about religion is that the only thing that determines “right” is belief.  It goes without saying that I believe I’m right (or at least more right than the next guy), or else I’d have different beliefs. It also goes without saying that people with diametrically different and even opposed beliefs believe that they are right as well.  This leaves us with the problem of having equal claim to “rightness”…and it means that we need to work on how we express ourselves in such a way that is compassionate and respectful to one another as people.

Two years ago, I felt compelled to write a list of “Interfaith Etiquette” guidelines.  Every once in a while, I feel compelled to post them again.  Heck, I even followed it up with a “Netiquette” version, specifically geared towards blog posting and discussion.  I’m going to repost the pertinent part to both of those  (again), but first, I want to direct your attention to this very excellent post over at Pagan Activist, which happens to be right in line with this train of thought.

Okay, now that you are back…without further ado (because we can all stand to be reminded from time to time):

Etiquette Guidelines for Interfaith Discussions

1.) If someone asks about your religious beliefs, share (respectfully and with compassion). If they don’t ask, don’t assume that sharing will be welcome and go out of your way to do so.

2.) If you feel compelled to ask someone else as a way to spark a discussion about their beliefs, back off if they aren’t interested.

3.) Make sure the setting is appropriate for the discussion so neither party will feel uncomfortable.

4.) Don’t act like your truth is everyone’s truth–it isn’t, because if it were, there wouldn’t be a conversation on the matter. When expressing your beliefs, use I-statements to express your personal beliefs.

5.) Refrain from using absolute or exclusive language, but don’t assume that absolute or exclusive statements are made with negative intent.

6.) If you are in a mutual discussion of beliefs, don’t use your theological opinion as a tool for condemnation or insult.

7.) Realize that the people who vocally use their beliefs about religion as an excuse to be a jerk are louder than those that don’t, if you want to be a good ambassador for your faith, act your ideals, and even share them, but don’t preach them.

8.) Language is imprecise–different religious and denominations have differing terminology; understand the limits of your religious literacy and ask for clarification if you are unsure of one’s meaning.

9.) Disagreement is not an automatic insult or attack. Try to refrain from taking offense to comments that may be well-intended, but poorly phrased.

10.) Courteously and constructively correct misinformation. Do not get drawn into an argument (as opposed to a debate). Be polite, even when the other person is not.

11.) If things start going badly, be the adult and back off. When this happens, don’t wait for the other person – do it first. If you are a person that has to have the last word, remember that walking away with dignity while the other person brays like an ass is its own last word.

A particular challenge in discussions about religious and spiritual beliefs is when they meet the internet.  In addition to blogging and other forms of social media, I’ve been a member and then a moderator,  and finally an administrator and co-owner of Pagan Forum for at least a decade now–I’ve had plenty of time to observe and engage in discussions of religion online.  Internet interaction, I think, calls for some extra guidelines…

Netiquette for Inter/Intrafaith Discussions

Responsibilities of the Writer: 

1)  Know your audience.  As a writer, you should know who your audience is–its just sort of common sense that one needs to know who they are writing to, and what interests and perspectives readers might have, in order to appropriately address topics.  But part of knowing your targeted or expected audience is also knowing that some of them might just be curious drop-ins…  If your goal is to foster thought and discussion solely within one’s community, that’s fine (though a consideration of how they could be taken by others might be a good idea)…but if your goal is to spark discussions across communities (either sub-groups within the same faith group, or between faith groups), then perhaps its a good idea to see what your words feel like from an outside perspective and model them appropriately.

2)  Strive for accuracy and honesty.  Try to emphasize when something is a personal opinion (albeit a hopefully educated one) as opposed to a fact-based statement.  Particularly when discussing contentious topics (in which case, try to acknowledge if not address different opinions) or in environments where you could be construed as a subject matter expert or a representative of a particular view.  If you know you are biased on a particular topic, ante up and admit it.

3)  Write  with respect.  The bottom line here is to write with respect for one’s subject matter and one’s audience.  Sometimes that can be a quite difficult balance to achieve.  There are a number of ways to do this: cite sources, admit bias, use inclusive language, make ‘I’ statements, and overall…be kind–or at least as kind as possible if and when criticism is necessary.

4)  Make it readable.  I admit, I’m totally guilty of tl;dr at times…and UAWA (using abbreviations with abandon–and yes, I totally made that one up as a joke), incredibly bad humor, and overuse of ellipses and parentheses. Look, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be able to be read and understood without too much difficulty.  If most people struggle to read it, there isn’t much of a point to have written it!  Things like format (hello, paragraphs!), punctuation and spelling, syntax and grammar matter, as does clarity and specificity in language (terminology matters!).  And for the love of all that you consider holy, use paragraphs–I won’t even bother to try to decipher a total wall of text, it hurts my eye balls and my brain.

Responsibilities of the Reader:

1)  Know the audience of the writer.   Lets be honest here, writers write with a specific audience in mind.  So be mindful of whose internet home you are walking into.  Don’t jump down someone’s throat for disagreeing with you when you wandered into their site (this doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with them).  Religious beliefs are opinions, and a person that wanders into a community with different opinions from theirs should expect to disagree with them.  Don’t automatically take disagreement, even at a fundamental level of how your own beliefs are viewed, as a personal insult.

2)  Read with an open mind and an open heart.  Try to see things from the writer’s perspective and experience.  You don’t have to agree with them, but try to see where they are coming from and why that background could lead them to see things as they do.  Don’t take a general opinion as a personal attack, even if that is how they feel…often people have opinions that they have absolutely no real world experience with (and usually those opinions are the most offensive ones!).  A decent person can still have a shitty opinion, so try to refrain from passing judgement on a person, instead of their ideas and reasoning.

3)  Give some “benefit of the doubt” to the writer.  Writing well can be hard and writing well on hard topics can be even harder.  Sometimes people say things in a way that is not immediately clear what they mean, or they give insult where none is intended because the words they use are not understood in the same way they were meant to be delivered.  In light of an entire post, try not to take single comments out of context, unless they are an illustration of overall disagreement.  Unlike a face to face discussion, where a person has instant feedback and can see that a conversation is starting to go off track and clarify points or ask questions, internet discussions are dependent on when someone can get back to it (and a whole lot can go wrong in that time).  On the other hand, the key word here is somesome comments need to be challenged, whether it be for their sheer offensiveness, or because the author is someone that should know better (and if they don’t they need to be told), etc.

Responsibilities of the Responder/Commenter:

1)  If you didn’t read it all, don’t comment/respond…9 times out of 10 I’m willing to bet it will leave you breaking my next “rule”.

2)  Don’t be an ass.  A responder/commenter is both a reader and a writer and is responsible for behaving as both, the only additional duty you really have is to not be a jerk when you respond.  Ask yourself questions like “Will this contribute to the conversation?”, “Am I voicing a legitimate concern or critique that shows alternative points of view and furthers the discussion?”, “Do my comments get the author and other readers additional insight into the situation?” and “Would I say this to my mother/spouse/child/best friend?”.   If the answer to questions like those is “No”, then perhaps a rewording or rethinking of the comment is in order.

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About thalassa

I'm a occasionally-doting wife, damn proud momma of two adorable children, veteran of the United States Navy, part-time semi-steampunk hausfrau, a bohemian beach addict from middle America, Civil War reenactor and Victorian natural history aficionado, a canoeing and kayaking and paddleboarding fanatic, a Unitarian Universalist and pantheistic Pagan, and a kitchen witch, devotee of various aquatic deities, and practitioner of Spiritual Bioregionalism. View all posts by thalassa

4 responses to “Etiquette and Religion, Revisited

  • Shauna Aura knight

    I think if we could just get everyone to agree to “Don’t be an ass” we’d be leaps and bounds ahead :p

    • thalassa

      Lol, I’m in total agreement here…unfortunately, I think there’s not much of a consensus over what it means to be an ass!

  • deb

    Hey Thalassa! you are so right that we need to do a better job of disagreeing (by recognizing that a disagreement is not a personal attack). I think this is esp. hard with faith/religion because many religions preach that their faith/practice is the one true faith/practice. It’s a way for churches to keep followers that is so detrimental to religious harmony. my daughter ran into this with a cousin. when my daughter tried to say, “it’s ok, we just disagree” her cousin could not accept that. she felt that by virtue of attending a different church, my daughter was claiming that her (the cousin’s) faith was “wrong.” I had to tell my daughter to just walk away. sigh.

    now that i wrote all that, i think i may have told the same story in the the comments when you posted about this last time! :)

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