I’ve updated this a bit since I wrote and posted it the first time in 2011. Here’s the updated version…
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. Do not engage in a religious discussion with the intent of being “right” or “winning”–a discussion about religion will always go wrong if its about being “right”.
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. If someone else approaches you about a disussion of your beliefs and you don’t feel that the time, place, or person is appropriate for the conversation…you are not obligated to participate in it. If you decline, try to do so politely–not being obliged to participate isn’t a call to be a jerk.
3.) Make sure the setting is appropriate for the discussion so neither party will feel uncomfortable. Places where a discussion of religion is generally a bad idea–at work, at a family reunion, at a wedding or funeral, in line at the grocery, etc.
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 (they’d already be agreeing with you). When expressing your beliefs to someone of another belief system, use I-statements to express your personal beliefs.
5.) Whenever possible, refrain from using absolute or exclusive language (when speaking/writing), but don’t assume that absolute or exclusive statements are made with negative intent (when listening/reading). If you are unsure of someone’s intent or motivation, ask them to explain or elaborate or clarify their statements.
6.) If you are in a mutual discussion of beliefs, don’t use your theological opinion as a tool for condemnation, insult, or bullying. Don’t use your difference of religious opinion as an excuse for these things either. Religious differences exist because we individually and collectively experience life in a myriad of ways–don’t denigrate the sincerely held belief of another because your life experiences have been different than theirs.
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 (even share them in moderation and with respect when they are welcome) 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. Be sure to differentiate personal beliefs from institutional beliefs.
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. If you feel that you are being attacked, take a step back and reevaluate–often people imagine mistake a difference of opinion for a personal criticism…and even more often people mistake criticism of an idea as a personal insult. If someone feels that you are attacking them, take a step back and reevaluate.
10.) Courteously and constructively correct misinformation. Do not get drawn into an argument (as opposed to a debate). To the best of your ability, be polite–even when the other person is not. Speak with respect and compassion. To the best of your ability, be patient–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.
12.) Know when to apologize. Conversations on deeply held personal beliefs can get heated. An unintentional insult is still an insult. Don’t leave a mutual exchange of ideas and beliefs by burning your bridges because of ignorance or an excess of pride on your part. It is possible to apologize to the person (for causing them distress) without apologizing for your beliefs themselves.