How to Have a Religious Discussion

Recently, I got a chance to re-watch one of my favorite movies on religion: Religulous starring Bill Maher. It’s one of my favorites because it takes a look at all religions, and many of the idiosyncrasies involved with them. It’s brilliant, in that it cuts right to the core: there is no, “Tell me about the tenants of your religion,” or, “What should people of Faith X know about Faith Y?” It dives right in, with snarky observations and sharp wit that can only come from a comic great like Maher.

My only problem with the film as a whole is that Maher is sometimes unnecessarily cruel. He goes into interviews, claiming that he wants to learn more about a religion or a culture, and yet every time, the interview descends into Bill “trapping” the interviewee into a question that they cannot answer, and then not allowing them to answer. This means that the interview is over, not because they were out of questions, or the conversation ran its course, but because the interviewee realizes that they aren’t getting a say, and would rather say nothing than look like a fool.

“You guys are smart people,” Bill continually says, yet he doesn’t let them prove it.

The interviews in this movie are a good start, but it still doesn’t address the big problem with religion: no one is listening to each other. Bill shows that while intentions are good at the start, it is human nature to be biased, especially toward something that you identify with. We start with an open mind, but before long, the things we disagree on are blown out of proportion, and we end up in a shouting match.

I believe that we can have an intelligent, rational discussion about religion, one where we can all be on the same page. There just have to be a few ground rules.

The first rule sounds obvious, but it needs to be said: Listen. The biggest problem with these sorts of discussions is that people ask a question, and they wait for an answer they want to hear, rather than the answer that is given to them. This sort of half-listening means that, while some valuable answers are being given, they don’t fit the narrative that already exists in the mind.

The next rule is one that might be a little controversial: Get right to the point. Religion is a tough topic to discuss, especially with people of other faiths. In a world of political correctness and constant preaching of tolerance, it’s tough to discuss something like religion without seeming insensitive. Sometimes tough questions need to be asked, and while there still needs to be some cordiality, any fear or intimidation must fall by the wayside.

Bill Maher was right in cutting right to the chase and asking tough questions in his interviews. Where he went wrong leads to the final rule: Don’t have an agenda. Religulous was a documentary that was meant to show that religious people are crazy people, smart people who were sucked up in the delusion of religion.

This agenda he was trying to push meant that questions needed to be especially tough for the lay-person. This also meant that anytime someone was on a right path, he needed to twist words or constantly interrupt in order to make the interviewees look stupid or uninformed. Having an agenda is the worst thing to do in any conversation.

It’s three simple rules. But they are rules that could mean the difference between a religious discussion and a religious shouting-match.

One Response to “How to Have a Religious Discussion”

  1. hannahrose42 Says:

    I completely agree with you. I loved Religulous, and I loved the standpoint, because I AM biased, but at least I could recognize that Maher was not giving anyone the chance to give any new information, or anything that didn’t go along with what he had to say. The one part of the film that may not go along with that is when the guy dressed as Jesus explains the holy trinity as similar to water: liquid/steam/ice: not three separate things, but three forms of one thing. It stumps Maher at the time, so he has to add footage of him ‘debunking’ it at a later time when he has had time to think of a good retort.
    I also agree that there need to be set rules/regulations on discussions of religion. I guess I don’t understand why it has to be such a hot button issue. People never want to discuss religion because they know someone’s beliefs are not the same as theirs… isn’t that the point of discussion? To learn new things, to challenge your own views? Bah. Sometimes it’s frustrating how stuck people are. I like your point about not having an agenda. If everyone goes into the conversation understanding that no one is trying to convert anyone, it can be much more relaxed and interesting. All in all, excellent points!

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