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What's lost when people stop talking about faith in public?

Posted May 19

Kimmy Ertel-Waterman was shy growing up, but she embraced life as a Christian missionary in Romania, seeking out opportunities to share her faith with strangers in a foreign language. She says she gained confidence during her 18 months of service.

However, when she got back to the U.S. in 2009, she felt lost. She welcomed chances to talk with family about her religious mission. She even found openings to bring it up in classes at the University of Oregon. But when talking about religious beliefs was no longer an everyday routine, she was more cautious in how and when she broached the topic.

"The stress of the transition hindered me from reaching out to as many people as I could to talk about faith," said the 29-year-old environmental activist.

Fear of how other people will respond to religious discussion guides — or, rather, halts — many believers' attempts to bring up their faith with family, friends or strangers. When they sense someone disagrees with them about religion, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. Christians (24 percent) avoid the subject altogether, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.

These findings likely satisfy those who think faith has no place in polite conversation, but religious leaders and scholars say we shouldn't celebrate when a first date, holiday dinner or phone call passes with no mention of religion. Discussions about belief in God, prayer and theology play an important role in society, helping people venture beyond their comfort zones and gain new understanding, they said.

"It's part of faith itself to be able to articulate our beliefs in an atmosphere where we can be heard," said Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School's Religious Literacy Project.

Sharing faith

In many religious groups, sharing one's beliefs is a core part of living a faithful life. Thousands of young adult Mormons like Ertel-Waterman serve full-time missions seeking converts, Jehovah's Witnesses knock on doors in communities where they live and evangelicals invite friends and neighbors to church services.

However, even evangelistic traditions aren't immune to shifts in attitudes about discussing religion in everyday situations, noted Ed Stetzer, the executive director of LifeWay Research.

"I think people are talking themselves out of sharing their faith as the culture is shifting around them," he said.

LifeWay Research surveyed American Protestants about their faith-sharing habits in 2012, asking them if they felt called to talk about religion and if they actually did so.

"Despite a vast majority believing it's their duty to share their faith and having the confidence to do so, 25 percent (said) they have shared their faith once or twice, and 14 percent have shared three or more times over the last six months," the survey reported.

"Everybody loves the idea of sharing faith, but they think somebody else should be doing it," Stetzer said.

For Kara Heagle, this sentiment, as well as Pew's data, which focused on religious discussions in general rather than evangelism, is troubling. She found Christianity during college in part because people were willing to ask questions about her faith.

"This is something that's life-changing for people," she said, noting that when we stop being comfortable talking about religion, we risk missing people who want to hear more about God.

Heagle wants to minister full-time to college students, and she's completed several internships that have helped her learn how best to bring up faith with others. But even she gets tongue-tied when trying to discuss religion with her extended family members.

"It's so awkward," she said. "I don't want them to think that I think they're a bad person or that I'm forcing something down their throat."

Heagle's anxiety about discussing religion with family is apparently shared by many participants in Pew's survey. Only 1 in 3 Christians (33 percent) discuss faith with their extended family once or twice a month, compared with 40 percent who bring up the subject with strangers and others outside their family, Pew reported.

Whole self

Discomfort with discussing religion often stems from prior awkward experiences, Moore said.

For example, when Moore mentions her career path — she's an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a religion scholar — it often derails conversations with new acquaintances.

"My life is a strange reaction," she said, noting that people seem to freeze up when faced with all the things they think they shouldn't say in front of a religious person.

Anxiety is amplified when religious beliefs are the elephant in the room, Moore noted. Even members of the same church, mosque or synagogue can struggle to talk about their faith out of fear of being misunderstood or judged.

"There's so much at stake for people," she said.

When someone close, like a family member or friend, disagrees with a core part of your identity, it's threatening, Moore noted. In some situations, it's natural to want to stay quiet, even if it means missing out on an opportunity to share your true self with others.

Although Ertel-Waterman talks openly about her mission and Christian faith in most settings, she steers clear of religious topics if people seem determined to argue.

For example, as an environmental activist in Salt Lake City, she sometimes crosses paths with co-workers who have preconceived notions about her church. She usually chooses to avoid discussing her faith with them, sometimes referring to her mission vaguely as time she spent in Europe.

The approach allows Ertel-Waterman to avoid frustrating conversations, but it doesn't always feel good.

"Sometimes I feel guilty," she said. "I should just tell them."

Understanding others

In the absence of discussions about religion, people's assumptions about religious groups go untested and divides between believers and nonbelievers can grow deeper, according to Stetzer and Moore.

"When we force people to privatize their beliefs, we don't understand the fundamental thing that makes many Americans tick," Stetzer said.

This spring, Moore helped develop and lead the first section of an online course called "World Religions Through Their Scriptures." Participants were assigned readings and videos to boost their religious literacy, and they had an opportunity to learn from one another in weekly Web chats.

"We set it up so you wouldn't have to have a theological debate every time you encountered something different," Moore said. "People in the public sphere don't have those tools."

The course focuses on the idea that members of the same religion can have very different experiences and beliefs, even if they start with the same set of texts and teachings. Moore wanted to address people's stereotypes about Islam, Judaism and other faith groups, which can stand in the way of meaningful discussion.

"Problematic assumptions about religion often play a role in how informal conversations are experienced," she said.

When people, especially members of minority faiths, do take a risk and bring up their beliefs, it increases public awareness of religion and corrects unfair expectations, Moore added.

Mona Haydar, a Muslim who lives in Boston, surprised herself when she first sat at her "Ask a Muslim" booth in front of a library. She's always been shy, but she felt it was important to be open with others if she wanted to do her part to change people's stereotypes of Islam.

"I really surprised myself when I said yes to this whole experiment and I'm so glad I did," she wrote in an email.

Haydar and her husband, Sebastian, provide free coffee and doughnuts to anyone who wants to chat about Islamic prayer, the presidential campaign, violence in the Middle East or other topics.

"When we understand one another better, we can have more compassion for one another," Haydar said.

Taking the leap

It's hard to address religion when it feels like a taboo topic, but there are often ways to bring it into a conversation naturally, Heagle said.

For example, she likes to mention church or Bible study when people ask about her weekend.

"I say, 'It was really good. There was a really great sermon that I listened to' or 'I went to a great church function,'" Heagle noted.

Religion shouldn't feel like a conversation-killer that you're forcing on others, Stetzer said. After all, if faith is important to you, you should learn to love talking about it.

"I think you can just share what's happened to you," he said. "You don't have to correct everybody. You can say, 'Here's what I learned and here's what happened to me.'"

Moore said she tries to anticipate how people will respond to the mention of religion. And, for those who try this method, she recommends not to assume the worst.

Pew's survey on religious behaviors showed that few people want to argue when they discuss religion with someone whose views differ from their own. When faced with a conflict of religious beliefs, nearly 7 in 10 Christians (69 percent) agree to disagree, Pew reported. Only 6 percent attempt to persuade the other person to agree with them.

Conversations about religion should be an exchange of ideas and experiences, not a lecture, Moore said.

"I never want to assume I don't have a lot to learn myself," she said. "Take a baby step. Invite people to think differently."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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