Do Social Norms Against Discussing Religion Do More Harm Than Good?

Cold ski snow

I grew up in a time and place with a social norm against discussing religion in public. I learned that the topic was so divisive that it would invite conflict. Most families discouraged children from talking about it. Mine was no different. Those who violated the norm were impolite, even rude.

I remember that it took me a while to figure out how this worked. Why would something that seemed so important not be acceptable to discuss? Of course, there were exceptions. It was fine to discuss religion within one's family and at church. These were the appropriate contexts for doing so.

This social norm led to at least two consequences, and neither of them was positive. First, I grew up ignorant about what others believed. Since we didn't discuss it, what little I knew was observational. Second, I had few opportunities to critically examine what I believed. Without points of comparison, I had little reason to think about what I believed.

Religious Ignorance

One of my closest childhood friends was Mormon. I had no idea what Mormons believed. I knew that he was busy all day every Sunday. I knew that his family drove over 90 miles in each direction to reach their temple. I knew that he wasn't supposed to drink anything containing caffeine. That was the extent of my knowledge about Mormons.

I knew a bit more about my Catholic friends. I knew where their church was. It was hard to miss in the center of our old downtown area. I knew that their services were somewhat longer than the ones I attended. I knew that they had priests while we referred to our clergy as ministers. I noticed that my Catholic friends talked about their priests as if they were rock stars. They idolized them in ways none of the rest of us did.

I knew more about my Presbyterian friends because I attended their church a couple of times. My parents were good friends with the minister of the Presbyterian church. I was friends with his two sons. I didn't notice much of a difference between what I encountered there and the church I attended. It seemed somewhat less formal, but that could have had more to do with the personalities of the clergy.

Since we weren't supposed to discuss religion, I learned to keep my questions to myself. I didn't want others to think I was rude. Better ignorant than rude.

Religion in a Bubble

I attended a small Methodist church located in the neighborhood where I lived. I remember noticing that most of my neighbors did not attend this church. I also remember noticing that many of those who did attend this church drove there from the other parts of town. I wondered why everyone wouldn't want to attend the church closest to where they lived.

The social norm against discussing religion created a bubble. In the absence of information about what others believed, I assumed they believed as I did. I knew there were some differences. Nobody told me not to drink caffeine, and I didn't view our minister as a superhero. Still, I regarded these differences as small.

I was an unknowing victim of religious privilege, Christian privilege to be specific. I did not know any non-Christians. I assumed that everyone was Christian. Beyond that, I figured that most other Christians viewed the world as I did. Not being able to discuss religious beliefs kept me in this bubble.

Looking back on it, I can't help but wonder if that wasn't the point of the bubble. Depriving people of information and discouraging them from seeking it seems calculated. But calculated to do what? Calculated to keep people where they are. Calculated to prevent change.

When the Bubble Burst

My religious bubble burst in an instant. My Mormon friend had lost his father to cancer. He needed to talk, and he broke the social norm against discussing religion. As he talked about heaven, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Who are these elders? What do you mean that you will be the god of your own planet? I did everything I could to be supportive, but my mind was reeling.

Afterward, I remember thinking about how strange much of what he described sounded to me. Would he have a similar reaction if presented him with what I believed? I figured he would. Could it be that what my friends believed wasn't even close to what I had been thinking? Could it be that some of them had better answers than I did?

I started to wonder if part of the reason for the social norm was to keep us in our own lane. If we didn't compare notes, we wouldn't be able to see the contrasts. We wouldn't have the kind of discussions that might expand our worldviews. I had to consider the possibility that my beliefs might sound as strange to others as theirs did to me.

Was everyone was discouraging these conversations to prevent conflict? This was a common claim, but could there be other reasons? Did they fear where these conversations might lead? I tried to think of any other scenario where ignorance was preferable to knowledge. I couldn't come up with any.

How the Social Norm Affects Me Today

I now live in a time and place where there is no trace of the social norm I described above. Mississippi is rife with evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. The locals bring up their religious beliefs with anyone who will listen (and some who won't). Evangelism is so pervasive here it is hard to remember that there is anything else.

No matter how many times I've encountered it, evangelism still seems rude to me. The norm against discussing religion with strangers is still part of me. When a stranger assaults me with Jesus, it feels no different from asking about my sex life, income, and the like.

I set boundaries like I would in those other contexts. I explain that I am not interested in hearing about their Jesus yet again. I have little interest in providing a stranger with information on my views of religion. If they respect that, great. If not, I end the interaction.

I am conflicted about the norm too. I see its merit because religious differences do often lead to conflict. If the norm would prevent me from hearing about Jesus, I'm tempted to welcome it. And yet, I don't welcome the religious ignorance or the bubble it created. I'm not sure how we can learn about religion if we can't discuss religious beliefs.

Image by Helena Jankovičová Kováčová from Pixabay